Ignatius’ Musical Metaphors

I stumbled across something in Ignatius today which I’ve found fascinating! The way he adapts Paul is intriguing, and quite beautiful if I may say so. In this post, I want to highlight Ignatius’ musical metaphor. He makes use of musical language several places, but here I’ll look at Ephesians 4 (Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians of course!).

Here’s a rather rough translation (and thus my own!):
“Thus it is proper for you to run to the mind of the bishop, just as you are now doing. Your elders are worthy of bearing this name, the worthy name of God, for they have been joined to the bishop as strings to a harp. Because of this, Jesus Christ is sung in unified, harmonious love. All of you must join this chorus, so that you may be unified and harmonious, receiving your pitch from God. In unity, sing in one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father. Do this so that he may hear and know you, through the good you do as members (μέλη) of his son’s body.”

I find this metaphor stunning, especially since it was written by someone imprisoned and on his way to meet “wild beasts” in Rome. Ignatius imagines the bishop as a harp, and the priests/elders (Gk πρεσβυτέριον) as the strings of the harp. To this music the congregation sings Jesus Christ “in unified, harmonious love.” This chorus is joined together in harmony, receiving its pitch from God, singing to the Father through Jesus Christ. Clearly music is significant for Ignatius (and for the Early Church).

What I see here is a beautiful adaptation of 1 Corinthians 12. Scholars quibble over which of Paul’s letters Ignatius knew, but 1 Corinthians is one everyone agrees on. Here, Ignatius has taken over the theme of “diverse gifttings, unified Church” and expressed it with music. People have different roles, but they are all joined together in one “symphony” to God through Christ.

What especially strikes me is how Ignatius arrives this metaphor. I think there are two ways he comes to it. First, I’m sure it’s rooted in the liturgy of the earlier Church. Sacramental theology was already developing as early as Paul (1 Cor 10:14-17 as an example). Part of this liturgy contained “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” which Paul exhorts the Ephesians to in Eph 5. Perhaps the creeds and confessions of the Church were sung early on, just as the Eastern church does now. When Ignatius talks about “singing Jesus Christ,” I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a reference to the prayer sung at the Eucharist. Ignatius uses loads of liturgical language through his letters, and I’m positive that he had had profound experiences with Christ in the liturgy.

Second, Ignatius makes use of a play on words. In 1 Corinthians, Paul reminds the Corinthians several times that they are “members of Christ’s body.” The Greek word for “member” here is  μέλη, and it generally means “part” or “member.” However, it also has a musical sense as well. I don’t know nearly enough about music to identify what exactly it refers to (LSJ lists “melody of an instrument” or “music to which a song is put”), but the double entendre here is intentional on Ignatius’ part. In addition to being members of Christ’s body, they are God’s “chorus” or “symphony.”

Thus, I’m convinced that Ignatius of Antioch was a rather amazing figure :-). People are put off by his martyrdom language, but he has a lot of good stuff to say. His theological reflection is beautiful, and he has a lot to teach us about Christ.

έν φωνῆ μιᾷ τῳ πατρἱ,

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