Saint Ignatius A.D. c. 50-117

Ignatius, St. (called Theophorus), Oct. 17, the 2nd bp. of Antioch (c. 70–c. 107), between Evodius and Hero. He is sometimes reckoned the 3rd bishop, St. Peter being reckoned the first.

The question of the life and writings of Ignatius, including the connected subject of the Ep. of Polycarp to the Philippians, has been described by M. Renan as the most difficult in early Christian history next to that of the fourth gospel.

About 165 Lucian in his satire de Morte Peregrini relates (cc. 14–41) that Peregrinus was made a prisoner in Syria. The Christians of Asia Minor sent messengers and money to him according to their usual custom when persons were imprisoned for their faith. Peregrinus wrote letters to all the more important cities. The coincidence of this story with that of Ignatius, as told afterwards by Eusebius, would be alone a strong evidence of connection.

Theophilus, bp. of Antioch (fl. before 167), has a coincidence with Ignat. ad Eph. xix. 1, where the virginity of Mary is said to have been concealed from the devil.

Irenaeus, c. 180, bears witness that Polycarp wrote to the Philippians, and mentions how a Christian martyr said, “I am the bread-corn of Christ, to be ground by the teeth of beasts that I may be found pure bread”—words found in Ignat. ad Rom. iv. 1. the passage of Irenaeus is quoted by Eusebius as a testimony to Ignatius.

Origen, early in 3rd cent., Prol. in Cant., writes, “I remember also that one of the saints, by name Ignatius, said of Christ, ‘My love was crucified'”—words found in Ignat. ad Rom. vii. 2. Origen also says, “I find it well written in one of the epistles of a certain martyr, I mean Ignatius, 2nd bp. of Antioch after Peter, who in the persecution fought with beasts at Rome, that the virginity of Mary escaped the prince of this world”.

Eusebius, early in 4th cent., gives a full account which explains these fragmentary allusions and quotations. In his Chronicle he twice names Ignatius as 2nd bp. of Antioch after the apostles; in one case adding that he was martyred. In his Ecclesiastical History, besides less important notices of our saint and of Polycarp, he relates how Ignatius, whom he calls very celebrated among the Christians, was sent from Syria to Rome to be cast to the beasts for Christ’s sake. When journeying under guard through Asia he addressed to the cities near places of his sojourn exhortations and epistles. Thus in Smyrna, the city of Polycarp, he wrote to Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles. He wrote to the Romans, begging them not to impede his martyrdom. Then he tells how Ignatius, having left Smyrna and come to Troas, wrote thence to the Philadelphians and Smyrnaeans and to Polycarp.

St. Chrysostom has a homily on St. Ignatius which relates that he was appointed by the apostles bp. of Antioch; was sent for to Rome in a time of persecution to be there judged; instructed and admonished with wonderful power all the cities on the way, and Rome itself when he arrived; was condemned and martyred in the Roman theatre; and his remains were transferred after death with great solemnity to Antioch.

Theodoret frequently cites the 7 Vossian epistles, and mentions Ignatius as ordained by St. Peter and made the food of beasts for the testimony of Christ.

Severus, patriarch of Antioch (513–551), has a long catalogue of sayings from Ignatius, in which every one of the 7 epistles is laid under contribution.

We possess also a multitude of Acts of the martyrdom of St. Ignatius, which, if we could accept them, would supply very particular accounts of his life and death.

Ignatius is sent for by Trajan to Rome, as a teacher dangerous to the state; an argument takes place before the senate between the emperor and the saint; the lions kill him, but leave the body untouched, and it remains as a sacred deposit at Rome.

Eusebius in the Chronicle omits (contrary to his custom) the durations of the episcopates of Antioch. We can, therefore, place Ignatius’s death any time between Ab. 2123, Traj. 10, and 2132, Traj. 19. In H. E. iii. 22, Eusebius, in a general way, makes the episcopates of Symeon and Ignatius contemporary with the first years of Trajan and the last of St. John and with Polycarp and Papias. We may date his epistles, journey, and death in any year from 105; to 117. Funk fixes it at 107.

The tradition that Ignatius was martyred at Rome can be traced higher than the records of Eusebius and Origen. The designation of world-famed, which Eusebius gives him, shows the general tradition; and the words of Origen are to the same effect. The testimony of Irenaeus which Eusebius adduces as perfectly agreeing with the tradition known to him, dates but 70 years after the fact. True, these expressions come from writers who knew the epistles; but the mere existence of the epistles at such a date, even if they were spurious, would be sufficient proof of the existence of the tradition; and it is impossible that such a story should have arisen so soon after Trajan, if it had contradicted known facts or prevalent customs of his reign.

Eusebius clearly wrote with the collection of letters before him, and knew of no other collection besides the 7 he mentions. These he arranges according to place and time of writing, gives his quotation from Romans as out of “the Epistles,” and cites Irenaeus’s quotation from Ignatius, as proof of that writer’s knowledge of them, although Irenaeus did not mention the author’s name.

The circumstances of the journey and martyrdom of Ignatius, gathered from the seven epistles and from that of Polycarp, are as follows: He suffers under a merely local persecution. It is in progress at Antioch while he is in Smyrna, whence he writes to the Romans, Ephesians, Magnesians, and Trallians. But Rome, Magnesia, and Ephesus are at peace, and in Troas he learns that peace is restored to the church in Antioch. Of the local causes of this Antiochene persecution we are ignorant, but it is not in the least difficult to credit. The imagined meeting of the emperor and the saint is not found in the epistles; it is “the world” under whose enmity the church is there said to suffer. All now recognize that, according to the testimony of the letters, Ignatius has been condemned in Antioch to death, and journeys with death by exposure to the beasts as the settled fate before him. He deprecates interposition of the church at Rome (quite powerful enough at the end of the 1st cent. to be conceivably successful in such a movement) for the remission of a sentence already delivered. The supposition of Hilgenfeld ( that prayer to God for his martyrdom, or abstinence from prayer against it, is what he asks of the Romans seems quite inadmissible, and we could not conceive him so assured of the approach of death if the sentence had not been already pronounced. The right of appeal to the emperor was recognized, and could be made without the consent of the criminal, but not if the sentence had proceeded from the emperor himself. Thus the Colbertine Martyrdom, which makes Trajan the judge at Antioch, contradicts the epistles no less than the Vatican which puts off the process to Rome. MS. Colb. brings Ignatius by sea to Smyrna; but Eusebius, who had read the epistles, supposes the journey to be by land, and he is clearly right. The journey “by land and sea” (ad Rom. v.) may easily refer to a voyage from Seleucia to some Cilician port, and thence by road. The ordinary way from Antioch to Ephesus was by land, and Ignatius calls the messenger to be sent by the Smyrnaeans to Antioch. Ignatius did not, as was usual, pass through Magnesia and Ephesus, but left the great road at Sardis and came by Laodicea, Hierapolis, Philadelphia, and perhaps Colossae, as he had certainly visited Philadelphia and met there the false teachers from Ephesus. The churches written to were not chosen at random, but were those which had shown their love by sending messengers to him. The replies were thus, primarily, letters of thanks, quite naturally extending into admonitions.

We find him in the enjoyment of much freedom on his journey, though chained to a soldier. In Philadelphia he preaches, not in a church, but in a large assembly of Christians; in Smyrna he has intercourse with the Christians there and with messengers of other churches. He has much speech with the bishops concerning the state of the churches. That of Ephesus he treats with special respect, and anticipates writing a second letter (ad Eph. xx.); that of Tralles he addresses in a markedly different manner (ad. Tr. 2, 12). He must, therefore, have had lime in Smyrna to acquaint himself with the condition of the neighbouring churches. If the writing of epistles under the circumstances of his captivity should cause surprise, it must be remembered that they are only short letters, not books. He dictated to a Christian, and thus might, as Pearson remarks, have finished one of the shorter letters in an hour, the longest in three. Perpetua and Saturus wrote in prison narratives as long as the epistles of Ignatius (Acta SS. Perp. et Fel. Ruinart). A ten days’ sojourn would amply meet the necessities of the case; and there is nothing in the treatment to which the letters witness inconsistent with that used to other Christian prisoners, e.g. St. Paul. The numberless libelli pacis, written by martyrs in prison, and the celebrations of the holy mysteries there with their friends, show that the liberty given Ignatius was not extraordinary. Ignatius is always eager to know more Christians and to interest them in each other. The news of the cessation of persecution in Antioch stirs him to urge Polycarp to take an interest in that church. The great idea of the Catholic church is at work in him. He does not deny that his request that messengers should be sent to Antioch is an unusual one, but dwells upon the great benefit which will result.

But when Polycarp, a few weeks or months afterwards, writes to the Philippians, the messenger had not yet been sent. Ignatius had but lately passed through Philippi, by the Via Egnatia to Neapolis. The Philippians immediately after wrote to Polycarp, and forwarded a message to the Antiochenes, expecting to be in time to catch the messenger for Antioch before his departure. Ignatius had plainly been suggesting the same thoughts to them as to Polycarp; Polycarp wrote immediately after receiving the epistle of the Philippians. He speaks of the death of Ignatius, knowing that the sentence in Antioch made it certain; probably knowing also the date of the games at which he was to die. But he is not acquainted with any particulars, since he asks for news concerning the martyr and those with him, and at the request of the Philippians forwards all the epistles of Ignatius to which he had access, viz. those to the Asiatic churches; but not all that he knew to have been written.

VIII. The chief difficulty in accepting the epistles as genuine has always arisen from the form of church government which they record as existing and support with great emphasis. They display the threefold ministry established in Asia Minor and Syria, and the terms episcopos and presbiteros are applied to perfectly distinct orders—a state of things and use of language which are argued to be wholly incompatible with a date early in the 2nd cent. It is noteworthy that the testimony of the epistles on this point extends no further than the localities named. To the Romans Ignatius only once names the office of a bishop, and that in reference to himself; and in Polycarp’s Ep. to the Philippians there is no mention of any bishop, while the deacons and presbyters are addressed at considerable length. The standpoint of the epistles is perfectly consistent with the supposition that episcopacy existing from the times of the apostles in Asia Minor and Syria and believed by the Christians there to be a divinely ordained institution, made its way gradually into other parts of the church, and that those who most valued it might yet know that it did not exist in churches to which they wrote, or not be assured that it did, and might feel it no part of their duty to enter upon a controversy concerning it.

Zahn fairly observes that there is no attempt, even in those epistles where obedience to the bishop is most urged, to recommend it in opposition to other forms of church government. Not only is the supposition that Ignatius was introducing episcopacy utterly out of the question, but none of the epistles bear the slightest trace of any recent introduction of it in the places in which it exists.

The presbyterate is everywhere identified with the episcopate in its claims to obedience, and those who resist the one resist the other. It is extremely hard to reconcile these characteristics with the supposition that the letters were forged to introduce the rule of bishops or to uplift it to an unprecedented position in order to resist the assaults of heresy.

A good deal of uncertainty remains as to the relations which the smaller congregations outside the limits of the cities held in the Ignatian church order to the bishops of the cities. No provision appears for episcopal rule over country congregations whose pastors are not in the “presbytery”—an uncommon expression in antiquity, but used 13 times by Ignatius.

The duties the epistles ascribe to bishops are very similar to those which St. Paul lays upon presbyters. Only in one place do they speak of the preaching of the bishop; and it is not peculiar to him, but common with the presbyters. The deacons have duties wholly distinct, concerned with the meat and drink given to the poor and with the distribution of the mysteries of the Eucharist. But the presbyters are very closely united with the bishop. They are not his vicars, and yet the bishop is by no means a mere president of the college of presbyters. Zahn shows that even though the development of episcopacy were thought to have taken place through the elevation of one of a college to a presidency in those parts where it did not exist in the end of the 1st cent., it would still be impossible to hold this of Asia. The youth of many of the earliest Asiatic bishops puts this theory entirely out of the question there. Whatever development is implied in the passage from the state of things represented in I. Pet. and I. Tim. to organized episcopacy, took place, according to the testimony of all records both of Scripture and tradition, in the 30 years between the death of St. Paul and the time of Domitian, had Asia Minor for its centre, and was conducted under the influence of St. John and apostolic men from Palestine, in which country Jerusalem offers the records of a succession of bishops more trustworthy perhaps than that of any other see. Now the Syrian churches were from the first in closest union with Palestine. Thus all the most undoubted records of episcopacy in the sub-apostolic age centre in the very quarters in which our epistles exhibit it, a weighty coincidence in determining their authenticity.

It is certainly somewhat startling to those accustomed to regard bishops as the successors of the apostles that Ignatius everywhere speaks of the position of the apostles as corresponding to that of the existing presbyters, while the prototype of the bishop is not the apostles, but the Lord Himself. It would be hasty, however, to infer that Ignatius denied that the office and authority of the apostles was represented and historically succeeded by that of the bishops. The state of things visibly displayed when the Lord and His apostles were on earth is for Ignatius the type of church order for all time. If, however, the epistles had been forged to support episcopacy, they would not have omitted an argument of such weight as the apostolical authority and succession.

The duty of submission is with Ignatius the first call upon each member of the church, and exhortations to personal holiness go hand in hand with admonitions to unity and obedience. The bishop represents the principle of unity in the church.

Sprintzl ingeniously argues that the supremacy of the bp. of Rome is taught by Ignatius, on the ground that, first, he teaches the supremacy of the Roman church over others, and secondly, the supremacy of the bishop in every church. But the explanation of the passage in Romans is very doubtful, and the marked omission of any mention of the bp. of Rome seems inconsistent with any supremacy apart from the natural position of his church.

The emphatic terms in which these letters propose the bishop as the representative of Christ have always presented a stumbling-block to many minds, even apart from the question of date. But before we pronounce these expressions exaggerated, we must remember that obedience to the bishop is valued by the writer for the sake of unity, while unity is for him the only fence against the heresy to which small and disunited bodies are subject.

Identification of the position of the church ruler with that of the Lord would be more easy to a writer of an age very close to Christ than to one of later date. When the divine nature of the Lord and His elevation in heaven came through lapse of time to overshadow the remembrance of His life on earth, it seemed a superhuman claim on the part of any office to say that it represented Him. But it would naturally be otherwise when the recollection of His human intercourse with men was fresh; for why should not men represent one so truly man? Thus the strong expressions may really be a mark of early date.

In Sm. 8 is first found the phrase Catholic church—an expression pronounced by Lipsius to prove of itself the later date of the epistles. Such a decision is very precarious, even if, with Lipsius, we reject the testimony of the Martyrdom of Polycarp to the use of the expression. Sprintzl remarks that the phrase “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic church” naturally follows upon the preceding statement of the relation of the bishop to the particular church: what the bishop is to it, that Christ is to the Catholic church at large. Thus to Ignatius the church of each place is a miniature of the church at large and its unity is guarded by all the sanctions of the Christian faith. The one faith is, in the epistles, the bond of the church. “The gospel” is that which the apostles
proclaimed; not the four written gospels, but the substance of the message of salvation.

We find in the epistles the germ of the great ideas of worship afterwards developed in the church. The altar-idea and the temple-idea as applied to the church are there. The Eucharist holds its commanding place, though what its rites were at this early period is hard to answer from the letters.

As to the theology of the epistles, there have been great differences of opinion. The more significant theological statements are uncontroversial, though called out by heresies to which the writer opposes his conception of the nature of Christ. The originality and reality of the revelation in Christ is the great point with him. Hence follows the unreasonableness of Judaizing, which he sometimes presses in terms apparently inconsistent with the recognition of Jewish Christians as really believers. But probably, like St. Paul, he is treating the question from the Gentile standpoint alone. Prophets and the law are worthy of all honour in Christ. The prophets were Christians in spirit, and Christ raised them from the dead. They were believers in Christ; yea, even the angels must believe in His blood.

The question what special heresies are denounced in the epistles possesses, in relation to their date, an importance scarcely below that of episcopacy. All, except Romans, contain warnings against heresy, and the exhortations to unity and submission to authority derive their urgency from this danger. It was long a question whether two forms of heresy, Judaic and Docetic, or only one, Judaeo-docetic, were aimed at. But already in 1856, despite the arguments of Hilgenfeld it appeared to Lipsius that the question was decided in the latter sense. The heretics were wandering teachers, ever seeking proselytes, and all the denunciations of heresy are directed against that mixture of Judaism with Gnosticism, represented by some whom Ignatius met in his journey .

The great majority of critics, whether adverse to the genuineness of the epistles or not, have recognized that the seven epistles professing to be of Ignatius, as shown by the individuality of the author there displayed, and the one of Polycarp, form an indivisible whole. Romans, indeed, is the brightest and most interesting of the letters. This is because its chief subject is his personal eagerness for martyrdom; he is writing to the place where he expects to suffer, and to people who can help or hinder his object.

Leave a Comment