Ignatius of Antioch (Greek: Ἰγνάτιος Ἀντιοχείας, Ignátios Antiokheías; c. 35 – c. 107), also known as Ignatius Theophorus (Ιγνάτιος ὁ Θεοφόρος, Ignátios ho Theophóros, lit. “the GOD-bearing”) or Ignatius Nurono (lit. “The fire-bearer”), was an early Christian writer and bishop of Antioch (As the successor of Saint Peter). En route to Rome, where he met his martyrdom, Ignatius wrote a series of letters. This correspondence now forms a central part of the later collection known as the Apostolic Fathers. His letters also serve as an example of early Christian theology. Important topics they address include ecclesiology, the sacraments, and the role of bishops.
From a letter to the Romans by Saint Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and martyr
(Cap. 4:1-2; 6:1-8, 3: Funk 1, 217-223)
I am GOD’s wheat and shall be ground by the teeth of wild animals
I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for GOD if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to GOD. I am GOD’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for GOD.
No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire.
The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my brothers. Do not stand in the way of my birth to real life; do not wish me stillborn. My desire is to belong to GOD. Do not, then, hand me back to the world. Do not try to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my GOD. If you have him in your heart, you will understand what I wish. You will sympathize with me because you will know what urges me on.
The prince of this world is determined to lay hold of me and to undermine my will which is intent on GOD. Let none of you here help him; instead show yourselves on my side, which is also GOD’s side. Do not talk about Jesus Christ as long as you love this world. Do not harbor envious thoughts. And supposing I should see you, if then I should beg you to intervene on my behalf, do not believe what I say. Believe instead what I am now writing to you. For though I am alive as I write to you, still my real desire is to die. My love of this life has been crucified, and there is no yearning in me for any earthly thing. Rather within me is the living water which says deep inside me: “Come to the Father.” I no longer take pleasure in perishable food or in the delights of this world. I want only GOD’s bread, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, formed of the seed of David, and for drink I crave his blood, which is love that cannot perish.
I am no longer willing to live a merely human life, and you can bring about my wish if you will. Please, then, do me this favor, so that you in turn may meet with equal kindness. Put briefly, this is my request: believe what I am saying to you. Jesus Christ himself will make it clear to you that I am saying the truth. Only truth can come from that mouth by which the Father has truly spoken. Pray for me that I may obtain my desire. I have not written to you as a mere man would, but as one who knows the mind of GOD. If I am condemned to suffer, I will take it that you wish me well. If my case is postponed, I can only think that you wish me harm.
Table of Contents
Nothing is known of Ignatius’ life apart from what may be inferred internally from his letters, except from late spurious traditions. He was educated in adulthood by St. John the Evangelist and, according to tradition, in 69 he was appointed second successor of Peter to the Episcopal seat of Antioch. Tradition identifies Ignatius, along with his friend Polycarp, as disciples of John the Apostle. Later in his life, Ignatius was chosen to serve as Bishop of Antioch; the fourth-century Church historian Eusebius writes that Ignatius succeeded Evodius. Theodoret of Cyrrhus claimed that St. Peter himself left directions that Ignatius be appointed to the episcopal seeat of Antioch. Ignatius called himself Theophorus (GOD Bearer). A Christian tradition arose that he was one of the children whom Jesus took in his arms and blessed.
Ignatius’ own writings mention his arrest by the authorities and travel to Rome to face trial:
From Syria even to Rome I fight with wild beasts, by land and sea, by night and by day, being bound amidst ten leopards, even a company of soldiers, who only grow worse when they are kindly treated.— Ignatius to the Romans, 5.
Ignatius’ transfer to Rome is regarded by scholars as unusual, since those persecuted as Christians would be expected to be punished locally. If he were a Roman citizen, he could have appealed to the emperor, but then would usually have been beheaded rather than tortured. Allen Brent has suggested that Ignatius was involved in conflict with other Christians and was executed for the capital crime of disturbing the peace.
During the journey to Rome, Ignatius and his entourage of soldiers made a number of stops in Asia Minor. Along the route Ignatius wrote six letters to the churches in the region and one to a fellow bishop, Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. In his Chronicle, Eusebius gives the date of Ignatius’s death as AA 2124 (2124 years after Abraham), i.e. the 11th year of Trajan’s reign, AD 108. Ignatius himself wrote that he would be thrown to the beasts, and in the fourth century Eusebius reports tradition that this came to pass, which is then repeated by Jerome, who is the first to explicitly mention “Lions”. John Chrysostom is the first to allude to the Colosseum in Rome was the place of Ignatius’ martyrdom. Contemporary scholars are not clear that any of these authors had sources other than Ignatius own writings.
After Ignatius’ martyrdom in the Colosseum (or according to other scholars Circus Maximus) his remains were carried back to Antioch by his companions. The reputed remains of Ignatius were moved by the Emperor Theodosius II to the Tychaeum, or Temple of Tyche, which had been converted into a church dedicated to Ignatius. According to some historians in 637 some of the relics were transferred to the Basilica di San Clemente in Rome.
Ignatius’ feast day was kept in his own Antioch on 17 October, the day on which he is now celebrated in the Catholic Church and generally in western Christianity, although from the 12th century until 1969 it was put at 1 February in the General Roman Calendar.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church it is observed on 20 December. The Synaxarium of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria places it on the 24th of the Coptic Month of Koiak (which is also the 24 day of the fourth month of Tahisas in the Synaxarium of The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church), corresponding in three years out of every four to 20 December in the Julian Calendar, which currently falls on 2 January of the Gregorian Calendar.
Seven authentic letters:
The following seven letters preserved under the name of Ignatius are generally considered authentic as they were mentioned by the historian Eusebius in the first half of the fourth century.
- The Letter to the Ephesians,
- The Letter to the Magnesians,
- The Letter to the Trallians,
- The Letter to the Romans,
- The Letter to the Philadelphians,
- The Letter to the Smyrnaeans,
- The Letter to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna.
Writing in 1886, Presbyterian minister and church historian William Dool Killen asserted none of the Ignatian epistles were authentic. Instead, he argued that Callixtus, bishop of Rome, pseudepigraphically wrote the letters around AD 220 to garner support for a monarchical episcopate, modeling the renowned Saint Ignatius after his own life to give precedent for his own authority.:137 Killen contrasted this episcopal polity with the presbyterian polity in the writings of Polycarp.:127
Most scholars, however, accept at least the two Ignatian epistles which were referenced by Origen, and believe that by the 5th century, this collection had been enlarged by spurious letters. The original text of six of the seven authentic letters are found in the Codex Mediceo Laurentianus written in Greek in the 11th century (which also contains the pseudepigraphical letters of the Long Recension, except that to the Philippians), while the letter to the Romans is found in the Codex Colbertinus. Some of the original letters were, at one point, believed to had been changed with interpolations. The oldest is known as the “Long Recension” which dates from the latter part of the fourth century. These were created to posthumously enlist Ignatius as an unwitting witness in theological disputes of that age, but that position was vigorously combated by several British and German critics, including the Catholics Denzinger and Hefele, who defended the genuineness of the entire seven epistles. At the same time, the purported eye-witness account of his martyrdom is also thought to be a forgery from around the same time. A detailed but spurious account of Ignatius’ arrest and his travails and martyrdom is the material of the Martyrium Ignatii which is presented as being an eyewitness account for the church of Antioch, and attributed to Ignatius’ companions, Philo of Cilicia, deacon at Tarsus, and Rheus Agathopus, a Syrian.
Although James Ussher regarded it as genuine, if there is any genuine nucleus of the Martyrium, it has been so greatly expanded with interpolations that no part of it is without questions. Its most reliable manuscript is the 10th-century Codex Colbertinus (Paris), in which the Martyrium closes the collection. The Martyrium presents the confrontation of the bishop Ignatius with Trajan at Antioch, a familiar trope of Acta of the martyrs, and many details of the long, partly overland voyage to Rome. The Synaxarium of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria says that he was thrown to the wild beasts that devoured him and rent him to pieces.
Ignatius’s letters proved to be important testimony to the development of Christian theology, since the number of extant writings from this period of Church history is very small. They bear signs of being written in great haste and without a proper plan, such as run-on sentences and an unsystematic succession of thought.
Ignatius modeled his writings after Paul, Peter, and John, and even quoted or paraphrased their own works freely, such as when he quoted 1 Corinthians 1:18, in his letter to the Ephesians: “Let my spirit be counted as nothing for the sake of the cross, which is a stumbling-block to those that do not believe, but to us salvation and life eternal.” – Letter to the Ephesians 18, Roberts and Donaldson translation
Ignatius is known to have taught the deity of Christ:
There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and Spirit; both made and not made; GOD existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of GOD; first passible and then impassible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.— Letter to the Ephesians, ch. 7, shorter version, Roberts-Donaldson translation
Also in the interpolated text of the 4th Century Long Recension:
But our Physician is the Only true GOD, the unbegotten and unapproachable, the lORD of all, the FATHER and Begetter of the only-begotten Son. We have also as a Physician the LORD our GOD, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began, but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin. For “the Word was made flesh.” Being incorporeal, He was in the body, being impassible, He was in a passible body, being immortal, He was in a mortal body, being life, He became subject to corruption, that He might free our souls from death and corruption, and heal them, and might restore them to health, when they were diseased with ungodliness and wicked lusts.— Letter to the Ephesians, ch. 7, longer version
He stressed the value of the Eucharist, calling it a “medicine of immortality” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 20:2). The very strong desire for bloody martyrdom in the arena, which Ignatius expresses rather graphically in places, may seem quite odd to the modern reader. An examination of his theology of soteriology shows that he regarded salvation as one being free from the powerful fear of death and thus to bravely face martyrdom.
Be not seduced by strange doctrines nor by antiquated fables, which are profitless. For if even unto this day we live after the manner of Judaism, we avow that we have not received grace … If then those who had walked in ancient practices attained unto newness of hope, no longer observing Sabbaths but fashioning their lives after the Lord’s day, on which our life also arose through Him … how shall we be able to live apart from Him?— Ignatius to the Magnesians 8:1, 9:1-2, Lightfoot translation.
Let us therefore no longer keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner, and rejoice in days of idleness, … But let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law, not in relaxation of the body … and not eating things prepared the day before, nor using lukewarm drinks, and walking within a prescribed space … And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the LORD’s day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week]. Looking forward to this, the prophet declared, “To the end, for the eighth day,” on which our life both sprang up again, and the victory over death was obtained in Christ— Letter to the Magnesians 9, Roberts and Donaldson translation, p. 189.
Ignatius is the earliest known Christian writer to emphasize loyalty to a single bishop in each city (or diocese) who is assisted by both presbyters (elders) and deacons. Earlier writings only mention either bishops or presbyters.
For instance, his writings on bishops, presbyters and deacons:
Take care to do all things in harmony with GOD, with the bishop presiding in the place of GOD, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest— Letter to the Magnesians 2, 6:1
He is also responsible for the first known use of the Greek word katholikos (καθολικός), meaning “universal”, “complete” and “whole” to describe the church, writing:
Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to GOD. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.— Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8, J.R. Willis translation.
It is from the word katholikos (“according to the whole”) that the word catholic comes. When Ignatius wrote the Letter to the Smyrnaeans in about the year 107 and used the word catholic, he used it as if it were a word already in use to describe the Church. This has led many scholars to conclude that the appellation Catholic Church with its ecclesial connotation may have been in use as early as the last quarter of the First century. On the Eucharist, he wrote in his letter to the Smyrnaeans:
Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of GOD … They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of GOD are perishing in their disputes.— Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1
In his letter addressed to the Christians of Rome, he entreats to do nothing to prevent his martyrdom.
- Holy Letters and Syllables, the function and character of Scripture Authority in the writings of St Ignatius (Contains biography of Ignatius as well. Doctoral thesis University of the Orange Free State 1997, Dutch, pdf)
- Brent, Allen (2006). Ignatius of Antioch and the Second Sophistic: a study of an early Christian transformation of Pagan culture. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. ISBN 3-16-148794-X.
- De Ste. Croix, G.E.M. (November 1963). “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?”. Past and Present. 26. doi:10.1093/past/26.1.6.
- Ignatius of Antioch (2003). “The Letters of Ignatius”. The Apostolic Fathers. Bart D. Ehrman, trans. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
- Frend, W.H. (1965). Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church: A Study of a Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Ignatius of Antioch (1912–1913). “The Epistles of St. Ignatius”. The Apostolic Fathers. Kirsopp Lake, trans. London: Heinemann.
- Ignatius of Antioch (1946). The Epistles of St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch. James E. Kleist, trans. Westminster, MD: Newman Bookshop.
- Lane Fox, Robin (2006). Pagans and Christians. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-102295-7.
- Löhr, Hermut (2010). “The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch”. The Apostolic Fathers. An Introduction. Wilhelm Pratscher, ed. Waco (TX): Baylor University Press. pp. 91–115. ISBN 978-1-60258-308-5.
- Thurston, Herbert; Attwater, Donald, eds. (1956). Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics.
- Vall, Gregory (2013). Learning Christ: Ignatius of Antioch and the Mystery of Redemption. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. ISBN 978-0-8132-2158-8.