Ignatius of Antioch, a Christian bishop in the early second century C.E., hastily wrote several letters (probably all within a week and perhaps four on the same day). He did this while being transported under armed guard from Antioch (a major city in the eastern Roman Empire) to Rome, there to be executed. Four letters were written while Ignatius's group waited for boat passage at Smyrna (modern Izmir, on the west coast of Turkey) and days later, the remaining three letters were written from the port of Troas. By this time, Ignatius had already been under transport for nearly a month and maybe longer, traveling about 500 miles (800 kilometers), under abusive conditions as a convict in chains. An even longer segment of the trip lay ahead.
The reason Ignatius wrote to these churches and not others is clear. The overland route to Aegean port cities split at Laodicea, with a southern route ending in Ephesus and, thirty miles to the north, a route ending in Smyrna, this being the route Ignatius took. Word reached some churches along the southern road, and three churches sent a company of ten envoys to Smyrna, hoping to meet Ignatius there. Ignatius wrote to these churches (Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles), expressing gratitude, encouraging the churches, and commenting on several matters (see below). He also wrote to Rome, the place of his approaching execution. Days later, he wrote three letters from Troas, two to churches he had recently visited (Smyrna and Philadelphia) and one to Polycarp, bishop in Smyrna.
Not surprisingly, the letters bear striking similarity in theme and style, and the standard critical questions (date, authorship, purpose, audience, setting) apply generally to the corpus as a whole, with Romans alone reflecting much difference. That letter was written from Smyrna to a church Ignatius had neither visited nor met with envoys. Further, Ignatius's primary concern was specific to the Roman situation. Ignatius feared the church there might obtain his release. We do not know how this might have been possible (perhaps by bribery or because of some error in the original trial, or merely wishful thinking). We do know that Ignatius wanted no such intervention, and he strenuously argued that point. He wanted, rather, to die, and in so doing, to complete his discipleship. The letter is rich in the language of a zealous martyr.
Otherwise, the letters have only slight differences, though the two letters to churches Ignatius had visited are slightly more specific: warm personal greetings to his hosts in Smyrna, and sharp defense against a schismatic group in Philadelphia who thought Ignatius had been provided with inside information about their schism, which he denied.
Manuscripts and Authenticity.
Apart from these letters, everything we know about Ignatius is legendary. Thus, establishing the authenticity of the letters is crucial. The question is complicated by two issues. Various collections (recensions) exist: some with three letters (short recension), some with the seven letters mentioned above (middle recension), and some with thirteen (long recension). Further, individual letters exist in longer and shorter versions, with even shorter versions of letters in the short recension. Most scholars accept the conclusions of late nineteenth-century scholars (Zahn  and Lightfoot ) that the middle recension is original, though other theories have been proposed (Weijenborg , Joly , Ruis-Camps , Hübner , and Lechner ).
A century and more ago, theological issues often colored the debate over authenticity. Since the letters supported an episcopal form of ecclesiastical government (with power resting in the bishop), Roman Catholics and Anglicans generally defended the letters, while Protestants in the Reformed tradition, with a presbyterian form of government (power in the council or synod), rejected them.
Manuscripts of the letters exist in the Greek original, and in various translations: Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, and Arabic. It appears that the letters were collected early and transmitted as such, though Romans seems to have had a separate transmission history.
The earliest witnesses to Ignatius and his letters are the comment by Polycarp (mid-second century) in his letter of the Philippians (ch. 13—if authentic), a quote by Irenaeus of Gaul (late second century; Against Heresies 5.27.4), and the more explicit comments of bishop and historian Eusebius (early fourth century; Church History 3.36). The accounts of Ignatius's martyrdom are fanciful fictions from a later time depicted in the Eastern Orthodox Church's collection of brief accounts of martyrdoms (Synaxarium), which describes horrible tortures inflicted upon Ignatius, and the Martyrium Ignatii, a much longer medieval document.
Polycarp indicates that a collection of Ignatius's letters was made early. Eusebius, who knows a seven-letter collection, seems less sure of the date, though in one place he dates Ignatius to the tenth year of Emperor Trajan's reign (98–117). Most scholars speak more generally of any date in Trajan's reign, and some opt for a later date, in Emperor Hadrian's reign (117–138). Some think content might help to determine the date, particularly in places where the letters reflect a stage in the development of church hierarchy. That argument depends on how well established the three-part structure (bishop, presbyters, deacons) is taken to be in Ignatius's letters—a disputed matter because of the possibility that the language reflects more rhetoric than reality.
Other early Christian documents that reflect some stage in ecclesiastical development have been used to provide a timeline on which the letters of Ignatius might be placed. Ecclesiastical development was thought to have moved from charismatic leadership to institutionalized office (“early catholicism”), with Ignatius close to the end of that development. In the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles and the Pastoral letters (1 Tim, 2 Tim, and Titus), appear to reflect a stage earlier than Ignatius, as does the Didache (an anonymous document not part of the New Testament probably dating to the late first or early second century). But these documents themselves are not securely dated, and placing them on a timeline with the Ignatian letters would be helpful only if the documents were addressed to the same community, since it cannot be assumed that development occurred at the same rate in every area.
Major Themes of the Letters.
The letters, written in one brief moment of Ignatius's life, provide a somewhat broad but far from complete portrait of Ignatius. Biographical details are minimal—he was bishop of Antioch (or Syria), his nickname appears to have been Theophoros (God-bearer), and his plight was connected to his identity as a Christian. Although he mentions nineteen people by name (most from churches he wrote to), none but Polycarp is otherwise known, unless Onesimus, bishop of Ephesus, is the same individual mentioned in the New Testament (Phlm 1:10–21; Col 4:9, assuming these two references are to the same person).
Although lacking biographical details, Ignatius's letters reveal much about his concerns. Ignatius knew
that this was his last chance to speak. The themes he chose give insight into Ignatius and his world.
Discipleship and Martyrdom.
Ignatius was about to be martyred, and his letters are filled with striking images, such as the following excerpts from Romans, “Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ” (ch. 4) and “Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ” (ch. 5). Martyrdom is but the capstone of something more important—true discipleship. This theme seems mature—not a hasty one developed after Ignatius's recent death sentence. A hostile and menacing environment had existed for Christians in Antioch for some time, perhaps prompting a docetic group to develop a less idealized, alternative view of martyrdom that asserted that Jesus only seemed human and only seemed to suffer and die. Ignatius was determined to refute this position, pointing out that Jesus was truly human and he truly did die—it did not merely seem (Gk. dokeō) that way. Ignatius uses his own approaching martyrdom against the docetics. For Ignatius, suffering and martyrdom mark a true disciple. Ignatius played on the word dokeō: it was not Jesus's flesh, but the docetists themselves, who only “seemed” real (Ign. Smyrn. 2).
Various influences may have shaped the Christian concept of martyrdom. Some think that Greco-Roman reflection on noble suicide was primary. The more widely held view, however, is that the roots lie primarily in the Jewish experience of persecution, particularly in events in the 160s B.C.E., when the practice of Judaism was suppressed by the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV, provoking the Maccabean Revolt. A document written perhaps just slightly before the time of Ignatius, 4 Maccabees, reflects on martyrdom of the Maccabean period, and parallels between 4 Maccabees and the letters of Ignatius may suggest borrowing—or at least a shared environment. But whatever external influences, Ignatius's main source of ideas about martyrdom seems to be his own genius and first-hand experience, and the already established tradition of Christian martyrs, going back to Jesus himself.
Ignatius's somewhat morbid desire for death and his rejection of any effort to gain his release have led some to speculate about Ignatius's mental state. But Ignatius probably was expressing a long-held view: suffering is part of the Christian's experience, and a host of faithful Christian witnesses have suffered death. For Ignatius, to escape death now would negate his most compelling argument against those who held a less rigorous view of discipleship.
Unity and Schism.
Ignatius hates schisms—no matter why they were formed. The true church is the church under the bishop. Those disobeying the bishop or meeting apart from the bishop's approval have erred in practice, and some have erred in belief.
For Ignatius, erroneous beliefs are dangerous and both the belief and teachers of such beliefs must be avoided—as one would avoid poison. Inadequate views of Jesus and attraction to Judaism seem particularly disturbing to Ignatius. Some scholars argue that Ignatius views heresy (wrong belief) as worse than mere schism. Possibly so, but Ignatius has a sweeping view of the danger, and he takes none too kindly to any schism. Any activity conducted “without the bishop” is wrong and must be terminated.
In some cases, it appears that schism has already occurred; in other cases, some activities (perhaps occasional meetings) are done without the bishop's approval though the group still recognizes some authority of the bishop; in still other cases, the warning against schism may be simply proactive. Further, the schisms seem recent rather than long established. The separate activities are not clear, though possibly separate Eucharists are celebrated and perhaps assemblies are conducted on the Sabbath (Saturday) rather than on Sunday.
For Ignatius, the true church is defined by the presence of the bishop (whether physically or abstractly) and by a common Eucharist. Anything apart from that Ignatius will not tolerate. He appealed to creedal-like statements to specify the core beliefs on which unity is established and the church defined (Ign. Smyrn. 1). His assumption was that the bishops held these beliefs.
But was Ignatius's view of unity idealized? The question is whether numerous assemblies of diverse belief or practice existed in Antioch, and if so, did they exist in isolation or under the rubric of a central authority, such as the bishop? Ignatius recognizes diversity and resists it. Two things complicate the picture: Ignatius's church seems to encompass the widest range of options, from docetic to Judaizing; and separate assemblies of such people seem recent. This suggests a larger general unity (but not uniformity) in the way Christians met together. Zetterholm's (2003) reconstruction of Christianity in Antioch emphasizes two primary groups: the Matthean community and Ignatius's community, which Zetterholm supposes had recently broken from the Matthean church.
Ignatius used sharp, dismissive language regarding Judaism, perhaps even coining the term Christianity (Gk. Christianismos) as a counter to the term Judaism (Gk. Ioudaismos) (Ign. Magn. 10.3). He viewed the Hebrew prophets as Christians in waiting and saw Judaism as obsolete, and he attacked all Judaizing efforts in Christian assemblies, though what these traits were is not clear. In recent years, some scholars have proposed that Ignatius had no issue with Judaism but only with efforts to implant Judaizing tendencies within the Christian community. It is unlikely, however, that Ignatius's sharp and sweeping language can be so narrowly and effectively circumscribed.
Ignatius's attack on Judaism and Judaizing (he used both terms) raises questions about the relationship between the Jewish and Christian communities in Antioch. According to other early Christian documents possibly associated with Antioch (such as Acts of Apostles and the gospel of Matthew), considerable tension existed between the Jewish and Christian groups, though scholars debate the time that the two groups “parted ways,” marking Christianity identity as distinctive from Judaism. Ignatius's language suggests the parting was early.
Unlike Clement of Rome, for example, Ignatius rarely makes use of the Jewish scriptures, though Ignatius is at home in the language and world of other early Christian writers, such as Matthew, who is highly influenced by the Jewish scriptures.
Major Scholarly Debates.
The letters promote a three-part hierarchy of leadership: one bishop in each city, with subordinate presbyters and deacons (monarchical episcopate or monepiscopate). Several questions arise from Ignatius's presentation. Is Ignatius the creator of this hierarchical structure? How much authority does the bishop really have? How widespread is this structure? How did this structure evolve from the earlier structure in which apostles were apparently the primary authority?
Situation Reflected: Antioch or Western Asia Minor?
Ignatius's city, Antioch, had been a capital of the Seleucid Empire (311–65 B.C.E.), but it declined considerably as the empire experienced civil wars among claimants to the throne and as the Roman Empire began its eastward expansion. The city regained its prestige under Rome as a key center for the defense of the eastern borders with Parthia, Rome's nemesis in the east. Tens of thousands of Jews lived in Antioch, and Christianity was established there at an early date.
But Ignatius's letters (except Romans) are addressed to churches in western Asia Minor. The question becomes whether the letters reflect more the situation of the churches addressed or the situation in Antioch, with which Ignatius was more familiar. Many scholars think each letter is specifically tailored to the church addressed, allowing us to reconstruct the situation in each western Asia Minor church, particularly regarding the separate assemblies (see “opponents” below).
Situation in Antioch.
Ignatius was being transported under armed guard from Antioch to Rome, where he expected to be thrown to ferocious beasts, dying as a spectacle for the entertainment of the Roman crowds. Some scholars point out that no known persecution of Christians took place in Antioch during this time, and they seek another reason for Ignatius's plight. They contend that some conflict in the Christian community brought the church to the attention of the authorities, and Ignatius held himself responsible or was fingered by his opponents as responsible, and thus became a victim of the Roman justice system, which merely acted for the public good to quiet a disruptive situation. This theory depends primarily on Ignatius's comments about his sense of unworthiness, which has led many to think that Ignatius had failed in some way in his leadership in Antioch.
Ignatius does have great concern for his now leaderless church in Antioch, and he requests prayer at first, then, from Troas after learning that his church had gained “peace,” requests that envoys visit Antioch. Traditionally, peace was understood as the end of persecution, but the consensus position now is that it involved the healing of a schism in Ignatius's church, a theory that depends heavily on linguistic and statistical arguments of Harrison (1936) and Swartley (1973). The theory has been challenged by Robinson (2009).
A major dispute is the number and identity of the opposition to Ignatius or to the bishops reflected in the letters. A credible minority of scholars think one group existed, a mixture of Judaizing and docetic interests. The majority separate the groups (Judaizers and docetists). One scholar opts for a third group as well. Those who opt for two opponents claim that the letters to Magnesia and to Philadelphia confront a Judaizing schism; the letters to Smyrna and to Tralles confront a docetic option. But perhaps such precise reconstruction is too ambitious, since it is unlikely that churches a few miles apart and in fellowship with each other would not have been at risk from both (or many) alternative interpretations. Ignatius dismisses any group or individual who opposes the bishop, meets in separate assemblies, or plays with aspects of Judaism or treats Jesus' human existence as insubstantial. Ignatius's main attack is on error and schism—in whatever garb they come.
Incidental matters are revealed in the letters: the existence of a formal group of celibate women (virgins), along with widows; marriages approved by the bishop; and a dispute about using church funds to purchase freedom for slaves. These provide glimpses into a church under development and adjusting to changing conditions.
- Brent, Allen. Ignatius of Antioch: A Martyr Bishop and the Origin of Episcopacy. London and New York: T&T Clark, 2007.
- Corwin, Virginia. St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1960.
- Hammond Bammel, C. P. “Ignatian Problems.” Journal of Theological Studies 33 (1982): 62–97.
- Harrison, P. N. Polycarp's Two Epistles to the Philippians. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1936.
- Lightfoot, J. B. Apostolic Fathers. London: Macmillan, 1889–1890. Part 2: Ignatius & Polycarp.
- Richardson, Cyril. Christianity of Ignatius of Antioch. New York: Columbia University Press, 1935. Reprint: AMS Press, 1980.
- Robinson, Thomas A. Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways: Early Jewish-Christian Relations. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2009.
- Schoedel, William R. Ignatius of Antioch. A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985.
- Swartley, Willard M. “The Imitatio Christi in the Ignatian Letters.” Vigiliae Christianae 27 (1973): 81–103.
- Trevett, Christine. A Study of Ignatius of Antioch in Syria and Asia. Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity 29. Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1992.
- Zetterholm, Magnus. The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation between Judaism and Christianity. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.
Thomas A. Robinson