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Ignatius of Antioch

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Ignatius (c.50-c.108 or c.140) was bishop of Antioch, who called himself Theophorus, which means ‘God bearer’. Almost nothing is reliably known about his life. It is claimed that Ignatius became a believer at a young age. It is even claimed that he was one of the children who was blessed by Jesus. However, this is not possible, as he was probably born around twenty years after the crucifixion. He and his friend, Polycarp, where both disciples of John the Apostle. Ignatius, together with Polycarp and Clement of Rome as considered to be the three most significant Apostolic Fathers.

Ignatius was taken to Rome to be martyred, although the date of his death is not certain. It is either during the reign of Trajan (98-117), or later around 135-140. Normally Christians were punished by the Roman authorities locally, so it is unusual that Ignatius was escorted to Rome by ten soldiers to be martyred. It is possible that he was taken to Rome to provide entertainment in the Colosseum at Rome.

Instead of making the direct sea or land voyage from Antioch to Rome, the soldiers took Ignatius by a less direct route, making a number of stops in Asia Minor. The route began in Antioch in Syria, and passed through Asia Minor to Smyrna, passing through Philadelphia, but by-passing Ephesus and other cities. After Smyrna, they travelled north to Troas, and then by ship to Neapolis in Macedonia. After passing through Philippi, they travelled by land and sea to Rome, probably along the Via Egnatia. In chains, Ignatius was allowed to meet with Christian congregations, particularly in Philadelphia. He was also allowed to meet with visitors and messengers from the churches.

During his journey to Rome, he was allowed to write a series of seven letters, written to the Ephesians, the Magnesians, the Trallians, the Romans, the Philadelphans, the Smyrneans, and to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. These seven letters are mentioned by Eusebius in this Ecclesastical history. They now form a major part of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

In these letters, he addresses various forms of false teaching in the churches. Like John in his letters, he emphasises the bodily incarnation and human ancestry of Jesus. This was to counter the heresy of Docetism, which taught that Christ’s body was really more like a ghost, and that he only seemed to suffer. He also records problems of Jewish legalism, as addressed by Paul in his letter to the nearby Galatians.

He developed the doctrine of ministry further than earlier leaders, such as Clement of Rome. He stressed the importance of the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon. He believed the bishop to be the supreme authority in the church, saying that nothing should be done, and that no sacrament is valid without the presence of the bishop. This is one of the earliest statements of the understanding which is known as the ‘monarchial episcopate’.

He wrote about his forthcoming martyrdom with great relish and elation, including macabre details of his death by the wild beasts. He even appeared to be looking forward to being martyred. His motto was, ‘The nearer the sword, the nearer God’. This is an example of his anticipation of his martyrdom, “I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. 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. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body.” (Letter to Romans 4)