Letters of Ignatius

IGNATIUS, LETTERS OF ĭg nā’ shəs. Letters by a bishop written in the period of the Early Church.

Number and integrity.

Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was arrested by Rom. authorities early in the 2nd cent. and taken by a military guard toward Rome (Euseb. Hist. III, xxxvi, 3). His only writings to be preserved are seven letters written on this trip, from two places where he stopped. Four letters were written from Smyrna. Three were sent to the churches at Tralles, Magnesia on the Maeander, and Ephesus which lay on an alternate route from Antioch to Smyrna that Ignatius and his guards had not followed. The letters were in lieu of a personal visit for which prob. they had hoped. The fourth letter from Smyrna was written to go ahead of Ignatius to the church at Rome, his destination. A little later, from Troas, Ignatius wrote three more letters. One was to Philadelphia which he had passed through on the way to Smyrna, one to the church at Smyrna where he had recently stopped, and one to Polycarp, the bishop in Smyrna.

These are the only genuine writings of Ignatius which are extant. There were, however, ten spurious letters which were credited to him. They appeared by the 6th cent. and may have originated as early as the late 4th cent. The genuine letters were also expanded by interpolation in both Gr. and Lat. texts. There is, in addition, a condensed VS in Syriac of the letters to the Ephesians, to Rome, and Polycarp. The approach to this confused textual picture was finally clarified in the last third of the 19th cent. when T. Zahn, F. X. Funk, J. B. Lightfoot, and others established the true situation.

Date.

Eusebius in his Chronicle placed the death of Ignatius in the tenth year of Trajan (a.d. 107-108), but Eusebius’ dates are not dependable here. It is impossible to be dogmatic concerning the exact year when the letters were written. The one to the Romans is dated August 24, according to the present system of reckoning, but the year is not given. Ignatius was called the second bishop of Antioch by Origen (Hom. VI in Luc. §1) and Eusebius (Hist. III, xxii), whatever that might mean. It tends to support the suggestion of Lightfoot that Ignatius died a few years on one side or the other of a.d. 110, that is, during the reign of Trajan, rather than somewhat later under Hadrian, as suggested by Adolf von Harnack. Theodor Zahn also favored the reign of Trajan. The best suggestion for the date is c. a.d. 115.

Occasion and purpose.

The three letters to the churches which he could not visit (the Trallians, the Magnesians, and the Ephesians) were to encourage them to continue on their Christian way, to recognize the authority of their officers, and to keep themselves from heresy. The aim was to “attain unto God.” Jesus’ death is the way to God. Ignatius was thankful for the representatives who had come to Smyrna to bring the greetings of these churches and to assist him. The bishop came from Tralles, the bishop, two presbyters and a deacon from Magnesia, the bishop, a deacon, and other representatives from Ephesus.

The letter to the Romans, written also from Smyrna, was to prepare the Romans for his coming and to urge them to do nothing to hinder his approaching martyrdom, but rather to rejoice in it as an end devoutly to be desired by a Christian. A phrase in the Rom. letter seems to imply that Ignatius had once been a slave (IV, 3), but it may be read otherwise.

From Smyrna Ignatius proceeded to Troas, over one hundred m. to the N somewhat further by land or sea. Here he wrote his second and, so far as is known, last group of letters. He wrote with the aid of Burrhus, the Ephesian deacon, who had helped at Smyrna and continued with him to Troas. Probably Burrhus was acting as a secretary. The letter to the Philadelphians from Smyrna was written to a church which he had visited shortly before on his journey, though doubtless the visit was brief. Apparently the church at Philadelphia was having trouble with strange or divisive doctrine. Ignatius suggested that Philadelphia greet Antioch by sending a deacon to bring them congratulations. There is an odd reference to the fact that some at Philadelphia had not treated Ignatius’ companions with respect (XI, 1).

There were two more letters from Troas, one to the church at Smyrna, which he had just left, and a personal one to its bishop, Polycarp. Ignatius had a high opinion of the church at Smyrna. He urged them to accept the leadership of their bishop in everything. Docetism was a pressing danger. The suggestion made to Philadelphia that a representative be sent to the church at Antioch in Syria was repeated to the Smyrnaeans. His great love and admiration for Polycarp shines through his letter to him. Ignatius stressed the importance of the unity of the church and its patient endurance in the service of Christ. The care of the individual was highly important. It is better for slaves to accept their lot than to seek freedom with the cost charged to the church treasury. All Christians should be suffering in some way. Freedom might simply release them to opportunities for sinning. Ignatius placed a high value on sexual continence though it was not required.

General character.

Ignatius wrote in a vivid, compressed style. He was enthusiastic and confident of God. He used metaphors frequently and liked balanced sentences with reciprocal parts. Warmth, love, and concern gleam through his words. J. A. Kleist reports that Eduard Norden regarded these letters “as the most exquisite part of the literary remains of this time” (p. 118).

Ignatius was concerned strongly with the message that Jesus Christ is God, God who has become man. He referred to Jesus as God at least twelve times. Jesus was born of a virgin, was baptized, suffered and rose again. He was the son of David and the Son of God. The reason for His suffering was “that we might be saved” (Smyr. II, 1). The result is the potentiality of union with Christ. The prophets of the OT looked forward to Christ. Now one may “attain to” Christ. Believers are members of Him and form the body of His Church. The Church is like a bride, the bride of Christ. The members who have faith do not sin (Eph XIV, 2). When this is not true, repentance is possible (Phil. VIII, 1).

Two errors which greatly concerned Ignatius were the Judaizing heresy and docetism. He warned the Magnesians against living according to Judaism and said, “it is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism” (VIII, 3). The Philadelphians were also cautioned about Judaism. The members at Tralles and at Smyrna were asked to consider the evil results of docetism. Christ was truly in the flesh. He rose in the flesh. To reject this is to deny Him absolutely (Smyr. V, 2).

One of the strongest emphases in Ignatius is on the government of the Church. He was the earliest writer to reflect the existence of the monarchical episcopate. He not only reflected it but insisted upon the importance of such an organization. The bishop is like God or like Christ, the elders were compared to the apostles. The deacons are the servants of the Church, deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ. The elders were attuned to the bishop as the strings to a harp. Ignatius spoke as though there were a single bishop in each church and advocated that this should be universal ecclesiastical procedure.

Bibliography

T. Zahn, Ignatius von Antiochien (1873); J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Part II S. Ignatius, S. Polycarp, vols. 1-3 (18892); C. C. Richardson, The Christianity of Ignatius of Antioch (1935); J. A. Kleist, The Epistles of St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch (Ancient Christian Writers, 1) (1946); V. Corwin, St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch (1960); R. M. Grant, The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1 An Introduction (1964), vol. 4 Ignatius of Antioch (1966). See also nodetitle for texts and trs.