Chapter 3: Ignatius of Antioch
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happen to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified.
But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s affairs. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter. . . . Therefore, let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator. 1 Peter 4:12-16,19.
No one ever wanted the honor of martyrdom worse than Ignatius of Antioch. Few martyrs have ever been such celebrities in their own lifetimes and before their own deaths. Few martyrs have been so controversial. Indeed, beginning in the 1600’s many scholars (some of them conservative) have held that either Ignatius did not exist, or the writings attributed to him were not his, or that the document that describes his martyrdom is a fabrication, or that someone so tampered with his legacy that nothing can be known about him for sure. You will understand, then, that my telling of Ignatius’ story is my own best interpretation of the documents that bear witness to him. I give those documents the benefit of the doubt.
The story of Ignatius, who died between 107 and 117 AD (40 or 50 years before his good friend Polycarp), actually begins with an exchange of letters between a Roman Governor known as Pliny the Younger, and that most prudent and capable of Roman Emperors, Trajan. Prior to the reign of Trajan, there had already been at least three imperial persecutions of Christians. Claudius had expelled the Jews (and Christians) from Rome in 52 AD. Nero had scapegoated Christians for the fire that destroyed Rome in 64 AD, and Domitian (whose brain was evidently one arch short of an aqueduct) had had himself proclaimed “God the Lord” around AD 95 and persecuted those who refused to accept him as such. This persecution affected the Jews most severely, but it also affected those who had Jewish kinds of beliefs. The apostle John’s exile on Patmos dates from this time, and it may be that two members of the imperial family who suffered (one executed, and one exiled) may have been Christians. However, in these previous persecutions, there was no set imperial policy and Christians were either persecuted as Jews (illegally, because Judaism was a legal religion) or because of a supposed crime not directly tied to their religion.
Under Trajan that changed. Pliny had been appointed by Trajan as the governor of Bythinia, a province in what would today be northern Turkey, along the Black Sea. From there Pliny wrote to ask the Emperor’s advice on how to deal with the Christians who were now perceived as a religious group separate from Judaism. Pliny had indeed already taken some disciplinary actions, and had taken care to find out as much as he could about the Christians, going so far as to torture two deaconesses to obtain information. What he says about Christian customs and worship shows that already less than 80 years after Pentecost the Roman government knew that all the wild rumors about Christians (such as their being cannibals) were false. Trajan wrote a reply that not only congratulated Pliny on his work, but also seems to have had abiding influence on imperial policy for almost 200 years. This policy consisted of the following five points:
- Christians are to be dealt with on a “case-by-case” basis, with no hard and fast rules binding Roman officials to either leniency or harshness.
- The Empire will not make it a priority to search them out.
- If a Christian is accused and convicted, they are to be punished (by death).
- If anyone accused of being a Christian denies the accusation and can prove it (by cursing Christ, sacrificing to the gods, or some such), this person shall be pardoned—no matter how strong the evidence against them.
- Anonymous accusations will not be admitted (Since Roman law punished those who accused someone else falsely, a public accusation was made at some personal risk).
Christians writing after Trajan ridiculed this policy, saying that if Christians were criminals, why did not the government seek them out? If they were not criminals, why should they be punished? Also, if they couldn’t be accused anonymously and if they could get a pardon by simply pretending to renounce their faith, didn’t this prove that the government knew they were no danger to the state? What Trajan’s policy lacked in logic, however, it made up for in practicality . . . and effectiveness. Without incurring the expense and political fallout of empire-wide persecution it gave people every incentive to come into external conformity to the official religion of the government; and external observance was all the government needed. Trajan also seems to have understood, however, that for the Christians any denial of Christ in a public setting would be taken as apostasy. Because he anticipated this policy, Pliny was able to convince virtually all who came before him to renounce their faith, and he says that the pagan temples that had been abandoned were now full again.
Trajan’s policy of attaching governmental grace to a denial of Christ was new, and it caught many in the church flat-footed, unprepared for the sophisticated and effective means that the government now employed to get them to deny Christ (refer to the previous two chapters in this series for examples). But there was a second danger that the church faced at this time that was greater even than Trajan’s policy.
Some time between 95 and 100 AD the apostle John died. During their lifetimes the apostles were the glue that held the various churches around the empire together. With the death of the apostle John, that glue was gone, and it was not at all apparent what would replace it. Although the New Testament books had all been written, they did not yet exist as a collection. New teachers, claiming to have received the true secret teaching of Christ were busy writing other fancy-sounding books (like the Gospels of Peter or Thomas), and there was no central authority to discern the true books from the false. Wandering evangelists and “apostles” frequently divided congregations when they showed up in town, and those who called themselves “Christians” included groups that refused to take communion with other Christians and groups that claimed that Jesus had not really been human at all, but just seemed to die on the cross.
Ignatius felt responsible for addressing both crises. He was the bishop (pastor) of what was perhaps the most important church in the world at the time: the church of Antioch in Syria. In the book of Acts this is the church that first preached the Gospel to the gentiles, the church where believers were first called Christians, and the church that commissioned the great Apostle Paul for his work with Barnabas. Ignatius had such enormous integrity, devotion, and zeal that his nickname was “Theophorus”—the one who bears God. He steered the church through the stormy waters of persecution under Domitian, but the experience left him with twin burning desires: to see the Church of Jesus Christ united upon sound doctrine, and see himself joined to Christ in a more perfect discipleship.
An impending military campaign on the eastern border brought Emperor Trajan to Antioch. This was the golden opportunity for Ignatius to satisfy both desires. Ignatius evidently didn’t wait to be formally accused. Instead, he turned himself in directly to the emperor. If Ignatius was a Roman citizen, he had the right to have his case heard by the emperor. This is the way the trial is recorded:
TRAJAN: Who are you, you evil bum, you who set out to break the law and to persuade others to do the same, bringing them to a miserable death?
IGNATIUS: No one ought to call the one who carries God (Theophorus) evil; because all evil spirits have left the ones who serve God. But if you want to call me evil because I am the enemy of those spirits and because they think I am evil, then I’m with you, because since I have Christ the King of heaven in my heart, I work nothing but destruction for these evil spirits.
TRAJAN: Who is the one who carries God?
IGNATIUS: The one who has Christ in his heart.
TRAJAN: Well, don’t you think we (emperors use we when they mean I) have the gods in our mind, since we have their assistance in fighting against our enemies?
IGNATIUS: You are mistaken when you call “gods” those demons worshiped by different ethnic groups. There is only one God, the maker of everything in heaven, earth, and the sea; and He has only one Son, Jesus Christ who reigns over the kingdom I hope to enter.
TRAJAN: Do you mean the guy who was crucified by Pontius Pilate?
IGNATIUS: I mean the One who crucified my sin, along with me who was to blame for it, and who consigned that tricky and malicious devil to be trampled by those who carry Jesus in their heart.
TRAJAN: Do you carry in yourself a guy who was crucified?
IGNATIUS: Absolutely. The Bible says I will dwell in them and walk with them.
TRAJAN: OK, you asked for it. We (imperial we again) command that Ignatius who says he carries around in himself the guy who was crucified, will be chained up and carried by soldiers to Rome, the capital, to be eaten up by wild animals, so the people can enjoy watching.
IGNATIUS: Thank you, Lord! Thank you for letting me love you perfectly and for letting me be chained like my hero, the Apostle Paul!
Some scholars think this is all made up because they say it is improbable that Trajan would have personally tried Ignatius, or that Ignatius would have been sent to Rome. Still, we know from Pliny’s letter that it was his standard practice to send those Roman citizens accused of being Christians to Rome, and Trajan may well have wanted to deal with an influential Christian leader in his home city personally.
The result, though, was to give Ignatius an unequalled stage upon which to preach a message that would unify the church while at the same time drive the glory of martyrdom (and his own personal glory) to new heights. The Roman soldiers, who treated Ignatius none-too-kindly but who could be bribed by those who wished to visit with the martyr-in-waiting, led him from Antioch to the port city of Seleucia, on the Eastern Mediterranean, and then onto a boat that navigated the southern coast of what today is Turkey. They made it as far as Smyrna, a port with a sheltered harbor just north of Ephesus. There they had to stop for good weather. At Smyrna, Ignatius became acquainted with Polycarp, the local bishop (pastor), who had also at one time been a disciple of John. Four other bishops (pastors) from neighboring cities also paid Ignatius visits. Ignatius gave each of them an extremely valuable, indeed priceless, souvenir: an epistle addressed to each local church (Polycarp got two of these: one addressed to himself and one to his church).
In these six letters, all of which are similar in theme, all of which seem to have been written quickly, and none of which is terribly profound, Ignatius makes essentially three points: 1. He asks them to pray for his upcoming martyrdom and for the poor bishop-less church at Antioch, 2. He exalts the person and encourages the worship of Jesus Christ as the church has traditionally understood Him. 3. He asks them to preserve the unity of the church by remaining in a loyal and obedient relationship to their bishop (pastor).
It is at this last point that Ignatius gives his most controversial arguments. One quote (from many that could be chosen) from the Epistle to the Trallians should serve as an example of the importance that Ignatius attached to church unity through a personal relatioship with the bishop and the other church officers: Let all honor 1. the deacons as those who are commanded by Jesus Christ 2. the bishop (pastor) as Jesus Christ who is the Son of the Father, and 3. the elders as the council of God and the assembly of the apostles. Apart from these officers your group can’t be called a church. Ignatius comes close to saying that if you are not in a loyal relationship to a bishop (pastor), then you are in danger of not being a Christian. Over time, others developed this view into highly stratified church hierarchies that included not only bishops, but archbishops, cardinals and an infallible Pope. Anti-bishop Presbyterians and Baptists have never liked Ignatius. If you remove the later understanding of “bishop,” however, it seems to me that Ignatius was making the reasonable argument that if local congregations are to be united (and remember that at this time there was only one Christian congregation in each city), then the congregation needs to have one pastor called by God, and everyone needs to work with and under that pastor and his vision.
Of course, there needed to be something that united all the congregations into a whole. That something was martyrdom. If Ignatius’s vision for a united church was to become reality, it was absolutely essential that he be martyred. That would give him authority to speak to all. There was only one major obstacle: the church at Rome.
The church of Jesus Christ in Rome was a problem for Ignatius in three ways:
First, at this time the church seems to have been governed by a council of elders rather than by a single bishop (pastor) as Ignatius advocated.
Second, the church of Rome was the one church with the size and prestige to seriously contend with Antioch for spiritual preeminence. After all, both Peter and Paul had been martyred there, so why should Rome be impressed with a mere disciple of John?
Finally, the church at Rome seems to have had enough influence with the government that they might be able to get Ignatius a pardon.
This was such a disastrous possibility that it obligated Ignatius to write his greatest work, his Epistle to the Romans. In this epistle, he diplomatically ignores the first problem, he quickly acknowledges Rome’s eminence, and then dedicates virtually the entire epistle to beg them not to get in the way of his martyrdom:
For I am afraid of your love, lest it should do me an injury. . . .
I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, so I can become the pure bread of Christ. . . .
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. . . .
For though I am alive while I write to you, yet I am eager to die . . .
These quotes may seem exaggerated, but they are only representative of what Ignatius says throughout all nine chapters of this one-theme epistle.
Once he was assured that the Romans would not stand in his way, the only other danger he had to guard against was pride. Ignatius carefully guards his humility in all of his epistles, profoundly aware that he is less than the apostles who have gone before.
Still, his legend grew by leaps and bounds, both before and after his martyrdom. Great emphasis was made on Theophorus and that he had been a disciple of the Apostle John (probably true). The story began to circulate that Ignatius was the small child that Jesus had set before the disciples in Matthew 18:2 (probably not true). The story of his martyrdom was written up (without the gory details, but with after death appearances to his friends in dreams). After his death, some of the churches he hadn’t written to got jealous and epistles from Ignatius to the Tarsians, Philippians, and Antiochans (his home church, of course) appeared. Someone thought that, surely if Ignatius had been a disciple of John, there should be letters from Ignatius to John, and to Mary who was in John’s care—so those epistles appeared. Finally, someone else took it upon themselves to expand the original seven epistles of Ignatius so as to increase the number of New Testament quotations and to have Ignatius attack several heresies that sprang up after his death (he probably would have liked that). His bones were wrapped in linen and taken back to Antioch as “an inestimable treasure.”
So what do I make of this legendary figure? As I look back at the Scripture I began the article with, I find that Ignatius emphatically does “rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings.” He does feel blessed to be reproached for the name of Christ. He does not suffer as a criminal but as a Christian and is not ashamed to do so. There is only one phrase that raises a doubt in my mind concerning Ignatius: “let those who suffer according to the will of God.” My doubt is this, did Ignatius suffer martyrdom because it was God’s will or because it was His own will? If he was confident of God’s will, why the desperately worded letter to the church in Rome?
There is no question in my mind that God used Ignatius to help unify the church and to provide an example that would give courage to many others who would have to face death for standing firm for Jesus Christ. From the comfort of my dining room it is too easy to question his motives. Still, Jesus prayed “If it is thy will, let this cup pass, yet not what I will, but thy will be done.” Ignatius seems to have prayed “It is my will that this cup should not pass—may my will be thy will.” That is always a dangerous prayer, even for a martyr.
Resources Used in this Article:
Christian History, Issue #27, 1990
A. Clevelang Coxe, “Epistles and Pseudo Epistles of Ignatius”, Ante Nicene Fathers, vol 1. Christian Literature Publishing, 1885. pp. 45-131