Biography of Ignatius of Antioch: Apostolic Father, Christian Martyr

Saint Ignatius of Antioch
Martyrdom of Saint Ignatius of Antioch by Giovanni Battista Crespi. © Arte & Immagini srl/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Ignatius of Antioch (ca 50–ca 110 CE) was an early Christian martyr and an important figure in the early Christian church. He was an "apostolic father," which means he had direct contact with Christ's apostles and the second or third Christian bishop at Antioch in Syria. Ignatius is best known for a series of letters he wrote during the journey he took from Antioch to Rome, at the end of which he was executed in the Roman arena. 

Fast Facts: Ignatius of Antioch

  • Also Known As: Theophorus "God-Bearer"
  • Born: between 35-50 CE, in Asia Minor
  • Died: about 110 CE in Rome
  • Published Works: Epistle to the Christians of Ephesus (Pros Ephesious); of Magnesia (Magnesieusin); of Tralles (Trallianois); of Rome (Pros Romaious); of Philadelphia (Philadelpheusin); of Smyrna (Smyrnaiois); and to Polycarp (Pros Polykarpon).
  • Key Accomplishments: First missionary bishop to reorder the church in Asia Minor, setting up the beginnings of modern church theology
  • Famous Quote: (on learning that he was sentenced to death) "I thank you, O Lord, that You have vouchsafed to honor me with perfect love towards You, and have made me to be bound with iron chains, like Your Apostle Paul." 

Early Life

Not much is known about his early life, but Ignatius was likely born between 30 and 50 CE, probably someplace in Asia Minor. His name at birth was Ignatius, but he was given the name "Theophorus" ("God-Bearer") at baptism. Christ's apostle Peter founded the church at Antioch and (perhaps) named Ignatius to the See; Peter was the first bishop himself and, according to the Christian historian Eusebius (263–239 CE), Peter named the second one, Evodius. Ignatius likely held the bishopric beginning after Evodius' death in 66 CE until his own death about forty years later. 

Bishop of Antioch

Between 105–106, the Roman Emperor Trajan (53–117 CE) waged a successful battle against the Dacians and Scythians. In gratitude to his gods for the success, Trajan stepped up a massive campaign against the Christian community in Asia Minor, in particular, those Christians who refused to sacrifice to the gods. While he was in Antioch, Trajan interviewed Bishop Ignatius who confessed his steadfast belief, and so Trajan condemned him to death. 

Because Ignatius was an important figure in the region, Trajan assigned 10 soldiers to chain him up and escort him overland and by sea to Rome. Once in Rome, Ignatius would be torn apart by wild beasts, as part of a 123-day long festival. Ignatius's reaction was to cry with joy: "I thank you, O Lord, that You have vouchsafed to honor me with perfect love towards You, and have made me to be bound with iron chains, like Your Apostle Paul." 

Ignatius' Journey to Rome

The details of Ignatius's journey from Antioch to Rome are found in "Martyrium Ignatii" ("The Martyrdom of Ignatius"), a document which scholars believe has some problems. The earliest existing copy dates to the 10th century, and there is some evidence that it was "interpolated," or heavily embellished. 

After being arrested in Antioch, Ignatius and his team of guards (Ignatius called them "leopards" in his letters) traveled to Seleucia, where they boarded a ship and then disembarked either at Cilicia or Pamphylia. There, they traveled on foot to Philadelphia, then to Smyrna, where they spent an extended time. 

The Martyrdom of Saint Ignatius, Triptych
"The Martyrdom of Saint Ignatius," 16th century triptych showing scenes from Ignatius of Antioch's life and martyrdom. From the Abade de Basal Museum, Braganca, Portugal. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Writing the Letters

While they were in Smyrna, Ignatius went to see Polycarp (60–155 CE), an old friend of his who was now the Bishop of Smyrna. Deputies from the churches at Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles came to see Ignatius, and it was at Smyrna that Ignatius began to write his series of epistles—letters to the Christian churches in different cities. In Smyrna, he wrote letters to the Ephesians, the Magnesians, and the Trallesians, exhorting them to obey their bishops, avoid heresies, and keep the faith. He also wrote to the church in Rome, begging them not to intercede for him. 

The group left Smyrna by boat to Troas, where Ignatius wrote three more epistles to the Philadelphians, to the Smyrnans, and finally one to Polycarp. He wanted to address the multitudes in Troas, but the guards were finally impatient to get to Rome—the 123-day-long festivities planned by Trajan were wrapping up. They left Troas, went by foot to Epirus and then by ship to cross the Adriatic. Ignatius wanted to stop at Puteoli, where the apostle Paul of Tarsus (d. 67 CE) had lived, but a storm blew up and they had to pass on to Rome. 

Death of Ignatius 

When they reached Rome, Ignatius was brought to the Roman arena just in time for the last days of the festival, and there he was thrown into the beasts' den where he was torn to pieces. According to the "Martyrium Ignatii," before Ignatius died he increasingly invoked the name of Jesus, explaining to tormenters that he was "the God-bearer" and Jesus's name was written on his heart. When his heart was cut open, the story says, all of the pieces had the name of Jesus Christ written on them in gold letters. 

The pieces of Ignatius' broken body were collected and wrapped in linen and taken back to Antioch by the deacon of Cicilia Philo, and a Syrian Christian named Rheus Agathopus: (these two men are usually credited with writing the original version of the Martyrium Ignatii). He was buried outside the city gates; his body was moved to the Temple of Fortune by Theodosius II (401–450); and finally moved again to St. Clement's Basilica in Rome in 637, which is where they are said to remain to this day.

Ignatian Epistles 

There are seven widely-accepted letters that Ignatius wrote on his way to be executed. They were probably originally written in Greek, but all but one of the surviving codexes are in Latin or Coptic. By the middle ages, the number of the Ignatian Epistles had grown to 13, but those extra six are now thought to have been written by someone else, perhaps as early as the 6th century CE, but not by Ignatius. 

The accepted letters are: 

  • Epistle to the Christians of Ephesus (Pros Ephesious);
  • Epistle to the Christians of Magnesia (Magnesieusin);
  • Epistle to the Christians of Tralles (Trallianois);
  • Epistle to the Christians of Rome (Pros Romaious);
  • Epistle to the Christians of Philadelphia (Philadelpheusin);
  • Epistle to the Christians of Smyrna (Smyrnaiois); and
  • Epistle to Polycarp (Pros Polykarpon).

Content of the Letters

The content of those Ignatian Epistles is enormously important to religious scholars. The surviving copies have been intensively studied for the light they shed on the early Christian church in Asia Minor, and for Ignatius's personal theology in its historical context. They reveal that in the second century CE, Christianity was undergoing a struggle within its adherents, some of whom followed pagan and Gnostic beliefs and rites that Ignatius thought were heresy. 

There were some new Christians who wanted to believe in both Moses and Christ (called Judaizers). There were others such as the Docetists, who believed that Christ was never human, but rather a divine being. He had a body made of a superior substance, said the Docetists, that used visual deceptions to make it look like he was born of a human and suffered and died. Ignatius argued that if someone kept the Jewish Sabbath (on Saturday) rather than the "Lord's day" (on Sunday), they were denying that Christ died at all. 

Legacy

There are several odd things about the letters, which are nonetheless considered authentic by most scholars. His letters are the earliest known references in Greek or Latin to the words "Christianity," "Catholic," and "leopard." As Bishop of Antioch, he was not important enough to be telling the churches in Magnesia and Philadelphia what they should be doing. If Trajan had wanted to, and assuming he was the one who condemned Ignatius to death, he could have had him executed in Antioch. Ignatius strongly urged the church in Rome to not attempt to stop him from being martyred; and although his captors kept him in chains, they took their time getting him to Rome, and they allowed access to him by other bishops and many representatives of other Christian churches along the way. 

It's possible that the Roman guard thought that giving people access to Ignatius was good for warning others about the dangers of practicing Christianity; they may have stayed so long in Smyrna to get the timing of the execution right. But during that trip, Ignatius clearly recognized that his identification as a martyr (although he apparently never used that word) made his letters significant: he became a credentialed missionary.

The importance of the Ignatius epistles is that they document the work and theology of the first missionary bishop to reorder the church, setting up many of the doctrinal Catholic aspects that are still used today. In addition to making the Gnostic practices of Judaizing and Doceticism unacceptable, the letters established the holiness and unity of the church, the threefold character of the Trinity, the hierarchy making bishops as superior to priests, and the primacy of the See in Rome. 

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