ECA: Ignatius of Antioch

This post is part of our ongoing series on Early Christian Authority.
Ignatius of Antioch
Icon of Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius of Antioch and the letters he wrote on way to his martyrdom in Rome have long fascinated those studying early Christianity. Killed around 117 CE by the Emperor Trajan, Ignaitus’s tale reads like a drama: the bishop of Antioch (one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire and home to one of the most important centers of early Christianity) Ignatius is arrested and set with a group of Roman soldiers across Asia Minor and Greece for execution in Rome. Along the way, he receives fellow Christians for encouragement and sends them back to their churches with letters for the edification of other Christian communities. Ignatius meets his end in Rome, but his letters live on and continue to influence Christians nearly two thousand years after their hasty composure.

In the Middle Ages, there was a collection of thirteen letters attributed to Ignatius which circulated in Europe, six of which are now thought to be inauthentic and later additions to a collection of seven letters which Ignatius actually wrote. These seven authentic letters (called the “middle recension” by scholars) include those to the churches at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna, and to the Smyrnian Bishop Polycarp. These works were written from at least two locations (Smyrna and Troas) and were apparently carried back to the respective churches by messengers who were sent to meet with Ignatius as he traveled towards Rome.

Though relatively short (one can read the entire corpus in a couple of hours), Ignatius touches on a variety of theological concerns in these letters. His statements concerning church unity and authority under the episcopos (bishop) and his firm rejection of heretical schisms are the most widely noted passages from these letters, though his statements about the superiority of Christ to the writings of Judaism (Philadelphians 8) and arguments against heresy are also noteworthy. The letters of Ignatius have been cited since the earliest times, with Irenaeus and Polycarp referencing them within a few years of their having been written. The church historian Eusebius also writes about the seven authentic letters of Ignatius in his Ecclesiastical History 3.36.

bodleianmanuscriptTurning to considerations of how Ignatius conceived of authority (the topic of this series), we note that while Ignatius penned seven letters, each containing a plethora of language and phraseology that reflect that found in scriptural texts, scholars have generally been hesitant to claim that Ignatius relied upon written documents while writing his letters. In critical editions of the Ignatian letters by J. B. Lightfoot and Bart Ehrman, Ignatius is only noted to have used a “formal citation” formula (such as “it is written”) twice in his letters: Ephesians 5 and Magnesians 12. Given the nature of Ignatius’s circumstances when writing these letters–his traveling to Rome under less than ideal circumstances–it would not be surprising to see relatively few uses of external source material in Ignatius’ letters.

However, there are 36 possible references to now canonical material in Ignatius, five of which are clearly from Old Testament material, one from either now Old or New Testament materials, and twenty-nine or thirty from now New Testament material, with an unknown citation possible coming from the “Teaching of Peter” (Lightfoot). Of the two clear citations of scriptural material, one is clearly from now Old Testament material (Mag. 12 of Proverbs 18.17) and the other may come from either Old or New Testament material (Eph. 5 from either Proverbs 3.34; James 4.6; or I Peter 5.5). Further notable features of Ignatius’ letters are his frequent uses of Pauline language or reference to Paul (Eph. 3 and 12; Tral. 9; Rom. 4 and 6), and the emphasis that Ignatius places on ‘apostolic’ and ‘historic’ tradition within the Church, concerning both ecclesiastical authority, apostolic tradition, and Christology.

Martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch
Martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch

Tentative conclusions that may be drawn from this study of Ignatius’ letters are as follows: Ignatius held the traditions of the church concerning apostolic teaching and the words of Jesus in high regard. Further, he clearly held that the office of bishop possessed a level of authority which may have approached that of written or oral sources. Again, we note that the context of these letters’ composition makes it necessarily more likely that Ignatius would have drawn upon familiar concepts, language, and sources which he might not have had immediately available while writing. Of the places that he does formally cite a written account, he cites a pithy and potentially easy-to-remember saying from Proverbs (or possible James/I Peter). His use of Old Testament materials indicates that he had probably used Isaiah and Psalms while in Antioch.

Ignatius’ use of New Testament materials appears to be considerably more complicated than his apparent knowledge of certain Jewish scriptures. The language and theology of Paul is prevalent throughout the letters (especially that to the Ephesians), with use of material from I Corinthians and Ephesians appearing most often. Ignatius also employs what may be Pauline material from Romans, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, Galatians, 2 Timothy and Philippians, and his potential use of non-Pauline materials incorporates language from Matthew, Acts, John, and potentially I Peter and/or James. We may thus conclude that Ignatius likely knew and had accessed numerous books now included in the New Testament during his time in Antioch, though he almost certainly did not have access to any written works while traveling to Rome.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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