Friday, December 12, 2014

Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 30-107 AD) : Brilliant Light in the Winter Sky by Chris White

Ignatius of Antioch being eaten by beasts

It was late in the fall when the emperor Trajan and his army arrived in Antioch.  It was time to resupply and rest for in two days they would be continuing their march east to battle the Parthians (ancient Persia) who had been encroaching upon the Roman frontiers.  Antioch Syria (now part of present-day Turkey) had a very large Christian community which had once been taught by both the Apostles Peter and Paul and was actually the place where people were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:19).  The Church of Antioch was born out of Roman persecution and had suffered from it sporadically for many years.  Ignatius of Antioch was the beloved bishop of the city and gave loving oversight to the church much like a father would his children.  
Antioch is in present-day Turkey

Antioch was a long ways from Rome and Trajan saw that this distance had provided the freedom for the Christian “disorder” as he called it, to take root there like an aggressive weed.  The citizens of Antioch were among those he and his army had come and would possibly give up their lives to defend but to his thinking they were hardly loyal to him.  Like other Roman emperors before and after, Trajan decided to make a stand against this movement.  Through the torture of several citizens, he learned who the Christians were and where they could be found and many in the Christian community were rounded up to be publicly “reconverted” to the gods of Rome (which among them was often the emperor himself) or be executed for treason.

Ancient "enhanced interrogation"

As a crowd assembled in the amphitheater to see what was going on, an elderly gentleman made his way through the streets to the gathering.  He was on a mission.  Trajan was seated on his portable throne to look upon the proceedings.  Church members were going to be brought forward and be asked if Caesar was lord.  If they said yes, they would be asked to fully apostasize by offering incense to the genius of the emperor.  If they denied Caesar and continued to only acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, they would be tortured and then put to death before Trajan left town.  But something entirely different happened that day.

A computer generated model of the ancient city

That same elderly gentleman seen on the streets was well-known to everyone in Antioch as bishop Ignatius.  Quite fearlessly Ignatius entered the theatre and walked directly towards Trajan.  Trajan’s guard tried to stop the meeting, but Trajan recognized that Ignatius must be a key person in town and wanted to hear what he had to say and so the two men met face to face.

“You have no call to harass these people!” said Ignatius.  “I am their spiritual leader and it is I who have taught them to give all their allegiance to the Lord Jesus.  The blame for this should fall upon me, and me alone.”

“And who are you old man?” replied Trajan.  “My given name is Ignatius, but my true name is Theophorus (meaning “God-bearer”) because as the bishop of this town, I bear the truth of God and the sacred meal of our religion which is the body and blood of our Lord and God Jesus of Nazareth.”

Most all of this was incomprehensible to Trajan, but as a skilled politician, senator, and military man, he had long ago learned to identify the strategic moment in most situations and this was certainly one of them.  Ignatius was the head of this subversive movement in Antioch and once he was disposed of, this whole Christian craze will likely die for lack of leadership or splinter apart with in-fighting about who will be his successor.

And with that thought in mind, Trajan had Ignatius the bishop of Antioch arrested and placed in chains and sent to Rome with a detachment of ten soldiers.  Normally the death sentence would have been executed then and there, but as I mentioned before, Trajan was a strategic thinker.  The people of Rome loved watching execution by wild animals as part of the entertainment program at the Circus Maximus.  Why not let them watch a great religious leader be torn apart in front of them at the very least, or, in a best case scenario, watch him cower in fear at the sight of the lions and renounce his faith in Christ and find his new found allegiance to Caesar in the capitol of the Empire?
Trajan a man skilled in war and politics

Normally the trans-shipment of a prisoner was done by sea, but with winter closing in the sea route was not going to work.  And so, even as Trajan’s army marched east towards Persia, Ignatius of Antioch, his Roman guard detail, and a few friends who were allowed to attend to him began the march west moving first though Anatolia (Asia Minor) and then joining the via Egnatia in Macedonia which would take them overland to Rome.  All along the way to Rome, in something providentially akin to the book of Acts, local Christians come to meet Ignatius, most likely feeding him and his traveling companions, and then staying to hear a brief homily (short sermon).  Ignatius also takes time to dictate letters to Christian communities and friends such as bishop Polycarp of Smyrna along the way.  These letters are the primary source of information we have about Ignatius as a person but also what he believed.  Because he is a person who lived during the apostolic age and just into the sub-apostolic age, his writings give us a picture of the pattern of life and theology of the earliest church.
Possible routes that could have been taken

The question I ask when I read these letters is why these receiving congregations thought these letters valuable enough to collect them long after the fact (which they did) and why Ignatius, in the absence of there existing anything remotely akin to a monarchial bishop in the day, felt the freedom to exhort these congregations who had their own bishop?

If there is any truth to some of the later accounts that come to us through the historian Eusebius and other church fathers, Ignatius, though not an apostle, was an eyewitness of Jesus himself but also knew personally the Apostles Peter and Paul, and was later taught, along with Polycarp, by the Apostle John in Ephesus.  The Martyrium of Ignatius says that when Jesus took a child into his arms and said let the children come to me (Mk. 9:36) the actual child he held was Ignatius at possible 4 years of age.  This is very possible if Ignatius lived to be in his 80s.  The bulk of his letters are to congregations in Asia Minor with the exception of the final one directed to the Church of Rome.  It could be that Ignatius was simply well-known in that part of the world because he was one of the last living eyewitnesses at the time or just as plausible, he actually knew many of the congregational leaders because of his strong connection to Ephesus and the Apostle John.  Whatever the reasons, the letters of Ignatius were valuable at the time they were written and are of greater importance today as the only testimony from an era in Christian history we know so little about.

So what do we learn from the epistles of Ignatius?  In all of them there are three principle concerns: Christian unity, remaining steadfast in sound doctrine, and finally that Ignatius himself would bravely face his martyrdom.  Ignatius considered being killed by the Romans for his testimony of Christ to be the ultimate form of discipleship, laying down his life for his church, even as Christ did at the cross.
Christian unity is a theme that must be understood in the context of the schismatic churches and teaching that were in blossom during this time.  Ignatius is the first Christian to actually use the term “catholic church” in his writing.  For him, this church went beyond local congregation to a world wide body of true Christians walking faithfully with the Lord and in unity with one another.  The basis for that unity was walking in fellowship and concord with your local bishop.  The bishop was the spiritual father of the area who was in charge of all instruction and celebration of the Eucharist.  Churches had a divinely charged threefold ministry of bishop, elders, and deacons and these correspond to the Father, Son, and the Apostles.

Two of the controversies that Ignatius dealt with in his day was those who believed Jesus was God but didn’t have a true human body but rather only appeared to have one as a concession to our weakness as humans.  The other was the age-old issue of whether Christians should keep the Sabbath day or not.  To these issues we find Ignatius quite direct and unequivocal.  He directly states that Jesus is God and that Jesus is God incarnate.  I would guess that even as a young lad, Ignatius would have noticed or not if Jesus didn’t have a real physical body when he held him.  This is important as Ignatius shows us the earliest theology is very much that of the later ecumenical councils.  To the Sabbath, Ignatius points out that Christians have always worshipped on Sunday because this is the day of the resurrection of Christ and it is the new day of God’s choosing for worship.  Once again, something Christians believed long before the day of Constantine and his legislation of Sunday as a day of rest for all.

Christ and Apostles Mosaic in Antioch

Most important is the theme of martyrdom as a sacrifice and offering in the letters.  It has a benefit for the faith of the entire church.  The mood of his correspondence on this topic is exaltation bordering on mania. Martyrdom is following Christ in his passion.  This was the highest form of discipleship.  Ignatius sets his face like flint to Rome in this matter.  This may have been partly out of an internal fear that he apostasize to save his own life or that a rumor get started that he did.  

Ignatius writes “Near the sword is near to God.” And elsewhere “I am the wheat of Christ, and am ground by the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.”  This echoes the teaching of Jesus about God’s judgment being a separation of the wheat and the chaff (Mt. 3:12).  As he sends a letter forward to the Christians in Rome he writes: do not show inopportune kindness to me but let me meet my doom as a witness and martyr.  He asks several times in the letter for their non-intervention.  This request to me is quite intriguing.  Does it suggest that they did have some power to save him?  Were there powerful people in the Roman church or did they have people on the inside of the military who could arrange for a timely escape?

Cave church of St. Peter in Antioch today

Traditionally it is believed that Ignatius was fed to the lions during the Saturnalia festival in December at the Circus Maximus.  Although grueling and violent, the lions were apparently quick and thorough leaving only a few bones behind at the end of their meal.  Schaff writes, “His faithful friends who accompanied him to Rome dreamed that night that they saw him standing next to Christ covered in sweat as if he had just come from great labor.”  This dream gave them the joyful confidence their bishop  was with the Lord and they carried his remains (or should I say leftovers) home for burial in Antioch.

Recently Pope Benedict XVI wrote that Ignatius is a ‘doctor of unity’ because he teaches the church that unity comes by common faith in Christ but also our devoted efforts to one another because we are part of a common body.  To this I add the summation of Michael Holmes:  “Just as we become aware of a meteor only when, after traveling silently through space for untold millions of miles, it blazes briefly through the atmosphere before dying in a shower of fire, so it is with Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria.” As we recall the brave witness of this early Christian bishop, truly a brilliant light is still seen by all in the skies of winter.
Circus Maximus in Rome today where Ignatius was killed





Ferguson, Everett.  Church History vol. 1 : From Christ to the Pre-Reformation.  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 2013).

Frend, W. H. C.  Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church.  (Cambridge : James Clarke and Co. Ltd., 2008)

Ignatius.  Letter to the Ephesians, Letter to the Romans.  The Early Christian Fathers.  Bettenson, ed.  (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1984)

“Ignatius of Antioch”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiological Literature.  McClintock and Strong eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker, 1981)

“Ignatius of Antioch”  Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity.  Angelo di Berardino ed.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity, 2008)

Jefford, Clayton N.  The Apostolic Fathers : An Essential Guide.  (Nashville : Abingdon Press, 2005)

Pope Benedict XVI.  The Fathers.  (Huntington : Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2008)

Saint of the Day: Lives, Lessons, and Feasts.  Foley and McCloskey O.F.M. eds., rev.  (Cincinnati : St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001)

Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church Vol. 2.  (Grand Rapids :  Eerdmans, 1994)

The Apostolic Fathers in English.  Michael W. Holmes, translator and ed.  ( Grand Rapids : Baker Academic, 2006)

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