Get the CD Now!

The Epistles of St. Ignatius


'THERE are no epistles in early Christian literature whose existence receives such early and excellent attestation as does that of the Ignatian epistles from the epistle of Polycarp' (Harnack, Chronologie, p. 400). The epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians was written some few weeks after the letters of Ignatius, and before the news of the martyrdom of Ignatius had reached Smyrna. It contains two references to Ignatius (cc. 9, 13). In the latter passage the writer says: 'The letters of Ignatius sent to us by him, and all the rest which we had by us, we have sent to you, as you enjoined.. They are attached to this letter.'  This description corresponds with our present collection. Two letters were addressed to Smyrna, one to the Church, the other to Polycarp. Four others were written from Smyrna. The bearer of the letter to the Philadelphians, which was written from Troas, would probably pass through Smyrna. Thus it, would be possible for copies of all the letters to be in


Polycarp's possession, and the interchange of letters, which was already common in the churches in St. Paul's day (Col. iv. 16), would render the request of the Philippians and Polycarp's compliance natural. See further, Lightfoot, vol. i. pp. 336, 423 f.

St. Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.) quotes from Rom. 4. See v. 28. 4: 'As one of our own people said, when condemned to the wild beasts on account of his testimony towards God, "I am God's grain, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread."' 

Lightfoot and Harnack both refer to passages in Clement of Alexandria (c. 190—210), which they think point to an acquaintance with these epistles. 

Origen, before the middle of the third century, shows clearly a knowledge of these epistles and their author. Thus in de Orat . 20, he appropriates the language of Rom. 3 : "Nothing that is visible is good."  This, however, may have been a proverbial expression. But in two passages he claims to be quoting the very words of Ignatius— 

(i) In the Prologue to the Commentary on the Song of Songs (extant in the version of Rufinus) he says: 'I remember that some one of the saints, Ignatius by name, said of Christ, "My love is crucified," nor do I think him deserving of censure for this.' See Rom. 7. 

(ii) In Hom. vi. in Lucam, he quotes from Eph. 19, introducing the quotation by a reference to the letters and their author. His words are: 'Well is it written in one of the letters of a certain martyr, Ignatius I mean, who was second bishop of Antioch after the blessed Peter, and who in the persecution fought with wild beasts at Rome.'  Then follow the words, 'Hidden from the prince of this world was the virginity of Mary' (Eph. 19). Origen thus clearly knew that— 

(i) Ignatius was second bishop of Antioch.
(ii) He suffered martyrdom at Rome.
(iii) He wrote some epistles which were extant in Origen's time.

Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 310—325) in his Chronicle 


states that Ignatius was second bishop of Antioch, and was martyred in the reign of Trajan. In his Ecclesiastical History (iii. 22, 36) he shows an exact and detailed knowledge of Ignatius, his journey, his letters, the churches to which he wrote, and the tradition of his martyrdom at Rome. He also quotes from the epistles to the Romans and Smyrnaeans, and elsewhere (Quaest. ad Stephan . i.) from Ephesians.

From the time of Eusebius there is full and varied evidence of the existence of the letters. The Syriac Version was in existence at the close of the fourth century, and an Armenian Version, translated from the Syriac, in the fifth century or rather later.

Internally the letters bear clear evidence of the early date at which they were written.

1. The heresies attacked show plainly that the author had not in view the great Gnostic sects connected with Marcion, Basilides, or Valentinus. He shows no sign of attacking their distinctive systems, but on the contrary uses in certain places language which would have been unguarded and liable to be misunderstood if used by a later writer. See esp. Magn. 8 (note). In that passage, before the correct reading was pointed out, it was urged that Ignatius was attacking the Valentinian teaching upon Σιγη or 'Silence.' The true reading disposes of that view, but uses language which no orthodox writer would have ventured upon, if living at a time when the Valentinian heresy was rife. On the early nature of the heresies attacked, see Add. Note I. These facts point to a date earlier than A.D. 140.

2. In several passages Ignatius appears to be repeating stereotyped expressions drawn from the Church tradition of his time. Whether they are derived from simple liturgical forms or Church teaching it is difficult to say. Harnack has drawn attention to them in an article in the Expositor for December 1885. Many of these creed-like passages exhibit in their form great antiquity. Thus the words, 'of the race (or seed) of David' (Eph. 18, 20, Trall. 9, Rom. 7, Smyrn. 1), the mention (Smyrn. 1) of 'Herod the tetrarch' side by side


with Pontius Pilate (cf. Acts iv. 27, also Justin, Dial. 103, but absent from later writers), the inclusion of the baptism of Jesus by John (Eph. 18, Smyrn. 1), when compared with the oldest form of the Apostles' Creed, from which these clauses are absent, point to a period quite early in the second century. 

3. The relation of these epistles to the books of the New Testament is a further indication of their early date. The manner in which the Gospel facts and sayings are quoted points to an early period at which the written Gospels had not attained the unique pre-eminence held by them later on in the second century. There is no reference in the epistles to written Gospels, and in one case the author quotes from an extra-canonical source. See Smyrn. 3. This would show that oral tradition was still appealed to. 

4. Lightfoot sees a further indication of early date in the passage Smyrn. 8, from which he concludes that the Eucharist still formed part of the Agape, whereas in Justin's time (Ap . i. 65, 67) the two were separate. But this interpretation of Smyrn. 8 is open to criticism (see note on passage), and the argument cannot be pressed.

The objections to the genuineness of these epistles are mainly concerned with their presentation of Church government and their witness to episcopacy. But the organization, as here presented, while it exhibits monarchical episcopacy as fully established, and regards the bishop as the source of all ministerial authority,[1] also shows indications of its early date. 

1. The picture presented of the bishop points to an early period when the area over which he exercised his rule was the congregation rather than the diocese, and when he was 'the pastor of a flock, like a vicar of a modern town, in intimate relations with all his people.' [2]  Hence too we find that the body of presbyters are in immediate and regular contact with him and assist him as a 'council' [3] in the work of administration.

[1] Smyrn. 8.
[2] Gore, Church and Ministry, p. 104.
[3] Magn. 6, Trall. 3, Philad. 8.


2. A study of the types of authority to which Ignatius likens the authority of the bishop and the presbyters also affords an indication of early date. The fact that he regards the bishop as the representative of the Lord, while the presbyters represent the Apostles, indicates that he is writing at a time when the memory of the Lord's earthly life was fresh in the minds of men. In the bishop's office he sees a type of authority like that which was in the world when Christ went about in His ministry attended by the Apostles.

3. Had these epistles been forged in the latter half of the second century, as Renan supposed, we should have expected them to reflect the conception of the ministry which is prominent in Christian writings of that period. Now in the writers of the latter half of the second century we find the bishops continually appealed to as the depositaries of Apostolic tradition. The bishops have received from the Apostles 'the gift of truth.'  This conception is found in the Clementine writings, in Hegesippus and in Irenaeus. But it is not the conception upon which the Ignatian epistles dwell. Yet if these letters had been written in the latter half of the second century it is unlikely that his language would have shown so little trace of the ideas current at that time.

The other objections urged on the ground of supposed anachronisms, such as the word 'leopard' (Rom. 5) and the phrase 'Catholic Church' (Smyrn. 8), are dealt with in the notes.  Each of the letters exhibits the same clearly marked individuality, and is connected by close and subtle links with the others. The Epistle to the Romans, however, stands apart from the others. It is of a purely personal character and deals with his coming martyrdom. Hence it contains no allusion to the subjects which occupy so large an amount of attention in other epistles, viz. Church order and heresy. Its silence on these points is of value in refuting the idea that the letters are a late forgery having as their object the promotion of Episcopacy. On that assumption it is difficult to see why the


letter should have been included in a collection having such an object. To escape this difficulty Renan admitted the genuineness of the Epistle to the Romans. But in its style the epistle shows clear traces of the same authorship as the others, and it is impossible to separate them.

The epistles present a striking and original personality, surpassing in interest that of any other of the so-called Apostolic Fathers. The creation of such a character would have been a literary feat quite beyond the reach of a forger in the second or any following century.

The year of the martyrdom of Ignatius can only be fixed within rough limits. Eusebius, as we have seen, states that Ignatius was martyred in the time of Trajan. Origen's statement that he was second bishop of Antioch and fought with wild beasts at Rome' during the persecution, 'probably shows that he was acquainted with the same tradition and refers to the persecution under Trajan, for, as Harnack has shown (Chronologie , p. 404), the date of the second bishop of Antioch cannot well be much later than that of the second bishop of Jerusalem, Simeon, who suffered martyrdom in the reign of Trajan (A.D. 98—117).

Harnack finds another indication of the date in the relations of Ignatius to Polycarp. In the epistle addressed to the latter, Ignatius plainly shows that he is writing to one who is a comparatively young man. At the time of his death Polycarp's age was eighty-six (Mart. Polyc . 9). This was in A.D. 155-6, and Polycarp would be between forty and fifty between A.D. 110—120. 

Hence the date of the letters and the martyrdom may be fixed between A.D. 110—117.

Go to the Table of Contents for The Epistles of St. Ignatius

Please buy the CD to support the site, view it without ads, and get bonus stuff!

Early Christian Writings is copyright © Peter Kirby <E-Mail>.

Get the CD Now!

Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.