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The Epistles of St. Ignatius


OF the author of these epistles we possess little reliable information beyond what may be gathered from the epistles themselves. The Italian name Ignatius combined with the Greek title Theophorus may indicate, as


Professor Ramsay[1] suggests, that 'he belonged to a Syrian family, strongly affected by Western civilization, which had discarded native names.'  It is clear from the nature of his punishment that he cannot have been a Roman citizen, in which case he would have been sent, like St. Paul, to Rome for trial, and, if condemned, would have been beheaded.  From the scattered hints which the letters give, e. g. Rom. 9, 'born out of due time,' and the expression, 'last (of all),' found in Eph. 21, Trall. 13, Smyrn. 11, we may conclude that his conversion was late in life.  From Origen and Eusebius (see preceding section) we have learnt that he was second bishop of Antioch, being preceded by Euodius, and that he suffered martyrdom in the time of Trajan. The Acts recording his martyrdom exist in two forms, the Antiochene and Roman Acts, but both are quite late and untrustworthy. With their rejection we are left without any knowledge of the circumstances of his trial and condemnation, and the oft-quoted interview with Trajan becomes destitute of authority. From the epistles themselves we infer that Ignatius, like other martyrs before him (Eph. 12), who had been condemned to the beasts by the provincial governors, was being sent to Rome to suffer in the arena of the Coliseum. This great amphitheatre, built by the Flavian emperors, was the scene of these brutal sports on a gigantic scale, and it is a well-attested fact that criminals from the provinces were used for this purpose.[2]  From Polyc. Phil, i, 9 we gather that other prisoners accompanied Ignatius, at least during a portion of his journey. His escort consisted of a maniple of soldiers, whom on account of their harsh treatment he compares to 'ten leopards' (Rom. 5). His letters reveal the true martyr-spirit. He declares that he is a willing victim.[3] His death will speak more clearly to the world than ever his words have done in life. 'If you be silent and leave me alone,' he writes to the Romans, 'I shall

[1] Ch. in R. Empire, p. 440, note.
[2] See Ramsay, Ch. in R. Empire , p. 317.
[3] Rom. 4.


become a word of God, but, if you desire my flesh, then shall I be again a mere cry.'[1]  To the people of Smyrna he says, 'Near to the sword, near to God; in company with wild beasts, in company with God. Only let it be in the name of Jesus Christ, so that we may suffer together with Him.'[2]  'It is,' he writes to Polycarp, 'the part of a great athlete to suffer blows and be victorious.'[3]  The route taken by his guards was probably overland by the Syrian and Cilician Gates to Smyrna, Troas, and Philippi, and thence to Rome. At some point in the journey the road branched in two directions, the southern route following the line of the great trade highway through Tralles, Magnesia, and Ephesus, while the more northern lay through Philadelphia and Sardis. The latter was the route followed by the Roman guards, and after a stay at Philadelphia (Philad. 1, 6, 7, 8), Ignatius reached Smyrna, where he was hospitably received by the Church and its bishop, Polycarp.  Meanwhile messengers appear to have informed the churches lying on the southern route of the martyr's approaching visit to Smyrna, and accordingly delegates were sent to Smyrna to meet him from Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles.  Their arrival appears to have greatly cheered Ignatius, and he accordingly addressed a letter to each of the churches from which they came, acknowledging their attentions and giving them practical counsel upon the dangers to which they were exposed.[4]  At the same time he wrote a letter to the Church at Rome.  The Roman Christians had heard of his journey from certain members of the Syrian church who had preceded him (Rom. 10), and he fears that some of their more influential members may exert themselves to procure a respite. He entreats them not to hinder him from 'attaining unto God,' and expresses in exuberant and passionate language his desire for martyrdom. The next halting-place at which we hear of him is Troas, from which he wrote the three remaining letters, to the Philadelphians, to the Smyrnaeans,

[1] Rom. 2.
[2] Smyrn. 4.
[3] Polyc. 3.
[4] On the heresies attacked, see Add. Note l.


and to Polycarp. All these letters were written after he had received the news that the persecution in Syria had ceased. He accordingly asks that delegates should be sent to Antioch with congratulations. From Polyc. 8 we learn that he was on the point of sailing to Neapolis.  The next mention of him is in Polycarp's letter to the Philippians (cc. 9, 13), in which he asks for tidings of Ignatius, who had passed through their city.  Polycarp also states that he is sending them, at their request, a packet of the letters of Ignatius. This is the last we hear of him. His fame as a martyr spread through the East, and his letters were translated into Syriac, Armenian, and Coptic. Around his life and death there grew a wealth of legend. His name Theophorus gave rise to two such legends. One of these, not found before the end of the ninth century, evidently understands the name to mean 'the God-borne,' and represents Ignatius as the child whom our Lord took in His arms (Mark ix. 36, 37).

Another story, which comes from the Western Church and had a much more limited circulation, is founded upon the other sense of the name Theophorus, 'God-bearer.'  It is narrated by Vincent of Beauvais, who tells us that 'when his heart was cut into small pieces, the name of the Lord Jesus Christ was found inscribed in golden letters on every single piece, as we read; for he had said that he had Christ in his heart.'

Various traditions connect him with one or other of the Apostles. Theodoret speaks of him as having 'received the grace of the high-priesthood at the hand of the great Peter.'  In the Apostolic Constitutions he is represented as having been ordained by St. Paul.  Another and more widely-spread tradition represented him as a disciple of St. John.

A story is told us of the episcopate of Ignatius by the historian Socrates, who wrote c. A.D. 440. He narrates (H. E . vi. 8) how Ignatius 'saw a vision of angels, praising the Holy Trinity in antiphonal hymns, and left the fashion of his vision as a custom to the Church at Antioch.'  Lightfoot thinks that this tradition may be


traced to his language in such passages as Trall. 5, in which he speaks of his power to grasp heavenly things and the orders of angels, and also to his language in Eph. 4, Rom. 2, where he bids his readers form into a chorus and sing to the Father through Jesus Christ.

The Acts of his martyrdom[1] gave currency in East and West to the story of his interview with the Emperor Trajan, a story which, as we have seen, has no independent authority apart from the spurious Acts in which it is contained. The same Acts in like manner perpetuated the varying traditions of East and West as to the disposal of the reliques. In the latter part of the fourth century his festival was kept in Syria and Greece on October 17, and the grave containing his reliques was shown in the Christian cemetery at Antioch. It was on one of these anniversaries that the great preacher, Chrysostom, while a presbyter at Antioch, delivered an oration on the martyr, in which he shows evident tokens of a belief in the translation of the reliques from Rome to Antioch. In the fifth century the reliques were transferred with great pomp, by order of the Emperor, the younger Theodosius, to the old. Temple of Fortune, known henceforth as the Church of Ignatius. The date of his festival came to be transferred to December 20th, which was probably the date of the translation of the reliques to their new resting-place. In later times this anniversary was kept as a public festival at Antioch, and was celebrated with rites of great magnificence.

In the West, December 17th was at first kept as the day of the martyrdom, but finally this date was assigned to the translation of the reliques, and the festival of the martyrdom was kept on February 1st.

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