On (Not) Writing To Bishops In The Letters Of Ignatius Of Antioch

Ignatius of Anticoh is one of the most intriguing and certainly controversial of the Apostolic Fathers, and one of the areas of controversy that is particularly notable is his choice of recipients of his letters.  On the course of his path from Antioch to Rome in order to face martyrdom, Ignatius wrote seven letters, to the congregations of the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Smyrnaens, and to Polycarp [1] personally.  These letters are highly intriguing, especially in the way that they demonstrate some of the concerns that early Hellenistic Christian leaders had over questions of authority and legitimacy within the Church.  To be sure, Ignatius is not the only person who has courted controversy throughout history over the recipients of his letters, but sometimes it is worth noting that even the omission of a name can cause problems, as it does here in our understanding of Ignatius and his roles in church authority.

In the letters of Ignatius along his path to martyrdom, we can note the recipients of his letters and notice which of them is not like the others.  For example, when writing to the Magnesians, Ignatius writes:  “It was my privilege to have a glimpse of you in the persons of your saintly bishop Damas and his two clergy, the worthy Bassus and Apollonius, as well as my fellow-servitor Zotion the deacon (71).”  When writing to the Trollians, he mentions that “I had that from your bishop Polybius (79).”  Not only does Ignatius write a letter to the church of Smyrna, but he also pens a personal letter to Polycarp, their bishop, who was responsible for collecting the various letters and passing them on to others, which helped the letters to spread and to remain recorded.  Yet it is striking that although Ignatius pens a personal letter, and it is a lovely one, to the congregation of Rome, in that letter he does not mention anything about the bishop of Rome.  It is that point which I would like to discuss in greater detail, as it is often the case that what we choose not to mention or deliberately refuse to mention is every bit as important as that which we mention casually, like the names and some of the writer’s thoughts about other bishops in the place where he has gone.

It is striking that not only does Ignatius not refer to the bishop of Rome in his letter, but he never indeed refers to the importance of brethren obeying the bishop either.  This is all the more notable because preaching obedience to church leadership was a frequent theme of Ignatius in his letters on his way to martyrdom.  For example, he begins his letter to the Philadelphians by writing:  “Your bishop’s office, which exists for the good of the whole community, was never obtained by his own efforts, as I know very well, nor by any other human agency, still less in any spirit of self glorification; but it was conferred upon him by the love of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (93).”  Likewise, near the beginning of the letter to the Trallians, Ignatius writes as follows:  “Your obedience to your bishop, as though he were Jesus Christ, shows plainly enough that yours is no worldly manner of life, but that of Jesus Christ Himself, who gave His life for us that faith in His death might save you from death (80).”  Likewise, he has some very personal advice to the brethren of Magnesia concerning their young leader:  “For your part, the becoming thing for you to do is to take no advantage of your bishop’s lack of years, but to show him every possible respect, having regard to the power God has conferred on him (72).”  And, as we have already noted, Ignatius wrote an entire personal letter to Polycarp, who was the bishop of Smyrna, in addition to his letter to the entire congregation.

In light of the fact that talking about authority was very much a matter of considerable importance to Ignatius as he traveled towards his death, it is very striking that Ignatius has nothing to say about the bishop of Rome or the authority that exists in that congregation.  This is all the more unusual because if there was a congregation in the ancient world that gave a great deal of importance to propriety in dealing with matters of authority, it was the church of Rome.  After all, an entire letter (1 Clement) that is part of the collection of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers deals with the question of authority and which authority should be respected by the letter’s recipients.  The spirit of 1 Clement and the general tone of Ignatius’ letters and his attempts to bolster the respect that was held by the pastors and leaders of the congregations he wrote to would seem to be very similar, if not identical, and it is all the more striking given this similarity that Ignatius does not think to mention anything about the importance of strong church leadership in his otherwise very personal letter to the Romans.  In urging the Romans not to interfere with his desire to be martyred in Rome, the refusal to mention the bishop is rather striking.

How are we to account for this?  There are at least a few possibilities of why Ignatius was so interested in focusing on the authority of the leaders of the congregations he passed through in the province of Asia but was silent on the leader of one of the most powerful congregations of them all, that of Rome, whose leaders would before too long consider themselves the pontiffs over all of Christendom and were even at the time of Ignatius showing a definite sense of their power and influence.  On the one hand, it is possible that, knowing of the great power of the leaders of the Church of God at Rome, Ignatius did not feel it necessary to bolster that power through his worn words.  He may have seen the leaders of Rome as strong enough that they did not need him to urge obedience to them through his own writing efforts.  On the other hand, given that Ignatius was a man who was conscious of seeking his own authority and influence, that he might have been a bit jealous of Rome, given that as the leader of the Church in Antioch that he viewed the bishop of Rome as an equal and had written to the other bishops as a way of increasing his own authority over the churches of Asia Minor.  Not wishing to increase the authority of Rome, and perhaps realizing that any efforts of his to act like an authority figure over the bishop of Rome would be unwelcome, perhaps he thought it best to be silent, even if that silence is awkward when one looks at his pattern of caring very much about the authority of leaders within their congregations as a whole.

[1] See, for example:







About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to On (Not) Writing To Bishops In The Letters Of Ignatius Of Antioch

  1. Pingback: Ignatius Of Antioch: The Concerns Of A Dying Man | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Martyrdom In Ignatius Of Antioch’s Epistle To The Romans | Edge Induced Cohesion

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