Ignatius Of Antioch: The Concerns Of A Dying Man

In the short series of letters by Ignatius Of Antioch we have a striking and unusual picture of the concerns of a man who knew he was going to his death.  Although we will examine the Epistle to the Romans separately on its own, as that letter is quite distinct from the rest and is more diplomatic and logistical in nature, the remaining letters of Ingatius as he made his way from Antioch through the cities of Asia Minor on his farewell tour towards Rome that were collected by Polycarp and assembled together as part of a collection [1] make for deeply interesting reading that is worthy to examine in some detail.  After all, Ignatius knew he was dying and (as we will see later) relished his approaching death, but at the same time he had earthly concerns to deal with in the here and now before he died, and these concerns are worth looking at to see what it is that Ignatius was trying to accomplish even as the day of his demise approached.

The first of the letters of Ignatius went to Ephesus, and he opens this letter with praise for the encouragement that the congregation gave him upon their visit.  He comments at some length about the church leadership in the congregation, and asks the favor of Burrhus staying with him along the journey.  He humbly comments on his own pretensions to scholarship and tells the Ephesians that they need to obey their bishop.  After this he opposes the tendency of people to withdraw from fellowship with their brethren, thus excommunicating themselves.  After this the author talks about the respect that is due to a bishop like Onesimus and criticizes the hypocrisy of some who claim to be Christian but act in a way that brings dishonor to God’s name.  After warning the Ephesians not to be misled, he then turns to warning the congregation about those who preach heresy but enjoins them to pray for the well-being of the world as a whole.  With a firm belief in the soon-to-come end of all things, the author discusses his own peril and counsels the Ephesians to give thanks to God, show love, and to keep quiet and live decent and honorable lives.

In the shorter Epistle to the Magnesians, Ignatius begins by praising the disciplined life of the congregation and gives particular praise to the excellence of their leadership.  He advises the congregation not to take advantage of their bishop’s youth and inexperience and says that the readers ought not only to have the name but also the character of Christians.  Pointing to the reality of death and judgement, the author urges unanimity among the brethren as well as obedience to the clergy and resistance to paying heed to false teachings and “antiquated and useless fables (72)” of Judaism.  Speaking out against Sabbath observance, he spends a great deal of time discussing his hostility to various unspecified Jewish customs.  He then closes his letter to this congregation with a desire that the hearers be confirmed in hope and encourages them to remain firm in Christ and to remember Ignatius in their prayers.

To the congregation of Tralles, Ignatius begins by praising their good character as well as their obedience to their bishop.  He then tells them to be obedient to their deacons as well and hopes that he can avoid boasting, as he considers that a temptation of his.  Seeking to avoid speaking about high and heavenly topics, he encourages the readers of his letter to only study true Christianity and not heresy and to guard themselves against heretics, even though he is careful not to claim that he had heard that they were afflicted with an overabundance of tolerance for that sort of person.  Urging his readers to shut their ears to anyone who denies Christ, he tells them moreover to flee from such people and not even stay around them before closing with his customary well-wishes and his discussions about those who were around him in Smyrna.

In his letter to the Philadelphians, Ignatius begins by praising their bishop and his virtues and then counsels the congregation to avoid all heresies and to have nothing to do with people whose false doctrines make them like weeds.  Enjoining them to celebrate the Passover together, he speaks of his love for his readers/hearers and tells them to avoid Judaism.  He claims a sort of spiritual infallibility despite his ability to be deceived concerning personal matters and is dedicated to unity and criticizes those who would demand that the Gospels correspond with the Hebrew scriptures.  He then points to the superiority of Christ to the priests of old and celebrates the peace present in Antioch after their recent troubles, before closing with praise of the brethren at Troas, where he wrote the letter.

In his letter to the congregation at Smyrna, Ignatius begins by giving glory to God for the wisdom of the congregation and discusses some matters of Christology with them and his own belief that Jesus Christ had flesh after the resurrection.  He urges them to be safe from heretical preachers and those who “in their blindness still reject Him (102)” and comments on the judgment of both people and angels yet to come.  He talks again about the self-excommunication of those who refuse to attend the Passover and public services and tells the congregation to avoid factionalism.  He encourages people to repent and turn to God while there is time and praises the welcome that the congregation gave to a couple of people and thanks them for their prayers for the congregation of Antioch as a whole before closing with well-wishes from Troas and the usual salulations.

Finally, in his short letter to Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna at this time and all the way to his own later martyrdom, Ignatius praises Polycarp for his mind but urges him to be strenuous and diligent in calling his congregation to obedience.  He cautions Polycarp not to spend all of his time on the best of his congregation but to encourage the growth of more troublesome members as well.  He tells Polycarp not to get upset by the smooth words of heretical leaders and to avoid neglecting the widows and to urge his congregation to avoid boasting.  He urges Polycarp to pay attention to his bishop in the same sort of obedience and respect that he would want from his own brethren and urges unity in that part of the church.  He thanks Polycarp for his prayers concerning the peace of the congregation at Antioch and urges the calling of a local church council to approve someone as a courier to Syria.  Writing in a bit of a hurry, as he expects to leave by sea for Neapolis, he urges Polycarp to write notices on his behalf to the congregations along his route to Rome before closing with a touching farewell.

What concerns can we find in the six representative letters of Ignatius to five congregations in Asia Minor and the leader of one of them?  We can note that Ignatius seemed to have a consistent set of concerns that he mentioned over and over again:  he urges believers to continue in fellowship, avoid heretical preaching, avoid factions and live in unity with other believers, and he has some negative things to say about Judaism in quite a few of the letters.  By and large he follows the general organization of letters during his time period, quotes some scriptures, and seems to be writing in a bit of a hurry.  He comments about his chains and the approaching judgment not only of himself to death but also of humans and (rebellious) angels in particular.  Given the similarities between the letters and their concerns it is unsurprising that these letters were all understood to be genuine despite the fact that later forgeries were for some reason attributed to Ignatius by later writers.  Even if these letters have some troubling elements, they are certainly all consistent and demonstrate what was on Ignatius’ mind as he approached his death–and most of that was concern for what he saw as the spiritual well-being and peace of his home congregation and of the brethren and their leadership where he traveled.

[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.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ignatius Of Antioch: The Concerns Of A Dying Man

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The Apostolic Fathers Series | Edge Induced Cohesion

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

  3. Pingback: On The Chance Survival Of The Fragments Of Papias | Edge Induced Cohesion

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