Anti-Semitism In Ignatius Of Antioch’s Epistles

Having examined several aspects of Ignatius of Anticoh’s writings, it is worthwhile at this point to spend a bit of time looking at how he showed hostility to Jews and to the Sabbath, which was connected in his mind with Judaism and not to Jesus Christ.  Although Jesus Christ stated in the synoptic Gospels that He was the Lord of the Sabbath, very early in Hellenistic Christianity there was a strong opposition to the Sabbath even though Jesus and the apostles are all on record as having kept and approved of the Sabbath as the day God commanded for worship [1].  It is possible that Ignatius of Antioch can be among those blamed for it, although it is still a mystery how that spirit got started in the first place within Hellenistic Christianity.

We may note that Ignatius was very straightforward about his hostility to Judaism and what he viewed (rather expansively) as Jewish customs.  For example, to the Magnesians he wrote the following:  “Never allow yourselves to be led away by false teachings and antiquated and useless fables.  Nothing of any use can be got from them.  If we are still living in the practice of Judaism, it is an admission that we have failed to receive the gift of grace.  Even the lives of the divinely inspired prophets were instinct with Jesus Christ (72).”  Later on in this same letter he commented, “We have seen how former adherents of the ancient customs have since attained to a new hope; so that they have given up keeping the Sabbath, and now order their lives by the Lord’s Day instead (the Day when life first dawned for us, thanks to Him and His death.  That death, though some deny it, is the very mystery which has moved us to become believers, and endure tribulation to prove ourselves pupils of Jesus Christ, our sole Teacher) (73).”  Still later, he writes, “To profess Jesus Christ while continuing to follow Jewish customs is an absurdity.  The Christian faith does not look to Judaism, but Judaism looks to Christianity, in which every other race and tongue that confesses a belief in God has now been comprehended (73).”

Although the epistle to the Magnesians is where his harshest denunciations of Judaism and what he views as Jewish (rather than godly) customs can be found, they are not absent from his other writings as well.  For example, to the Philadelphians Ignatius writes as follows:  “All the same, if anyone should make use of them to propound Judaism to you, do not listen to him.  Better hear talk of Christianity from a man who is circumcised than of Judaism from one who is not – though in my judgment both of them alike, if they fail to preach Jesus Christ, are no more than tombstones and graves of the dead, which limit their inscriptions to the names of mere mortal men (94).”

What can be fairly said about these passages from someone who agrees that a belief in Jesus Christ and following in His example in faith is necessary for salvation but who does not see in Ignatius a fitting example of genuine faith in Jesus Christ.  In Ignatius we have an odd situation, one that has been repeated throughout the following centuries by many who profess to follow Jesus Christ.  On the one hand we have a recognition that the prophecies about Jesus Christ were included in Hebrew scriptures and an acceptance of the Gospels and Acts and other writings, but a total amnesia about Jesus Christ being Lord of the Sabbath–that was His day–or that He and the early Church openly and regularly continued to assemble on the Sabbath in their own congregations even after they were no longer welcome in synagogues.  Yet mistaken beliefs about the chronology of Jesus’ resurrection and a desire to separate themselves from Judaism and make themselves wholly distinct and impossible to confuse with Jews led those who professed Christ to deny Christ’s example and that of the Apostles as being normative for them.

As a result, a strange sort of deception became increasingly common where instead of beliefs with any whiff of paganism being unacceptable as was commanded in the Law, any observance that had a whiff of Judaism was condemned.  And so it remains in many “Christian” circles to this day.  The fact that Jesus Christ was born a perfectly observant Jew who consistently upheld God’s law from the corruptions that the Pharisees and others subjected it to was forgotten to such an extent that some people might still be shocked to hear that Jesus Christ was a Jew in His life.  Likewise, although we have numerous plain records of the Sabbathkeeping practices and doctrine of Paul, James, and others long after the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the pages of Scripture itself, as well as the unambiguous verdict of the author of Hebrews after a lengthy discussion of the rest that is to come that we will enter if we continue in our faith, this denial of the Sabbath as being connected with the faith once delivered is at best strange and at worst deeply troubling.

How then are we to deal with these things now?  From the vantage point of the present it is easy to see that Ignatius and many who followed him were deeply confused about grace.  They saw the conscientious behavior of those who took God at His word and followed what it said to be an attempt to earn salvation.  That is to say, without having any insight into the heart of a believer, they took a godly life as sign of holding to a works theology, which put them in the strange position of trying to claim that they alone were following God because they were disobedient to Him.  This schizophrenic approach may be seen as typical to the Hellenistic Christian, who is under the delusion that only by disobeying God’s commands can we show ourselves to be following Him and living in grace, and that although Jesus Christ Himself perfectly obeyed the law and served to blaze a path for us to be His siblings that our behavior and manner of living should not resemble His own in the least, and that only be being as different as possible can we show ourselves to be His brethren.  How did this delusion enter into Christianity in the first place?  It is easy to see that once this misguided view was believed that it would be followed, since it allowed Christians a chance to attack not only the perversions of Judaism that were in evidence in the first century in the Gospels and that remain in evidence today, but to attack the whole biblical standard of worship that the Jews claimed to follow and that was becoming increasingly burdensome to a group of Hellenistic “believers” who had ceased to want to be like Christ but who wanted to be seen as true Christians nonetheless.

[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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3 Responses to Anti-Semitism In Ignatius Of Antioch’s Epistles

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

  2. Pingback: The Roots Of Christian Anti-Semitism In The Apostolic Fathers | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Thirteen Reasons Why You Should Read The Apostolic Fathers | Edge Induced Cohesion

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