Reading History: Ignatius of Antioch

Some of the earliest extant writings of the church, after the apostles, were written by Ignatius of Antioch. Unfortunately very little is known about him. At least not with much certainty.
We can, with reasonable confidence, know that he lived in the first and second centuries during the reign of Trajan (98-117). This is based on the following set of evidence:

  • Polycarp, a contemporary of Ignatius, is a recipient of one of the extant letters written by Ignatius. Writing his own Letter to the Philippians, Polycarp mentions Ignatius as a role model (chap 9). With this letter, Polycarp also attaches some of Ignatius’ letters, esteeming them because they explore “faith and patience, and all things that tend to edification in our Lord” (chap 13).
  • Irenaeus, writing in the late second century, anonymously quotes a portion of Ignatius’ Letter to the Romans (chap 4) in Ad Haer (V.28.4).
  • Origen, writing in the third century, quotes Letter to the Romans (chap 7) and Letter to the Ephesians (chap 19) in two of his commentaries. [1]

Martyrdom for the Faith

Ignatius is remembered for his courage as he faced martyrdom for his faith in Christ, sometime between 105 and 115 AD. He was arrested, taken into military custody, and taken from Syria across Asia Minor to Rome. In Rome he would be executed, being torn apart by wild beasts. It is on this journey that he wrote the letters that we have in our possession today.

It is reasonable to conclude, even from the earliest evidences, that Ignatius was among those who suffered and died for his faith.  This can be based on the extant letters, in which Ignatius expects to die in Rome, as well as both Polycarp and Irenaeus mentioning him (or at least his letter) in the context of encouraging Christians to model those who have suffered for Christ.


Eusebius, a fourth century historian, correctly describes the situation for Christians during the time of Trajan .

although no great persecutions took place, local persecutions were nevertheless going on in particular provinces and many of the faithful endured martyrdom in various forms. (Ecc Hist III.33)

It is unclear why Ignatius was targeted for his faith and sentenced to death, as he was visited by many Christians along his journey to Rome.

What did he write?

Ignatius’ letters, as noted, were written while he was being taken across Asia Minor to Rome. There is some debate as to how many letters he has written and whether the form we have them in today represents what he wrote.

And as he made the journey through Asia under the strictest military surveillance, he fortified the parishes in the various cities where he stopped by oral homilies and exhortations, and warned them above all to be especially on their guard against the heresies that were then beginning to prevail, and exhorted them to hold fast to the tradition of the apostles.  (Ecc Hist III.36)

According to Eusebius, Ignatius wrote seven letters, four from Smyrna and three from Troas.

In their shorter format, these seven letters are considered by most scholars to be genuine, written by Ignatius but containing some later interpolations.  Any additional letters attributed to Ignatius, along with the longer form of the seven letters are generally assumed to have been written during the fourth century.

Celebrated Hero during the Fourth Century

During the fourth century, Ignatius is fondly remembered as a hero of the faith. The  more detailed information we have regarding him is dated around this time. However, much of this information is debated as to its authenticity.

  • Eusebius’ Church History (III.33-36), written over several years and completed around 326, records Ignatius as being the bishop of Antioch martyred during the time of Trajan.
  • The Martyrdom of Ignatius (chap 1) also records Ignatius as being the bishop of Antioch martyred during the time of Trajan. This work claims to be an eyewitness account of Ignatius’ journey to martyrdom but most date it to the fourth century.
  • John Chrysostom, known as an eloquent preacher in Antioch during the late fourth century, wrote a eulogy for Ignatius (Eulogy).
  • Athanasius, known for his dispute with Arianism during the fourth century, uses Ignatius’ letters to defend the eternal nature of Christ (De Synodis III.47) (also this post).

Instructed by the Apostles?

Many assume that Ignatius was a student of the apostles, particularly John. This is based on his association with Polycarp, a relationship affirmed because Ignatius wrote to him. The connection between Polycarp and the apostles are based on two excerpts from Irenaeus (writing around 180).

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time… (Ad Haer III.3.4)


And these things are borne witness to in writing by Papias, the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp… (Ad Haer V.33.4)

It is only later that we have more clear testimony that Ignatius, himself was instructed by the apostles, being appointed to his post as bishop by either Peter or Paul. But the information here is rather late and conflicting.

  • Eusebius notes that Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch, without stating who appointed him (Ecc Hist III.22; III.36).
  • The Martyrdom of Ignatius records that he is “the disciple of John the apostle” and that he “governed the Church of the Antiochians” (Martyrdom 1).
  • Theodoret of Antioch, writing in 446, reports that Ignatius was appointed by Peter to be the bishop of Antioch (Dialogues 1).
  • The Apostolic Constitutions, a collection of 8 books dated no later than the fourth century,  report that Ignatius was appointed by Paul (VII.4)

Paul was a noted member of the church and it was the leaders of Antioch that sent him out on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3). This was around 46-47 AD.  Both Peter and Paul are both in Antioch (Gal 2:11-13), probably after the 1MJ and around the time of the Jerusalem Council. The general date given for Peter and Paul’s martyrdom is dated around 65 AD.  Ignatius meets a similar fate 40-50 years later.

If Ignatius was instructed by the apostles, particularly Peter and Paul, and appointed to his role as bishop by them, then this would presumably be around 40-50 AD. That would be around 60 years before his death, making him quite an old man, probably over 80 when he died. While possible, it is far more likely that he was a young boy at the time Peter and Paul were in Antioch, and he was probably not appointed to the role of bishop by them.

[1] Paul Gilliam III, Ignatius of Antioch and the Arian Controversy, 110

3 thoughts on “Reading History: Ignatius of Antioch

  1. The Ignatian corpus is really a mess – plus we have no early mss of the same.

    My understanding is the mid-length texts seem better attested – the shorter seem to be an abbreviation.

    Regardless, I would trust very little of any of this content except in the most general sense.

    • Greg
      Thanks for dropping by DHDS.

      Though it seems clear that some letters (certainly Romans and Ephesians) were written by Ignatius in the 2nd century on his way to be martyred, it is difficult to assess what he wrote from what we have available. You are right in commenting that the extant letters are quite a mess, having numerous versions that are dated quite late.

      There are the long recensions, available in Greek and Latin. These are widely considered inauthentic forms of the letters, having likely been altered during the 4th century. There are also the versions known as the middle recensions, All seven letters mentioned by Eusebius are in this collection. These are also available in Greek and Latin. These are considered the more authentic form of the letters, though many admit that interpolations likely exist in these manuscripts. Finally, there is the shorter recension of three of the letters, which are abbreviated copies of those found in the middle recension. These are available only in Syriac. There is debate as to whether these manuscripts contain the most authentic form of the text.

      In reading these, I would recommend the middle recension. I would further suggest that we may be getting a better look at doctrine and practices of the church during the 4th century rather than the 2nd. Given the challenges, readers should be hesitant to draw conclusions on the 2nd century church based on these letters alone.

  2. Pingback: Reading History: John Chrysostom on Ignatius of Antioch | Dead Heroes Don't Save

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