Also called Theophorus (ho Theophoros); born in Syria, around the year 50; died at Rome between 98 and 117.
More than one of the earliest ecclesiastical writers have given credence, though apparently without good reason, to the legend that Ignatius was the child whom the Savior took up in His arms, as described in Mark 9:35. It is also believed, and with great probability, that, with his friend Polycarp, he was among the auditors of the Apostle St. John. If we include St. Peter, Ignatius was the third Bishop of Antioch and the immediate successor of Evodius (Eusebius, Church History II.3.22). Theodoret ("Dial. Immutab.", I, iv, 33a, Paris, 1642) is the authority for the statement that St. Peter appointed Ignatius to the See of Antioch. St. John Chrysostom lays special emphasis on the honor conferred upon the martyr in receiving his episcopal consecration at the hands of the Apostles themselves ("Hom. in St. Ig.", IV. 587). Natalis Alexander quotes Theodoret to the same effect (III, xii, art. xvi, p. 53).
All the sterling qualities of ideal pastor and a true soldier of Christ were possessed by the Bishop of Antioch in a preeminent degree. Accordingly, when the storm of the persecution of Domitian broke in its full fury upon the Christians of Syria, it found their faithful leader prepared and watchful. He was unremitting in his vigilance and tireless in his efforts to inspire hope and to strengthen the weaklings of his flock against the terrors of the persecution. The restoration of peace, though it was short-lived, greatly comforted him. But it was not for himself that he rejoiced, as the one great and ever-present wish of his chivalrous soul was that he might receive the fullness of Christian discipleship through the medium of martyrdom. His desire was not to remain long unsatisfied. Associated with the writings of St. Ignatius is a work called "Martyrium Ignatii", which purports to be an account by eyewitnesses of the martyrdom of St. Ignatius and the acts leading up to it. In this work, which such competent Protestant critics as Pearson and Ussher regard as genuine, the full history of that eventful journey from Syria to Rome is faithfully recorded for the edification of the Church of Antioch. It is certainly very ancient and is reputed to have been written by Philo, deacon of Tarsus, and Rheus Agathopus, a Syrian, who accompanied Ignatius to Rome. It is generally admitted, even by those who regarded it as authentic, that this work has been greatly interpolated. Its most reliable form is that found in the "Martyrium Colbertinum" which closes the mixed recension and is so called because its oldest witness is the tenth-century Codex Colbertinus (Paris).
According to these Acts, in the ninth year of his reign, Trajan, flushed with victory over the Scythians and Dacians, sought to perfect the universality of his dominion by a species of religious conquest. He decreed, therefore, that the Christians should unite with their pagan neighbors in the worship of the gods. A general persecution was threatened, and death was named as the penalty for all who refused to offer the prescribed sacrifice. Instantly alert to the danger that threatened, Ignatius availed himself of all the means within his reach to thwart the purpose of the emperor. The success of his zealous efforts did not long remain hidden from the Church's persecutors. He was soon arrested and led before Trajan, who was then sojourning in Antioch. Accused by the emperor himself of violating the imperial edict, and of inciting others to like transgressions, Ignatius valiantly bore witness to the faith of Christ. If we may believe the account given in the "Martyrium", his bearing before Trajan was characterized by inspired eloquence, sublime courage, and even a spirit of exultation. Incapable of appreciating the motives that animated him, the emperor ordered him to be put in chains and taken to Rome, there to become the food of wild beasts and a spectacle for the people.
That the trials of this journey to Rome were great we gather from his letter to the Romans (par. 5): "From Syria even to Rome I fight with wild beasts, by land and sea, by night and by day, being bound amidst ten leopards, even a company of soldiers, who only grow worse when they are kindly treated." Despite all this, his journey was a kind of triumph. News of his fate, his destination, and his probable itinerary had gone swiftly before. At several places along the road his fellow-Christians greeted him with words of comfort and reverential homage. It is probable that he embarked on his way to Rome at Seleucia, in Syria, the nearest port to Antioch, for either Tarsus in Cilicia, or Attalia in Pamphylia, and thence, as we gather from his letters, he journeyed overland through Asia Minor. At Laodicea, on the River Lycus, where a choice of routes presented itself, his guards selected the more northerly, which brought the prospective martyr through Philadelphia and Sardis, and finally to Smyrna, where Polycarp, his fellow-disciple in the school of St. John, was bishop. The stay at Smyrna, which was a protracted one, gave the representatives of the various Christian communities in Asia Minor an opportunity of greeting the illustrious prisoner, and offering him the homage of the Churches they represented. From the congregations of Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles, deputations came to comfort him. To each of these Christian communities he addressed letters from Smyrna, exhorting them to obedience to their respective bishops, and warning them to avoid the contamination of heresy. These, letters are redolent with the spirit of Christian charity, apostolic zeal, and pastoral solicitude. While still there he wrote also to the Christians of Rome, begging them to do nothing to deprive him of the opportunity of martyrdom.
From Smyrna his captors took him to Troas, from which place he dispatched letters to the Christians of Philadelphia and Smyrna, and to Polycarp. Besides these letters, Ignatius had intended to address others to the Christian communities of Asia Minor, inviting them to give public expression to their sympathy with the brethren in Antioch, but the altered plans of his guards, necessitating a hurried departure, from Troas, defeated his purpose, and he was obliged to content himself with delegating this office to his friend Polycarp. At Troas they took ship for Neapolis. From this place their journey led them overland through Macedonia and Illyria. The next port of embarkation was probably Dyrrhachium (Durazzo). Whether having arrived at the shores of the Adriatic, he completed his journey by land or sea, it is impossible to determine. Not long after his arrival in Rome he won his long-coveted crown of martyrdom in the Flavian amphitheater. The relics of the holy martyr were borne back to Antioch by the deacon Philo of Cilicia, and Rheus Agathopus, a Syrian, and were interred outside the gates not far from the beautiful suburb of Daphne. They were afterwards removed by the Emperor Theodosius II to the Tychaeum, or Temple of Fortune which was then converted into a Christian church under the patronage of the martyr whose relics it sheltered. In 637 they were translated to St. Clement's at Rome, where they now rest. The Church celebrates the feast of St. Ignatius on 1 February.
The character of St. Ignatius, as deduced from his own and the extant writings of his contemporaries, is that of a true athlete of Christ. The triple honor of apostle, bishop, and martyr was well merited by this energetic soldier of the Faith. An enthusiastic devotion to duty, a passionate love of sacrifice, and an utter fearlessness in the defense of Christian truth, were his chief characteristics. Zeal for the spiritual well-being of those under his charge breathes from every line of his writings. Ever vigilant lest they be infected by the rampant heresies of those early days; praying for them, that their faith and courage may not be wanting in the hour of persecution; constantly exhorting them to unfailing obedience to their bishops; teaching them all Catholic truth; eagerly sighing for the crown of martyrdom, that his own blood may fructify in added graces in the souls of his flock, he proves himself in every sense a true, pastor of souls, the good shepherd that lays down his life for his sheep.
The oldest collection of the writings of St. Ignatius known to have existed was that made use of by the historian Eusebius in the first half of the fourth century, but which unfortunately is no longer extant. It was made up of the seven letters written by Ignatius whilst on his way to Rome; These letters were addressed to the Christians
- of Ephesus (Pros Ephesious);
- of Magnesia (Magnesieusin);
- of Tralles (Trallianois);
- of Rome (Pros Romaious);
- of Philadelphia (Philadelpheusin);
- of Smyrna (Smyrnaiois); and
- to Polycarp (Pros Polykarpon).
- to Mary of Cassobola (Pros Marian Kassoboliten);
- to the Tarsians (Pros tous en tarso);
- to the Philippians (Pros Philippesious);
- to the Antiochenes (Pros Antiocheis);
- to Hero a deacon of Antioch (Pros Erona diakonon Antiocheias). Associated with the foregoing is
- a letter from Mary of Cassobola to Ignatius.
In this collection is also to be found the "Martyrium Colbertinum". The Greek original of this recension is contained in a single codex, the famous Mediceo-Laurentianus manuscript at Florence. This codex is incomplete, wanting the letter to the Romans, which, however, is to be found associated with the "Martyrium Colbertinum" in the Codex Colbertinus, at Paris. The mixed collection is regarded as the most reliable of all in determining what was the authentic text of the genuine Ignatian letters. There is also an ancient Latin version which is an unusually exact rendering of the Greek. Critics are generally inclined to look upon this version as a translation of some Greek manuscript of the same type as that of the Medicean Codex. This version owes its discovery to Archbishop Ussher, of Ireland, who found it in two manuscripts in English libraries and published it in 1644. It was the work of Robert Grosseteste, a Franciscan friar and Bishop of Lincoln (c. 1250). The original Syriac version has come down to us in its entirety only in an Armenian translation. It also contains the seven genuine and six spurious letters. This collection in the original Syriac would be invaluable in determining the exact text of Ignatius, were it in existence, for the reason that it could not have been later than the fourth or fifth century. The deficiencies of the Armenian version are in part supplied by the abridged recension in the original Syriac. This abridgment contains the three genuine letters to the Ephesians, the Romans, and to Polycarp. The manuscript was discovered by Cureton in a collection of Syriac manuscripts obtained in 1843 from the monastery of St. Mary Deipara in the Desert of Nitria. Also there are three letters extant only in Latin. Two of the three purport to be from Ignatius to St. John the Apostle, and one to the Blessed Virgin, with her reply to the same. These are probably of Western origin, dating no further back than the twelfth century.
At intervals during the last several centuries a warm controversy has been carried on by patrologists concerning the authenticity of the Ignatian letters. Each particular recension has had its apologists and its opponents. Each has been favored to the exclusion of all the others, and all, in turn, have been collectively rejected, especially by the coreligionists of Calvin. The reformer himself, in language as violent as it is uncritical (Institutes, 1-3), repudiates in globo the letters which so completely discredit his own peculiar views on ecclesiastical government. The convincing evidence which the letters bear to the Divine origin of Catholic doctrine is not conducive to predisposing non-Catholic critics in their favor, in fact, it has added not a little to the heat of the controversy. In general, Catholic and Anglican scholars are ranged on the side of the letters written to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Smyrniots, and to Polycarp; whilst Presbyterians, as a rule, and perhaps a priori, repudiate everything claiming Ignatian authorship.
The two letters to the Apostle St. John and the one to the Blessed Virgin, which exist only in Latin, are unanimously admitted to be spurious. The great body of critics who acknowledge the authenticity of the Ignatian letters restrict their approval to those mentioned by Eusebius and St. Jerome. The six others are not defended by any of the early Fathers. The majority of those who acknowledge the Ignatian authorship of the seven letters do so conditionally, rejecting what they consider the obvious interpolations in these letters. In 1623, whilst the controversy was at its height, Vedelius gave expression to this latter opinion by publishing at Geneva an edition of the Ignatian letters in which the seven genuine letters are set apart from the five spurious. In the genuine letters he indicated what was regarded as interpolations. The reformer Dallaeus, at Geneva, in 1666, published a work entitled "De scriptis quae sub Dionysii Areop. et Ignatii Antioch. nominibus circumferuntur", in which (lib. II) he called into question the authenticity of all seven letters. To this the Anglican Pearson replied spiritedly in a work called "Vindiciae epistolarum S. Ignatii", published at Cambridge, 1672. So convincing were the arguments adduced in this scholarly work that for two hundred years the controversy remained closed in favor of the genuineness of the seven letters. The discussion was reopened by Cureton's discovery (1843) of the abridged Syriac version, containing the letters of Ignatius to the Ephesians, Romans, and to Polycarp. In a work entitled "Vindiciae Ignatianae" London, 1846), he defended the position that only the letters contained in his abridged Syriac recension, and in the form therein contained, were genuine, and that all others were interpolated or forged outright. This position was vigorously combated by several British and German critics, including the Catholics Denzinger and Hefele, who successfully defended the genuineness of the entire seven epistles. It is now generally admitted that Cureton's Syriac version is only an abbreviation of the original.
While it can hardly be said that there is at present any unanimous agreement on the subject, the best modern criticism favors the authenticity of the seven letters mentioned by Eusebius. Even such eminent non-Catholic critics as Zahn, Lightfoot, and Harnack hold this view. Perhaps the best evidence of their authenticity is to be found in the letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, which mentions each of them by name. As an intimate friend of Ignatius, Polycarp, writing shortly after the martyr's death, bears contemporaneous witness to the authenticity of these letters, unless, indeed, that of Polycarp itself be regarded as interpolated or forged. When, furthermore, we take into consideration the passage of Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., V, xxviii, 4) found in the original Greek in Eusebius (Church History III.36), in which he refers to the letter to the Romans. (iv, I) in the following words: "Just as one of our brethren said, condemned to the wild beasts in martyrdom for his faith", the evidence of authenticity becomes compelling. The romance of Lucian of Samosata, "De morte peregrini", written in 167, bears incontestable evidence that the writer was not only familiar with the Ignatian letters, but even made use of them. Harnack, who was not always so minded, describes these proofs as "testimony as strong to the genuineness of the epistles as any that can be conceived of" (Expositor, ser. 3, III, p. 11).
Contents of the letters
It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the importance of the testimony which the Ignatian letters offer to the dogmatic character of Apostolic Christianity. The martyred Bishop of Antioch constitutes a most important link between the Apostles and the Fathers of the early Church. Receiving from the Apostles themselves, whose auditor he was, not only the substance of revelation, but also their own inspired interpretation of it; dwelling, as it were, at the very fountain-head of Gospel truth, his testimony must necessarily carry with it the greatest weight and demand the most serious consideration. Cardinal Newman did not exaggerate the matter when he said ("The Theology of the Seven Epistles of St. Ignatius", in "Historical Sketches", I, London, 1890) that "the whole system of Catholic doctrine may be discovered, at least in outline, not to say in parts filled up, in the course of his seven epistles". Among the many Catholic doctrines to be found in the letters are the following:
- the Church was Divinely established as a visible society, the salvation of souls is its end, and those who separate themselves from it cut themselves off from God (Philadelphians 3)
- the hierarchy of the Church was instituted by Christ (Introduction to Philadelphians; Ephesians 6)
- the threefold character of the hierarchy (Magnesians 6)
- the order of the episcopacy superior by Divine authority to that of the priesthood (Magnesians 6 and 13; Smyrnæans 8; Trallians 3)
- the unity of the Church (Trallians 6; Philadelphians 3; Magnesians 13)
- the holiness of the Church (Smyrnæans, Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians and Romans)
- the catholicity of the Church (Smyrnæans 8); the infallibility of the Church (Philadelphians 3; Ephesians 16-17)
- the doctrine of the Eucharist (Smyrnæans 8), which word we find for the first time applied to the Blessed Sacrament, just as in Smyrnæans 8, we meet for the first time the phrase "Catholic Church", used to designate all Christians
- the Incarnation (Ephesians 18); the supernatural virtue of virginity, already much esteemed and made the subject of a vow (Polycarp 5)
- the religious character of matrimony (Polycarp 5)
- the value of united prayer (Ephesians 13)
- the primacy of the See of Rome (Introduction to Romans 13)
He, moreover, denounces in principle the Protestant doctrine of private judgment in matters of religion (Philadelphians 3), The heresy against which he chiefly inveighs is Docetism. Neither do the Judaizing heresies escape his vigorous condemnation.
The four letters found in Latin only were printed in Paris in 1495. The common Latin version of eleven letters, together with a letter of Polycarp and some reputed works of Dionysius the Areopagite, was printed in Paris, 1498, by Lefèvre d'Etaples. Another edition of the seven genuine and six spurious letters, including the one to Mary of Cassobola, was edited by Symphorianus Champerius, of Lyons, Paris, 1516. Valentinus Paceus published a Greek edition of twelve letters (Dillingen, 1557). A similar edition was brought out at Zurich, in 1559, by Andrew Gesner; a Latin version of the work of John Brunner accompanied it. Both of these editions made use of the Greek text of the long recension. In 1644 Archbishop Ussher edited the letters of Ignatius and Polycarp. The common Latin version, with three of the four Latin letters, was subjoined. It also contained the Latin version of eleven letters taken from Ussher's manuscripts. In 1646 Isaac Voss published at Amsterdam an edition from the famous Medicean Codex at Florence. Ussher brought out another edition in 1647, entitled "Appendix Ignatiana", which contained the Greek text of the genuine epistles and the Latin version of the "Martyrium Ignatii".
In 1672 J.B. Cotelier's edition appeared at Paris, containing all the letters, genuine and supposititious, of Ignatius, with those of the other Apostolic Fathers. A new edition of this work was printed by Le Clerc at Antwerp, in 1698. It was reprinted at Venice, 1765-1767, and at Paris by Migne in 1857. The letter to the Romans was published from the "Martyrium Colbertinum" at Paris, by Ruinart, in 1689. In 1724 Le Clerc brought out at Amsterdam a second edition of Cotelier's "Patres Apostolici", which contains all the letters, both genuine and spurious, in Greek and Latin versions. It also includes the letters of Mary of Cassobola and those purporting to be from the Blessed Virgin in the "Martyrium Ignatii", the "Vindiciae Ignatianae" of Pearson, and several dissertations. The first edition of the Armenian version was published at Constantinople in 1783. In 1839 Hefele edited the Ignatian letters in a work entitled "Opera Patrum Apostolicorum", which appeared at Tübingen. Migne took his text from the third edition of this work (Tübingen, 1847). Bardenhewer designates the following as the best editions: Zahn, "Ignatii et Polycarpi epistulae martyria, fragmenta" in "Patr. apostol. opp. rec.", ed. by de Gebhardt, Harnack, Zahn, fasc. II, Leipzig, 1876; Funk, "Opp. Patr. apostol.", I, Tübingen, 1878, 1887, 1901; Lightfoot, "The Apostolic Fathers", part II, London, 1885, 1889; an English version of the letters to be found in Lightfoot's "Apostolic Fathers", London, 1907, from which are taken all the quotations of the letters in this article, and to which all citations refer.