About St. Ignatius’s life little is known. He was born ca. 35 or 50 and died in 107.[i] It is known to be a fact that he was the Bishop of Antioch after Saint Peter and Saint Evodius, and that Peter himself appointed Ignatius to the see of Antioch (as recorded by the author and theologian Theordoret). And it is known that he was a martyr and died in 107 C.E. during the reign of the Emperor Trajan[ii].
Authorities from the 500s C.E. report that Ignatius served as bishop of Antioch for 40 years. Antioch was one of the most important Christian communities of that era, (Acts 11:26) and Ignatius would have been well known in those Christian communities. Antioch was a major metropolitan area; it was the capital of the Roman province of Syria and the second city of the empire, following Rome. If Ignatius were Antioch’s bishop for 40 years, then he would have been a man of tremendous fame.
Besides his Greek name, Ignatius, he also called himself Theophorus (“God Bearer”), and tradition says he was one of the children Jesus took in His arms and blessed. He based his authority on his being a bishop of the Church, living his life in the imitation of Christ. It is believed that St. Ignatius, along with his friend Polycarp, with great probability were disciples of the Apostle St. John. The Eucharistic spirituality of his letters seems to give this credence.
What we know of his martyrdom comes from letters that are attributed to him. St. Ignatius reports his arrest by the authorities and his travel to Rome:
From Syria even to Rome I fight with wild beasts, by land and sea, by night and by day, being bound amidst ten leopards, (meaning guards), even a company of soldiers, who only grow worse when they are kindly treated. —Ignatius to the Romans, 5.
He was sentenced to die, to be devoured by lions. As he approached execution, Ignatius identified himself more and more with the sacrifice of the altar. He wrote:
“I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if only you do not prevent it. I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.” Ignatius to the Romans, 4.
After Ignatius’ martyrdom in the Flavian Amphitheatre, his remains were honorably carried back to Antioch by his companions, and were first interred outside the city gates, then removed by the Emperor Theodosius II to the Tychaeum, or Temple of Tyche, which was then converted into a church dedicated to Ignatius. In 637 the relics were translated to the Church of St. Clement in Rome.
Along the route to his execution, he wrote six letters to the churches in the region, and one to a fellow bishop, his friend, Polycarp. These letters have been preserved as an example of early Christian theology. Important topics addressed in these letters include ecclesiology, the sacraments, and the role of bishops. The letters of Ignatius have proved to be an important testimony to the development of Christian theology, and affect our ecclesiology to this day. They bear signs of being written in great haste and without a proper plan, such as the use of run-on sentences and an unsystematic succession of thought. Ignatius is the earliest known Christian writer to emphasize loyalty to a single bishop in each city (or diocese) who is assisted by both presbyters possibly elders and deacons. Earlier writings only mention either bishops or presbyters, and give the impression that there was usually more than one bishop per congregation. Ignatius is an indisputable witness to the hierarchical constitution of the church at the beginning of the second century. Also, it is in Ignatius’s writings that we first encounter the word, “priest” among orders of the clergy:
“See that you follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ follows the Father. Follow the priest as you would follow the apostles. And reverence the deacons as you would reverence the command of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the Bishop.” – Smyrnaeans 6-8.
“Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the priests in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest.” —Letter to the Magnesians 2, 6:1.
Ignatius is known to have taught the deity of Christ,:
“There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Ignatius stressed the value of the Eucharist, calling it a “medicine of immortality” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 20:2). He also wrote:
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. He who eats this bread will live forever.”
The very strong desire for bloody martyrdom in the arena, which Ignatius expresses rather graphically in places, may seem quite odd and disturbing to the modern reader. An examination of his theology of soteriology (his beliefs about salvation) shows that he regarded salvation as one being free from the powerful fear of death and thus to bravely face martyrdom. He wrote:
“Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me; only let me attain to Jesus Christ.[iii]
“Be not seduced by strange doctrines nor by antiquated fables, which are profitless. For if even unto this day we live after the manner of Judaism, we avow that we have not received grace…. If then those who had walked in ancient practices attained unto newness of hope, no longer observing Sabbaths but fashioning their lives after the Lord’s day, on which our life also arose through Him and through His death which some men deny … how shall we be able to live apart from Him? … It is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism. For Christianity did not believe in Judaism, but Judaism in Christianity.” — Ignatius to the Magnesians 8:1, 9:1-2, 10
He is also responsible for the first known use of the Greek word “katholikos” meaning “universal”, “complete” and “whole” to describe the church, writing:
“Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.” — Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8.
It is from the word katholikos (“according to the whole”) that the word catholic comes. When Ignatius wrote the Letter to the Smyrnaeans in about the year 107 and used the word “catholic,” he used it as if it were a word already in use to describe the Church. This has led many scholars to conclude that the appellation “Catholic Church” with its ecclesial connotation may have been in use as early as the last quarter of the 1st century.
On the Eucharist, Ignatius wrote in his letter to the Smyrnaeans:
Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes. — Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1.
[i] Brauer, Jerald, (ed.) The Westminster Dictionary of Church History, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971).
[ii] Aquilina, Mike, The Mass of the Early Christians, (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2007) p. 75.
[iii] Aquilina, Mike, The Fathers of the Church, (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1999) p. 68.