“You must have Jesus Christ. You cannot have anything better than that.” (Ignatius, Letter to the Magnesians, 7.1)
The phrase “martyr complex“ refers to a person who seems to delight in suffering—in fact, may earnestly pursue and revel in suffering. One inducement to this condition is fanaticism; another may be an abnormal sense of victimization coupled with a resignation to suffering.
Martyrdom for a Christian may be his or her sovereign lot. Yet the eager pursuit of the martyr’s crown is abnormal if not bizarre. Ignatius of Antioch is remembered by his identical moniker—Ignatius Martyr. If ever a believer was obsessed with pursuing his own death in the martyr’s arena, it was this bishop from Antioch.
Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil— only let me get to Jesus Christ! (Letter to the Romans, 5.3)
John Calvin doubted the authenticity of the letters of Ignatius. Not because of Ignatius’s martyr complex, but because the letters endorsed unbiblical customs, especially the Roman Catholic practice of Lent (Institutes, 1.13.29). Later Calvinists joined the challenge to Ignatian authenticity because the letters were alleged to endorse episcopacy (but a half step from papal supremacy). When Archbishop James Usher (of “Usher’s Chronology“ fame) discovered two manuscripts of Ignatius’s letters in England, he countered that the epistles were in fact genuine. Usher’s case (published in 1644) was expanded incontrovertibly by J.B. Lightfoot and Theodor Zahn in the 19th century. Today, few (if any) would agree with Calvin.
On the Way to Rome
The seven letters of Ignatius were written on the way to Rome. Ignatius was traveling to Rome to die! Ignatius had run afoul of the Roman authorities, been arrested and was being transported to Rome for death in the arena (a tacit admission that, like Paul, he was a Roman citizen). Chained to a squad of ten Roman soldiers, Ignatius was conveyed more than 1400 miles to his death.
His alleged crime? He “abused“ the Emperor Trajan (98-117 A.D.) when the latter visited Antioch. The specific “abuse” is associated withthe treasonous crime of refusing to participate in the cult worship of the emperor. While it is certain that Ignatius would have merited the penalty of death had he “abused” the emperor, this attempt to account for his arrest dates from the 6th century and is therefore suspect.
Whatever the precise crime, Ignatius was led in chains from Antioch in Syria to Rome in Italy. Most likely, the prisoner traveled intermittently by ship and by foot: first by boat from Syria to Asia Minor; overland to Smyrna, then to Troas; by boat across the Aegean to Neapolis; thence to Philippi and west via the Egnatian Way to Dyrrhachium. There he took ship across the Adriatic to Brundisium; and finally overland to the amphitheater (perhaps the Colosseum) in Rome.
That Ignatius received his coveted martyr’s crown is doubtless true, though we have no record of the event. Origen was convinced that he was martyred in Rome (Homily 6 on Luke) as was Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 5.28.4).
The chained bishop is not chagrined by his plight. In fact, he relishes his transport as a virtual march of triumph. “My very chains which I carry around for Jesus Christ’s sake, in my desire to get to God, exhort you, ‘Stay united and pray for one another!’” (Letter to the Trallians, 12.2).
The Image of Christ
What fascinates the modern reader of these seven epistles is not so much the bizarre “lust for death”, but the invitation of Ignatius to his readers (and hearers to whom he preached along the way) that his was a genuine imitatio Christi (“imitation of Christ,” i.e., Christ goes the way of rejection, arrest and death; so too Ignatius). Ignatius even becomes a player in this early Christian “theater”, for we read of advance notice sent ahead to Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles and Rome that he is on his way.
The Roman empire was hostile to Christianity—at least on certain occasions and in certain places. Ignatius’s imperial lord, Trajan, is the emperor to whom Pliny (the Younger) writes his famous letter asking what to do with Christians who have been dragged before his tribunal charged with the capital offense of refusing to worship the emperor (Pliny, Letters, 10.96). The imperial reply was, “Spare them, if they will conform to pagan custom and anathematize Christ. Otherwise, execute them” (Pliny, Letters, 10.97).
Pliny’s letter and Trajan’s response may reflect only the local persecution in Bithynia and Pontus (in distinction from the later empire-wide persecution of Diocletian), but it alerts us to the viewpoint from which establishment paganism regarded Christianity. Allegiance to Christ was apostasy to the emperor.
Yet persecution during the reign of Trajan did reach to Ignatius in Antioch. Scholars differ on the date of his arrest and execution, but it was before the death of the emperor in 117 A.D. Most students suggest a date around 110 A.D. for the bishop’s odyssey. Ignatius indicates he was not alone in the martyr’s pilgrimage. Others from Antioch and Syria had preceded him (cf. Letter to the Romans, 10.2).
When he arrived in Smyrna, Ignatius was permitted to meet the church in that city. So refreshed was he by that communion of the saints that he penned four letters to churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles and Rome. On arriving in Troas, he addressed three more letters: (1) to the church of Philadelphia; (2) to the church of Smyrna; (3) and to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Transported across the Hellespont, he arrived in Neapolis and then on to Philippi (cf. Polycarp’s, Letter to the Philippians, 1.1; 9.1). The road from Philippi was the famous Via Egnatia on which Paul had journeyed to Thessalonica and beyond, before turning south to Athens (Acts 17:15). (compare Acts 16:11, 12; 17:1). If Ignatius was imitaing Christ on his way to death, he must have been no less pleased that he was imitating the Apostle Paul, as well.
There are two coinages: one God’s, the other the world’s. Each bears its own stamp— unbelievers that of this world; believers, who are spurred by love, the stamp of God the Father through Jesus Christ. And if we do not willingly die in union with his Passion, we do not have his life in us. (Letter to the Magnesians, 5).
Warning Against Heresy
Ignatius describes his journey to death in terms of union with Christ. But he also warns the churches about heretical errors creeping into the community of the saints. Foremost is docetism, the doctrine that the Son of God only “appeared” to take a human nature.
According to the Docetists, the incarnation was a myth because flesh and God cannot unite. “And he genuinely suffered, as even he genuinely raised himself. It is not as some unbelievers say, that his Passion was a sham. It’s they who are a sham!“ (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 2). While Docetism may be reflected in the apostle John’s remarks (1 John 1:1-3; 4:23), Ignatius is the first clear post-apostolic witness to the threat of this heresy—a heresy which would grow through its affiliation with Gnosticism.
Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary; who was really born, ate and drank; was really persecuted under Pontius Pilate; was really crucified and died, in the sight of heaven and earth and the underworld. He was really raised from the dead, for his Father raised him, just as his Father will raise us, who believe on him, through Christ Jesus (Letter to the Trallians, 9).
We come then to Ignatius’s doctrine of the person and work of Christ—his anti-docetic doctrine of the person and work of Christ. The historicity of the events of Christ’s life are well known to him. He affirms His conception by the virgin Mary; His birth; His baptism; the Lord’s Supper; His trial before Pontius Pilate and Herod (Antipas) the Tetrarch; His crucifixion, death and resurrection; His post-resurrection appearances (including eating and drinking with the disciples); and His ascension.
Furthermore, Ignatius knows these events from the record of their occurrence—surely an early witness to the canon of the New Testament. His fervent incarnational Christology argues for God (the Son) and man joined in one person. He writes, “Jesus Christ our God” (Letter to the Romans, Preface) in clear affirmation of the New Testament teaching of the deity of Christ. But God the Son united the flesh of a true human nature to his divine person in order to become the God-man (“flesh yet spiritual, born yet unbegotten, God incarnate, genuine life in the midst of death, sprung from Mary as well as God,” (Letter to the Ephesians, 7.2)
The incarnation is unto sinful man’s salvation: “it was for our sakes that He suffered all this, to save us” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 2); “the One who became visible for our sakes, who was beyond touch and passion, yet who for our sakes became subject to suffering, and endured everything for us” (Letter to Polycarp, 3.2). These statements explain the significance of the incarnation of God’s Son.
Ignatius regards the union of the divine and human natures in Christ as a paradigm of the sinner’s union with Christ. In fact, he is fond of the Pauline clause en (Iesou) Christo (“in [Jesus] Christ”) which he uses nineteen times. He even cites Paul as the basis for his use of the phrase: “you have been united into the mysteries with Paul” (Letter to the Ephesians, 12.2).
This is life eternal—union with the death and resurrection of Christ:
“That is whom I am looking for— the One who died for us. That is whom I want—the One who rose for us” (Letter to the Romans, 6.1).
Yet the incarnation is not only a wonderful testimony to salvation offered to sinners presently, it displays the rich over-arching redemptive plan of God for believers from the Old Testament era: “And the Prophets, let us love them too, because they anticipated the gospel in their preaching and hoped for and awaited Him, and were saved by believing on Him. Thus they were in Jesus Christ’s unity” (Letter to the Philadelphians, 5.2). There is no discontinuity between the saving work of Christ under the New Testament as compared to the Old. For Ignatius, redemption is always solely by grace through faith in the person and work of Christ. Still, Judaism has been surpassed by Christianity “Christianity did not believe in Judaism, but Judaism in Christianity,” (Letter to the Magnesians, 10.3) because “the last days are here!” (Letter to the Ephesians, 11.1).
Well, what about the question of episcopacy which caused so many 16th and 17th century Calvinistic presbyterians to reject the authenticity of these letters? Is Ignatius aware of or the defender of episcopacy, i.e., the rule of the church by a singular, even hierarchical, bishop (so-called “monarchical episcopacy”)?
First, it is clear that the letters of Ignatius are genuine. It is also clear that the letters refer to “bishop”, “presbyter” (or “elder”), and “deacon” (cf. Letters to the Ephesians, 2; Magnesians, 2, 6, 7, 13; Trallians, 13). But the concept of a monarchical bishop (episcopal supremacy over the other officers, namely presbyters and deacons)— certainly present by the late 2nd century A.D.— must be read into Ignatius’s remarks.
In other words, allowing Ignatius to speak for himself (without the episcopal-colored glasses of later tradition), we discover that “bishop” and “presbyter/elder” are synonymous (as they are in the New Testament—cf. Titus 1:5, 7; I Timothy 3:1, 2; Acts 20:17, 28). The title “bishop“ may be used by Ignatius as “overseer/shepherd“ (as Paul seems to use it), while the “presbyter/elder” may be used of the same office in the sense of “ruler”.
It therefore appears too contrived to find hierarchical episcopacy in Ignatius’s term episkopos; even as it appears tendentious to read that nuance into Paul’s use of the word. At best, Ignatius may regard the “bishop” as the convener or moderator of the gathering of officers (bishops, presbyters, deacons)—in other words, the first among equals with respect only to organization.
It is possible to find here a reflection of the archisynagogos (“ruler of the synagogue”) in Judaism, i.e., one elder who has a title which distinguishes him from the other elders without elevating him above them. We note also that the famous “episcopal” line in the Letter to the Magnesians, 2 (“he submits to the bishop as to God’s grace, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ”) may as satisfactorily be rendered “he submits to the bishop . . . even (Greek kai) to the presbytery.”
Finally, in defense of the nonepiscopalian Ignatius, note that his Christology equates the Father and the Son (with respect to divine essence), while distinguishing the Father and the Son (with respect to personhood). Is it possible that the office of bishop and presbyter are equal for Ignatius and yet distinct with respect to function? Does Ignatius’s devotion to Christ and the Trinity also influence his devotion to the church and her offices?
Ignatius probably did get his wish. He was delivered to the arena in order to die. While his obsession with the martyr’s crown may disturb us, his faith-union with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ assured him of eternal life. It is so for all believers—martyrs or not.
Rev. James T. Dennison, Jr. is Academic Dean at North west Theological Seminary, Lynnwood, Washington where he also teaches Patristics.