Note: citations and notes are now embedded in the text with brackets around them.
Other than one reference by Eusebius and another by Polycarp, there is little direct external evidence to the life and ministry of Ignatius. His letters stand as his best biography even if they are meager in describing the entirety of life, ministry, and teaching.
Life and Times of Ignatius of Antioch
Although his episcopal successions are debatable, Eusebius tells us that he was the second bishop after Peter in Antioch during the reign of Trajan.<note: Eusebius, Hist. eccl., 3.36.> Polycarp makes a passing reference to Ignatius’ martyrdom along with other believers’ martyrdom in his letter to the Philippians.<note: Polycarp, Phil., 9.> His see was located in Syrian Antioch, and he was arrested for some offense connected to his religion. The precise nature of this condemnation is uncertain especially given recent studies which underscore the fact that there was little persecution occurring in the region of Antioch as evidenced by the absence of reference to such in Ignatius’ own letters. Trevett argues that the peace in Antioch mentioned in Ignatius’ letters<note: Ignatius, Phld. 10.1; Smyrn. 11.1; Pol. 7.1.> is best explained by a cessation of strife in the church at Antioch and quite possibly a strife brought about by Ignatius’ own personality.<note: Christine Trevett, A Study of Ignatius of Antioch in Syria and Asia (Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), 56-66.> Cummings echoes this sentiment.<note: Owen F. Cummings, Eucharistic Doctors: A Theological History (New York: Paulist Press, 2005), 9.> Scholars debate the circumstances surrounding the arrest and condemnation of Ignatius. On the one hand, he could have appealed to Rome much like Paul, if he was a citizen of Rome. On the other hand, this hardly fits the context of his letters where he speaks of himself as already condemned and expecting to be thrown to the beasts – uncharacteristic of a Roman citizen, imploring the Roman believers not to intervene on his behalf. The alternate explanation has usually been to explain his being sent to Rome as a donation to the Emperor for the Roman games. Davies believes both to be unlikely, and that the ultimate reason to send Ignatius to Rome was to rid the area of a troublesome character.<note: Steven L. Davies, “The Predicament of Ignatius of Antioch,” Vigiliae Christianae 30: 178.> The date of Ignatius’ death is not without some mystery, but recent discussions by both Trevett and Davies place it between 110 and 115. Davies places the terminus ante quem for Ignatius’ death at 113,<note: Davies’ argument is rather baroque, resting on an intricate reconstruction of the administrations of several Roman and territorial bureaucrats. (ibid., 178.)> whereas Trevett places it at 115.<note: In contradistinction to Davies, Trevett selects her date based upon the date of the Antiochene earthquake of 115. (Christine Trevett, “Ignatius ‘To the Romans’ and I Clement LIV-LVI,” Vigiliae Christianae 43: 36.)> The exact details of Ignatius’ death are not to be found in any reliable sources. That he did indeed die a martyr’s death seems somewhat attested to by Polycarp, although this is not altogether without question. <note: Polycarp, Phil., 9. (Cf. 13).>
The Time and Occasion of the Letters
The letters of Ignatius were written during his travels from Antioch to Rome. The number of these letters has been of some controversy. Most scholars speak of three recensions with respect to the Ignatian correspondence: the long (L), the middle (M) and the short (S). The middle recension is the accepted norm for scholarship today. It hearkens back to the original seven letters mentioned by Eusebius.<note: Eusebius, Hist. eccl., 3.36> Again, Schoedel’s explanation is very beneficial for understanding the history of the controversy.<note: William R. Schoedel, “Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch,” ANRW 27.1: 286-292.> Of the middle recension, the letters are divided into two groups determined by provenance. The first group consists of letters written from Smyrna to congregations in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, and Rome. The second group of letters was written from Troas and written to the congregations at Philadelphia and Smyrna. A personal letter to Polycarp at Smyrna is included with this last group.<note: Eusebius, Hist. eccl., 3.36.>
In his letters, Ignatius addresses either conditions with which he was familiar in his own church or those issues of which he has knowledge pertaining to the churches to which the letters are addressed. He stresses unity in the face of heresy. This unity is preserved by means of submission to ecclesiastical authorities and an intensified serious practice of the Eucharist. Ignatius also says much about his own view of the spiritual life in the context of his impending martyrdom. There seems to be connection between the attainment of unity in the churches; his martyrdom; and that which, for him, it emulates, the Eucharist.<note: Madeleine Grace, “The Ponderings of Ignatius of Antioch and John Chrisostom on the Great Gift of the Eucharist,” Diakonia 34: 98. Bradshaw and Cummings also express this view in various ways and in various places in their works on the Eucharist.> The mystical nature of Ignatius’ theology cannot be denied. In fact, many seem willing to identify him with the same sort of mysticism that can be found in both John and Paul. For Ignatius, the Eucharist plays a vital role in the maintenance of orthodoxy under one bishop with heretics either excluding themselves or being actively excluded by the orthodox community.<note: Ignatius. Smyrn., 7.1-2.>
The identity of the heretics has been questioned for some time. In his letter to the Philadelphians, Ignatius warns against whose who “should interpret Judaism”<note: Ignatius, Phld., 6.1 (Ehrman, LCL).> to the believers there. The passage begins in chapter six in the letter to the Philadelphians, and extends through chapter nine. Again, in his letter to the Magnesians, Ignatius warns and reproves Judaizers in chapters eight through ten. There seems, however to be little evidence of this sort of heresy to be extant in the vicinity and congregations of any of the other churches. Ignatius also addresses a form of docetism. It is perhaps to this sort of heresy that his famous passages on the Eucharist carry seem to be directed. The letters to the Ephesians, Trallians and Smyrnaeans all contain evidence of this heresy in these areas as Ignatius proceeds to argue against their views. His letter to the Magnesians gives some evidence for Docetism being present there as well. The questions remain, as Goulder frames it, were Philadelphia and Magnesia the only churches plagued by Judaizing? Secondly, how broad was the problem with Docetism in Asia? Thirdly, were the heresies held by one and the same homogenous species of heretic – some form of judaizing-docetists? Goulder proposes an actual identity for this final suggestion. He believes that what is at issue with Ignatius is Ebionitism. The heretics, to Goulder’s reckoning, were Ebionites; but there are other views.<note: Here and in several other places one can trace the lineage of this debate. Those who hold to a single judaistic-docetic sect are Zahn, Lightfoot, Bauer, and Barrett. Schoedel, Donahue, Meinhold hold to a two group view while Paulsen “sits on the fence.” Trevett holds to a three group view. See note 10 in this citation for a full bibliography. (Michael D. Goulder, “Ignatius’ ‘Docetists,’” Vigiliae Christianae 53: 16-30.)> These heresies along with the ever nearing death of Ignatius combine to provide an interesting thrust to the message of Ignatius. It is our task to examine just one of the implications of this message.