Early Christian History

St Ignatius of Antioch

St Ignatius was one of the Apostolic Fathers, those Church Fathers who presumably were associated directly, or perhaps indirectly, with the apostles. He lived in the late 1st century CE and into the very early 2nd century; tradition has it that he died by being devoured by animals (e.g. lions) in the Coliseum in Rome, during the reign of Emperor Trajan. He is perhaps the most famous non-apostle early Christian martyr, and his writings (a body of correspondence) set the stage for early Christian beliefs.

Tradition and Reality

Unfortunately, Ignatius lived so early in Christianity’s history that reliable information about him is sparse. Also, his history has been clouded by subsequent Christian tradition. A large number of letters are attributed to him, but only seven are considered “genuine.”

Even these seven letters, however, have some problems. Portions were written by a turn-of-the-second-century Syrian, but these are interspersed with later additions (interpolations). Exactly which portions are interpolations is a matter of debate among scholars, however, that there are a significant number, in each of the letters, is not in doubt.

In many ways, then, we cannot even be certain there was an Ignatius of Antioch. Subsequent writers do mention him, though, so it’s likely that there was a Syrian named Ignatius who was an early Christian and who corresponded with other Christians.

The High Tradition

In what one might call his “high tradition,” Ignatius was apprehended in his native Antioch, interrogated by Emperor Trajan himself, and sent to Rome for public execution. Along the way he stopped in a number of cities to visit with Christians there. He spent an especially long time in Smyrna, a city in western Anatolia (Asia Minor, modern Turkey), where his colleague and friend Polycarp was bishop.

Along the way, Ignatius wrote letters to these congregations, generally imploring them to keep the faith. He also wrote a letter which was sent ahead to the Christians of Rome, which among other things begged them not to interfere with his approaching execution. Along the way he was treated brutally by his 10 Roman guards.

This tradition is based upon the seven letters, as well as others, mentions of him by other early Christians, and by a medieval document, Martyrium Ignatii. The Martyrium describes Ignatius’ apprehension, trial, and interrogation by Trajan himself, who is not satisfied with his answers and orders him executed in Rome.

There are, of course, a number of problems with this scenario. The same Romans who would treat him brutally, would not apparently have wanted to do him the favor of allowing him to spend time with Christians around the Mediterreanean on his way to Rome; especially to spend months in Smyrna with his friend Polycarp. Furthermore, such a long and elaborate trip halfway across the Roman Empire would have been expensive — especially with all of the lengthy stopovers.

Furthermore, that Trajan personally interrogated Ignatius, and then ordered his execution based upon his Christianity, doesn't seem likely, given what we know of the Emperor. In his correspondence with the Younger Pliny, then governor of Bithynia (a province also in Anatolia), we see that 1) Trajan appears never to have heard of Christians before, that they’d been unknown to him in the west; and 2) he ordered that they not be rooted out, and executed only if exposed and then only if they refused to make obeisance to the Roman deities.

Finally, we know that Romans did not ship prisoners of ordinary status around the Empire for execution. The only prisoners sent to Rome in this way, were either treasonous aristocrats, or captured foreign rulers (e.g. Vercingetorix, the king of Gaul defeated by Julius Caesar). This was done for the largely ceremonial purpose of allowing the Roman Senate to pass judgement on the condemned.

While scholars dismiss the Martyrium as a fable, many accept the long-trip tradition. This flies in the face of plausibility — although it cannot be absolutely ruled out.

Ignatius and the Martyrdom Ethic

It’s mainly from Ignatius that Christianity adopted a “martyrdom ethic”; that is, that martyrdom is the highest expression of Christian faith, and a certain path to sainthood. It is, of course, only natural that such an idea would creep into Christianity, since it was founded upon Christ, who sacrificed himself for the salvation of humanity. What better way to be his disciple, then, than to follow in his footsteps?

In his letters, Ignatius appears to revel in his coming martyrdom, many times expressing his joy at being able to express his faith in the ultimate manner — by accepting his own death for Christ’s sake. Moreover, he suggests that this is something other Christians should aspire to.

It’s noteworthy to observe that Ignatius came from Antioch. The pre-Markan “passion narrative,” which together with the lost gospel Q became the gospel of Mark, originated in Syria as well — and that had been a tale of Christ’s willing martyrdom.

From the moment they began circulating, the letters of Ignatius inspired Christians and created among them not only an adoration of martyrs, but a tradition of persecution. While they were not popular everywhere, and sometimes did suffer hardships such as ostracision, harassment, etc., most all of this was local in nature, not systemic, and not across the Empire. Only for a few years in the 3rd century, especially during the reign of Emperor Diocletian in the last few years of that century, were Christians systematically persecuted by the Roman state.

After the Edict of Milan (313) in which Emperor Constantine declared tolerance for Christianity, Christians were free from the specter even of limited persecution — yet they retained a notion of being oppressed, nonetheless. (This makes some sense, since after all, the Edict of Milan did not instantly change the minds of all Imperial citizen who didn’t care for Christians.) Still, this persisted, and when Christians began to turn on one another — as they did in Alexandria when the Arian heresy broke out — this was cemented in the form of internecine persecution.

The veneration of martyrs was sometimes carried to extremes. This was the impetus, for example, behind the Donatist controversy.

Subsequent Christian history claimed that the persecutions were much more pervasive and systematic than was actually the case. To hear some of the stories, one would think that converting to Christianity was an automatic death-sentence; but we know this is not the case! Christianity thrived in some places, mostly in cosmopolitan parts of the east.

In most of the traditional churches, those having standards for elevating the deceased to sainthood (e.g. the Catholic and Orthodox churches), martyrdom is an “automatic lsquo;in’.” Other sorts of potential saints must withstand investigation of their lives, have confirmed miracles in their names, etc.; but none of this applies to martyrs. All that’s needed is demonstration that the person died for Christianity, and sainthood is achieved.

Ignatius of Antioch’s Enduring Tradition

Whether or not he lived, or exactly what he did or didn’t write, Ignatius had a profound influence on nascent Christianity; his writings formed the basis of the “Martyrdom Ethic” which became pervasive in Christianity, and led to the legends of profound, systematic, and widespread persecution under the Romans, which exist today.

Arguably, too, it led to a more esoteric “persecution complex” that has plagued Christianity. Many heretical movements felt persecuted and pointed to the suffering of their leaders as demonstration of the veracity of their beliefs. Also, in the United States today, many fundamentalist Christians have developed a persecution complex of their own; one can see this in, for example, claims that not teaching creationism in public schools is a way of abolishing Christianity.

Most of this is, of course, irrational and unfounded. Nevertheless, it is expected, given the foundation of Christianity, on a Christ who gave himself up for all.

Go back to Early Christian History menu.