Missive to Magnesia

St. Ignatius of Antioch implores the good Christians of Magnesia not “to be led astray by wrong views or by outmoded tales that count for nothing."

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[Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a multi-part series on St. Ignatius of Antioch]

While there is no record regarding the length of his stay in Smyrna, nor a word about hotel arrangements (Was he put in first class, perhaps?), there is no disputing the fact as to why St. Ignatius of Antioch was there. Owing to his status as a condemned criminal bound for execution in Rome, he was stuck there because, quite simply, the emperor Trajan signed his death warrant in Antioch, where he had been bishop for years and years, and straightaway had him shipped off to the capitol by way of Smyrna.   

And the charge? Refusing to worship the household gods, which was a capital offense and, given his high episcopal profile, punishable by death in Rome’s Colosseum. The wild beasts will soon enough be tearing him to shreds, but the journey thereto takes time, and so he and the detachment of soldiers to which he is chained (“ten leopards,” he calls them, “who only get worse the better you treat them”) will need to stop somewhere. So why not a coastal town along the northern route that leads most easily to Rome? 

This will explain, by the way, why four of the letters written by Ignatius are postmarked, as it were, from Smyrna—first the Ephesians, followed by the Magnesians, the Trallians, and then, finally, the Romans. We’ve looked at the first, so it’s time to move on to the next, which is Ignatius’ Letter to the Church at Magnesia, a town south of Smyrna and about fifteen miles from Ephesus. So, what’s this one all about?

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Well, maybe a word or two first about the town itself. What is this place and why is it called Magnesia? This is a serious study of a saint, mind you, so one should not be frivolous, but has it got anything to do with Milk of Magnesia? It does, actually, that being the word for a certain iron ore discovered in the area by the Greeks, the “magnetic” properties of which attract other elements of iron. And so, to make a long story short: from all that iron, a certain magnesium hydroxide solution may be derived for use as an antacid and laxative. There you have it.

As for Magnesia itself, it is very ancient indeed, the Greeks having founded it some twenty-four centuries ago, filling it with temples to their various gods, including Zeus and Artemis, along with a stadium or two where festivals and games took place in honor of these domestic deities, on whose continued protection the various cities of the empire depended.

But, of course, like all the gods of the ancient world, they will not last, their expiration dates having been determined from all eternity by the coming of Christ and the transformations wrought by His renewal of all things human. “The temples of the gods,” says Christopher Dawson, “are the most enduring works of man.” But these will not endure. They and the whole pagan universe built upon their worship will, like the great god Pan himself, be forced to flee, leaving Christianity to preside over all that is left.  

The world of classical antiquity, in other words, is about to be baptized by the Blood of Jesus Christ. Not all at once, of course, which accounts for the length, and ferocity, of the pagan refusal to bend the knee to the one true God, Lord of history and Savior of the world. But it cannot persist in idolatry forever. In the meantime, it is responsible for the predicament in which men like Ignatius of Antioch find themselves.

So, he sends this letter to the fledging community of Christians living in Magnesia, some of whom, including their bishop, have come to greet him in Smyrna, where, not long before, a similar delegation from Ephesus had arrived to pay their respects. He is a young bishop named Damas, whom Ignatius greets with genuine delight and esteem (“He’s a credit to God!” he exclaims), along with others all equally impressive. “You ought to respect him,” he reminds the Magnesians, “as fully as you respect the authority of God.” In doing so, he adds, “it is to the Father of Jesus Christ, who is everybody’s bishop,” that you are really in fact paying deference and homage. 

What it all comes down to in the end is the question of identity, of knowing who we are—where do we begin, where do we leave off—and acting on the things we know:

We have not only to be called Christians, but to be Christians. It is the same thing as calling a man a bishop and then doing everything in disregard of him.

Accordingly, two sundering choices stand before us. And now that we know “everything is coming to an end, and we stand before this choice—death or life—and everyone will go ‘to his own place’ (Acts 1:25),” we must live in such a way that the choice we make is resolutely on the side of life, of God and the Son whom He sent among us to die. “Run off—all of you—to one temple of God,” he tells them, “to one altar, to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, while still remaining one with him, and returned to him.” 

It is an impassioned appeal, straight from the heart, in which he implores the good Christians of Magnesia not “to be led astray by wrong views or by outmoded tales that count for nothing. For if we still go on observing Judaism,” and here the polemic intensifies in such a way that, for some, the characterization that follows may prove too painful for ears stuffed with ecumenical wax to hear, “we admit we never received grace. The divine prophets themselves lived Christ Jesus’ way.” Isn’t that why they faced persecution, because they were so convicted by grace that they needed to proclaim Christ to the world? “How, then, can we live without him when even the prophets, who were his disciples by the Spirit, awaited him as their teacher?”   

There is the warhead, it seems to me, and one has simply got to choose. Will it be Judaism or Jesus? Ignatius does not hesitate for a moment in making his choice; and thus mounting his argument against the Judaizing efforts of some, he presses on to the inexorable conclusion:  

Get rid of the bad yeast—it has grown stale and sour—and be changed into new yeast, that is, into Jesus Christ. Be salted in him, so that none of you go bad, for your smell will give you away. It is monstrous to talk Jesus Christ and to live like a Jew. For Christianity did not believe in Judaism, but Judaism in Christianity. 

A perfect bullseye, I’d say.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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