On the Trail of Ignatius

The life of St. Ignatius of Antioch was connected to other great figures in the early Church, not least being St. John the Evangelist.

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

There were altogether seven letters sent by Ignatius of Antioch, its sainted bishop and martyr, to various communities of the faithful lying between Antioch and Rome—the latter, of course, being the place of rendezvous where ravenous beasts eagerly awaited his arrival, which took place, so far as we know, in the year A.D. 107.  

The first four were written in Smyrna, a large and bustling Greek city located along the Aegean coast, some thirty-five miles north of Ephesus, Rome’s provincial capital and an important link in the trade route joining the Aegean with the East. That it had also been the setting for St. Paul’s missionary initiatives, plus the later activity of St. John the Divine, lends it a special aura.  But it was in Antioch that the name Christian first surfaced, becoming the designated term for the followers of Jesus, one of whom, Ignatius—called Theopohorus, one who is filled with God—remains the central figure in the story.

Both Ephesus and Smyrna, by the way, along with Philadelphia, were among the seven churches expressly identified by the Apostle John, author of Revelation, the last of the New Testament books, written near the end of the first century. Banished by the Emperor Domitian to the Isle of Patmos, he writes as an old man, no longer the youthful John whose head rested upon the breast of the Lord. “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day,” he tells us. 

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And I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” (Revelation 1:10-11)

Could it be, then, that Ignatius knew John? While there is no internal evidence from the correspondence itself to suggest that either one knew the other, on the authority of St. Jerome, who lived in Bethlehem two centuries later and translated the Bible from Greek to Latin, one might imagine otherwise. “John the Apostle,” he records in his Chronicon, “survived all the way to the time of Trajan; after whom his notable disciples were Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Ignatius of Antioch.”

Is it not at least likely, in the circumstance, that the disciple (i.e., Ignatius) might have known something of the man whose disciple he was (i.e., John)? All of which transpiring, let’s not forget, during the reign of an emperor named Trajan, who did nothing to end the banishment of the one, nor to prevent the death of the other. In fact, he gleefully signed the warrant for his execution on a state visit to Antioch.       

And then, of course, there is Eusebius, one of whose chapters on The History of the Church is about Ignatius, his life and the letters he wrote, both of which Eusebius finds entirely credible. Does he connect the same dots? He does.

But the most telling testimony of all has got to be from Irenaeus, who provides the actual paper trail—tracing everything back from Ignatius to Polycarp, through the Apostle John, to the Person of Christ Himself. In other words, that because John knew Polycarp—having, after all, ordained him Bishop of Smyrna—and that he (Polycarp) and Ignatius knew each other (indeed, one of Ignatius’ letters is addressed to him), it seems entirely plausible that John and Ignatius would have known each other as well. 

The figures on the chessboard are not so numerous, nor the area of possible intersection so vast, that it is wholly unlikely for a few good men of holiness and learning to stumble upon one another from time to time. Especially if God and His grace are orchestrating these moves from a higher altitude.

And, to be sure, there is the fact that Irenaeus himself, the single most formative figure in the development of Western theology, did most certainly know Polycarp. After all, Irenaeus was born in Smyrna around the time when Polycarp became its bishop. As a young man, he became his student, later on moving to Lyons in southern Gaul, where he became its bishop and, not long after, its martyr.  

Concerning Polycarp, his great mentor and teacher, he writes as follows:  

Polycarp was not only instructed by the apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna…always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp. (Against the Heresies, Book III, Ch. 4)

Let us assume, then, that what the lawyers like to call “establishing the chain of evidence,” which is to say, the physical details that connect one thing with another, appears now to be in place.

So, what is Ignatius, a condemned prisoner bound for execution in Rome, doing in Smyrna? Forgive the flippancy, but was there no direct flight from Antioch to Rome? Why the stopover in Smyrna? The answer is obvious. Smyrna, for all its size and its pretentions to self-importance, is nothing more than a place of respite, a halfway house, as it were, following the harsh rigors of a journey that first began in Antioch, a city far to the east. 

All right, so why have they stopped? The answer, I would imagine, is because at some point they’ll need to water the horses, feed and reprovision the men, including Ignatius, whom presumably they are expected to keep alive lest the wild beasts be deprived of a meal at the other end. It will not do to reach Rome and be saddled with a dead man. 

But not only at Smyrna have they scheduled a stop. Because there is to be one final stop, along the northern route, that is, which will carry them right to the edge of Asia. It is the port city of Troas, situated along the Aegean, the nearest possible point of entry to Europe, beyond which lies a world where reason is revered, where truth and mind are real categories. In short, where logos, not mythos, is made welcome among men. 

And there, amid the precincts of Europe, the receptivity of nature to grace, reason to revelation, is greater. “I am convinced,” writes Joseph Ratzinger in his landmark Introduction to Christianity, a book so captivating that no sooner had Paul VI read it than he made him a bishop, “that at bottom it was no mere accident that the Christian message, in the period in which it was taking shape, first entered the Greek world and there merged with the enquiry into understanding, into truth.”         

Why else would we be told about Paul, who, in the Book of Acts (16:6-10), will be forbidden by the Holy Spirit “to speak the word in Asia,” and thus be prevented from going into Bithynia to preach? Unless, of course, that same Spirit had urged him elsewhere—indeed, “as a divinely arranged necessity,” says Ratzinger—into the Hellenistic world, where the seed of the Gospel awaits a yet greater harvest than the mythic bins of Asia can contain?

Moved thus by a strange compulsion to leave Troas and the cities and towns of Asia—the precise impetus for which being a vision in which “a man of Macedonia was standing beseeching him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us,’”—Paul and his companions set sail for Europe, into that very region where the grace of God has drawn them. 

And in his turn, not too long after, Ignatius will follow, bound likewise for Rome where a glorious fulfillment awaits him as well. But not before certain letters need to be written…


  • 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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