Like the twin stars Castor and Pollux, two martyred saints shine brightly in the firmament of the early Christian dreamscape – Ignatius Theophorus ("God bearer") and Polycarp ("Many fruits").
Purportedly, one was bishop of Antioch, the centre of Christianity in Roman Syria. The other bishop of Smyrna, the centre of Christianity in Roman Asia. Together they span the void that exists between a Palestinian pageant set in the mid-years of the 1st century and the reality of a Church fabricating a noble history a century and a half later.
Each luminary lived to a great age after a forty-year episcopate characterized by absolutely nothing worthy of a comment in any religious or secular history. At the close of their purported lives each made a highly symbolic journey to Rome, the prelude to a glorious and theatrical martyrdom that would echo down the ages.
Neither was an original mind, able to expatiate on "Christology" or the Divine Will. On the contrary, both were – surprisingly – dogmatic "Catholics" in an age when the future orthodoxy was indiscernible within a panoply of contending sun-god cults. These heroes of the faith exist solely through fake "letters" and bogus martyrologies, the former prosaic and devoid of any memorable sentiment, the latter utterly fantastic and unworldly.
In today's world of Christian apologetics the phantom saint Ignatius heads the list of "witnesses to witnesses":
"Ignatius either personally knew the apostles or was closely related to their associates, so his writings likely reflect what the apostles taught." – Habermas (2004, p326).
"Yamauchi ... cited the seven letters of Ignatius as being among the most important of the writings of the apostolic fathers. 'He emphasized both the deity and the humanity of Jesus ... he stressed the historical underpinnings of Christianity ... truly persecuted under Pilate, truly crucified, truly raised from the dead ...' " – Strobel (1998. p89).
Not only does Ignatius vouch for the teachings of the apostles, he also witnesses the willingness of the disciples to "suffer for their beliefs", one of the purported "proofs" of the Resurrection.
"Having seen the risen Jesus they were so encouraged that they despised death", quotes Habermas approvingly from the epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnians.
Yet at best, Ignatius can only be a witness to the belief of others – there is no suggestion that he ever saw an apostle die. The one apostle he might conceivably have met, John, supposedly died of old age!
But what if Ignatius-cum-Polycarp is a demonstrable fabrication, the work of 2nd century Catholic Orthodoxy, seeding its own beliefs
into an earlier era as "evidence" for a rebuttal to the challenge of Gnosticism, what then of this "witness to Jesus"?
The God bearer – Ignatius "Theophorus"
"Of his origin, birth, and early life we know nothing at all ... a tradition credits him with having been a disciple of Apostles; but any further information about his early career is non-existent ... The remainder of his history is scarcely less obscure ... An impenetrable silence lies over the whole forty years of his pastorate." – Early Christian Writings, p63-64.
"We are entirely ignorant of the events which led to his trial and condemnation."
– Foakes Jackson, History of the Christian Church to A.D. 461, p57/8.
The "life" of Ignatius presents us with a remarkable paradox: the eminence of an unknown bishop. Only an alleged martyrdom and a collection of letters purportedly written on his final journey lifts "Ignatius" from the void. Even his martyrdom, in fact, is never detailed but only anticipated.
The letters of Ignatius, however, were faithfully preserved – an oddity in itself if they really belong to a time of apocalyptic anticipation and the world "passing away". From them the early church constructed the martyr's "final journey" and added a glorious finale in the Colosseum at Rome. More importantly, the epistles of Ignatius stand as crucial witness to the claims of the Catholic Church to an apostolic foundation and a purity of its faith.
After apparently some forty years of pastoral service, with not a whisper of episcopal preeminence, Ignatius blazed into glory, casting his radiance across the eastern Roman empire. Remarkably, in the interlude between condemnation and execution, Ignatius was able to set down for posterity all the essential dogmas of Catholicism. Indeed, at a time when the epistles of Paul were "unknown" it seems a collection of Ignatian letters was a prized possession (Polycarp to the Philippians, 13), even before the bishop "won" his cherished martyr's crown.
Curiously, the "persecution" that sealed Ignatius' fate elicits scarcely a word from the martyr-elect. Ad nauseam he speaks of his impending execution as a "reward", a "prize" a "great joy". He says nothing of other members of his Antiochian church (did no one else suffer?) or of the circumstances of his trial. The primary target in every letter (with the exception of Romans) is heresy – which clearly suggests composition at a time, not of persecution, but of fierce doctrinal challenge.
"I entreat you not to nourish yourselves on anything but Christian fare, and to have no truck with the alien herbs of heresy. There are men who in the very act of assuring you of their good faith will mingle poison with Jesus Christ." – Ign. Trallians, 6.
"Never allow yourselves to be led astray by the teachings and time-worn fables of another people ... His death ... though some deny it, is the very mystery which has moved us to become believers." – Ign. Magnesians, 8-9.
"A man's subversive doctrines defile the God-given Faith for which Jesus Christ was crucified. Such a wretch in his uncleanness is bound for the unquenchable fire, and so is anyone else who gives him a hearing." – Ign. Ephesians, 16.
"Yet there are some who in their blindness still reject Him ... They refuse to be persuaded by the prophets, or the Law of Moses, or even in our own times by the Gospel – still less by the personal sufferings of so many of our people ... They even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our saviour Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins." – Ign. Smyrnians, 5-7.
"You must not let yourself be upset by those who put forward their perverse teachings so plausibly." – Ign. Polycarp, 3.1.
"See that you hold aloof from all disunion and misguided teaching; and where your bishop is, follow him like sheep ... The adherents of a schismatic can never inherit the kingdom of God. Those who wander in outlandish byways of doctrine must forfeit all part in the Lord's Passion." – Ign. Philadelphians, 2-3.
The "exceptional" letter Romans, perversely, congratulates the Roman church for having eradicated every tarnish of heresy, scarcely an accurate description of the Roman church from the early years of the 2nd century – and how on earth could the bishop of Antioch have been so sure of that?!
"To you who are bodily and spiritually at one with His commandments, whole-heartedly filled with the grace of God, and purified from every alien and discolouring stain."
Romans raises an interesting question of its own: Who is racing ahead of the prison party and able to outpace soldiers on imperial business?!
The character that emerges from these "final letters" is an unconvincing brew of towering humility and diffidence laced with imperious intolerance and bombast. Ignatius, describing himself as the "last and least" of the Syrian church (Trallians 13, Smyrnians 11), "fears" he may not be worthy of martyrdom. Yet he speaks with the "voice of God" (Philadelphians 7) and only his status as a "condemned prisoner" prevents him "using the peremptory tone of an Apostle" ! (Trallians 3)
Although Ignatius avers his "inferiority" to the congregations to whom he writes he cannot resist boasting of a superior "ability to comprehend celestial secrets and angelic hierarchies, the disposition of the heavenly powers, and much else both seen and unseen" (Trallians 5). He describes even his chains as "lordly fetters"! (Smyrnians 11).
But what do we really know about Ignatius? Secular history is silent. Surprise, surprise.
The fable examined
According to church "tradition" Ignatius was the
child picked up by Jesus noted in Mark 9.36 ("And he took a child and set him in the midst of them.") Supposedly, Ignatius became bishop of Antioch about the year 69 – the year of Polycarp's birth. Yet it is Polycarp, forty years Ignatius' junior, who is said to have been a disciple of "John the Apostle". Then again, in some versions of the yarn, both Ignatius and Polycarp are said to have been taught by the apostles, "fellow students", even though one was already a bishop when the other was still a child!
Uncertainty surrounds the ordination of Ignatius as bishop of Antioch. Eusebius manages to maintain that Ignatius was second in succession to both Euodius (HE 3.22) and Peter (HE 3.36). One tradition has it that Peter ordained Ignatius. However, the Apostolic Constitutions, dreamed up in the late 4th century (a collection of rules and doctrines purportedly handed down by the twelve apostles to the nascent church), in Book 7.4, maintains rather that Paul ordained Ignatius. If true, this would remove the blessed apostle of Tarsus from the clutches of Nero and martyrdom in Rome – and create a mystery as to why Paul says nothing of his star acolyte.
The highly localized "persecution" which determined Ignatius' fate is quite unknown to secular history and Trajan, the purported "persecutor", was a benign and tolerant ruler, despite the best efforts by Christians to rubbish his reputation. Indeed, certain of Ignatius' own comments could undermine the claim that there had been a persecution at all. Arguably, a sectarian rift has been healed:
"It would be most fitting and would do much honour to God if your church was to appoint someone to go as His ambassador to Syria with your felicitations on the restoration of peace, on the recovery of their proper numbers, and on their re-establishment as a corporate body again." – Ign. Smyrnians, 11.
The imperial progression of the noble bishop of Antioch across Roman Asia, complete with a military escort of ten soldiers, beggars belief:
"The churches that have been my hosts in the name of Jesus Christ also send their love. It was no common wayfarer's welcome that I had from them, for even churches that were not naturally on my route at all came and escorted me from one city to the next." – Ign. Romans, 9.
Is this a convict in chains – or a grandee on a tour of inspection?
"I was deeply impressed by your bishop's self-effacing nature ... I am not saying, though, that I found you in any sort of actual division; it was only the filtering out of a few dregs." – Ign. Philadelphians, 3.
"They tell me your character is beyond all praise ... I can foresee the devil's snares ahead ... Give heed to what I say, so that I may not rise up in evidence against you one day with this letter." – Ign. Trallians, 1,8,12.
"Your actions are all done in Jesus Christ. All the same, I did hear of a visit paid to you by certain men from another place, whose teachings were pernicious ... Regarding the rest of mankind, you should pray for them unceasingly ... Do your best then to meet more often ... " – Ign. Ephesians, 8-13.
Is this journey, perhaps, a parody of the progress of Hadrian in the opposite direction, conducted in 129? Or is it, possibly, a feint retracing of the Pauline adventure trail (Ignatius hopes as much in Ephesians 12)? Can we seriously believe that the convict-bishop of Antioch sauntered in triumph across Anatolia to a universal acclaim?
But in any event, even the journey to martyrdom is woefully incomplete. We learn nothing of the excursion until the entourage is already in the heart of Asia Minor and nothing at all of events in Rome where Ignatius is said to have met his fate. It is, almost certainly, because of the inadequacies of the original Ignatian yarn that the Church felt impelled to augment it with another. A twin star circles in orbit about Ignatius, a bishop named Polycarp, no great letter writer but a martyr's martyr, who makes his exit with superlative humility and a heroic forbearance ... well, to die for.
Anomalies of the Ignatian Grand Tour
The route that Ignatius might have taken from Antioch to Troas in the far west of Roman Asia is entirely conjecture. It is generally thought to have been overland although the imaginative 10th century "Martyrdom of Ignatius" records a sea voyage: "he came down from Antioch to Seleucia, from which place he set sail". But then this late and fraudulent testimony also reports verbatim the conversation that the saint supposedly had with emperor Trajan!
Well of course, in fiction, you can write what you like. Awkwardly, Ignatius himself writes of his visit to Philadelphia, ninety miles from the sea, and of being hurried along by his military escort from city
to city. But far from hurrying, the Ignatian entourage evidently moved at a ponderous pace, allowing a surprising number of convenient encounters and reunions along the way.
Was there a fast-track, one wonders, for Christian emissaries, allowing them to outpace the imperial train – or were Ignatius and his entourage sauntering along like retired tourists?
• At Smyrna the purported letter writing began. Bizarrely, the churches of the Meander valley (by-passed by the prison detail by about 100 miles) "had heard" of the transportation of Ignatius long before he reached the region.
"For as soon as you heard that I was on my way from Syria, as a prisoner for the Name and the Hope we all share ... you were all eagerness to meet me." – Ign. Smyrnians 1.
Clearly this fast-track "news source" also knew the official itinerary for representatives were mustered in Smyrna to meet and greet the great man. The logistical coordination of such deputations would be impressive if it were not all a palpable nonsense. One party, led by Bishop Onesimus, came from Ephesus, forty miles away. The church of Magnesia-on-the-Meander, which apparently sent a delegation led by Bishop Damas, lay fifteen miles beyond Ephesus, requiring a journey of about four days. The contingent from Tralles, forty miles beyond Ephesus, led by Polybius, faced a journey of ninety miles to Smyrna and would have taken about a week to make the pilgrimage.
All this on the supposition that the prison train would dally all the while at Smyrna and that the delegates would gain access to the prisoner when they arrived! Yet the captive bishop refers to his military trustees in the harshest terms:
"From Syria even to Rome I fight with wild beasts, by land and sea, by night and by day, being bound amidst ten leopards, even a company of soldiers, who only grow worse when they are kindly treated."
– Ign. Romans, 5.
Did the "ten fierce leopards" that guarded the bishop really acquiesce in a prolonged halt, a plethora of sermons, prayer meetings and letter-writings? Yet it seems the soldiers afforded Ignatius the opportunity to meet and greet Christian worthies every step of the way. A curious imprisonment indeed.
• At Troas, the story repeats itself with only slight changes. Ignatius, now attended by Burrhus, a deacon from Ephesus, "received word" from distant Antioch. Apparently, "Philo, a deacon of Cilicia" and "Rheus Agathopous, one of the elect" had been in hot pursuit of the official party all the way from Syria. They brought the good news that the persecution had abated and that "peace had been restored" to the church.
The chronology is baffling. How long did the prison detail mark time at Troas? Evidently, it was the churches of western Asia Minor – learning of the "persecution" long before they encountered Ignatius himself – that had, through prayer, been instrumental in bringing the persecution to a close:
"News has come to me that, in response to your prayers and your loving sympathy in Christ Jesus, peace now reigns in the church at Antioch in Syria." - Ign. Philadelphians, 10.
How on earth did the church in Antioch know the "persecution" was at an end? How could they be certain? And yet there could have been little delay in the despatch of Philo and Agathapous. Nor was the journey one to be undertaken lightly. On foot, from Antioch to Troas was almost a thousand miles and would have taken any messenger at least two months, even using the new Roman roads. Could the Antiochians really have been so sure that their messengers could catch up the illustrious prisoner? The yarn is ridiculous.
The "good news from Antioch" is an element of pure theatre, setting up the next stage of the improbable tale. Bizarrely, by the time that Ignatius writes to the Philadelphians the messengers have joined the bishop in "preaching God's word" – surely a liberty beyond all reason for a prisoner condemned for his proselytizing? The news brought no reprieve for the would-be martyr and yet Ignatius was so elated he called on the churches of western Asia Minor to send delegates to Antioch to "congratulate" the brethren on their new found "peace".
Given the expense and dangers of such long distant travel, what purpose did this serve? The only victim was Ignatius, still alive but under sentence of death. How could a celebration be in order when the martyrdom – the crux of the whole story – had yet to occur?
It was, apparently, the "Divine will" (not a Roman officer) that urged Ignatius across the Aegean and onto Neapolis and his eventual fate. Ludicrously, the captive bishop urges Polycarp "to write ahead to the churches along the route." If the imminent martyrdom of Ignatius merited such attention it certainly demonstrated how exceptional was such an event.
The martyrdom of Ignatius – getting better with every re-telling
"The reasons for his condemnation, or of the specific charges laid against him, no record survives."
– Maxwell Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, p64.
The execution of Ignatius supposedly occurred during the reign of Trajan, which could mean anytime between 98 and 117. A favoured date is 107/8 (the 11th year of Trajan, as cited by Eusebius in his Chronicle). Another favourite is 115, the year when a terrifying earthquake destroyed much of Antioch and Ignatius could have been blamed for the disaster (a claim made by some early churchmen).
As it happens, at the time when Ignatius may have taken his final bow the emperor was preoccupied with a major campaign against Parthia which taxed the resources even of the Roman state. At such a time, why would the emperor eschew the perfectly serviceable local arena for Ignatius's execution and instead, assign a troop of ten guards to traipse their captive the long way round the eastern empire and back to Rome?
In fact, Trajan's legate, Hadrian, had been holding court at Antioch, perhaps from as early as 113, marshalling and supplying the army with which the emperor would careen through Armenia and Mesopotamia. Was the imperial court really the least bit concerned with a marginal sect of religious innovators?
In his History of the Church, Eusebius introduces Ignatius in book 3.36, saying he became "well-known" at the time Polycarp was bishop in Smyrna
and Papias bishop in Hierapolis. Of his martyrdom Eusebius has but a single sentence:
"Report says that he was sent from Syria to Rome, and became food for wild beasts on account of his testimony to Christ."
4th century Eusebius was the first to write explicitly of the "martyrdom of Ignatius" and in the 5th century, four centuries after the supposed martyrdom, a set of bones, purported to be those of Ignatius, were installed in the Temple of Fortune, in Rome, by emperor Theodosius II. But it was not until the 10th century that the Martyrium Ignatii appeared, as an addendum to the Codex Colbertinus, a Latin manuscript of the Bible. Martyrium Ignatii masquerades as an eyewitness account written by Ignatius' travelling companions, Philo of Cilicia and Rheus Agathopous, a Syrian. It is in this document that we find the colourful detail, including the dialogue with Trajan and the gathering of the remains of Ignatius and their honorary transport back to Antioch – recorded almost a thousand years after the supposed events.
All part of the fun ...
Part 2: The Ignatian Epistles – a compendium of fraud
J. B. Lightfoot, St Ignatius and St Polycarp - Apostolic Fathers, II (Macmillan, 1889)
W. D. Killen, W. Dool, The Ignatian Epistles Entirely Spurious (1896, Gutenberg ebook)
Maxwell Staniforth (Trans.), Early Christian Writings (Penguin, 1978)
F. J. Foakes-Jackson, History of the Church to A.D. 461 (J. Hall, 1909)
L. Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998)
G. Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregel, 2004)
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