Saturday, October 17, 2009

St. Ignatius of Antioch and the Early Church

By Kenneth D. Whitehead

Sometime around the year 107 A.D., a short, sharp persecution of the Church of Christ resulted in the arrest of the bishop of Antioch in Syria. His name was Ignatius. According to one of the harsh penal practices of the Roman Empire of the day, the good bishop was condemned to be delivered up to wild beasts in the arena in the capital city. The insatiable public appetite for bloody spectacles meant a chronically short supply of victims; prisoners were thus sent off to Rome to help fill the need.

So the second bishop of Antioch was sent to Rome as a

condemned prisoner. According to Church historian Eusebius (ca. 260-ca. 340), Ignatius had been bishop in Antioch for nearly forty years at the time of his arrest. This means that he had been bishop there while some of the original apostles were almost certainly still alive and preaching.

St. Ignatius of Antioch was conducted first by land from Syria across Asia Minor (modern Turkey). He was escorted by a detachment of Roman soldiers. In a letter he sent ahead to the Church of Christ in Rome, this bishop described his ardent wish to imitate the passion of Christ through his own coming martyrdom in the Roman Colosseum. He warned the Christians in Rome not to try to save him. He also spoke of his conflicts with his military escort and of their casual cruelties, describing his guards as "ten leopards". The discipline of the march cannot have been unrelieved, however, since Ignatius was permitted to receive delegations of visitors from local Churches in the cities of Asia Minor through which the escorts and Ignatius passed along the way (To the Romans, 5:1).

In Smyrna (modern Izmir), St. Ignatius met, not only with the bishop of that city, St. Polycarp, but also with delegations from the neighboring cities of Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles. Each delegation was headed by a local bishop. Ignatius wrote thank-you letters to the Christians in each of these cities who had visited the notable but shackled bishop-prisoner. Chiefly through these letters, St. Ignatius of Antioch is known to us today.

Establishing these letters, written in Greek, as authentic and genuinely from the first decade of the second century was one of the triumphs of nineteenth-century British scholarship. Without them, this bishop of Antioch might have remained no more than a name, as obscure as many another early Christian bishop.

Escorted on to the Greek city of Troas on the Aegean Sea, Ignatius wrote yet another letter to the Church at Smyrna, through which he had passed. He also wrote personally to Bishop Polycarp of that city. Finally, from Troas he wrote still another letter to the Philadelphians; the local Church of Philadelphia had despatched two deacons who overtook his party at Troas.

Shortly after writing these seven letters to Churches in Asia Minor, St. Ignatius of Antioch was taken aboard ship. The remainder of his journey to Italy was by sea. Tradition holds that he won his longed-for martyrdom in the Roman amphitheater during the reign of Emperor Trajan (98-117).

But the letters he left behind afford us a precious and remarkable picture of what that Church was like not even two full generations after issuing from the side of Jesus Christ on the Cross.

The adult life of St. Ignatius of Antioch as a second-generation Church leader almost exactly spanned the period of transition between the end of the first Christian generation and the beginning of the third. Thus, his witness about the nature of the Church of his day is of the most profound and fundamental importance.

What was the Church like around the year 107 A.D.? The Church had already spread far and wide since the days of the apostles. St. Ignatius was conducted over a good part of what, today, is Turkey, encountering local Churches in most major towns. At the head of each of these Churches was a principal leader, a bishop. The geographical spread of individual local Churches, each headed by a bishop, is obvious from the fact that Ignatius was met by delegations headed by bishops from each sizeable town along the route.

That St. Ignatius was met by these "official" delegations indicates that local Churches were in close touch with one another. They did not see themselves as independent, self-selected, self-governing congregations of like-minded people; they saw themselves as linked together in the one body of Christ according to an already firmly established, well-understood system, even though they happened to be geographically separated.

The solidarity with which they all turned out to honor a prisoner being led to martyrdom, who also happened to be the bishop of Antioch, tells us something about their respect for the incumbent of that office. Antioch was to become one of the great patriarchal bishoprics of the Church of antiquity, along with Alexandria and Rome--and, later, Constantinople.

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