St. Ignatius

Icon of Saint Ignatius standing between two lions

St. Ignatius:

An Incognito Pope from Antioch?

by Abouna Dmitry

Reprinted with permission from Sophia, Fall 2008

Saint Ignatius was a successor of Saint Peter as bishop of Antioch . Condemned to death by being thrown to wild ani­mals, he was brought to Rome for execu­tion and was martyred there under the Emperor Trajan in 107. On the journey to Rome he wrote several letters to different Churches. In these he discussed Christ, the structure of the Church, and the Christian life in a manner at once wise and learned. His feast-day has been observed as early as the fourth century. In the Byzantine Church he is commemorated on December 20 and in the Roman Church on October 17.

In late summer of 107 CE a strange convoy reached Rome from Brindisi . It had gone up the Italian peninsula along the Via Appia, but the travel had started some weeks earlier from the far away city of Antakya ( Antioch on the Orontes in Syria , today in Southern Turkey ). Ten chosen guards had been mobilized by the Emperor Trajan to escort a single man in his eighties. The elderly man was Ignatius even though he used to introduce himself with the name of Theophoros, that is, the “bearer-of-God.”

On his life the pristine historical sources are not particularly parsimonious, if compared with how much is known of other personages of the same ancient period. Most likely he was native of Antioch from unchristian parents, which in those times meant of Greek-Hellenistic culture. When he was still young, in the years between 40 and 50, he met Simon of Bethsaida, called Peter, coming from Jerusalem to take shelter in Antioch for necessity reasons. In fact, in the year 42 CE King Herod had put to death in Jerusalem one of the most respected men of the local Christian Church, James the Apostle, and the rest had to escape. Antioch was a beautiful, large and elegant city where one breathed a cosmo­politan atmosphere. The Christians formed a community fairly treated by the local population. The Greeks did not know the Jewish traditions and did not understand that Christ, the central figure in the cult of this religious people, translated the Hebrew word Messiah (the Anointed or Consecrated with holy oil). Since the Greek word christos meant simply “anointed,” it was in Antioch that they received the name of christianoi. They were object of some ridicule but essentially left to live in tolerable peace.

In Antioch the young Ignatius get acquainted with the person of Saint Peter and entered in his circle; later on Peter chose him as his successor before leaving the city.

Until this point the vicissitudes of Ignatius are not much different from the other disciples of Jesus of Nazareth of the second generation. But the course of history has indeed unique characters. In a year that many historians believe to be the 107, Emperor Trajan sentenced to death the old bishop with one of the more cruel form of torture: ad bestias, that is, to be tom to pieces by wild animals in the amphitheater. Ten guards have the task of going to the Syrian city, arrest the elderly bishop and transfer him to Rome , the chosen place for his public execution; a travel of weeks that would have practically crossed the Mediterranean.

Bound to these soldiers whom he calls “leopards,” Ignatius leaves from Antioch and arrives to Smyrna , where he receives Bishop Polycarp. Here he writes three pastoral letters to the Churches of Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles, and delivers them in the hands of their respective bishops, Onesimus, Damas and Polybius who have come with a delegation of faithful to greet him. Then he writes to the Christians of Rome since some members of that Church, influential persons close to the circle of the Emperor, want to spare his life; but Ignatius stops them saying that it is not the case of exposing themselves to serious risks to save an old man, destined to die shortly. Moreover, he believes that his martyrdom is approaching in a very propitious moment, which will be an occasion to strengthen with his gesture the community of the Christians that lives in a confusion moment.

He calls himself “the bread-corn of Christ, to be ground by the teeth of wild animals to be found pure bread,” in that God is making use of him to nourish the faith of all the other Christians. Leaving Smyrna , Ignatius and his warders arrive to Troas where he writes three more letters to the Churches of Philadelphia and Smyrna , and to the presbyter Polycarp, to inform him of his appointment as a bishop of Antioch . From Troas Ignatius is lead by sea to Neapolis, in the Macedonian region, then to Philippi, and from there the convoy went by the Via Egnatia to the port of Durres . From down there he is embarked towards the port of Brindisi in Apulia and then to the Eternal City . According to an ancient tradition his martyrdom took place in Rome on October 17, 107.

The content of the facts, never doubted by the ancient authors, is historically very exceptional. First of all, one does not clearly understand why the Emperor Trajan, under whose reign Christians were violently persecuted, took pain to send a squad of soldiers to the remote city of Antioch to escort to Rome this elderly Christian bishop so that he could be executed in the Flavian amphitheater.

This event seems to be unique in the history of ancient Christianity. As far as we know, there was only a single sample like that, the case of the convert Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, better know as Paul the Apostle, who from Palestine was escorted to Rome for his final execution. The Apostle Paul though had this singular “privilege” because he enjoyed Roman citizenship and because none of the Roman representatives in Syria­Palestine wanted the responsibility of his death. Paul had appealed to Rome and, therefore, transferred to the capital.

The case of Ignatius is completely different in that he does not possess the Roman citizenship, otherwise he would have had the right to be condemned to decapitation, a more “decorous” torture, faster and less atrocious. The reasons of this most singular choice ought to found elsewhere. Even the number of the escorting guards seems over­whelming; ten soldiers are indeed too many to watch over an elderly man.

The way then he nicknames them, that is, “leopards” could be a surprising information since the leopard’s skin was used by the soldiers of the Roman army who belonged to the special unit of the Signifers, those privileged soldiers bearing the military standards in time of war. They were covered from the head with the skin of a powerful wild animal, symbolic of aggressive incursion. The representatives of the legions generally used skins of wolf and bear, while the great feline predators as the lion and the leopard were prerogative of the Praetorians, members of the frightening and most powerful personal guard of the Emperor. If the Emperor Trajan did send to Antioch even one of these soldiers (can you imagine ten!), then undoubtedly Ignatius was not a common man, but a person under special imperial surveillance. And this may well explain the exceptional conditions of the case. Perhaps this strange journey towards martyrdom had an institutional face that we ought to completely rediscover. In fact the tenor of the letters of Ignatius offers some hints which seem to confirm this suspicion.

The elderly bishop receives delega­tions from the local Churches which have come to honor him and to profit by his instructions. On his part, Ignatius appoints bishops, writes encyclical letters, and gives exhortations. In his letter to Polycarp he expressly says that he had intention to write to all the Churches but his time was limited because the soldiers forced him to embark in haste. Ignatius seems pressed by an ecumeni­cal solicitude exceeding the tasks and the responsibilities of a local bishop. He addresses to a community of faithful that he calls Catholic Church, that is “universal,” and he is the first to use this denomination. He exhorts all to be united and obedient in faith and above all to stay away from the Gnostic heresy which goes against the person of Jesus presented by the Gospels and the Apostle Peter.

On the person of Jesus Christ, Ignatius has a clear position about the fundamental theological issues, like His birth by the work of the Holy Spirit and His divinity. Some of his expressions are amazing and well anticipate the future developments of theology, for example he says that Jesus Christ “proceeds from the Father,” meaning that Jesus was not created but generated by God. And that idea preceded of two centuries the conciliar decisions of Nicea in 325. He also asserted that the Church of Rome has a spiritual supremacy over all the other Churches, a fact decidedly strange since the Churches of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch (his Antioch ) had an equal dignity with the Roman See. In short, this holy man behaved just like if he were a Pope (we would say today). Even the Churches that come to pay him respect were eager to receive from him spiritual counsel and directives. The idea that Ignatius was much more than a bishop like the others, that is, he had a guiding role in the Church of his time, would explain totally his very strange destiny. If this holy man was indeed for a certain time the head of all Christians, then one would understand why the Emperor Trajan took the trouble to make him to travel to Rome. His execution had to be a clear and spectacular admonition to all.

The Emperor could catch anyone, and behead that sect by removing its head hidden in any place of the empire. The period in which the execution of Ignatius took place is also one of those we know very little about the Christian community and the apostolic succession. The first list of the bishops of Rome was written by the historian Aegesippos in 160, therefore decades after the facts, and in any case the first attestations we possess go back only to the year 354 (Catalogus Liberianus) or even to the sixth centu­ry (Liber Pontificalis).

We know that the apostolic succession in the first centuries was in a direct way, by personal choice: Peter named Linus as his successor, and Linus seems to have named Cletus or Anacletus. Then was Clement who continued Peter’s fight against the Gnostic heresy by writing a famous letter to the Church of Corinth . It is this same type of engagement in which Ignatius of Antioch will be striven too, in the pastoral tradition of Peter and Clement.

Clement died in 97 CE, exiled in the East and, according to tradition, thrown in the sea with a heavy anchor in his neck. He was succeeded by Evaristus, of whom we know very little: according to the historian Eusebius of Caesarea, the pontificate of this Pope took place between the years 99 and 108 and lasted about nine years. The duration of these years is also confirmed by the Liber Pontificalis. But if this period is added to Clement’s death one hardly reaches the year 106, the year before the death of Ignatius.

The level of information that the ancient sources offer does not allow us to be more exact, but it is clear that a short pontificate (of one year or few months) could very well escape from those who later on had to collect the traditions in order to compile the first lists of the Popes. And this could have been the case if for some reason and in completely anomalous circumstances, the Pope in those months had not lived in Rome.

In fact we do not know anything about the end of Pope Evaristus, even if he probably died a martyr considering the tenor of the times. The unknown whereabouts of his passing make us think that he was eliminated by the Roman authorities in a way different from an official execution, a way that usually left an indelible sign in the memory of the community, as in the case of other bishops or saints.

If indeed Evaristus one day “disappeared” altogether without naming a successor, the Church of Rome found itself in serious difficulty because the apostolic succession risked an interruption. To avoid that the only possible resort would have been a man chosen by Peter himself who had maintained the continuity unbroken, as a collateral branch coming from the same root.

At the beginning of the second century the elderly Ignatius, as far as we know, was the last still alive bishop directly appointed by the Apostle Peter. Therefore, being that the case, the choice was obligatory and the city of Antioch represented a secure shelter far away from Rome. Can we think of Ignatius of Antioch as a “Pope in incognito,” a leader who guided the Christian community in a different manner than the usual in a difficult situation of particular emergency?

When he addresses the Church of Rome, Ignatius does not mention any name of bishop, as if in that moment there was not a Pope (or he was in charge). Even the fact of using a coded name, Theophoros, is unique and perhaps infers something about protecting his identity. It is difficult to say if Ignatius held a kind of regency of the Church or had only assumed the spiritual guide of the Christians for necessity reasons. Perhaps the two features are not inadmissible because the Church of that time did not have the institutional order that will assume later.

The analytical study of the sources is offering some interesting answers. In the Christian tradition the figure of Ignatius of Antioch has been always considered in a special way. In the year 861 Saint Cyril found in a Greek island the remains of Pope Clement; the bones were transferred to Rome , and Pope Adrian II (867-872) wanted them buried next to the remains of Saint Ignatius of Antioch. Could be that these two famous Fathers of the Church were also colleagues? We are not sure about that but there is one thing certain that at the time of Pope Adrian II the Church of Rome had still many ancient documents that are irremediably lost.