Who Was Ignatius of Antioch? | Church Fathers

Toward the end of the first century AD, Ignatius became the third overseer, or “bishop,” of the churches in Antioch at the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea.[1] His bishopric also included the churches in the region of Syria. There was no central church building in Antioch or Syria. The church was made up of a series of house churches around town and throughout the countryside.[2]

While the exact date of Ignatius’s birth is uncertain, historians believe it was either in AD 30 or 35.[3] He had such a close relationship with God that he was given the nickname θεοφόρος [thee-oh-FOR-us], which means “one who bears God.” A much later tradition changed the Greek slightly to θεόφορος [thee-AH-for-us], which means “one whom God bears.” The claim was thus made that Ignatius was the little child whom Jesus placed on His lap in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew.[4] Thus it was later held that God in the flesh bore Ignatius on His knee. It is a sweet story, but it is not found in the earliest literature by or about Ignatius. By describing Ignatius’ birth during Jesus’ ministry, the story does demonstrate that Ignatius was likely in his seventies when he was arrested and put on trial in Antioch before Emperor Trajan himself or before one of his emissaries.[5] Though nothing is known about the trial itself, Christians in that era were often brought before a magistrate or governor, questioned along with witnesses as to if they really were Christians, and then punished accordingly.[6] The result of the trial is that Ignatius was found guilty of being a Christian and therefore sentenced to death. Most of what is known to us about the life and beliefs of Ignatius comes from his seven letters, or “epistles,” written to six churches and to Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna. These Seven Letters were written in about AD 107, when Ignatius was escorted by Roman soldiers from Antioch to Rome. 

While he was on his way to Rome, he was visited by many Christians who were guilty of the same crime of which Ignatius had been convicted: simply being a Christian. His first major stop along the way was in the town of Smyrna, where Polycarp was the bishop. From that location Ignatius wrote letters to the churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles, which lay to the south of Smyrna. He also sent another letter ahead to Rome. When he arrived at Troas, he wrote letters to the churches in Philadelphia and Smyrna, as well as to their bishop, Polycarp.

How did Ignatius die? His Epistle to the Romans indicates that he anticipated being attacked by wild beasts in the Roman Colosseum for the entertainment of the crowds. Ignatius heard that some Christians in Rome were planning to rescue him in some way, so he would not have to endure a martyr’s death. However, he pleaded with them “not to show an untimely kindness to me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whom I will be allowed to make it to God. I am the wheat of God; let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, so I may be found to be the pure bread of the Christ.”[7] Ignatius believed that if he died in Christ, so also Ignatius would be raised in Christ in his own resurrection into Heaven.[8] While it may sound strange today to hear of a Christian wishing to die for his faith, Ignatius set an example for the early church by going so far as to say, “May I enjoy the wild beasts, who are prepared for me. I want them to rush upon me, and I will urge them to do devour me quickly.” Ignatius was not suicidal. He was wanting the Roman Christians not to interfere with his martyrdom, so as he had lived for Christ faithfully, Ignatius might also die for Christ faithfully. Polycarp received word of Ignatius’s successful martyrdom.[9] Ignatius would be revered in all corners of the Christian Church throughout her history as a holy example of one who bore God faithfully in his life, death, and writings. Following his martyrdom, Ignatius’s bones were brought back to Antioch and eventually returned to Rome.[10]His faithfulness is celebrated in the west on October 17 and in the east on both December 17th and 20th.[11]


[1] Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans, 2:2.

[2] Kenneth Cleaver, “Worship in the Early Church: From Private Homes to Public Halls,” Japan Harvest (Spring 2007): 9.

[3] Justo González, The Story of Christianity: Volume One—The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, revised and updated edition (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 51.

[4] Symeon Metaphrases, Menæa Græca (tenth century) as referred to in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume Two—Ante-Nicene Christianity, A.D. 100-325 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 653, footnote 1.

[5] Emperor Trajan reigned from AD 98-117.

[6] Bryan M. Litfin, Early Christian Martyr Stories (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 9.

[7] Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans, 4.

[8] Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans, 2.

[9] Polycarp, Epistle to the Philippians, 9.

[10] Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Ignatius of Antioch” in Great Leaders of the Christian Church (Chicago: Moody, 1988), 38.

[11] Ignatius’s special feast day is celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church on October 17, the Church in Antioch on December 17, and the Byzantine Church on December 20. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “St. Ignatius of Antioch,” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).