Epistles of Ignatius

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The Epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch are seven letters to the Christians of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Smyrna, Philadelphia, and to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. They were written on the way to Rome by St. Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. ?-107), called Theophorus (God-bearer), the third bishop of Antioch (after St. Peter and Evodius). He was brought to Rome in A.D. 107 under Emperor Trajan (98-117) and exposed to the wild beasts in the arena.

The authentic seven epistles

The shorter versions of the seven epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch are considered by scholars to be the authentic texts.

To the Ephesians
To the Magnesians
To the Trallians
To the Romans
To the Philadelphians
To the Smyrnaeans
To Polycarp

The authenticity of the seven letters is guaranteed by Polycarp and Eusebius, who give the content and order of the letters.[1] The so-called longer versions are thought to be 4th century forgeries.

Witness to ecclesiastical hierarchy in the early church

Ignatius is a particularly important witness to the nature and structure of the Church. Christians all across the world are united in one universal assem­bly which he calls "the Catholic Church" (Ad Smyrnaeans. 8:2, the earliest instance of this phrase in surviving Christian literature). His letter to the Romans, an impor­tant witness to Peter’s pres­ence and leadership in Rome (Ad Romans 4:3), acknowledges that the Roman Church ranks "first in love" (Ad Romans, inscription). The con­trast between the salutation and tone of this letter and those of the letters written to the Asian Churches is significant. His special esteem and deference shown to the Church of Rome demonstrates that a basic consciousness of the primacy of the Church of Peter and Paul existed very early in the second century. It is taken for granted that each local Christian community is led by a single bishop assisted by a council of pres­byters (priests) and several deacons. According to Ignatius, "you cannot have a church without these”" (Ad Tralles 3:1).

Many English Puritans rejected the letters of Ignatius as forgeries from a later era precisely because they believed it impossible for this degree of hierarch­i­cal structure to have existed at such an early period. Many Protestant Reformers denied the apostolic foun­dation of different ranks of Christian ministers and accused the Church of later times of inventing such a hierarchy.[2]

Quotations from Ignatius supporting evidence of hierarchy in the early church

—"Letter to the Smyrnaeans" 8:2.
"You must all follow the lead of the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed that of the Father; follow the presbytery as you would the Apostles; reverence the deacons as you would God’s commandment. Let no one do anything touching the Church, apart from the bishop. Let that celebration of the Eucharist be considered valid which is held under the bishop or anyone to whom he has committed it. Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not permitted without authorization from the bishop either to baptize or to hold an agape; but whatever he approves is also pleasing to God. Thus everything you do will be proof against danger and valid."
—"Letter to the Ephsians" 4.
"Wherefore it is fitting that you should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which thing also you do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, you may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that you are indeed the members of His Son. It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus you may always enjoy communion with God."

Witness to belief in transubstantiation in the early church

Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians reject the letters of Ignatius as forgeries most likely composed as late as A.D. 300-500 to support Catholic and Orthodox belief in transubstantiation, the "Real Presence" of Jesus Christ in the form of bread and wine in the Divine Liturgy and the Mass, which they reject as "idolatrous heresy" and impious superstition.[3] Established documentary evidence supporting the authenticity of the letters of Ignatius is disputed by Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christian believers.[4] Here is a brief summary of the supporting evidence they reject:[5]

  • Perhaps the best evidence is the Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, which mentions each of the letters of Ignatius by name, unless the letter of Polycarp itself be regarded as interpolated or forged.[6]
  • The great body of critics who acknowledge the authenticity of the Ignatian letters restrict their approval to those mentioned by Eusebius and St. Jerome.
  • The evidence of authenticity becomes compelling with the passage of Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., V, xxviii, 4) found in the original Greek in Eusebius (Church History III.36), in which he refers to the letter to the Romans (iv, I) in the following words: "Just as one of our brethren said, condemned to the wild beasts in martyrdom for his faith".
  • The romance of Lucian of Samosata, "De morte peregrini", written in 167, bears incontestable evidence that the writer was not only familiar with the Ignatian letters, but even made use of them.
  • The Anglican Pearson in a work called "Vindiciae epistolarum S. Ignatii", published at Cambridge, 1672. So convincing were the arguments adduced in this scholarly work that for two hundred years the controversy remained closed in favor of the genuineness of the seven letters.
  • The Catholics Denzinger and Hefele successfully defended the genuineness of the entire seven epistles.
  • The best modern criticism favors the authenticity of the seven letters mentioned by Eusebius. This view is held even by such eminent non-Catholic critics as Zahn, Lightfoot, and Harnack (who describes these proofs as "testimony as strong to the genuineness of the epistles as any that can be conceived of" [Expositor, ser. 3, III, p. 11]).

Quotations from Ignatius supporting transubstantiation

The following are quotations from the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch.[7]

—"Letter to the Smyrnaeans", paragraph 6. circa 80-110 A.D.
"Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us. They have no regard for charity, none for the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, none for the man in prison, the hungry or the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead."
—"Letter to the Ephesians", paragraph 20, c. 80-110 A.D."
Come together in common, one and all without exception in charity, in one faith and in one Jesus Christ, who is of the race of David according to the flesh, the son of man, and the Son of God, so that with undivided mind you may obey the bishop and the priests, and break one Bread which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote against death, enabling us to live forever in Jesus Christ."
—"Letter to the Romans", paragraph 7, circa 80-110 A.D.
"I have no taste for the food that perishes nor for the pleasures of this life. I want the Bread of God which is the Flesh of Christ, who was the seed of David; and for drink I desire His Blood which is love that cannot be destroyed."
—"Letter to the Philadelphians", 3:2-4:1, 110 A.D.
"Take care, then, who belong to God and to Jesus Christ—they are with the bishop. And those who repent and come to the unity of the Church—they too shall be of God, and will be living according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren: if anyone follow a schismatic, he will not inherit the Kingdom of God. If any man walk about with strange doctrine, he cannot lie down with the passion. Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of His Blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons."

See John 6:54.


  1. From: Patrick J. Hamell, Handbook of Patrology (NY: Alba House, 1968) ISBN 10: 0818900571 ISBN 13: 9780818900570
  2. See Presbyterian W. D. Killen (1886) The Ignatian Epistles Entirely Spurious. See also John Calvin, Institutes, 1-3. He repudiates entirely the letters which so completely discredit his own views on ecclesiastical government. In general, Catholic and Anglican scholars are ranged on the side of the letters written to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Smyrniots, and to Polycarp; while Presbyterians, as a rule, repudiate everything claiming Ignatian authorship.
  3. Lives of England's Monarchs: The Story of Our American English Heritage, By H. E. Lehman, AuthorHouse, 2005. 482 pages. ISBN 1418496928 ISBN 9781418496920.
  4. The 15 forged letters of Ignatius (bible.ca)
    The Ignatian Epistles and their Claims. The External Evidence. The Ancient Church — William Dool Killen
  5. Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Ignatius of Antioch cites documented evidence of the authenticity of the seven genuine epistles of Ignatius against the critics who reject them.
  6. "mentions each of the letters of Ignatius by name".
    "The Epistles of Ignatius written by him to us, and all the rest [of his Epistles] which we have by us, we have sent to you, as you requested. They are subjoined to this Epistle..."
    Available online texts of the Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians do not include the letters "subjoined" to this epistle of Polycarp.
  7. Source of English translations: Quotations from St. Ignatius testifying to belief in the Real Presence (therealpresence.org)

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