What crime did Ignatius of Antioch commit and who laid the charges?

Ignatius of Antioch was a controversial leader of the church in Antioch (around 100 CE) who ended up in handcuffs on his way to Rome for trial (his letters are available here). There is some mystery surrounding why he was arrested and who brought charges against him, however. He never tells us, but there are hints in his own letters to churches in Asia Minor that some of Ignatius’s problems stemmed from tensions not with outsiders but with fellow followers of Jesus at Antioch in Syria.

In his letter to the Christians at Philadelphia, for instance, he refers to reports of peace finally coming to the church at Antioch, thereby alluding to the conflict or schism that had been going on previously (Phld 10.2). This situation of conflict at Antioch has led some scholars (including myself) to suggest the possibility that it was fellow-Christians on the other side of the conflict who brought charges against Ignatius, resulting in his arrest (though they may not have intended his execution). Or, although less likely, it may be that turmoil within the Christian community led to intervention by local authorities and the arrest of Ignatius as one among the “trouble-causers”.

The reason I bring this up now is that, for other purposes (regarding Eusebius’ view of the unity of the earliest church against heresy), we were reading through a passage in Eusebius’ Church History (written in the 300’s CE). There I noticed an incident that provides an analogy for this possible explanation of Ignatius’ arrest: namely, that it was other Christians that took actions which resulted in the arrest of the leader with whom they disagreed. Eusebius cites Hegesippus regarding the reason for the arrest and martyrdom of Symeon, bishop of Jerusalem in the early second century: “Certain of these heretics brought accusation against Symeon, the son of Clopas, on the ground that he was a descendant of David and a Christian; and thus he suffered martyrdom, at the age of one hundred and twenty years, while Trajan was emperor and Atticus governor” (Eccl. Hist. 3.32.3; surrounding passage here).

Remembering that “heretics” is a label for fellow Christians with whom another Christian has a disagreement, this incident may not be unlike what happened at Syria when Ignatius was arrested, despite his role as a leader (sole bishop, in his view) of the assembly of Jesus-followers there. It may be that other Christians who disagreed with his monarchical method of leadership were involved in some way.

7 thoughts on “What crime did Ignatius of Antioch commit and who laid the charges?

  1. Phil Snider

    Interesting theory and, certainly, quite plausible as far as it goes. As you note, the scenario you lay out for Ignatius did happen and could very well have happened. Yet, the abscence of documentary proof worries me for two reason.

    First, if Ignatius was betrayed, wouldn’t we expect that Eusebius (if not Ignatius himself) would have reported this, if only to score point on the heretics and schismatics? Yes, that is an argument from silence, but it has some force.

    Second, the prescence of a schism does not necessarily lead to this kind of betrayal. It can and it did, but the connection isn’t a necessary one. Remember that there were pagans who were perfectly willing to go after Christians because of their ‘blasphemy’. That also would constitute a perfectly acceptable theory for Ignatius’ arrest.

    Just playing devil’s advocate.

    Peace,
    Phil

  2. Phil H.

    Hello Phil S.

    On your first point, Eusebius is quite selective (thankfully for the original readers and unfortunately for the historian) and I wouldn’t expect Eusebius to refer to every such thing that would support his favourite points.

    You are right that this is merely a theory, but a theory that may account for Ignatius’s silence on the whole issue and the degree to which the Antioch issue seems a sore point for him. He wants to leave it behind . . . permanently.

    Thanks for playing devil’s advocate.

    Phil H.

  3. Doug Chaplin

    OTOH Ignatius does rather sem to crave his martyrdom, and I fint it just as likely he did something provocative off his own bat. But an interesting theory to consider, nonetheless.

  4. Stephen C. Carlson

    Phil H.: I think your scenario for Ignatius is very plausible. In fact, it puts Ignatius’s emphasis on a monarchical episcopate into an interesting context.

    Phil S.: I doubt Eusebius knew any more about Ignatius than what we know now.

  5. Phil H.

    Hello Stephen,

    Thanks for the comment (and I don’t just say that because you agreed that my proposal was quite plausible;).

    I’m watching out to see what is going on at Duke.

    Phil

  6. Phil Snider

    I take all of your points about the limitations of Eusebius, but a betrayal of Ignatius would make rather a useful club to beat heretics with, so might have encouraged Eusebius to include, if he knew it. While heresy isn’t his central concern, I could see him using it.

    It also doesn’t explain why Ignatius himself doesn’t mention it nor why a contemporary doesn’t allude to it.

    All of this isn’t proof, but just some interesting omissions in the record.

    Peace,
    Phil

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