St Ignatius of Antioch explodes a myth about early Christian history

Clerics and faithful from Eastern Orthodox churches take part in the annual Holy Fire ceremony outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on April 30, 2016. The Holy Fire celebrates Jesus' resurrection. (NEWZULU/abderhman younis)

It is sometimes claimed that the earliest Christians thought only that Jesus was a prophet or a great moral teacher – and that it was not until much later that they started to claim that he was God incarnate. In Dan Brown’s 2003 The Da Vinci Code, for example, Leigh Teabing claims:

Until [the Council of Nicaea in 325], Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet…a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal. […] Constantine upgraded Jesus’ status almost four centuries after Jesus’ death.

This is simply and incontrovertibly not the case. In fact, so wildly remote is it from the case, that there is strong evidence to suggest that some of the earliest Christians struggled not with the idea that Jesus was really God, but that he was, in addition, a man.

We find traces of this in the New Testament (e.g., John 20.27-8; 1 John 1.1-3). Clear confirmation comes, however, from the writings of St Ignatius of Antioch, whose Feast it is today.

Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch in modern-day Syria from circa AD 67 until his martyrdom in Rome, probably around AD 108. He was, according to tradition, a disciple of St John the Evangelist. His seven surviving letters were all written while en route to Rome to be martyred. Most of these were to the local churches in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) situated nearby. He also wrote one to the Christians in Rome, and a personal letter to the bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp (who would himself be martyred about 50 years later).

Among other things, Ignatius was the first person to describe the Church as ‘Catholic’ (in the sense of ‘universal’). He is also a key witness to the apostolicity of the threefold ministry of ‘bishop, priest, and deacon’.

A key theme in his letters is the danger of something he calls docetism – this is a word derived from the Greek word dokeo, meaning ‘to appear or ‘seem’. As we learn from Ignatius, these docetists had no trouble believing that Jesus was God (obviously he must have been to have done all that he did!). What they couldn’t or wouldn’t accept, though, was that he was a real human being.

They didn’t think that a real God could really eat and drink, go fishing with his friends, weep, or get himself murdered. According to the docetists, then, Jesus just ‘appeared’ to be a human being – but couldn’t really have been. Instead, he was a just a kind of ‘God in disguise’: a kind of celestial Scooby Doo villain. Furthermore, he ‘only seemed to suffer’ (Trallians 10), but couldn’t really have done so, on the Cross.

Ignatius is horrified by this thought. He writes that the docetist “blasphemes my Lord, [by] not confessing that He was truly possessed of a body”(Smyrneans 5). It also appears that, since the docetists didn’t believe Christ was really of flesh and blood, then they didn’t believe that Eucharist was his body and blood either:

They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. (Smyrneans 7)

Against them, Ignatius insists that Christ was both fully God and fully man:

Jesus Christ… was truly born, and ate and drank. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified, and [truly] died… He was also truly raised from the dead. (Trallians 9)

Why, though, does Ignatius (like St John before him, and the Council of Chalcedon after him) think it is so very important that Christ must be both God and man?

Remember that Ignatius is on his way to Rome to be martyred. More than that, he is very much looking forward to it, and begs the Christians in Rome not to use whatever influence they might have to get him off on a lighter sentence:

I shall willingly die for God… Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. (Romans 4)

As far as Ignatius is concerned, it is Christ’s own death and resurrection that sets the pattern here. Christ’s own resurrection is the promise of the future resurrection into the glory of eternal life of his followers (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.12-34).

If Christ was not human, then he did not really die, and therefore was not really resurrected. And if Christ was not really resurrected, then what hope was there that the martyred Ignatius would be?

A Syrian Christian, on the way to be publicly savaged to death by wild beasts, yet trusting in his Lord’s promise of salvation. Truly, a man worth remembering – and begging the intercession of – today.