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Thursday 3 September 2015

Supernatural Evil in the Apostolic Fathers (3): Ignatius of Antioch

The Epistles of Ignatius are seven letters attributed to Ignatius, a Bishop of Antioch who is purported to have written them while on his way to martyrdom in Rome. The letters are generally dated to the early or mid second century. Some or all of the letters appear in three different recensions, of which the 'middle' recension is regarded as closest to the original text. Six of these are addressed to churches (at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna) and one to an individual (Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna).1

The Devil in Ignatius' Letters

Ignatius' letters refer to the devil (ho diabolos, four times: Ign. Ephesians 10.3; Ign. Trallians 8.1; Ign. Romans 5.3; Ign. Smyrnaeans 9.1) and Satan (ho satanas, once: Ign. Ephesians 13.1), and to the same concept by another title, 'the ruler of this age' (ho archōn tou aiōnos toutou, six times: Ign. Ephesians 17.1; 19.1; Ign. Magnesians 1.2; Ign. Trallians 4.2; Ign. Romans 7.1; Ign. Philadelphians 6.2). These references are spread across six of the seven letters; the letter to Polycarp is the only one in which none of these terms occur.2

Ignatius' terminology stands in continuity with other early Christian literature. ho satanas and ho diabolos are the two most common designations for Satan in the New Testament, while referring to Satan as a 'ruler' is also common (Matthew 12.24-29; Mark 3.22-27; Luke 11.15-21; John 12.31; 14:30; 16:11; Ephesians 2.2; Epistle of Barnabas 4.13; 18.2; Ascension of Isaiah 1.3; 2.4; 4.2-4; 10.29). There are other texts where the concept of rulership is applied to Satan without the word 'ruler' being used (Hermas, Similitudes 1.3-6?; Luke 4:5; Acts 26:18; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 John 5:19).

The exact term 'the ruler of this age' does not occur in the New Testament, but it closely parallels a term used for Satan in the Gospel of John: 'the ruler of this world' (ho archōn tou kosmou toutou, John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; John is very fond of the word kosmos).3 Gokey,4 however, thinks the closest prototype for Ignatius' term is Paul's plural term 'the rulers of this age' (hoi archontes tou aiōnos toutou) in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8.5 Ignatius' terminology can be seen as a conflation of the plural term found in 1 Cor. 2:6-8 with the singular 'the god of this age' (ho theos tou aiōnos toutou) found in 2 Cor. 4:4 (which most scholars regard as a reference to Satan).6

The Satan figure in Ignatius' epistles is clearly a supernatural personal being (a point conceded even by Christadelphian apologist Jonathan Burke).7 For instance, in IgnEph 19.1 we read,
The virginity of Mary and her giving birth escaped the notice of the ruler of this age; so too did the death of the Lord – three mysteries of a cry which were accomplished in the silence of God.
This clearly does not refer to a human ruler. Is it unclear why a human ruler should have been interested in Mary's virginity or giving birth. Moreover, there is no specific human ruler of any relevance who was in power from the time of Jesus' birth until his death (and indeed until the time of Ignatius' writing). Additional evidence for the supernatural nature of the Ignatian Satan can be seen in the association of Satan’s powers with heavenly warfare (IgnEph 13.1-2), and the implicit identification of the devil with the heavenly, invisible realms (IgnTral 4.2-5.2; IgnRom 5.3).

The range of functions and novelty of ideas associated with Satan suggests a robust Satanology on Ignatius’ part. Satan is at once a seducer and a bully. He is behind the persecution of the church (IgnMag 1.2; IgnRom 5.3; 7.1), but also behind false doctrine and insubordination within the church (IgnEph 17.1; IgnSmyrn 9.1), as well as temptation more generally (IgnTral 8.1; IgnPhld 6.2). Moreover, he may be thwarted by unity in the church (IgnEph 13.1) and by humility (IgnTral 4.2). It is disputed whether the metaphor "weed of the devil" (IgnEph 10.3) refers to heresy8 (note the use of plant imagery for heresy in IgnTral 6.1; cf. IgnPhld 3.1) or whether "the concern is more general."9

Does Ignatius' belief in a supernatural devil mean he has abandoned belief in non-supernatural sources of wickedness known from the New Testament, such as 'the flesh' and 'the world'? Not at all. In an apparent allusion to Romans 8:5, 8,10 Ignatius states, “Those who belong to the flesh cannot do spiritual things” (IgnEph 8.2). Those who live according to the flesh will die, and those who corrupt the faith are “filthy” (IgnEph 16.2; cf. IgnRom 8.3). The Magnesians are instructed, “No one should consider his neighbour in a fleshly way, but you should love one another in Jesus Christ at all times” (IgnMag 6.2). The Trallians are commended because “you appear to me not to live in a human way but according to Jesus Christ” (IgnTral 2.1).

He warns the Ephesians against "wild animals...raving dogs" who "bear the name in wicked deceit,"  (IgnEph 7.1) and the Philadelphians about "seemingly trustworthy wolves [who] use wicked pleasure to capture those who run in God's race" (IgnPhld 2.2). Both of these images suggest an animalistic model of human sinfulness.

Moreover, Ignatius can, in a typically Pauline manner, personify sinful attributes. The Romans are told, “Let no envy dwell among you… My passion has been crucified” (IgnRom 7.2). Thus envy is personified as an unwanted guest, and passion as a victim of crucifixion. In IgnPoly 4.3, Ignatius warns against setting slaves free through the common fund lest they become "slaves of lust." Here, 'lust' is personified as an evil master. Finally, in IgnMag 5.2 Ignatius represents a dualistic conflict between God and "this world."

Broadly speaking, Ignatius' understanding of sin stands in continuity with the New Testament. Thus, the fact that he can hold individual (the flesh), corporate (the world) and supernatural (the devil) sources of sin in tension suggests this is not foreign to early Christian thought. Accordingly, we have no reason to assume that when New Testament writers refer to the devil, they are simply referring to the flesh or the world by another term.

Ignatius' prescribed responses to sin and evil also stand in continuity with the New Testament. His clear belief in a supernatural devil and in demons (see below) have not resulted in a special emphasis on exorcism, for instance (which he never mentions). Instead, the main antidotes for sin are just those found in New Testament epistles, such as prayer, repentance, holiness, self-control, humility, gentleness, fellowship, unity and the like (IgnEph 10.1-3; 13.1-2; IgnTral 4.2; 8.1; IgnPhld 6.211). Striking are the statements in IgnEph 13.1-2 that when the church comes together, war is waged in heaven and Satan’s powers are vanquished; and in IgnTral 4.2, "And so I need humility, by which the ruler of this age is destroyed." All of this shows that these kinds of responses to evil are perfectly compatible with belief in a supernatural devil.

Ignatius' letters are helpful in reconstructing Christian beliefs about Satan not only after but also within the New Testament period, for the following reason. In his letters to established Christian congregations in six different locations spanning Asia, Greece, and Italy, Ignatius shows no hint that his depiction of Satan is in any way innovative or controversial (we would hardly expect a condemned man on his way to execution to be developing theological novelties). He does not attempt to explain or justify his Satanology but simply assumes that these churches shared the same understanding. What is remarkable about this is that four of the six cities to which he wrote were recipients of New Testament letters which mention Satan or the devil (Ephesus: Eph. 4:27; 6:11; Philadelphia: Rev. 3:9; Smyrna: Rev. 2:9-10; Rome: Rom. 16:20). Revelation may have been written as little as two decades prior to Ignatius' letters.

Hence, within a fairly short window of time (although we cannot be exact as to how short), we have New Testament references to Satan/the devil (where the meaning is assumed to be understood by the audience), and Ignatius' references to Satan/the devil (where the meaning is assumed to be understood by the same audience). The obvious inference is that the same meaning of Satan/the devil was generally understood by all of these writers and audiences. Indeed, there is absolutely no evidence of any dispute in the early church over the meaning of the terms 'Satan' or 'devil'. Since it is admitted that Ignatius understood Satan/the devil to be a supernatural being, the inference is that at least some of the New Testament writers (John of Patmos and, in all probability, Paul) did as well. The only alternative is to argue that the early Christian understanding of Satan radically changed between the time Revelation was written and the time Ignatius' epistles were written; and that this change took place seamlessly and without leaving any record of controversy. This is not a very plausible hypothesis!

Other supernatural evil beings in Ignatius' Letters

There is one passage in Ignatius' letters which, properly understood, implies a belief in demons. In IgnSmyrn 2.1, he warns concerning heretics who deny a physical resurrection that they themselves will become daimonikois. This term is variously translated 'demonic', 'like the demons' or 'demonlike'.12 BDAG lexicon defines the word as “pertaining to being like a spirit or phantom”.13 Ignatius is not necessarily equating post-mortem existence with being a demon but with being like a demon. In similar fashion, in IgnSmyrn 3.2, Ignatius quotes an otherwise unknown Jesus tradition comparable to Luke 24:39 but distinct in terminology, saying that in a resurrection appearance Jesus told the disciples, "Reach out, touch me and see that I am not a bodiless demon (daimonion asōmaton)."

It has been argued by some that the word 'demon' here has a neutral connotation like 'phantom' and does not carry the negative sense which it normally has in the New Testament.14 However, closer study of the passage reveals that the negative sense is there. Schoedel argues that the terminology in 2.1 is prompted by that in 3.2. He explains the background as follows:
the docetists apparently spoke of the resurrection positively and probably taught a spiritualized version of it; and thus Ignatius’ reference to their becoming bodiless and demonic must also have functioned to make the point not only that they would lack bodily substance (which would not have concerned them) but also that what they thought of as a rarefied spiritual state would in fact be ‘demonic’ in character.15
Schoedel goes on to explain the key to Ignatius’ rhetoric:
the wordplay did not involve the term ‘spiritual’ but had to do with the use of the term ‘demonic’ (phantom-like) in the saying of Jesus, taken more or less accurately as the key to docetic theology by Ignatius, and his use of the same term in a different sense (anti-divine) to express disapproval.16
Hence, the demonology that Ignatius presupposes here is not merely about ghosts but something more sinister. In a more detailed study of this text, Proctor comes to a similar conclusion. He argues that Ignatius exhibits “an ‘apocalyptic’ daimonology, where daimons were understood as part of a pervasive onslaught of evil powers” whose origin was rooted in the Watchers myth.17 Commenting specifically on the claims that ‘demon’ is a neutral term synonymous with ‘phantom’ in IgnSmyrn, Proctor states:
To put it succinctly, daimons are almost exclusively evil within early Christian literature, and carried increasingly sinister undertones within ‘pagan’ Greek literature at the time when Ignatius’ letters would have been composed and initially interpreted.  In light of this larger tradition, it is highly improbable that Ignatius’ opponents (or other Christians) would equate the risen Jesus with a daimon, and such usage does not correspond to the docetic terminology attested in our ancient sources (i.e., ‘phantasmal,’ ‘angelic,’ and ‘pneumatic’).18
Hence, for Ignatius, “Jesus’ denial that he is a ‘bodiless daimon’ functions as a rhetorical absurdity, implying that Ignatius’ opponents equate the risen Jesus with an (evil) daimon.”19

Proctor goes on to note that Gnostic texts often value bodiless existence, so that if Ignatius had condemned his docetic opponents to a phantasmal afterlife, “it likely would have been met with indifference.” Instead, Ignatius associates docetic Christians “with daimons, entities that were not only bodiless, but also, within Christian circles, malevolent, monstrous, and destined for a morose afterlife.”20

Hence, when read in the context of Ignatius’ rhetorical purpose, ‘demon’ is seen to refer to a supernatural being with a decidedly negative connotation, as elsewhere in early Christian tradition.

Ignatius' letters also imply a belief in other supernatural evil beings analogous to the much-debated 'powers' of the Pauline corpus. The statement in IgnRom 5.3, “May nothing visible or invisible (τῶν ὁρατῶν καὶ ἀοράτων) show any envy toward me, that I may attain to Jesus Christ”, made in the immediate context of a reference to the devil, implies the existence of two distinct, populated realms: the visible and the invisible. This distinction parallels Col 1:16, which uses it to make exhaustive the list of creatures created through the Son. ‘Invisibility’ as a defining characteristic of the spirit world appears elsewhere in the Pauline corpus and in Hebrews, chiefly as an attribute of God (Rom 1.20; 1Tim 1.17; Heb 11.3; 11.27; cf. Matt 6.6; 6.18; 2Cor 4.18).

A further reference to such invisible beings is found in IgnSmyrn 6.1: “Judgment is prepared even for the heavenly beings, for the glory of the angels, and for the rulers both visible and invisible, if they do not believe in the blood of Christ.” Ignatius, like Col 1:16, affirms the existence of invisible ‘rulers’. He equates them with angelic, heavenly beings who are, at least potentially, subject to unbelief and judgment (cf. Rom 8.38; 1 Cor. 6.3; 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). Ignatius also regards invisibility as a characteristic of God (IgnMag 3.2; IgnPoly 3.2). It is possible that the 'aeons' of IgnEph 19.2 are also to be understood as supernatural beings.21


Ignatius' letters provide us with evidence that a supernatural understanding of Satan and demons was in place as established theology in major Christian centres (e.g. Antioch, Asia, Rome) by the early to mid second century. Given that the same terminology is used in the New Testament, and that there is no evidence of dispute or polemic in the early church concerning the correct understanding of these terms, we have a compelling argument that Ignatius' understanding of Satan and demons as supernatural personal beings represents the view shared by Christians from the beginning.


  • 1 For introductory issues (date, authorship, recensions, etc.) see Ehrman, B.D. (2003). The Apostolic Fathers (Vol. I). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 203-217; Foster, P. (2006). The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch (Part 1). The Expository Times, 117(12), 487-495; Foster, P. (2006). The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch (Part 2). The Expository Times, 118(1), 2-11. Ehrman, op. cit., is the critical text relied on here, and translations are from him, unless otherwise indicated.
  • 2 The absence of any reference to Satan in Ignatius’ letter to Polycarp provides a useful corrective to arguments from silence which claim that, because a document does not refer to Satan, its author had no place for Satan in his theology. To the contrary, Ignatius clearly had a place for Satan in his theology, yet he did not consider it obligatory to mention this concept in every letter he wrote.
  • 3 For studies of 'the ruler of this world' in the Gospel of John, see Kovacs, J.L. (1995). ‘Now Shall the Ruler of This World Be Drive Out’: Jesus’ Death as Cosmic Battle in John 12:20-36. Journal of Biblical Literature, 114(2), 227-247; Löfstedt, T. (2009). The Ruler of This World. Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok, 74, 55-79.
  • 4 Gokey, F.X. (1961). The Terminology for the Devil and Evil Spirits in the Apostolic Fathers. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, p. 75 n. 2.
  • 5 It is disputed amongst scholars whether 'the rulers of the age' in 1 Cor. 2:6-8 refer to demonic or angelic beings, earthly political rulers, or both. See Aune, D.E. (1999). "Archōn". In K. van der Toorn, B. Becking, & P.W. Van der Horst (Eds.), Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (pp. 82-85). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 84.
  • 6 Harris, M.J. (2005). The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. University Park: Penn State Press, p. 328 n. 49, states that almost all commentators interpret 'the god of this age' as a reference to Satan.
  • 7 Burke, J. (2015). Then the Devil Left: Satan’s lack of presence in the Apostolic Fathers [WWW]. Available at http://www.academia.edu/10324205/Then_the_Devil_Left_Satan_s_lack_of_presence_in_the_Apostolic_Fathers (Accessed 22 May 2015), p. 37, states, "Ignatius treats the diabolos as a supernatural evil being."
  • 8 Gokey, op. cit., p. 77 n. 6.
  • 9 Schoedel, W.R. (1985). Ignatius of Antioch. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, pp. 69-70.
  • 10 Ehrman, op. cit., p. 227 n. 2, acknowledges this as the source of Ignatius' statement here.
  • 11 Schoedel, op. cit., p. 203, comments on IgnPhld 6.2, “The main effect of the devil’s activity is to negate ‘love.’ Common worship is the cure (cf. [IgnEph] 13.” Commenting on IgnTral 8.1, idem., pp. 149-150, writes, “The ability of the Trallians to resist Satan is described in terms of a renewal of faith and love” and “The corollary of the self-renewal of the Trallians against the snares of the devil (that is, against pride) is now stated: having nothing against one’s neighbor.”
  • 12 Translating 'demonic' are Schoedel, op. cit., p. 225; Holmes, M.W. (2007). The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, p. 251. Translating 'like the demons' is Ehrman, op. cit., p. 297. Translating 'demonlike' are Gokey, op. cit., p. 71; Sibinga, J.S. (1966). Ignatius and Matthew. Novum Testamentum, 8(2), 263-283, here p. 273.
  • 13 Arndt, W., Danker, F.W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 210.
  • 14 Mitchell, M.W. (2010). Bodiless Demons and Written Gospels: Reflections on ‘The Gospel According to the Hebrews’ in the Apostolic Fathers. Novum Testamentum, 52(3), 221-240, here p. 224.
  • 15 Schoedel, op. cit., pp. 225-226.
  • 16 Schoedel, op. cit., p. 226 n. 5.
  • 17 Proctor, T.W. (2013). Bodiless Docetists and the Daimonic Jesus: Daimonological Discourse and Anti-Docetic Polemic in Ignatius’ Letter to the Smyrnaeans. Archiv für Religionsgeschichte, 14(1), 183-204, here p. 185 (note: page numbers for Proctor are approximate since I do not have access to the published version but only a pre-submission draft available on academia.edu).
  • 18 Proctor, op. cit., p. 196.
  • 19 Proctor, op. cit., p. 187.
  • 20 Proctor, op. cit., p. 200.
  • 21 Schoedel, op. cit., p. 91 n. 24.

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