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Jesus as a Divine Human: Ignatian Christology (Part III)

Though playing no direct role in the forthcoming creedal developments, it would seem to me that Ignatius provides the ground work for such debates. He appears to be countering a docetic background (i.e., Jesus only appeared to be human) because he emphasizes Jesus' human decent matched with Divine elements. The orthodox creeds could find seminal form in Ignatian Christology. For the other articles in this series, please see:

Part I: Ignatian Christology

Part II: Trinitarian and Cultic Imagination The Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians

Frequently, Ignatius appears to balance both a human and divine nature to Jesus. Though playing no role in the language development of later creeds (prosopon and hypostasis, or ousia and phusis), “he anticipated and even embodied within his own Christology later controversies and doctrinal development.”[1]

Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians highlights a balanced divine humanity. He provides a warning to the church to be mindful of those “carrying about the Name maliciously and deceitfully” (Ign.Eph 7.1). These are wild beasts who bite and their bites are hard to heal, but we have a physician. Ignatius takes the imagery of sickness and provides Jesus the title of physician. “There is one physician” may mimic the “oneness” motif Paul writes about in Eph 4.4–6. According to Ignatius, Jesus is both “flesh and spirit”, “born and unborn”, “God in man”, “true life in death”, “from Mary and from God”, and “suffering and then without suffering” (Ign.Eph 7.2). He provides a seemingly paradoxical creed, whereby Ignatius affirms two distinct realities: divinity and humanity. “Both flesh and spirit” reflect two spheres that “refer to human and divine realit[es] respectively.”[2] These paradoxical pairs comprise Ignatius’ ontological Christology because Jesus is “God in Man.”[3]

Human and divine images are simultaneously expressed in ἐν αἵματι θεοῦ (trans: “in the blood of God”) (Ign.Eph 1.1). First, God is incapable of possessing blood because he is spirit. Second, blood is a human expression. Therefore, these expressions provide an ontological “oneness” of the human and divine by using anthropomorphic symbolism.

The Letter of Ignatius to the Magnesians

Primarily discussing ethics with church leaders, Ignatius makes a small remark about the humanity of Jesus. This could be a possibly be driven against a docetic background. Jesus was subjected to the Father while in the flesh (κατὰ σάρκα) (Ign.Mag 13.2). Moreover, God has revealed himself through Jesus (Ign.Mag 8.2).

The humanity of Jesus is explicitly demarcated in chapter 11. Ignatius warns his reader “not to get snagged” by worthless opinions, rather they are to be convinced of Jesus’ birth, suffering, and resurrection under the governorship of Pontius Pilate. A few topics and expressions seem to be an affront to Judaism, as it was earlier discussed, or against docetism. Jesus was before a physical person, Pilate, and this “underscore[s] the reality of the passion in the face of docetic doctrine.”[4] Moreover, the two adverbs ἀληθῶς and βεβαίως underscore the certainty of these events for Ignatius and are in opposition to docetism.[5]

The Letter of Ignatius to the Trallians

The symbolic imagery of Jesus’ humanity is made plain in Ign.Tral 8.1. Ignatius continues to give warnings about guarding oneself. To take guard is to arm yourself with gentleness, regain ones strength in the faith, and in love. The final two elements serve symbolically for the humanity of Christ. To regain ones strength in the faith is “the flesh of the Lord”; and love is “the blood of Jesus Christ”. Eucharistic symbols bring out the “reality of the incarnation or, more precisely, Christ’s death.”[6]

Remarks against Docetism are found in Ign.Tral 9–11. A historical Jesus, aptly connected to theological motifs, governs the long description in Ign.Tral 9.1. Jesus is of the line of David, from Mary, was born, ate and drank, persecuted under Pontius Pilate, crucified and died, and raised by the father from the dead. Furthermore, the adverb “truly” (ἀληθῶς) appears four times, highlighting key events in the life of Jesus,[7] modifying the following clauses: (1) truly was born; (2) truly was persecuted under Pontius Pilate; (3) truly was crucified and died, and; (4) truly was raised form the dead.

Furthermore, Ignatius upholds the cause of his chains against those unbelievers (i.e. atheists). These atheists say Christ “suffered in appearance only” (λέγουσιν, τὸ δοκεῖν πεπονθέναι αὐτόν). His logic against this accusation is two fold. First, he mocks those who claim this. Ign.Tral 10 “But if, as some atheists (that is, unbelievers) say, he suffered in appearance only (while they exist in appearance only!), why am I in chains?”  He is appealing to the same manner these atheists “appear” so does Christ “appear”.[8] Secondly, Ignatius would not be in chains or desire to fight with wild beasts if Christ only died in appearance. This final argument is “connected with the charge often leveled at a later date that Gnostics denied the value of martyrdom.”[9]

The Letter of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans

Ignatius continues his list of titles for the humanity and divinity of Christ in Ign.Sym 1. Like Ign.Tral 9, he provides a long list with a tri-fold use of truly (ἀληθῶς). After having similar statements, Ignatius develops a creedal confession of the Trinity, Bi-nitarian sentiment, and individual personhoods of the Godhead. This development gives hints of “semi-credal statements about Christ dominated by the anti-docetic ‘truly’.”[10] According to this text, Jesus is of the family lineage of David with respect to human descent, Son of God with respect to divine will, born of a virgin, baptized by John, and nailed in the flesh.

Ignatius desires to give prominent attention to the historical Jesus. This list is similar to the Pauline creedal confession in Rom 1.3–4 with a change of emphasis on the crucifixion as opposed to the resurrection. In Ign.Sym 1, the adverb “truly” (ἀληθῶς) modifies the following expressions: (1) truly of the family of David with respect to human descent; (2) truly born of a virgin, and; (3) truly nailed in the flesh for us under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch.

Comparing the adverb “truly” (ἀληθῶς) when used in Ign.Tral and Ign.Smy, specific emphases are prevalent. Ignatius is concerned about the human form of Jesus, set against the docetic doctrine. Pontius Pilate is a historical figure of importance. The virgin birth and crucifixion is emphasized. One is left wondering why there is not the same value placed upon the resurrection? This silence does not devalue the resurrection; it typically is left out of his creedal expressions. Immediately following this creed, Ignatius uses “truly” (ἀληθῶς) with suffering and resurrection (Ign.Smy 2; also cf. Ign.Smy 6.2).

Ignatius continually sets forth an anti-docetic apologetic. Ign.Smy 3 is an excursus upon Jesus’ humanity. He was in human form post resurrection (Ign.Smy 3.1). Ignatius quotes a saying of Jesus, found in similar places in Matthew 28.9 and Luke 24.39. The saying in Ign.Smy 3.2 is, “Take hold of me; handle me and see that I am not a disembodied demon.” Jerome claims to have found this source in the Gospel according to the Hebrews and Origen is familiar with this saying from the Teaching of Peter.[11] Matthew 28.9 says “And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.” Luke 24.39 says, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Feet have an interesting role in folklore and Jewish mysticism.

There is a body of folklore regarding the feet of otherworldly beings. According to later Jewish superstition, for example, demons can disguise themselves well enough (cf. 2 Cor. 11:14) except for their feet, which always remain ugly and so inescapably betray their evil identity. The relevant and intriguing fact for our purposes, however, is that, throughout worldwide ghost lore, the spirits of the dead often appear without feet or legs. The explanation for this appears to be the phenomenology of human experience.[12]

Here we have multiple accounts through various independent accounts depicting mystical and ghost-like figures; they lack feet.[13] Therefore, the Gospel sayings and this present Ignatius saying offer independent validation to the human nature of Jesus. This tradition continues Ignatius’ “anti-docetic purpose.”[14]

[1]Thomas G. Weinandy, “The Apostolic Christology of Ignatius of Antioch: The Road to Chalcedon,” in Trajectories Through the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers, ed. Andrew F. Gregory and Christopher M. Tuckett (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 83.

[2]Schoedel, Ignatius of Antioch, 60.

[3]Weinandy, “Apostolic Christology of Ignatius,” 83.

[4]Schoedel, Ignatius of Antioch, 129.

[5]Schoedel, Ignatius of Antioch, 129.

[6]Schoedel, Ignatius of Antioch, 149.

[7]Mikael Isacson, To Each Their Own Letter: Structure, Themes, and Rhetorical Strategies in the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, Coniectanea Biblica New Testament Series 42 (Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2004), 117.

[8]Isacson, Their Own Letter, 118.

[9]Schoedel, Ignatius of Antioch, 156. Schoedel also calls attention to Irenaeus Adv. haer. 3.18.5 and Eusebius Hist. eccl. 4.7.7 as highlighting a similar denigrating thought of martyrdom. However, the present author could discern no such thing upon investigation.

[10] Schoedel, Ignatius of Antioch, 220.

[11] Schoedel, Ignatius of Antioch, 226–27.

[12] Dale C. Allison Jr., Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 113.

[13] W.D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, vol. 3, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 1997), 669.

[14] Schoedel, Ignatius of Antioch, 227.

Dale Allison on the History of Interpretation

Trinitarian and Cultic Imagination: Ignatian Christology (Part II)