Ignatius, Letter to the Smyrnaeans

Ignatius, Letter To the Smyrnaeans

IGNATIUS THEOPHORUS to the Church of God the Father and of the beloved Jesus Christ which is at Smyrna in Asia. I wish you every joy in an unblem­ished spirit and the word of God, Your Church has been mercifully blessed with every gift and is lacking in none; it has been filled with faith and charity; it is most worthy of God and fruitful in holiness,[1]

I give glory to Jesus Christ, the God who has imbued you with such wisdom. I am well aware that you have been made perfect in unwavering faith, like men nailed, in body and spirit, to the Cross of our Lord, Jests Christ, and confirmed in love by the blood of Christ. In regard to our Lord, you are thoroughly convinced that He was of the race of David ac­cording to the flesh, and the Son of God by His Will and power; that He was truly born of the Virgin and baptized by John in order that all due observance might be fulfilled[2] by Him; that in His body He was truly nailed to the Cross for our sake under Pontius Pilate and Herod, the tetrarch—of His most blessed passion we are the fruit[3]—so that, through His resurrection, He might raise, for all ages, in the one body of His Church, a standard[4] for the saints and the faithful, whether among Jews or Gentiles.

ForHe suffered all these things for us, that we might be saved. And He suffered truly, and just as truly raised Himself from the dead. He did not suffer merely in appearance, as some of the unbelievers say—they themselves being merely in appearance; for it will be their fate, in accordance with their faith, to be bodiless, and ghost-like.[5]

As for me, I know that even after His resurrection He was in the flesh, and I believe this to be true. For, when  He came to those who were with Peter, He said to them; Take hold on me and handle me and see that I am not spirit without a body,’[6] And, as soon as they touched Him and felt His flesh and pulse,[7] they believed. It is for this reason that they despised death and even showed themselves superior to death. After His resurrection He ate and drank with them like anyone else with a body, although in His spirit He was one with the Father.

Although I know you believe these things to him so, dearly beloved, I warn you. I am forearming you against wild beasts in the shape of men. If possible, you should not so much as meet them, let alone welcome them. However, you must pray for them, so that, difficult as this is, they may some­how repent. This is possible for Jesus Christ, who is our true life. If the things He did were done by our Lord merely in appearance, then I am in chains merely in appearance. And why, then, did I give myself up to death, to fire, to the sword, to the wild beasts? The fact is, near the sword, near to God; among the beasts, along with God—provided only that, in the name of Jesus Christ, I suffer along with Him. I endure all, for He who is perfect man is my strength.

There are some who deny Him, because they do not know Him; or, rather, they are denied by Him, because they are more in favor of death than of truth.[8] These men have been persuaded neither by the prophecies, nor the Law of Moses, nor, at least so far, neither by the Gospel, nor by the sufferings of any one of us in particular; for they think of us as they think of Him. In any case, what is the use of a man thinking well of me, if he speaks ill of my Lord by denying that He had a body. Anyone who denies this denies Him altogether—and is himself dead.[9] I do not think it right for me to set down the names of such men, so long as they are unbelievers. Indeed, I trust that I shall not so much as call them to mind until they return to faith in the passion which is our resur­rection.

Let no man be deceived. Judgment will be meted out even to heavenly beings, to the glorious angels and to princi­palities, visible or invisible, if they do not believe in the blood of Christ. He who can take let him take it.[10] Let no one’s position puff him up; for faith and charity are all in all, and nothing is to he preferred to them. 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 and 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.

And so denying the gift of God, these men perish in their disputatiousness. It were better for them to love and so to rise again. It is well for you to keep away from such persons and not even to speak of them in private or in public. It is better to keep to the prophets and especially to the Gospel in which the passion is presented and the resurrection is an accomplished fact.

Shun schisms, as the source of troubles. Let all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father, and the priests, as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Apart from the bishop, let no one perform any of the functions that pertain to the Church. Let that Eucharist be held valid which is offered by the bishop or by one to whom the bishop has committed this charge. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.[11] It is not lawful to baptize or give communion[12] without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever you do will be safe and valid.

It will be well for us from now on to return to sobriety, to set our minds on God while still there is time. It is good to acknowledge God and the bishop. A man who honors the bishop is certainly honored by God. A man who acts without the knowledge of the bishop is serving the devil. And so, may all, by grace, abound among you as you deserve. You have been a consolation to me in every way. May Jesus Christ be the same to you. Whether I was with you or away, you loved me. May God repay you. You will be with Him one day, if you will but bear all things for his sake.

It was good of you to welcome Philo and Rhaius Agathopus as deacons of God, for they followed me for the sake of God. They give thanks to the Lord for you in return for the manifold consolation you gave them. Nothing you gave is lost to you. I do not offer my life for you and also my bonds, which you did not despise— nor were you ashamed of them. Neither will Jesus Christ, who is fidelity itself, be ashamed of you.

Your prayer has reached as far as the Church in Antioch of Syria, to which, however unworthily—for I am the least among them—I belong. I come from there in chains which are pleasing to God, and I salute you all. By the divine will it has been vouchsafed to me that, through your prayer, I might reach God. This is not through any merit of mine, but by the grace of God; and I pray that the final grace may be given me. If you would have your work perfect in heaven and on earth, you should have your Church appoint for the honor of God an ambassador of God to go to Syria to con­gratulate them for being in peace after returning to their proper size and after having had restored to them their corporate character.[13] It seemed to me a deed that is worthy of you to send someone from among you with a letter, so that he might join with them in giving glory for the calm which has come upon them from God and for the fact that, with your prayers, they have reached the harbor. Your perfec­tion calls on you for perfect resolutions. If only you are ready to do good, God will be ready to help you to do it.

The love[14] of the brethren who are at Troas salutes you. I am writing from here by the hand of Burrhus, whom you and your brethren from Ephesus sent to accompany me. Burrhus has consoled me in ever so many ways. He is a model in God’s ministry, and I could wish that everyone would imitate him. God’s graciousness will repay him for all his kindness. I salute your saintly bishop and your venerable priests and my fellow laborers, the deacons. I salute each and all of you in the name of Jesus Christ, and in His flesh and blood, in His passion and resurrection in body and spirit, in oneness with God and with you. Grace be to you and mercy, peace and patience at all times.

I salute the families of my brethren, with their wives and children and the virgins who are called widows.[15] I bid you farewell in the power of the Father. Philo, who is with me, sends his greetings. I salute the family of Gavia, and I pray that she may be rooted in faith and charity in body and spirit. I salute Alec, a name that is dear to me, and Daphnus who has no equal, and Eutecnus, and all and each by name. Farewell in the grace of God.


[1]  Literally, ‘bearer of sacred vessels.’ As so often, St, Ignatius usesthe vocabulary of pagan religion to convey a Christian meaning. The ‘sacred vessels’ for a Christian community are the graces and virtues of the saints and other faithful.

[2]   Cf. Matt. 3.15.

[3]   Reading karpol instead of karpoú.

[4]  As though the standard of the Cross were a fulfillment of the stand­ard of Yahweh for the rallying of the chosen people alluded to in Isa.5.26; 49.22; 62.10, Cf., too, John 12.32: ‘Yes, if only I am lifted up from the earth, I will attract all men to myself.’

[5]  By denying the reality of our Lord’s human body, the Docetists implicitly denied the hope of any resurrection of the body.

[6]  The words, according to Luke 24.39, were ‘Look at my hands and my feet … touch me and look; a spirit has not flesh and bones, as you see that I have.’

[7]  The Armenian version has ‘blood,’ but St. Ignatius may have inmind John 20.20-22: ‘And with that, he showed them his hands and his side . . . With that, he breathed on them, and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit.

[8]  By denying the truth of the resurrection, the Docetists denied the hope of our immortality.

[9]  Literally, a ‘corpse-bearer.’ By the denial of immortality the living body of a Docetist was already practically a corpse.

[10] Matt. 19.12

[11] The expression katholiké ekklesia here appears for the first time in Christian literature. Later, ‘as in the Catecheses of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, katholiké meant both ‘universal’ and ‘orthodox.’ Here the word seems to mean only ‘universal.’

[12] Literally, ‘to hold a love-feast or ‘community meal.’ The precise relation of the agape to the Eucharistic Communion is not clear. I here is a hint in 1 Cor. 11.20 that the community meal preceded Holy Communion. In the famous letter of Pliny to Trajan, written near the time of the martyrdom of St. Ignatius, there is a hint that the sacramentum preceded the taking of food which, Pliny thought, was ‘ordinary and harmless.’

[13] The Church of Antioch had been diminished and disorganized by persecution.

[14] Or, perhaps, ‘the community.’

[15] The support of poor widows was carefully organized in the early Church. It is not clear that there was any ‘religious order’ of consecrated virgins or widows in the time of St. Ignatius.