Ignatius of Antioch on the pre-existence of the exalted Christ

I don’t deal with this in the book, but I’m wondering whether the retrospective argument about the pre-existence of the exalted Christ gains a polemically heightened character in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107/108). Or to put it the other way round, is the marked concern to correct docetist tendencies that we see in Ignatius’ letters a post-Jewish intensification of the need that the apostles had to connect belief in the exalted Christ with a solid backstory about the Son sent to Israel?

Two related features of Ignatius’ thought come up for consideration along the way: the frequent designation of Jesus as theos, as “god” or “God”; and the relevance of the theme of suffering and martyrdom for the development of his christology.

Born and unborn

In his rather intriguing and complex book Jesus Among the Gods: Early Christology in the Greco-Roman World (2022), Michael Bird makes reference to Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians, where, he says, ‘Jesus is described as “begotten” (gennētos) with respect to his humanity and “unbegotten” (agennētos) with respect to his divinity, a major terminological shift that signals absolute deity’ (65).1

I wonder about that.

Not one to mince his words, Ignatius has warned that the bite of the “mad dogs” who are causing dissension in the community (presumably by denying Christ’s real humanity) is not easily healed. He insists that there is only one who can heal such deception. I’ve laid out the sentence to show the five antitheses (Ign. Eph. 7:1-2, my translation):

There is one healer,

fleshly and spiritual,
born and unborn (gennētos kai agennētos),
having been in flesh a god, in death true life,
both from Mary and from God,
first subject to suffering and then beyond suffering,

Jesus Christ our Lord.

However, gennētos only means “born,” as commonly in the idiomatic expression “born of woman” (Matt. 11:11; Lk. 7:28; 1 Clem. 30:5). “Unborn” (agennētos) is rare in the ante-Nicene literature and would in any case normally be used of God: “I implore you, Almighty LORD of all creation, unbegotten (agennētos) and incomprehensible, in whom all judgment was hidden before these things existed” (4 Bar. 9:6).

In the context of Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians, agennētos seems to be a reference to the resurrection as the beginning of a new life that does not entail “birth” or being born of a woman. To translate it as “unbegotten” overloads the term theologically.

The five antitheses all make the same point: first the “fleshly” (sarkikos) body, then the “spiritual” (pneumatikos) body (cf. 1 Cor. 15:44; Ign. Smyr. 3:3)2 ; first born of a woman, then alive but not through physical birth; first a god in a human person, then attaining to true life through death; first from Mary, then from God, who raised him from the dead (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1); first suffering as a human, then existing beyond suffering (apathēs) in a resurrection life as Lord (cf. Ign. Poly. 3:2).

That all seems quite straightforward. But what are we to make of the phrase “in flesh a god”? Here things get a bit muddier.

In flesh a god

The phrase could, of course, be translated “in flesh God”; and it appears in Patristic quotations as “in man God” (en anthrōpōi theos), reflecting later christological disputes. But there is a greater willingness these days to allow that in some measure early christology derived its language and conceptuality from pagan religious discourse. Indeed, Bird has already said that “for external observers of Christianity as much as for its internal practitioners, the Jesus written about and worshipped by Christians was, in many respects, a Greco-Roman deity who was described with the language of Greco-Roman religions” (22).

Justin Martyr, for example, happily blurs the boundary between the divinity of Jesus and that of the pagan gods and demigods:

Moreover, the Son of God called Jesus, even if only a man by ordinary generation, yet, on account of His wisdom, is worthy to be called the Son of God; for all writers call God the Father of men and gods. And if we assert that the Word of God was born of God in a peculiar manner, different from ordinary generation, let this, as said above, be no extraordinary thing to you, who say that Mercury is the angelic word of God. (First Apology 22)

Jesus Christ our god

There are several passages in the letters where Ignatius refers to Christ as “our god.”

  • The church in Ephesus has been “united and chosen in true suffering in the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ our god” (Ign. Eph. 1:0).
  • Jesus dwells in believers, who are “his temples,” and he is “in us as our god—who indeed will be made clear before our faces, because of which (?) we justly love him” (Ign. Eph. 15:3).
  • The church in Rome has “love for Jesus Christ our god” and is “god-worthy” (axiotheos); Ignatius greets them “in Jesus Christ our god,” who is the “only son” of the Father Most High (Ign. Rom. 1:0).
  • Expressing his determination to remain faithful when no longer visible to the world, Ignatius says that “Nothing visible is good; for our god Jesus Christ being in the Father appears more” (Ign. Rom. 3:3)—not a very elegant translation admittedly; the point basically is that Jesus is more visible for being invisible.
  • He wishes to strengthen Polycarp in all ways possible “in our god Jesus Christ” (Ign. Poly. 8:3).
  • Jesus is “our god… carried in the womb by Mary according to God’s plan, from seed of David, but of the Holy Spirit; who was born (egennēthē) and was baptised in order that by the suffering he might cleanse the water” (Ign. Eph. 18:1-2; cf. Tral. 9:1).
  • Ignatius glorifies the risen “Jesus Christ, the god who made you wise in this way…” (Ign. Smyr. 1:1).
  • He begs the church in Rome not to prevent his martyrdom: “Allow me to be an imitator of the suffering of my god…” (Ign. Rom. 6:3).
  • Members of the church in Ephesus have a “righteous nature according to faith and love in Jesus Christ our Saviour, being imitators of god, coming to life by the blood of god you completed fully the related work” (Ign. Eph. 1:1).

I have not capitalised “god” when it is applied directly to Jesus in this way because a distinction seems to be maintained between “Jesus Christ our god” and “God the Father” or simply “God.” Jesus is “our god” but he is at the same time the “only Son” of the Father (cf. Ign. Smyr. 1:1-2). He is “our god” but was carried in the womb of Mary “according to God’s plan.”

Ignatius classifies Jesus independently as a divine being without attempting to resolve the tension—as it appears to us—between Jesus as theos and the Father as theos, presumably because he inhabited a thought world in which the distinction was not yet problematic. Against a polytheistic background, it was not too difficult to think of Jesus as “god” while being at the same time Son of the God who is Father. The relation of Jesus to the Father is construed as somewhat equivalent to the relation of Mercury, Asclepius, Bacchus, Hercules, and Perseus to Jupiter as his sons (see Justin, First Apology 22).

That is not how the Jewish apostles thought, but I argue in the book that the phrase “in the form of a god” in Philippians 2:6 gives us an early glimpse of a pagan or post-pagan perspective on Jesus.

With the Father before the ages

So we observe that both the earthly and the resurrected Jesus are designated “god,” but not the pre-existent heavenly Jesus. The nearest we get to an affirmation of pre-existence is three seemingly parallel statements in the letter to the Magnesians:

  • Jesus “was with the Father before the ages (pro aiōnōn) and appeared (ephanē) at the end” (Ign. Mag. 6:1);
  • God is the “one temple,” Jesus Christ is the “one altar,” who “preceded (proelthonta) from one Father and was for one and went out” (Ign. Mag. 7:2);
  • the one God revealed himself “through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his word, who preceded (proelthōn) from silence, who in every respect pleased his Spirit” (Ign. Mag. 8:2).

The first statement seems to draw on language in the Pauline letters, particularly in the Pastorals, which expresses only the idea of a primordial decree or purpose or promise:

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages (pro tōn aiōnōn) for our glory. (1 Cor. 2:7)

…his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began (pro chronōn aiōniōn), and which now has been manifested (phanerōtheisan) through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus… (2 Tim. 1:9–10)

…in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began (pro chronōn aiōniōn) and at the proper time manifested (ephanerōsen) in his word through the preaching… (Tit. 1:2–3)

The other two texts are harder to interpret.

Ignatius uses proerchomai to mean “precede, go before”: “Concerning those who preceded (proelthontōn) me from Syria to Rome…” (Rom. 10:2). Arguably, then, when he says that Jesus “preceded” from God or from silence, he means that Jesus went out from God to be an altar of sacrifice—that is, to suffer faithfully—and pleased the Spirit of God (cf. Mk. 1:10-11; 9:7) in advance of those like Ignatius who now suffered faithfully for his name. This would be quite close to Paul’s statement that “God sent out his Son, having been from a woman, having been under Law, in order that he might redeem those under the Law” (Gal. 4:4-5, my translation), only without the orientation towards Israel. Ignatius has no interest in affirming continuity with Judaism (Ign. Mag. 8:1; 10:3; Phila. 6:1).

God appearing humanly

Having waded carelessly thus far into the unfamiliar swamp of Ignatius’ christology, we may consider one more text:

Therefore, all magic was dissolved and every bond, ignorance of evil disappeared, an old kingdom was overthrown, it was ruined (?) with God appearing (phaneroumenou) humanly (anthrōpinōs) for newness of eternal life; and what has (since) been completed by God had a beginning. From that point, all things were being stirred up because of the enactment of the dissolution of death. (Ign. Eph. 19:3, my translation).

Holmes translates the “God appearing” part thus: “when God appeared in human form.” But if we read the whole section, a rather different meaning presents itself. Ignatius has made reference to the conception of “our god Jesus the Christ” according to the plan of God. He then says that the virginity of Mary and her giving birth were hidden from the ruler of this age—as indeed was the death of the Lord, which suggests Ignatius’ dependence here on 1 Corinthians 2:8.

These three mysteries are to be loudly proclaimed, but they were accomplished “in the silence of God.” So “how then were they revealed (ephanerōthē) to the ages?” Ignatius asks. His answer, a little surprisingly, is: by means of the appearance of the star seen by the magi. It was this phenomenon which signalled in spectacular fashion the abolition of magic, ignorance, and an old kingdom. So God was silent at the conception and birth of Jesus—these were obscure events; but he was dramatically revealed to peoples far and wide in the star. Given that quite clear reasoning, we may ask whether “humanly” (anthrōpinōs) is a reference not to the incarnation (“in human form”) but to the ad hominem manner of the heavenly revelation of God’s intention.

Less than absolute deity

I would suggest, then, that Bird has rather overstated the case when he says that Ignatius’ terminology “signals absolute deity.”

As it was for Paul, the immediate christological datum for Ignatius is the reality and authority of the risen Lord, who was executed but who is alive with God, encountered as a dynamic personal presence through the Spirit. His major thesis, directed against the docetists, is that the pneumatikos heavenly Lord pre-existed as an ordinary human person, born of a woman, fleshly, subject to pain; and as we will see in a moment, this is important not only for christological reasons. Rather than anticipating a Trinitarian metaphysics, the term “unborn” refers straightforwardly to Jesus’ resurrection life.

Ignatius is also ready to call Jesus “god” or “God,” but in this regard we should be open to the possibility that for the first Greek-Roman converts to Christianity it was natural to think of Jesus as a god or divine person, distinct from God the Father, without attributing to him “absolute deity.” Where the affirmation falls on the spectrum between rhetoric and ontology, however, is difficult to say.

Pre-existence and suffering

One reason so much emphasis is placed on the prior humanity of the “god” Jesus Christ is that Ignatius was deeply conscious of the fact that he and the churches were bound to replicate the very human suffering of Jesus in their own lives. He was being taken in chains to Rome where he would be executed, perhaps in the Colosseum, perhaps mauled by beasts.

So, for example, he speaks of believers in Smyrna as “having been nailed to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ in flesh and in spirit,” being confident, as we have already seen, that Christ was “truly from the family of David according to flesh, Son of God according to will and power, having been born truly from a virgin…, truly having been nailed for our sakes in flesh under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch” (Smyr. 1:1-2). First an executed descendant of David, then the resurrected Son of God (cf. Rom. 1:2-4).

More to the point, Ignatius’ own suffering and imminent death are meaningful only because Christ suffered and died in the same manner before him. “For if these things were done by our Lord in appearance (to dokein), then I am bound in appearance” (4:2; cf. Tral. 10:1). Docetism was wrong because it denied the martyrs the opportunity to share in Christ’s sufferings. Paul would wholeheartedly have agreed.

The early church was bound to direct the pagan world towards a person who was “beyond time… timeless… unseen… untouchable… unable to feel…” (Ign. Poly. 3:1–2), and it is easy to see why people struggled to take his prior humanity seriously. But it was central to the christology of both Paul and Ignatius—a point I make in the book, especially with reference to the Colossians encomium—that the suffering of the exalted Christ in his Jewish pre-existence anticipated exactly the suffering of those who now proclaimed his name.

As a final observation, Ignatius identifies himself in the inscriptions to his letters as “the god-bearer” (ho theophoros). Later martyrs were sometimes called “Christ-bearers” (christophoroi), so perhaps in his progress to a violent death in Rome Ignatius thought of himself as bearing the god Jesus Christ in his body.

  • 1Cf. Papandrea, James L., The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age (2016), 92-93.
  • 2The attribution to Jesus of a sarkikos rather than a psychikos body reflects Ignatius’ anti-docetic purpose.

You say both Paul and Ignatius probably were expressing their belief that the “heavenly Lord pre-existed as an ordinary human person.” While I think this was true of Paul, I have a hard time reconciling this with Ignatius given the portion of his quote at the end of your post: “beyond time… timeless… unseen… untouchable… unable to feel…”

It seems to me “Jesus became God” transitioned very early on to “Jesus existed as a god prior to his human birth” as a direct result of the Matthew and Luke birth accounts and the fourth gospel. 

So to clarify…

1. This was with reference specifically to Bird’s comment on Ignatius, Ephesians 7:1-2 and the “born and unborn” antithesis.

2. I think it was Ignatius’ “major thesis”—the main argument he is making—that a very human Christ pre-existed the heavenly Christ who was the object of belief and veneration. Most of the christological material serves this argument and does not in itself point back to a prior heavenly condition.

3. The words “beyond time… timeless… unseen… untouchable… unable to feel…” apply to the risen Lord. It’s part of the refutation of Docetism. He encourages Polycarp not to buy into the view that the now exalted Lord never really suffered.

4. Nevertheless, Ignatius does say that Jesus “was with the Father before the ages and appeared at the end” (Ign. Mag. 6:1), which is difficult not to read as a statement of pre-existence. Cf. 1 Enoch 48:6: the Son of Man or chosen one is concealed in the presence of (the Lord of the Spirits) prior to the creation of the world.”

“The unseen who became seen” seems to argue against the idea that he was referring to the resurrected Jesus. They echo very closely John’s word becoming flesh.

Holmes likewise has “the Invisible, who for our sake became visible”; but there is no “became.” It reads literally: “the unseen, the one for our sake seen” (Ign. Poly. 3:2). I take this to mean: he is invisible now, but he was visible when he suffered previously on earth for our sakes. John has the aorist egeneto.

Yeah, I see you’re right. Ignatius first points out the present reality and then reflects back on Jesus’ earthly existence. Have a Merry Christmas!