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2. Ignatius of Antioch |
This revolting new sect: Who, exactly, are they?

Ignatius of Antioch is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 39, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit www.TheChristians.info.

After torturing two slave girls, an icy bureaucrat deems the cult harmless, but as Ignatius is led in chains to Rome, the Christian sky darkens

Ignatius of Antioch • This revolting new sect: Who, exactly, are they?

Ignatius of Antioch • This revolting new sect: Who, exactly, are they?
Motivated more by curiosity than sadism, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (or as history knows him, Pliny the Younger) seeks to discover what the Christians in Bithynia are up to. Torture, he hopes, will wring the truth from them. Two deaconesses are the victims of his “inquiries,” and his conclusions about this sect are forwarded to the emperor Trajan in Rome: harmless, he writes, even if bizarre.

Around the year 110, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, the Roman governor of Bithynia in the northern part of what is today’s Turkey, discovered something truly disturbing: His province was crawling with members of a vile and dangerous religious cult called Christians. To Plinius—or Pliny, as he is known today to English-speakers—that was like opening a kitchen cupboard in your rich aunt’s mansion and finding it full of cockroaches.

Pliny was someone your rich aunt might have known had she lived during the early second century. He hailed from one of Rome’s wealthiest and most aristocratic families. His uncle, also named Pliny and known as Pliny the Elder, had been a famous amateur scientist whose intellectual curiosity had gotten the better of him; he had died of smoke inhalation in a.d. 70, after sailing into the harbor near Pompeii to take a closer look at the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pliny the Younger (his official name) had a talent for administration, and had chosen a life of government service in the bureaucracy of the Roman emperor Trajan, a military hero whom Pliny admired greatly.

Christians! Pliny had heard a little about them, and everything he had heard was bad. “Degenerate”—that was one word for the sect that stuck in Pliny’s mind. Pliny’s friend, the snobbish Roman historian Tacitus, maintained that the Christians were “notoriously depraved” and called their faith a “deadly superstition.” They were rumored to indulge in lewd nighttime ceremonies that included group sex, even with the participants’ own mothers and children, and the ritual slaughter of infants, whose blood they drank. To the Romans, who revered the family despite the debaucheries of some of their less lustrous emperors, such stories were shocking.

The worst feature of the Christian religion, however, was that dead Galilean carpenter, or criminal, or traitor, or whatever he was, who had been crucified—with good reason, no doubt—in Judea nearly a century before. A Jew! One of them! One of those stiff-necked, keep-to-themselves atheists who refused to worship the traditional gods (they claimed to have their own god, who was invisible and thus hardly counted as a god), and they were constantly whining about the rule of Rome and yearning for the arrival of a king of their own, whom they called the Messiah, or Anointed One. All educated Romans of the late first and early second centuries—Tacitus, his fellow historian Suetonius, and the writers Martial, Quintillian, and Juvenal among them—detested the Jews as haters of the human race, and they lumped Christians and Jews together.

The crucified carpenter had a Jewish name, Yeshua or, in Greek, Iesous, a version of Joshua, the name of the Jewish biblical hero, but Pliny and his Roman contemporaries probably didn’t know that. They called the dead Galilean simply Christus, a ridiculous name, since it came from the Greek for “Messiah,” and the carpenter had failed abysmally in that kingly role. Or perhaps his name was Chrestus, a common man’s name in the ancient world that meant “lucky,” was pronounced something like Christus, and was the name by which the Roman historian Suetonius, another of Pliny’s friends, seems to have known Jesus. In their bizarre rites, the Christians worshiped this Christus or Chrestus, this Christ, this Jewish criminal. Worshiped him like a god, it was said. “A god.” Pliny pondered that alien concept in his mind. This Christ was supposed to be alive somewhere or somehow—but hadn’t he been dead for some eighty years?

It was illegal to be a Christian in 110, and it had been so for some time. Historians are not certain why the Roman imperial government regarded the sect, whose numbers at the time did not exceed eight thousand in an empire of perhaps sixty million people, as arch-enemies of the state. Clearly, however, the Christians refused to worship the Roman emperors as gods—and every emperor since Augustus, who reigned when Jesus was born, had been deified either in his lifetime or shortly after his death. Refusing to recognize the emperor’s divinity was maiestas: treason, setting oneself up against the state, a crime punishable by death.

The Jews, of course, took exactly the same position as the Christians, but for nearly two centuries there had been a tacit arrangement that allowed the Jews to pray to their own god in their synagogues for the emperor’s well-being, rather than have to sacrifice directly to either the emperor or the pagan gods. Certainly, the Jews could be hard for a Roman official to handle. While Pliny was governing Bithynia, Jewish groups, outraged at the special taxes that Rome required them to pay, were plotting riots against Rome in their large communities in Egypt, northern Africa, and the Middle East. And there had been that ugly business in Judea in the year 70, when the Jewish homeland was ablaze with nationalist uprisings and the Roman army had to raze the entire city of Jerusalem, including the Jewish Temple, in order to get rid of the insurgents.

But even the Jews seemed preferable to the Christians who wherever they lived inevitably provoked antipathy, even among their own kinfolk, because their primary loyalties were to their movement and to each other, not to their pagan families and friends. Many Christians were converted Jews themselves, because the first Christian missionaries, such as Paul of Tarsus and his first companions, had also been Jews who preached Christ in the synagogues of every city they visited. Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah provoked the antagonism of their fellow Jews who did not.

In a.d. 49, Suetonius reported, there had been an uproar in Rome’s Jewish quarter “at the instigation of Chrestus” that had led the emperor Claudius to close down the synagogues and expel the Jews from the city. Nearly a generation later, the emperor Nero seized upon the general public aversion toward Christians to blame them for the Great Fire that raged through Rome in a.d. 64, a fire he was accused of having set himself in order to clear the land for some grandiose building projects. Nero ordered a series of sadistic punishments for them: crucifixions; dressing them in animal skins and having them torn to pieces by dogs; setting them afire as human torches.

Around a.d. 90, the emperor Domitian, notorious for his cruelty and his determination to crush all political and religious opposition, brutally persecuted “atheists”—suspected Jews and Christians—among Rome’s aristocratic families, including his own. By the time Pliny became governor of Bithynia sometime after 106, Roman policy was clear: You could charge someone with being a Christian (it was as simple as writing up a bill of complaint and presenting it to the local magistrate), and that person was in possibly serious trouble.

It was the parade of accused Christians into his courtroom that first alerted Pliny to the fact that the “notoriously depraved” sect had spread all the way north to Bithynia, a rich agricultural and trading colony positioned on the southern shore of the Black Sea, and was growing rapidly there. That was perhaps inevitable. Just to the west of Bithynia lay the prosperous port cities of Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece—Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth—where the Christian missionary Paul had preached his message of Christ crucified and sent his letters to Christian communities. Galatia, whose towns of Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe were among Paul’s stops, directly abutted Bithynia, and Paul had even stopped briefly in Bithynia itself. The apostle Peter had addressed one of his letters to Christians in Bithynia and other nearby regions.

So, since nearly everyone in Bithynia hated the Christians (their refusal to eat meat from animals slaughtered in sacrifice to the gods was said to be depressing prices at butcher shops), Pliny was soon trying large numbers of them in the tribunal that he headed as a provincial governor. Despite the presence in the sect of well-born ladies and gentlemen like Flavius Clemens and Domitilla, Christianity had a reputation as a slum religion, a faith for shoemakers, laundry workers, slaves, and other lowlife, who had few, if any, legal rights to begin with.

Ragged, malnourished, their very bones deformed in many cases by years of hard labor, these despised men and women seemed drawn to their strange Christ, who had taken the “form of a slave,” as Paul had written, even though he was supposed to be divine. The Christians repeated among themselves other words of Paul’s: that in Christ, “there is no longer slave or free.” Paul had written those words, which sounded to people of Pliny’s class like a call for mass mutiny, in a letter to the Christian community in Galatia—right next door to Bithynia! Trajan had recently issued an edict from Rome banning secret societies and refusing to allow their members to eat together, an edict that seemed specifically directed toward Christians and their treasonous designs.

Still, Pliny, dutiful official that he was, did not quite know what to do with all these wretched folk, men and women, adolescents and oldsters, city dwellers and peasants, who were dragged cringing before him. Some of them were denying that they were now or ever had been Christians. Others admitted that, yes, they had once worshiped Christ, but that was then, and they were now perfectly willing to revile his name, offer incense to the divine emperor, or do anything else that Pliny demanded of them in order to show that they were as good Roman subjects as anyone else. So Pliny sat down and wrote to his superior in Rome, the emperor Trajan, asking for advice.

Pliny was famous for his elegantly written letters, batches of which were periodically published—copied out by professional scribes and circulated—for the delectation of Roman literati who relished a good Latin turn of phrase. He was also slavishly attached to his hero, Trajan, who was widely liked by his subjects because of his humane and progressive administration and his blameless moral life—a relief to the Romans after the depravities of Nero and Domitian.1 Pliny pestered Trajan with letter after letter on the most minute administrative details. Neither he nor his emperor, however, regarded Christians as anything more than passing nuisances, on the order of a malfunctioning sewage system or a fire hazard in a public building that required official attention.

At the same time, Pliny took the precaution of arresting a couple of young slave-women, who happened to be deaconesses in the Christian community, and conducting an inquiry. That meant having the two girls tortured until he was satisfied that they were telling the truth. It was standard Roman procedure: First you stretched your victims out on a rack and cranked at both ends until you yanked some of their bones out of the joints. Then you moved on to the “claw,” a hook-like contraption that worked its way along the victims’ exposed flesh, tearing it to ribbons. And then . . . by then, nearly everyone talked.

The terrified deaconesses told Pliny everything they knew. Pliny duly passed along the information to Trajan: the weekly worship services at which Christians chanted hymns “in honor of Christ as if to a god,” as Pliny phrased it; the oaths that Christians swore to refrain from theft, robbery, adultery, and breaches of the peace; the gatherings they used to have before Trajan’s ban on secret societies, at which they shared food “of an ordinary, harmless kind,” not the blood of babies, Pliny wrote. Yes, the cult was “degenerate,” he informed Trajan, but it also seemed innocuous. Christians struck Pliny as a bit strange, but also as ordinary, law-abiding people who happened to hold beliefs and engage in rituals that were incomprehensible to him and other Romans. Pliny also informed the emperor about how he planned to handle the trials: All the accused would be asked three times to abjure Christianity; those who refused after the third opportunity would be executed immediately, except for Roman citizens, who would be sent to Rome for trial—just as Paul, a Roman citizen, had been taken to Rome from Jerusalem for trial some fifty years before.

Trajan’s response to Pliny came in the form of a “rescript,” an official reply, carrying the force of law, to a local administrator’s inquiry. The emperor agreed that Pliny was following exactly the correct procedure, one that should be followed henceforth. Here were the new rules: All Christians who appeared in court were to be given a chance to recant. If they repented of their faith and burnt a little incense to one of the gods or to Caesar, they were to be pardoned on the spot. Furthermore, Roman officials were not to initiate arrests of suspected Christians on their own, and no Christian could be condemned on an anonymous denunciation. Those bringing charges against them would have to prove their case in open court.

This “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, reaffirmed in another rescript in 124, became the official position of the Roman Empire toward Christians for nearly a century and a half. In some ways, Christians were worse off than they had been before, because it was now spelled out in writing that professing their faith could cause them to be hauled in front of a court to face a possible sentence of capital punishment. The form of execution was usually horrible: crucifixion, burning alive, scorching with red-hot irons, being gored by wild bulls or eaten alive by lions or leopards in the violent circus shows that the bloodthirsty Roman masses enjoyed. Alternatively, Christians might be sentenced to slavery in the imperial mines, where they would be worked to death on starvation rations. Rome was clearly afraid of these people whose first loyalty was to Christ, not Caesar, and who had the courage to die for their faith.

In other ways, however, the Christians were vastly better off under Trajan and his successors than they had been before. The persecution of Christians was a sporadic and local matter that depended on the whim of provincial governors—or of the emperor himself, who was free to suspend the sanctions if he wished. Under those conditions, Christianity flourished. By 150, less than forty years after Trajan’s rescript, the number of Christians in the Roman Empire had quintupled, to more than thirty thousand. By the middle of the third century, Christians numbered nearly 1.2 million—just under two percent of the empire’s total population but an astounding figure for a religion that had begun with a few frightened people huddled in a room in Jerusalem.

Nonetheless, even under Trajan’s relatively lenient policies, Christians were suffering for their faith. One of the most notable was Ignatius, bishop of the Christian community at Antioch in northern Syria. Ignatius was a remarkable figure, because he had personally, during his own lifetime, witnessed the entire growth of Christianity from the days of Paul onwards. Widely circulated stories held that Ignatius had even met Jesus himself as a little boy, perhaps while his parents were traveling on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The Gospel of Mark (9:36, 37) recounts an incident in which Jesus took a small child in his arms in Capernaum and said to his disciples: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Some early Christians said the small child had been Ignatius.

The story is not implausible. Antioch, one of the earliest centers of Christianity outside the Holy Land, lay about three hundred miles north of Jerusalem. It was a sprawling, sophisticated city, the fourth-largest in the Roman world after Rome itself, Alexandria in Egypt, and Carthage in North Africa. Antiochenes worshiped every god and goddess in the Greek, Roman, and Syrian pantheons, but their favorites were Bacchus, the god of wine, and Tyche, the goddess of luck and patroness of Antioch, whose statues could be seen everywhere in the city. There was also a flourishing Jewish community at Antioch, into which Ignatius might have been born.

Within a decade after Jesus’ death, there was a good-sized Christian community in Antioch as well. Both Paul and Peter preached at Antioch, converting both Jews and Gentiles. The Gospel of Matthew was believed to have been written there, and the evangelist Luke was said to have been born in that city. It was in Antioch, some time around a.d. 40, that the followers of Jesus first acquired the name “Christians,” the Acts of the Apostles (11:26) tells us—a name that Ignatius himself adopted with enthusiasm in his letters. Antioch’s Christian community, thriving from its earliest days (although occasionally marked by quarrels between Jewish and Gentile converts) and headed for a time by Peter himself, was a gateway to the East for missionary activities.

It was into this Antiochene world, bustling with commerce, glittering with wealth—and in its Christian quarter, alive with excitement over the new faith in a son of God who had become human and taken on human suffering—that Ignatius came of age. Perhaps he remembered the Galilean from that childhood journey south so long ago: the strong arms that had lifted him high, the kindly eyes that told him not to be afraid of all those rough fishermen with their strange way of talking, the voice, gentle yet insistent with authority that seemed to come directly from God. Ignatius likely knew Peter and Paul, and perhaps Luke and Barnabas, Paul’s companions, and also became close to the aged apostle and evangelist John, who was said to have died in Ephesus around the year 100. Certainly, Ignatius’s writings show the influence of John, making it quite plausible that he was John’s disciple.

We don’t know very much else about Ignatius, however, except that he eventually became bishop of Antioch’s Christian community, probably the third in line after Peter and another bishop named Evodius. According to one tradition, Peter laid his hands on Ignatius and gave him the mantle of leadership. Eventually, after he had served as bishop for thirty years, Ignatius ran afoul of the authorities on account of his Christian faith and was sentenced to die in Rome.

According to some, it was Trajan himself, sojourning at the imperial palace in Antioch, who personally passed judgment against the elderly bishop, after Ignatius defied an imperial command that Christians join with the pagans in worshiping the Roman gods. It is unlikely, however, that the enlightened Trajan would have bothered to attack the sect he regarded as only a minor nuisance. It is more likely that Ignatius somehow offended the local authorities in Antioch. In any event, Ignatius was condemned to be eaten by wild animals in the arena, and he was transported to Rome in chains to meet his death there in front of the screaming crowds.

Why the execution was scheduled to take place in Rome is a matter for conjecture; perhaps Ignatius was a Roman citizen, or perhaps, as Christian leader in the empire’s fourth-largest city, he was regarded as a prize prisoner to show off in the stadium. Under a guard of ten Roman soldiers, he made the long, slow, mostly overland trek westward, across Asia Minor, and along the Roman road that wound through the Balkan regions and Greece, where he was to be put on a ship headed for Italy. As he wrote in a letter:

I am already battling with beasts on my journey from Syria to Rome. On land and at sea, by night and by day, I am in chains with ten leopards around me—or at least with a band of guards who grow more brutal the better they are treated. However, the wrongs they do make me a better disciple.

News of his fate preceded him, and everywhere he stayed, delegations of Christians came to greet him as a celebrity of their faith. He wrote letters to those Christian communities (seven of the letters are still intact) after he moved on to the next town. In fact, Ignatius spent many months on that last journey in some of the cities in Asia Minor—Ephesus, Smyrna, Sardis, and Philadelphia—that were among the “seven churches in Asia” listed in the Book of Revelation (1:11).

Ignatius was a living, second-generation connection between these widespread Christians and the apostles—Paul, Peter, and John—who had actually witnessed Jesus’ ministry on earth. The pastoral letters that Ignatius wrote to the churches in Ephesus, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna, were modeled on those of Paul, Peter, and John, quoting freely from Paul’s own letters, the Jewish scriptures (he knew their Greek translation very well), and the four Gospels, which were widely circulated in the Christian communities by then. “My spirit is devoted to the cross, which is a stumbling block to unbelievers but salvation and eternal life to us,” Ignatius wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, echoing what Paul had written to the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:18–20) fifty years earlier. “Become wise as a serpent in everything and guileless forever as the dove,” Ignatius wrote elsewhere in a paraphrase of lines from Matthew’s Gospel (10:16). Jesus is the “door to the Father,” he wrote in a language that echoed John’s Gospel (10:7–9; 14:6).

In his letters, Ignatius begged the Christians in the little communities he visited to remain steadfast in their faith, reminding them that their churches should unite behind the leaders they called bishops, and cautioning them to remember that the Jesus Christ at the center of their faith was truly God’s son, but had also become a real human being who had suffered in the flesh—for there were already some who argued that Jesus was no more than a good man, and others who said he was a divine spirit in human disguise who had merely pretended to die on the cross. Ignatius worried that the Church would split up into quarreling factions and forget its roots in Judaism and the God of Israel.

Avoid, therefore, the evil sprouts that bring forth deadly fruit. Merely to taste this fruit is to meet a sudden death. Such are not the plants of the Father. If they were, they would appear as branches of the Cross and their fruit would be immortal.

As for himself, Ignatius actually looked forward to his martyrdom. He refused the entreaties of the Christians in Rome to let them do something about having his sentence commuted. (There was probably little they could do anyway.) In a letter to the Romans, Ignatius proclaimed that under the grinding of the beasts’ teeth into his flesh he would become the “wheat of God,” ready to be made into “the pure bread of Christ.” His dream of martyrdom came true. Sometime between a.d. 98 and the last year of Trajan’s reign in 117, the brave old bishop reportedly died on the sands of the Flavian Amphitheater in Rome—the structure, still standing, known today as the Coliseum—and his remains were brought back to Antioch to be buried.

When he died, however, Ignatius left behind a disciple who would carry on the word-of-mouth Christian tradition that he himself had received from Jesus’ apostles. That disciple was a man called Polycarp, a resident of Smyrna.2 Believed to have been born in a.d. 69, he was at least thirty when he first heard Ignatius preach. But according to tradition, he was already a Christian by then, having been born into a Christian family. Like Ignatius, Polycarp was said to have been a disciple—one of the last disciples—of the aged apostle John at Ephesus, so he was another second-generation link to the time of Jesus’ ministry. When John mentioned “an angel in the church of Smyrna” to whom Christ had promised “the crown of life” in the Book of Revelation (2:8–10), he may have had Polycarp in mind.

By the time Ignatius met him on the way to Rome, Polycarp had become bishop of Smyrna. After Ignatius was transported out of Smyrna to Troas, farther up the Aegean coast, he wrote letters, not only to the Smyrnaeans as a community, but to Polycarp personally. In his message to Polycarp, Ignatius praised the holiness of Christian marriage and also the life of celibacy that he and Polycarp had chosen. “Your mind is grounded in God as on an immovable rock,” he wrote.

Polycarp was among the most beloved of early Christian leaders. According to one of his disciples, Irenaeus, who later became bishop of Lyon in Gaul, a dispute arose among the early churches over whether Christians should celebrate Easter, the feast of Jesus’ Resurrection, on the day of the Jewish Passover, or as now, on the Sunday after Passover. Many of the churches of the East, including Asia Minor, opted for celebrating Easter on Passover, in recognition that Jesus was the perfect paschal sacrifice, while the churches of the West kept Easter on the following Sunday, because that was the day on which Jesus rose from the dead. Polycarp was selected unanimously by the churches in Asia Minor to travel to Rome and argue the Eastern position to Rome’s bishop, Anicetus. Polycarp and Anicetus never did resolve their differences on the Easter date, but they did agree that they were united in worship of Christ. (See also page 280.)

Around the same time, Polycarp wrote a letter to the Christians of Philippi (to whom Paul had also written), in which he argued, as Ignatius had, against Christians who refused to believe that Jesus had been a real human being, and not a god in disguise. Whoever “does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is antichrist,” Polycarp wrote. That letter, like those of Ignatius, was filled with quotations from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

Polycarp headed the Christian church in Smyrna until he was eighty-six years old. As for the Christians themselves, the very fact that they were becoming part of the urban landscape, in the period of quasi-tolerance that Trajan had initiated, started to turn their pagan neighbors actively against them in many places. Whispers that the Christians were “atheists” who refused to worship beloved local deities began to surface everywhere; the pagans feared that if the ancestral gods deserted their cities, they would be prey to natural disasters and economic catastrophes. Every time there was an earthquake in Asia Minor, it seemed, an outburst of local violence against Christians was sure to follow.

So it was not surprising that in 155, during the reign of Hadrian’s adopted son Antoninus Pius, who was in turn the adoptive father of the famous emperor Marcus Aurelius, Polycarp found himself dragged in front of a hastily convened Roman tribunal in Smyrna. A pagan mob had for days been calling for Christian blood. They first threw a group of Christians, including a teenage boy, to the wild animals in the Smyrnaean arena. Then someone remembered the old bishop who was in charge of all those Christians. Polycarp! “Down with the atheists! Let Polycarp be found!” the crowd began to chant.

Polycarp was at first not eager for martyrdom, and he let his friends spirit him away to a series of farmhouses outside the city. When he was finally tracked down, he offered no resistance, welcoming his pursuers and ordering that they be given food and drink. He also asked to be allowed to pray before being taken away. When they said he could, he stood and began praying in their presence. When he finished two hours later, those who had come to get him marveled at his constancy in spite of his age, and some even expressed regret over the whole affair, acknowledging that they had not been sent out to capture a desperado, but a godly and venerable old man.

He was taken straight to the stadium, where a Roman proconsul was waiting to try him on capital charges. The crowd was roaring like the very animals who had fed on his fellow Christians a few days earlier. But Polycarp was listening to another voice that seemed to come from heaven. It was saying, “Be brave, Polycarp, and act like a man.”

The story of what happened next comes from the oldest surviving account of a Christian martyrdom, written down by one of Polycarp’s own community at Smyrna. The proconsul, taking pity on the aged man just as those who arrested him had done, offered the bishop a deal: All he would have to do was say, “Away with the atheists”—just once!—and he could go free.

That was not so bad. Polycarp fixed a stern glance on the yelling crowd, looked up to heaven with a groan, and complied. Then the proconsul asked him to do just one more little thing: revile Christ in the name of Caesar. That the bishop could not do. “For eighty-six years, I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong,” Polycarp declared. “How can I blaspheme my king, who has saved me?”

The proconsul ordered Polycarp to be burned alive right in the arena. As he was tied to the stake above the pyre, he prayed continuously. The fire was lit—and then, his followers remembered, something miraculous happened. The flames shot up around him like a golden veil, but his body would not burn, glowing instead like bread baking or gold melting in a jeweler’s furnace. Finally, in exasperation, someone stabbed the old man to death. His spurting blood was said to have put out the fire.

The Christians of Smyrna never forgot Polycarp. They spirited his bones away to a grave that would become a place of honor for those who revered the martyrs—and as the years passed, and the number of Christians doubled every couple of decades, there would be much more hostility and many more martyrs, until eventually, the forces of imperial Rome itself would be arrayed in all their might to stamp out the new religion once and for all. Because of course, the Christian faith did not die with Polycarp. He had already personally passed it on—this faith that he had received from the apostle John himself at the end of the first century—to Irenaeus and the other great Christians of the end of the second century.

Some forty-five years before Polycarp’s martyrdom, the emperor Trajan, writing to his loyal administrator Pliny, had hoped that offering suspected Christians an opportunity to recant at trial—such a reasonable thing to do—would quietly eradicate the new and dangerous cult without much bloodshed. For Pliny had written so confidently: “From this one can easily conclude, what a number of people may be reformed, if they are given a chance for repentance.” Now, both Pliny and Trajan were dead, and the “great number” had never materialized. What was materializing instead were greater and greater numbers of new Christians.

This is the end of the Ignatius of Antioch category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 39, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Ignatius of Antioch from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at www.TheChristians.info