Satanology of the Apostolic Fathers: Epistles of Ignatius

Typically dated between 110 and 117 CE,1 seven epistles of Ignatius are recognized as genuine,2 with the ‘middle recension’ (quoted by Eusebius), considered the most reliable.3 Ignatius uses the satanological terms ‘ruler of this age’ (Ephesians 17.1; 19.1, Magnesians 1.1, Trallians 4.2, Romans 7.1, Philadelphians 6.2), ‘satan’ (Ephesians 13.1), and ‘the devil’ (Ephesians 10.3, Trallians 8.1, Romans 5.3, Smyrnaeans 9.9.1).

Ignatius treats the diabolos as a supernatural evil being. In Ephesians 19.1 he speaks of the birth of Jesus being concealed from the devil,4 and whilst this could be read as a reference to a human ruler (such as Herod, who was unaware of Jesus’ birth until informed by the wise men from the east), it would not explain why Ignatius speaks of the devil also being ignorant of Mary’s virginity. Such a reading would also fail to explain Ignatius’ warning against ‘the teaching of the ruler of this age’ in Ephesians 17.1.5

Ignatius exhibits a strong dualistic warfare between the church and the devil at the individual and corporate level (Ephesians 13.2).6 He exhorts the Romans not to take the side of the ‘ruler of this age’ (Romans 7.1),7 and counsels the Ephesians that their frequent congregational meeting thwarts the devil’s schemes (Ephesians 13.1).8 This is a further indication that his understanding of the devil is of a cosmological opponent rather than an internal struggle against personal impulses to evil which would indicate a non-mythological perspective.

Ignatius has frequent recourse to the devil or ‘ruler of this age’ in his hamartiology (Philadelphians 6.2),9 martyrology (Romans 5.3),10 theodicy (Magnesians 1.2),11 and soteriology (Ephesians 17.1).12 His consistent use of the devil as an explanation for of all forms of evil and wrongdoing illustrates its importance to his theology and reinforces the conclusion that for him the devil is a supernatural evil being rather than a personification of sin or sinful impulse.

However, Ignatius use daimonion as a reference to a disembodied post-mortem spirit like a ghost, rather than to a supernatural evil being. In Smyrnaeans 2.1 he uses daimonikois as a contrast to physical presence when emphasizing the physical reality of Jesus’s suffering and resurrection, deriding those who claim Jesus ‘suffered in appearance only’ by declaring ‘their fate will be determined by what they think: they will become disembodied and demonic [daimonikois]’.13 Likewise, in Smyrnaeans 3.1 he records the post-resurrection Jesus saying to his disciples ‘Take hold of me; handle me and see that I am not a disembodied demon’.14

In context, Ignatius is clearly addressing the disciples’ fear that Jesus was not physically present, rather than addressing a concern that Jesus had become transformed into a demon. Remarkably, Ignatius shows no knowledge of daimonion as a reference to a supernatural evil being; he makes no reference to demons, possession, or exorcism. Nevertheless, Ignatius’ repeated heavy emphasis on the devil as an explanatory recourse for all forms of evil demonstrates the strong mythological character of his writings.

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  1. ‘There has long been a virtually unanimous consensus that Ignatius was martyred during the reign of Trajan (A.D. 98–117).2 The Eusebian date of approximately 107–108 has been adopted by Frend,3 while many place it in the second half of Trajan’s reign (ca. 110–117).4 Attempts to fix the date more precisely have not been persuasive; if anything, the tendency is to enlarge the possible time frame in the direction of Hadrian’s reign (117–138).’, Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 131. []
  2. ‘Seven epistles of Ignatius – Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Symrnaeans, and Polycarp – are now generally regarded as authentic.’, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Cornell University Press, 1987), 34. []
  3. ‘A consensus of sorts in favor of the middle recension came to prevail following the publication of Pearson’s Vindiciae Ignatianae (1672), but the question was reopened when in 1845 William Cureton published the Syriac abridgment of three of the letters (the short recension). Not until the independent work of Theodor Zahn (1873) and J. B. Lightfoot (1885) was general recognition of the authenticity of the seven letters contained in the middle recension attained. Recent challenges6 to the current consensus have not altered the situation.’, Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 132. []
  4. ‘Now the virginity of Mary and her giving birth were hidden from the ruler of this age, as was also the death of the Lord— three mysteries to be loudly proclaimed, yet which were accomplished in the silence of God.’, Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 149. []
  5. ‘The Lord accepted the ointment upon his head24 for this reason: that he might breathe incorruptibility upon the church. Do not be anointed with the stench of the teaching of the ruler of this age, lest he take you captive and rob you of the life set before you.’, Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 147. []
  6. ‘There is nothing better than peace, by which all warfare among those in heaven and those on earth is abolished.’, Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 145. []
  7. ‘The ruler of this age wants to take me captive and corrupt my godly intentions. Therefore none of you who are present must help him. Instead take my side, that is, God’s. Do not talk about Jesus Christ while you desire the world.’, Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 147. []
  8. ‘Therefore make every effort to come together more frequently to give thanks and glory to18 God. For when you meet together frequently, the powers of Satan are overthrown and his destructiveness is nullified by the unanimity of your faith.’, Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 145. []
  9. ‘Flee, therefore, the evil tricks and traps of the ruler of this age, lest you be worn out by his schemes and grow weak in love. Instead gather together, all of you, with an undivided heart.’, Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 181. []
  10. ‘Bear with me—I know what is best for me. Now at last I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing visible or invisible envy me, so that I may reach Jesus Christ. Fire and cross and battles with wild beasts, mutilation, mangling,73 wrenching of bones, the hacking of limbs, the crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—let these come upon me, only let me reach Jesus Christ!’, Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 173. []
  11. ‘For inasmuch as I have been judged worthy to bear a most godly name, in these chains which I bear I sing the praises of the churches, and I pray that in them there may be a union of flesh and spirit that comes from Jesus Christ, our never-failing life, and of faith and love, to which nothing is preferable, and—what is more important—of Jesus and the Father. In him we will, if we patiently endure all the abuse of the ruler of this age and escape, reach God.’, Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 152. []
  12. ‘The Lord accepted the ointment upon his head24 for this reason: that he might breathe incorruptibility upon the church. Do not be anointed with the stench of the teaching of the ruler of this age, lest he take you captive and rob you of the life set before you.’, Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 147. []
  13. ‘For he suffered all these things for our sakes, in order that we might be saved;98 and he truly suffered just as he truly raised himself—not, as certain unbelievers say, that he suffered in appearance only (it is they who exist in appearance only!). Indeed, their fate will be determined by what they think: they will become disembodied and demonic.’, Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 185. []
  14. ‘For I know and believe that he was in the flesh even after the resurrection; (2) and when he came to Peter and those with him, he said to them: “Take hold of me; handle me and see that I am not a disembodied demon.”99 And immediately they touched him and believed, being closely united with his flesh and blood.100 For this reason they too despised death; indeed, they proved to be greater than death. (3) And after his resurrection he ate and drank with them like one who is composed of flesh, although spiritually he was united with the Father.’, Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 187. []

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