The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians

When we come to Ignatius, we come an odd-ball textual situation. All of his letters exist in at least two different version, and in the case of three of his letters, three or versions (counting the Syriac, Armenian, and Arabic translations). With the fairly recent discovery of these other versions, however, it has become clearer (as it was not in the days of Roberts/Donaldson) that the shorter version published in Schaff’s set is the more reliable, and that the longer versions contain interpolations from other letters that are now usually regarded as not from Ignatius. Take a look at the excellent article on the subject in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, the important part of which was published here. The Anchor Bible entry is at the bottom of the page. The links at the bottom of the first list apply to the Ephesian letter. Unfortunately, no Greek exists on that website. This website, however, has it in a beautiful Greek font. For all you diehards (who may constitute an entire category of, like, 1 person, or may even be a null set!) who want it in the PG series, all of Ignatius’ letters are in volume 5. The Ephesian letter starts on column 643.

The letter to the Ephesians is not terrifically exciting. It consists mainly of praise of the Ephesians alongside exhortations. The outline is as follows (I will be quoting only the shorter version): I. Praise of the Ephesians (chapters 1-4); II. Praise of and exhortation to unity (chapters 5-6); III. False teachers (chapters 7-10); IV. Various exhortations (chapters 11-15); V. False teachers again (chapters 16-17); VI. The Gospel (chapters 18-19); VII. Conclusion (chapters 20-21).

Some interesting points: I liked this quotation from chapter 14: “None of these things is hid from you, if ye perfectly possess that faith and love towards Christ Jesus which are the beginning and the end of life. for the beginning is faith, and the end is love.” Also, his stern rebuke against false doctrine bears repeating today when we tend to think of false doctrine as being of almost no consequence whatsoever: “Do not err, my brethren. those that corrupt families shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If, then, those who do this as respects the flesh have suffered death, how much more shall this be the case with any one who corrupts by wicked doctrine the faith of God, for which Jesus Christ was crucified! Such an one becoming defiled [in this way], shall go away into everlasting fire, and so shall every one that hearkens unto him” (the entirety of chapter 16). False doctrine is wickedness. I wonder how many people today would even think that, much less say it!

A very puzzling statement occurs in chapter 18. The context does not seem very enlightening, either. The statement itself goes thus: “For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost. He was born and baptized, that by His passion He might purify the water” (end of chapter 18). What in the world does “purify the water” mean? One would assume that baptism, correctly administered, doesn’t need purifying! Does it refer to child-bearing? But how then would His passion purify child-bearing? In the Greek, it looks like “the water” could actually be the subject (being a neuter noun, it could be either accusative or nominative case), and not the object of the verb “purify.” Thus it would be “by His passion, the water might purify,” which would be a lot clearer. Both the Lightfoot and Roberts-Donaldson translate “the water” as accusative case (object of the verb).

One final quotation, which might give too much to the Eucharist, but is still a beautiful way of describing it: “Breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ” (end of chapter 20). I just love that phrase “the medicine of immortality” to describe the Lord’s Supper.



  1. Bryan Cross said,

    May 12, 2012 at 9:57 am


    “Purify the water,” refers to baptism, because what is not pure cannot purify, and yet we are purified in baptism. Christ had no need of purification. Rather, the water had need of purification by Him, for our sake.

    “[In] the birth by water and the Spirit, Jesus himself led the way in this birth, drawing down upon the water, by his own baptism, the Holy Spirit; so that in all things he became the firstborn of those who are spiritually born again, and gave the name of brethren to those who partook in a birth like to his own by water and the Spirit” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius 2:8).

    “The Lord was baptized, not to be cleansed himself but to cleanse the waters, so that those waters, cleansed by the flesh of Christ which knew no sin, might have the power of baptism. Whoever comes, therefore, to the washing of Christ lays aside his sins” (St. Ambrose, Commentary on Luke 2:83).

    “Someone might ask, “Why would a holy man desire baptism?” Listen to the answer: Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water. For when the Savior is washed all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. Christ is the first to be baptized, then, so that Christians will follow after him with confidence” (St. Maximus of Turin, Sermon on the Feast of the Epiphany)

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  2. greenbaggins said,

    May 12, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Bryan, I would agree that he’s talking about baptism. My question is whether “the water” ought to be read as accusative or nominative case.

  3. John Harutunian said,

    May 12, 2012 at 12:43 pm


    Regarding the Eucharist, how does this phraseology sound?

    “The Eucharistic bread is the _agent_ through which we receive that life which is the life of the world to come.”

    Your Anglican brother in the faith,
    -John Harutunian

  4. greenbaggins said,

    May 12, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    John, I could not agree. Faith is the agent through which we receive that life. The eucharist is a confirmation of what we already have, not a purveyor of what we do not have. I still like the phrase “medicine of immortality.”

  5. ajmccallum said,

    May 12, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    Yes Lane, maybe not terribly exciting but it’s interesting just how much controversy his writings stirred up in the Reformation era, particularly over the matter of ecclesiology. In terms of the post-Apostolic witness on ecclesiology Ignatius is very important, although I’m sure Ignatius never intended to teach anything about ecclesiology other than simple matters like people ought to obey their bishops.

  6. jedpaschall said,

    May 12, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    Could it be that Ignatius is employing a different use of purification here? Could he be stepping outside the typical semantic range of purify, and be using it in some sense of perfecting or completing the efficacy of the baptismal waters, in a similar way in which the implements of the OT Temple were purified, and thus ready for use? I understand that the Johanine use of Ezekiel’s end time temple imagery, including the eschatological water cleansing in Ez. 36 figures prominently in the allusion to kingdom entrants having been washed with water and word in Jn. 3. Given Ignatius’ historical proximity to John, could this simply be theological reflection on the Johanine textual witness?

    Just a thought, unfortunately, since Ignatius didn’t write in Hebrew whether or not water is an accusative is all greek to me.

  7. johnbugay said,

    May 18, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Has anyone read Allen Brent on Ignatius? Brent places Ignatius as squarely within (and borrowing heavily from) the pagan culture of the day. He makes the case that Ignatius borrowed heavily from something called “the Second Sophistic”, a kind of political movement by which the Greek city-states of the era sought to retain their Hellenistic identity, while at the same time, not offending their Roman masters. The word “catholic” was first applied to this “Second Sophistic” movement, which, before it was applied to “the church”, it was applied to the universality of the [pagan] Greek culture.

    Brent also posits that Ignatius was trying to orchestrate a kind of “martyr procession” among the cities to which he traveled — which was, again, another reflection of the Pagan culture.

    I’m not aware of other writers who have picked up on these concepts, or explored them further, but for me, it does explain and clarify where the “early catholic” look and feel of the church came from — that imperceptible pivot in the early and middle second century that no one really has been able to explain (and which Roman Catholics say was part of the church “from the beginning”).

    In actuality, the earliest church exchanged its Jewish look and practices for a pagan look and practices. These took hold, and seem to have confounded the church ever since.

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