Ignatius was born in the middle or second half of the first century, probably somewhere in Syria. His epistle to the Romans suggests that Ignatius, like Paul, was a Jewish convert to Christianity in adulthood.
In Ignatius’ letter to the church at Rome, written around 108 to 115 A.D., he called himself the Bishop of Syria. He was a contemporary of St. Polycarp, who was then the bishop of Smyrna.
The church he pastored had historic importance, dating back to even before St. Paul’s missionary journeys. Acts 11:19-21 records that some of the earliest Jewish Christians left Jerusalem for Antioch in the days following the stoning of the first martyr, Stephen. Some of the earliest Greek converts were there. Peter is thought to have pastored the church at Antioch at one time. Ignatius no doubt had heard stories from first-hand witnesses of Peter’s confrontation with Paul in Antioch, recorded in Gal. 2:11. However, the Book of Revelation mentions a church in nearby Laodicea, described as “lukewarm,” and does not include a letter to a church in Antioch at all. Had that church waned during the Domitian persecution? Whatever might account for the omission, by the time of St. Ignatius’ letters, Antioch was again the center of the Syrian church, and Ignatius was anything but lukewarm.
Jean Daniélou somewhat explains the difference between St. John and St. Ignatius. The Judaeo-Christian community of Ephesus "found in John its true direction," he says. "Literarily, the Apocalypse and the Gospel of John stem from this Judaeo-Christian milieu, where Essene influences are evident. The first of these works is stamped by the upheaval resulting from the profanation of the Temple in 70. . . .The counterpart of John's evidence is to be found in the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch; the latter crossed Asia at the end of Trajan's reign. The Letters he addressed to the Churches show the persistence of these Judaising tendencies, in fact they seek to curtail their excessive growth; these tendencies appeared in Ephesus. . . . We may wonder whether, especially in Ephesus, there was not a kind of coexistence between two communities, a Judaeo-Christian and a pagano-Christian."
In the early years of the second century, churches were still synagogues, meeting in homes. Ignatius’ church, or churches, would have been among those, but he was also concerned about those aspects of Judaism that posed difficulties for the Gentile world, preventing some Gentiles from accepting the faith. Christianity was gradually moving away from its conflict with the Pharisees for recognition as the True Israel. The Christians had begun to see Judaism as a separate religion from Christianity. Luke reported that the disciples were first called “Christians” at Antioch in Paul’s day (Acts 11:26). Ignatius’ letter to the church at Smyrna contains the first use of the phrase “the catholic Church.” Ignatius wrote, “Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is present, we have the catholic Church.” (Epistle to the Smyrneans).
Although the Church suffered less persecution under Trajan (98 to 117 A.D.) than it had under Nero and Domitian, persecution did not cease. Christianity was illegal. To deny the power of the gods was “atheism,” and those convicted were executed. Christians who refused to recant, were punished.
Ignatius was convicted in Antioch. He was then transported from Antioch to Rome for execution. During a stop at Smyrna, he wrote letters to the churches at Rome, Ephesus, Magnesia and Tralles. During a stop at Troas, he wrote letters to the churches at Philadelphia and Smyrna and a personal letter to Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna.
Syria was the eastern end of the church then, and Rome was the western end. Ignatius described himself in his epistle to the Romans as "Syria's bishop, summoned from the realms of the morning" and traveling toward "the land of the setting sun." In writing his last thoughts to five churches, much of what he said centered on the importance of unity and avoidance of heresy. In his Epistle to the Ephesians, Ignatius emphasized that Jesus was both human and divine, calling Him "Very Flesh, yet Spirit too; Uncreated, and yet born; God-and-Man in One agreed." He cautioned Christians to unite behind their bishops and to avoid the teaching of their heretical opponents.
Ignatius’ letter to the Romans differed in its emphasis from the other letters. Rather than cautioning against heresy, Ignatius asked the Romans not to deprive him of martyrdom by their pleas to the Roman government on his behalf. He asked the Roman church to pray for his own church in Syria, saying that his Syrian congregation now had God for their pastor, and had Jesus Christ to look over them in his absence.
Eusebius wrote that Ignatius died in Rome, killed by wild beasts in the amphitheater. The date of Ignatius’s death could be placed at 108 or 115 A.D.
Ignatius' letters were preserved at Polycarp's request, providing reason to believe that Ignatius was martyred as Eusebius reported. The church at Antioch survived. It continued to develop a Jewish Christianity while churches elsewhere became more Hellenistic.
Unfortunately, in the fourth century, Ignatius’ epistles were edited, by interpolation and by the addition of spurious epistles. The original, authentic writings of Ignatius were lost until the seventeenth century, when Archbishop Usher of Armagh discovered two manuscripts of a Latin translation of the original epistles. The Greek text was discovered not long afterward. The letters are widely regarded as authentic.
Bettenson, Henry, The Early Christian Fathers
Daniélou, Jean, and Henri Marrou, The First Six Hundred Years
Eusebius, The History of the Church
Frend, W.H.C., The Rise of Christianity
Ignatius of Antioch, Epistles, from Early Christian Writings
Louth, Andrew, Notes and Biographical Introductions in Early Christian Writings