Essay Excerpt: Ignatius and θεοφορός (Part One)

Here’s an excerpt from the essay I wrote on Paul and Ignatius. It concerns his use of the term θεοφορός, ‘God-bearer.’

We may begin our analysis of Ignatius by examining the term Θεοφορός, the title that Ignatius uses at the beginning of all letters: “Ἰγνάτιος, ὁ καὶ Θεοφόρος.” The term is a compound of the noun θεὸς and the participle φορὸς, meaning “God-bearer.” The interpretation of this term is controversial, but it has the ability to shed light on Ignatius’ self-understanding and the depth of his identification with Christ. Two interpretative options will be given, and then I will show the participatory implications of both.

The first option presents the term functioning as an additional name for Ignatius. Thus, Lightfoot translates the opening, “Ignatius, also called Theophorus,” and leaves the term untranslated. Supporters of the second option believe the word functions as a semi-technical cultic title that has been re-appropriated in a Christian way. Holmes thus translates the phrase this way, “Ignatius the Image-bearer.” The adaptation in this case would come from Greco-Roman epiphany processions. In these processions, an “image-bearer” would carry an image that was supposed to mediate the presence of a deity. Some argue that this is the material Paul is drawing on when he speaks of “always bearing (περιφεροντες) in our bodies the death of Jesus.” Likewise, it is argued that Ignatius is using Pagan cultic practices and redrawing them around Jesus.

Reading θεοφορός as an additional name readily coheres with what we know of early Christianity. Early Christian leaders regularly had name changes, or additional names given. Saul became Paul following his conversion in the narrative of Acts. Even more famously, Simon became Peter in Matthew 16:18. Names had important theological implications, in both the Old and New Testaments. There are copious examples to choose from, but one famous example comes from Isaiah 7:14 where the child was to be named “Immanuel” meaning “God with us.” Of course, this gets picked up by the New Testament writers and applied to Jesus. So even if θεοφορός is an additional name for Ignatius, it is still legitimate to explore the theological implications of the term. The idea of “bearing God” in his body certainly shaped Ignatius as he reflected on his approaching death.

The second option reads θεοφορός as a title that has been drawn from the Greco-Roman epiphany processions. Since a θεοφορός denoted the personal carrying an image of a deity in these Pagan practices, this reading argues that Ignatius draws on this practice, redefining it in Christian terms. Instead of mediating the presence of a god through an image, Ignatius as a θεοφορός would evoke notions of carrying the presence of God in his own body. He is the true “God-bearer”, over against the pagan θεοφόροι. This reading is particularly strong if Paul is doing the same thing in 2 Corinthians. For several reasons, I find this reading more plausible. Ignatius uses the term when referring to the Ephesian Church in Ephesians 9:2. Holmes notes that if θεοφορός is functioning as a name, “it would be the first instance of such a usage.” Finally, it may function as a parallel to Paul’s use of ἀπόστολος. However, we will see strong participatory significance in either case.

First, if θεοφορός is a name for Ignatius, then it is would have played a significant part in his self-reflection. It may have been given to him at his baptism, or at some other significant even in his life. It may have come out of a charismatic experience similar to what he describes in Philadelphians, or that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14. One cannot do much more than speculate about the source of the name, but if it were a name then it surely would have had significance.

On the other hand, if θεοφορός is a title, then Ignatius is deliberately making an ironic ploy. In this case, he defines himself over against the pagan image-bearers as the “image-bearer” of the one, true God. The image is not an idol made of gold, but rather his own body and ministry. The presence of God within him is best seen as he participates in the suffering of Christ. Indeed, he speaks of “rejoicing in the suffering of our Lord” (Ign Phld Salutation).

We may further note the similarity between θεοφορός for Ignatius and ἀπόστολος for Paul. Structurally, they come at nearly identical places in the letter. Paul most often begins his letters with, “Παυλος ἀπόστολος.” Ignatius begins every one of his letters with “Ιγνάτιος ὁ και θεοφορός.” The immediate difference is the presence of the article ὁ and the conjunction καὶ. Still, the similarities are significant. Paul’s self-understanding as an apostle of Jesus shaped and influenced everything he did. We see this throughout his letters, but especially in 2 Corinthians, which we examined earlier. I suggest that θεοφορός shares similar significance for Ignatius. This is a strong claim, and would take rather detailed exegesis to argue in full detail. For now it is sufficient to note the participatory significance of θεοφορός. At the present, we may finally turn to the texts in more detail.

Perhaps more to come…

3 thoughts on “Essay Excerpt: Ignatius and θεοφορός (Part One)

  1. I think my first inclination would be to side with Lightfoot, but this could have very interesting theological implications if option #2 is correct. Does the rest of the epistle seem to unpack the idea at all (eg. like Paul does his own apostleship in say 2 Cor)?

  2. Not in quite the same way, and it varies from letter to letter (he uses the same title in each one). Romans contains a sustained appeal to not hinder his martyrdom. I don’t think it works out as directly in Ignatius as it does in Paul, but participation in Christ is extremely important for Ignatius. This is wear “God-bearing” comes in. One fascinating instance is in Ignatius’ Romans 2, where he identifies his pending martyrdom with the Eucharist . I do think that this sense of sharing in Christ’s sufferings (and through this glory), or of “bearing-God,” is fundamental for Ignatius.

    Err, so that amounts to a qualified yes :-).

  3. This is interesting. I am looking forward to reading the apostolic fathers more in several months. I will make sure to keep an eye out for this theme.

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