The word epistle is simply another word for letter, based on the Greek root word that means “to send.” The Letters of Ignatius, or the Epistles of Ignatius, are a set of letters written by early church father Ignatius of Antioch.
Ignatius of Antioch (also known as Theophorus, Greek for “God-bearer”) was born around AD 35 and died sometime in the second century. Some sources have his death as early as AD 107, and others as late as 135. Ignatius was the second or perhaps the third bishop of Antioch in Syria. He is primarily known for seven letters that he wrote in the Greek language as he journeyed as a prisoner to Rome, where he expected to be executed. Very little is known about him other than the information contained in the letters. However, he must have been well-known to Christians at the time, because he was welcomed and ministered to by Christians all along the way.
The churches that Ignatius addressed in his seven letters were located in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna. The final letter was written to Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna who later gathered all the letters of Ignatius and disseminated them as a group.
The Letters of Ignatius are filled with warnings against false teaching and pleas for unity. The style of the letters is similar to that of Paul, and of course much of the teaching is the same as Ignatius is applying apostolic/Pauline teaching to the situation in each church. His letters also demonstrate that a church hierarchy was already developing beyond what is found in the New Testament, with the position of bishop coming to prominence. In the letter to the church at Smyrna (where Polycarp was bishop), he wrote, “Follow, all of you, the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be, even as wheresoever Christ Jesus is, there is the catholic [universal] church. It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold a love-feast.” Ignatius is the first to use the term catholic to refer to the universal church and the first writer outside of the New Testament to refer to the virgin birth (“Ignatius of Antioch: Earliest Post-New Testament Martyr,” www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/martyrs/ignatius-of-antioch.html, accessed 6/28/02). His letters also prove that, early on, the church believed in the deity of Christ and His resurrection. These doctrines were not the result of legends that were gradually incorporated into Christian teaching but were taught from the earliest days of Christianity.
In addition to the seven letters mentioned above are several spurious epistles attributed to Ignatius. Three exist only in Latin: the Letter of Ignatius to St. John, the Epistle of Ignatius to the Virgin Mary, and the Letter from the Virgin to Ignatius. Six additional forgeries are found in some Greek versions. These include letters to Mary of Cassobola, to the Tarsians, to the Philippians, to the Antiochenes, and to Hero. Each of the seven genuine letters has a shorter version and a longer version, but only the shorter versions are considered to be authentic.