The Writings of the Early Church: The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (130 AD) (Part 1: Chapters 1-5)

***Chances are, if you ever have tried to read the writings of the early Church Fathers, you have found them to be quite difficult to understand. Even the English translations are not exactly the easiest to read. Therefore, more out of a desire to understand these writings better myself, over the next year or so, I’m going to try to read a number of early Christian writings found in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Nicene Fathers, and Post-Nicene Fathers, and then write my own “paraphrased” version of them. I hope you enjoy my efforts.

***The first thing I’m going to share is The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus. It is dated to about 130 AD, and it is a letter by an early disciple of the Apostles (“Mathetes” means disciple) to a Gentile named Diognetus. According to some scholars, it is possible that Diognetus, the recipient of the epistle, was the tutor of Marcus Aurelius. What is so interesting about the epistle is that it gives us a glimpse of how Christianity was presented to the Gentile world by Christians who lived within a generation or two of the original apostles. And so, without further adieu, here are chapters 1-5 of The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus.

 

The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus

Chapter 1
Dear Diognetus,

Since I see that you sincerely want to learn more about the way Christians worship God, and since it is obvious that you have made numerous inquiries about them, I am going to do my best to your questions:

  • What God so they put their trust in?
  • What kind of religious practices they observe?
  • Why do they look down on the world, so much so that they despise death itself?
  • Why do they not even recognize the gods of the Greeks to be even real?
  • Why do they not hold to the superstitions of the Jews?
  • What is the particular reason they cherish each other so much?
  • Why has this new kind of practice of piety only now come into the world?

Like I said, I look forward to answering your questions, and so I ask God Himself, the One who enables us to both speak and hear, to grant me the ability to speak well, so that I will be able to hear that you have been edified, and that once you have heard, that I will not regret for having speaking.

Chapter 2: The Stupidity of Idols
The first thing you need to do is to free yourself from all the prejudices you have in your head, and lay aside everything you have been used to, so that they aren’t able to deceive you. Once you do that, you can be made as a new man, right from the beginning, according to what you have confessed—for you are to be a hearer of a new system of doctrine.

Artemis

So, come and contemplate, not with only your eyes, but with your very understanding, the very substance and form of those whom you declare to be gods. Isn’t it true that some are made of the kind of stone that you walk upon? Aren’t some made out of brass, the very material you use to make household items? Aren’t some made of wood that rots? Aren’t some made of silver, so that a man has to watch over it, so that it won’t be stolen? Aren’t some made of iron that rusts? Aren’t some made of clay that is no more valuable that things that are made for the basest things? Aren’t all of these things just corruptible matter? Aren’t they just made by means of iron and fire? Aren’t they just fashioned by sculptors, braziers, silversmiths, and potters? Isn’t it true that before they were made by those workmen into the things they are, that they were just material that could have been shaped into anything?

Weren’t these things that you worship just made by men? Aren’t they just deaf, blind, lifeless things that cannot feel or move? Aren’t they all just corruptible things that will rot eventually? And yet, these are the things that you call gods! And when you actually serve and worship these things, you ultimately become like them.

This is why you hate the Christians, for they do not recognize these things as gods. But the thing is, you, who think these things are gods, are the ones who actually show more contempt for them than Christians! You appoint people to guard them; you lock them up over night, so they won’t be stolen. And the things you sacrifice to them—blood and billows of smoke! That just proves they have no ability to sense anything! How would they be able to endure such indignities if they could sense anything? There isn’t one single human being who would put up with having blood splashed on them or smoke blown in their face! And why? Because human beings have the ability to sense and reason! But a stone just sits there and takes it, because that stone has no sense at all. Thus you actually prove that your gods possess no ability to sense anything. What else do I really need to say on this topic?

Chapter 3: The Superstitions of the Jews
I am also guessing that you probably want to hear something about the fact that the Christians do not worship in the same way the Jews do. Now, the Jews are completely right not to engage in the type of service to the gods that I just described. Indeed, they worship only one God as being Lord of all. If they did worship the way the pagans did, they would be in grave error.

The Gentiles, after all, by offering sacrifices to things that don’t have any sense and cannot hear or see, are simply putting their madness on display. The Jews, on the other hand, offer sacrifices to God, but do so because they think He really needs them. Well, that is just more folly than it is divine worship. After all, He is the one who made heaven and earth, and everything in them. He is the one who gives us everything we need—He certainly doesn’t need anything, so why would He require any of those things that He gives to us to be given to Him, as if He needed them?

But those who think they are offering something acceptable, by offering blood, smoke-sacrifices, and burnt-offerings; those who think that such things actually show Him honor and respect; those who think that they can give anything to He who has no need of anything—well, they seem to me to be no different than pagans who continually offer the same things to idols that have no ability to sense anything, and therefore can’t enjoy any such honors.

Chapter 4: The Other Observances of the Jews
That being said, I really don’t think you’ll be able to learn anything from me about their other utterly ridiculous practices like not eating meats, their superstitions in regard to Sabbaths, the way they brag about circumcision, and their weird notions about fasting and new moons. I mean, how can it be lawful and honoring of the Torah to accept only some of the things that have been formed by God so that people can use them, while rejecting other things as useless?

Furthermore, they blatantly speak falsely of God every time they claim He has forbidden people from doing good on the Sabbath. Such a claim is absolutely wicked. And what kind of people actually glory in circumcision, and claim that is somehow proof of their election by God, and that God loves them more than anyone else? That is just ridiculous! And what about how they observe months and days, how they wait upon the stars and the moon to determine their festivals and times of mourning? That seems to be more a manifestation of folly than any kind of divine worship.

It should, therefore, be obvious that Christians have nothing to do with either the vanity and errors that both Jews and Gentiles have in common, or the busy-body spirit and vain boasting of the Jews. In any case, you shouldn’t expect to learn much about the mystery of their peculiar mode of worshipping God from any mortal.

Chapter 5: The Manners of Christians
Now, one thing you need to realize about Christians is that you can’t distinguish them from other people, simply on the basis of country, language, or any specific customs. They don’t live in their own cities, they don’t have their own language, and they don’t lead any unique kind of life. They don’t conduct their lives, though, according to any speculative theory of any man; nor do they claim to be advocating any human doctrine.

In fact, they live in all kinds of cities and towns, be they Greek or Barbarian, and they follow the customs of the people of those cities: they dress like everyone else and they eat the same food as everyone else. Still, they are able to put their wonderfully striking method of life on display for all to see. Yes, they dwell in the countries of their origins, but they consider themselves as sojourners. Yes, they are citizens of their given country, just like everyone else, but they live their lives as if they were foreigners. As strange as it may sound, every foreign land is to them like their native land, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.

They marry, just like everyone else; they have children, just like everyone else, but they would never destroy or kill their own children. They share a common table with each other, but they do not share their marriage bed with others. Yes, they live in this present age of the flesh, but they do not live after the dictates of this present age of the flesh. They live out their days here on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the laws of the land, but they live their lives that surpass them.

They love all people around them, and yet still are persecuted by everyone. People don’t know much about them but they condemn them anyway. They are put to death, but are restored to life. They are poor, yet they make others rich. They may be lacking in many things, but in reality, they abound in all things. They are dishonored, but even in that dishonor, they are glorified. People speak evil of them, yet they are seen to be righteous. When they are reviled, they bless in return.

When they are insulted, they repay those insults with honor. They do whatever is good, and yet they are punished as evil-doers. And when they are punished, they actually rejoice that they’re being punished because they view it as getting closer and closer to true life. The Jews attack and berate them as foreigners, and they are persecuted by the Greeks—and yet still, those very people who hate them are not able to actually give any real reason for their hatred toward them.

10 Comments

  1. I found this letter to be fascinating. It left me wondering if most Christians at that time believed the way this writer did. If so, it is particularly interesting how quickly they turned from the Old Testament. The letter shows that the writer did not believe that God actually asked for sacrifices, or commanded festivals for certain times of the year, or made the Sabbath a special day of rest. Yet the OT makes it very clear that God did indeed command those things. The NT says that Jesus came to Earth to live the law perfectly, that law being the OT law. Yet, the writer doesn’t even believe that God commanded certain aspects of that law. Very interesting!

    1. Well, I can see how it might seem that way. But the thing to remember is that Mathetes is describing the ways and attitudes of the Jews of that time. For example, we know that there were certain strands of Judaism at the time that elevated belief in angels so much that the common description of them at the time was that they “worshipped angels” (see the book of Hebrews).

      The Christian understanding of the OT was basically this: (1) that things in the OT looked forward to, and foreshadowed, the coming of Christ, and (2) the “heart and soul” of the Torah, that summed up the entire Torah was “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself”–the two greatest commandments. Therefore, when we are told that Jesus “fulfilled the law,” it doesn’t mean he meticulously kept all the rules (after all, he DID break the Sabbath according to 2nd Temple Judaism); rather it means that (1) everything God was doing through OT Israel found its goal in Christ, and (2) Jesus perfectly loved God and loved others.

      But yes, the attitude toward the Jews in this epistle is certainly interesting, to be sure!

  2. I am glad to see this. I have been doing more reading of the Church fathers – but cannot get hold of many of their works where i live.

    1. do you have access to kindle? if so, you can get the entire Anti-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers for about $4.00.

  3. What is the title? I have a kindle but Amazon Indonesia (for some reason) limits books i can get. Often i see people discuss books but when i search for them on kjndle…nada. Your book being a case in point.

  4. And…i “kindled” it…nada. Not found. I have no idea what filter or process they use to decide what books are available and not available in this market but its bloody annoying.

    1. Well, if you ever have a specific father or specific work in mind, just ask me, and I should be able to send you a copy via email.

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