1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Diognetus, Epistle to
DIOGNETUS, EPISTLE TO, one of the early Christian apologies. Diognetus, of whom nothing is really known, has expressed a desire to know what Christianity really means—“What is this new race” of men who are neither pagans nor Jews? “What is this new interest which has entered into men’s lives now and not before?” The anonymous answer begins with a refutation of the folly of worshipping idols, fashioned by human hands and needing to be guarded if of precious material. The repulsive smell of animal sacrifices is enough to show their monstrous absurdity. Next Judaism is attacked. Jews abstain from idolatry and worship one God, but they fall into the same error of repulsive sacrifice, and have absurd superstitions about meats and sabbaths, circumcision and new moons. So far the task is easy; but the mystery of the Christian religion “think not to learn from man.” A passage of great eloquence follows, showing that Christians have no obvious peculiarities that mark them off as a separate race. In spite of blameless lives they are hated. Their home is in heaven, while they live on earth. “In a word, what the soul is in a body, this the Christians are in the world.... The soul is enclosed in the body, and yet itself holdeth the body together: so Christians are kept in the world as in a prison-house, and yet they themselves hold the world together.” This strange life is inspired in them by the almighty and invisible God, who sent no angel or subordinate messenger to teach them, but His own Son by whom He created the universe. No man could have known God, had He not thus declared Himself. “If thou too wouldst have this faith, learn first the knowledge of the Father. For God loved men, for whose sake He made the world.... Knowing Him, thou wilt love Him and imitate His goodness; and marvel not if a man can imitate God; he can, if God will.” By kindness to the needy, by giving them what God has given to him, a man can become “a god of them that receive, an imitator of God.” “Then shalt thou on earth behold God’s life in heaven; then shalt thou begin to speak the mysteries of God.” A few lines after this the letter suddenly breaks off.
Even this rapid summary may show that the writer was a man of no ordinary power, and there is no other early Christian writing outside the New Testament which appeals so strongly to modern readers. The letter has been often classed with the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, and in some ways it seems to mark the transition from the sub-apostolic age to that of the Apologists. Bishop Lightfoot, who speaks of the letter as “one of the noblest and most impressive of early Christian apologies,” places it c. A.D. 150, and inclines to identify Diognetus with the tutor of Marcus Aurelius. Harnack and others would place it later, perhaps in the 3rd century. There are some striking parallels in method and language to the Apology of Aristides (q.v.), and also to the early “Preaching of Peter.”
The one manuscript which contained this letter perished by fire at Strassburg in 1870, but happily it had been accurately collated by Reuss nine years before. It formed part of a collection of works supposed to be by Justin Martyr, and to this mistaken attribution its preservation is no doubt due. Both thought and language mark the author off entirely from Justin. The end of the letter is lost, but there followed in the codex the end of a homily, which was attached without a break to the epistle: this points to the loss in some earlier codex of pages containing the end of the letter and the beginning of the homily.
The Epistle may be read in J. B. Lightfoot’s Apostolic Fathers (ed. min.), where there is also a translation into English.
- Chapters xi. and xii., which Lightfoot suggested might be the work of Pantaenus.