ANF – The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus

After considerable delay, here is another document in ancient Christian literature and the second document included in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

The there is no authorial identification or designation, so we don’t know who wrote it.  The traditional title is The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, however mathetes simply means disciple in Greek.   The manuscript for some time was attributed to Justin Martyr, although stylistic differences have resulted in most scholars today dismissing that attribution.  Nor do we have any clear idea of the identity of Diognetus, although some propose that it is the teacher of Marcus Aurelius who we know had the same name.  Although convenient, it is at best a stretch to insist on this connection.  The date of the writing ranges from early second century (perhaps 130 AD) to sometime in the late second century, and is likely the earliest surviving example of Christian apologetics.

The letter purports to explain to Diognetus more about the Christian faith and how it differs from both Jewish belief and pagan religions.  The letter cites Christianity as a new kind of practice, arguing for a very early dating for the document.  The author also claims to be a disciple of the Apostles, which many argue means a very early dating but which could also be a description applied to Christians today.  Many scholars dismiss the last two sections as later additions.  Only one copy of this document is known to have existed, and it was destroyed in 1870.  It was first translated and published in 1592.

The author first demonstrates the futility of worshiping physical idols.  Then he moves on to dismissing Jewish religion as equally misguided.  The pagans are foolish in that they offer material things to carved images.  The Jews are silly in that they propose to offer material things to an immaterial God who has no need of them and who is indeed the source and creator of them.  The author then moves on to explain basic Christian theology, emphasizing the Gospel or the sweet exchange in which we who are dead in our sins are credited with the righteousness of the Son of the living God.

It’s a great, brief contrast of the Christian faith to other religions, emphasizing our need for and God’s provision of a Savior.

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