CHURCH FATHERS (9) – Letter to Diognetus

Anastasios

When we speak of the Letter to Diognetus, we are dealing with another ancient document that gives us one of the first example of Christian apologetics. We don’t know who the author of this letter is. It is said that it is the “letter of Matheses to Diognetus”, but “Matheses” means simply “disciple”.

This letter, according some scholars, was found in a manuscript of the 12/14th century, in possession of Giovanni Reuchlin and then handed over to the Strasbourg Library where the manuscript will stay until 1870, when the Library was burned. Some think that this document should be attributed to Saint Justin. Indeed, in the manuscript mentioned above was contained, before this little treatise that we call “Letter to Diognetus,” one of the important works of Justin: De Monarchia. The letter was published in 1592 by Enrico Stefano, in a collection of works by Saint Justin.

But one century later, the French historian and Benedictine monk Louis-Sébastien Le Nain de Tillemont will question seriously the attribution to Saint Justin. The reasons for this rejection, as summarized by GP Franceschini in his classic work on Patrology, can be summarized as follows: 1) the author of the letter said that he was a disciple of the Apostles, something that cannot be said of Saint Justin; 2) in the letter, Christianity is presented as a complete new religion, but at the time of Saint Justin indeed Christianity was already in existence for some time; 3) language and style are not the ones of Saint Justin.

Eugenio Vaina De Pava, in a seminal work on this letter (La lettera a Diogneto, già attribuita a Giustino) informs us that “this little work itself will tell us everything we want to know about it. It is presumable that this little work will always stay in the limbo of anonymous works.” Vaina De Pava, in agreement with Adolf Von Harnack, German theologian and historian of religions, hypothesized that the work may be attributed to Hippolitus. The date of composition of the letter is, according to these last two scholars, end of the second or beginning of the third century.

Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, in their influential collection called The Early Church Fathers (38 volumes!), have said In a passage (see earlychristianwriting.com): “The following interesting and eloquent Epistle is anonymous, and we have no clue whatever as to its author.” After tracing the possible authors, they conclude: “We must be content to leave both points in hopeless obscurity, and simply accept the Epistle as written by an earnest and intelligent Christian to a sincere inquirer among the Gentiles, towards the close of the apostolic age.”

But let us enjoy a passage from this letter (translated by Donaldson and Roberts), a passage where is described the way Christians have to be in the world: “For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.”

We may consider if, as Christians, we can still stick to this beautiful description.

 

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