The Epistle of Diognetus is one of the more obscure works of the Apostlic Fathers, and it is notable in large part for being the first known apologetic work among those who professed Christianity. Apologetic works are unusual for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the large disconnect that often occurs between the purported audience of the books and the audience that is the most supportive of those books. As someone who reads a lot of Christian works, I find often that apologetic works about Christianity are marketed most frequently to other Christians . It is impossible to know for sure whether or not this was the case in the ancient world, but we can gather that this work would not have survived unless someone had found it to be persuasive, and the audience of people who likely would have found it to be most appealing are those who already believed. Today I would like to discuss the real and intended audience of the early apologetic work the Epistle to Diognetus, and to examine the large disconnect between those audiences and what that says about the genre of apologetics as a whole.
Not much is known about either Diognetus (the reputed recipient) or Mathetes, the sender, of the Epistle to Diognetus. The Catholic Encyclopedia has the following to say about the obscurity of this work: “An apology for Christianity cited by no ancient or medieval writer, and came from a single manuscript which perished in the siege of Strasburg (1870).” Yet although the work is obscure, it just so happens that there is a Diognetus who was a tutor to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius during the late second century AD, which is in the range of when this book is thought to have been written. Despite the similarity of names, it is thought unlikely that such an obscure and otherwise unknown person such as Mathetes would write to someone who praised the stoic and anti-Christian emperor for his sound attention to education and his avoidance of superstition given the fact that this Diognetus would not likely have any role in civil affairs and would not have known the recipient or been likely to take it seriously.
We are left then with a puzzle. Either the Diognetus that is meant as the recipient of the letter is someone else entirely than the somewhat famous tutor to one of Rome’s most notable emperors or the author of the letter was writing the letter to a fictive audience. The obscurity of the letter itself prevents us from knowing much more about the author or the book than that which we can gain from reading it and looking at its arguments, something we will do if time permits, yet it is worthwhile to examine the place of this work in the context of apologetics as a whole. It is thought that this work was the first ever Christian apologetic work known in history, and it is barely known and was not particularly significant in its time. There were plenty of ancient works that were polemical works against believers in other faiths, a trend that certainly continues in our time, but the art of writing apologetics required that someone seek to make a point that would be accessible to someone with a different worldview, and this is a considerably more difficult task than merely to assail the writings of others from one’s own religious worldview.
Who, then, is the intended audience for such a work? We would have to assume that if the Epistle of Diognetus was written to a non-Christian audience that the author would be aiming for a sympathetic audience at least. Given the bad relations between Jews and Christians during this time as the two faiths were writing a great deal of hostile literature directed at the other, it would appear as if this book is being aimed at a philosophical pagan audience that could nonetheless at least be open to claims about the worth of Christianity. It is also some question as to the ambition of the author, given that this is an early apologetic work. Was the author aiming at tolerance or respect being shown to Christians instead of treatment as a dangerous or seditious group? Is the author looking to persuade his audience through his reasoning to an openness to conversion? We will look at these matters if time permits. It is clear, though, at least for our present purposes, to note that the book would have to be aimed at an audience that was at least open to his reasoning and potentially sympathetic to Christianity as a whole. How big that audience was in the late second and early third century AD is difficult to say, but it must have been big enough to inspire hope on the part of the author that his work would be appreciated by someone.
It is worth noting, though, that in the contemporary world (and perhaps in the ancient world as well) the biggest audience for Christian apologetic works are those who are already Christians. It is not difficult to see how this is the case. For one, Christians already accept the authority that apologists are claiming. When one is speaking to others of the same worldview, there is no question of appealing to that which will not be considered as authoritative on the part of one’s audience. An appeal to scripture will work, as will an appeal to logic or history or any other number of areas. After all, those already convinced of the truth of a proposition are certainly open to accept its reasonableness as a matter of course. While this fact may not have been as well appreciated in the ancient world as it is in our own, it is not accidental that believers should especially appreciate apologetics works, not least because people like to be thought of as reasonable and such works tend to be very good at showing the reasonableness of what the audience already believes. Whether or not this motive was present in the ancient world is impossible to say, yet the appeal of such methods of argument may account for the survival of the Letter to Diognetus in the first place, since it is most likely to have had its most obvious support among believers in the time it was written or afterward in the way that contemporary apologetics works have their same appeal to that same audience.
Yet the fact that apologetics works can be expected to be of the greatest interest to audiences of believers does not make them illegitimate works. For one, there may be people who believe who seek in works of apologetics the reasoning that they need to justify their own beliefs, especially in a world that is hostile to some of the claims of Christianity and especially of God’s laws. As we still must defend our beliefs and our worldview in a hostile world where some persecution can be expected, these works remain important even in our own times. Imagine how worthwhile such works were at comforting and encouraging those who had to face the lions or the gladiatorial fights or some other equally dreadful fate as a result of their belief even in Hellenistic Christianity. We may also note that apologetics can be expected to appeal to a philosophical audience that values appeals to reason and intellect, as those who do not care much for intellectualism cannot be expected to value philosophical works in genres such as apologetics at all. We may therefore take the existence of apologetics works as evidence that there were Christian intellectuals who sought to encourage and support the Christian intellectual project as a whole, and for those of us of a profoundly intellectual native bent, this is something to be appreciated and celebrated.
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