A Middle Ground Between Two Extremes: Examining The False Dilemma Of The Epistle To Diognetus Towards Judaism

Although the Epistle To Diognetus is an exceedingly obscure work [1], not cited by any ancient authorities and properly belonging to the collection of early Christian apologetic works, it is a work that is worth examining in somewhat close detail because of what insight it can offer into more contemporary apologetic efforts and the gap between different groups of people who claim to be Christian.  In this particular discussion what I would like to do is present the false dilemma between Judaism and Christianity that is presented by this particular ancient text and to point out where the ground of biblical approach exists between what is said about the author towards Judaism and what the author implicitly says about Christianity in contrast to his negative statements directed at Judaism.  Since the relevant discussion is fairly brief, what I propose to do is to look at the text as translated from the Epistle to Diognetus one paragraph at a time and then to comment in smaller bits various answers and refutations to what is said by Mathetes concerning Judaism and Christianity.

I.  “Next, I will expect what you most want to hear about is our Christian unwillingness to accept the faith of the Jews.  Admittedly, since they will have no truck with this sort of religion I have just been describing, Jews may fairly claim to be the devotees of the one true God, and to acknowledge Him as their Sovereign.  Nevertheless, in so far as they do Him service with rites similar to those of the heathen, they are in error.  For if the Greeks must stand convinced of absurdity by the offerings they make to senseless and dumb idols, the Jews ought to realize that it shows equal absurdity, and no true piety, to conceive of God Himself as in want of such things.  The Maker of heaven and earth and all therein, the Supplier of our every need, could never Himself be in any need of the very things which are actually His own gifts to the self-styled givers.  Indeed, so long as they believe themselves to be fulfilling their sacrificial duty to Him by means of blood and fat and burnt offerings by such rites, I cannot see that there is anything to choose between them and the men who lavish similar attentions on deaf and dumb idols.  One party, it seems, makes its offerings to creatures which cannot partake of the gifts, and the other to One who needs none of them (143-144).”

Let us note at the outset that the writer makes a claim that speaks against the Hellenistic Christians of which he is a part.  For if it is wrong to serve God with rites that are similar to the rites of the heathen, then we would do well to avoid all rites in Christian practice which are taken from heathen festivals.  Shall we stop to consider those festivals that are labeled as Christians and see how much of the heathen remains in them?  Let him who is without sin cast the first stone, as so much of heathen religion has been smuggled under Christian names that no Hellenistic author has any grounds to criticize the sacrificial system of the Jews for resembling that of the heathen religions.

Let us also make note of the fact that the sacrificial system of the Jews, about which the author makes a great deal of hay, was no longer in operation after 70AD.  It seems strange to make such a big deal about a sacrificial system that was no longer being done, for the author adds nothing to what the biblical author of Hebrews says about the temple sacrifices having pointed to Jesus Christ and no longer being necessary because of His sacrifice for our sins.  Yet it is strange that the author does not make any note of the fact that the Jewish religion had moved to a different basis of piety in terms of prayer that was far from the way it is portrayed here.

Let us also comment on one more aspect of this particular passage before we move on, and that is the way that a God who has no need of our gifts to Him may still want such gifts even if we give to Him what He has first given us.  If God is our heavenly Father, can we not assume that He can be pleased with us giving Him what He has given us, in the same way that a father may be pleased by his child taking paper and paint that he has purchased and creating beautiful art to be displayed in his home office or on the fridge that show the child’s love and devotion for him?  It is not the mere necessity that leads us to appreciate the offerings of others, but also our fondness for them and our appreciation of the way that offerings show the fondness and love of the person doing the offering.  Even if we have no need of what we receive as a gift in such a fashion, surely we appreciate the love that the gift exhibits, and we can expect that God would feel likewise as we do in that matter.

II.  “As to their scrupulousness about meats, and their superstitions about the Sabbath, and their much-vaunted circumcision, and their pretentious festivals and new-moon-observances – all of them too nonsensical to be worth discussing – I hardly think you need instruction from me.  For how can it be anything but impious to accept some of the things which God has created for our use and assert their creation to have been commendable, but to reject others as being needless and good-for-nothing?  And what can there be but profanity in the slanderous charge that God objects to a good thing being done on a Sabbath day?  And surely, when they boast that a bodily mutilation is evidence of their inclusion among the elect, as though it gave them some special claim on God’s love, what does this deserve but to be laughed out of court?  As for the minute way they scrutinize the moon and stars for the purpose of ritually commemorating months and days, and chop up the divinely appointed cycle of the seasons to suit their own fancies, pronouncing some to be times for feasting and others for mourning – could anyone pretend that this indicates true reverence, and not simply a deranged intellect? (144)”

Let us note that the author fails to distinguish between an improper worship of God and a proper worship of God when it comes to the Sabbath, new moons, and annual festivals [2].  The fact that some people worship God incorrectly does not mean that scrupulousness is improper in worshiping God correctly.  To be sure, the author and other Hellenistic Christians could find plenty of people behaving improperly on the day of the sun or the eighth day or whatever they prefer to call their own unbiblical day of worship, but they would not accept that the improper worship and behavior of some on that day would invalidate their own practices, despite the fact that it is nowhere commanded by scripture.  All the more that the improper views of some on the propriety of doing good deeds as Jesus Christ did on the Sabbath would not in themselves cast any shadow on the proper observance of the Sabbath by those that know and do better, and the same case applies to God’s festivals as commanded in scripture.

It is also worthwhile to note that the author engages in some pretty ungodly reasoning even when he has some point to make.  For one, even when he criticizes the Jews, as he ought, on the way that they have engaged in a great deal of manmade festivals of mourning and feasting, the author does not himself show that he follows the Sabbath and Holy Days as God has commanded, and so he has no standing to criticize someone else for engaging in manmade festivals such as he does.  He appears to disregard biblical law when it comes to using the sun, moon, and stars for setting appointed times, and also to disregard that same law when it comes to what animals are clean to eat and what are not.  God did not necessarily authorize all purposes for creation that we can use creation for, and just because an animal is not to be used for food does not mean that it is good for nothing and of no purpose.  Simply because I do not eat pigs or oysters does not mean that I have no appreciation for the way that such animals may clean up creation by eating what is not fit for others to eat and filtering our waters.  Even where the author criticizes the Jews for their practice of circumcision, of which it must freely be admitted that it is commanded for males in the Bible, the author does not point out that this act was not originally meant to provide the Jews with some sort of privileged identity but rather was meant to demonstrate on the part of the children of Abraham a circumcised heart that was committed to following God.  Does the author have such a circumcised heart himself?  If this passage is evidence of deranged intellect, it is in the part of the author himself.

III.  “I imagine you have heard enough now to see how right the Christians are in repudiating the folly and delusion common to these two cults, as well as the fussy practices of which the Jews are so proud.  At the same time, however, you must never expect to learn the inward mystery of their own religion from merely human lips (144).”

Let us note that this closing provides a bit of an issue, in that the fussy practices of the Jews include a mixture of human traditions and interpretations as well as divine commands from a God who is deeply fussy about how He is to be worshiped in spirit and in truth.  Ultimately, it is not the fussiness of how God is worshiped but whether we do as God has commanded and refrain from doing as God has forbidden us and whether our actions towards our Heavenly Father and our Elder Brother are motivated by love and appreciation for what They have done for us?  We see that the author’s attempt to criticize biblical religion by attacking the Jews is a false dilemma and that the author does not use the right standards in making his critical judgments of others.  There are many ways that someone could have a proper regard for the Sabbath and for God’s laws relating to food and other matters without being Jewish, and one could be devout and faithful to God’s commandments without being overly fussy.  Whether or not that would impress the author of this apologetic, pleasing God is a different matter altogether, and it is His pleasure that we should seek, rather than that of people.

[1] See, for example:




[2] Please see the following for a larger discussion of these matters:







About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Middle Ground Between Two Extremes: Examining The False Dilemma Of The Epistle To Diognetus Towards Judaism

  1. Pingback: The Portrayal Of The Jews In The Martyrdom Of Polycarp | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Quadratus The Obscure | Edge Induced Cohesion

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