Reading the Fathers – Mathetes to Diognetes

Borrowed from

The author simply calls himself “mathetes” which is not a name but a title – “disciple.” So the author simply describes himself as a disciple of the apostles. Much speculation has been done about which mathetes wrote this – Justin Martyr, Clement and Apollos have all been suggested, but they all remain guesses based on no real facts. 

The collection in which I am reading this (organized by Phillip Schaff in the late 19th century) is of the opinion that this was written about the year 130, approximately 100 years after the resurrection and probably about thirty years after the apostle John died in exile on the island of Patmos. I think other, later dates have also been given for this – but all within the second century.

Mathetes is writing to Diognetus (another mystery figure!) and basically explaining how Christians are different from Greeks and from Jews, and why his friend should be a Christian. His friend’s interest seems to have been sparked by observing a martyrdom, because Mathetes says that Diognetus has inquired as to what God they trust, what religion they observe and why they look down on the world, despise death, dislike the Greek gods and the “superstitions of the Jews” and why this religion is so new.

Mathetes first explains the uselessness of idols; they can’t speak, they can’t eat, they are deaf, blind, dumb, destitute of feeling and without life. He points out the irony of considering these lumps of stone or wood to be powerful gods, yet they need to be kept under lock and key with watchers so that they aren’t stolen!

Next, he explains how Christians are different from Jews. Mathetes says that the Jews rightly worship the one God as Lord of all, but they err in the manner of their worship. They make the same heathen blood sacrifices made to idols, only to the one God, who does not need any of those things. They also have superstitions about the Sabaath day, that you must abstain from doing good. Mathetes also seems to have a low opinion of the Jewish festivals.

Then, he describes who a Christian is, and it is worth quoting his Chapter V in full:

 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 dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; 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.

These Christians are in the world “like a soul in the body” and they are placed there not by the invention of a human religion but because God himself has sent his son, as a King sends his son who is also a King. This kingly son came to save, to persuade – but He will return one day to judge. The proof of this is that Christians, under duress, do not recant. They are thrown to the beasts, but they are not afraid, and yet more people become Christians.

Before Jesus came, the world was in a sorry state, unable to know God, relying on silly philosophers. Jesus came late so that we would first see the unworthiness of our own works and our inability to earn our way to heaven; only through the kindness of God are we made able to enter heaven. When worldly wickedness had reached its height, then God sent Jesus to cover our sins with righteousness.

Then mathetes tells his friend how to become a Christian. First, he must know and love the Father, God, who sent the Son out of love. Next, if you love Him, you must be an imitator of God’s kindness, showing love to the weak and serving the needy.

Lest Diognetes think him strange, mathetes hurries to assure him of his source. He has been a disciple of the Apostles, and has been a teacher to the Gentiles. God sent the Word (Jesus) to reveal the mysteries of the Father; and Jesus existed in the beginning but came as if he was new. This Jesus is called the Son and it is through him that the church is enriched and provides grace to the saints.  The church is committed to the “fear of the law,” the “grace of the prophets,” the “faith of the Gospels” and the “tradition of the Apostles.” In this, the Word is teaching by whom He choses.

Mathetes closes his letter with a bit of Biblical exposition where he explains that false knowledge is dangerous but true knowledge is to be desired; then salvation will be manifested, the Passover of the Lord draw near and rejoicing to glorify the Lord will come forth.

It’s interesting to see how much Mathetes does not like Jewish practices. In his last chapter, he shows some awareness of the Pentateuch because he has an awareness of the story of the Fall, but this may be simply though the apostles. It seems doubtful that the author knows that God commanded sacrifice in the Old Testament. The heretic Marcion would have been active at this time, and he advocated getting rid of the whole Old Testament, so it’s possible that Gentiles in the early church (who were likely largely illiterate) had a deep suspicion of the Jewish Old Testament flowing out of sheer ignorance of it.

Another thing that jumped out at me was his use of those four phrases, each of which seem to mean a specific thing:

Fear of the law
Probably means the early Christian moral code; not optional for Christians.

Grace of the Prophets
Likely means the Holy Spirit (in this and other places he seems to use kindness where we would say grace and grace where we would use Spirit)

Faith of the Gospels
Partial proof that the Gospel (singular) existed in multiple written forms, Gospels (plural) by this time.

Tradition of the Apostles
Likely means a commitment to apostolic teachings found orally in the churches, as by now, all the apostles are asleep (Early Christian for “shuffled off this mortal coil” or “now in Heaven” 🙂 )

Lastly, I love the description of Christians in Chapter V. Every Christian should read this at least once.

Next up: St. Polycarp


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