Christians, Judeans, and Greeks: Christians as a descent group in the Epistle to Diognetos (second or third century CE)

Citation with stable link: Maia Kotrosits, 'Christians, Judeans, and Greeks: Christians as a descent group in the Epistle to Diognetos (second or third century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified January 14, 2023,

Author: Unknown author, Epistle to Diognetos (link).

Comments (by Maia Kotrosits): The apology or defense, which was closely associated with the notion of petitions to the emperors, was a genre taken up by certain Jesus adherents beginning in the second century CE. It is a somewhat theatrical form, in that it stages a scene in which the speaker is responding to apparent accusations. (Note that in this text, the addressee is described as “most excellent,” suggesting some higher level of social status.) In other words, apologies are scenes of imagined engagements or confrontations with powerful people. In fact, these imagined scenarios were the primary literary contexts where the meaning of being “Christian” (originally a derogatory outsider’s term but eventually a self-descriptor) was worked out – with various and mixed results.

In this text, for instance, the author is simultaneously trying to describe what is different and what is ordinary about the people called “Christians” and their customs, particularly in relationship to Greeks and Judeans (Jews). This leads the author into some knotty contradictions about how Christians might be understood or recognized. Notably, this writer describes Christians as their own descent group (genos).

Source of the translation: J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd edition (London: Macmillan, 1891), extensively adapted with some re-translations by Maia Kotrosits.


[Introduction and the notion of a new descent group juxtaposed with both Greeks and Judeans / Jews]

1 I see, most excellent Diognetos, that you are very anxious to understand the piety of the Christians (Christianoi), and that your inquiries regarding them are careful. You are curious about what God they trust and how they worship him, such that they all disregard the world and despise death. You are curious that they give no weight to those who are regarded as gods by the Greeks, nor do they observe the fearful practices (deisidaimonia; or: superstition) characteristic of the Judeans. You are curious about the nature of the affection which they have for one another, and about this new descent group (genos), which has appeared now and not before. I happily welcome your eagerness, and I ask of God, who allows us to both speak and hear, that I may be allowed to speak in such a way that you benefit from listening, and that you hear so that I, the speaker, am not disappointed.

[Customs of the Greeks regarding images of the gods]

2 Now clear yourself of all the assumptions you have, and abandon the habits of thinking that misguide you. Become a new person, as it were, from the beginning, as if one who would listen to a new story, as you yourself have said. See not only with your eyes, but with your mind, and consider the actual substance and form of those you treat as gods. Isn’t one of them stone, like that which we walk on? And another bronze, no better than the implements which are forged for our use? And another wood, which has already become rotten? And another silver, which needs someone to guard it from being stolen? And another iron, which is corroded with rust? And another pottery, no more beautiful than that which is given for the most disgusting purposes? Don’t all of these fall apart? Aren’t they forged by iron and fire? Didn’t the sculptor make one, and the coppersmith another, and the silversmith another, and the potter another? Before they were moulded by craftsmen into their present shape, wasn’t it possible for each one of them to have been changed in form and made to resemble something else? Isn’t it possible for the objects which are made out of the same material, if given to these same craftsmen, to be made into them? Couldn’t these things which are now worshipped by you be made by human hands again into something else? Aren’t they all deaf and blind? Aren’t they soul-less, senseless, motionless? Don’t they all rot and decay?

(5) These things are what you call gods. You are enslaved to these things. These things you worship. And in the end, this is what you become. Therefore you hate the Christians, because they do not consider these to be gods. But don’t you yourselves, who now regard and worship these gods, despise the gods more? Don’t you mock and insult them more, worshipping those that are of stone and earthenware unguarded, but locking up those that are of silver and gold by night, and guarding them by day, to prevent them from being stolen? As for honours which you think to offer to them, if the gods could actually perceive them they would seem more like punishment. But if they cannot perceive them, you contradict yourself by worshipping with the blood and fat of victims. Let yourselves undergo this treatment, see if you could submit to these things being done to him [i.e. a god]. No one would willingly submit to such a punishment, not anyone with sensibility and reason. But a stone endures it, because it does not feel it. So you contradict its sensibility. Well, I could say much more about why Christians do not enslave themselves to such gods; but if these arguments seem insufficient to anyone, I consider it pointless to say more.

[Judean customs with respect to God, diet, and festivals]

3 Next I guess you are anxious to hear about Christians not practicing their piety in the same way as the Judeans. Since they abstain from the mode of worship described above, Judeans rightly claim reverence for the one god of the universe, and regard him as Master. But when they offer him worship in methods similar to those already mentioned, they get it wrong. For just as the Greeks (who offer these things to senseless images) make an exhibition of stupidity, the Judeans too act foolish rather than pious when they behave as though God is in need of things. After all one that made the heaven, the earth and everything in them, and who gives us what we need, cannot himself need any of these things which he himself gives to those that imagine they are giving them to him. (5) But those who imagine themselves giving sacrifices to him with blood, fat, and whole burnt offerings, and therefore honour him with these displays, seem to me in no way different from those who show the same respect towards deaf images. For the one group think it’s right to make offerings to things unable to participate in the honour and the other group think it’s right to make offerings to one who needs nothing.

4 But again their qualms concerning meats, and their fearful practices (or: superstition) relating to the sabbath and the vanity of their circumcision and the pretense of their fasting and new moons (I don’t suppose you need to hear from me) are ridiculous and unworthy of any consideration. How do you accept some things created by God for human use, but decline others as useless and superfluous. Isn’t this impious? And then to lie against God, as if he doesn’t allow us to do any good thing on the sabbath day. Isn’t this impious? And how is it not ridiculous to brag about mutilating the flesh as a token of election as if this were the reason they were particularly loved by God? (5) Who would consider it a display of devotion and not of foolishness to watch the stars and the moon; to constantly observe the months and days; and, to distinguish the arrangements of God and the changes of the seasons for their own impulses, making some into festivals and others into times of mourning? I imagine that you have been sufficiently instructed that the Christians are right in standing back from the common silliness and error of the Judeans and from their excessive fussiness and pride. But don’t expect that you can be instructed by a human on the mystery of Christians’ piety towards god.

[Christian customs]

5 Christians are not different from the rest of humanity either in locality or in language or in customs. They don’t live somewhere in cities of their own, and they don’t use some different language, nor live life out of the ordinary. They didn’t derive their ideas from intellectual reflection, the studious reflection of brilliant people. Nor are they masters of any human teaching as some other people are. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as each are designated, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, the nature of their own communal organization (politeia) which they demonstrate is amazing and, admittedly, paradoxical. (5) They live in their own homelands, but only as immigrants (paroikoi); they do their part in all things as citizens (politai), and they endure all hardships as foreigners (xenoi). Every foreign place is a homeland to them, and every homeland is foreign.

They marry like all others and have children, but they do not abandon their offspring. They share meals together, but not their wives. They find themselves in the flesh, but they don’t live fleshly lives. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives. They love everyone, and they are persecuted by everyone. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, but they are made alive. They are poor, and yet they make many rich. They lack things, and yet they are rich in all things. They are dishonoured, and yet they are revered in their dishonour. (15) They are slandered, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they show respect. They do good but are punished as evil, and being punished they celebrate, as if they were revived. War is waged against them as aliens by the Judeans, and they are pursued by the Greeks, and yet those that hate them can’t say the reason of their hostility. . . [following chapters which move on to the ideology of the Christians omitted].



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