The Early Christian Apologists–The Letter of Mathetes to Diognetus


In the first centuries after the death and resurrection of Christ, several Christian writers produced apologies for the Christian faith.  Among their intended audiences were the Jewish community, the Roman government, the philosophers, and the pagans.  In several articles over the next year we will closely examine some of these works.

An early apology outside the New Testament is entitled The Letter of Mathetes to Diognetus, written by one Mathetes, a Greek word meaning disciple.  It is sent to an individual who wishes to understand Christianity.

The author writes that the purpose of the letter is to explain the way Christians worship God, and who the true God is so that they may look down upon the world and despise death.  His apology is a critique of both Greeks (pagans) and Jews.  Furthermore, the author intends to show how Christians love one another and why Christianity is of such recent origin.

Mathetes’ critique is very critical of pagan and Jewish religion.  Diognetus is a Gentile who worships many gods that consist of stone; brass; wood that rots; silver, liable to theft; iron; and earthenware–all corruptible matter unable to see, hear, and are without life.

The disciple also criticizes the religion of the Jews who offer sacrifices that God does not need.  It is the true God who gives us what we need; we do not give Him what He needs, which is nothing.  The Jews then differ little from the pagans regarding the nature of God.  The Jews also err in their practices of circumcision that indicates special election by God and the Sabbath on which they are not permitted to do good.

Christians who live among all nations can not be distinguished from others in place of resident, language, or way of life.  Christians marry and beget children but do not have a common bed, a reference to sexual morality. They do not destroy their children.  They lives among others as sojourners awaiting their fulfilment as citizens of  heaven.  They obey the law, nonetheless they are persecuted. even though they do not deserve others’ hatred.  Christians live in the world but are not of the world.

God, the Creator of all things, sent the Word through whom the world was created and is sustained and who brings salvation to the human race.  God’s power is seen in the fact that though Christians are punished, their numbers increase.

The author criticizes the philosophers who had a wrong conception of Him.  By faith human beings perceive the reality of God who is long-suffering, kind, good, free from wrath, and true.  We receive God’s benefits and serve Him in response.

The right time came when the unworthiness of our works was revealed. Through God’s kindness we were made worthy through God’s taking on the burden of our sins by sending His Son as a ransom.  Only His righteousness could cover our iniquities.  By the Son we are justified, and by Him alone.  It is a sweet exchange–Christ takes on our sins and we receive His righteousness.

By accepting the Christian faith a person receives knowledge of the Father and a place in the kingdom of heaven.  We become imitators of God by benefiting our neighbor including the needy.

The writer claims that he does not depart from right reason.  He is a disciple of the Apostles and a teacher of the Gentiles.

We are to combine true knowledge, not the prideful knowledge that seeks to be equal with God as we have it in the story of the Garden of Eden, and doctrine with fear of God and always speak and act according to the goal of eternal life.  The Serpent cannot undo these things.

Mathetes teaches us several things about our discipleship in witness and the defense of the faith.  He speaks to Diognetus with respect, while at the same time providing a critique of beliefs that do not accord with Christian teaching.  His critique of Judaism may seem harsh, but it reflects Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospels.  We must qualify by saying that Israel was elected by God as Saint Paul underscored in the Letter to the Romans.  The Jewish sacrificial cult that Mathetes calls into question was also criticized by Jesus and the Old Testament prophets.  Sacrifice must never undermine true devotion to God and loving kindness toward the neighbor.  It is doubtful that the Old Testament promoted a sacrificial doctrine that involved meeting God’s needs.  This was more of a pagan concept.

In our defense of the faith we have an opportunity to describe Christianity against misconceptions of non-believers.  The apologists spent much time doing just this.  Therefore, we should be well-acquainted with the Bible and the teachings of the Church.  To do this, a Christian should be in lifelong study.

Our critique must be strong and based on fact, not shrill or abusive.  Mathetes is pretty successful with this attitude, despite an occasional factual inaccuracy.


Michael Tavella

March 18, 2021

Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem

Encounters with Jesus in the Gospel of John–Thomas the Doubter
Dogma and Bigotry