Pseudepigrapha Saturday: The Epistle to Diognetus

 

Diognetus

Introduction:

 

The Epistle to Diognetus was written in the mid to late 2nd-century church by an unknown author [1]. Although there are not extant manuscripts, we do have transcriptions by scholars in the earlier centuries. Like many written sources in literature of antiquity, the epistle began in an oral form and over time was written into a literary composition. Its current form is best regarded as an apology [2]. Even these conclusion, though, are not certain because we have so little information regarding the text.

The epistle is divided into 12 chapters [3]. Jefford divides it into 7 sections:

  1. Prologue (1.1-2)
  2. On Greeks (2.1-10)
  3. On Jews (3.1-4.6)
  4. On Christians (5.1-6.10)
  5. About God’s Power (7.1-9.6)
  6. About God’s Plan (10.1-8)
  7. The Witness of the Word (11.1-12.9) [4]

Essentials chapters 1-4 attempt to dissuade the listener from Greek and Jewish religion options. Chapters 5-6 focuses on why Christian worship is superior to the alternatives and good for the societal cohesion. Chapter 7-10 transition into more theological issues, such as the role of God, his power, divine revelation, etc. Chapters 11-12, later editorial additions, clearly stand apart as later theological developments; however, the editor demonstrably attempted to smoothly add them into the greater framework of the epistle.

The Epistle to Diognetus, Theurgy, and Rabbinic Judaism

In his discourse on Jews, the author writes that Jews “should rather consider it folly {i.e., Temple sacrifices}, not worship, when they imagine that they offer these things to God as though he needed them” (3.4) Although the authors ties the sacrifices back to the folly of Greeks worshiping “deaf images”, each group, Jews and Greeks, are still autonomous to a certain extent and we need not necessarily analyze the presentation of Jews solely in context of Greek descriptors. So, chapter 6 transitions into a critique of Jewish practices like food laws, Sabbath, and circumcision, and fasting and new moons. For each of these descriptions of Jewish practices, the author offers an alternative in chapters 7-10. What, though, is the underlying historical theology behind the Jews whom the author references?

Yair Lorberbaum’s groundbreaking work on conceptions of zelem Elohim (in the image of God) in Rabbinic Judaism sheds important light on the historical theology of Jews during the period of the epistle. Essentially, Lorberbaum argues that zelem Elohim underlies all commandments in Talmudic literature and Rabbinic Judaism. As he summarizes towards the end of his work, “in the tannaitic [5] understanding, the commandments are a form of Imatio Dei, a view based on the conception of man (including Israel) as Imago Dei” [6]. Such an understanding suggests that all actions of mankind are, therefore, theurgical. That is, human actions have potential to grow or diminish God because humans are eikons, or physical extensions, of God.

If we apply this framework to the epistle’s description of Jewish practices, they don’t seem as irrelevant. Unlike Christian praxis in the community behind the epistle which focused on ethical and spiritual issues t0 bring God’s rule, Jewish tannaitic praxis focused on obeying the traditional commandments and understanding how to do so in order to bring God’s rule and augment his presence. Where this splinter in ideology occurs historically is beyond the scope of this post; however, it is evident that at some point Judaism and Christianity went different directions in this regard of what constitutes praxis [7].

What we see here allows us to read the epistle more critically and avoid reading our own theological biases into early Christian literature. Additionally, this helps to historically contextualize the epistle within its own period. Consequently we see a fuller image of what theological currents existed during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE and how various traditions interacted.

 

[1] Clayton N. Jefford, The Epistle to Diognetus (With the Fragment of Quadratus), Oxford Apostolic Fathers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 28.

[2] Ibid., 56, calls the earlier form of chapters 1-10 protreptic discourse. When chapters 11-12 were added, the editor refashioned the entire text into apologetic discourse.

[3] Although scholars often separate the text into different periods from editorial emendations, for the most part we will read it as a unified text, aside from chapters 11 and 12 which are late additions.

[4] Jefford, The Epistle to Diognetus, 31. See footnote 2 for alternative divisions by scholars.

[5] The tannaitic period was c. 10-220 CE; therefore, it was concurrent with the epistle.

[6] Yair Lorberbaum, In God’s Image (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 284.

[7] So Jefford, The Epistle to Diognetus, 97-98.

Bibliography

Jefford, Clayton N. The Epistle to Diognetus (With the Fragment of Quadratus). Oxford Apostolic Fathers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Lorberbaum, Yair. In God’s Image. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

 

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