“Come, then, after you have freed yourself from all the prejudices possessing your mind.”
We can take that line, from the second-century “Letter to Diognetus,” as evidence that anti-Christian prejudice has been with the Church from Day One. In the Roman Empire of those days, pagans caricatured Christian morality as prudery and mocked its mysteries as nonsense. Christian religion was often confused and conflated, in Roman and Greek accounts, with Judaism and the myriad “mystery cults” thriving in Asia Minor at the time.
But amid the babble and bigotry came a group of early Church Fathers known as “the apologists.” Following St. Peter’s counsel, they sought always to “be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks for a reason for your hope” (1 Pt 3:15). Some, like Justin Martyr (c. 100-c.165), spoke the highly technical language of the Platonist philosophers, who were somewhat confused about the Christianity they sought to refute. Others spoke to Jews, and still others to the devotees of the mystery cults.
But one apologist offered a different method. He produced a documentary of sorts — a vivid, impressionistic account of how the earliest Christians REALLY behaved. In the face of hatred, he showed a community that lived in true love.
We don’t know his name, the author who wrote the stunning “Letter to Diognetus.” But he was addressing a high Roman official, and deferentially, assuming that the great Diognetus was intelligent and open-minded (and, certainly, that God’s grace was all-powerful).
“I see thee, most excellent Diognetus, exceedingly desirous to learn the mode of worshiping God prevalent among the Christians, and inquiring very carefully and earnestly concerning them, what God they trust in, and what form of religion they observe,”
Christianity was a curiosity then, when this author set his stylus to parchment. He refers to the Faith as “this new kind of practice [that] has only now entered into the world.” Most scholars say the “Letter to Diognetus” was composed in the first half of the second century in Athens, Greece.
The most venturesome scholars dare to attribute the letter to the first known Christian apologist, St. Quadratus (died c. 129), a bishop of Athens and a disciple of the Apostles. There is almost no documentary evidence for this claim, except that early Christian writers refer to a brilliant letter that St. Quadratus wrote to the Roman Emperor Hadrian around 124, in defense of the Faith.
And the “Letter to Diognetus” is nothing if not brilliant, in both style and substance.
The letter assumes that its reader has heard, and perhaps believes, many of the common rumors and misunderstandings about Christianity. So the author is careful to distinguish Christianity, first from the other pagan religions, then from Judaism.
One obvious belief that set Christians apart from ordinary Roman citizens was monotheism. Our first forebears in the Faith steadfastly refused to worship idols. Yet other citizens of the empire, the “Letter” points out were only too willing to bow down before gods of silver, gold, brass, wood and earthenware. In describing these idols, the writer goes into some detail about six shrines, perhaps describing specific temples in the city of Athens.
“Are they not all liable to rot?” he concludes. “Are they not all corruptible, these things you call gods?” The author points out that such polymorphous polytheism had become a cynical and even contemptuous practice for the Romans. Yet, he goes on, “you (Romans) hate the Christians because they do not deem as gods” the idols in the pagan shrines.
For their intransigent monotheism, and their reverence for the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians were often called a Jewish sect. The writer of the “Letter” acknowledges this and praises the Jews for resisting pagan temptations. Yet, he insists, Christians are NOT Jews. First, he says, the “blood and the smoke” of the Temple sacrifices has been surpassed by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Next, he points out that the prescriptions of the Law and the rabbinical tradition — regarding circumcision, diet and Sabbath observance — were considered obsolete by Christians.
Yet, if Christians were not pagans and not Jews, who were they? That is the subject of the final section of the epistle.
In this section the author overwhelms his reader, not so much with dogma, but with small glimpses of the everyday life of the Church’s founding families.
First of all, he says, you can’t tell a Christian just by looking. “For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. 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 . . . [They follow] the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food and the rest of their ordinary conduct.”
Christians blend in, he says — to a point.
Where they are set apart is in their charity for each other and their upright moral behavior. Here, the “Letter” writer makes more important distinctions.
Christianity did not, as some rumors claimed, entail severe asceticism and universal celibacy. The “Letter” explains that Christians, like everyone else, “marry and beget children.” Yet they differ essentially from the merely worldly because Christians reject immoral pagan practices, such as abortion and infanticide. Christians “do not destroy their offspring,” the letter states. Nor did Christians sleep around, as the pagans did: “They have a common table, but not a common bed.”
Christians are good for the economy and the social order, the “Letter” claims. Believers, after all, “obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives . . . They are poor, yet make many rich.” And good Christians don’t make trouble for the pagans, the “Letter” writer seems to say, even though pagans often make trouble for Christians. “They love all men, and are persecuted by all. . . . they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour. . . . When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life.”
Our author follows this with his most remarkable statement: “To sum it up — what the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world.” According to this ancient Athenian, Christians, then, are the life-giving principle in the world. You can’t see them — but without them, the whole human enterprise is doomed.
“The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. . . . The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number.”
What gives Christians strength to live this way? The “Letter” writer gives a brief, but breathless testimony to the divine origin of the Christian faith. Without this faith, he demonstrates, all humankind, through all history, has dwelt in misery.
Then the “Letter” ends in the only way such a Christian testimony can, with a plea to Diognetus (the debauched, homosexual Emperor Hadrian?) for personal conversion.
“With what joy do you think you will be filled? Or how will you love Him who has first so loved you? If you love Him, you will be an imitator of His kindness. And do not wonder that a man may become an imitator of God. He can, if he is willing. For it is not by ruling over his neighbours, . . . that happiness is found. . . . On the contrary he who takes upon himself the burden of his neighbour . . . by distributing to the needy, becomes a god to those who receive.”
If Diognetus or Hadrian were not convinced, many more would be. If not by a letter, then by the lives of so many anonymous Christians. Just a few centuries after the “Letter to Diognetus” was composed, the pagan West passed away. Yet the “Letter,” providentially, lived on till very recently.
Then, in 1870, the only surviving manuscript of the “Letter” was destroyed. Today, perhaps the pagan West is returning, and a billion invisible Catholics — the soul of the modern world — must write the letter anew, now as then, in the everyday details of their ordinary lives.