An Ancient Description of the Early Christians

An Ancient Description of the Early Christians April 20, 2018

An article at Aleteia entitled This is How Christians Lived in the 2nd Century by Philip Kosloski put me on to a remarkable document that attempts to explain Christians to citizens of the Roman empire–those strange people who don’t expose their infants but let all of their babies live; who reject sex outside of marriage; who endure cruel persecution cheerfully; who do good even to those who hate them.

The text is a part of the Epistle to Diognetus  written, in Greek, as one of the first works of Christian apologetics.  The author, whose pen name is “Mathetes,” or “disciple,” is described as possibly a “Johannine Christian”; that is, a disciple of the Apostle John or his immediate successors.  The work dates to as early as 130 A.D., making it one of those extremely early Christian testimonies that we have been blogging about.  (See our posts about very early testimonies to the deity of Christ,   Ignatius of Antioch, and the Staurogram.)

The entire Epistle has 12 sections, but here is the part entitled Christians in the World:

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution.

Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.

From a letter to Diognetus (Nn. 5-6; Funk, 397-401)

These Christians do not withdraw from their cultures, but rather, on the surface, are “indistinguishable” from everyone else.  “They follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in.”  “And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives.”

Do you think Christians could become this way again?  How much persecution would it take?


Illustration:  An Agape Feast, Catacomb of Sts. Peter and Mark. Public Domain,

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