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Saturday 5 December 2015

Supernatural Evil in the Apostolic Fathers (10): Epistle to Diognetus

The so-called 'Epistle to Diognetus' (henceforth just Diognetus) is an anonymous text addressed to one Diognetus. It is not really an epistle in the sense of Paul's epistles. In fact, it is generally regarded as a composite work consisting of two sections: an apology aimed at non-Christians (chapters 1-10) and a homily aimed at Christians (chapters 11-12).1 Furthermore, it is probably the latest writing included in the (admittedly artificial) Apostolic Fathers corpus: 'The majority of scholars date it to 200'.2 With such a late date being probable, it is not as valuable for reconstructing early post-apostolic Christian thought as other Apostolic Fathers writings usually dated from the late first to mid second century (e.g. 1 Clement, Ignatius, Barnabas, Didache, etc.) Numerous other proto-orthodox Christian writings from the late second century survive which are not classified among the Apostolic Fathers, such as the works of Irenaeus, Athenagoras, and Theophilus of Antioch. Nevertheless, for sake of completeness let us proceed to investigate supernatural evil in Diognetus.

The apologetic portion of Diognetus (chapters 1-10) contains no reference to Satan, demons or other supernatural evil, in its extant form. However, it would be inadvisable to make arguments from silence about the author's views on this basis because, in addition to the copy break that occurs apparently at the end of the apologetic portion, there is a lacuna (a missing section of text) at Diognetus 7.6 and 'there is no way to know how much of the intervening text has been lost, whether just a few words or a page or more.'3 The lacuna occurs in an eschatological section,4 and since Satan is often mentioned in eschatological contexts in early Christianity,5 it is not impossible that the missing text referred to him. Of course it would be pure speculation to positively claim that the lost portion of text mentioned Satan; very likely it did not. The point is that the possibility cannot be completely discounted, which is yet another reason why arguments from silence carry little weight.

One observes in Diognetus 2.4 that, similar to what we found in the Didache, the author describes idols as 'lifeless.' Since other early Christian writers saw a demonic dimension to idolatry (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:19-21; Rev. 9:20; Justin, 1 Apology 9), does this suggest that the author of Diognetus rejected such a view? Not necessarily. As we pointed out in our discussion of the Didache, there were two traditional Jewish polemics against idolatry. One (found especially in Hellenistic Jewish literature), 'contrasts lifeless idols (along with the "ignorance" in which idolatry is based) with the one, true, creating and redeeming God (along with "knowledge of Him").'6 The other tradition, 'although it agreed that idols are "nothings" and lifeless human products, saw in idolatry the service or the influence of demons (Jub. 2.4-6; 22.16-22; 1 En. 19; 99.6-10; T.Naph. 3.3-4).'7 Thus both polemical strategies agreed on the lifelessness of idols, so the declaration in Diognetus that idols are 'lifeless and dead' is actually compatible with both. Meecham commenting specifically on this passage in Diognetus, states, 'That both views could be held in the mind without a sense of conflict may be seen in Paul.'8 This can also be seen in Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 9, who uses the same language as Diognetus for idols ('lifeless and dead') but also states that they 'have not the form of God...but have the names and shapes of those evil demons which have appeared'.9 Is there any plausible explanation for why the author of Diognetus might have omitted the polemic that linked idols to demons? Perhaps: at the end of his polemic against idolatry, he concludes:
I could say many other things about why Christians do not serve such gods, but if someone supposes that these comments are not enough, I imagine saying anything more would be superfluous. (Diog 2.10)10
Thus, the author explicitly tells us that he is omitting some of his polemic against idolatry. In view of this, it would be inadvisable to make an argument from silence that the writer did not consider idolatry to have a demonic dimension or did not believe in demons.11

Turning to the homily portion of Diognetus (chapters 11-12), there is again no clear reference to supernatural evil, but there are three references to 'the serpent' (ho ophis) in Diognetus 12.3-8 which may refer to Satan. The passage reads as follows:
3 Nor is that which is written obscure, how at the beginning God planted "a tree of knowledge and a tree of life in the middle of paradise," thereby revealing life through knowledge. But those who were there at the beginning made use of it in an impure way, and became naked through the deceit of the serpent. 4 For life cannot exist apart from knowledge nor secure knowledge apart from true life. 5 When the apostle considered this marvel he criticized knowledge that is exercised apart from the true command that leads to life, saying "Knowledge puffs up but love builds up." 6 For the one who thinks he knows anything apart from the knowledge that is true and attested by life does not know; he is deceived by the serpent and does not love life. But the one who has come to know with reverential fear, and who seeks life, plants in hope and expects to receive fruit. 7 Let your heart be knowledge and your life be the true, comprehensible word. 8 If you bear this tree and pluck its fruit, you will always harvest what God desires. The serpent cannot touch such things nor can deceit defile them. Nor is Eve corrupted, but a virgin is trusted [Or: but is believed on as a virgin]. (Diognetus 12.3-8)12
Jefford notes that the writer of Diognetus does not explicitly identify the serpent as Satan in this passage.13 However, he elsewhere states that the serpent seems allegorical and that the writer appears to assume a link between the serpent of Genesis and the great dragon of Revelation (which is explicitly identified as Satan).14

Gokey notes that while the 'deceit of the serpent' in 12.3 (referring to the events in Eden) does not require an active interpretation, the deceit by the serpent in 12.6 'would favour an active interpretation.'15 Similarly 'the serpent cannot touch such things nor can deceit defile them' (12.8) suggests an active meaning. Among lexical authorities, BDAG regards the serpent in v. 6 as 'clearly the devil,'16 while Lampe also identifies the serpent here with the devil.17 Such an interpretation of the serpent of Genesis 3 was already a well-established tradition in the church by the time this text was written (Rom. 16:20;18 2 Cor. 11:3 cp. v. 14;19 Rev. 12:9; 20:2; 1 Apology 28).

It should be stressed, however, that the identification of the serpent with Satan here seems to be allegorical rather than literal. The writer is not necessarily implicating Satan in the events of Eden; rather, he refers historically to the serpent of Eden (12.3), and then proceeds to use Edenic imagery (serpent, tree, Eve) allegorically to describe the present circumstances of the church. Whatever the serpent denotes in the present, it is an active force which can deceive the ignorant (12.6) but cannot touch the knowledgeable and reverent (12.8). It is impossible to be certain about the referent, but the only active force identified with the serpent elsewhere in early Christian writings is Satan, and he is therefore the most likely candidate.


  • 1 Foster states, 'It can be seen that whereas the first ten chapters have an apologetic focus, the final two have inner ecclesial concerns' (Foster, P. (2006). The Epistle to Diognetus. The Expository Times, 118(4), 162-168, here p. 164). See also Jefford, C.N. (2013). The Epistle to Diognetus (with the Fragment of Quadratus): Introduction and Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 12. Foster also observes, 'These sections appear to represent two distinct sources that have been combined during the process of transmission. The identification of this seam is supported by a marginal note in the manuscript at the end of chapter 10 which reads "and here the copy has a break"' (op. cit., p. 163).
  • 2 Williams, H.H.D., III. (2015). [Review of the book The Epistle to Diognetus (with the Fragment of Quadratus): Introduction, Text, and Commentary, by C.N. Jefford]. Themelios 39(3), 567-569, here p. 568. Others propose dates in 'the late second century or early third' (Grant, R.M. (1988). Greek Apologists of the Second Century. London: SCM Press, p. 178) or 'to some moment during the 2nd century, with a preference for the latter decades of that period' (Jefford, op. cit., p. 28).
  • 3 Ehrman, B. (2003). (Ed. & trans.). The Apostolic Fathers (Vol. 2). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 124.
  • 4 Jefford states that 'the textual lacuna complicates any interpretation of the eschatological context. One thus cannot know what further materials on this topic may have originally been here or reconstruct the missing words that may once have served to explain what now appears as a sudden turn of theme' (op. cit., p. 232).
  • 5 E.g. Matt. 12:24-32; 25:41; Luke 10:18-19; John 12:31; Romans 16:20; 2 Thess. 2:9; Rev. 20:2-7.
  • 6 Horsley, R.A. (2004). Gnosis in Corinth: I Corinthians 8.1-6. In E. Adams & D.G. Horrell (Eds.), Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church (pp. 119-128). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 127.
  • 7 ibid.
  • 8 Meecham, H.G. (1949). The Epistle to Diognetus: Greek Text with Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 33.
  • 9 trans. Barnard, L.W. (1997). The First and Second Apologies. Mahwah: Paulist Press, p. 27.
  • 10 trans. Ehrman, op. cit., p. 135.
  • 11 Having noted that most of the Apologists believed in the malignant influence of demons, Meecham adds, 'The author of Diognetus gives no hint that he held the general view, though we may not, e silentio, conclude the contrary' (op. cit., p. 22).
  • 12 trans. Ehrman, op. cit., pp. 157, 159.
  • 13 Jefford, op. cit., p. 102; cf. Russell, J.B. (1981). Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 46 n. 49.
  • 14 Jefford, op. cit., pp. 254-255.
  • 15 Gokey, F.X. (1961). The Terminology for the Devil and Evil Spirits in the Apostolic Fathers. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, pp. 118-119 n. 12.
  • 16 Arndt, W., Danker, F.W. & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 744.
  • 17 Lampe, G.W.H. (1961). A Patristic Greek Lexicon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 989.
  • 18 Those who regard Rom. 16:20 as an allusion to Gen. 3:15 include: Foerster, W. (1967). 'ὄφις', in TDNT V.566-582, here p. 581; Wolff, C. (1989). Der zweite Brief des Paulus an die Korinther. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, pp. 212-213; Mounce, R.H. (1995). Romans. Nashville: B&H Publishing, p. 280; Schreiner, T.R. (1998). Romans. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 804; Dochhorn, J. (2007). Paulus und die polyglotte Schriftgelehrsamkeit seiner Zeit. Eine Studie zu den exegetischen Hintergründen von Röm 16, 20a. Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und Kunde der Älteren Kirche, 98(3-4), 189-212, here p. 195; Williams, G.J. (2009). The Spirit World in the Letters of Paul the Apostle: A Critical Examination of the Role of Spiritual Beings in the Authentic Pauline Epistles. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, pp. 93-94. Regarding Rom. 16:20 rather as an allusion to Ps. 110:1 are Forsyth, N. (2003). The Satanic Epic. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 305; Brown, D.R. (2011). The God of This Age: Satan in the Churches and Letters of the Apostle Paul. PhD dissertation, University of Edinburgh, pp. 119-124. Undecided between these two options is Löfstedt, T. (2010) Paul, Sin and Satan: The Root of Evil according to Romans. Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok, 75, 109-134, here p. 122.
  • 19 Those who think Paul implicitly identifies the serpent with Satan here include Malherbe, A.J. (1961). Through the Eye of the Needle: Simplicity or Singleness? Restoration Quarterly, 5, 119-29, here pp. 127-128; Furnish, V.P. (1975). 2 Corinthians: A New Translation with Notes and Commentary. New York: Doubleday, p. 158; Wolff, op. cit., pp. 212-213; Garrett, S.R. (1991). "Lest the Light in You be Darkness": Luke 11:33-36 and the Question of Commitment. Journal of Biblical Literature, 110(1), 93-105, here p. 99; Garland, D.E. (1999). Second Corinthians. Nashville: B&H Publishing, p. 462; Lambrecht, J. (1999). Second Corinthians. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, p. 173; Harris, M.J. (2005). The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 741; Williams, op. cit., pp. 94-95; Collins, R.F. (2013). Second Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Baker, p. 213; Seifrid, M.A. (2014). The Second Letter to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 405 n. 281. For counterarguments, see Brown, op. cit., pp. 197-199.

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