Satanology of the Apostolic Fathers: Epistle to Diognetus

Typically dated to the late second century,1 this letter presents views which are remarkably different to those of the Apologists who were his contemporaries.

Unlike the Apologists, the writer’s soteriology does not describe Christ as a ransom payment to the devil,2 his hamartiology does not identify the serpent as Satan,3 his martyrology cites only human persecutors (5.17),4 and he does not say the false gods of the heathen are demons masquerading as gods; he says the gods of the heathen are dead, and denies them any association with supernatural evil beings.5

Significantly, his hamartiology does not attribute sin to demons.6 The absence of satanological and demonological terminology throughout the letter is negative evidence for the view that the author did not believe in such entities.

Additionally, the explicit exclusion of satan and demons from theological teachings for which his contemporaries invoked supernatural evil as an explanatory recourse (the atonement, the identity of the serpent, the reason for persecution, the worship of idols, and temptation and sin), and his use of non-mythological explanations, is positive evidence for the de-mythologized character of this text.

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  1. ‘Diognetus is commonly dated between 150–180, though this is by no means universally accepted.’, Rick Brannan, Apostolic Fathers Greek-English Interlinear (Lexham Press,  electronic ed. 2011). []
  2. ‘The author of Diognetus does not appear to have in mind a ransom to Satan, or to evil powers. The language of satan or diaboloV never occurs in Diognetus.’, J. Christopher Edwards, The Ransom Logion in Mark and Matthew: Its Reception and Its Significance for the Study of the Gospels (Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 62. []
  3. ‘Justin makes allusion to the serpent in ch. 28, equating him with Satan and the devil, terms that Diognetus does not employ.’, Clayton N. Jefford, The Epistle to Diognetus (with the Fragment of Quadratus): Introduction, Text, and Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2013), 102; ‘The “Letter to Diognetus,” written in two sections, the earlier being about 130, speaks of the “deceit of the serpent” and of a warfare between spirit and flesh, but nowhere specifically refers to the Devil.’, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Cornell University Press, 1987), 46. []
  4. ‘By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility.’, Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 541. []
  5. ‘Justin claimed that pagan idols are real and demonic, the Epistle to Diognetus insists they are lifeless with no ties to anything beyond themselves.’, Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers: I Clement. II Clement. Ignatius. Polycarp. Didache (vol. 2; Loeb Classical Library; Harvard University Press, 2003), 126; ‘In a similar vein, the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus rails against pagan idolaters who worship dead gods and thereby become dead themselves:’, Lance Jenott, The Gospel of Judas: Coptic Text, Translation, and Historical Interpretation of “the Betrayer”s Gospel’ (Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 50; ‘Against most of the Apologists, who think of idols as dwellings of demons, the Epistle agrees with Justin’s description of them as “lifeless and dead” (Apol. I, ch. 9). The gods of the Gentiles are so completely unreal that there is nothing behind the images.’, Cyril Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (Simon and Schuster, 1995), 215. []
  6. ‘While the author does not propose that humanity is innately evil, neither is there a desire to join Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and other apologists in the attribution of sin to demons:’, Clayton N. Jefford, The Epistle to Diognetus (with the Fragment of Quadratus): Introduction, Text, and Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2013), 68. []

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