What Sets Christians Apart? – An Ancient Summary


The Letter to Diognetus dates to sometime in the 2nd Century (approx. 130-180 AD), and is one of the earliest examples of Christian apologetics outside of the Bible. Apologetics is the practice of giving a defense of, or an explanation of, one’s faith for those who have questions or doubts.

The letter, whose author and recipient are unknown, gives us a glimpse into life and thought of early Christians as well as the way that people in their communities viewed them and thought of them.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 5, on the topic of what sets Christians apart from others in society:

Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, language, nor by the customs which they observe. They do not inhabit cities of their own, use a particular way of speaking, nor lead a life marked out by any curiosity. The course of conduct they follow has not been devised by the speculation and deliberation of inquisitive men. The do not, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of merely human doctrines.

Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.

They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.

They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.

They share a common table, but not a common bed.

They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives.

They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life.

They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.

They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead. They are assailed by the Jews as barbarians; they are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to give any reason for their hatred.

This poetic and beautiful description of Christian lifestyle encourages me and challenges me to want myself, my family and my church to be seen as a counter-cultural community  with convictions, who are for the community where we live because God so loved the world and He has poured his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

The rest of the letter is also worth reading, particularly Chapters 6 & 9, the latter of which talks about the doctrine of justification.

You can read the letter in its entirety here.


9 thoughts on “What Sets Christians Apart? – An Ancient Summary

  1. Nowhere in the letter does the author, or authors, name Christians or Jesus. Some of the descriptions sound like Gnostics sects and other passages sound like the Jewish Essenes or even those who followed John the Baptist.

    It is not surprising that Christians are not mentioned because few likely called themselves that then but you would expect Jesus to be mentioned. I struggle with Christians who make things square things fit in round holes and use it for their own purpose.

    I was at a sermon a few years ago. The pastor recited passages of Jesus doing miracles and then telling those who witnessed the miracles to tell nobody. The pastor shouted do you see how humble Jesus was, he didn’t want credit. People were praising Jesus in the congregation, on their feet. But I knew it was a farce.

    In Luke, I think it was Jesus does miracles and says tell everyone what you have seen. If Jesus should be praised for being humble in one Gospel we should criticize him for gloating. Jesus may have had reasons for doing different things but this Pastor was either dishonest or woefully inadequate.

    1. I’m sorry, but you’ve got to be kidding… Did you even click the link and read the document? The word Christian is found in it over a dozen times. Don’t leave me these ridiculous comments if you’re not willing to actually do the work of reading what I’ve written and linked to.

      1. The word Christian is all over the translation provided. But that is inaccurate. The author called these people, the “people of the word”. Now I must rebut, are you kidding? Didn’t you fact check. Early Christian authors tried to claim this was about Christians, although which type they don’t mention and others disputed it all together. The Jews were sometimes called the people of the book. Another Jewish sect was called the people of the word, only after this letter was found did anyone call Christians people of the word. Christians were called people of the way. I read the link you provided and saw a reference to a 100 year old translation so I examined that one as well. My comment wasn’t ridiculous, just well researched and I assumed you knew more than you did. But, this is a good example for you to understand how easily editors change content. It is also easy to defend edits when it is what you want to believe. You must realize that nobody called themselves Christians at the time of the letter. It would be a total hoax if we found this letter as translated.

      2. How about we just skip translations altogether and go directly to the Greek text? Here’s a link: https://www.ccel.org/l/lake/fathers/diognetus.htm
        You’ll notice the word Χριστιανῶν (Christians) is found over a dozen times.
        Furthermore, this letter was found in a group of writings which included many by the Christian apologist Justin Martyr and has always been considered a Christian apologetic document.

      3. Did you read all the info? And you realize martyr believed god the father and Jesus were not the same, so if we tap our Christian backs over martyr’s writings we must also acknowledge Justin’s different views of Jesus and the so called trinity.

      4. CS Lewis also held some beliefs that I don’t agree with. He was still a great apologist in other areas.
        Yes, I did read all the info. Sorry it’s inconvenient for you, but it includes more information about the Christian origin of the letter. Although it does not include the name of Jesus, it does refer to “the Son” and “the Word”. I also found no Greek texts referring to “people of the Word” as opposed to “Christians”. I’m going to go back to referring to your prior comment as ridiculous if you don’t mind.

    2. I would agree that the pastor’s hermeneutic was inadequate. I don’t think it was so much a matter of humility as it was a pragmatic reason why Jesus did or did not want at a particular time or place to receive praise/credit for something he did. He was a man on a mission and the mission drove those decisions.

  2. My point earlier was the original letter is talking about “people of the word” Christian translators have taken liberties and inserted Christians for “people of the word”. Doesn’t this dishonesty bother you?

    1. It does not bother me at all and it is not dishonesty. As I’m sure you know already: Christians did not originally call themselves “Christians” but rather “people of the Way”, and later on as “people of the Word”.

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