(Objects, Dwelling, World) Greeks & Jews  (The Epistle to Diognetus)


In the Epistle to Diognetus, both Greeks and Jews are arbitrary. The Greeks arbitrarily select, turn and shape some material object into a holy object worthy of veneration. The Jews are right to think “they adore the God of all things.” But the Jews are just as arbitrary. They select out some things made by God for human use as good and reject other things as “useless and superfluous.” In their sacrifices, they think they are giving God some-thing, when it’s rather the case that God needs no-thing. All these things are “ridiculous and not worth arguing about.” (Chp. 3, 4) In other words, “The [Greeks] think that they are offering something to objects which in reality cannot appropriate the honor, while the [Jews] imagine that they are giving something to him who has need of nothing”  (chp 3).

Basic to the Epistle is its vision regarding the place of the human being in the world of objects. In contrast to paganism and Judaism, Christianity is held up as rightful lordship, the non-arbitrary ordering principle. The invisible God sends Jesus as Designer and Maker of the world of things. For Christians, “The soul, which is immortal, is housed in a mortal dwelling; while Christians are settled among corruptible things, to wait for the incorruptibility that will be theirs in heaven.” Jesus is he to “whom all things have been set in order and distinguished and placed in subjection—the heavens and the things that are in the heavens, the earth and the things in the earth, the sea and the things in the sea, fire, air, the unfathomed pit, the things in the heights and in the depths and in the realm between” (chp 7).

In this early text, Christ is the cosmic force ordering the world. Rather than renounce the world, in the Epistle, what matters for the human being in relation to this world of things as arranged and ordered by Christ is the right kind of gathering in relation to them: “Let your heart be knowledge, and your life the true teaching that your heart contains. If you bear the tree of this teaching and pluck its fruit, you will always be gathering in the things that are desirable in the sight of God, things that the serpent cannot touch and deceit cannot defile. Then Eve is not seduced, but a Virgin is found trustworthy” (chp 11).

What I take from this little digression into early Christian sources is the sense that the contest between Christianity, Judaism, and paganism cannot be simply reduced to God and doctrine about God. A big part of that contest is about the world, objects in the world and their arrangement, and the right and trustworthy way for a human being to dwell in the world. You can find a translation of the Epistle here.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to (Objects, Dwelling, World) Greeks & Jews  (The Epistle to Diognetus)

  1. dmf says:

    certainly the question of whether we are at home on this planet or if we are alien to it is a vital and persistent one:

Leave a Reply