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Old August 27th, 2012 #1
Karl Radl
The Epitome of Evil
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Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: The Unseen University of New York
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Karl Radl
Default Mathetes on the Jews

Mathetes on the Jews

The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus is one of the earliest; if not the earliest, example we have of Christian apologetics: its author however remains anonymous as 'Mathetes' is merely a self-description (lit. 'A Disciple') rather than a given name. That said it is a valuable work that chronicles the first attempts of the nascent Christian community in the Roman empire to intellectually defend themselves against their pagan and jewish critics.

Further it has rather more to say about what it styles 'the superstitions of the jews' than the pagan gentiles and doesn't shy away from charging the jews with deicide and the congenital hatred of Jesus. (1) Thus what it has to say is of interest to us precisely because it represents the vehemently anti-jewish attitude of some; although certainly not all, of the early non-jewish Christians.

The first significant mention of the jews in the Epistle is found in its third part; that carries the name 'On the Superstitions of the Jews', and which states as follows:

'And next, I imagine that you are most desirous of hearing something on this point, that the Christians do not observe the same forms of divine worship as do the Jews. The Jews, then, if they abstain from the kind of service above described, and deem it proper to worship one God as being Lord of all, are right; but if they offer Him worship in the way which we have described, they greatly err. For while the Gentiles, by offering such things to those that are destitute of sense and hearing, furnish an example of madness; they, on the other hand by thinking to offer these things to God as if He needed them, might justly reckon it rather an act of folly than of divine worship. For He that made heaven and earth, and all that is therein, and gives to us all the things of which we stand in need, certainly requires none of those things which He Himself bestows on such as think of furnishing them to Him. But those who imagine that, by means of blood, and the smoke of sacrifices and burnt-offerings, they offer sacrifices acceptable to Him, and that by such honours they show Him respect, these, by supposing that they can give anything to Him who stands in need of nothing, appear to me in no respect to differ from those who studiously confer the same honour on things destitute of sense, and which therefore are unable to enjoy such honours.' (2)

Now from the above we can see that Epistle is scolding the pagans for offering animal sacrifices to idols ('those who are destitute of sense and hearing') describing it as 'madness' (not recognising that the 'idols' are merely representations of the gods not the gods themselves [much like the bread and wine of Eucharist is a representation albeit one that in some cases is held to magically become the body and blood of Jesus]), but he reserves stronger terms for the jews as they; in a way of speaking, should 'know better' as they worship the 'one god' but do so in same way pagans worship their many gods.

The Epistle rightly asks the rhetorical question of why; if Yahweh created the world, does he need sacrifices to be made to him as if he was the creator of all things then why would his principle creation need to give him the things he had created in the first place back to him?

However what is particularly telling about this rhetorical question is how the Epistle doesn't try to apply it to pagans; although it could attempt to do so, contenting itself with saying that 'things destitute of sense' 'are unable to enjoy such honours'.

The importance of this can easily be explained by pointing out that in the Greek and Roman systems of paganism: the immortals/gods are conceived of as part and functions of nature as well as having feelings, whims and needs of their own. Thus for example Jupiter or Zeus could accept a hecatomb of cattle as a sacrifice, but still not answer the plaintiff's wishes as well as deciding; as he is recounted as doing in Homer's 'Iliad', as going to feasts held in his honour to enjoy himself.

As such then the author of the Epistle is keenly aware that in Greek and Roman paganism: animal sacrifices make intellectual sense and all that he can assert against them is that the Greek and Roman gods are nothing but meaningless statues/idols (which is precisely what he does). In contrast when dealing with the jews he takes a much stronger line of argument in criticising the lack of logic behind their religious practices and argues; in essence, that Judaism is; like Arnold Toynbee was to argue nearly two millennia later, an ossified or fossil religion.

This argument that Judaism is nothing more than an irrational superstition is taken further by the Epistle when it asserts as follows:

'But as to their scrupulosity concerning meats, and their superstition as respects the Sabbaths, and their boasting about circumcision, and their fancies about fasting and the new moons, which are utterly ridiculous and unworthy of notice, I do not think that you require to learn anything from me. For, to accept some of those things which have been formed by God for the use of men as properly formed, and to reject others as useless and redundant, how can this be lawful? And to speak falsely of God, as if He forbade us to do what is good on the Sabbath-days, how is not this impious? And to glory in the circumcision of the flesh as a proof of election, and as if, on account of it, they were specially beloved by God, how is it not a subject of ridicule? And as to their observing months and days, as if waiting upon the stars and the moon, and their distributing, according to their own tendencies, the appointments of God, and the vicissitudes of the seasons, some for festivities, and others for mourning, who would deem this a part of divine worship, and not much rather a manifestation of folly? I suppose, then, you are sufficiently convinced that the Christians properly abstain from the vanity and error common to both Jews and Gentiles, and from the busy-body spirit and vain boasting of the Jews; but you must not hope to learn the mystery of their peculiar mode of worshipping God from any mortal.' (3)

Here we can plainly see that the Epistle is explicitly gunning for the practices and rituals of the jews using the line of argument that these practices and rituals are nonsensical in terms of representing a consistent religious philosophy. The Epistle draws upon common Roman anti-jewish themes; such as those expressed by Seneca the Younger, (4) Martial (5) and Ovid (6) in regards to the jews and their Sabbath practices, to point out that in doing so they are claiming to be the only people have a direct line to an omnipresent, omnipotent creator god.

This the Epistle also subtly links to the ideas of astrology when it declares that the jews are 'waiting upon the stars and moon', which is meant to be read as suggesting that the jews believe in the causative effects and power of the alignment of the stars and planets in the heavens. By so doing the Epistle also points out that the jewish festivals; as well celebration of the new moon via the jewish calendar, (7) are both superstitious and philosophically illogical.

On the first point the logic of the Epistle is that as these are old practices with no independent validation as to whether or not they were commanded by the omnipresent, omnipotent creator god then they are being performed only because they have always been performed in living memory. Or to simplify this further: the jews don't why or what effect their practices and rituals are supposed to have, but rather perform them because their parents and grandparents did.

On the second point the logic of the Epistle is that if the jews worship the omnipresent, omnipotent creator god they claim to: then why do they need to perform all these rituals and observances for him? After all if Yahweh is the omnipresent, omnipotent creator they claim then it is logically unnecessary to have any particular public festivals or observances in his honour as he; as Calvin might say, 'knows the record' without need for gesture or ritual.

In essence what the Epistle is saying is that it is good works rather than good observance, which is the key to appeasing this omnipresent, omnipotent creator god. Or to put that into the context of the Epistle's critique of the Sabbath observance: religious action rather than ritual inaction is what is called for.

The Epistle also takes strident issue with the jewish claim to be the 'chosen people' of the omnipresent, omnipotent creator god by wryly asking: if this god created both gentiles and jews then why does god not treasure them both equally?

This; of course, jews have often tried to argue against, but we may reasonably summarise their argument as coming down to one single point: Moses told the jews they were chosen and they have believed him since. This; of course, turns on whether Moses was in fact a messenger of this creator god or whether he was something else entirely (i.e. a genocidal misanthrope with serious mental health issues).

To simplify again: it comes down to simple belief and nothing more. If you believe Moses was a messenger of this creator god without reservation then you have to regard the jews as at least the former elect (if not the current one), but if you have any reservations about that what-so-ever the 'chosen' status of the jews crumbles before your very eyes. After all if Moses was not a messenger from god then all the jews have is that a lunatic; who may or may not have existed, told them so.

More fool them.

Related to this; as well as relevant to the current public debate on the issue, is the Epistle's comments about circumcision, which the author of the Epistle stylises as being a nonsensical practice and points out that if lopping off the end of a child's penis is a sign of being 'chosen' ('proof of election') then it is little wonder that the jews are the subject of constant derision by non-jews.

What we should finally take notice of is that the author of the Epistle clearly points out that the jews are general 'busy-bodies' and serial boasters (about their 'chosen' status), which clearly indicates that the jews; to the author of the Epistle's mind, are hardly the 'elect of god' but rather a bunch of impudent self-righteous whelps who believe that because they have decided they own the world: it is theirs to do with as they wish.

We may further contextualise the Epistle's comments by pointing out that the author of the Epistle explicitly argues that the jews regard and hate 'Christians as foreigners' (i.e. non-jews) and persecute them accordingly (inveigling the pagan Greeks into assisting them). (8) Further the Epistle; as before noted, stridently asserts that the jews committed deicide and hated Jesus. (9) It is indeed even possible to see in the Epistle's reference to the 'fraud of the serpent' an implied reference to the jews as knowingly perpetuating falsehood across the world.

Thus from the foregoing discussion we can see that the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus is not only a partial critique of the jews, but indeed the first piece of Christian apologetics we have was primarily written as an explicit intellectual attack on the jews.


(1) Mathetes 11
(2) Ibid. 3; to make it easier for the reader to check my references I have taken my translations from the standard one offered by Philip Schaff which is freely available at:
(3) Mathetes 4
(4) http://semiticcontroversies.blogspot...ome-and_08.htm
(5) http://semiticcontroversies.blogspot...l-on-jews.html
(6) http://semiticcontroversies.blogspot...d-on-jews.html
(7) One may wonder as to what precisely the old jewish ritual around the celebration of a blue moon would be especially as the Canaanite polytheism that Judaism derives from seems to have held the blue moon in some awe.
(8) Mathetes 5
(9) Ibid. 11


This was originally published at the following address: http://semiticcontroversies.blogspot...s-on-jews.html


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