Window on the Past The Didache

Article by   August 2006

Along with The Epistle of Barnabas, 1 & 2 Clement, The Shepherd of Hermas, The Epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp, Te Epistle of Diognetus, and The Martyrdom of Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp, The Didache comprises one of the documents of the "Apostolic Fathers" - documents written in the latter half of the first century by early church Fathers known (?) to have had contact with the apostles.

The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, or its subtitle, The Teaching of the Lord Through the Twelve Apostles (neither of which are thought to be original) is known today simply as The Didache ("The Teaching"). A document about a third of the length of Mark's Gospel, The Didache represents the preserved oral tradition of the mid-first century church based in either Antioch in Syria or Alexandria in Egypt (scholars have argued for both). The work was known (and cited) by the second century Alexandrians, Clement and Origen, leading some to argue for an Egyptian origin.

Dating the document has fallen foul of redaction critics in much the same way as have the canonical texts - thus, older scholarship argued for a mid-second century date, largely based on a perceived "borrowing" from either Matthew or Luke, both of which were thought to be late first century texts. The similarity of some of its contents to "The Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5-7)and the "Olivet Discourse" (Matthew 24-25) has led some to argue a dependence of the former on the latter. As noted above, scholars have argued that the Gospels' portrayal of the Fall of Jerusalem is "too accurate" and have therefore suggested origins dating in the late eighth or ninth decades of the first century. The dependence of The Didache on the Gospel would mean a second century composition.

More recent scholarship has argued for a much earlier origin, possibly as early as the mid 50s of the first century. This has involved not so much a re-dating of the canonical Gospels as such, but on a view that has divorced The Didache from them entirely arguing instead for an oral tradition independent of the Gospel texts. The Didache thus represents the understanding of the church on some essential practical matters, including baptism and the Lord's Supper, at a period when Paul was engaging in his Gentile mission but seemingly wholly independent of it. The fact that Ignatius (in Antioch) was known to be gathering Paul's letters is yet another argument in favor of the Egyptian origin of The Didache.

The story of the "discovery" of the complete text rivals the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi Library in the early twentieth century. When the fourteenth and fifteenth century Renaissance failed to unearth a single copy of The Didache, scholars grew pessimistic, even skeptical of its authenticity. However, in 1873, a single copy written by the hand of "Leon, the scribe and sinner," dated 1056, including the customary tachygraphic signs and abbreviations of Latin and Greek copyists, was discovered by Archbishop Philotheos Bryennios in the library of the Greek Convent of the Holy Sepulchre in Istanbul (Constantinople). Some problems encouraged skepticism by the literati: that professional catalogers had already systematically combed through the library and failed to unearth the document; and Constantinople seemed a convenient place to find it. Ten years of fierce debate ended with the first English publication in New York on March 20, 1884. Five thousand copies were sold on the first day alone. Detractors maintained the charge of a "modern forgery" but it is now almost entirely recognized as a genuine text.

A recent translation has been done by Aaron Milavec - The Didache: Text, Translation, and Commentary [Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2004]. Milavec is also the author of a much larger, one thousand-paged analysis of The Didache - The Didache: Faith, Hope, and Life of the Earliest Christian Community 50-70 ad (New York, Paulist Press, 2003).

The text of The Didache contains 2,190 words: 552 different words of which 504 are to be found in the New Testament, 497 are Classical Greek, 15 are words which occur only in later documents, and one word (prosexomologein) which occurs only in The Didache. On the whole, the vocabulary is typical of Koiné Greek of the mid-first century and, according to Philip Schaff, its "style is simple, natural, terse, sententious and popular." Despite this, critics have noted the staccato-like structure of The Didache, displaying little by way of explanation or transition from one section (theme) to another. It has all the marks of a "cut and paste" document, and some have argued for multiple sources. Again, recent scholarship has argued that the document reflects its oral tradition (the use of the words, "speaking" and "said"), and we are to imagine the document being delivered verbally (by rote) by an instructor to a (neophyte) catechumen in preparation for baptism and reception into the community of the faithful.

Summary of Contents

T. F. Torrance argues that a decline in the understanding of grace takes place in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers from that which is evidenced in the apostolic writings themselves ("The doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers" [1948]), but others have countered that, in the case of The Didache, this is to misunderstand the nature of the document as a piece of pastoral advice addressing specific issues rather than a theological treatment of the nature of saving faith (Aaron Milavec, Te Didache: Text, Translation, and Commentary [2004]).

The document itself contains five discernible parts, though there is no chapter or section division in the document itself. Issues and themes move from one to another with a breathtaking abruptness. These sections are:

1) A Training Program in "The Way of Life" (1:1 - 6:2) [44%]

2) Regulations regarding eating, baptizing, fasting, and praying (6:3 - 11:2) [22%]

3) Regulations regarding hospitality and the testing of various classes of visitors (especially "prophets" - itinerant preachers dependent on the kindness of the church for their well-being and among whom might well be hucksters and charlatans (11:3 - 13:2) [15%]

4) Regulations regarding offerings: firstfruits and "sacrfices" (13:3 - 15:4) [10%]

5) Closing Apocalyptic section of warning and hope (16:1 - 8) [9%]

Briefly, one should note the following:

Firstly, the document opens as does the Psalter, with a pronounced statement indicating two possible "Ways" - a way of life and a way of death. The former receives a lengthy exposition and outbalances the latter's exposition fourfold. The Didache has all the markings of a Manual of Instruction setting out the main principles that any follower of Jesus Christ ought to know in order to grow and mature in a hostile world.

Secondly, much is made of the "Golden Rule" based as this is upon the Shema of Israel (Deut. 6:4-5) recited twice-daily by faithful Jews. Elaborating on the casuistry of loving our neighbor, The Didache encourages the believer to speak well of "those who speak badly of you," and to love them (1:3), to turn the other cheek and offer one's cloak and tunic to one in need (1:4). It encourages the sharing of resources with the community but on carefully judged basis - voluntarily reminiscent of the spirit shown in the voluntary sharing of goods in the early chapters of Acts, not forced as in the Essene communities.

Thirdly, of considerable interest is the so-called "Gentile Decalogue" (2:2), omitting the second, fourth and fifth commandment and inserting in its place commandments forbidding pedophilia, illicit sex, magic, the making of potions (pharmakeuein) and abortion.

Fourthly, in sententious manner, The Didache spells out required behavior in what is clearly Roman society, urging five marks of The Way by negation: "You will not be covetous, greedy, a hypocrite, bad-mannered or arrogant" (2:6). Similarly, five illustrations of how being faithful in little things can prevent major infractions of what God expects lead to warnings about anger (3:2), lust (3:3), necromancy (3:4), falsehood (3:5) and grumbling (3:6). The whole of life is to be viewed with an eye to God's providence: "You will accept the experiences befalling you as good things, knowing that apart from God, nothing happens" (3:10). A clear testimony, then, to divine sovereignty!

Fifthly, disagreement was as much a feature of the early church as it is our own and therefore a lengthy section deals with the need for reconciliation.

Sixthly, prohibition of eating food offered to idols (6:1-3) leads to a section on baptism (7:1-3). It is assumed that the candidate is of discerning age and the document has been by way of preparation for this act of initiation into the community. Three features have given credo-baptists cause for joy: no mention is made of the baptism of children (infants); the document shows a preference for what it calls "flowing water" if this is possible; and at least one translator of the Greek text employs the word "immerse" (Milavec at 7:2 [twice], even though the Greek is baptizein. At 7:1 where the Greek baptizate is used, Milavec renders it in the English simply as "baptize"). Since the document is meant specifically as a training manual of neophytes, the argument over infants is redundant.

Seventhly, the Lord's Supper receives a lengthy treatment (9:1 - 10:6). Paedo-communion devotees will find no support here. The entire ritual assumes the ability to discern. The theology of the supper lacks the insights of the tradition of 1 Corinthians 11 in relation to the "bread word" ("This is my body...") or the corresponding liturgical rubric relating the cup to "the blood of the covenant" (1 Cor. 11: 25). Instead the loaf is a symbol of scattered grain brought together in one loaf and the cup reflective of Jesus but in an altogether unspecified way. Another section (14:1-3) which mentions the "eucharist" is separated by a lengthy section warning of false prophets who prey on naïve and unsuspecting converts is a cause for some puzzlement. Some (e.g. Henri Leclerq and Gregory Dix) have suggested that the initial reference is to the agape meal and the latter to the eucharist proper, but this has not gained much support. All in all, The Didache does not represent a profound theology of the Lord's Supper, nor is there any instruction as to its frequency.

Finally, The Didache closes with a sustained apocalyptic section warning that the end is near and preparation for the life to come urgent (16;1-8). Three features stand out: God's time is "not yet"; believers are to ensure they do not forsake gathering together for instruction in the way of godliness and worship; and, they are to be on their guard for false prophets. The Didache closes with three signs of the end: an "unfurling ... in heaven" followed by the sound of trumpets and the resurrection of the dead. Then, "the world will see the Lord coming atop the clouds of heaven" (16;8).

Bibliography:

Paul Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy (NY, Oxford: OUP, 1992).

J. A Draper "The Jesus Tradition in the Didache" in Gospel Perspectives ed. D. Wenham (Sheffield: JSOT, 1985), 269-87.

Larry Hurtado, At The Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of earliest Christian Devotion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999).

R. A. Kraft, Barnabas and the Didache (AF 3: New York: Nelson, 1965)

Aaron Milavec, The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary (Collegville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2004)

______ The Didache: Faith, Hope and Life of the Earliest Christian Community, 50-70 ad (NY: Paulist Press, 2003)

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