Not long ago I taught a brief series at Christ the King Lutheran Church on the Didache, an early Christian manual on ethics, practices, leadership and eschatology. Most scholars date it to the end of the first or beginning of the second century AD. A Greek manuscript of it—dating to about 1073 AD—was discovered by accident in a library in Constantinople by Philotheos Bryennios in 1873 (Have you noticed how some of the best stuff is discovered by accident? The Dead Sea Scrolls. The Nag Hammadi library. Chocolate mixed with peanut butter.) The Didache was published about a decade later. Some early church leaders wanted to include it the New Testament but Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3.25.1-7) reckons it among the spurious documents.
There are four essential questions which this early Christian document addresses:
- How are we/ Christians to live?
- What are our essential practices?
- Who is to lead us?
- How will all of this end?
The Didache begins with the doctrine of the two ways, a Jewish way of instruction which goes back to Deuteronomy 30. There are two ways: the way of life and the way of death. The way of life (according to Deuteronomy) is to know what God says and observe it. Obedience leads to life, blessing and prosperity. Disobedience leads to destruction, “curse,” and adversity. Jesus adopts the same teaching in his parable of the wise and foolish men who built their houses on the rock and sand, respectively. Didache adopts this Jewish theme and makes it part of its instruction—probably to baptismal candidates. In fact, there is very little “Christian” about the Didache‘s first six chapters. It is not until you get to baptism and Eucharist that the true Christian identity of the document emerges. Some people see it as Jewish ethical instruction slightly Christianized. That is a fair characterization at least in the first six chapters.
I like this little Christian document for many reasons. First, as a historian of early Christianity it is primary evidence for how Christ-followers are organizing their common life: what they believe, how they behave, how they conduct their gatherings, and how they deal with traveling and resident leaders. Second, the Greek of the Didache is easy enough that a second year Greek student can usually translate it with a dictionary in hand. There are a lot of unique words, especially among the lists of virtues and vices. Third, and this is related to the first, the Didache and other books of the Apostolic Fathers are some of the first commentators on the New Testament. They speak the Greek language. They share a common cultural situation with the later apostles and second to third generation of believers. So how they read the NT is probably closer than we who read it in a post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, post-colonial, post- Holocaust world. In other words, the fathers have much to teach us if we will just spend some time with them.
There are plenty of versions available, free-online. A classic translation was done by Kirsopp Lake in the Loeb Classical Series. He translated it in the early 1910s so it sounds at times like the King James Bible. The version I use now is a translation of all the Apostolic Fathers by Michael Holmes published by the Society of Biblical Literature. Over time I hope to come back and comment further on this early Christian document. In the meantime, why not take some time, look it up and read it. It is brief. You can probably read through Didache in 15-20 minutes.
Thanks to Bob Moore (pastor), Karin Liebster (co-pastor) and Matthias Henze (professor at Rice University) for the opportunity to teach through the text. I look forward to going back and teaching another of the Apostolic Fathers or coming to teach the Didache at a church near you!