I recently read through the Didache and decided to blog through the short book. The goal of these posts (and the Reading History series) is to encourage and help others to read through the early church writings for themselves. The series on the Didache will start with an introduction patterned after the Introduction, Outline, and Argument format used by Bible.org.
When one picks up a copy of the Didache, you have in your hands an early Christian writing that was among the small collection of books considered for inclusion in the NT canon. A book that Christians were encouraged to read, and which was probably written so early that it predates most of the NT books.
This work, whose full title is the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is shortened and more commonly referred to as the Didache. Didache being the transliteration of the Greek word for teaching.
Prior to the discovery of the text, found in a monastery in Constantinople in 1873, the work was only known by its title. It was referenced by several writers during the third and fourth centuries. The manuscript, written in 1056, is known as the Codex Hierosolymitanus and is designated by the symbol H. It is the only complete copy of the Didache known to exist, however portions of the work are also available in a few manuscripts dated in the fourth and fifth centuries.
The work is anonymous, with the author or compiler sometimes referred to as the Didachist. Most scholars agree that the manual was not written by an apostle of Jesus, nor was it ever assumed to have been. Rather it was written by someone who was trying to capture their teachings on how a church should function.
Occasion and Purpose
The work is considered a church manual and is focused more on orthopraxy (right actions) than orthodoxy or doctrinal matters. It provides basic information that would have instructed members of an early church on how to function.
In this post, we will only present the most basic outline of the work.
- Two Ways ( chapters 1-6)
- Way of Life (1-4)
- Way of Death (5)
- Warning (6)
- On Baptism (7)
- On Fasting (8)
- On the Lord’s Supper (9-10)
- On Visiting Teachers (11-12)
- On Permanent Teachers (13)
- On the Lord’s Day (14)
- On Governing the Church (15)
- On the End Times (16)
Early mentions of the Work
Clement of Alexandria
One of the earliest mentions of the work comes from Clement of Alexandria. He quotes Didache 3.5 in his work the Stromata (Book 1, chapter 20). Stromata is dated to the early 3rd century prior to the death of its author in 215 AD. What makes this quote the more interesting is that Clement refers to the work as Scripture.
It is such an one that is by Scripture called a thief. It is therefore said, Son, be not a liar; for falsehood leads to theft. [Stromata I.20]
However, scholars debate whether the quote comes from the Didache or some other document. There is also debate as to why Clement never quotes from the Didache again nor why Origen, a famous theologian and prolific writer in Alexandria, never acknowledges the work [Robinbson 62].
Eusebius of Caesarea
The next famous mention of the work occurs in Eusebius’ Church Histories (link). This work was written and revised between 312 and 324 AD. In Book 3, chapter 25, Eusebius describes the current state of the New Testament catalog. There are three categories that are listed. The accepted writings which are considered part of the NT canon. The disputed writings, containing works which are “recognized by many”. And finally the rejected writings. It is important to realize that these lists do not deal with works that were never widely read and respected by the early church. All of the rejected writings in Eusebius’ list were widely respected books among the early Christians. Many of the works listed here were considered as part of the NT canon at various times. For example, the Apocalypse of Peter is also mentioned in the Muratorian Fragment (dated around 170 AD). This list notes that the Apocalypse of Peter is both considered “received” and that others “are not willing that [it] be read in church.” Eusebius’ list even contains Revelation, which was ultimately accepted as part of the NT.
Among the rejected writings must be reckoned also the Acts of Paul, and the so-called Shepherd, and the Apocalypse of Peter, and in addition to these the extant epistle of Barnabas, and the so-called Teachings of the Apostles; and besides, as I said, the Apocalypse of John, if it seem proper, which some, as I said, reject, but which others class with the accepted books. [Eccl Hist III.25]
Athanasius of Alexandria
Another citing of the work we will consider here is in the 39th Festal letter (link), written by Athanasius of Alexandria in 367 AD. This letter contains what many consider the first written list containing all and only those works which make up the NT canon we have today. However, numerous works, which were debated as to whether they should be included in the canon, are listed as being worth reading. The Didache is among that grouping.
But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read
The last citing of the work is also by its title. Although in his Commentary on the Apostle’s Creed (link), Rufinus refers to the Didache as The Two Ways. The commentary was written in the late fourth or early fifth century. It appeals to the Didache as a work that has been read in the churches but is not part of the canon.
But it should be known that there are also other books which our fathers call not Canonical but Ecclesiastical: … In the New Testament the little book which is called the Book of the Pastor of Hermas, [and that] which is called The Two Ways, or the Judgment of Peter; all of which they would have read in the Churches, but not appealed to for the confirmation of doctrine.
The Dating of the Work
Dating ancient documents is never easy, but the Didache has been quite the challenge. The consensus dating of the Didache has varied over time and is quite complex. For the Didache, date ranges are dependent on how scholars answer certain questions, interpret some passages, or prioritize the primitive ecclesiology described within.
The blog Early Christian Writings, has an interesting quote from Jonathan Draper that summarizes some of the challenges.
Since it was discovered in a monastery in Constantinople and published by P. Bryennios in 1883, the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles has continued to be one of the most disputed of early Christian texts. It has been depicted by scholars as anything between the original of the Apostolic Decree (c. 50 AD) and a late archaising fiction of the early third century. It bears no date itself, nor does it make reference to any datable external event, yet the picture of the Church which it presents could only be described as primitive, reaching back to the very earliest stages of the Church’s order and practice in a way which largely agrees with the picture presented by the NT, while at the same time posing questions for many traditional interpretations of this first period of the Church’s life.
Early Dating Attempts: literary dependency on Barnabas
When the manuscript was originally found the consensus dating tended to identify the document as being written in the 2nd or 3rd century.
It is the object of the present lectures … to establish the judgment of Bryennius the first editor, and of Dr. Harnack himself in his edition of 1884, that the writer of the Didache took the Two Ways from Barnabus, and also made use of the Shepherd of Hermas; and that consequently he cannot have written at an earlier date than between 140 and 160 A.D. [Robinson 45]
Charles Bigg, writing in 1898, concluded that
Taken together these considerations justify the belief that the Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles did not exist as a book before the fourth century. It is earlier than the seventh book of the Apostolic Constitutions, but more than this cannon be safely maintained. [Bigg 23]
Among the “considerations” taken into account was the relationship of the Didache to other early documents. According to Bigg ,the Didache “borrows from Barnabus”. However, he admits that some scholars disagree arguing that the two documents drew from a common source and that the Didache was the earlier text [Bigg 12-13]. He also argues that the Didache borrows from Hermas and the Apostolical Church Order.
Both Barnabas (chap 18-20) and the Didache (chap 1-6) contain a “Two Way” section. These sections are the primary reason they are seen as having some form of relationship. Most earlier scholars placed a greater emphasis on the perceived textual relationships between these two books and others, over the seemingly primitive content of the Didache.
We are thus free to maintain the belief of the earliest editors of the Didache that the Two Ways was borrowed from Barnabas and reduced to a more formal order by the Didachist, who moreover enlarged it by the insertion of matter taken from the Sermon on the Mount, from Hermas, and from other writers… [Robinson 80]
The primitive content could be a challenging problem for those holding to later dating. However, the content of the Didache was seen as an inaccurate reflection of earlier Christian practices being described by a later author.
The use of Barnabas and Hermas prevents our putting it earlier than the middle of the second century. But how much later we might reasonably go, it is not easy to say. For once we have perceived that the writer’s aim is to represent the teaching and practice not of his own [day] but of apostolic days, we need no longer ask what part of the Church could have maintained so primitive an organisation to so late a date.
… He is deliberately constructing an apostolic monument: he is describing what presumably was the apostolic ordering of the Gentile Churches. [Robinson 81-82 (emphasis added]
Current Consensus Dating Attempts: focus on the primitive content
Most scholars found little evidence of a common source of material that could explain the Two Way sections found in both the Didache and Barnabas.
The result of this examination is that neither external nor internal evidence supports the theory of a Jewish manual which has been variously embodied in the Epistle of Barnabas, in the Didache, and possibly in other early writings. … the Two Ways was borrowed from Barnabas … [Robinson 80 (emphasis added)]
However, two theories opened the door to an earlier dating of the Didache. Oddly the two theories propose ideas that are opposed to each other. The first was proposed by E. J. Goodspeed in 1945. It argued that Barnabas did not originally have a Two Ways section based on Latin manuscripts of the text. If true, the Didache could not have been dependent on the document. The second was the discovery of the Manual of Discipline among the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948. This manual, Jean-Paul Audet would argue in 1958, was the common source of the Two Way section found in both the Didache and Barnabas. [Milavec 696-697].
However, the debates over document dependence and the Two Way section may be rooted in the Two Way pattern in the Old Testament writings as Varner suggests.
It should be noted that the “two ways” ethical pattern is very Jewish and has deep roots in Jewish Scripture. Consider Deut 30:19: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death. . . .” Psalm 1 describes the two ways with their contrasting results very graphically. The wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible is replete with this contrasting comparison. Consider Proverbs 1–9 with its comparison of the “Way of Wisdom” with the “Way of Folly.”
Seeing the Didache and the Hebrew Scriptures as employing a literary pattern ingrained in pre-Christian Jewish thinking is more reasonable. It served as a pattern for the Didachist to employ in his Jewish Christian ethical treatise. If there was literary dependence, it makes much more sense again to see it in the statement of one thoroughly versed in the Hebrew “two ways” thinking: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7:13,14). Sometimes things may be simpler than people try to make them. (emphasis added)
Looking past document dependence, the dating of the Didache shifts to a range of 70-110 AD. This more commonly given date range lines up with the view of Phillip Schaff, who argued against many of his contemporaries.
The Didache has the marks of the highest antiquity and is one of the oldest, if not the very oldest, of the post-Apostolic writings. There is nothing in it which could not have been written between A.D. 70 and 100.
The Didache presents Christian teaching and Christian institutions in primitive, childlike simplicity. The Church appears in a state of orphanage, immediately after the death of its founders. Apostles still continue but are of a lower grade and as it were dying out. The Prophets are the chief teachers and not yet superseded by the Bishops. Nor had the Presbyters taken the place of the primitive Bishops, but both are still identical. [Schaff 119-120]
Some of the primitive features described in the Didache include (a condensed list form of material contained in Schaff and Allen):
- no trace of a Church creed
- no mention of a NT canon or NT book
- the term “Gospel” is used but may refer to an oral form
- prophecy was flourishing
- the terms bishop and presbyter are seen as one office
- freedom is allowed in the mode and ministering of baptism
- Eucharistic offerings are much shorter and simpler
In addition, a fair amount of time is given to how the church members should handle visiting apostles and prophets, which would have been prevalent during the early church NT era.
Focusing on the content, and assuming it is describing the common Christian practices of the day in which it was written, the latest possible dating of the Didache tends to correlate to the letters of Ignatius. These letters were written around 110 AD. One of the major features of his letters is the promotion of a three-tier governing structure for the church, composed of a single-bishop leading with elders and deacons.
… do all things in the harmony of God, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ (Magnesians chap 6)
In chapter 15, the Didache prescribes a two-tier system of governing the churches, in contrast to the three-tier system that Ignatius prescribes.
You must, then, elect for yourselves bishops and deacons who are a credit to the Lord …
There is an excellent article by Kruger exploring this topic further (link).
Debating an Earlier Date: dependency on Matthew
The latest question raised that affects the date ranges for the work focuses on whether the Didache is dependent on the Gospel of Matthew or not. The Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse are the two sections in the Gospel of Matthew that are seen as having common content. Some argue that the Didache is dependent on Matthew. Others that there is a common source or oral tradition that these two documents share.
Addressing the question of whether the Didachist (or any Apostolic Father for that matter) knew the Gospel of Matthew or any Gospel in its current canonical form is necessary. In this matter, Didache scholars are divided. [Varner]
The writing of the Gospel of Matthew is dated around 60-65 AD (see Introduction article). Although, like an early document, it has its own set of challenges when trying to determine when it was written. The generally accepted dating pushes the earliest range of dating the Didache to be around 70 AD. However, if there is no dependency between the two documents, as some argue, then the early dating of the Didache moves to around 50 AD. This very early range (50-70) is considered more in alignment with the primitive descriptions of early Christianity found within the Didache. If correct, it would also mean the Didache was written after James (46-49 AD) and contemporaneous with Thessalonians (50-51 AD) and Galatians (49-50 AD).
- Allen, George Cantrell, The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, (London: Astolat Press, 1903) (online)
- Bigg, Charles, The Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1898) (online)
- Ehrman, Bart D., Loeb Classical Library: The Apostolic Fathers Volume 1. (Harvard University Press, 2003)
- Jones, Brice C. “The Earliest Greek Manuscript of the Didache”; Brice C. Jones (blog)
- Kruger, Michael J., “Were Early Churches Ruled by Elders or a Single Bishop?”; Canon Fodder (blog)
- Milavec, Aaron. The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary . (Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition., 2003)
- Milavec, Aaron, The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities (Newman Press, 2003)
- Robinson, J. Armitage, Barnabas, Hermas and the Didache, (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920) (online)
- Schaff, Phillip, The Oldest Church Manual called the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1885) (online)
- Varner, William, “The Didache’s use of the Old and New Testaments,” TMSJ 16, no. 1 (Spring 2005) (online)
- Panagios Taphos 54. John Chrysostom: Synopsis of the Testaments; Apostolic Fathers. 1056 A.D. 120 f. Pg. 16 ft. (online: Codex H title page of Didache)
- Early Christian Writings: Didache (online)