Twelve Apostles Enjoying "The Didache"
by Ed Friedlander M.D.

It may be the oldest Christian document (or a slight modification) -- even older than the New Testament books.

A few people might see it as a challenge to the belief in the divinity of Christ.

Some people will read it as an expression of the Christian faith to which they can give assent, without any reservation.

Nowadays there is a revival of interest in Christian origins, from "The Jesus Seminar" to "The DaVinci Code". I have an informed layperson's knowledge of real historical scholarship (i.e., enough to see through the "pop" claims), and enough life experience to decide generally who's credible.


The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles

The book contains much that every Christian will recognize.

Other elements of the Christian faith which most people would consider basic are not mentioned.

There are a few surprises.

The Text

"The Didache" is a summary of standards for Christian behavior. The intended audience is people who were not from Jewish backgrounds. The book is very simple, like a class lecture handout. It is not a literary production like the books of the New Testament. It reflects the controversies of the apostolic age.

Personal behavior comes first. This is followed by directions for worship, including baptism and holy communion. Next there are policies on dealing with wandering Christian teachers. Finally, there is a section on church organization and the end of the world.

The Greek text is from the Codex Heirosolymitanus, which is itself dated 1056. It was discovered in 1875 in Constantinople in the library of the patriarch of Jerusalem by Philotheos Bryennios, the Greek Orthodox archbishop of Nicomedia. A few fragments had been known previously.

Unlike the obvious fakes from the first few centuries, "The Didache" does not actally assert apostolic authorship. The writing is in the singular ("My child....")

The text refers to a collection of sayings of Jesus called "The Gospel of the Lord" as the source for the Lord's Prayer, but to none of the canonical gospels. The Didache contains sayings of Jesus found in our first gospel ("Matthew") and common to the first and third ("Matthew" and "Luke"), but not the second gospel ("Mark"). This supports what I have believed since college -- that the Q document (the common written source for the first and third gospels) was the original written record of Jesus's sayings.

The Background

"The First Apostolic Council" (Acts 15:28) met to set policy for non-Jews who became Christians. This was a source of much controversy and ill-will. Some people claimed that you could not become a Christian without also becoming a Jew, i.e., being circumcised. Some people claimed Christians needed to keep the Jewish dietary laws (for example, no pork.) People who had been raised Jewish had taboos on associating with non-Jews. It was taboo for a Jew to eat with a non-Jew, and even to talk to a Samaratan. (A Jew would be "defiled". Do you remember talking about "cooties" as a child?) On one occasion Simon Peter was browbeaten by some conservatives into thinking (for a moment) it was taboo for him to eat with Christians who still had their foreskins. Paul upbraided him for this, and rightly so.

The council was hosted in Jerusalem by the surviving disciples of Jesus and chaired by Jesus's brother, James. Church historians refer to the policies, which are listed in the book of Acts, as "The Apostolic Decree".

The most contentious issue was settled permanently. One could become a Christian without becoming a traditional Jew (i.e., new non-Jewish Christian men did not have to be circumcised). With 20/20 hindsight, this is the point at which it became clear that Christianity was a new world-faith rather than a sect within Judaism.

The council also asked new members to "abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality." This reflected the standards reportedly given to Noah and therefore binding on the whole human race (Genesis 9). Readers of the New Testament already know what followed. As usual, the church council made its pronouncement and actual practice determined what happened in the long run, with common sense prevailing.

The prohibition on eating meat sacrified to idols seems to have been a source of much controversy in the early Christian community, since much of the meat was killed in pagan temples. The author of the Apocalypse mentions a "false prophetess" who said it was okay to eat meat sacrificed in a pagan temple. Paul's way of dealing with the problem shows his usual common sense and good will. The pagan gods are make-believe. Food is the true God's gift to you, we give Him thanks, and nothing can make it unholy. If a chicken has been sacrificed to Aphrodite, it makes no difference, because Aphrodite doesn't exist. However, if it is going to upset somebody to see you eat the chicken, then you'd be doing a nice thing to not eat that particular chicken. Today, the controversy is a dead letter -- and the concern on the level of eating the milk and cookies left out for Santa Claus.

Nobody talks today about the prohibition on "eating blood." The section in Genesis seems to reflect ancient ideas about life forces. I admire the courage of the Jehovah's Witnesses in refusing transfusions even to save their lives, but I can't see this in the Christian scriptures. Is the First Council's prohibition on blood pudding? On French dips and roast beef au jus? Who knows? Who cares? It's moot. The issue was clearly settled by the time the gospel writers noted that Christ "declared all foods to be clean."

Now, consider for a moment what else would have happened at the first Christian summit conference. In addition to what is described in "Acts", it seems reasonable to me that the church leaders would have presented guidelines for baptism (i.e., who is and is not a church member), for the eucharist (i.e., what words are to be used?), for the election of church leaders ("overseers" and "workers", or "bishops" and "deacons"), and guidelines for visiting charismatic preachers ("prophets"). The minimalist common-sense approach, rather than elaborate rules, is typically Christian. We would also expect some discussion of standards for personal behavior. Because this is politics, we would also expect some waffling and evidence of compromise -- we have this in the statement that keeping kosher is good but not essential.

This is exactly what we have in "The Didache". So I think the entire document is the product, or very similar to the product, of the first church council. And it is, after all, called "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles".

The Two Paths

The Didache begins by contrasting the paths of life and death. The first name chosen by the Christian movement to describe itself was "The Way" / "The Road". As a college student, I read the section in Strack-Billerbeck which catalogues sayings of the rabbis of the era about the two roads. You can find more about the two roads in Deuteronomy 30:19 and Jer 21:8. The expression is so natural that when we say "You're on the right track / path / going the right way" we do not even think of the scriptural parallels. The first and third gospels report Christ as saying, "Enter by the narrow gate / door", and finally, the fourth gospel records Christ saying "I am the road" and "I am the door."

The account of the road to Emmaus in the third gospel reminds us that we meet Christ unexpectedly as we walk our roads, and quite naturally invite Him to be our companion on the road.

Acting Like a Christian

The Didache immediately moves to the Two Great Commandments, and the Silver Rule. Then we are told to return good for evil and love our enemies. Unlike in the canonical gospels, we read that if you love others, you won't have enemies. (I wish....) We are then told to be generous. This time, there's a caution -- be sure you know to whom you're giving.

The idea of loving your enemies and doing good to whoever you meet are distinctively Christian. I'll stand by this statement, even though the other major world-faiths often urge members to restraint and even kindness in dealing with enemies. I've also observed these standards don't get much formal attention, even from the highly-visible Christian "ministries". But they still guide the day-to-day decisions of the faithful. Are they an actual supernatural revelation? I say "Yes" -- for one thing, I don't know anybody who'd make something like this up. ("Loving your enemies?!") Can they really be lived, more or less? As a Christian, again I say "Yes!"

Anyway, here they are at the very beginning of what's probably the first document of organized Christianity.


The text moves into guidelines for Christian behavior. The sixth through tenth commandments are repeated. (There's a joke, "It's the Ten Commandments, not the Ten Guidelines." In fact, there are probably times when it's okay to kill, steal, or lie, but they are very uncommon.) Typical for Christianity, these are extended to not being hateful, malicious, or a mere talker. "Thy speech shall not be false or empty, but concerned with action."

Standards for sexual behavior are extended to forbid fornication, child molesting, abortion, and infanticide. Remember that in the ancient world, there was no reliable birth control, and premarital sex was likely to have very serious consequences. Reasonable people will differ on what standards should be today and how church policy should reflect these. (As a church leader, Paul intervened when word got out that a father and his son were both fooling around with the same lady. There must have been other goings-on that were overlooked. I think this is how things have generally been handled in most churches most of the time.) You're free to draw your own conclusions about whether the early church accepted and/or endorsed practices which the Didache omits. (For example, polygamy seems to have been accepted, though a bishop should have only one wife -- Timothy 3:2.) The mainstream standard still seems to be saving the best for that one special person who'll be your companion throughout your life. For lifelong singles, it's best to focus on friendship rather than sex.

Christians are also exhorted not to conjure spirits, or even to be curious about the occult. (My own reading and some conversations suggests this is good advice.) They were also reminded not to pay attention to "omens", which were much discussed in the ancient world. The Didache says this leads to "idolatry". Perhaps "superstition" is a better word.

Christians who own slaves were exhorted to treat them kindly, as people rather than as property. Later, the Christian community (especially in England and the United States) would lead the anti-slavery movement.

Who Is This Jesus?

The Didache refers to Jesus as "Lord" and prophesies His return, seen by the whole world on the clouds of heaven. People who examine The Didache may be struck by the fact that there is no reference to the unique Christian doctrines about our Lord's incarnation, His death for our salvation, or His resurrection. Does this mean that these ideas are later developments, or that the original disciples did not believe them?

I'd have to say "No".

It's obvious from the New Testament that belief in Christ's resurrection is very early and very strongly held. Why isn't it mentioned in the Didache? It's no surprise. This is a guide to personal behavior and church policy, not a place to review what must have been the most cherished beliefs uniting all Christians.

For the same reason, I am not surprised that there is no mention of Christ's body and blood being present in the Eucharist. It is very clear from Paul that this belief was central in the gentile church. This must have been another precious secret.

All mainstream Christians agree that human nature prevents all of us from being who we want to be, and that Christ's sacrifice in some way enables us nevertheless to be fully acceptable to God. I've come to believe that the atonement cannot be explained in human language, but must simply be understood as Christ's wonderful gift to us. In the Old Testament, and in the first-century Temple worship, there is talk of animal sacrifice as the way of having sins forgiven, and it is also clear from the Old Testament prophets that forgiveness of sins was obtained by repentance and trying to live better. The Didache instructs the faithful to "confess thy transgressions in the Church", and evidently nothing else was required to obtain forgiveness. Further, it is obvious that the writers of the Didache believed that they would be saved by Christ -- and at the end, He is called the "rock of offense." New Testament readers will recognize "The stone that the builders rejected..." and "Blessed is he who takes no offense at me...." That this arcane name for Christ appears at this triumphal moment says to me that the mystery of His person were shared as precious secrets among the faithful. Again, the Didache is not about the deep matters of faith. It seems reasonable to me to think that the community understood the Cross just as it is clear that the original audience of "Romans" did.

Finishing Up

If you are new to Christianity, you are in the same position as the first readers of "The Didache".

Many people already have ideas about religion in general and Christianity in particular. "The Didache" focuses on how you live, rather than what you believe. It presents simple guidelines for good behavior that most of the world, for the most part, now accepts. Further, it emphasizes love of neighbor, reaching out to others in kindness, and returning good for evil -- and makes these the first subjects of discussion.

By the way, I would cite the Didache against certain "dispensationalists". They've told me that Jesus's commandment for us to love our enemies only applied before the resurrection, and that now we are supposed to hate all non-Christians. I'm glad I don't believe this.

Today, this may seem corny. In the ancient world, it was a radical new approach to the life of faith.

If you have enjoyed "The Didache" and are considering becoming a Christian, then you need to examine the faith more closely. Choose somebody who you know to be a good human being and who practices Christianity. Ask him/her about how to continue your investigation. Bear in mind that the Christian life is about relationships rather than about doctrines.

You won't be sorry. Best wishes.



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About the Didache

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