The Didache: A Missing Piece of the Puzzle in Early Christianity

The Didache: A Missing Piece of the Puzzle in Early Christianity

Early Christianity and Its Literature 14
Edited by Jonathan A. Draper and Clayton N. Jefford
(Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature Press, 2015), 631 pp., $75.95 (softcover), $95.95 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Tony Burke

The Didache, also known as the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is mentioned by several church fathers of the fourth century, but it was not available to scholars until 1873 when it was discovered in an 11th-century Greek codex. In the decades since, other sources have been found, including fragments in Greek and Coptic, a complete Georgian translation, and excerpts in Latin, Ethiopic, and Syriac. Scholars are still divided over its origins, with suggested dates ranging from prior to 50 C.E. to the third century. However, they are largely united in characterizing the Didache as a composite work, combining a set of moral instructions about the “Two Ways,” which juxtaposes the “way of life,” or a manual of church order and practice, and the “way of death,” or an apocalypse.

Jonathan A. Draper and Clayton N. Jefford’s essay collection is intended as a capstone for the efforts of a series of seminars on the Didache held at the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature from 2003 to 2011.1 In his introduction, Jefford calls the Didache “a hobby interest for only a scattered few scholars” and laments that nonspecialists have only vague notions about its role within early Christianity.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Didache originated in an early Jewish-Christian community with a keen interest in ritual purity and holiness, striving for “perfection” in Torah observance but welcoming gentile converts. It is closely aligned with the Gospel of Matthew, drawing on either pre-Matthean oral traditions or the Gospel of Matthew itself—or both—at various stages of its development.

Particularly striking is the Didache’s lack of interest in essential tenets of Pauline Christianity. Not only does it affirm Torah observance, but it also makes no mention of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and its Eucharist celebration makes no connection of the meal with the body and blood of Christ. This position suggests alignment of the community with, once again, the Gospel of Matthew and with the anti-Pauline “faith without works is dead” theology of the Epistle of James. The Didache imagines Jesus as the servant of God, not a dying and rising son of God whose eschatological return ushers in a new kingdom.

Of interest also are the numerous connections between the Didache and other early Christian texts—arguments in the book are made for the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Book of Revelation—most likely at the level of oral transmission and community interaction rather than from knowledge of the texts. One aspect of the Didache that the essays neglect is its instructions for traveling apostles, a sure indication of early composition for at least a portion of the text.

The points of agreement should not obscure the differences that separate the contributors to this volume. While there is near-universal agreement that the Didache is a combination of at least two earlier works, some prefer to study it as a unified text written by a single author over several stages.

Draper opens his conclusion to the volume with the statement that “if [the Didache] is indeed a genuine document of the first or even early second century C.E., it is hard to see how pessimism with regard to its use in the reconstruction of the emergence of early Christianity can be justified.” He is certainly correct. This comprehensive collection of essays demonstrates how the Didache needs to be placed front and center in discussions of Jewish-Christianity, the Matthean Gospel community, anti-Paulinism, and a host of other topics.

 


 
Tony Burke is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities at York University in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha (Grand Rapids, MI, and London: Eerdmans and SPCK, 2013) and co-editor (with Brent Landau) of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).
 


 

Notes:

1 The contributing authors are D. Jeffrey Bingham, E. Bruce Brooks, John J. Clabeaux, Stephen Finlan, Alan J.P. Garrow, Andrew Gregory, Taras Khomych, Matthew Larsen, Aaron Milavec, Joseph G. Mueller (S.J.), Matti Myllykoski, Perttu Nikander, Nancy Pardee, Huub van de Sandt, Jonathan Schwiebert, Murray J. Smith, Michael Svigel, Peter J. Tomson, Joseph Verheyden, and John W. Welch.

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  • BAS says

    Wot I have understood about da Didache is that it was probably used as a manual of instruction for da Catechumenant.Would you go along with this argument? Thx!


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