Christian beliefs, theology and history are rooted in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John as well as the Acts of the Apostles, the twenty Epistles and the Book of Revelation — the New Testament.
The earliest Gospel is Mark, written around 66-70 A.D. The earliest Epistles date from about 50 A.D. These works are our best information about the life and teachings of Jesus. As with any historical documents, however, there are gaps.
What was Christian life like before most of these were written? Also, because the early Christian movement wasn’t centralized, what was Christian life like for those communities not described in the New Testament? In the past two centuries, scholars have sought to discover some answers to those questions.
For example, the 2010 book The Christ of the Miracle Stories: Portrait through Encounter by Wendy Cotter CSJ examines what have come to be called miracle stories. These were accounts of the actions of Jesus that were circulating in the Christian communities in the three decades or so after the crucifixion and resurrection of the Savior.
Mark used these stories as raw material for his own Jesus story, and, through literary detective work which includes tapping into the contemporary writings of this era, Cotter is able to isolate the root miracle stories as a way of looking at what early Christians believed and how they lived.
Another source of such insights is the Didache, a document that began as an oral step-by-step training manual for new Christians entering house churches and was later written down.
1000 pages and 100 pages
I heard about the Didache from article in the Catholic Worker newspaper, published by the Catholic Worker house in New York, co-founded by Dorothy Day, an intentional community that is a throwback to the early days of Christianity.
Searching around for a book to learn more, I quickly realized that the expert is Aaron Milavec, a theologian and biblical literature expert who, in 2003, published not one, but two works on the Didache:
- The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C. E. (Newman Press), a 984-page exhaustive examination of this pastoral manual for preparing new members of a Christ movement community.
- The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis and Commentary (Liturgical Press), in which Milavec boiled down his major work to what is essentially a 114-page executive summary.
Obtaining both, I set the big book aside for some hoped-for future date and dug into the more manageable one.
In that shorter book, Milavec opens:
The Didache represents the preserved oral tradition whereby mid-first-century house churches detailed the step-by-step transformation by which gentile converts were to be prepared for full active participation in their assemblies.
Then, he makes a bold pronouncement:
The Didache reveals more about how Christians saw themselves and how they lived their everyday lives than any book in the Christian Scriptures.
Biblical scholars long knew about the Didache, but, for fifteen centuries, it was lost. Then, in 1873, a complete Greek copy was discovered bound in a collection of earlier church writings in the library of an Istanbul convent. The first English translation came in 1884, and, initially, experts believed that the work was from some time in the 100s.
Since then, experts have placed it, instead, in the first century. But most have argued that it seems to cite Matthew or have roots in Matthew or Luke traditions and belongs after 80 A.D.
Milavec, however, after fifteen years of study and research, contends that “the internal logic, theological orientation, and pastoral practice of the Didache run decisively counter to what one finds within the received gospels.” Indeed, he asserts:
It is older than the canonical gospels and was written in the generation following the death of Jesus when the message of Jesus was not yet encapsulated in stories about Jesus…The Didache was created at the time of Paul’s mission to the gentiles, but it shows not the slightest awareness of that mission or of the theology undergirding it.
A few pages later, he writes that his conclusion is that the work was independently composed, meaning that “the gospels can provide studies in contrast and comparison, but they cannot be used to fill in the intent of the framers of the Didache.”
“A marvelous unity”
The work contains 2,190 words, about a third as many as Mark’s gospel. Its vocabulary comprises 552 words, most of which also appear in the New Testament.
It is, Milavec writes, not the result of an editor stitching together a variety of pre-existing documents, as earlier specialists maintained. Instead, he argues that the work has “a marvelous unity…[that] has gone unnoticed.”
In the 1873 document, the Didache is presented as a continuous line of letters with no indications of the beginnings or ends of words, sentences and sections. So, in approaching the text, Milavec created an analytical translation in which the continuous Didache text is broken up, like a poem or an outline, into units of thought and patterns of repetition, making them more evident.
Other markings in the translation are used to indicate, for example, whenever a Greek word is rendered with several English words. Also, his translation makes it clear when references are made that can relate to men and/or women and when they relate only to men or only to women.
In reading through this Didache translation, I found myself delighting in unfamiliar and evocative phrasing, not only for its freshness but also for its window into the world of those earliest Christians. Yes, there is the Our Father as in the gospels, but there is much more that is new and thought-provoking.
There are two ways: one of life and one of death!
(And) [there is] a great difference between the two. (1:1)
Woe to the one taking;
for, on the one hand, if anyone having need takes,
he/she will be blameless;
on the other hand, the one not having need
will stand trial [on the day of judgement]
[as to] why he/she took and for what [use]…. (1:5)
You will not be double-minded nor double-tongued,
for being double-tongued is the snare of death. (2:4)
My child, do not become a grumbler,
since [this] is the path leading to blasphemy;
for, from all these, blasphemies are begotten. (3:6)
You will not turn away the one being in need;
you will partner-together, on the other hand,
sharing all [things] with your brother [sister],
and you will not say [such things] are your own.
For if you are partners in the immortal [things],
by how much more [are you partners] in the mortal [things]. (4:8)
Double-minded and double-tongued — quite a way of describing deceit and betrayal. And the idea of being partners in this life and the next. And that wonderful advice against grumbling.
For me the best verse comes about a third of the way through the text:
For, on the one hand, if you are able to bear
the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect;
but if, on the other hand, you are not able,
that which you are able, do this. (6:2)
This is a call to saintliness, but also a recognition of humanity. If you are unable to be perfect, “that which you are able, do this.”
“Women were empowered”
Milavec’s commentary on the text declares that the Didache provides
a long-lost window into appreciating a vital form of Christianity that predates the Gospels and that was much closer to the faith and hope of Jesus than the letters of Paul and the sermons in the Acts.
And what can be seen through that window?
One thing is what seems to be a greater equality of women and men. A woman candidate would be mentored from the start by a woman in the community, and a man, by a man. Milavec writes:
The wisdom of the Didache, therefore, stands apart by deliberately offering training to women. Such training ensured that women were empowered to be active participants within community affairs and [as another scholar wrote] “does not concern itself with rendering a household code whereby wives are subordinate to their husbands.”
Not only was there such equality in the community, but Milavec contends that this extended to the Eucharist:
From my reading of the evidence the presider of the first Eucharist would have been the presider at the baptism, namely, the mentor who had “fathered” or “mothered” the candidate…If women were being trained by women, then the logic of the text and of the culture would lead us to surmise that these same women were baptizing those whom they had trained and presiding at their first Eucharist.
“Altered social barriers”
These Christian communities were radically countercultural with members breaking ties with their pagan families and friends and finding a new kinship in their house church. They shared their resources and the Way of Life and dreams of a future.
Each new Eucharist, consequently, celebrated the group identity, the standards of excellence, and the habits of judgment the community needed to champion in the name of the Lord. These early Christians, it must be remembered, faced a world that in so many ways had betrayed their trust and shattered their hopes.
Thus with their eyes on the future they altered long-standing social barriers between Jew and gentile, male and female, slave and free.
Indeed, turning Jewish practice on its head, the first fruits of any project — whether baking or carving or whatever — didn’t go to the leaders of the community, but to the wandering penniless prophets. And, if no prophet was available, the first fruits were given to beggars.
Milavec asserts that “the pastoral genius of the Didache is revealed in the surprising honor and dignity the members of the community conferred upon lowly vagabonds and beggars who, in God’s eyes, were being chosen to receive the first and best gifts of God’s creation.”
The New Testament
Milavec, in his two books, provides a provocative restructuring of our understanding of this first century document, as well as a deeper respect for its unity, theology and insight into the early Christian ancestors — and its importance as a fertile field for greater theological study.
After reading his shorter book, I can understand his hope that, in the future, editions of the New Testament will include, in an appendix, a copy of the Didache. It would enrich our Scriptures.
Patrick T. Reardon