Readings from the Early Church – The Didache

I’ve decided to expand the scope of my reading from the Ante/Nicene/Post Fathers to also include early Christian works that were not included in the Bible. I won’t comment on all of them – some of them are a waste of time anyways, like the sayings gospel of Thomas, which was a fourth century heretical work – but I’ll limit myself to books that were generally respected in the early church, but not given the status of Scripture. The first of these books is the Didache.

This Orthodox Metropolitan rediscovered the Didache in 1873

The Didache was likely written sometime between 40 – 100 AD, and we don’t know who wrote it. It’s full title is “The Teachings of the Lord to the Nations Through the Twelve Apostles” but for some reason that didn’t catch on, so “Didache” just means “teachings.” It’s not really a book about theology, so much as a sort of “handbook” or guide to some basic Christian beliefs about morality and the church community. Some of the Church fathers quoted from it approvingly as if it were scripture; others thought it was all right but not quite scripture. My copy is a public domain copy scrounged off of the Internet, translated in 1884 by Roswell D. Hitchcock.

The Didache covers a number of topics, but it generally contrasts two ways of living: the way of life and the way of death.

The way of life is to love God and love your neighbour, even your enemy. (cf. Mark 12:30-31) One should give generously, and one should keep away from the following sins:

  • Murder
  • Adultery
  • Sodomizing young boys
  • Unlawful sex
  • Magic, astrology & sorcery
  • Abortion or child exposure
  • Covetousness
  • Making oaths
  • Bearing false testimony & lies
  • Vices like greed, maliciousness, hypocrisy, hatred, pride & conceit
  • Theft, grumbling & idolatry
  • Oppressing the poor and afflicted

There are also a number of things the Didache commands. One should:

  • Be meek
  • Honor the “one who speaks God’s message” as the Lord
  • Treat children and slaves respectfully, never in bitterness
  • Submit to masters/authorities as God
  • Hate hypocrisy
  • Confess sins to other Christians

The Didache also gives advice about a number of things that the Christian church practices, especially baptism, the Lord’s supper, the Lord’s day and how to treat leadership.

Candidates for baptism should go through a period of fasting for one or two days beforehand. The Didache requires baptism in the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit. It recommends in the following order, with the first being best and last being a last resort: running water, “other” water and pouring water on the head. It recommends cold water, but says that warm water is acceptable.

The Eucharist
The Didache calls the Lord’s Supper “the thanksgiving” or Eucharist. It is only for those who have been baptized in the name of the Lord. It says to start with the cup and use these words:

“We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of your boy David which you made known to us through your boy Jesus. Glory be to you for the age.”

After that, it is time for the broken loaf.

“We thank you, our Father, for the life and the knowledge that you made known to us through your boy Jesus. Glory be to you for the age. Just as this broken loaf was scattered on top of the hills and as it was gathered together and became one, in the same way let your assembly be gathered together from the remotest parts of the land into your kingdom. For yours is the glory and the power through Anointed Jesus for the age.”

After that, there is a specific prayer of thanksgiving.

Church Leadership
The Didache speaks of several different types of leaders. There’s advice about spotting fraudulent prophets – these will come and stay a long time, living off of the work of the community. If they’re a true itinerant prophet, the Didache is confident that they will not stay more than one day unless there’s an emergency. These travellings teachers are false if they ask for money; all they should need is food and lodging. Travellers in need of charity should also not stay more than a few days, and should work for food if they have a trade.

The Didache seems (at least to me!) to use “prophet” and “teacher” interchangeably. If a prophet/teacher wants to settle in the community, it’s worthwhile to pay them wages – and thus all Christians should give the first fruits of their own earnings to support the teachers and the poor.

In the Didache, it sounds like the community picks their leaders (overseers and servants) who should be meek and not love money.

Christians are supposed to meet on the Lord’s day to “break bread” or have “the thanksgiving.” They should confess their sins and reconcile themselves “so that the sacrifice is clean.” Christians are also supposed to pray the “Our Father” prayer that Jesus gave us in the Gospels.

The Didache closes with a warning about false teachers and a reminder that the Lord is going to return one day, coming on the clouds of the sky.

The Didache obviously doesn’t have a very deep Christology. It’s jarring to see Jesus referred to as God’s “boy” (apparently it can also be translated “servant.”) Not that this means that the Didache sees Jesus as an ordinary man – the same book tells its readers to sing “Hosanna!” to Jesus, and holds him up as the standard for moral living, and his word is law, especially when it comes to prayer and the thanksgiving. It just doesn’t spend a lot of time on who Jesus is, because that’s not its purpose. You can tell that it’s not the purpose, because it doesn’t spend a lot of time on doctrine in general – it rarely explains why Christians should do/think something, just tells them to do it. (Why is cold water superior to warm, for instance? The Didache doesn’t say.)

The list of sins is interesting because one of the first things mentioned is the murder of children by abortion or exposure. This also gets mentioned a second time just as “murderers of children.” In a Yoda-like moment, the Didache warns that jealousy, anger and strife lead to murder.

Finally, its fun to speculate about who might have written this. It’s not connected with an apostle, or a specific Christian community. We simply don’t know who wrote it, but it’s a little bit of insight into a very early Christian community. Since other contemporary (contemporary with this source, not “modern”) sources mention leaders appointed by the apostles, and this one doesn’t, it may have been an early guide for communities that were off the beaten track and had not been visited by an apostle. This might explain the holes in doctrine and the focus on simply following the rules that they had learned from other Christians.


One thought on “Readings from the Early Church – The Didache

  1. Pingback: Readings from the Early Church: The Epistle of Barnabas | Iesus et Ecclesia

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