The Didache: It is not Gospel, So Why Read It?
A pet peeve of mine is when people talk about the early church with very broad strokes and as a way of saying “this is how it necessarily ought to be.” In other words, “This is how things should be done because this is how it was done in the early church.” This gets me for a few reasons. First, it presupposes there was a way the early church did it. I don’t believe there was. Second, there is no clarity as to how early we have to go and when things went wrong. In other words, some people say the golden age was the time before Constantine (i.e., the first three centuries), others while the apostles were still alive (the first century), and others the first few days. Third, it is theologically dubious. If Paul says that the church should be maturing as a man, should we always be going back to childhood to find out what to be like? And if we were more mature 2000 years ago, what does it say about the truthfulness of Paul’s theology? Fourth, it is usually a matter of authority and institutionalism. Thus, we are fed up with the authority structures and institutional order of things, and so we look to the day when things were supposedly so much more free and egalitarian. Fifth, the early church is usually interpreted through our own prejudices. In other words, we see what we want in the early church and thus rationalize our own biases.
That brings me to the Didache (Alternately titled The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles for the Gentiles). What is the Didache? It is the earliest church manual we possess. How early? Most scholars believe that it was written near the end of the 1st Century or very early in the second. This means that the Didache—at least in part—may have been written before some of the later NT books. It seems to reflect an example of Jewish Christian practices. Ultimately, it was not accepted as a part of the NT, but is considered among the documents designated The Apostolic Fathers. It is worth reading—even if we don’t treat it as Gospel—because it gives a concrete example of actual practices in the early church.
The Didache breaks down into three sections that we will look at in subsequent posts.
I. The Two Ways (chs. 1-5)
II. The Manual (chs. 6-15)
III. The Eschatological Warning (ch. 16)