5.22.2009

The Didache: First Things First


If you had a new convert to Christianity joining your church, or if you had somebody inquiring about what such a conversion would mean, what would you tell him or her? What is the instruction to which you would point them? You might want to point them to correct theology. You might want to help them get to know Jesus. You might want to ground them in the doctrine of justification by faith. If you wanted to emphasize the way of life rather than theology, what would you present as of first importance? You might point them to the disciplines of prayer, meditation, or scripture reading. You might help them clean up their mouth or their life.

The Didache, our earliest extant church manual, begins, as we have noted, with the doctrine of two ways. The new member to their community is grounded in the choice between two ways of life. Just like Jesus, and several strands of Judaism before him, the person is presented with two paths—one leading to destruction and the other to life.

The two ways are then explained (Way of Life = 1:2-4:14; Way of Death = 5:1-2). We will focus on the way of life in this post. This way is summarized:

Thus, on the one hand the way of life is this: first, you shall love the God, who made you; second, your neighbor as yourself. And as many things as you would not want to happen to you, neither shall you do to another. (1:2, BAB)

Although not a word for word quotation, this summary very clearly alludes to the Greatest Commandments and the Golden Rule found in the Synoptic Gospels. In Matt 7:12 and Luke 6:31, Jesus presents what we know as the Golden Rule in the positive form (i.e. as you would want men to do to you, do to them also). The Didache’s use of the negative (i.e., do not do) is not unknown to Judaism. In the Mishnah (b. Shabb. 31a), the command is attributed to Rabbi Hillel, who lived 100 years before Jesus. In addition, a version of this is found in the Pseudepigraphal work Letter of Aristeas (Aristeas 207) written in the second century B.C. The former presents it—as Jesus does—as the summation of the Law. The latter presents it as the answer to the question: What does wisdom teach?

Jesus’ answer to “What is the greatest commandment?” is to combine the commands of The Shema (Deut 6:4-5) and Lev 19:18. The language of The Shema (i.e., to love the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength) is found here as “You shall love the God, who made you.”

The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18) was generally taken to imply fellow Jews. At this time, this was narrowed by some to members of their particular sect (e.g. CD 1:9-10). Outsiders/enemies were to be hated. However, following closely—but not exactly—Jesus’ teachings in Luke 6:31-36, The Didache interprets this command in terms of love for enemies, blessing persecutors, and giving to those who will not be able to repay (1:3-6). For these early Christians, Jesus’ pattern of radical love for enemies, non-resistance, and selfless giving is of first importance. In fact, the one who is able to turn their cheek is said to be perfect, and the one who can give without demanding back is said to be innocent.

So, what does your membership curriculum start with?

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