The Didache

A 1st century manual on Christian morals and Church practice

The Didache (Greek, ‘The Teaching’) is an ancient Christian writing generally dated towards the end of the 1st Century AD.1 For centuries its existence was only known through sporadic references in the works of the early church fathers, and scholars believed it was lost forever.

In 1873, Greek Orthodox bishop Philotheos Bryennios discovered the 11th Century Codex Hierosolymitanus during his tenure at the Patriarchal School of Constantinople.2 Within its pages he found a copy of the Didache, and scholars were able to study it for the first time.

The Didache provides a guide to Christian living, and the organisation of the church.3 It affirms essential doctrines, and provides detailed instructions on morality, baptism, fasting, the memorial meal, and ministry.4

Most of these are clearly taken from the NT, but the moral code—a section called ‘the Two Ways’—has Jewish roots and a pre-Christian Jewish literary pattern,5 reflecting theological continuity between Judaism and the Didache community.6

The Didache’s extensive use of Matthew’s gospel7 and the Pauline epistles indicates good familiarity with authoritative New Testament documents, while its warning against false apostles claiming to possess Holy Spirit gifts is widely interpreted as a sign that such gifts were increasingly rare. This pushes the date of composition towards the turn of the century.

Scholars have been struck by the simplicity of the Didache’s doctrinal statements. It is explicitly Unitarian, with no reference to the immortality of the soul, the deity of Christ, or a supernatural Devil. Likewise, the Didache’s order of church service is refreshingly uncomplicated.8

Baptism is described in New Testament terms, with immersion normative; though understandably, some allowance is permitted when water is scarce (‘If you have very little, pour water three times on the head in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit’).9

The Didache community recognised baptism as a precursor to fellowship (‘Allow no one to eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptised in the name of the Lord’) and encouraged spiritual preparation prior to immersion (‘Before the baptism, both the baptiser and the candidate for baptism, plus any others who can, should fast. The candidate should fast for one or two days beforehand.’)10 The Didache’s advice on fasting reflects ongoing friction with the non-Christian Jewish community.11 Likewise, the advice on prayer, which is drawn from Matthew 6:5-13.12

The Didache provides unique insights into beliefs and practices of the early church at a time when apostolic leadership was dying out. This makes it essential reading for anyone keen to explore the early Christian faith. An academic paper on the Didache’s use of the Old and New Testaments is available here: http://www.orthodox.cn/patristics/apostolicfathers/didache_en.htm

Footnotes

  1. ‘According to some scholars, the Epistle of Barnabas (chs. 18–20) and the Shepherd of Hermas (both writings of the Apostolic Fathers) quote the Didache, a fact which might indicate that the work was written near the end of the first century A.D. Others assign a later date to the completion of the Didache, citing the existence of an earlier source (first or second century) for the first six chapters and a later source (second-fourth centuries) for the remainder.’ Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 283.
  2. ‘The main Greek manuscript of the Didache (Hierosolymitanus 54=H54) dates to ad 1056. It was discovered in 1873 and published in 1883 by Philotheos Bryennios.’ Shawn J. Wilhite, “Didache,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
  3. ‘The Didache has been variously described as a “church order,” “community order,” or “church manual” (Niederwimmer, Didache, 2).’ Shawn J. Wilhite, “Didache,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
  4. The teachings of the Didache can be grouped into three major sections. The first (chs. 1–6) concerns the doctrine of the “Two Ways,” presenting the ethical alternatives of the “way of life” and the “way of death” (cf. Prov. 4:18–19; Jer. 21:8; Matt. 7:13–14). The second part (chs. 7–10) discusses baptism, fasting, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper (or perhaps rather the Agape feast). The final section (chs. 11–16) concerns various aspects of church life, including the functions of prophets and traveling teachers, qualifications of bishops and deacons, observance of Sunday worship, and eschatological instructions regarding the return of Christ (cf. Matt. 24).’ Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 283.
  5. ‘One major view is that the Didache has a Jewish background. For example:

    • Taylor (late 19th century) suggested that the Talmud may have formed a background for the Didache (Taylor, Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, 6; see also Salmon, Historical Introduction, 560).
    • Following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Audet argued that the Didache is markedly Jewish but is closer to the Rule of the Community from Qumran than the Talmud (Audet, “Affinités littéraires et doctrinales,” 219–38).
    • Draper, van de Sandt, and Flusser support a Jewish background for the Didache (Draper, Didache in Modern Research; van de Sandt and Flusser, Didache).’

    Shawn J. Wilhite, “Didache,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

  6. ‘The original Greek composition originated at the hands of a convert from Judaism, most likely ca. A.D. 100 in Syria, where it was meant to provide a guide to the organization of local churches.’ Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 283.
  7. ‘The signs of a Jesus tradition in the Didache have led to debate regarding the Didache’s relationship with the Gospels’ Jesus tradition. Clayton Jefford has proposed three options:

    1. The Didache knew and used material from Matthew.
    2. Matthew knew and used material that later formed the Didache or was from the Didache text itself.
    3. Matthew and the Didache arose relatively simultaneously and were aware of the material used by the other text (Jefford, “Social Locators,” 245–46).’

    Shawn J. Wilhite, “Didache,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

  8. ‘Niederwimmer argues that the Didache promotes the following order of observance (Niederwimmer, Didache, 139–43):

    1. community meal;
    2. short blessings over the wine and bread (Didache 9:2–4);
    3. a full meal (Didache 10:1) followed by prayers of thanksgiving;
    4. prayers to introduce the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Didache 10:2–5);
    5. an invitation;
    6. offer of free prayers of the prophets (Didache 10:7);
    7. the Lord’s Supper.’

    Shawn J. Wilhite, “Didache,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

  9. ‘Chapters 7–10 deal with baptism, fasting, and the Eucharist. They specify immersion in the threefold name in running water, but other water and affusion are allowed if this is not possible.’ J. D. Douglas, Earle E. Cairns, and James E. Ruark, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), 297–298.
  10. ‘Regarding baptism in the Didache, Niederwimmer argues that the author of Didache 7 redacted a Jewish-Christian source, “liberalized it by adding to it, and adjusted or adapted it to his own situation” (Niederwimmer, Didache, 130). Draper argues that baptism as addressed in the Didache is a ritual process by which Gentiles are initiated into a Jewish community (Draper, “Ritual Process and Ritual Symbol,” 123). Based on Didache 7, McGowan argues that “baptism actually created membership in this distinct community and offered participation in its benefits, and so required adherence to its ethical stances” (McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship, 147).’ Shawn J. Wilhite, “Didache,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
  11. ‘Fasting was not to be done “with the hypocrites; for they fast on the second and fifth days of the week, but you must fast on the fourth and on the Preparation.”’ J. D. Douglas, Earle E. Cairns, and James E. Ruark, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), 298.
  12. ‘The treatise contains much of interest to the student of early Christian liturgy. The Lord’s Prayer is given in full.’ F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 482.

Author: Dave Burke

Dave lives in Adelaide with his wife Elizabeth, and their two children. He devotes much of his spare time to the study of Christian history, theology, and philosophy.