According to the most sensible view of the evidence, the New Testament was written mostly in the last half of the first century by the Apostles and their close associates. Many books, letters, and treatises written by early Christians, often called the “church fathers” (and their writings, patristic material), have been preserved, beginning in earnest in the middle of the second century. Precious little has been preserved outside of the New Testament from the first century and from Christians in the early second century, and many have wondered what Christianity was like in the generation living in the wake of the Apostles. Imagine the surprise and excitement in 1873, then, when a copy of a previously lost document most likely written during the latter half of the first century was re-discovered as part of an old codex: the Didache, or the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.”
The Didache (from the Greek word for teaching) is a very early Christian treatise providing exhortation and instruction about morality, congregational practices, and congregational organization. The author is anonymous; the work is self-titled “Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles.” Eusebius knew it as the “Teaching of the Apostles,” and considered it spurious, but admitted that some reckoned it as canonical (ca. 325; History of the Church III.25); most considered it apocryphal. Influence of the Didache can be seen in many early patristic authors; it provided the basis for a later (and better known) work, the Didascalia Apostolorum. The text was lost in medieval times but rediscovered by Philotheos Bryennios, Metropolitan of Nicomedia in the Codex Hierosolymitanus in 1873. The Didache is generally believed to have been written in a Jewish Christian context within the first century not long after the end of the direct influence of the Apostles upon them, reaffirming many of the ethical commandments and church ordinances of Jesus and the Apostles, clarifying others, and expanding on what had already been revealed.
A translation of the Didache can be found online at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html. It is most often divided up into four sections: the “two ways” (Didache 1-6), baptism, fasting, and communion (Didache 7-10), ministry and traveling prophets (Didache 11-15), and a concluding exhortation to faithfulness while awaiting the Lord’s return (Didache 16).
The Didache begins with ethical and moral exhortation in terms of the “two ways,” the ways of life (Didache 1-4) and death (Didache 5). The way of life is through God and righteousness; the way of death is sin, and most of the contents of the ethical instruction re-state and re-affirm the contents of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Sermon on the Plain, and Paul’s ethical exhortations in his letters (Matthew 5:3-7:27, Luke 6:20-49, Romans 12:1-13:14, Ephesians 4:17-5:21). Notable is a concern about discernment in giving and receiving benevolence (Didache 1), explicit condemnation of abortion, pederasty, and magic (Didache 2, 5), and encouragement to honor the one proclaiming the message of the Lord and to associate daily with fellow Christians (Didache 4). Didache 6 cautions its hearers about food sacrificed to idols but does not make an absolute prohibition.
The Didache continues with practical exhortation regarding baptism, fasting, prayers, and communion, featuring model prayers during and after the Lord’s Supper (Didache 7-10). Notable is the insistence on baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, ideally in running water. Pouring as baptism is given as an option when insufficient water for immersion is present; the one being baptized was expected to fast beforehand (Didache 7). Wednesday and Friday were to be the days of fasting according to the Didache, not Monday and Thursday as the “hypocrites” (non-Christian Jews; Didache 8). Praying the Lord’s Prayer was expected thrice daily (Didache 8; Matthew 6:9-13). Communion was to be shared among Christians but not given to non-Christians (Didache 9).
The Didache spends much time on internal congregational affairs: showing hospitality to Christians, when and how to support those in ministry, assembling on the Lord’s day, and honoring elders and deacons (Didache 10-15). Notable is the expectation that Christians would assemble on the Lord’s day (Didache 14), local congregations would have bishops and deacons serving as prophets, exhorting and teaching the people (Didache 15), and the presence of “apostles” and “prophets,” no doubt those upon whom the Apostles had laid their hands to proclaim the Gospel and exhort and instruct Christians, and the expectation that their lives would be consistent with their message, and should be supported as “high priests,” but should not seek money or goods (Didache 10-13, 15). The Didache ends with exhortation to righteousness and expectation of the return of the Lord, establishing the trial of the world and hope of the resurrection (yet not for all; Didache 16).
The Didache provides Christians today with a glimpse of how one likely Jewish Christian of the first century exhorted his fellow Christians to righteous living and proper behavior among the people of God. We can see many points of connection and continuity with Apostolic instruction about ethical behavior, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the assembly, elders and deacons, and the return of the Lord Jesus. We see explicit condemnation of sins such as abortion and pederasty, the importance of fasting, and the expectation of highly ritualized practice and prayers surrounding the Lord’s Supper. We can see the work and effects of “apostles” and prophets in the days while such roles remained among the Lord’s people, in contrast to how churches would be described by later patristic authors (1 Corinthians 13:8-10). Yet we can also see some seeds of digression and error: the allowance of pouring for baptism in certain circumstances which would later become a rite unto itself and a denial of the resurrection to condemnation seen in John 5:28-29. We do well to find encouragement from the Didache and its witness to the faith and practice of early Christians. May we seek to follow the Lord Jesus and be saved!
Ethan R. Longhenry