“Essentials”: The Didache by Duane Arnold, PhD
All lies and jests
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest
A month or two ago, I was sorting through some file boxes when I came across some notes on a course I taught on the Church Fathers at the University of Detroit (a Jesuit institution) in the mid 1980’s. A graduate level course, through the years it proved surprisingly popular, usually attracting 20 to 30 students. As it was held in the evenings, from 6:30 – 9:30, it was especially attractive to clergy who used it to fulfill the continuing education requirements of their particular church or denomination. As I looked among the papers, I found a class roster in which I had noted the affiliations of the clergy attending the class. There were four Roman Catholics (a Franciscan, a Benedictine, a Jesuit and a diocesan priest), two Anglicans, one Methodist, three evangelicals (one Southern Baptist and two non-denominational charismatics), two Eastern Orthodox priests, three Lutherans (two LCMS and a LCA cleric), and one lone Mennonite, with the remainder being lay people of various backgrounds.
As I looked through my teaching notes, the familiar pattern of teaching such a course emerged. The first class was taken up with introductions, going over the broad outline of the course, handing out bibliographies, a list of required readings and, finally, the first week’s assignment – “Read the Didache with special reference to context, dating and the main theological themes of the document and prepare to discuss next week.”
When we gathered the following week, the first order of business was a pop quiz (of course), just to ensure that they had read the material. I was relieved, they had read the text. Moving on, I presented the “mechanics” of the text.
The Didache is one of the earliest written witnesses of the shape and conduct of the Early Church. The exact date of its writing, or perhaps more properly, of its compilation, is difficult to establish. The earliest date suggested is the mid 90s of the Christian era and the latest date being no later than AD 160. Portions of the text, such as chapters 9-10 on the Eucharist and chapters 11-13 on church order appear to have arisen out of Syria. The earlier section outlining the “Two Ways, of Life and Death” may have had its origin in Egypt, although it borrows heavily from Jewish wisdom literature of the time. There are some scholars who even see a connection with the Essenes at Qumran, but it seems more likely that this was simply the result of the Essenes and the early Christians using common source materials. The document itself was addressed to mixed Christian communities, that is to Jewish converts to Christianity whose communities also included gentiles who had come out of the vast religious mix of the Roman empire. The anonymous editor placed together in one small handbook a number of texts, derived from tradition, which he thought would be of benefit to new converts. Indeed, it became a very popular handbook in the early Church. The church historian, Eusebius, indicates that it might have once been considered for inclusion in the New Testament canon. Athanasius of Alexandria, over two centuries after its writing, still considered it to be useful for the instruction of catechumens and made mention of it in one of his paschal epistles.
After presenting the material on the background and dating, we moved on to the text itself and a spirited discussion of the Didache’s theological themes. This, in my mind, was the most interesting part of the class, not for what it revealed about the Didache, but what it revealed about those of us discussing the themes.
For the Mennonite, it was the simplicity of the manner in which the early Church was ordered and the morality and practical concerns of the “way of life” (chap. 1-6). For the Eastern Orthodox, it was the priestly language used in reference to the Eucharist and the Eucharistic prayers. For the Roman Catholics, it was the sacrificial images in the instructions on the Eucharist (chap. 14). The Lutherans countered with the manner in which Christ was present in the Eucharist (chap. 7-10). Our lone Southern Baptist pointed out the preference for baptismal immersion and indicated that it appeared to apply to adult baptism (chap. 7). The two charismatics were, of course, intrigued by what appeared to be the admission of prophetic utterances (chap. 11). The Anglicans, in turn, looked to the instructions on the election of deacons and bishops (chap. 15). On and on the discussion went…
As Paul Simon said, “Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”.
Now, I was not surprised by this turn of events. I had witnessed it on numerous occasions. All the observations were correct, in their own way; and all the observations were wrong, in their own way. They were correct in that the Didache shows us the beginnings of what would grow and develop through the centuries. They were wrong in that we cannot fit that developed understanding back into a first or second century document. As I explained, in the Didache we are looking at The Beatles playing in the Star Club in Hamburg, not The Beatles recording Sgt. Pepper with George Martin in the Abbey Road studios. It’s a matter of development. We can only look to find the essential qualities which provide a common thread that reaches from “then to now” and, importantly, set aside our current systems or confessional understanding and allow the text to speak for itself.
So, we approached the text once again to look for the essentials and came up with the following list. You may find more essentials or fewer. You may even disagree with this list, but this is what our diverse group agreed upon at the time and I offer it for your reflection.
1. The early Church was concerned with, and defined itself by, moral probity. What you did and said in the course of your daily conduct was the proof of your faith.
2. To be a Christian and not to be involved in a Christian community would simply have been considered an impossibility by the early Church.
3. Baptism in the name of the Trinity was the normative rite of entry in the early Church.
4. Individual and corporate prayer, fasting and alms giving were part of the normal rhythm of life in the early Church.
5. The Eucharist was normative Christian worship (likely followed by an agape meal) in which all baptized members participated. In addition to anticipating Christ’s return in the future, the Eucharist provided the assurance of Christ’s presence in the elements of bread and wine in the present “now”.
6. There was an ordered ministry of deacons and bishops (overseers) in local Christian communities that stood along side itinerant “apostles and prophets”. All in leadership (local or itinerant) had to prove themselves by their conduct, speech, humility and manner of life. Seeking any financial gain immediately disqualified one from such a role.
7. Finally, the Didache is all about the Church – how individuals relate to the Church, how the Church is ordered, and how we relate to one another within the Church.
The Didache is a short document. You can read it for yourself and it will take you all of ten minutes. I would, however, encourage you to read it “outside yourself”, that is, like a postcard from another age that you’ve discovered in the attic, only to be surprised when you realize the postcard is addressed to you. Then find your own essentials…
Remember, O Lord, your Church.
Deliver it from every evil and perfect it in your love.
Gather it from the four winds,
sanctified for your kingdom, which you have prepared for it.
For yours is the power and the glory forever.
Let grace come, and let this world pass away…
(Didache 10. 5,6)