Teachings of the Twelve

February 19, 2008

Didache, or The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles (c.80-130)
Anonymous (Harvard University Press, 1952; trans. Lake)
32 p. First reading.

Some months ago, while strolling home from the pub with a good friend, we were engaged unexpectedly by an enthusiastic street preacher. Personally I am not inclined to tangle with such opponents, but my friend suffers no such inhibition, or perhaps he was just overly lubricated, but in any case we were soon embroiled. The preacher was unhappy to hear of our Catholic sensibilities, and tried to traffic in outrageous slanders against Mother Church. This was quite fruitless, for not only is my friend well studied, but he stands ever ready to wield a valiant sword against all comers. The argument took flight, and I stood back to take it in. I remember quite distinctly the moment the conversation turned to the Didache. It was the preacher who brought it up. “The what?” I said to myself. My friend was unperturbed, however, and took up the new theme with alacrity. The debate continued long into the night, and I have forgotten the details. It ended amicably enough: the preacher had been soundly vanquished and my friend was gracious in victory. But as I walked home I resolved to track down the Didache, and acquaint myself with its contents. So here I am.

The Didache was discovered in Constantinople in 1875, and is, as it turns out, one of the most important Christian artifacts to have been discovered in the nineteenth century. The original date of composition has been variously estimated, some putting it as early as c.45, some as late as c.160, but the general feeling seems to be that it was compiled in the decades around the turning of the first century. Though the manuscript discovery was a major find, the existence of the Didache itself was not a surprise, for it had been known to exist through references to it in early Christian literature. Indeed, in the early Church it was sometimes listed as part of the New Testament canon, though in the final judgment it was excluded.

The Didache appears to be something akin to an early catechism. It contains moral teaching, prayers, and descriptions of early Christian practices. Structurally it may be divided into two parts. The first is called The Two Ways, and presents an ideal of the virtuous life. This portion of the Didache is believed to be very early, and may even have been adapted from pre-Christian Jewish sources. The text contains no overt references to Jesus, though there are numerous allusions to the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke.

The second, longer portion of the Didache contains instructions for Christian living and Church practices. For instance, it specifies that converts should be baptized using the Trinitarian formula (cf. Matt. 28:19). Interestingly, it states a preference for baptisms in cold, running water, but allows that a three-fold pouring of water over the head (as in modern practice) is also acceptable. It specifies that Christians should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, and should recite the Our Father thrice daily. Participation in the Eucharist is restricted to the baptized. It proposes some unfamiliar Eucharistic prayers:

And concerning the Eucharist, give thanks thus: First concerning the Cup, “We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy child, which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy child; to thee be glory for ever.” And concerning the broken Bread: “We give thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy child. To thee be glory for ever. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever. (IX)

Note the emphasis on the Eucharist as a sign of unity that brings Christians together, which remains a central theme today. The Davidic reference in the prayer over the wine surprised me, for I’ve not seen that before. I also notice that the order of the prayers is reversed in comparison to later practice (but matches the order given in St. Luke’s account of the Last Supper (cf. Luke 22:14-23)).

All of which makes the Didache a fascinating document. I extend my thanks to that street preacher, wherever he is, for bringing it to my attention.

One Response to “Teachings of the Twelve”

  1. […] to an early version in a variety of second-century texts.  The Didache I have written about on a previous occasion; it dates from somewhere in the late first or early second century, and is notable for, among other […]

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