Acts 15 and the Didache: A Brief Exploration

messiah-journal-113Tony Jones aptly calls the Didache “the most important book you’ve never heard of.” It offers an unparalleled look into the day-to-day community of the earliest disciples of Rabbi Yeshua. It is therefore an invaluable document for all students of the Jewish background of Christianity.

The title Didache means “teaching” and is taken from the first word of the book. The work is also known by the longer title, “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” or the still longer “Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles” which is the complete first line of the book.

-Toby Janicki
“The Didache: An Introduction”
from Messiah Journal issue 113, pg 42

I keep meaning to read the Didache, but there are so many other books around that it’s hard to find the bandwidth. Then I received an audio CD in the mail from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) that contained a recording of Toby reading his Didache article, published last spring in issue 113 of Messiah Journal.

My son, who is normally my commuting companion five days a week, took some time off of work, so one morning last week, I popped the CD into the player in my car and listened to Toby as I drove to my job. The recording was just the right length so that I could listen to everything Toby had to say from home to work. Then I discovered on the packaging that the content could also be found in text format in Messiah Journal. So here I am.

Most scholars generally agree that the Didache was written either in the location of Egypt, Syria, or Israel sometime between the late first to early second century. Some speculate it may have been written as early as 50 CE. This would mean that the Didache is actually older than the canonical Gospels and was written during the generation after the Master’s death.

-Janicki, pg 44

Admittedly, there’s a lot of guess-work about the Didache, who wrote it, when it was written, but generally it’s agreed that the intended audience was the newly-minted Gentile disciples of the Jewish Messiah, of Jesus. Toby paints a portrait of the Didache as a sort of “learner’s primer” presented to new Gentile disciples who needed some guidance into their day-to-day practices and responsibilities. Toby also makes a point that the style and simplicity of the text seems markedly Jewish and represents early Jewish religious instruction common in the late 1st century period.

The longest title of the Didache, “Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles” would have us believe that the Didache contains instructions that were transmitted by the apostles through the halachic authority that was invested to them by the Master himself. While scholars debate which if any of these titles were originally used when the Didache was composed, this raises the question then of whether or not the Didache actually dates back to the original twelve apostles. Did the teaching of the Didache actually emerge from the oral halachah of the Jerusalem Council? The suggested early date of the compositions, coupled with their contents, makes this a high probability. Jonathan Draper writes, “The earlier the date for this text is pushed, the more likely it was associated from the beginning with, or even originated from, the twelve apostles in Jerusalem, as its title states.” As we will see, the Didache becomes a natural outgrowth of the Jerusalem Council’s rulings in Acts 15.

-ibid, pg 45

I’ve written a great deal on the impact of Acts 15 on Gentile believers in the late Second Temple period and beyond in my Return to Jerusalem series and other blog posts such as The Evidence of Acts 15. One of the criticisms leveled against the “Four Prohibitions” recorded by Luke in that chapter, is that they are woefully insufficient instructions for new Gentile disciples, especially relative to the vast compilation of mitzvot collected in the Torah of Moses and required for the Jewish people. It’s a common argument in parts of the Hebrew Roots movement supporting their belief that the full length of Torah commandments were intended to be observed by both Jewish and Gentile believers.

But what if…just what if the Didache represented the oral halachah that was to accompany the Jerusalem Letter to the Gentile disciples and that it “fleshed out” the letter’s contents.

So when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message (emph. mine).

Acts 15:30-32 (NASB)

the-didacheIt’s very likely that there was a rather long and involved explanation about the contents of the letter delivered to the different communities of Gentile believers. Luke only hit the high points, so to speak, and didn’t write down literally everything Paul and the other Jewish apostles and disciples had to say by way of instruction to the Gentiles. What if the Didache was the written version of those instructions, at least to some degree?

No, I can’t say that it is or it isn’t. There’s a lot of mystery shrouding the Didache, and no one is able to make many definitive statements about it. However, Toby writes that it nearly was made Biblical canon and for various reasons, fell out of favor. Still, it is acknowledged that the Didache is an important written work in early Christianity, albeit obviously coming from a strong Jewish source.

Once I get the opportunity to read and study the Didache, I’ll revisit my suggestions and see if they at all seem credible. If they do, that still doesn’t mean Christians today should follow their instructions to the letter, but it may mean we already have a more complete set of documents advising us of the intent of the Apostolic Council in terms of the requirements for Gentile disciples in the body of Messiah. And remember, the Acts 15 letter wasn’t just the idea of human beings.

“Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials… (emph mine)”

Acts 15:27-28 (NASB)

I can’t claim Divine inspiration for the Didache the way I can for canonized scripture, but it may represent an important and long absent link between the Acts 15 letter and how it was supposed to be lived out “on the ground,” so to speak, by the earliest Gentile disciples.

This may, in the end, also tell us something about who we are in Christ today.

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