The Didache represents the preserved oral tradition whereby mid-first-century house churches detailed the step-by-step transformation by which gentile converts were to be prepared for full active participation in their assemblies. As an oral tradition, the Didache encapsulated the lived practice by which non-Jews were initiated into the altered habits of perceiving, judging, and acting characteristic of one branch of the Jesus movement during the mid-first century.
from the Introduction, pg ix of his book
The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary
“Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. “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: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”
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.
–Acts 15:24-31 (NASB)
I’ve often wondered about the instructions imparted to the non-Jewish disciples of the Master in the so-called “Jerusalem letter.” They’ve always seemed rather anemic to me. I mean, there certainly had to have been more to the training of new disciples who had no clue about the God of Israel, the Messiah, and the role of Gentile believers in a Jewish religious stream.
When I read that the Gentile response to the letter’s delivery in Antioch was that “they rejoiced because of its encouragement,” I ponder about what they found encouraging. Certainly the fact that the men and boys didn’t have to be circumcised would have been encouraging. Also, I imagine it was encouraging that they didn’t have to convert to Judaism and learn to perform the humongous list of instructions found in the Torah and accompanying commentary and halachah.
But a mere four essentials hardly seems an adequate substitute.
Of course, there is the mysterious Acts 15:21: “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” There is a minority opinion among some modern Gentile believers that it was the Council’s intention for the ancient Gentile believers to also be required to follow the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews, in spite of Peter’s testimony that the Torah was “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.”
The issue at hand during the Acts 15 legal hearing was how to integrate the Gentiles into the Jewish religious stream of “The Way.” The supposition brought forth (Acts 15:1) was that Gentiles must convert to Judaism (be circumcised and obligated to the full yoke of Torah) in order to be justified before God. The Council’s ruling, after much testimony and due deliberation over scripture, was that Gentiles did not have to convert. It would have been silly to say they didn’t have to be circumcised and convert to Judaism, but in all other ways, they still had to act, relative to Torah, exactly like the Jewish disciples.
But if that is true and if the four essentials of the Jerusalem letter are far too sparse to constitute a functional set of behavioral requirements, where do we find more? How does the Acts 15:21 statement fit in?
I have a working theory (and it’s just a theory) that the Didache is the answer or part of the answer. My working theory is that a set of oral traditions accompanied the Jerusalem letter and perhaps even developed over time, evolving into a formal halachah for the Gentiles.
I can’t prove any of this of course, but I hope to present a compelling suggestion.
In the process of writing this blog post, I consulted my previous article on this topic, including the notes I took of First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) teacher and author Toby Janicki’s article “The Didache: An Introduction,” published in Messiah Journal issue 113.
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
There is some speculation that the Didache was composed by the Apostles themselves or those close to the Council. The further back in time we place its origin, the more authoritative becomes its teachings to the Gentiles. Aaron Milavec, who wrote the commentary for my copy of the Didache, believes its origin to be sometime in the mid-first century. This would allow for the material to be initially orally transmitted, and then soon thereafter, codified and documented for “discipling” new Gentile adherents to “the Way.”
Milavec’s opinion is that the Didache material was a sort of training guide used by mentors to bring up novice Gentile disciples. Milavec’s book presents the Greek and English versions of the text side-by-side. I can’t read the Greek, so I have to trust that the English translation is reasonably accurate. This is my first go-round with the Didache, so all I’ve got are first impressions.
For the most part, I experienced the Didache text (it’s rather brief) as a compilation of teachings gleaned from the Gospels and the Torah. This is interesting if the Didache were composed prior to the Gospels, especially the Gospel of Matthew upon which some say the Didache was founded, because it would mean that the oral traditions passing along the Master’s teachings were incorporated into the early formal training of Gentile believers.
Actually, I can only imagine that both Jewish and Gentile disciples in the Diaspora would benefit from training in the Master’s teachings, but of course, Torah would be known by the Jews and long-term Gentile God-fearers, but be a mystery for the Gentiles just coming out of paganism.
I also found this:
1:2 [A] On the one hand, then, the way of life is this:
 first: you will love the God who made you;
 second: [you will love] your neighbor as yourself.
[B] On the other hand [the way of life is this]:
as many [things] as you might wish not to happen to you, likewise, do not do to another.
-Milavec, pg 3
This section of the Didache leverages what we know as the Golden Rule as spoken by Jesus, but also the teachings of Hillel, a Jewish sage who lived a generation before the Master (I recently reviewed this material). So we see that older Rabbinic lessons were included to accompany the teachings of the Yeshua.
2:2: You will not murder,
you will not commit adultery,
you will not corrupt boys,
you will not have illicit sex,
you will not steal,
you will not practice magic,
you will not make potions,
you will not murder offspring by means of abortion,
(and) you will not kill [him/her] having been born,
you will not desire the things of [your] neighbor.
-ibid, pg 5
While not exactly direct quotes, this section seems very much taken from the Torah and thus links back to the instruction we find in Acts 15:21. This supports the verse that says the Gentile disciples were to learn the Law of Moses in the synagogue as it applies to them. Here, we see such application.
I’m not sure how to interpret the instruction not to kill children by abortion, since no direct reference to abortion appears in the Bible, and I’m unaware of such a practice in Biblical times (but then, I’m no history major). This is one time I wish I could consult the Greek to see what word is being translated as “abortion.”
I also don’t have any idea what “not corrupt boys” refers to, though it does come right before the instruction against illicit sex.
So, at first blush, the Didache’s instructions to the newly minted Gentile disciples provides a liberal dose of Gospel teachings and Torah teachings, with a smattering of other early Rabbinic lessons.
This is pretty much what I expected and the Didache doesn’t disappoint.
The text goes along presenting additional information from those sources along with what seem like quotes or adaptations from the Proverbs. Here’s an example:
3:5 My child, do not become false,
since falsehood is the path leading to theft;
nor a lover of money,
nor a seeker of glory,
for, from all these, thefts are begotten.
-ibid, pg 9
I’m not going to do a “copy and paste” of large blocks of the Didache into this “meditation,” but I found a few additional sections revealing.
6:2 For, on the one hand, if you are able to bear
the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect;
but if, on the other hand, you are not able,
that which you are able, do this.
-ibid, pg 19
The term “yoke” tends to be a reference to Torah in Biblical language. Since we know the Didache is a training manual for Gentile disciples of Yeshua, it seems as if the author is permitting any Gentile disciple to observe the entire body of Torah mitzvot if he or she is able, but if that person is not able, it is acceptable to do anything that they can observe.
I’m sure most other Christians would disagree with how I’m interpreting “yoke,” but to me, it certainly sounds like the mid-first century to mid-second century Gentile disciples in the Jewish Yeshua movement were permitted but not required to keep all or some portion of the Torah commandments, though if they were able to keep all of it, they would be “perfect.”
Just a thought.
7:2 and 7:3 address baptism and 7:2 specifies that flowing water should be used, recalling the mikvah, with a pattern of immersing the head three times, once for the Father, once for the Son, and once for the Spirit. There seems to be a number of options available. It is preferable to immerse in flowing water and preferable to immerse in cold water, but still water as well as warm water may be substituted if the former are unavailable. It seems mandatory though that the person to be immersed should fast one or two days prior to immersion.
9:1-9:5 mentions the eucharist which involves a cup of wine and broken loaf, and that only someone who has been baptized into the community of the Lord may drink and eat of it (there doesn’t seem to be a direct connection to Passover here).
Many of the blessings the Gentiles are instructed to recite bear great similarity to Jewish blessings for various occasions.
Blessing over wine from the Didache:
We give you thanks, our Father,
for the holy vine of your servant David
which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus.
To you [is] the glory forever.
The traditional modern Jewish blessing over wine:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.
The Didache blessing over bread:
We give you thanks, our Father,
for the life and knowledge
which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus.
To you [is] the glory forever.
The traditional modern Jewish blessing over bread:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
I just want to point out that the Gentile disciples are being taught to pray to God (the Father) in the name of God’s “servant Jesus,” not to Jesus himself. Jesus never commanded his disciples to pray to him, only to the Father in his name, so that seems consistent with scripture, though not always with modern Christian practice.
Sections 10:1-7 seem to read like an early rendition of Grace After Meals and I can only believe that common Jewish blessings utilized at various points in a person’s day, life-cycle were used or adapted for the training of Gentile disciples, and thus included in the Didache.
This also interested me:
11:3 And concerning the apostle-prophets, in accordance with the decree of the good news, act thus…
This portion of the Didache instructs the Gentile disciples to expect apostles and/or prophets and describes the manner in which the disciples should treat such people. That means, apparently, that apostles still existed when the Didache was composed, which dates it in the mid to late first century, and that there were still actual prophets in the land.
The flip side to this teaching is that if the Didache was composed in the second century, or even later, then we have to accept the idea that apostles, however that term would have been defined given that the original apostles were all dead by then, and prophets, actual prophets of God, continued to exist, in spite of John MacArthur and Strange Fire. Of course, this is all speculation on my part, but fascinating nonetheless.
Speaking of MacArthur and the Holy Spirit:
11:7 [A] And every prophet speaking in Spirit
you should not put on trial and not judge;
for every sin will be forgiven
but this sin will not be forgiven.
The section goes on to describe true and false prophets and how not everyone who speaks in Spirit is a prophet, but these early instructions to new Gentile believers certainly tells them to expect prophets and even others who speak “in Spirit.” Again, depending on the timing of the authorship of the Didache, this has interesting implications for our world of faith today.
13:3 [A] So, every first fruits of the products of the wine vat and the threshing floor, both of cattle and sheep,  you will give the first fruits to the prophets; for they themselves are your high priests.
13:4  (But) if you should not have a prophet, give [it] to the beggars.
The language seems to reference the Temple service and the sacrificial system, although the specifics require the “first fruits” of the Gentile disciples to either be given to prophets, if they are available, or beggars (the poor) if they are not. Again, this is very “Jewish” in language and concept, although I suppose Gentiles who were former idol worshipers were accustomed to making offerings in pagan temples.
Here’s a few more points I thought were important.
On page 17 of Milavec’s book, 5:1 and 5:2 lists “the Way of Death,” or that which is evil and “full of accursedness.” Among these “ways” are what you’d expect from Torah: murder, adultery, lust, illicit sexual acts, theft, and so on.
On page 19, 6:3 says the following:
(And) concerning eating,  bear that which you are able,  from the food, on the other hand, sacrificed to idols, very much keep away, for it is worship of dead gods.
The only definite instruction being given to new Gentile disciples about food is to avoid food sacrificed to idols. There is no direct commentary on whether or not the Gentile is commanded to “keep kosher,” though I don’t know what “bear that which you are able” is supposed to mean.
On page 21, 8:2 is a repetition of “the Lord’s Prayer,” (Matthew 6:9-13), and 8:3 states, “Three times within the day pray thus,” suggesting that Gentiles were also to observe the fixed times of prayer.
The last part of the actual Didache text speaks of the end times, but I won’t go into any of that because Milavec offers an interesting commentary on this topic, one that doesn’t entirely match up with the modern Christian view based on Revelation, but then, if Milavec is right, the Didache as an oral tradition (but not a written document) would have been used to train Gentile disciples years or even decades before John had his vision on the island of Patmos.
I can’t tell you what to believe. At this point, I’m not sure myself what to believe about the Didache. My Pastor said it was seriously considered for canonization, that is, being made part of our Bible as the inspired Word of God, but in the end, it didn’t make the cut. However, even my Pastor quotes from it, and my understanding is that the Didache is taken seriously as an early Christian text.
If it’s early enough, it could be considered the possible basis for the oral instructions that accompanied the Jerusalem letter, or if not, then a supplement that was developed by the apostles or those in authority to augment the original Acts 15 instructions.
If my personal theory is right (and it’s just a theory), we have in our grasp something tangible from the mid-first to mid-second century of the common era that tells us the first Gentile disciples had their own “Torah” as it were, that overlapped portions of the Jewish Torah but was in fact not identical; a set of separate behavioral expectations of the Gentile disciples of Jesus that only somewhat mirrored the Torah of Moses. This may be the bridge between the Acts 15 letter and the actual, lived experience of the earliest Gentile disciples of Jesus in the original Messianic Jewish religious stream.
We also see, as I noted above, that according to the Didache (if my little theory is correct), Gentile believers were permitted to take on board as much of the yoke of the Lord (Torah) as they could handle up to and including full observance, but Gentile Torah observance was not mandatory.
Certainly something to think about and discuss. I’ll write more when I get through Milavec’s commentaries.