First Impressions of the Didache

Didache CodexThe 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.

-Aaron Milavec
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 DidacheMilavec’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:
[1] first: you will love the God who made you;
[2] 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

King Priest TorahThe 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 ProphetThe 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.

-pg 29

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, [1] you will give the first fruits to the prophets; for they themselves are your high priests.
13:4 [2] (But) if you should not have a prophet, give [it] to the beggars.

-pg 33

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, [1] bear that which you are able, [2] 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.

Talmud StudyIf 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.

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15 thoughts on “First Impressions of the Didache”

  1. A more apt comparison than a “Torah” for the non-Jewish disciples would be a non-Jewish “Kitzur Shulchan Aruch”; but perhaps that would require too much more detailed explanation for the sake of most of your readers who are likely unfamiliar with Joseph Karo’s later halakhic summary.

  2. True. Even Wikipedia didn’t give a very easy understanding. I used “Torah” in its widest possible meaning, that of “teaching” or “set of instructions.” I lack your in-depth awareness and understanding of the Jewish writings, PL. 😉

  3. Often the word ‘yoke’ is used as a synonym for ‘burden.’ But we don’t put a yoke on oxen to burden them, rather to guide them.

  4. Boy, this could be a really good place for Gentiles to land. I think it would be good for MJs to adopt the Didache as a form of catechism. Perhaps you could also take a gander at the Apostolic Constitutions.

  5. Thanks for the comment about the Apostolic Constitutions, Steve. I see that Book 7 is partially based on the Didache. I’m still “chewing” on the Didache and my little commentary on it right now, along with “The Mystery of Romans” by Mark Nanos, so I may have to save the Constitutions until a later date. I do think it is extremely helpful to access the very earliest instructive writings that speak of integrating non-Jewish believers into the Jewish faith of “the Way,” the worship of the God of Israel through Yeshua the Messiah. It helps not only bring some clarity into the work of Paul’s generation and the generation that followed, but adds dimension to who we are as Gentiles in a “Jewish” faith stream today. After all, the Jewish Messiah King will one day return as King of the Jews and it would be useful if we acquired the proper viewpoint by then.

  6. You asked a question about abortion in ancient Greece. Notice there is also an admonition about potions. Although the herbalists of the day had knowledge that could treat disease, they also produced potions that led to abortion, drugs for the purpose of pagan worship (hallucinogens) and deadly poisons for the purpose of murder. That may be why Rev. 18:5 decrys sorcerers (pharmakea) as those who provide these wicked things. You will get bizarre interpreters who claim that this wording, the same word we get, “pharmacy,” and, “pharmaceutical,” means that we should not use medications.

    Infanticide was widespread, and if the father didn’t want a child for any reason, such as it was small, unattractive, had a disability or interfered with the parents’ economic status, it could be left exposed or killed. I think these teachings were aimed at the pagan culture and its practices,

  7. 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.

    Let me summarize what you are saying, the gentiles found encouragement in the fact that they were not required to obey God… “Thankfully we do not have to keep God’s commandments, or I was going to find another faith…”, it made for a great laugh. I think it is clear, what was troubling them, and that was in direct connection to their ‘salvation’, they were told to repent and follow Yeshua, and now they are being told, they actually are not saved until they do blank, plus blank, plus blank… And that was troubling to say the least.

  8. Zion, the whole point of this blog post is that the non-Jewish disciples did have obligations to God relative to the Torah. If you’ve ever read the Didache (it’s pretty short), you’ll see that many of the directives in training a new Gentile disciples are closely related or just plain taken from the Torah. That said, not all of the commandments are involved, and many directives are not obligatory. If you read all of my blog post, you’ll see that I believe the Didache says that a Gentile may take on the entire yoke and if they do so, they will be perfect, but if not, they can take on what they are able.

    You have people born into Jewish families who learn Torah all their lives and who are raised in observant households, people who know no other life than Torah observance. But Zion, try to imagine the thousands upon thousands of Gentile who desire to be saved and to follow the Jewish Messiah, but who are young, middle-aged, or much older adults. From their point of view, true and dedicated Torah observance as a condition discipleship could seem to be an insurmountable task. I can see this issue through the reality of that circumstance. If you actually felt obligated to live the life of an observant Orthodox Jew, you wouldn’t feel even a little challenged?

  9. Since the vast majority of Western Jews did not grow up Orthodox or torah observant, it could also be a deal-breaker if salvation and/or intimacy with one’s creator were dependent upon modeling themselves after their obnoxious Orthodox relatives.

  10. My point was that thousands upon thousands of non-Jews who had recently come out of paganism in the first century, and who had come to faith in the Jewish Messiah but who also had little understanding of the Judaism of their day probably found it a relief that they wouldn’t be required to be circumcised and to learn to observe the mitzvoth as a condition of their relationship with Messiah. I’m suggesting that the Didache may represent a sort of “training manual” for the newly minted Gentile disciples as a method of changing their lifestyle to be consistent with the worship of God.

    Since it is generally held in some esteem among New Testament scholars, it provides at least some evidence of the real experience of early Gentile believers once they came to faith. The earlier the Didache can be dated, the more likely it could be the oral tradition the mid-to-late first century Gentile disciples were required to learn once they came to faith.

    Granted, nothing is for certain, but it seems a more likely augmentation to the Acts 15 letter than the supposition that Gentiles, although not required to convert to Judaism, were required to take on a lifestyle identical to the Jewish disciples. It fits the Acts 15 legal decision a bit better and makes more logical sense, in my opinion. I know others will disagree.

    As Kurt Vonnegut Jr. said in “Slaughterhouse Five,” “so it goes.”

  11. Sorry to hear of your apparent experience with obnoxious Orthodox relatives, chayah, but let’s consider them an exception rather than the model, shall we? Many years ago, while making aliyah and living in an absorption center, my wife and I became acquainted with a lovely Orthodox family who well demonstrated the positive values and praxis of Orthodoxy. Their family illustrated now natural and normal can be halakhic Torah observance when embodied in familiar practical habits. I certainly hope for MJs to model such good behavior and to become commended for it, and even envied by others (both Jewish and non-Jewish) who have not yet achieved such grace and aplomb.

    Incidentally, I have noted that one cause of a tendency toward seemingly obnoxious Orthodox behavior is a defensiveness and resentment against a surrounding environment and people that resist and disdain efforts to pursue a Torah-observant lifestyle. It is not comfortable to be always vilified and suspect; and it is impossible to relax and just be oneself. This is why Orthodox enclaves are formed, where there can be some opportunity for a supportive environment where one is not required to suspect that every circumstance will detract from one’s efforts to pursue the blessings that HaShem has made available and the responsibilities that He has commanded.

    Thus I could wish also that more Orthodox Jews, messianic and otherwise, should achieve a high standard of grace and comfort in the exercise of halakhic Torah behavior, that we should be able to model it for others.

  12. Thus I could wish also that more Orthodox Jews, messianic and otherwise, should achieve a high standard of grace and comfort in the exercise of halakhic Torah behavior, that we should be able to model it for others.

    That’s an interesting phrase, “…more Orthodox Jews, messianic and otherwise.” I’m not sure most Messianic Jews in America would consider themselves “Orthodox.” It creates an image of a community, not unlike any other Orthodox Jewish community, where Rav Yeshua is recognized as Moshiach and King, but otherwise would be wholly indistinguishable from any other Orthodox community. From a Messianic Jewish perspective (not that there’s only one), it would seem to be the ideal expression of modern Jewish response to Moshiach.

  13. I think you’ve got it, James. Each of us, in our own ways, is trying to hold up a banner showing an ideal expression — I of Jewish messianism, and you of non-Jewish affiliation with HaShem, His instructions, His chosen people, and His anointed one. Without such a vision, what is there to guide folks in the right direction, even if the best they can do is to stumble along toward it?

    Considering the limitations for Jews in an American environment, I would be pleased if most American MJs were to demonstrate a level of observance equivalent to Conservative Jews; and I believe that this has been a goal also for the UMJC, though their MJRC seems to have issued halakhic prescriptions that are rather on the liberal-Reform side of the Conservative spectrum rather than the Conservadox side. Nonetheless, an ideal such as I’ve tried to describe from time to time is necessary if there is to be any hope of further progress, say, toward a modern Israeli, Rav-Kook-style Modern Orthodox model.

    I suspect you are right in your guess about the current state of “most” American Messianic Jews, and that chaya is also correct about what they’ve experienced or not experienced Jewishly while growing up in the American environment of the late 20th century. So there is a need for a demonstration and some detailed instructions and justification in addition to the presentation of a goal that is claimed to be an ideal. And if such things are needed for MJs to grow into their role, can any less be said for non-Jewish followers?

  14. I would be pleased if most American MJs were to demonstrate a level of observance equivalent to Conservative Jews; and I believe that this has been a goal also for the UMJC, though their MJRC seems to have issued halakhic prescriptions that are rather on the liberal-Reform side of the Conservative spectrum rather than the Conservadox side.

    I think there are a couple of barriers to an increased level of observance in Messianic Judaism. The first is that, to the best of my knowledge, many if not most Jews in the movement came to faith in a Christian church and have a largely Evangelical or Pentecostal background. Transitioning lifestyles, so to speak, is a steep learning curve, and even today, many “Messianic” congregations in the U.S. are some combination of Jewish and Christian worship.

    Also, the large number of non-Jews from a Christian background who feel uncomfortable or awkward in a wholly Jewish setting probably has some influence. I know I’m probably going to be criticized for saying this, but in order to accomplish what you suggest, Messianic Jews really need to dedicate themselves to a more observant Jewish practice and have an environment that supports such a practice. That means MJ synagogues that are largely or exclusively Jewish. Any non-Jew desiring to participate must understand up front where they want to worship and be completely on board with having a Conservative or even an Orthodox synagogue environment.

    It would be as if I went to the Chabad with my wife. I would hardly demand that services change to be “less Jewish” simply for my personal comfort or because I wanted something a tad more familiar. I’m entering an Orthodox Jewish space, which means I have to be OK with it being their space. It would be like Paul in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch addressing the Jewish congregation along with the righteous converts and God-fearing Gentiles.

    Messianic Judaism needs to follow this example and not only create a completely Jewish home and synagogue environment, but raise the next generation of Messianic Jews to be even “more Jewish” than they were when the current generation were coming up.

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