The Didache

By Huub van de Sandt and David Flusser
Minneapolis : Royal Van Gorcum/Fortress (2002). Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
14.1 (Spring 2003) : 130-133

 Two separate volumes, issued in the last four years by the same publisher, provide the best scholarly studies of the “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” that have appeared since the document itself was found in 1883. Fortress Press is to be commended for this achievement, which combines their efforts with those of Dutch and German co-publishers. The first volume, henceforth referred to as “Sandt and Flusser,” is part of the multi-volume project originally titled Compendia Rerum Judaicarum ad Novum Testamentum (“Collection of Jewish Matters Related to the New Testament”). The series has been a joint effort between Dutch and Israeli scholars, and this volume continues that practice with Huub van de Sandt, a professor at Tilburg, and David Flusser, a late professor at the Hebrew University. The second volume, henceforth referred to as “Niederwimmer,” is part of the growing Hermeneia series of commentaries on the Bible and related literature.

Continental scholars have had far greater interest in the Didache and in Patristic writings in general than English-speaking scholars. Therefore, much that has been written about the Didache has been in German or French. Indeed, Niederwimmer’s volume was translated by Linda Maloney from a German edition published in 1989.

Before we compare and contrast these volumes, it may be good to summarize the scholarly consensus about the Didache which these volumes affirm. In 1873 the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Philotheus Bryennios discovered a complete copy of the Didache in a monastery in Constantinople. He edited and published it in 1883. In 1887 the manuscript was transferred to the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Jerusalem where it remains today, referred to as “Hierosolymitanus 54.” The entire manuscript consists of 120 folio pages and a colophon at the end states that the scribe was one “Leon” and the date he finished his copying was Tuesday, June 11, 1056. The Didache portion consists of less than five folio pages in a clear miniscule script. The Didache contains fourteen brief chapters and around 100 “verses.” Most of the other works contained in the manuscript were already familiar “subapostolic writings” such as the Epistle of Barnabas, the two Epistles of Clement and the twelve epistles of Ignatius of Antioch.

It was the text of the Didache, however, that was the real “find.” Sandt and Flusser compared the excitement caused by its publication in 1883 to the attention later given to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (24—a bit overstated in my opinion). Scholars had considered it a lost work that had been obliquely referred to as “The So-Called Teaching” by Eusebius and Athanasius in the fourth century. A Latin version known as “Doctrinae Apostolorum” was referred to by “Pseudo- Cyprian” around 300 and by Augustine around 400. The last mention of a “Teaching of the Apostles” (“Didache Apostolon”) was by the Patriarch Nicephorus in 829. After this, the Didache disappeared from history until Bryennios published it in 1883.

The Jerusalem manuscript is the only known complete copy of the Didache, although most scholars think it lacks a few final lines due to its sudden ending. There have appeared two small scraps of the Greek Didache among the Oxyrhynchus papyri fragments and a small section of it in Coptic was discovered soon after the Greek papyri. Also, two small sections appear in the “Ethiopian Church Order” in a paraphrased translation (Sandt and Flusser, 24-26). Finally, the Greek “Apostolic Constitutions” (ca. 380) incorporates most of the Didache in a highly expanded, commentary form.

The Didache’s sixteen brief chapters are structured into four clearly separated thematic sections: the “Two Ways” moral document (1-6); a liturgical treatise centering on the Eucharist and baptism (7-10); a treatise on church organization (11-15); and an eschatological section (16). The “Two Ways” section is based on the double love command (“Love God and Love your neighbor”) and also includes a section of positive commands in 1:3–2:1 which clearly echo the admonitions of the Sermon on the Mount. Most scholars, including the authors of these two volumes, clearly discern a Jewish context in much of the Two Ways section. Hillel’s famous dictum about the “Negative Golden Rule” appears, for example, in 1:2. These authors, especially Sandt and Flusser, expend much effort to locate the essence of this section in an already existing Jewish tradition of ethical teaching. With the addition of the admonitions from Jesus, this section probably served as a pre-baptismal catechetical manual. This seems clear from 7:1: “As for baptism, baptize in this way. Having said all this beforehand (i.e., all that was written above), baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in running (literally ‘living’) water.” The section on the “Eucharist” (sections 9, 10) appears to set the observance in the context of a larger meal (the Agape). The prayers to be recited are very similar to a Jewish prayer ending the meal (the “Birkat Hamazon”). The ritual order, interestingly, is the cup and then the bread. While the “liturgy” is very simple, there is a reference to this being a “sacrifice.” Niederwimmer, despite his Catholicism, argues that the language does not at all describe the later sacramental sacrifice of the Mass, but the worshipers’ “sacrifice” was intended to describe their praise and prayer itself. He cites in this regard 1 Pet 2:5, Heb 13:10, 15, and Jas 1:27. “The whole action of the congregation is understood as a sacrifice before God” (196 -97).

The section on how to treat traveling apostles, teachers, and prophets (11- 15) expands and applies further the command mentioned in the NT to show hospitality to itinerant teachers (e.g., 3 John 5-8). It also offers some firm guidelines on how best to prevent unethical “teachers” from presuming on the kindness of local congregations as they make their way around. “If the person is just passing through on the way to some other place, help him as much as you can, but he shall not stay with you more than two or three days—if that is necessary” (12:2).

The last section on eschatology (ch. 16) is brief and centers on the ethical parenesis that should be heeded in light of the future events. Much of it echoes the teachings of the “Olivet Discourse” in Matthew 24. The increase of wickedness, the antichrist (“the one who leads the world astray”), the resurrection of believers, and the “Lord coming on the clouds of heaven” are mentioned. For those hungry to find confirmation for the specifics of their eschatological scheme, the Didache will disappoint with its general description of future events.

As to the date and provenance of this fascinating ancient document, both of the two works affirm the current consensus that the Didache appeared no later than the end of the first century A.D. and that it probably originally circulated in the area of Syria. The evidence that points to this is the “primitive” characteristics of the “liturgy” that it describes; the simple organizational structure of the local assembly (episkopoi and diakonoi, like Phil 1:1); the continued presence of apostles and others in an itinerant practice, unlike later resident monarchial bishops; and the use by the Epistle of Barnabas of sections of the Didache around the year 125.

What is the difference between the volumes of Niederwimmer and Sandt/Flusser? Simply put, the former is a commentary on the text of the Didache, and the latter is a detailed study about the issues raised in the Didache. That difference between the two justifies their inclusion in the series of works in which they are found. The Hermeneia is a series of commentaries and the Compendia is a series exploring the Jewish/Christian relationship at the end of the Second Temple Period and the beginning of the Rabbinic period. If a reader is looking for help on a specific passage in the Didache, then Niederwimmer will provide more help than any other work on the Didache that this reviewer has seen. If the reader is looking for a very scholarly and thoroughly researched study of the various issues that the Didache raises, then Sandt and Flusser is the best study of that type that has ever been written.

Protestants, and particularly evangelicals, have generally steered clear of Patristic study. This is understandable in light of their “Sola Scriptura” heritage, but it is, I fear, to our detriment in the long run. Should we not be interested in how those Christians closest to the apostles understood the teachings of the apostles? Should the excessive allegorizing of “Barnabas” or the strong emphasis on the authority of the “episkopos” by Ignatius scare us away from the deep spirituality of a Polycarp or from the simple advice on local church practice in the Didache? Even if someone is simply looking for confirmation of their own beliefs and practices (a less than noble aim for studying the fathers), we should spend more time on these fascinating books.

It is helpful that some Christians around 100 A.D. instructed us to immerse in cold, running water those being baptized, even if they allow pouring with warm water if the situation demands it (7:1-3). It is helpful to know that around A.D. 100 the episkopoi were selected by the local congregation and not elevated above the presbuteroi as eventually developed in church order (15:1). It is helpful to know that around A.D. 100, the day on which believers were to gather for the breaking of bread was Sunday, not the Sabbath as some would have us believe (14:1). It is helpful to know that around A.D. 100 Christians did not teach that Jesus came in A.D. 70 as some preterists teach. It is interesting to know also that these early Christians taught that a separate resurrection of believers will take place at the Lord’s coming (16:6-8) instead of a general resurrection, as some would have us believe today.

No, I do not need the Didache as an authority for what I believe, but I also want to know if what I believe is contrary to what the earliest Christians believed. Even if a student does not purchase one of these excellent books, he should check out the Didache on his own. He can find it in a number of editions of The Apostolic Fathers that are available today.