Matthew and the Didache: Two Documents from the Same Jewish-Christian Milieu?

By Huub van de Sandt, ed.
Philadelphia : Fortress (2005). 310 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
16.2 (Fall 2005) : 350-351

Scholarly treatments of the Didache continue to appear. During the last decade alone, at least six major scholarly treatments of this little book have been published (see “The Didache’s Use of the Old and New Testaments,” TMSJ 16/1 [Spring 2005]). Now another major work treats the relationship between the Didache and the Gospel of Matthew. The essays in this book originated in an international conference organized by the Tilburg Faculty of Theology in April 2003. The organizer of the conference and the editor of this volume, Huub van de Sandt, had co-authored with David Flusser a volume on the Jewish background of the Didache which appeared under the same publishers in 2002 (see review in TMSJ 14/1 [Spring 2003]). This volume is a follow-up to that one.

After one hundred and twenty years of articles and books on the Didache, according to the editor (1), a scholarly consensus has arisen on a few of the basic issues raised by the book. The first consensus is that the date of the Didache is, at the latest, toward the end of the first century AD. A few voices, some heard in this volume, call for an even earlier date, even before the fall of Jerusalem. The second consensus is that the book has a Jewish-Christian provenance, probably in Greek speaking Syria and possibly in Antioch. The third cannot really be called a new consensus. It is that definite affinities exist between the Didache and the Gospel of Matthew. Those affinities have been recognized since the publication of the Didache text in 1884. The earliest commentators argued that the work cites the Gospel of Matthew almost exclusively among the canonical Gospels. Some writers still affirm this point, this reviewer among them. The volume, however, is dominated by writers who believe that neither Matthew nor Didache are dependent on each other, but that they both independently derive from the same source—either written or oral. Thus, it was a Jewish-Christian community in Greek-speaking Syria during the last quarter of the first century that produced both the Didache and the Gospel of Matthew independent of each other.

The twelve authors in this volume explore how the relationship between the two documents is demonstrated in the life of that community. It is obvious that the authors do not espouse Matthean authorship of the first Gospel, but attribute the work to an unnamed author (or authors) in that community. They apply the same methodology and conclusions to the composite authorship of the Didache.

In this reviewer’s opinion, one of the problems that has hampered research on the Didache has been the unquestioning application of source and redaction criticism techniques to the study of the document. When one is through reading most treatments of the book, he is left with a layered, multi-authored work patched together over decades with layers that must be separated and with little hope that an “original” can ever be found. The vast disagreement among these scholars over the number of sources and redactors effectively destroys the unity of the document. One gets a familiar feeling that all this has been done before— on the canonical books—and what we are seeing is a destruction of all confidence in a document from antiquity that has any integrity in the form in which it exists today. The biases, theological views, and attitudes to truth all affect these writers in such a way that agreement will never be reached. Hence, this volume has writers who agree on one point and then diverge on just about everything else about the Didache.

As long as the study of the Didache is held captive to source and redaction critics, its value as a window into the early church will be greatly diminished. Such treatments, with all of their scholarly efforts, tell far more about the critics than about the book they are examining.

Whatever be the answer to the exact origins of the Didache, only an approach that espouses its basic unity will pave the road for what can be learned from it about early Christian history. The source critics simply talk to each other. Others simply desire to hear what the Didache is telling the ancient and also the modern church. Amidst the cacophony of critics, however, its little voice has been smothered.

This reviewer proposes a book that will simply expound the Didache as a single document, exploring what, if anything, it can tell about how the authors desire their readers to “do church.” That is why the little book was written. Who will simply tell us what it says? Maybe this reviewer will try.