Philotheos Bryennios was born in March of 1833 at Constantinople. He was educated at the Theological School in Chalce of the Great Church of Christ and the universities of Leipsic, Berlin, and Munich, and in 1861 became professor of ecclesiastical history, exegesis, and other studies at Chalce. He was appointed master and director at Chalce in 1863, though he soon resigned these two positions. In 1867 he was called to Constantinople to be the head of the “Great School of the Nation” in the Phanar, or Greek quarter of Constantinople. He remained there until 1875 when he was sent by the Most Holy Synod of metropolitans and patriarchs to the Old Catholic conference at Bonn, where he receved a patriarchal letter announcing his appointment as metropolitan of Serrae in Macedonia. In 1877 he was transferred to the metropolitan see of Nicodemia, and in 1880 went to Bucharest on behalf of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchal and other independent churches to participate in a commission dealing with Greek monastaries that had been plundered in Moldavia and Wallachia. In 1882, at the instance of the Holy Synod of Metropolitans in Constantinople and the patriarch Joachim Il., he wrote a reply (published by the Holy Synod) to the encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII concerning the Slavic apostles Cyrillus and Methodius. The man was no theological slouch, and despite this list of accomplishments, none of these are the thing for which he is most remembered following his death in 1914 or 1918.
Perhaps it was serendipity. At the age of 40 during his first year as a reforming bishop in 1873, despite the increased demands of his position, he continued to deliberately make time for scholarship in order to actively foster “a piety built upon a cleer understanding of the transformations that modern society requires of the ancient churches.” We would do well to follow his example in these present days. It was clear wisdom on his part, and in this case it was also quite fortuitous, for this is how he came one day in 1873 to be combing through the Jerusalem Monastery of the Most Holy Sepulcher in the Greek quarter of Constantinople. I imagine him brushing aside no small amount of dust, as among the ancient books and documents he found a manuscript containing a synopsis of the Old and New Testaments in the order given by St. Chrysostom, The Epistle of Barnabas, The First Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, The Second Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, the spurious letter of Mary of Cassoboli, and Twelve pseudo-Ignatian Epistles.
If you’ve never heard of the Didache or don’t recognize its significance right off, don’t feel badly. Bryennios edited the Epistles to the Corinthians and published them with prolegomena and notes at Constantinople in 1875, but didn’t immediately recognize what he’d found in the Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, until he revisited it much later and realized its significance. In fact, it was ten years from his initial discovery until he published the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” at Contstantinople in 1883. Three Western scholars also went through the contents of the same library in 1845, 1856, and 1876, but overlooked the Didache entirely.
Bryennios’ find was fairly extraordinary, and was some 60 years before the discovery of the The Nag Hammadi Library or the Dead Sea scrolls. The codex in which it was found comprises 120 sheets of parchment and measures 7.4″x5.8″ and is bound under a leather cover. Within that codex, the Didache was sandwiched between the other early church documents named above plus twelve letters of Ignatius and an explanation of Jesus’ genealogy. The codex, now referred to as Codex Hierosolymitanus, contains the only extant copy of the Didache, copied by “Leon, the scribe and sinner”, who dated the completion of his work as 11 June 1056. The copy is well-preserved and carefully written. It employs the customary tachygraphic signs and abbreviations in common use by Latin and Greek copyists during the Middle Ages.
The Didache‘s existence was known, but after the fourteenth and fifteenth century Renaissance failed to unearth a single copy of the text, scholars grew pessimistic, even skeptical of its authenticity. However, the document was referred to by several of the church fathers, including Eusebius (c.324CE) and Athanasius (367CE), some of whom considered it canonical. Scholars have suggested dates for its composition as being between 50 and 150CE, with more recent scholarship favouring an earlier date — first century, suggested within 30 years of Christ’s death, and placing it in the mid-late 50s, meaning it predates significant portions of the New Testament. It is written in vocabulary typical of Koine Greek from the mid-first century. Reading the document, it feels much like a “cut-and-paste” effort to gather a number of oral traditions into a common manual. It is most recently (credibly) suggested that its origins are Egyptian, and the text we have is accepted as authentic. Now that scholars knew what to look for, other fragments attest to it as well. Shortly after Bryennios’ initial publication, Otto von Gebhardt identified a Latin manuscript in the Abbey of Melk in Austria as containing a translation of the first part of the Didache, which is taken as an independent witness to the tradition of the “Two Ways” section. In 1900, Dr. J. Schlecht found another Latin translation of chapters 1 through 5, with the longer title, omitting “twelve”, and with the rubric De doctrina Apostolorum. Coptic and Ethiopian translations have also been discovered since the original publication.
Well, we’re getting there. My own familiarity with the actual document’s contents is primarily from the two copies of Henry Bettenson’s Documents of the Christian Church — commonly referred to around the scholarly type as simply “Bettenson”, it’s a classic in its own right. Mine were printed in 1947 and 1956 (the original was 1943), and it’s still in print. I’ve dipped into it profitably a number of times, and I think the book deserves some attention partly due to the time in which it was originally composed. Following an early date, the document is perhaps the earliest known practical manual of church matters from a time that was in most senses of the word proto-church. This is instructive for us in that it illustrates how a number of matters for daily life in community were handled, and we can see what principles were followed in the creation of these guidelines. During a time of emergence, the book deserves a careful reading. To be clear, I’m not suggesting it be reconsidered for inclusion in the canon, but this does not diminish the fact that it has much to teach us.
On that note, the thing that got me thinking about it again was the receipt of the galleys for Tony Jones‘ new book, The Teaching of Twelve: Believing & Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community, and I’ve agreed to be part of a Blog tour put on by Paraclete Press that began December 1st in conjunction with the book launch. I’ll be posting on chapter 6 of Tony’s book, “Living Together in Community”. This is not that post — you’ll have to come back tomorrow. But now you know what this Didache discussion is all about.
From Blog tour page at Paraclete Press, which also includes the full text of the Didache and updated links to specific posts:
Join us on a blog tour of Tony Jones’s new book, The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community beginning the first Monday of Advent, November 30:
November 30: An introduction with Tony Jones
December 8: Special Question – Is this text – The Didache – really so important? Why? Do we know that it was important to the earliest communities of Christians? with Jonathan Brink at Missio Dei
December 9: Special Question – Does the Didache teach or advise anything that substantively differs from what was decided at the earliest ecumenical church councils (such as Nicaea) with Dwight Friesen
December 10: Special Question – Why is the Didache relevant, in particular today? Is it more relevant today than it was, say 100 years ago? Why? with Bob Hyatt
Starting Dec. 1st purchase 3+ copies of this book at a 40% discount. This special offer ends on December 11th, with the close of the blog tour!