Yesterday I posted an overview of the Didache to introduce what it is and where it came from, but essentially it’s an early Christian document from around the same time that the New Testament itself was still being written. “Didache” means “teaching”, and the document provides a compilation of (probably) oral tradition about what the apostles taught concerning community life. Today I’m blogging on Chapter 6 of Tony Jones‘ newest book, The Teaching of Twelve: Believing & Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community. The Didache is not a long document, but it is instructive for the fact that it deals with practical community matters during a time of liminality when the church was just coming to birth. We ought to imagine that it will offer us insight for a time when the church is undergoing a rebirth.
I don’t generally participate in many blog tours of this sort, but when the offer came from Paraclete Press, I took it up. In my mind, the Didache is worth studying and worth making more widely known, and I’m glad that Tony Jones has undertaken this project. It is generally helpful to insert the weight of church history and other theological material into a conversation that is often consumed with philosophy and general issues of the day.
The book itself follows a format of examining what the Didache says and comparing and contrasting it with what the New Testament says on each subject. It is not an exhaustive comparison by any means, but manages to zero in on the major points in each case. Each chapter wraps up with a few gleanings from Tony’s conversations with “Trucker Frank,” a member of Cymbrogi, a Christian community which has studied the Didache together and applied the teachings to its own daily life and practice. After this wrap-up, Tony provides a few discussion questions for reflection and application.
But we turn our attention to chapter six of the book, “Living Together in Community”, which deals with chapters 6 through 15 of the Didache. Lest that sound like a long passage, the chapters in the Didache are quite short. Not only does the book include the full text, but Paraclete has put it online as well.
The chapter opens with a discussion of the word “church” as compared with the Greek concept of ekklesia. Tony notes well that at the time of the writing of the Didache, the term did not yet have the associations that later came to the term to associate it with a religious gathering or group. The associations we have today with the term “church” — many of them negative — were not yet a speck on the horizon.
The first section of the chapter deals with the Didache’s instruction on eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. Here the comparison is made to the Jerusalem Council in the book of Acts to illustrate that the Didache’s instruction is a summary of that council’s conclusion. In this short section of the text lies the verse that Tony Jones and Trucker Frank offer as representative of the whole book and as a favorite. “For if you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect, but if you are not able, then at least do what you can.” Herein is a refreshing message for many of us who have striven for perfection and failed… do your best, and that will suffice. It is suggested that adopting this “do your best” attitude could have saved the church a world of hurt and schism over the years.
Concerning baptism, Tony outlines four distinctives about the instructions given versus common practices today. The first of these is most interesting to me, since I’ve been in company with believers who suggest that since there was no waiting period between conversion and baptism in the New Testament, we ought not to prolong this period today either. In fact, as Jones infers, at the time the Didache was written, there was apparently already a timeframe between conversion and baptism which was occupied with instruction in “all things.” Of the type of water to use, it is worth noting that the Didache makes a point of laying out preferences with a number of alternatives. In other words, the method (immersion clearly implied) is probably not theologically important, but should be adhered to when possible.
Baptismal candidates are recommended to fast before they are baptised, and this admonition forms a lead-in to the next section on fasting and prayer, where the Didache’s instruction aligns with that of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, but adds a few practical instructions. For one, the manual recommends fasting on different days than “the hypocrites” do, in order to set themselves apart. Fast on Wednesday and Friday instead of Tuesday and Thursday. In addition, the Didache Christians are told to pray three times per day, and to pray the Lord’s Prayer. On this point, Tony notes the similarity — that is, “virtually verbatim” — of the text of the Lord’s Prayer in the Didache and in Matthew’s gospel (translation differences accepted, of course). This is noteworthy for the fact that the Didache was almost certainly composed without the aid of Matthew’s gospel. On the instruction to pray three times daily, a comparison is rightly made to the Daily Office, which has been practiced by (some) Christians through the entire history of the church.
The Didache next moves to the subject of the Eucharist. Here, Tony introduces the subject with the observation, “Nothing is more intriguing—and more out-of-step with our usual ecclesial conventions—in the entire Didache than the two sections that deal with the Eucharist.” He organizes the differences under the headings of the Eucharist, the order, and what’s not mentioned. The order is generally a minor point of whether the cup or the bread is served first, and here the practice differs from the instruction given by Paul. Once again, this argues for an early date to the Didache, since later Christians would almost certainly be aware of Paul’s letters.
The terminology of the “Eucharist” does not appear in the New Testament. Being something of a hobbyist Johannine scholar, at this stage I issued a mild objection in the margin, noting the linguistic associations in John 6, where the feeding of the 5,000 is linguistically associated with the Eucharist, including by the use of this very Greek verb (6:11), which means “to give thanks.” Trucker Frank makes a similar observation at the end of the chapter, so the concept is introduced later. Again, this is of interest in that John’s gospel, the latest to be written, was composed several decades after the Didache, illustrating not only that the linguistic allusions in John were most probably quite intentional, but that the development of the term “Eucharist” dates very early in the life of the church, to somewhere near its very formation.
What’s not mentioned is indeed intriguing, since there’s no mention of Jesus’ death, either in a historical or theological manner. Presumably this knowlege is assumed, but the Didache takes the omission a step further and seems to infuse the Eucharist with the symbolism of community and of belonging to the Church Universal. Jones illustrates that in the prayer of thanks for the cup lies an allusion to the Gentiles’ entry into a “spiritual Israel,” making them equally heirs of promise with Jewish Christians. I find in the prayer for the bread some further powerful symbolism of community and belonging:
We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. To you is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.
This community symbolism in the Eucharist has perhaps been lacking in many of our church communion experiences, and the Didache’s shifted emphasis is therefore striking. Perhaps it may be used to bring balance to our own observation of the Eucharist. Although Tony assumes here that eucharistic practices today do not align with those shown in the Didache, I have been a part of a gathering which made a specific point of using this form of the liturgy, and have used it (and variants of it) myself in leading the Eucharist in our home church. I think I may therefore suggest that it has enriched our experience of the Eucharist in those settings.
The third major area in this chapter and in this section of the Didache deals with “Those Pesky Visitors” as Tony Jones puts it. He writes, “The good news is that there were no television preachers in the first century. The bad news is that they seemed to have a problem with wandering prophets and teachers.” This is actually a major section in the Didache, so the problems must have been significant, but at the same time, the instruction on how to sort them out rather than just writing them off carte blanche tells us that it was an important ministry at that time. The Didache offers a number of tests for authenticity and “comes down where it always
does–on the side of common sense.” Many of the tests are also fairly common-sense easy ones that target the motives of the itinerant minister as to whether he’s after personal gain from his “ministry.” I need say little more than that were these tests applied publicly to many of the big-name ministries today, the perception of our faith would be a lot more positive than it is now.
Lastly, we find a section on Community Leadership, which speaks of appointing local bishops — or overseers — from within the community as leaders of that community. Here is where I find the most pronounced difference to current practice in the church today, as it speaks of much less heirarchy and assumes organic leaders will arise and be recognized by the community, rather than being called from outside and being given a title, position, and stipend.
Trucker Frank calls the Didache the “Rosetta Stone of the New Testament” for the way it has helped his community understand Paul. Primarily this speaks to the way the Didache offers a “do your best” approach and minimizes a number of the differences that have historically caused rifts in the church as we know it. *cough* *denominations* *cough* Of his community, Frank says, “The Didache’s message that we should ‘do our best’ on these controversial issues have kept us from getting hung up on the things that our grandparents got hung up on.”
Tony Jones calls the Didache “the most important book you’ve never heard of.” While I’m familiar with it myself, I concur with his assessment that most Christians today are not, and that it is an important work with which we should be grappling. In fact, the omission of any mention of the Didache was one of my major criticisms with Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity, and my discussion of it actually centers on the very passages discussed in this chapter of Tony’s book. I gave Frank the opportunity to respond in an interview, and he did. You may note there the implied ascription of a second-century date for the Didache, but an early date makes it that much more important for Frank to have dealt with in his work, and this is in my mind what makes Pagan Christianity more of a popular than a scholarly work. (Note that Ben Witherington also goes to the Didache in his critique of Pagan Christianity.)
One of the things I quite appreciated about Tony Jones’ treatment of the Didache was that despite a lack of footnotes or endnotes, the work itself remains scholarly-informed, but still manages to bring everything down to a practical level of daily practice. Indeed, the last word consistently goes to a guy named “Trucker Frank” — how much more down-to-earth can you get? Whether or not you’ve read or are a fan of Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity, I can recommend Tony Jones’ treatment of the Didache in The Teaching of Twelve, and commend the subject matter as deeply valuable in our present social and ecclesiological milieu. (My $2.00 words for the day.) I would hope for myself to get my hands on a final printed copy of the book to replace my pdf galley copy, as it’s something I could see myself returning to.
Well done, Tony.