I just finished reading Tony Jones' wonderful book The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing & Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community.
I didn't know anything about the Didache (pronounced DID-ah-kay) prior to reading this book. And I can't imagine a better introduction to the Didache for the non-specialist than The Teaching of the Twelve. A wonderful bonus of the book is Jones' fresh translation of the Didache, which can also be found online here at Paraclete Press.
The first line from The Teaching of the Twelve is: "The Didache is the most important book you've never heard of."
Which just about summed it up for me. I'd never heard of it. But Jones starts us off with a nice, crisp historical overview. The main details are this. Scholars had known for some time that the Didache--translated "the teaching"--existed as church fathers referred to it from time to time. However, no copies were known to exist. So the Didache, like so many other early Christian writings, seemed lost to history. However, in the late 1800s a copy of the Didache was discovered. Subsequent research has dated the manuscript to the 1st Century, some having it as early as 70 CE. This is noteworthy because this makes the Didache one of the earliest Christian writings, within living memory of Jesus of Nazareth and earlier than many of the books currently in the New Testament.
So what is the Didache? As Jones describes it, the Didache was a manual or handbook that functioned as a "rule of life" for the Didache community. Much of the content of the Didache was likely used in Christian catechesis, the year long training and apprenticeship that one had to undergo before receiving Christan baptism and full inclusion into the Christian community. Much of the material relevant to this training is found in the first section of the the Didache from 1.1-6.3, the discussion of "the two ways."
After this discussion of Christian lifestyle, ethics, and practice the Didache moves into practical discussions related to the liturgical rhythms of the Christian community: baptism (7.1-4), prayer and fasting (8.1-3), the celebration of the Eucharist (9.1-10.6), and Lord's Day gatherings (14.1-3).
There are also discussions related to Christian hospitality and how to handle traveling teachers and prophets (11.1-13.7). There is a brief discussion about appointing church leaders (15.1-3). And finally, the Didache concludes with an apocalyptic exhortation (16.1-8).
After providing the historical background and his translation of the Didache, Jones then uses the final four chapters of The Teaching of the Twelve to reflect on the Didache, thinking through how this glimpse of "primitive Christianity" might have implications for the contemporary church. To help flesh out these insights Jones shares the insights of a small Christian community in rural Missouri called the Cymbrogi (celtic for "companions of the heart") who have tried to live out the Christian community as revealed in the Didache.
There were two parts of the book and the Didache that I found particularly thought provoking. First, in 2.7, after a long vice list, the Didache concludes (the translation here is Jones'):
Hate no one; correct some, pray for others, and some you should love more than your own life.That simple command "hate no one" is just a diamond in itself. But the more interesting thing is the juxtaposition of this command after the long vice list in 2.2-6. The Cymbrogi community takes 2.7 to refer to back upon 2.2-6. That is, having described all these "sinners" the Didache says: Don't hate these people. In fact, try to help them. Or pray for them. And some of these "sinners" you should "love more than your own life." Jones writes that "Hate no one" is "the guiding premise of the [Cymbrogi] community; their tag line; their mission statement."
I like that. I wish "Hate no one" was the mission statement of every church.
The second striking thing about the Didache comes in 6.2 (again from Jones' translation):
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.I love that sentiment. "At least do what you can." There is a kind of no-nonsense practicality about the Didache that's very encouraging. It's very humane. Do what you can. Lots of days that's about all I can muster.
But Jones takes it further. He contrasts the "do what you can" spirit of the Didache with the history of doctrinal conflict within Christianity about all manner of things. Think of how picky Christian churches are about the minutiae of doctrine, ritual, and church organization. Jones suggests we compare that obsessive-compulsive pickiness with how the Didache discusses proper baptism rituals (7.1-3):
Concerning baptism, you should baptize this way: After first explaining all things, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in flowing water.As Jones observes, the whole "do what you can" vibe informs these recommendations: If you can, this is the way to do it. But if you can't do it that way, try this. And if that doesn't work, try this other way. Basically, do what you can. How different is that spirit from what you've observed to be the case in most churches? In most churches I've known it's not "Do what you can." but "You better do it this exact way--and I mean this EXACT way--and if you don't you're going to hell!"
But if you have no running water, baptize in other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, then in warm.
If you have very little, pour water three times on the head in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.
Compared to many modern churches the Didache community seemed to have a level-headed, humane, sensible, and pragmatic spirit about it. Would that more churches were like this.