Everything You Need to Know About the Didache in 6 Minutes | Church Fathers
One of the earliest Christian texts from the era immediately following the Apostles is the Didache (did-uh-KAY), a Greek term which means “teaching.” The translation of its longer and earlier title is “The Teaching of the Lord Through the Apostles to the Nations.” The work never claims to be the product of one author or even directly of twelve Apostolic authors. Rather, the long version of the title indicates that it was considered to be a faithful conveying of the teaching of Jesus through His Apostles to the church throughout the world. There is no narrower audience specified; however, there are two theories as to the first generation of recipients. The first theory is it was initially received by an Egyptian audience because Clement of Alexandria and Athanasius later referred to it favorably in that region. However, its Jewish style and instructions for baptisms in desert communities has led scholars to prefer a Syrian destination.
There is no way to determine a precise date for the original document, but AD 100 is reasonable. It appears after the Epistles of Barnabas and Clement and before Ignatius’s Epistles in its most famous Codex Hierosolymitanus, a full Greek text discovered by the 1873 Metropolitan of Nicomedia named Philotheos Brynnios. When he published the Didache in 1883, patristic scholars around the world were excited. The Didache had been known about, but the discovery of a full Greek text renewed interest in early church history. Fragments of the Didache, which were translated into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Georgian; indicate the Didache enjoyed widespread distribution throughout the Christian world.
The Didache is essentially an early church manual, which addressed practical morality, the way church services and Christian life should be conducted, and a reminder of the immanent return of Jesus Christ to the world. It begins with the “Document of the Two Ways,” which also, in a slightly different form, appears in the Epistle of Barnabas. This led historical theologian, Justo González, to suggest that the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas were using the same, earlier document and modifying it for their own usages. The way to life contains positive instructions to love, bless, fast, give, remember and honor God, give, hold onto good teaching, and to be meek, longsuffering, blameless, gentle, and good. The way to death, on the other hand, is filled with all kinds of sins and character flaws that Christians should avoid. The Didache lists forty specific sins as examples. The two ways makes much use of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20.
The Didache next addresses a series of regular practices in the churches. For example, Christians ought to be careful not to eat food sacrificed to idols, which was a controversy first raised in the Gentile churches in Acts 15 and 1 Corinthians 10.
Regarding baptism, the Didache instructs baptismal candidates, their families, and anyone else who was able, to fast for one or two days ahead of time. Baptisms were to be done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and in running water. However, if running water was not available, then it would be acceptable to baptize in other water or even to pour water over the candidate’s head. Cold water was to be preferred in baptisms instead of warm water. Brrrr!
Regarding fasting, the Didache instructs Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays every week instead of on Mondays and Thursdays as the Jews did. This would help to distinguish the Christians from the Jews.
Regarding prayer, the Didache instructs Christians to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times each day.
Regarding the Eucharist, the Didache gives specific prayers which should be offered when sharing the cup and when sharing the broken bread. The cup and bread should only be shared with people who have been baptized. A third, specific prayer is to be recited after the people are filled with the cup and bread. As for how often the Eucharist should be offered, it was entirely up to each of the local prophets who were leading each congregation.
Regarding specific titles of local church positions and who should hold them legitimately, the Didache identifies teachers, apostles, prophets, bishops, and deacons. Teachers were to be listened to carefully. If they taught false or new doctrines, the teachers were to be ignored. Apostles, not referring to the original Twelve but to traveling representatives of the church, were to be taken care of for a day or two at the most, but then the apostles were to be sent on their way to continue the Lord’s work lest they grow dependent on free food, lodging, or money. Prophets, likewise, were to be examined on the basis of their actions. If their teaching matched their actions, they were to be accepted. However, if they asked for money for themselves, they were merely false prophets and should be rejected. Genuine prophets who are willing to live in one place should be treated like the priests of the Old Testament era by being offered a tenth of whatever food, objects, or money people have to share with them. A bishop is an overseer of a local church, and a deacon is a servant of the Christians in a local church. Bishops and deacons were to be chosen because of their integrity, meekness, and honesty. All people occupying these positions who are people of good character should be honored by the church. Notice that the word presbyter, or elder, is not used in the Didache even though the word presbyter was used in the other extant Christian writings of that era.
Regarding meeting on every Sunday, also known as the “Lord’s Day,” the Didache instructs Christians to confess their sins and address personal problems with other Christians prior to breaking bread and giving thanks together every Sunday, else their eucharistic sacrifice would be profaned (Didache 14:1). The Didache’s instructions were similar to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 10.
The Didache concludes by warning Christians to be prepared for the Lord’s return to the earth because no one knows exactly when that will be. Warnings are also given to be on the lookout for false prophets and “corrupters.” The readers are told to watch out for the “deceiver of the world,” who will pretend to be the Son of God but do terrible things to the earth. However, as Paul mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the dead in Christ will be resurrected, and the Lord will descend from Heaven with the sound of a trumpet. At that time, as Jesus told the Jewish Sanhedrin when He was on trial, the world one day would see the Lord coming in the clouds of Heaven.
The Didache was an early church manual, which addressed practical morality, the way church services and Christian life should be conducted, and a reminder of the immanent return of Jesus Christ to the world. The Didache was circulated broadly as a general guide for local churches in about AD 100, but it also gives readers today a clear look at the way churches were to conduct their business in the years immediately following the era of the Apostles.
- Andrew Louth, Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 189.
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Didache, The” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in he First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 205; Laurie Guy, Introducing Early Christianity: A Topical Survey of Its Life, Beliefs & Practices (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 31.
- Johannes Quasten, Patrology: Volume 1—The Beginning of Patristic Literature from the Apostles Creed to Irenaeus (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1990), 30. The text of the Didache in the Codex Hierosolymitanus is attributed to “Leon, a notary and sinner,” is dated at 1056, and was found in the library of the Jerusalem Monastery of the Most Holy Sepulcher in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The codex currently located in Jerusalem.
- Andrew Louth, Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 187.
- Justo González, A History of Christian Thought, vol. 1, From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon, revised edition (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987), 67; Loeb Classical Library, “Introduction” Volume 1: 1 Clement, 2 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Didache, 412-3.
- Justo González, A History of Christian Thought, vol. 1, From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon, revised edition (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987), 68.
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- Didache, 16; Matt 26:64; Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69.