Quick Take: The Didache & The Teaching of the Twelve

Greek icon of the Twelve Apostles (in the fron...
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One of the coping mechanisms of the book addict with moderate to low income is cheap or free books. This allows you to scratch the “must buy books” itch without going broke.  Sometimes this leads only to an ever burgeoning library, and a lower own-to-read ratio, but sometimes it leads to great finds.  In the case of these two books I hit the triple play: they were cheap (I caught them at reduced prices so both were $.99), they were Kindle versions (and so no space constraints) and they turned out to be insightful reads.

Trolling for books on Amazon by clicking through my recommendations (come on, you know you do it), I stumbled upon The Didache.

What in the world is the Didache you ask?  Just one of the earliest extant Christian documents we have:

The Didache is, in all probability, the oldest surviving extant piece of non-canonical literature. It is not so much a letter as a handbook for new Christian converts, consisting of instructions derived directly from the teachings of Jesus …

The Didache claims to have been authored by the twelve apostles. While this is unlikely, the work could be a direct result of the first Apostolic Council, c.50 C.E. (Acts 15:28) …

Most scholars agree that the work, in its earliest form, may have circulated as early as the 60’s C.E., though additions and modifications may have taken place well into the third century. The work was never officially rejected by the Church, but was excluded from the canon for its lack of literary value.

The complete text of the Didache was discovered in the Codex Hierosolymitanus, though a number of fragments exist, most notably in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. It was originally composed in Greek, probably within a small community.

Once I stumbled upon it, I was fascinated and had to read it for myself.  The history and debate surrounding this document is interesting in itself, but what is striking about the content of the Didache is its simplicity and focus on practical matters. Written most likely before the Gospel of John, and without an awareness of the style and theology of Paul, it has a simplicity and straightforwardness that is refreshing – or at least was to me.

The focus is on practicing what was at this point an embryonic church and faith; followers of Jesus before church hierarchy and formalism.  The document is focused on living out the command to love God and neighbor as part of a community of faith. And focused on both character and action; on being gentle, humble and kind but also on how to practice generosity, structure the faith community and avoid the temptations of  the world.

My interest in this ancient text, with the help of Amazon again, soon led me to The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community which includes the Didache itself and commentary and background by Tony Jones.  This handy book takes the text and helps the reader flush out ideas and applications that flow from it.

I found this volume a nice introduction and companion for those, who like me, are just being introduced to the Didache.  I really enjoyed the way Jones presented the material, posed questions and discussed the document’s impact and relevance with a modern (or perhaps post-modern) community in America. It was readable and engaging; inspiring, an at times convicting, without being preachy. It provides both some useful background but also a way to start thinking about how it might impact your life.

If you have any interest in the early church, or are just looking for a different lens with which to approach your faith and engagement, I found both the Didache and Jones’s work interesting and insightful.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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