The Surprising Didache

When I spoke last month to the Alliance of Baptists, I tried something that I’d done once before: a public reading of our new translation of the Didache from my latest book.  And I was thrilled with the result.  As we passed the book around the room and heard chapters read by varying voices, it was variously funny (I mean laugh-out-loud, pause-the-reading-for-the-laughter-to-subside funny), poignant, and even uncomfortable.  For instance, the Didache’s prohibition of abortion (literally, “you shall not murder a child, whether it be born or unborn”) and it’s sexual ethic raised some eyebrows in the liberal crowd.  But the public reading had far more passages that were heartily affirmed by those present, especially its exhortations regarding how money is to be handled in the community.

Today I leave for Cape Cod to film a video curriculum which will complement the book.  Paraclete Press is a part of the Community of Jesus, which is located on the Cape, and they’re hosting me and producing the video.  I’ll be really interested to see what angle we take on the DVD, which will be for use in small groups and adult Sunday school settings.  But, whatever direction we go, I hope it will capture the same spirit of the Didache that the public reading in Nashville did.

I will say this: Having written the book, I’m even more in love with the Didache now than I was before.

On that note, the UK’s Church Times published a review recently that isn’t available online, so I’ll reprint it here:

Fr. Marx makes the point that much of what’s seen as new is really old. So it is that the hip emerging church movement has discovered the Didache, the “teaching” manual for some of the earliest practicing Christians. Most scholars agree that it dates back no later than 110 A.D. (before the Gospel of John) and perhaps to as early as 50 A.D. This places it before, or at least contemporaneous with, the Gospel of Mark and the letters of Paul.

Indeed, the Didache may be “the most important book you’ve never heard of.” Last year, Fr. Marx recommended it in these very pages. Now it has been lifted up by Tony Jones, a key figure in the emerging church movement and author of The New Christians. His most recent work is The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community. Jones is smart and plain spoken, which makes his book very helpful for understanding the broad historical backdrop. On top of this, the book also explains how the Didache informs and infuses the theology and liturgy of many modern “house churches,” particularly one called the Cymbrogi (Celtic for “companions of the heart”.) Trucker Frank, one of the leaders of the Cymbrogi, sounds a lot like Marcus Borg, only cooler. (After all, he drives a semi, not a BMW.)

The Didache begins powerfully, with a life or death proposition: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death! and there is a great difference between the two ways.” The way of life is this, “First you shall love God who made you. And second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you.” It then lays out how this translates into everyday, ordinary practice. Much is a straight from the Beatitudes, and little of it is ambiguous or up for interpretation. As Jones points out, “The Didache’s secrets are not as mysterious as the Gnostic writings that land skeptical professors on the bestseller lists these days. This is not a record of Jesus’ exploits as a divine boy, turning clay pigeons into real ones to impress his peers at recess. No, the Didache’s testimony from the first century is much simpler, and much less headline worthy…. In plain and unadorned language, it calls us to self-sacrifice, altruism and faithfulness. We’re called to love God and to love one another; to pray and fast for those who stand against us; and to give away everything we can.”

Of course, this is extremely challenging…to every one of us. Even so, there is also a pragmatic recognition that one should do “the best you can.” Jones often draws a contrast between the tone of the Didache with that of Paul. “Reading Paul’s letters one gets the impression that he was an intense and hard driving churchman with little patience for mediocrity. In the Didache, the tone is significantly more moderate, more accepting—one might even say, more graceful.” So, although it is preferable to baptize in flowing water, if you don’t have it, then cold water, lacking that, use warm water, and if that is hard to come by, pour a little on the head three times.

It is important to note one key liturgical variation: “The Didache’s version of the Lord’s Supper liturgy is dramatically different than Paul’s direction in 1 Corinthians; in the Didache, there is no mention of Jesus’ death on the cross as the reason for communion, and the traditional bread and cup is reversed, putting it at odds with even the earliest liturgies of the church.” Rather than referencing the Last Supper, the Didache points to the feeding of the five thousand. “We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. 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.”

This will certainly appeal to many who struggle with our Eucharistic liturgy and with the theology/doctrine that underlies it. Still, the Didache is first and foremost about what you do, rather than what you say. As Trucker Frank would tell you, “By the time of the church councils, even by Ignatius, all of the concentration was on orthodoxy—right belief. But in the Didache, the focus is orthopraxy—how you live.” What better reading could there be as we enter into this new season of Pentecost?

  • tom c.

    If you have time while out on the Cape, I strongly recommend a visit to the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

    http://www.massaudubon.org/Nature_Connection/Sanctuaries/Wellfleet/index.php

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  • johnCW

    I’m a ex-christian agnostic who would love to buy you a coffee,tea, beer, or lunch while you’re in MA.

  • http://www.petertschantz.com/christianblog Pete

    Honest question here: Do the ‘liberal crowd’ think abortion is okay? I ask simply because the post says the the prohibition of abortion… raised some eyebrows.

    • http://tonyj.net tony

      I can’t speak for them, Pete. They may be like me — I am pro-choice, and anti-abortion. In other words, I hate (voluntary) abortion and want it to dramatically decrease, but I want women and their families to have their freedom of choice legislatively protected.

  • http://www.petertschantz.com/christianblog Pete

    Fair enough Tony. I can’t say that I am pro-choice, but God allows people to make that decision regardless of the consequences. Thanks for the response.

  • http://davidwierzbicki.com/blog david

    I really enjoyed your book, Tony. There were parts that I felt were a bit rushed or overly edited though. Surely an extra 20 pages wouldn’t have been too much. Do you have any suggestions for other examinations of the text?

  • Bryan

    After coming to terms with my homosexuality at the age of 50, then throwing everything i believed out on the table. ( could this be what “born again” feels like? ) The first thing that I picked back up was the Love of Christ. I knew it was the one thing that couldn’t be thrown away nor taken away. Since then its been quiet the ride unlearning the belief system that was drilled into me since birth. Reading this book has helped me pick up a few more pieces that can be utilized in the reconstruction of my faith. I’m still trudging through the muck, but I have more than enough to ruminate on for a while. It will certainly be a challenge just putting that 20 min read into practice. At least it looks doable. Thanks for taking the time to share the Didache with us layfolks.

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  • http://video-course Sheba Nelton

    Thank you for any other wonderful article. Where else could anybody get that kind of information in such a perfect manner of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am at the search for such information.

  • 1Peter419

    1. Can you list the community ( beside Jesus people, Chicago) which are communion and are close to the obedience of Didache( in US or outside US) based on Christ as the head? I would like to support them, before I can join.
    2. Can you also find someone gifted in animation or children illustration, make this not alternated, but with pictures, comic, and lots of pages, a few kinds each page, even add some Analogies test as extra value for wordily parents, to buy for kids to read each day? At least they have rights to know, way of death, way of life without those misleading, widen roads, and false testimonies, first, then, each of them will either be drawn near in life or pray what is in their heart to ask Father to help them.


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