It’s a commonplace notion of the Catholic faith that revelation closed with the death of the last apostle. To us, it’s commonplace. But to the early Christians, it was a most urgent matter.
As the apostles went to their martyrdom, one by one, the flock they left behind saw vanishing the only eyewitnesses to Jesus’ teaching — the only guarantors of Christian orthodoxy.
It was then, in the first century, that the Christian community produced what we might call its first “catechism,” a book that bears the title “The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles Through the Twelve Apostles” — or, in Greek, simply the “Didache,” the teaching.
The Didache (pronounced DID-uh-kay) is actually more than a catechism. It’s a “church order” (to use the technical term), a book that combines doctrinal summary with liturgical instruction and a little bit of moral exhortation. It’s like a missal, a manual, and a catechism rolled into one. We possess several church orders from Christian antiquity, but the Didache is almost certainly the oldest, and most of the later ones depend upon the Didache.
How old is the Didache? Most scholars place its composition between A.D. 60 and 110. However, one of the top scholars alive, Enrico Mazza, argues very persuasively that the liturgical portions of the document were composed no later than 48 A.D. If he’s correct, that means that our oldest liturgical texts pre-date most of the books of the New Testament.
The Didache, which was rediscovered at the end of the 19th century, reads like a time capsule from the apostolic generation.
Twenty-first century Christians tend to romanticize those founding years of the Church as a golden age of unity, when believers absorbed sound doctrine by osmosis, and when Christians couldn’t help but love one another, and bless their persecutors, and feed the poor.
But that’s not how it was. Early on, the Church faced serious threats from self-proclaimed Christians who denied, for example, that the eternal Word truly became flesh (see 1 Jn 4:2 and 2 Jn 1:7). They also denied the reality of the Eucharist and the necessity of the Church. Quite early in the game, there were even some teachers who held that revelation was a private affair between God and the individual believer. They spun wildly creative religious systems (see 1 Tim 1:4) and gave a green-light to unbridled lust (see Jd 7). To legitimize their “revelations,” such heretics often attributed oracles to the apostles (see Gal 1:7 and 2 Thess 2:2).
Amid this confusion came order and orthodoxy in the Didache. It is, perhaps, the earliest ancestor of today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church. And, indeed, the new Catechism quotes that first one several times (details below).
Many scholars believe that the Didache was compiled, from various oral and written sources, in Antioch of Syria, the place where the disciples of Jesus were first called Christians (Acts 11:26).
Tradition holds that St. Peter, the first pope, was the founding bishop of Antioch, and one of the earliest titles given to the Didache was “The Judgments of Peter.”
The document is small, just 16 brief chapters, but it manages to cover a wide area, from morals to sacraments, from prophecy to liturgy. The opening sections (chapters 1-7) offer an exposition of Christian life, emphasizing Christianity’s distinctiveness from pagan ways.
“Two ways there are, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways,” the Didache begins. “Now the way of life is this: first, love the God who made you; secondly, love your neighbor as yourself.”
What follows, then, is a remarkable synopsis of Jesus’ teachings in a series of quotations and paraphrases. Strung together in a continuous narrative are the Golden Rule, excerpts from the Sermon on the Mount, and commentary on the Ten Commandments. Then, in contrast, the way of death appears as a catalog of vices.
The second section (chapters 7-9) is stunning in its picture of Catholic life. It begins with detailed instructions on baptism: the sacrament should be conferred in running water, it says, and by immersion, if possible. But the Didache also makes allowance for our current custom of pouring water over the head of the candidate.
The early Church, like the Church in recent years, fasted on Fridays, but also on Wednesdays. The traditional day for celebration of the Eucharist was Sunday. Christians, counsels the Didache, should pray the Our Father three times every day.
Three chapters of the Didache deal specifically with the liturgy, advising the faithful how to prepare and conduct themselves, and prescribing prayers for the clergy. The unknown author makes clear that, even at this early date, the Church reserved Holy Communion only for those who were baptized and free of any grave sin. “Let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist unless they have been baptized … If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent.” Repentance normally involved confession of one’s sins: “receive the Eucharist after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.”
The Eucharistic Prayer of the Didache emphasizes the Mass’s power to unify the Church: “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; for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.”
After Communion, those early Christians were urged to give thanks in this way: “We thank You, holy Father, for Your holy name which You caused to dwell in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which You made known to us through Jesus Your servant; to You be the glory forever. Almighty Master, You created all things for Your name’s sake; You gave food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to You; but to us You freely gave spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Your servant. Before all things we thank You that You are mighty; to You be the glory forever. Remember, Lord, Your Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Your love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Your kingdom which you have prepared for it; for Yours is the power and the glory forever. Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God (Son) of David! If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen.”
The text appears to be published as canonical, “official” rites, but with room for inspired charismatic expression: “Permit the prophets to give thanks as much as they desire.”
The modern Catholic will see much that is familiar in the Didache and little that is alien to his or her experience. Perhaps the most striking differences are in attitude. The first Christians lived with a strong sense of the imminence of Jesus’ return – as He is really present in the Eucharist. “Let grace come, and let this world pass away … Maranatha.” Some scholars believe that “Maranatha” was the primitive Church’s prayer of consecration in the liturgy.
The Didache shows that, in structure, the early Chruch resembled the modern in many ways, with bishops and deacons set apart for ministry to the rest of the community. Those who held teaching offices taught with authority, and we can see that their teaching has remained constantly with the Church. Thus the Didache shows that, from the beginning, the apostles condemned abortion: “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion, and shall not cause the newborn to perish.”
Since the Didache was considered to have originated with the apostles, tis authority was mighty throughout the first millennium of the Church. Many of the early Church Fathers quote the document, and some counted it as part of the New Testament.
But while the quotations remained on the record, the documents itself faded from view by the end of the era of the Fathers. Scholars until recently could only speculate about its composition, piecing it together from the various quotations.
Then, in 1873, an orthodox bishop, Metropolitan Philotheos Bryennios, discovered a manuscript of the Didache in a library in Constantinople. It was published immediately, to much notice among Christians.
Now, 2,000 years after it was written, this ancient catechism has become an important part of the Church’s most modern one. And today’s Catholics can look into the life and teaching of their first-century forebears, as if in a mirror.
Online resources on the Didache are plentiful. Here are just a few.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, numbers 1696 (on the “two ways,” 2271 (on abortion), 2760 and 2767 (on the Our Father), 1331 (on the Eucharist) and 1403 (on the Maranatha).
You’ll find the Didache in the original Greek at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, along with several English translations.
The “Early Christian Writings” site has conveniently placed several English translations in one handy package.
An evangelical blogger, Rick Brannan, is hosting an ongoing online discussion of the Didache here.