Anyone who has been to seminary has heard of The Didache, the ancient Christian guide for believers, but very few of us have read it. Tony Jones has. In fact, he has done a translation of the document, which he includes along with some commentary, in “The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community.” Jones’ presentation is informative and would be an attractive study for those interested in an orthodox but fresh approach to practicing the faith.
The Didache (teaching) is probably a combination of tracts written about the same time as the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) but earlier than the Gospel of John. Although some of Paul’s letters may have been written by this time, this community seems to be unfamiliar with the theology and writings of Paul. The influences present are similar to those that produced Matthew’s Gospel and may well have been directed to a small, rural Christian community on the Syria-Palestine border.
Much of this is supposition, but what Jones makes clear is that this is not a work of theology but a rule of life. Although there is some interest in eschatological issues, the Didache’s primary emphasis is on right living – choosing between the two ways of life, living in community, observing baptism and the Eucharist, and welcoming visitors. He writes: “The real power of the Didache is in its ability to remind us what is truly important in Christianity: showing the love of Jesus to the world.”
The Didache is not long. I was in a workshop with Jones in the spring that lasted about 90 minutes. We passed the book around and took turns reading the text and still had 45 minutes for discussion. The oral reading provoked smiles, nods and some frowns. This is a good indication of how modern Christians will respond to this document of a very primitive group of believers.
“The Didache’s vision of community life in Christ is powerful and potentially transformative,” writes Jones. To show this, he provides some observations about how his friend, Trucker Frank, and his community of fellow believers in Missouri have applied it to their lives. This fresh vision of the faith is pre-Constantinian, pre-Reformation and pre-modern. It challenges many of our accepted practices of the faith.
One of the refreshing ideas, according to Jones, is the attitude of “centrist pragmatism” that permeates the document. Unlike the apostle Paul who always seemed to set the highest standards for everyone (including himself), the message of the Didache is “do your best.” It shares the preferred way of doing things but also acknowledges that “life happens.”
Jones’ observation is that if this approach had been dominant in the church universal, we might have helped avoid some of the church schisms over the centuries: “Had we heeded the Didache’s advice to ‘do your best’ …, we might not have had the ideological battles that have so hurt the proclamation of the gospel.”
Some of the commentary Jones provides seems a bit superficial, and I would have welcomed references to parallel passages in Scripture. His translation of the text of the Didache is modern and easy to read and apply. I recommend the book for that portion alone, but the entire volume would be the good basis for group discussion and application.
Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro Center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column appeared previously on his blog.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is supplemental associate professor of missional theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.