The Didache: A First Century Witness to Non-Pauline Christology

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October 5, 2022

Paul Williams is the creator of Blogging Theology, a YouTube channel which attempts to introduce some academic and scholarly content to the subject matter of comparative religion, especially concerning the Abrahamic faiths. He has interviewed leading scholars in biblical studies, Islamic/Christian theology, and the philosophy of science from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Princeton, and Zaytuna College, amongst many others. Paul studied philosophy and theology at the University of London. He confesses to being an incurable bibliophile and divides his time between London and the South of France.

The Didache: A First Century Witness to Non-Pauline Christology

Also known as ‘The Teaching of The Twelve Apostles’ The Didache was written sometime between AD 60 and 100.[1] This means it is the very earliest witness to the Christian understanding of Jesus outside of the New Testament and predates New Testament books such as 2 Peter (written as late as 150 AD).[2] As scholar of the historical Jesus Professor Geza Vermes comments,

‘The work transmits anonymously a primitive form of Christian message attributed to the twelve apostles of Jesus and most of the material implies that the audience or readership was of Jewish rather than Gentile background’. (Geza Vermes p 136. Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325).[3]

Reading the Didache, one gets the clear impression of a very early Judeo-Christian church that is refreshingly free from the influence of the exalted Christologies of Paul and John. The word ‘God‘ appears 10 times in the work, but ‘God’ never refers to Jesus directly or indirectly. Unexpectedly, ‘Father‘ and ‘our Father‘ also occurs 10 times, but God is never described as the Father of Jesus (compare this to the highly coloured language of Father and Son in the Gospel of John).

But what strikes the reader used to traditional Christian language concerning Jesus is the Didache’s rudimentary Christology. Four times it designates Jesus as ‘your Servant‘ (according to Professor Geza Vermes, three times in the Greek text and once in the Coptic translation)[4] This designation servant/servant of God is also found in the (possibly) later Book of Acts as one of the earliest titles applied to Jesus (Acts 3:26; 4:27, 30).

Didache 9:2 states:

‘We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the holy Vine of thy servant David, which thou hast made known to us though thy servant Jesus.’[5]

Nowhere in this very early first century work do we discover the Pauline ideas of atonement and redemption through Jesus’ sacrificial death. Nor do we encounter the Johannine idea of the eternal Logos. The Didache affords us priceless evidence of an undeveloped Christology characteristic of the early Jewish Christians, which contrasts the highly evolved Christ-mysticism of Paul and John. By the second century, Paul’s Christology became dominant in the emerging Catholic church, and Jewish ideas about Jesus were rejected in favour of exclusively Gentile ideas of a dying and rising saviour god so similar to soteriological patterns ubiquitous in the pagan world. In other words, the emerging Jesus cult resembled in many ways the pagan cults of the Roman Empire.

Professor Geza Vermes in his book Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325, described as ‘A beautiful and magisterial book’ by Lord Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has some fascinating comments about the Eucharist in Paul and the Didache:

‘The communal Eucharist was a real meal and not just a religious ritual. Its purpose was to feed the participants and it went on until they all had enough to eat. At the same time it was a symbol reminding the members of the spiritual food and drink, and the eternal life that Jesus promised to the church. In connection with the ‘breaking of the bread’, let it be stressed that neither the parallel accounts of Acts nor the Didache discloses knowledge of any theological symbolism linking the sacred communal meal of the early church with the Last Supper. For Paul, however, the ritual of the Lord’s Supper was a reiteration of the sacrificial death of Jesus and implied a mystical participation in his immolated body and blood. The Eucharistic ideas transmitted in the Didache are definitely non-Pauline, and may even be pre-Pauline.‘[6]

Concerning the dating of the Didache, the authoritative Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press) states,

‘The author, date, and place of origin are unknown. The work is quoted as Scripture by Clement of Alexandria, and is mentioned by Eusebius of Caesarea and by Athanasius. Although in the past many English and American scholars (J.A. Robinson, R.H. Connolly) tended to assign it to the late 2nd century, most scholars nowadays place it in the first century, including J.P. Audet, OP, who dates it c. AD 60.’[7]

So, the Didache is an invaluable first century witness to a non-Pauline Christology. It is the very earliest witness to the Christian understanding of Jesus outside of the New Testament. The primitive form of the Christian message (attributed to the twelve apostles) preserves a form of Christianity quite different to that which became dominant in later centuries and became known as ‘orthodox’ Christology. History discloses to us the reality of many Christianities (plural) with different understandings of God, Jesus and salvation.[8]

There never was a single Christianity going back to the golden days of the apostles. Diversity, disagreement, and schism regarding the most fundamental aspects of its theology were characteristic features of this religion from the very beginning.

[1] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church article on the Didache page 479.

[2] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church article on the Epistles of St. Peter ibid. pp. 146-7

[3] Geza Vermes p 136. Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325

[4] Ibid. pp. 146-7

[5] translation by Maxwell Staniforth p. 194, in Early Christian Writ-ings, Penguin Classics

[6] Vermez, 142

[7] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church article on the Didache page 479.

[8] See Lost Christianities: the Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew by Bart D. Ehrman

2022-10-05T19:15:16-08:00
Published Date: October 5, 2022
Category: Christianity

Paul Williams

Paul Williams is the creator of Blogging Theology, a YouTube channel which attempts to introduce some academic and scholarly content to the subject matter of comparative religion, especially concerning the Abrahamic faiths. He has interviewed leading scholars in biblical studies, Islamic/Christian theology, and the philosophy of science from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Princeton, and Zaytuna College, amongst many others. Paul studied philosophy and theology at the University of London. He confesses to being an incurable bibliophile and divides his time between London and the South of France.
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