The Didache, a Book Review, and the Christian Life

There is an early Christian document called known as, “The Didache. (did-ah-kay)” I read about it in high school and read it and discussed with my Roman Catholic friend Gilbert all those years ago. It has intrigued me ever since. My interest in it back then was arguing with Gilbert about baptism. My interest in it now is two fold:

  1. it gives insight into how we should understand the four gospels (as well as the rest of the New Testament)
  2. and it thus gives insight into how the early Christians understood how to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

I recently came across a book at Half-Price titled, The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary. The author is Aaron Milavec, an apparent polymath. He’s a computer programmer, professor, SBL chair, and more obviously author. Any how the book review is below

The Good

The book does not really have a specific argument to outline, but there is one overriding concern throughout. Milavec takes as a working hypothesis (based upon the best translation of the Greek word διδαχη) that the Didache was written (and orally transmitted), not just as a series of rules, but as a balanced book of pastoral guidance for early Christian disciple-makers. He recommends translating the word διδαχη as “training” or “apprenticing.” Dallas Willard would be pleased. I certainly am. This has implications for how we read the gospels, of course. The commands of Jesus are something that people had to be taught, over time, how to do. Not just memorized and tried and failed at a few times (the resultative infinitive in Matthew 28:19 shows that the gospels wanted people to be ‘trained how to do everything which I [Jesus] have commanded you’).

Milavec tests the pastoral hypothesis by treating it as an assumption in various interpretive situations throughout pages 39-88. The hypothesis is pretty much proven by the coherence it gives to the text.

Milavec’s translation, which stands alongside the Greek text is also an excellent resource for devotional reading (there is no textual apparatus).

Milavec also notes that regardless of the date writing, the emphasis on orality in the Didache indicates that it was originally a memorized oral tradition. Keeping this in mind, the material in the Didache, antedates the gospels and the letters of Paul. I personally would say that Robinson’s arguments about a 40-60ad date for the writing of the Didache make the most sense.

The Bad

The book is meant to be an introduction to non-specialists. I’m not sure that it could be. Maybe if non-specialists means, “people who went to a Bible college and majored in whatever and minored in Bible.”

Milavec also makes some decent arguments that Didache 16:5 (“they will be saved by the Accursed One himself”) is referring, not to Jesus as the one who was hung upon a tree, but to the judgment of God, as an accursed event. I disagree. I think that the early Christian milieu had a greater focus on the atonement and the salvific nature of Jesus than Milavec’s argument presupposes (see McKnight Jesus and His Death). Refusing to capture the significance of The Didache’s obsession with relaying the training from Jesus correctly (the way of life rather than of death) allows one to see the rest of the book without reference to the early Christian impression of Jesus’ significance as a unique representative of God whose death effected atonement.


I recommend the book for anybody interested in the Didache. I also recommend the book to those who know a bit about first century history and who are interested in being a disciple of Jesus. It will help them to see how and why early Christian literature was written and collected. Particularly it will help the read to see that by and large the purpose of much early Christian literature was training people to live a certain way. Christianity has gotten more and more away from the notion that theology (the right understanding of God) was meant to support the lifestyle which is based upon the will of the God who is known through Jesus Christ.

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