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 50 and 100. This means it is the very earliest witness to the Christian understanding of Jesus outside of the New Testament and predates NT books such as 2 Peter (written as late as 150 AD). Jesus scholar 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).

Reading the Didache one gets the clear impression of a very early Judaeo-Christian church, refreshingly free from the influence of the exalted Christologies of Paul and John. The word ‘God‘ appears 10 times in the work but it 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). 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.’

Early Christian Writings, Penguin Classics, p.194.

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.‘ p. 142

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. (p 479)

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 and even predates New Testament books such as 2 Peter. 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. There never was a single Christianity going back to the golden days of the apostles. Diversity, disagreement and schism were characteristic features of this religion from the very beginning.

Categories: Christianity, Christology, New Testament scholarship

4 replies

  1. @ PAul

    Thank you I forgot about the Didache when responding to Agnostic. As I said before we have potentially two early writings outside Pauline Christianity that have no focus on death and resurrection so how can one triumphantly declare:

    “Earliest Christians closest to Jesus believed in Jesus death and resurrection”

    When you have no writings from them and the few scraps we have paint a different picture? Christianity was not uniform during this time and this isn’t even talking about the “dark ages” with no writings period for the first 20 to 30 years. It’s ridiculous that anyone can declare what Jesus(as) did or didn’t teach when you radically different viewpoints forming early on.

  2. If the Didache is really from an early date, then it is puzzling a bit, to me, as to why it was left out. Interesting that it has differences from Paul and John. But here’s what I’d REALLY like to find out:

    OK, so there were 12 apostles. Paul was not one of the original 12.
    Of the 12, we have writing from, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Thats 4. and also Peter, James and Jude. That’s 3 more and makes 7. So I have two big questions:

    1. WHY dont we have some writing from ALL of “the 12”??
    What about Bartholomew? and Andrew? (weren’t they disciples/apostles?) and whoever else—–and–
    2. How on earth did so much of Paul’s writing ever get to be in the new testament and dominate so much of it if he was never one of the 12?

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