The Didache: a first century witness to non-Pauline Christology
by Paul Williams
Also known as The Teaching of The Twelve Apostles The Didache was probably written between c. AD 50 and the end of the first century. 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 II 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 the highly coloured language of Father/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.’
(translation by Maxwell Staniforth p. 194, in Early Christian Writings, Penguin Classics)
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.
Professor Geza Vermes in his new book Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325, described as ‘A beautiful and magisterial book’ by Rowan Williams, the 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.‘
Concerning the dating of the Didache, the impeccably 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.
“The Didache is the common name of a brief early Christian treatise dated by most scholars to the late 1st century”
Draper, JA (2006), The Apostolic Fathers: the Didache, Expository Times, Vol.117, No.5, p.178