How My Mind Was Changed Relative to the Didache

Aaron Milavec


I have always been fascinated with beginnings. My graduate-school professors made reference to the Didache as a gold mine of information regarding "the beginnings" of various aspects of church life in Syria-Palestine or in Egypt dating somewhere between C.E. 50 and 150. My church history professor, for example, made me aware that the Didache illustrated how the charismatic leadership of wandering prophets gave way to settled institutional offices. My course in the Sacraments made me aware that the Didache offered unique data regarding the emergence of the catechumenate, baptism by pouring, and the development of eucharistic prayers. From the vantage point of dogmatics, the "very Jewish and very primitive" modes of presenting Jesus and the last days were points of fascination.

In each of these instances, however, the Didache was cut up and laid open in order to answer pressing questions other than those for which it was originally designed. No one seemed to notice that the Didache had its own agenda, its own logic, its own passionate concerns. No one wanted to talk about the "community life" of those who framed the Didache and to describe its unique joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures. Thus, there was no one attempting to read the document as a whole with the goal of reconstructing the practices and the beliefs of those who lived out their lives according to its norms.

The Importance of Meeting Neusner

Then my surprise came. I received an 1988 NEH Faculty Fellowship to participate in the research seminar, "The Analysis of Religious Systems: The Case of Judaism," under the direction of Professor-Rabbi Jacob Neusner. Initially, I expected that the seminar was going to unravel the "system" hidden within rabbinic sources. But no! Neusner was aware that deep learning for adults can only take place when they discover things for themselves. Neusner was also aware that, as Christians, most of us had neither the language skills nor the personal commitments necessary to successfully work with rabbinic materials. Thus, he wisely invited each of us to identify "an anonymous Christian text" that had some personal meaning and that would form the focus of our application of the method he had refined for Jewish texts.

I decided to select the Didache largely due to my fascination with beginnings. Neusner promised me that he would train me "to learn how to read [these] scriptures in such a way as to uncover the religious system expressed therein" (Neusner 1980:ix). Within a few days, I realized that, even though I had been routinely using the Didache within my seminary courses, I understood nothing about the Didache that enabled me to apply the methodology Neusner had perfected in his pioneering work with the texts of formative Judaism.

By way of getting started, Neusner emphasized the importance of ferreting out the internal logic of the text so as to distinguish whether one is dealing with a collage of disparate materials spliced together by an editor or whether one has a unified product shaped by a single-minded authorship. This was tough. The literature occupied with the Didache was replete with dozens of competing systems for parceling out the Didache to different sources and different times of composition. This practice effectively silenced any discussion of whether the Didache had a unified "voice" since the overriding question was always what different "voices" coming from its different sources and different times of composition were combined to produce the text that came down to us. Encouraged by Neusner, I suspected that just maybe the experts had been wrong. Maybe there was a simple, muffled, unified voice looming within the clues of the Didache. . . .

After fourteen years of persistent and sensitive listening to the Didache, I can finally offer Neusner a resounding roar of gratitude:

You put me on a road that no one had traveled. You taught me to stay with the clues of the text until I discovered the unified worldview and the unique way of life that stood behind the text. You pointed me toward something that no one expected to be able to find.

The Didache, of course, did not yield its secret to me all at once. My pilot 1988 essay, "The Pastoral Genius of the Didache: An Analytical Translation and Commentary," written at the end of the seminar was my first concerted attempt to identify the central question that every line of the Didache was attempting to answer. Not bad for a first try. My method, however, needed refinement. My conclusions were sometimes faulty. Two years later, I changed my mind as to what I had earlier identified as the "overall purpose of the text" (Milavec 1988:125). Ten years later, I discovered how tragically wrong I had been in allowing that the section dealing with bishops and deacons (D15:1f) was a turn-of-the-first-century addition by a "scribe wishing to update the Didache and to extend its usefulness" (1988:119 n.27).

How My Mind Was Changed

Don't get me wrong. My mind changed not only about some big things but, with great regularity, about small things as well. In fact, I realized that changing my mind was an integral part of my method. By listening intently for "the voice" of the Didache, by puzzling again and again over problematic aspects of the text, by pushing the evidence toward the reconstruction of the social and religious context presupposed by the Didache communities, it was inevitable that I would make frequent discoveries that changed my mind. Throughout, however, there was an abiding faith that I was being led forward by tacit intuitions that have a bearing upon hidden meanings buried in the clues surrounding me. In this aspect, Michael Polanyi, a gentle giant in the arena of correct methodology and an early mentor, was very dear to me:

The pursuit of discovery is conducted from the start in these terms; all the time we are guided by sensing the presence of a hidden reality toward which our clues are pointing; and the discovery which terminates and satisfies this pursuit is still sustained by this same vision. It claims to have made contact with reality: a reality which, being real, may yet reveal itself to future eyes in an indefinite range of unexpected manifestations (1966:24).

Here, now, I have a confession to make. After publishing my pilot article in 1988, I was secretly convinced that I really understood the Didache. In 1992, however, having changed my mind often, I wrote in my journal, "Alas, now I can see that my pilot essay in 1988 was only dealing with the tip of the iceberg." In early 1996, when I had a rough draft of this book ready for Paulist, I again wrote confidently, "Now I know what the Didache is about!" I could have published then -but what a disappointment that would have been!

Then, disaster struck. I fell into a prolonged depression. Over the months, I was gradually healed by devoting forty to fifty hours each week listening to "my companions" in the Didache. Indeed, I gradually came to realize that everything in the rough draft of my book was "fraught with further intimations of an indeterminate range" (Polanyi 1966:23). The scope and depth of my work expanded. Thus, in late 2002, as this volume goes to press, it is immeasurably more intellectually satisfying than my rough draft of 1996.

Early Christianity -The Evidence of the Didache

Neusner made another major contribution to my methodology. He eloquently sustained the thesis that many scholars have gone awry because they overlooked the fact that, in every age, there are many Judaisms. Accordingly, in Neusner's major volume, Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (1988), he allows from the very beginning that his study has a very limited and well-defined scope of application:

The subtitle, "evidence of the Mishnah," is meant to be severely limiting and restrictive. The kind of Judaism under historical analysis in this book is that attested to by a single important document, produced in what appears to have been a continuous and fairly coherent movement of men (there were no women) who knew one another and who claimed to have studied with the same great masters. The Mishnah fully expressed the worldview and way of life of these men. That is not to suggest that the Mishnah exhausts the evidence about the group behind the Mishnah. But the Mishnah does exhaustively express a complete system -the fit of worldview and way of life -fantasized by its framers (1988a:24).

Because of his conviction of the many Judaisms, Neusner does not imagine, for example, that the Mishnah (C.E. 200) offers information as to how the temple operated during the first century. Neusner demonstrates that the sections of the Mishnah devoted to the temple are "utopian" in character, that is, they portray temple worship as the rabbis intended to reconstruct it should the temple be rebuilt and should the rabbis be put in charge of directing the priests. Furthermore, Neusner rightly contends that the Mishnah could not have represented the Judaism that was practiced by the majority of Jews during the first two centuries for, "in its wars against Rome, the Jewish nation rejected" the worldview defined by the Mishnah (1988a:24).

There were many Christianities during the first century just as there were many Judaisms. Diversity prevailed. The Letter to the Hebrews, for example, is an anonymous treatise, usually dated between C.E. 70 and 96. Like the Didache, Hebrews demonstrates no dependence upon the letters of Paul or the known Gospels. Meanwhile, no book of the canon written after Hebrews even hints at the order of Melchizedek which enables the framers of Hebrews to argue that Jesus, despite the fact that God calls only members of the tribe of Levi to be priests, can authentically lay claim to being God's high priest in the heavenly sanctuary not made with human hands. One has here, therefore, the blossoming of a form of first-century Christianity that stands distinctly apart from all the others. Readers unacquainted with the diversity of early Christian beliefs and practices might do well to have Dunn's volume, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (1977), on hand during the reading of this volume.

Following upon this understanding, the title of this volume might have been Early Christianity: The Evidence of the Didache. By way of explaining this title, I adapt the words of Neusner cited above:

The subtitle, "Evidence of the Didache," is meant to be severely limiting and restrictive. The kind of Jewish-inspired Christianity under historical analysis in this book is that attested to by a single important document, produced in what appears to have been a fairly coherent movement of women (the majority) and men who knew one another and who claimed to be living the Way of Life revealed to them by God through Jesus, his servant. The Didache fully expressed the worldview and way of life of these women and men. This is not to suggest that the Didache exhausts the evidence about the group behind the Didache. But the Didache does exhaustively express a complete system -the fit of worldview and way of life -fantasized and practiced by its framers.

The purpose of this volume accordingly is to push the evidence of the Didache so as to reconstruct the stubborn habits of perceiving and the committed modes of acting that shaped the adherents of this way of life. To the degree that I am successful, the reader will be able to discern the joys and sorrows, the hopes and disappointments, that marked a significant branch of the Jesus movement which has gone largely unnoticed and uncelebrated to this day.

The Enduring Impact of Rordorf

Just as every rabbinic student needs a partner, so every fruitful scholar needs a learning partner. The 1983 movie, Yentl, gives a humorous presentation of what is involved. Even before I knew to look around and find such a learning partner, I inadvertently found one. This came about in late 1989 when I undertook to contact Professor Willy Rordorf who, at the time, held the Chair of Patristic Studies at the University of Neuchâtel and was, hands down, the most-informed and best-published European scholar on the Didache. Rordorf's response to my letter was altogether astonishing. My earlier studies in Switzerland had made me aware that European scholars were generally more formal and reserved than their American counterparts and made it a point of honor to maintain the correctness of their published positions. Rordorf, in contrast, was totally disarming. He wrote, quite simply, that his own volume (1978a) was already ten years old and, therefore, ten years out of date; hence, it would be "exciting to `resee' this writing with your eyes" (letter of 24 April, 1989). Furthermore, he immediately proposed that I join him in Neuchâtel the following year and help him present his senior seminar which, if I was able to come, would certainly be on the topic of the Didache. I was overjoyed!

Willy Rordorf turned out to be a kindred spirit. His teaching style was warm, engaging, pastoral -just the very things that my students prized in me. During the summer of 1990 and again in 1992, I received grants which enabled me to spend the entire summer working with my learning partner. We quickly became friends, and he opened up his home and family to me. He once summarized our collaboration saying: "Sometimes you convince me; sometimes I convince you." Together, however, we both entered into new depths of the Didache.

Rordorf most significant contribution to me was his notion that the framers of the Didache did not use any known written Gospel. For a hundred years, nearly everyone supposed that the framers of the Didache made use of Matthew, or Luke, or both. A few scholars even proposed that smatterings of nearly every book in the Christian Scriptures could be found paraphrased in the Didache. Only a handful of French-speaking scholars held out against this consensus: Sabatier in 1885, Audet in 1958, Giet in 1970, and Rordorf in 1978 and 1998. Rordorf pressed forward new evidence and, to my satisfaction, was able to demonstrate the total independence of the Didache from any known written Gospel. If I have learned anything, it is the repercussions of this proposition.

The dating and the interpretation of the Didache has, for 120 years, been intimately tied to the supposed sources used in its composition. During the first eighty years, nearly everyone was debating whether the Didache made use of the Epistle of Barnabas which was then dated around C.E. 130. Audet, making use of the scrolls discovered near Qumran in 1945, effectively terminated that debate. With the Epistle of Barnabas out of the picture, renewed interest flared up in linking the Didache with a known Gospel -Matthew being the favorite. By releasing scholars from this mistaken legacy, Rordorf sets the stage for a possible dating of the Didache before the composition of Matthew (C.E. 70-80). With even more importance, Rordorf made it illegitimate to suppose that the theology and structure of the Didache community could be illuminated by reference to what one find in the Gospel of Matthew. In a word, Rordorf took the first step to insure that future scholars would consider the necessity of discovering the uniqueness of the Didache independent of what is found in Matthew's Gospel. I have carried Rordorf's insights even further by arguing that the theology and structures of Matthew's community are incompatible with those of the Didache.

The Oral Character of the Didache

One unfinished and unnoticed dimension of the Didache is its oral character. Like most scholars, I began my studies looking at the Didache as a printed text. I now realize that I should have been hearing it spoken since the text is the transcription of an oral production. The clues of this orality are found in the text itself. For example, the one being trained in the Way of Life is asked to "remember night and day" his/her mentor, "the one speaking to you the word of God" (D4:1a, as also 4:1b, 1:3). Prior to the baptism itself, it appears that the one baptizing recites the Way of Life (D7:1) as part of the rite. After the eucharist, the Didache directs attention to "whoever should train you in all these things said beforehand" (D11:1). Faced with approaching coming of the Lord-God, members are told to "frequently be gathered together" (D16:2) with the saints "in order that you may rest upon their words" (D4:2).

The character of an oral production is significantly different from that of a written text. My style of speaking in the classroom, for example, is shot through with short snappy sentences, colloquialisms, humor. My style of writing for publication is very much more deliberate, sober, long-winded. I notice this most when I transcribe an oral lecture I have recorded. I can immediately "hear" that it is a transcription of an oral performance. You, the reader, may have had similar experiences.

To test this "orality" on the part of the Didache, I decided to memorize chapters seven to ten in the anticipation of presenting it orally at the opening of my class devoted to the Didache. Linda Bartholomew and other members of the National Organization of Biblical Storytellers gave me some practical hints on how to easily memorize Gospel texts. For my part, I was skeptical. The Didache did not have the narrative flow of a Gospel story. Furthermore, I had not memorized any sustained production since I was an amateur actor thirty-five years ago. Let's face it, I had become thoroughly habituated to making, consulting, and relying upon written records -in everything from analyzing texts to shopping for groceries. Once I put my mind to it, however, I was amazed. I fully memorized the four chapter in two one-hour sessions supplemented by two fifteen minute oral productions the following day to assure myself that I had everything down pat. I did!

How was this possible? For starters, submitting a text in translation to oral memory forced me to ferret out the oral patterns structuring chapter seven: topic sentence + three-fold elaboration (7:1-3). Then I discovered the subtle way oral transitions work. Key words and key associations served to provide "oral links" which popped up when needed and never allowed me, the narrator, to be left hanging for the next line (see details in Chapter Three). All in all, by abandoning the norms of linear logic that structure written texts, I found that I was able to intuit the oral logic that structured the Didache. Once this happened, I memorized the Didache with the same ease that members of the National Organization of Biblical Storytellers enable whole groups of people to memorize and reproduce Gospel stories in a half-hour at their public meetings. Everything that Walter Ong and Werner Kelber had been saying about the primacy of the oral and the uniqueness of oral logic suddenly took hold within me.

Once the whole of the Didache was in my bones, I took every opportunity to perform it. Before my students. Before my faculty. At regional meetings of learned societies. As word got around, I was even invited to perform it before a Jewish audience. Hearing the Didache is like hearing the Gospel of Mark performed orally for the first time. With written texts, the reader can visually stop, go backwards, compare lines. With oral productions, the listener is forced to follow the rate, the inflections, and the interpretation of the narrator. An oral performance is guided by the interpretation of the narrator. Silent reading, on the other hand, is guided by the interpretation projected onto the text by the reader -quite a different thing. Upon first hearing the entire Gospel of Mark performed orally, I was amazed how individual stories (pericopes) rubbed against each other and together created a unified impression of Jesus. In textual analysis, the micro-structures of Mark dominate. One cannot "see" (or analyze) how stories rub against each other. In oral narration, on the other hand, the macro-structures sound through. Individual "words" flash on the screen of the mind in rapid succession. No longer does one have a slide show (as in textual analysis) but a moving picture (as in linguistic or rhetorical analysis). The very same thing holds true for an oral performance of the Didache.

If the Didache is fundamentally oral in character, then it ought to be heard. In my seminars, consequently, I perform segments of the Didache so that participants can take in the oral feel before they read the text. I furthermore invite participants to make a tape of the Didache which they can listen to in their car as they travel back and forth. Accordingly, you, the reader of this volume, are invited to do the same. If you would like to own a sample "student tape" or to make use of my "electronic version" of the Didache, consult the final page of this volume for details.

The Second Voyage of Columbus

Listening to NPR this morning, I learn that today is the anniversary commemorating the beginning of Columbus' second voyage (25 Sept 1493). He had outfitted sixteen ships and was ready to retrace the route to the new and strange world that he had discovered the year before.

You, the reader of this volume, can be compared to a shipmate signing on for such a second voyage. You are spared the terror and the uncertainty that accompanied the first passage. I faced them practically alone and returned alive to tell about it. Strange stories, strange experiences, and strange people returned with me. Now you, my reader, are signed on to retrace the route back in time whereby I discovered to the "new world" of the Didache. Reading this volume, you will encounter strange stories -for example, that, contrary to the current scholarly consensus, the Didache has a clearly defined order and purpose and logic from beginning to end. You will encounter strange experiences -for example, that the economic rules of sharing resources in the Didache are not centered upon detachment, asceticism, or voluntary poverty but are part of the pragmatic skills of a working-class group bent upon securing their well-being in a hostile economic environment. You will encounter strange people -for example, those wandering prophets whose carefree existence and passionate prayers dazzled their hearers and evoked expectations that the Lord-God would momentarily step into history. Yet, despite their inspired and inspiring words, these prophets were sent packing after one or two days and, as often as not, proved themselves to be troublemakers during the course of their short visits.

Needless to say, a shipmate making the second crossing will not credit all the stories of those who made the first passage. In fact, while reading this volume, you will even have experiences of your own which never showed up in the first passage. Finally, the strangeness of the people met will gradually wear on you, and, as the Didache notes, "some [of its members] you will reprove, and concerning others you will pray, and some you will love more than your own soul" (D2:7).

So, as shipmates, let us pull up anchor and begin.

25 Sept 2002