Interview on the Hidden Life of the Earliest Christians
The latest issue of Newsweek asks, "Is there a secret cache of documents that reveal the true history of Christianity?" The response makes reference to the Gnostic Gospels. What even the researchers did not know, however, is that a cache of ancient documents has been discovered in an Orthodox library in Istanbul. Concealed within a medieval codex was a document used in the earliest Jesus communities (50-70 C.E.) and then mysteriously lost for over eighteen hundred years. This document bears the long title, The Training of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles, and is customarily referred to as the Didache (the Greek word for "training"). Tonight, we have Professor Aaron Milavec in the studio with us. He is quickly gaining the reputation as the "hairy potter" who decoded the Didache and enabled it to reveal its hidden secrets regarding those hidden years when Christianity was little more than a faction within the restless Judaism of the mid-first-century.
Q1. For starters, Professor Milavec, tell us what this document revealed to you once you were able to decode it?
A1. The Didache reveals a tantalizingly detailed description of the frame of mind and the mode of living that shaped the Jesus movement following the death of Jesus. The focus of this movement was not upon proclaiming the exalted titles and deeds of Jesus--aspects that come to the fore in the letters of Paul and in the Gospel narratives. In contrast, the focus of the Didache was upon the expectation of the Kingdom that the Father intended to bring when he came to live with his people on earth and upon "the life and the knowledge" of the Father as revealed "through his servant Jesus."
Q2. So what does the Didache say about this life and knowledge?
A2. To begin with, Jesus comes forward as a servant of God revealing a Way of Life that is very practical and very ordinary. No complex doctrines are offered for belief. No secrets of the universe or mysteries of the soul are revealed. Rather, non-Jews wishing to participate in this community are given practical training as to how to live harmoniously within an intentional community that regards everyday affairs as an expression of the love of God.
Q3. Name some of the practical things encompassed by this Way of Life.
A3. The novice, for instance, was trained how to defuse anger and lust, how to respond to those who love money or seek glory, how to learn (or relearn) how to live justly and simply. Members were expected to share their possessions with those in need since their possessions were free gifts of God meant to relieve hunger and homelessness. Furthermore, members were instructed how to publicly acknowledge their failings against each other such that their eucharistic meal could be celebrated in peace and harmony.
Q4. Was the eucharist, then, the Lord's Supper and was it always celebrated in the context of a full meal?
A4. Quite so. The Didache has been recognized as important because, unlike the rest of the New Testament, it alone reveals that the eucharist took place every Saturday evening, that it was always celebrated in the context of a festive meal, and that it focused upon the coming Kingdom of God. The Didache offers us the most extensive and the earliest set of prayers used during these sacred meals.
Q5. You mentioned earlier that sharing resources was routine in this community. Now you mention the weekly festive eucharist. Did the members then live together?
A5. Some did. The Didache reveals, for example, that anyone entering upon the Way of Life could expect trouble from their parents and relatives the moment that they began to share family resources with outsiders. Once a novice became a full member and refused to honor the family idols, most were driven out of their parents' home and taken in by a "father" or "mother" that had already been assigned to them by the community. Such persons were expected to continue in their trade or profession and, if they had no skills, they were expected to be apprenticed so that their hands would not be idle. Wandering prophets, on the other hand, were welcomed "as the Lord" and given free room and board in the homes of members.
Q6. Who were these wandering prophets? Where did they come from and what did they do?
A6. The Didache makes it clear that wandering prophets were regular visitors. These prophets were men and women whose lives had been shattered because they were forced to sell their farms, their workshops, and even their own children in order to pay off their debts. Finally, shamed by the specter of debt-enslavement, they resorted to becoming vagabonds whose only worth was to pray publicly and ferociously that God the Father would come soon to straighten out the Roman system of global economics that had destroyed their family, their lives, and their health.
Q7. So, these prophets were once independent and self-reliant farmers and craftsmen who had been crushed by economic woes. Their only hope was that God would come to relieve them.
A7. Quite so. The ancient world had no such thing as unemployment compensation or social security. Working families trapped by growing debts were thus slowly bled and exploited by money lenders. In the Didache communities, however, the sharing of resources made this economic degradation impossible. They regarded themselves as an extended family. Prophets who settled into these communities, therefore, were gradually cured of their shame and many even learned to laugh and to work again.
Q8. Are you then saying that the ragged vagabonds visiting the Didache communities were somehow healed of their shame and degradation?
A8. Yes. From the day they first arrived, prophets were approached by those coming with the first fruits of their gardens, of their workshops, of their ovens and asking the dirty and smelly prophets to offer a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord. Vagabonds on the run were only too willing to wax eloquently in their prayers of thanksgiving for they knew full well that they were being treated like Jewish high priests, the ones who customary offered such prayers. For those who stayed on, however, the pain of having nothing was slowly eroded by the vision of a community that was prospering and giving thanks. Children peeking out from behind the skirts of their mothers initially brought them bitter tears because they remembered their own children being sold into slavery in order that they might not starve. With time, however, these same shy children taught them to laugh and to play again. Bye and bye, the layers of despair and shame passed away and they began to gain hope and to work with their hands again. As they did so, however, the fire in their belly went out and their prayers of desperation dried up. They ended up prospering by the work of their hands and left behind their prophetic calling.
Q9. Did their prophetic calling disappear or did they get healed of their despair?
A9. You decided. What comes first? What follows? Or do both come together?
Q10. Stepping back a bit, I note in your two books that this lost document, the Didache, was originally found in 1875. Why is it that we haven't heard about it for a century and a quarter?
A10. Excellent question. I would answer this riddle by saying that the document was right in front of the noses of scholars but they didn't realize what they had. Right from the start, the Didache got classified as a second-century church order. Moreover, for over a hundred years, it had been assumed that the Didache was merely a collage of bits and pieces of archaic materials drawn from places and periods that defied our powers of knowing. Essentially, the Didache was a riddle and no one knew how to decode it. Thanks to my own trainers and to my fifteen years of work on this document, I have been able to crack the code of the Didache and, for the first time, to discover the original purpose and unity of the text. Once I had done that, it followed that I began to hear the voices of those who lived the Way of Life and who worked together to make the good life possible for their members as they awaited the coming of the Lord.
Q11. So I hear you saying that the Didache was like the Rosetta Stone. It gathered dust in the museum until someone noticed that what was written in Greek corresponded to what was written in Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was there in front of everyone's noses but no one knew just how important it was.
Q11. Yes. That's it exactly.
Q12. Final question: why did you publish two books, both of which are entitled, The Didache?
A12. Ten years ago, my hairdresser discovered that I was interested in the early church and she began to tell me all the fascinating things she had learned about the Gnostic Gospels from reading the book of Elaine Pagels. From that day forward, I knew I had to write a short and snappy book accessible to hairdressers and brick layers. Thus Liturgical Press and I produced what is affectionately called "the mouse."
At the same time, however, Paulist Press and I produced "the elephant"--a thousand-page tome that satisfies the demanding criteria of scholars. One such scholar met me in the hallway of the Marriott Hotel where I recently unveiled and lectured on the Didache. He got into my face and boldly asked, "How does a quiet guy like you get off with publishing a thousand pages of commentary on a document that could neatly fit on eight pages?" I was tempted to respond by telling how voices from the Didache communities had filtered into my dreams, kept me up at night, and required me to get up out of my warm bed, put on my robe, and sit at my chilly computer until their whispered revelations had been duly recorded. I was also tempted to tell how my ideas had changed in the course of fifteen years of close attention to the marvelous details offered by the text and that I had to make a suitable apology for why I had overturned nearly every major notion of how the Didache was constructed and used. In the end, I simply said, "My poor mouse was defenseless. She needed a heavy-weight companion to keep from being stepped on."
Closing: That's cute. By way of closing, let me remind our listeners that they can order either the mouse or the elephant by asking for The Didache at their local bookstore, or they can purchase them at a discount bookseller (mouse search -- elephant search). Thank you, Professor Milavec, for joining us tonight and offering our listeners a very enlightening and stimulating conversation.
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