Scholar Unlocks the Shape of Christianity Before the Gospels
Author Moved to Tears When First Embracing his Elephant and his Mouse
When Aaron Milavec arrived at the Atlanta Marriott Hotel to give his public lecture, there were tears in his eyes. Having worked for fifteen years to decode an ancient, lost Christian document known as "the Didache,” Milavec was able to hold in his arms his two newly published books. Like a proud father holding his twins, Milavec explained how, on cold nights, he would wake up dreaming of those mid-first-century Christians who lived the Way of Life described in the Didache. "Having heard their voices, I couldn't get back to sleep unless I first got out of my warm bed, put on my robe, and dutifully recorded their revelations to me on the cold keys of my word processor."
Most Christians believe that everything about Jesus and the early church can be found in their New Testament. In recent years, however, the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas and the reconstruction of the Q-Gospel have led scholars to recognize that some very early materials were left out. Now, due to the pioneering efforts of Dr. Aaron Milavec, a seminary professor for twenty-five years, the most decisive document of them all has come to light. "At last," Milavec notes, "the day to day operations of the earliest Christian communities can be explored and understood as they existed outside the letters of Paul and prior to the time of the writing of the four Gospels."
The Didache reveals a tantalizingly detailed description of the frame of mind and the mode of living that shaped the Jesus movement some twenty years after the death of Jesus. The focus of the movement then 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 fact, the document says nothing about Jesus dying for our sins. Nor does it detail Jesus' vindication and exaltation through his resurrection and ascension. In contrast to these familiar forms of Christianity, the focus of the Didache was upon training non-Jews to embrace the faith and to live the Way of Life exemplified by Jesus. Rather than applauding what Jesus did for us, therefore, these early Christians thought of themselves as living Jesus' Way of Life so as to become a servant of the Father just as he was. It is not surprising, therefore, that the long title attached to this document is The Training of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles.
The Didache was originally discovered by Archbishop Bryennios in a private library in Istanbul in the year 1875. No one at the time, however, was able to recognize it for what it was. It was like the Rosetta Stone gathering dust in the British Museum until the French scholar, Jean Francois Champollion, noticed that what was written in Greek and Demotic provided the key for unlocking the meaning of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs that no one was able to decipher. Thus, for over a hundred years, scholars of the early church routinely dismissed the Didache because they all supposed that it was an ancient church order written in the second century. Milavec, however, was unsatisfied by this official point of view. Slowly, over a period of fifteen years, the clues in the Greek manuscript itself revealed quite another story. Once Milavec was able to unlock these clues, he was then able to go on to reconstruct the hopes and the fears, the trials and the successes, that characterized Christians when they were still a religious faction struggling at the boundaries of Judaism.
So, why did Milavec publish two books, both of which bear the main title, The Didache? By way of answering this question, the author tells how, ten years ago, his hairdresser spend a full fifteen minutes telling him all the fascinating things she had learned about the Gnostic Gospels after reading the book of Elaine Pagels. "From that day forward," Milavec explained, "I knew I had to write a short and snappy book accessible to hairdressers and brick layers." Thus Liturgical Press produced what the author affectionately regards as "the mouse."
Paulist Press, during the same period, produced "the elephant"‑-a thousand-page tome designed to satisfy the demanding criteria of scholars. After his inaugural lecture at the Atlanta Marriott Hotel, Milavec relates how a brassy scholar cornered him in the hall and 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?" Milavec responded in his usual warm tones saying, "My poor mouse was defenseless. She needed a heavy‑weight companion to keep from being stepped on."
Milavec believes that he has a personal responsibility to let the whole world know about the experiences of those folks who lived the Way of Life described in the Didache. "If in ten years," he said, "I don't find editions of the New Testament printed with the Didache in an appendix, I will have failed." All things considered, one would have to admit that this proud father of two new books has much to be grateful for and, at the same time, much to keep him busy for the next ten years.
· The “mouse” = The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, December 2003) 128 pp.; $9.95 soft cover
· The “elephant” = The Didache: Faith, Hope, and Life of the Earliest Christians 50-70 C.E. (New York: Paulist Press, November 2003) 1018 pp.; $64.95 hard cover
Paper, 128 pages
Hardcover, 1018 pages, index
-- Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary
"Dr. Milavec has produced a stimulating study of the Didache that gives full attention to the unity of the text and the pastoral sensitivity of its author, In this single, brief commentary, Milavec’s masterful presentation of the text and his intriguing perspective upon the ancient origins and unique purposes of the work will undoubtedly provoke scholarly discussion for many years to come!"
"Aaron Milavec, author of a thousand-page scientific commentary of the Didache, presents a welcome and timely synthesis of his research. It is clearly written, accessible also to non-specialists, and of special interest for students, liturgists, catechists, and Church ministers. Milavec makes knowledge of the earliest Christian tradition assessable for a spiritual renewal today."
"The works by Milavec have revolutionized my own understanding of the Didache and I recommend them as the best introduction to a new and more profitable way of studying the document."
The Didache -- Faith, Hope, and Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E.
· The introductory material shows how recent developments have opened the way to rediscovering the compositional unity and the early dating of the Didache. An origination hypothesis is developed and tested.
· The commentary combines literary criticism and sociological analysis in order to reconstruct the faith and hope, the discipline and rituals, the anxieties and challenges facing the communities presupposed by the Didache. The roles played by women, prophets, and slaves receive their due sociological and theological weight.
· Over three hundred specialized discussions in boxes enable the non-expert to become acquainted with the social, religious, and political dimensions of the first-century environment while the expert finds conflicting scholarly concerns addressed without impeding the smooth flow of the commentary.
· Flow charts give a bird's eye view of the progression of events (a) within the Didache as a whole, (b) during the training prior to baptism, and (c) during the End Times.
“ Professor Milavec, in dialogue with recent international scholarship, sets great store by allowing the internal evidence of the text to speak for itself. This volume, which looks at the unity of the manual against the cultural background of its time, is an indispensable addition to the literature on the Didache. It provides a gender-inclusive translation and a clear, concise, and inspiring commentary which is not only of essential importance to scholars, pastors, and students but also very useful for ordinary people."
"Milavec’s newest book is the culmination of fifteen years of insightful scholarship into the mysterious text of the Didache. The parallel English ‘analytical’ translation from the Greek is done with simplicity, yet with a sensitivity to gender issues and the Jewish background of the original text. This insightful new edition should appeal as much to erudite scholars as to the plainest of faiths. The commentary, the website, and the flow charts are brilliant additions."