The Didache: How’d the earliest Christians behave?

Yep, we have a written record of it.

Didache /'dɪ.də.kei, di.da'hi/ n. A first-century Christian manual for new believers. [From the Greek didahí/“teaching.”]

In the first century, some anonymous Christian leaders wrote a “teaching” for the new members of Christian synagogues: The stuff they felt these Christians oughta know and believe. Over time it’s become known as the Didache, from its first line, Didahí Kyríu diá ton dódeka apostólon toís éthesin/“The Master’s teaching to the gentiles, from the 12 apostles.” Western Christians assumed it had been lost sometime in the 800s, but Ethiopian Christians still had a version of it, and an 11th-century copy in the Codex Hierosolymitanus was rediscovered by Philotheos Bryennios in 1873.

Historians notice a lot of similarities between the Didache and what the Qumran community taught in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s considered a Jewish-Christian catechism, a lesson to be memorized (usually in question-answer format, though not here) to help adapt the Jewish way of life for gentile Christians. Whether it’s precisely as the Twelve taught, we’ve no idea; but it’s safe to say it’s what a lot of early Christians taught. In fact, a lot of early Christians wanted to include the Didache in the New Testament.

So why isn’t it scripture? ’Cause for the longest time, Christians thought it was written in the second century. And since the New Testament was ultimately limited to first-century writings, that left the Didache out. I’m not saying we should add it now… but it’s interesting to look at the way early Christians expected newbies to behave. It’s why I include the whole of it below.

The translation and chapter titles are mine. I took the text from the Codex Hierosolymitanus. Read it yourself, and notice how many of these ideas are still taught in your own church.

1. The way of life.

0 The Master’s teaching to the gentiles, from the 12 apostles.
1 There are two ways: One of life and one of death.
But a great difference between the two ways.
2 Now, the way of life is this: First love God who made you. Dt 6.5
Second, love your neighbor as yourself. Lv 19.18
Don’t do to another what you wouldn’t want done to you. Lk 6.31
3 Of these sayings, the teaching is this:
Bless your cursers, pray for your enemies, Lk 6.28 and fast for your persecutors.
For what grace is there in loving your lovers? Don’t pagans do likewise? Mt 5.46
But love your haters, and you’ll have no enemy.
4 Abstain from fleshly and worldly desires.
When anyone slaps your right cheek, turn to them the other also, Mt 5.39
and you’ll be consistent.
When anyone forces you to walk one mile, go two with them. Mt 5.41
When anyone takes your tunic, give them your coat. Mt 5.40
When anyone takes your stuff from you, don’t ask it back; you’re not allowed to. Lk 6.30
5 Give to everyone who asks you, and don’t ask it back. Mt 5.42
For the Father wants everyone to receive from his own blessings.
It’s awesome when one gives according to the command, for they’re in the right.
But it’s sad when one takes.
They’re in the right when they take because they have need,
but they’ll pay the penalty when they take without having need,
depending on why and what they took.
They’ll be arrested, examined about what they’ve done,
and won’t escape from there till they pay back the last coin. cf. Mt 5.26
6 It’s been said about this, “Let your donation sweat in your hands
till you know to whom you should give it.”

2. Sins.

1 The second command of the teaching:
2 Don’t commit murder, adultery, pederasty, fornication, or theft. Mt 15.19
Don’t practice magic or witchcraft. Dt 18.10
Don’t kill a child through abortion or infanticide.
Don’t covet your neighbor’s things, Dt 20.17 3 swear, Mt 5.34 testify falsely, Dt 20.16
speak evil, Jm 4.11 or keep grudges. Lv 19.18
4 Don’t be double-minded Jm 1.8 or double-tongued; 1Ti 3.8 to be double-tounged is a deathtrap.
5 Your speech shouldn’t be false or useless, but fulfilled by deeds.
6 Don’t be coveting, greedy, hypocritical, bent towards evil, or prideful.
Don’t take evil advice about your neighbor.
7 Don’t hate any person:
Correct some, pray about others, and love some more than your own life.

3. Don’t be evil.

1 My child: Flee from everything evil, and from everything like it. 1Ti 5.22
2 Don’t be prone to anger, jealous, argumentative, or hot-tempered, Ga 5.20
for these things lead to murder.
3 My child: Don’t be lustful, for that leads to fornication;
don’t talk dirty, or have a wandering eye, for they lead to adultery.
4 My child: Don’t be superstitious, cast spells, use horoscopes, use good-luck charms, Dt 18.10-11
or even look at these things, for they lead to idolatry.
5 My child: Don’t lie, love money or fancy things, for they lead to theft.
6 My child: Don’t grumble, be strong-willed, or be evil-minded, for they lead to blasphemy.
7 Instead be meek, for the meek will inherit the earth. Mt 5.5
8 Be patient, pitiable, without trickery, gentle, good,
and always trembling at the words you’ve heard.
9 Don’t exalt yourself, or be overconfident in yourself, or join with the proud;
interact with right-thinking, humble people.
10 Accept whatever happens to you as good.
Know that nothing happens apart from God.

4. Harmony and generosity.

1 My child: Remember, night and day, the one who speaks God’s word to you,
and honor them like you would the Master.
Wherever the Master’s rules are said, the Master is.
2 Day by day, look for holy people and rest on their words.
3 Don’t encourage separation; bring peace to those who fight you.
Judge righteously. Don’t show favoritism in correcting those who sin.
4 Don’t sit out any decision.
5 Don’t stretch out your hands to take, or pull back your hands in giving.
6 If you have anything to give, a ransom for your sins will pass through your hands.
7 Don’t hesitate to give, nor complain when you give;
you’ll learn who will give you a good return for your generosity.
8 Don’t turn away the needy. Mt 5.42
Share everything with your brother, and don’t insist that they’re your own.
For if you will give and receive immortal things,
how much more should you give and receive mortal things?
9 Discipline your son and daughter. Teach them to fear God, from their youth.
10 Don’t order around your male or female slaves when you’re angry.
They believe in the same God;
your actions may lead them away from the God who is over you both.
For he doesn’t call people by their vocation; he calls them when the Spirit has prepared them.
11 Slaves will obey their masters as if they were God, in modesty and fear. Ep 6.5
12 Hate all hypocrisy, and everything that doesn’t please the Master.
13 Never, in any way, abandon the Master’s commands.
Keep what you’ve received, and don’t add or take away from them.
14 Admit your sins to the church.
Don’t come to prayer with an evil conscience.
This is the way of life.

5. The way of death.

1 The way of death is this.
First of all, it’s evil and cursed:
murder, adultery, lust, fornication, theft,
idolatry, magic, witchcraft, rape,
false witness, hypocrisy, double-heartedness, deceit,
pridefulness, depravity, self-will, greed, dirty talk,
jealousy, overconfidence, superiority, boastfulness,
2 persecution of good, hate of truth, love of lies,
not rewarding rightness, not sticking to good nor right judgment,
not watching out for good but evil, denial of meekness and endurance,
love of uselessness, vengeful, not pitying the poor, not fighting for the suffering,
not knowing he who made them, child-murder, destruction of God’s handiwork,
abandonment of those in need, affliction of those in distress,
defense of the rich, lawless judgment of the poor: Utter sinners.
Children, be freed from all these.

6. Do the best you can.

1 Make sure no one causes you to stray from this way of teaching.
Apart from God, it teaches you.
2 If you’re able to carry the Master’s entire yoke, you’ll be perfect.
If you’re not able, do what you can.
3 About food: Do what you can.
Be extremely careful with food that’s been sacrificed to idols. Ac 15.29
It was used to serve dead gods.

7. Baptism.

1 About baptism. Baptize this way: After saying all these things first,
baptize into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Mt 28.19 in flowing water.
2 If you have no flowing water, baptize in other water.
If you have no cold water, use warm.
3 If you have neither, pour water onto the head three times,
into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
4 Before baptism, let the baptist, the baptizand, and anyone else who can, fast.
Order the baptizand to fast one or two days before.

8. Fasting and prayer.

1 Don’t fast with hypocrites. They fast on Monday and Thursday.
Instead, fast on Wednesday and Friday.
2 Don’t pray like the hypocrites, Mt 6.5 but as the Master commanded in his gospel.
Like this:
“Our Father in heaven: Make your name holy. Make your kingdom come.
Make your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors.
Don’t bring us into temptation, but free us from the evil one. Mt 6.9-13
For the power and the glory is yours forever.” Da 7.18
3 Pray this three times every day.

9. Communion.

1 About communion. Give thanks this way. 2 First, about the cup:
“Our Father: We thank you for the holy vine of your servant David,
which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus. The glory is yours forever.”
3 About the broken bread:
“Our Father: We thank you for the life and knowledge
which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus. The glory is yours forever.
4 Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills,
and was gathered together, and became one,
so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth, into your kingdom.
For the glory and power is yours forever, through Christ Jesus.”
5 Don’t let anyone eat or drink communion unless they’ve been baptized into the name of the Master.
For about this, the Master said, “Don’t give what is holy to the dogs.” Mt 7.6

10. Thanksgiving.

1 After you’re finished, give thanks this way:
2 “Holy Father, we thank you for your holy name,
which you made dwell in our hearts; Ep 3.17
and for the knowledge, faith, and immortality
which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus. The glory is yours forever.
3 Lord Almighty, you created all things for your name’s sake.
You gave food and drink to men for enjoyment, so they’d give you thanks.
And to us, you gave spiritual food and drink, Jn 6.55
and eternal life through your servant.
4 We thank you, before everything else, that you are mighty.
The glory is yours forever.
5 Lord, remember your church.
Deliver it from all evil, Mt 6.13 and make it perfect in your love.
Gather it from the four winds, sanctified for your kingdom which you’ve prepared for it.
For the power and glory is yours forever.
6 Let grace come, and let this world pass away.
Hosanna to the God of David!
If anyone is holy, let them come. Rv 22.17 If not, let them repent.
Maranatha. 1Co 16.22 NASB Amen.”
7 Let the prophets give thanks as much as they want.

11. Prophets, apostles, and fakes.

1 So whoever comes and teaches you all these things,
which have been taught before, accept them.
2 But if the teacher turns round and teaches another doctrine,
and tries to cancel this out, don’t listen. Ga 1.8
But if they teach this, for the purpose of spreading morality and knowledge of the Master,
accept them as a master.
3 About the apostles and prophets. Act following the gospel:
4 Let every apostle who comes to you be accepted as a master.
5 But they won’t stay more than a day or two, as necessary.
If they stay three, they’re a false prophet.
6 When the apostle goes away, let them take with them nothing but bread,
until they find a place to stay.
If they ask for money, they’re a false prophet.
7 Don’t argue with or tempt any prophet who speaks in the Spirit.
Every sin will be forgiven except this one. Mk 3.29
8 But not everyone who speaks in the Spirit is a prophet; only those who practice the Master’s way.
You’ll know a false prophet from a true prophet by their behavior. Mt 7.16
9 Any prophet who demands food “in the Spirit”—if they eat of it, is a false prophet.
10 Any prophet who preaches the truth, but don’t do as they teach, is a false prophet.
11 Any approved, true prophet, ministering the mysteries of the church to the world,
who don’t teach others to do as they do—don’t judge them.
God will judge them. The ancient prophets did likewise.
12 But any prophet who says “in the Spirit,” “Give me money,” or something else:
Don’t listen to them, unless they tell you to give for the sake of others in need.
Then let no one judge them.

12. Real and fake Christians.

1 Receive everyone who comes in the Master’s name, but test and know their character.
You know the difference between good and evil.
2 If your visitor is a wanderer, help them as much as you can,
but they won’t stay with you more than two or three days, as necessary.
3 But if they want to stay with you, and is a craftsman, let them work and eat.
4 If they have no trade, as far as you can tell, see to it they work as a Christian.
They ought not live with you and do nothing.
5 But if they do nothing, they’re a Christian con artist. Avoid such people.

13. Supporting your ministers.

1 Every true prophet who wants to live among you is worth supporting.
2 True teachers are also worthy of support. Same with church workers.
3 So every firstfruit of your winepress and your threshing floor, of oxen and sheep,
you’ll give to the prophets, for they are your head priests.
4 If you have no prophet, give it to the poor.
5 When you make a batch of dough, take the firstfruit and give it, following the command.
6 When you open a jar of wine or oil, take the firstfruit and give it to the prophets.
7 Same with silver, clothing, and every possession:
Take the firstfruit, however you determine it, and give it, following the command.

14. Meet weekly.

1 Gather yourselves together every Lord’s Day. Break bread and give thanks—
after you’ve confessed your sins, so your sacrifices are pure.
2 Let nobody who’s fighting with their brother come together with you
until they work things out, so your sacrifices won’t be impure. Mt 5.23-24
3 For the Lord said this: “In every place and time, offer me a pure sacrifice.
For I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.” Ml 1.11

15. Christian leaders.

1 Appoint supervisors and ministers for yourselves, worthy of the Lord.
They must be meek, not money-lovers, 1Ti 3.3 truthful, and proven.
They will serve you as prophets and teachers, 2 so don’t ignore them.
For they’re to be honored among you, along with the prophets and teachers.
3 Correct one another, not in anger,
but in peace, as is in the gospel.
If anyone acts inappropriately towards one another,
don’t let them speak, nor let them hear from you, until they repent.
4 Pray, give charity, and do all your deeds as you find it in the Master’s gospel.

16. The Master’s return.

1 Watch out for your life. Don’t put out your lamps, or loosen your belts. Lk 12.35
But be ready: You don’t know when our Master will come! Mk 1.35
2 Gather together frequently, seeking the things that enrich your lives.
For the time of your faith will be wasted if you aren’t found perfect in these last days.
3 For in the last days, false prophets and corrupters will multiply; Mk 13.22
sheep will turn into wolves, and love will turn into hate.
4 For when lawlessness spreads, they will hate and persecute and betray one another.
Then the deceiver of the world will appear as if the Son of God, 2Th 2.4
and will do signs and wonders, and the earth will be delivered into his hands,
and he’ll do unlawful things that have never been done before,
since the beginning of the world. Mk 13.19
5 All creation will come under the fire of tribulation, and many will be offended, and will perish.
But those who stick to their faith will be saved from this curse. Mt 24.13
6 Then the signs of the truth will appear: The sign of the appearance in heaven,
the sign of the sound of the trumpet, and thirdly the resurrection of the dead. 1Th 4.16
7 Not of everyone, but as it is said, “The Master will come, and all his holy ones with him.” Zc 14.5
8 And the world will see the Master coming on the clouds of heaven. Mk 14.62

In conclusion.

As you’ll notice, some of these beliefs and attitudes are still common in our churches… and some not so much. But it’s good to know we’ve not wandered too far from the earliest Christians. (Assuming we’ve not.)

You might’ve noticed the Didache is far more flexible about how to perform baptisms, than Christians have historically been. Or that it includes lots of warnings about what constitutes a false prophet. And of course it’s very anti-sin—namely the bad attitudes which lead to, or those we use to justify, sin.

But it’s also gracious: “If you’re not able, do what you can.” Christians are always gonna struggle to do the right thing. And the Didache actually doesn’t instruct Christians to drive one another away, or excommunicate one another: Not that we’d never need to with certain unrepentant people, but the expectation is for the most part we’ll forgive and correct them, and they’ll repent. It’s an optimistic book.