At what point did Christianity and Judaism diverge? An ancient text known as the Didache suggests that the division may have occurred much later than many people think.
The Didache is, in fact, a Greek-language manual for a community of Jewish Christians, probably living in Antioch, Syria in the late first or early second centuries CE. While its Jewish character is undeniable, the text also makes clear references to Jesus.
Most current scholarship agrees that Christianity began not as a separate religion, but as a sect of Judaism. In the first century CE, Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah were simply one sect among many.
In this post, I’ll look at both the Jewish and Christian elements of the Didache, to the extent that they can even be distinguished. What can it tell us about Christian and Jewish identity in these formative years?
Who Was the Didache Written For?
As if to demonstrate the Jewish character of the Didache community, the full title of the text is “Training of [the] Lord Through the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles”. While there were clearly gentiles admitted to the Didache community, there would be no need to mention them if the community itself were solely comprised of gentiles. At the same time, though, the assumption is that text’s teachings came through Jesus’ disciples.
Looking at the Didache’s Jewish references, there are many features of this document that parallel the writings of the Hebrew Bible and other contemporary Jewish sources.
The Two Ways
The Didache begins with the statement “There are two ways: one of life and one of death – and there is a great difference between the two ways.” We find a clear parallel here between the Didache and the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls were produced by a separatist first-century Jewish community living in isolation in Qumran in the Palestinian desert. One of the fragments of these scrolls states
. . . there are two ways, one good and one evil. If you walk in the good way, [God] will bless you. But if you walk in the evil way, He will curse you in your going out and in your tents (Dss. 4Q473).
The fact that such discourse was written by the relatively isolated Dead Sea Scrolls community and the Didache community demonstrates that this doctrine of the Two Ways was broadly part of first-century Jewish thought.
In addition, similar rhetoric can be found in Deuteronomy:
See I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the way I am commanding you today. (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)
It would appear that the Didache, in its use of the Two Ways discourse, was simply part of contemporary Jewish thought.
The ethical material in the Didache seems to draw upon the same source that the gospel of Matthew does for the Sermon on the Mount. While earlier scholars viewed this section of the Didache as completely dependent upon Matthew as a source, more recent scholarship suggests that the Didache and Matthew may have simply drawn on a common source.
One interesting fact: the sayings that Matthew attributes to Jesus are not attributed to him in the Didache. The same or similar sayings are in the Didache, but are merely stated as general teachings. This is intriguing. Did the author of Matthew attribute the ideas of his community to Jesus in order to enhance their authority? Why wouldn’t the author of the Didache attribute these sayings to Jesus if he believed they came from Jesus? We can only wonder.
The ethical teachings of the Didache have other parallels in Jewish teachings. For example, the Didache says:
speak well of the ones speaking badly of you, and pray for your enemies, (and) fast for the ones persecuting you (Did. 1:3).
Similarly, in Proverbs, we read:
do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble. (Proverbs 24:17)
In addition, the Jewish historian Josephus in the latter part of the first century CE writes that:
[Moses] also would have us treat those that are esteemed our enemies with moderation.
When the Didache writes that:
if anyone should strike you on the right cheek, turn to him also the other, and you will be perfect (Did. 1:4),
we find a similar injunction in Lamentations, wherein we find that it is good
to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults. (Lamentations 3:30)
In another dictum, the Didache says:
to everyone asking you, give and do not ask for it back; for, to all, the Father wishes to give from his own free gifts (Did. 1:5).
We find a corresponding idea in Exodus, where the people are told:
if you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor (Exodus 22:25).
Finally, Didache explicitly refers to the Ten Commandments. Without going into too much detail, the text commands that if one wants to follow their community’s way of life,
you will not murder, you will not commit adultery, you will not steal, you will not bear false witness, [and many others]. (Did. 2:2)
Christology: Who was Jesus for the Didache community?
In the final section, we turn to Christology in the Didache. ‘Christology’ is simply theology interpreting the meaning of Christ, including his nature and his relation to God. If the community that produced this text was so clearly Jewish, how did they demonstrate Christian beliefs as well?
There are three explicit references to Jesus in the Didache.
In two of these references, both prayers to God, Jesus is called “Your servant Jesus” (Jesu tou paidos). While the Greek word paidos can sometimes be translated as ‘child,’ there is reason to believe that ‘servant’ is a more accurate translation in the Didache.
For example, there is an earlier prayer reference in the Didache to David which gives us a clue to how the word paidos is being interpreted:
We give thanks, our Father, for the holy vine of your servant (paidos) David (Did. 9:2).
In fact, despite his high status, David is frequently referred to as God’s servant in the Hebrew Bible (see 2 Kgs. 19:34; 20:6; Is. 37:35; Jer. 33:21, 22, 26).
Similarly, Moses, the very prototype of the Hebrew prophet, is frequently called God’s servant (see Num. 12:7f; Josh. 1:2, 7; Neh. 1:7f; Dan. 9:11; Mal. 4:4). This underscores the point that in Jewish thought, God’s chosen ones were still considered servants of God. The double reference to Jesus as “your servant” in the Didache makes Jesus’ status equivalent to that of the Hebrew prophets of old without calling him divine. Jesus is both God’s chosen one and fully human in the Didache.
The Didache also refers to Jesus as Christos, the Greek term for Messiah or anointed one. Yet while he is given this high designation, Jesus may not be expected to have an ultimate role in bringing about God’s Kingdom. While chapter 16 notes that at the end of time “the world will see the Lord coming atop the clouds of heaven,” there is reason to believe that this reference to “the Lord” (ton kyrion) refers to God rather than Jesus.
For instance, there is an earlier reference to Malachi 1:11 as “having been said by the Lord” (Did. 14:3). Here, with an allusion to the Lord of the Hebrew Bible, “Lord” refers to God. Second, in conjunction with the earlier designations of Jesus as God’s servant, the indication is that “Lord” likely refers to God rather than Jesus throughout the text.
It is important to note here as well that the Didache contains no mention of Jesus’ death or resurrection, even in the prayers for the Eucharist. This serves to underscore even further the low Christology (a belief that Jesus was fully human and not divine) within this community: what matters about Jesus are his teachings and example. The elaborate cosmic role of Jesus in Paul’s thought is nowhere to be found in this text.
The Didache gives us a portrait of a community living in late first- or early second-century Syria. For the author of this document, there is no contradiction between Jewish and Christian identities. The author reveres Jesus as a servant of God, a prophet, and follows the Jewish law. It would seem that assumptions of many regarding the early separation of Judaism and Christianity may have been wrong.