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What Is the Didache?

In the recent exchange that I posted on the blog (dealing with the existence of Q) the document known as the Didache was mentioned – especially by guest contributor Alan Garrow, who thinks that the Didache was a source used by the authors of Matthew and Luke.  I think even Alan will agree that this is a highly anomalous view; I don’t know of any other scholar who accepts it (though if Alan knows of any who do, I’m sure he can tell us in a comment).  The Didache is almost always assumed to have quoted the Gospels – or at least the traditions found in the Gospels – not vice versa.

But what is the Didache (pronounced DID-ah-kay)?  Ah, that’s the prior question.  And I realized this morning that I haven’t talked about it much on the blog.  I better do so!

I published a translation of the Didache (the title means “Teaching”) in my two-volume edition of the Apostolic Fathers in 2003, in the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press).   In that edition I talk about what the book is, whether it is one book or several documents that have been cut and pasted together, when it was written, and so on.   That may be useful information for the blog, and so I will give it over the course of two or three posts.

I have edited my Introduction slightly to make it a bit more user friendly (it was written for scholars and advanced students).   Here is the opening of the Introduction, where I explain briefly something about its discovery and contents.


Few manuscript discoveries of modern times have created the stir caused by the discovery and publication of the Didache in the late nineteenth century. Found by Philotheos Bryennios in 1873 in the Library of the Holy Sepulchre in Constantinople and published by him ten years later, the Didache was immediately seen to be one of most important literary remains of early Christianity outside of the New Testament.  For here was not only…

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For here was not only an early presentation of the ethical teachings known as the “two paths” (or the “two ways”), familiar already from the Epistle of Barnabas and later texts (see below), but also the earliest surviving descriptive account of the Christian rituals of baptism and eucharist, along with instructions involving itinerant Christian apostles and prophets in an age before the church hierarchy of bishop, presbyters, and deacons was firmly in place.

Some scholars immediately recognized the antiquity of the account, dating it to the beginning of the second century or the end of the first, before even some of the books of the New Testament were written.  Almost everyone realized that here at last was a book that had achieved near-canonical status in some early Christian circles, known by title from discussions of the church Fathers but for the most part lost to history sometime after the fourth century.


The Didache is given two titles in the only complete manuscript: “The Teaching (Greek: DIDACHE) of the Twelve Apostles,” and, immediately following, “The Teaching of the Lord Through the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles.”   Neither title claims that the book was actually written by the apostles, simply that it conveys their teachings; it is, therefore, anonymous rather than pseudonymous.  The book as a whole is usually considered a “church manual” or a “church order,” the first of its kind to survive.

The Didache begins with a set of ethical instructions known as the “two paths, one of life and one of death” (1.1).   The path that leads to life involves following the commandments of God, principally the commandment to love God and one’s neighbor, and to adhere to the “Golden Rule” (1.2).  The first four chapters of the book explicate these commandments, first in words that reflect the teachings of Jesus (without naming him), especially as found in the Sermon on the Mount (ch. 1), then in a series of positive and negative ethical injunctions (chs. 2-4).  The path that leads to death involves contrary sorts of behavior, as delineated in chapter 5.

After a transitional chapter, the author shifts to discuss church ritual, explaining how to baptize (ch. 7), fast (8.1), pray (8.2), and celebrate the communal thanksgiving meal or eucharist (chs. 9-10; giving the appropriate eucharistic prayers).

Attention then shifts in chapter 11 to the question of how to deal with itinerant Christian teachers, apostles, and, especially, prophets, indicating their special status before God but warning of possible abuses.  Following then some further instructions for communal worship (ch. 14) and life (ch. 15),  including the need to “elect … bishops and deacons,” the discussion moves to a concluding apocalyptic scenario, which indicates what will happen in the final days when havoc breaks out on earth before the final coming of the Lord “on the clouds of the sky.”  The text breaks off abruptly at this point.  Possibly its original ending was lost.


In my next post I will discuss the book’s “integrity” – a term that, for scholars, does not refer to its “honesty” but to its compositional history, that is, whether it was a single book written by a single author or if it represents several writings cut and pasted together.   If it is a cut-and-paste job, when was that job completed?  And when were the writings that were cut and pasted together themselves written?  Intriguing questions for the literary historian of early Christianity!


The Ethical Teachings of the Didache
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  1. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  December 22, 2017

    My understanding from Garrow’s clarification is that he maintains the Didache preserves material from Q independently of the synoptics, not that D is a version of Q. Did I misread him or do you think he was confabulating to overcome objections to his original argument? Second, is the 1873 find the only extant ms. of the Didache?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 23, 2017

      Yup, right on both counts.

    • Avatar
      AGarrow  December 23, 2017

      Responding to SidDhartha request for clarification of my position (which does take a bit of careful explanation).

      The puzzle to solve is that Did. 1.2-5a, Matthew 5.38-48 and Luke 6.27-36 have a triangular relationship. Most scholars now doubt that the Didache could have got its material from either Matthew or Luke – so what happened? What I propose is that Luke used Did. 1.2-5a as one of his sources. Then Matthew, aware of both Luke’s version and the Didache’s version, combined the two together to create his third version. For the illustrated explanation of how this works in detail see http://www.alangarrow.com/extantq

      So, if I may define “Q” as any saying used by both Matthew and Luke (except sayings found in Mark), then Did. 1.2-5a qualifies as a surviving example of “Q”. In this sense I am saying something close to “D is a version of Q”. What I would like to be read as saying, more precisely, is that Did. 1.2-5a is a surviving example of a set of sayings used by both Luke and Matthew. I don’t make this claim for the rest of the Didache because the Didache is a composite document (as this thread is exploring).

      If you define Q as an entity of about 4,500 words that accounts for all the material shared by Luke and Matthew (but not found in Mark), then I really am NOT saying that ‘the Didache preserves material from Q independent of the synoptics’ – because I don’t think this type of 4,500-word Q ever existed. Some scholars have suggested that Did. 1.3-5a is a bit like Matthew 5.38-48 and Luke 6.27-36 because they are ALL drawing from Q – but I don’t think this is the case.

      Thanks for asking for the clarification. Sorry for the need for such pedantic precision!

  2. Avatar
    Blaircb  December 23, 2017

    11:14 And no prophet when he ordereth a table in the Spirit shall eat of it;

    Dr. Ehrman, I noted with a smile the humorous comment earlier regarding the passage above, but I am not sure what the author(s) of the Didache were getting at. Ordereth a table in the spirit? Could you please expound? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2017

      I’ve never been sure. The prophet is in a trance and orders a communal meal. I think the idea is that if he eats of it, he probably was just feeling hungry, not inspired.

  3. Avatar
    AGarrow  December 23, 2017

    You asked me to comment on whether the idea that Matthew and Luke knew Did. 1.2-5a is an anomalous view. It is certainly the case that I am the only scholar to have made the case in a peer review journal. There is quite a difference between being the first person to propose an idea and being someone who favours an idea that has already been thoroughly examined and found wanting.

    Most scholars now agree that it is highly unlikely that the Didache relied directly on Matthew or Luke … and yet they have some distinctive material in common. It makes sense, I think, to consider the possibility that these similarities are due to (this section of the DIdache) being a source for the other two texts. I hope I’ve done a respectable job of exploring that possibility.

  4. Avatar
    steve1963  December 23, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman: To today’s evangelical christians (right wing mostly, I suppose) and to Catholics, abortion is a very important issue. Many who continue to support the republican party do so because of the opposition to abortion. Yet, in my limited perview, I have not seen an actual prohibition against abortion in the new testament. Many who are against abortion cite one of the ten commandments, and other writings in the old testament. In the didache, there is an explicit point made that no one should have and abortion (my paraphrasing) that abortion is not allowed. Why, in your opinion, is abortion not explicitly forbidden in the new testament yet is explicitly forbidden in the didache. Given the catholic opposition to abortion, why was the didache not kept as an important church text, since it is the only ancient christian writing specifically covering abortion that I know of? I ask this question because I wonder why abortion has become such a big issue now when, according to my understanding, in the 19th century america there was no general antipathy to abortion, that midwives often performed abortions for women with large families out West. I could be misinformed in some of this so I am asking about your thoughts on this topic. Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2017

      My sense is that there were lots and lots of things not talked about in the NT writings that may well have been very important to their authors — they simply didn’t have occasoin to mention them (just as there are lots of things really important to me that I haven’t mentioned on teh blog this year!)

      • Avatar
        AlbertHodges  December 30, 2017

        It doesn’t mention rape either. Doesn’t mention beating your mother or father senseless either. Why? Maybe some things are so evil that they wouldn’t ever even have to discuss it. It would be APPARENT to God-fearing people. Just a thought.

    • Avatar
      Rogers  January 13, 2018

      I have heard arguments about this extend from where John the Baptist and Jesus, cousins according to one gospel account, were known or were knowable identities while still in their respective mother’s womb. As in, their person-hood existed while in status as an unborn. Of course this is not a direct argument from scripture but an inferred argument.

      It’s an interesting progression in the modern world that innate dignity as conferred by person-hood status has tended to be usually expansive in who and what it encompasses. In the particular case of the unborn human being, though, the modern progression has been a contraction of innate dignity as due person-hood status.

    • Avatar
      AnotherBart  March 14, 2018

      Three things accompanied each other and were the object of God’s scorn in the Old Testament. Unbridled sexuality, unwanted pregnancies, and child sacrifice. The first led to the second which led to the third. Not much has changed. Read Isaiah.

  5. Avatar
    Malik  January 6, 2018

    Taken from here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/info/didache.html

    “Of apostolic origin no one should presume to speak, since the text of the document makes no such claim, and internal evidence is obviously against such a suggestion”

    The Didache cannot be taken as a reliable source for tradition received from Jesus’ disciples, because it was written (as is the opinion of the majority of scholars) in the second half of the second century, by an unknown author who had not, obviously, met the disciples. [28]

    We cannot take the Didache as a proof for the existence of the canonical Gospels as we know them today, even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that the Didache was written in the first century. This is because, due to the noticeable differences between the Didache text and our four Gospels, the opposite view should lead us to one of two options: either to believe that the text of the Gospels used by the Didachist was too different from the canonical version we know, or that the Didachist felt free to reshape Jesus’ sayings by mingling them with extra-canonical material and attributing its words to himself, not to Jesus.[29]

    Aaron Milavec, who is an authority in the Didache studies, insists after thorough and careful consideration that the Didache is totally independent of the Gospels in the internal logic, theological orientation, and pastoral practice that runs decisively counter to what one finds within the received Gospels. [30]

    28 Johannes Betz attributed this point of view to the majority of scholars. (See Johannes Betz, “The Eucharist in the Didache,” in Jonathan A. Draper, ed. The Didache in Modern Research, Leiden: Brill, 1996, p.244)

    29 See William. L. Petersen, “The Genesis of the Gospels,” p.53

    30 See Aaron Milavec, The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003, p.xiii ↑

    F.E. Vokes, in his work The Riddle of the Didache(10), regards it as a fictitious reconstruction… He places it at the end of the 2nd century/beginning of the 3rd

    (10) F.E. Vokes, The Riddle of the Didache. (1938).

    Taken from here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html

    Stevan Davies comments on the Didache (Jesus the Healer, p. 175): “The Didache is a text that gives instruction on how a Christian community should treat itinerant Christian prophets. It was written sometime in the late first or early second century

  6. Avatar
    Marko071291  April 12, 2019

    Hi Bart,
    Have you heard the theory of French patristic scholar J. P. Audet (La Didache. Instructions des a potres, Paris 1958) according to which original title of the document wasn’t DIDACHE TON DODEKA APOSTOLON, but DIDACHAI TON APOSTOLON. He claims that the word DODEKA wasn’t there and the word didache was in plural. He noticed that both Eusebius and Athanasius present the title of the document in plural without the WORD DODEKA.
    You are more familiar with the manuscript tradition and scholarly work on the document so I’m hoping you can share your thoughts with me.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2019

      Yes, indeed, I did deal with the book back when I was working on my editoin of the Apostolic Fathers, nearly 20 years ago now. But I’m afraid I don’t remember the actual argument well enough to be able to offer any analysis of it any more — except to say that I don’t think the book “originally” had a title at all. The title was added later, by someone other than the author. And it’s odd to think that it would be called DIDACHAI when the opening words of the book use the singular DIDACHE, and surely the title later added was simply drawn from the opening words: Διδαχὴ κυρίου διὰ τῶν δώδεκα ἀποστόλων τοῖς ἔθνεσιν.

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