A look at The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community, by Tony Jones. This post is part of the The Teaching of the Twelve blog tour, and is a mashup of my thoughts on Tony's book, the Didache itself, and "sidebar" issues that came up for me as I read through both.
It was written by an unknown early Christian community, and seems to be a guide for living as a Follower of Jesus. The date of the original work is uncertain: Some scholars put it at AD 110 to 130, and others place it between AD 50 to 70. Regardless, this manual for Christian living was written around the same time as the Gospels, by people who may have been familiar with most of the gospel stories, but certainly had no access to the New Testament as we know it today. This is exciting! The book is not concerned with complex theological issues, but with how to live out life in this new faith.
[Sidebar One: I’ve made no secret of my belief that the Gospel of Jesus has gone dramatically off the rails, from very early on. For that reason, a work of the age of the Didache is priceless as a corrective in how to actually live—not think, not believe, but live—as Followers of Jesus.]
The Didache is a practical guide, and its intended audience were those starting out in their faith. If that was the case, then the primary users of this guide were Hellenized Jews and converted pagans. As such, they would have been familiar with Greek philosophy and Jewish theology, but “Christian" theology was non-existent at this stage. This point is important to remember as we read. Context is critical, and we must do our best to place ourselves in the Roman world, “pre-church” in a sense, prior to a complete New Testament, Constantine, Nicene Creed, or much of anything else that we would consider part of orthodox Christianity as it is known today. As I said, this is exciting!
In The Teaching of the Twelve, Tony dives in and unpacks this ancient work for us and juxtaposes it alongside a modern-day community endeavoring to live out an ancient faith. Simply put, you must read this book if you consider a Christian ethic to be the guiding principle of your life.
My task in this blog tour is to look specifically at Chapter 5. (Chris Monroe at Paradoxology is looking at the same chapter today, so be sure to visit him and get his perspective on the same portion of this important book.)
Chapter 5: Sex, Money, and Other Means of Getting Along
At the risk of being wildly misunderstood, let me say that given my previous life as an investment/financial guy, I’m more interested in the money part than the sex part. Go ahead and laugh, I’ll wait. Finished? OK, let’s carry on. Despite what I’ve just stated, I’ll try to do justice to both aspects of this chapter.
Keep in mind my earlier comment about context. Despite our concerns with sexuality and morality today, life in the time of the Didache was much more sexually explicit.
“Pompeii was also rife with erotic art, so much so that the eighteenth century archaeologists who excavated the site were shocked at the sexual libertinism of the ancient world.” (p. 80)
[Sidebar Two: It’s interesting how we often tend to ignore context in Scripture—After all, it’s “inerrant”, it’s “Spirit breathed”, and as such it doesn’t require context for interpretation—but we are more willing to factor it into the non-Canonical writings from the same era. I'm just saying.]
What was a Christian to do? In the Gospels Jesus did tighten the Jewish restrictions on divorce, but otherwise he didn’t deal much with the subjects of sex and marriage. In contrast, the Apostle Paul had much to say about these issues in his letters to the different churches under his care. So there were very broad, loose social and cultural norms when it came to sexual issues, in opposition to a much more cautious Christian view. As Tony puts it, “we can see how the Didache community might have been caught in this clash of civilizations.” (p. 82).
“My child, don’t be lustful, for lust leads to illicit sex. Don’t be a filthy talker or allow your eyes a free reign, for these lead to adultery.” (Didache, 3:3)
Again, the Didache is practical in that it doesn’t spend much time on the theology of the Christian view. Instead, it warns against activities which, while normative within the broader society, would lead to behaviour considered sinful. Given that it was likely written for new converts, the Didache is mainly concerned with how the follower is to negotiate this new life in a culture that considered none of these activities wrong.
[Sidebar three: A faith born in such a sexually explicit era would naturally focus on sex, on what was not acceptable despite cultural norms. I wonder what happened as that cautious tone was interpreted through the lens of a more “prudish” culture, i.e., the Puritanical and Victorian roots of much of our modern western Christianity. Maybe nothing; I’m just wondering.]
The places in the Didache where money is mentioned make for fascinating reading, and we don’t need to read very far before the subject comes up:
“Give to everyone who asks you, and don’t ask for it back. The Father wants his blessings shared. Happy is the giver who lives according to this rule, for that one is guiltless. (Didache, 1:5).
Later in 4:7 the same point is reinforced. “Do not hesitate to give, and do not complain about it.” Obviously giving was to be a way of life in this community.
Of particular interest is Tony’s inclusion of the practice of one contemporary faith community. They do not take an offering and have no budget, but instead collect money as needs arise. It seems to me that the Didache community was just that—a community, endeavoring to live out together a life that stood against the status quote, as opposed to being an organization or institution to be maintained. Remember, the Didache could be considered a “pre-church” document.
[Sidebar four: In an era—i.e., today—of church operating budgets which often far outweigh the “missions” budget, this last point could be a show-stopper.]
There is another very interesting reference to money that deserves some consideration. In 4:6 we read, “If you have anything, by your hands you should give ransom for your sins.”
Tony points out that for Jews coming from a background of Temple sacrifice, the idea of giving something to compensate for sinful behaviour was part of their thinking. Pagan converts, on the other hand, would not have the benefit of that tradition. Introducing the idea here then would simplify the act of giving for them, and perhaps make it more purposeful. Presumably this would also assist in developing the habit of giving. This is interesting in that it shows the Jewish influence, but again, notice the practicality of the instruction! The Didache is clearly focused on the developing a way of life.
In general, the discussion of money within the Didache seems to centre around how and when, and not why. There seems to be a built-in assumption of generosity and open-handedness that we contemporary Christians would do well to meditate on.
Tony wisely uses this chapter to emphasize the “horizonality” of the Didache. He points out that much of the New testament, while also concerned with life together, spends more time on humanity’s relationship with God, which is vertical in nature.
“But the Didache is concerned exclusively with the horizontal, with relationships between human beings, It lacks any overt theologizing about the nature of God or humanity or sin or righteousness—these seem to be understood as explicit.” (p. 86)
For instance, there is no mention of evangelism, at least in our modern meaning of the word. For me, this emphasis on the horizontal is the greatest value of the Didache to the contemporary church. In many ways our Christianity today is more verbal than lifestyle-oriented. Could it be that one of the reasons we feel the need to focus on the verbalization of the Gospel is because our lifestyles do not reflect it? To simply assent verbally to the Gospel allows us to remain comfortably entrenched in the status quo. Conversely to live out our lives in accordance with this Gospel would require us to live as an alternative to that status quo. It seems to me these two stances are antithetical.
I am yearning for more on how to live as a Follower of Jesus. As the Body of Christ we will not effect change in the world until and unless we live according to Christ's teachings. Access to a guide written while the memory of Jesus was still fresh is invaluable in this regard, and Tony's book has brought this priceless document back into the light and made it accessible.
UPDATE: Tony's response is here.