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What the Teaching Can Teach Us

Dr. William Varner

Not all extracanonical manuscripts reveal a 'lost Christianity.'

The church's earliest discipleship manualóthe Didacheó

is as orthodox and relevant as it gets.

The telephone call came just after we had finished our evening meal at the Knight's Palace Hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem in May 2005. The message instructed me to come now to the library of the Greek Orthodox patriarch if I wanted to see the manuscript. I changed my clothes quickly and scurried through the labyrinthine lanes of the Old City. After entering the Greek Orthodox monastery, I made my way to the library. Soon, the librarian delivered what I had waited years to seeóa 950-year-old, 200-page manuscript containing, along with a dozen other early writings, a little work only 10 pages long. Its name is the Didache (the "Teaching," pronounced "didakhay"), short for The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. While no one believes that any of the twelve apostles wrote it, scholars agree that the work is a faithful transmission of the apostles' teaching, intended primarily for the training of Gentile believers.

Why do I have such an interest in this piece of parchment, the only manuscript copy known to exist? Although scholars fiercely debate many issues about the Teaching, most agree that it was written toward the end of the first century, by an anonymous author who probably lived in the area of Syria near Antioch. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the believers were first called Christians in Antioch. This term also appears in the Teaching.

1. The fact that the Didache comes from such an early period of church history should make the Teaching of interest to every believer. But, while scholars have discussed the Teaching for years, the average Christian has virtually no knowledge of this little treasure, which can be found in The Apostolic Fathers in English (Baker, 2006) edited by Michael W. Holmes. That's too bad, because this earliest of church manuals contains some instructions that may help us to "do church" today.

A Primitive Simplicity

Let me disappoint any reader who is hoping to find in the Teaching evidence of a "lost Christianity" that will forever alter our understanding of the early church (like some Da Vinci Code conspiracy). The Teaching is thoroughly orthodox in its doctrine and, hence, from its discovery and subsequent publication in 1883, it has been included among the writings known as the Apostolic Fathers. But it is not just a simple repetition of information we already have in the New Testament. The initial point of the Teaching is that we should love God and othersótaken from Deuteronomy 6:5