Alex Poulos is a Ph.D. Student in the Department of Greek and Latin at Catholic University of America.

Thoughts on the Didache

Thoughts on the Didache

I absolutely love the Christian Humanist Podcast, and this week they happily stepped into territory I know well: the Didache. Here are my thoughts on several issues raised in the episode. I would naturally recommend listening to the episode, though the post should make sense without it.

Servant or Child?

One early issue that came up is whether Jesus is God’s “servant” or “child” (Lightfoot translates servant; Holmes and Ehrman translate “child”). Both are in fact legitimate translations. Pais can mean either “child” or “servant” depending on the context. This holds true both for classical Greek and koiné. A few biblical examples: - Joseph is called pais by Potiphar’s wife in her angry speech to her husband. “That Hebrew slave boy…”. A few chapters later, Joseph’s brothers call themselves the paides of Jacob, i.e. his children. - In the slaughter of the innocents Herod is described as killing all the paides in Bethlehem. But the centurion’s servant is called a pais.

I think the early Christians probably have both meanings in mind, and the ambiguity allows them to hold several things together at once. They’re certainly responding to the Septuagintal language picked up by Jesus and the NT authors. Matthew 12:18, for instance, “behold my pais whom I have chosen, my beloved in whom my soul takes delight. I will put my spirit on him…”. Matthew is riffing on the servant of the Lord discourse in Isaiah (these come from Isa. 42:1–4).

As for other places in the NT, Peter calls Jesus pais several times in Acts, where it is normally rendered “servant” (3:13, 26; 4:25). The word doesn’t occur in Paul or John. Paul and John uses a different word for “child” (teknon), which is a bit more familial and intimate. When John says, “beloved children,” this is the word he’s using. It’s also the word used in the “two-ways” material at the beginning of the book. Curiously, teknon is not used in Proverbs. There it’s son (uios).

The early Christians picked up that bit from Isaiah, which of course recalls also Jesus’ baptism (where the word is uios, son, in the NT). Other Christian literature of the period typically appends “beloved” to pais (e.g. 1 Cl. 59:2, Martyrdom of Polycarp 14:1), which further strengthens the link to Jesus’ baptism. So I think here we can have our cake and eat it too; the Didache conceives of Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant and as God’s royal son. I’d probably translate “child”, but I’d definitely give a compressed version of the above in a footnote!


I think Nathan is quite right that we have christology expressed in Synoptic terms (perhaps we could even say Matthean terms). We don’t have logos christology so to speak, but do have an implicit high christology. I’m thinking especially of Larry Hurtado’s work on early Christian devotional practices: the fact that early Christians pray to Jesus implies a “high” christology even if it’s not explicitly given the terms we find in John or later theological reflection.

I’d argue a lot can be gleaned from the Eucharistic prayers. Importantly here, note that the prayer of thanks after the meal in ch. 10 is offered first to the Father, and then we have a prayer of thanks offered to the Son (called here the Lord). Both conclude with a gloria (“yours is the power and the glory for ever”). The Didache is doing precisely what Paul’s doing in 1 Cor 8. Jesus is identified with Israel’s God and considered worthy of prayer and worship. I think here again of Christ Tilling’s work that was mentioned in the podcast.

Likewise, we do not have any explicit teaching on the crucifixion, but I suspect 9:4 is a reference to the crucifixion: “just as this fragment was shattered/scattered on the mountain and gathered into one…” The verb for shatter or scatter is the same as the Greek in Ps. 22:14 for Jesus’ bones). This is oblique, I admit, but I think we have an identification of crucified Lord both with bread and and with church.

I’d also point to Jesus’ post-ascension presence with the Church (mentioned in 4:1), which is certainly picking up on on the “where two or three are gathered in my name” bit in Matthew.

All that iss to say I think there’s plenty of “high” christology lurking just beneath the surface.

Grace, Works, and Generosity

All of the ethical teaching and instruction seems rooted in the Sermon on the Mount, and the problems that arise when a community tries to embody that high standard.

I am not entirely sure what to do with 4:6, “If you have something through your labor, give it as a ransom for your sins.” Like David I like to point out continuities: here, I’d point to Mt. 6:14–16, where divine forgiveness is linked with human forgiveness, and the parable of the wicked servant in Mt 18:23–35, where divine generosity is prior but still expects human generosity to come after. To deny aid to a brother in need is to scorn the immeasurably great grace that has been given us.

As for that bit that Michael found so troubling in 1:5–6 about receiving: here the trouble is moochers. Based on the context and the tense of the verb, one could legitimately translate, “Woe to the moocher!” (at least in a blog post!). The church does seem to have practiced the radical generosity demanded by Jesus. This naturally led to abuse. But the response is interesting. Rather than placing the moral responsibility immediately on the one that gives, it is on the one that receives. If you have a legitimate need, you are perfectly within your rights to receive alms. If you do not, then you will be held responsible.

What I find appealing about this is that it recognizes the humanity and responsibility of both parties. It addresses both the one with and the one without as responsible moral agents, i.e., as real persons. The bit about “let your hands sweat until you know to whom you’re giving” (Did 1:5) also puts the impetus on the giver to form some sort of relationship with the receiver.

The bit about prison is odd. David’s definitely right to point back to the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:25–6 are the verses in question): the language about paying back the last penny is the same there. The context is a bit different though: in Matthew, it’s about not hating your brother or your enemies. The word for prison is different in the Didache and Matthew. The word in the Didache, sunoché, does not normally mean “prison” in the OT/NT, but “distress.” The context does seem eschatological, but I also suspect early communities would internally settle disputes. Paul exhorts the Corinthians to settle disputes before the elders of the Church rather than in the secular courts, and there is talk in the Pastoral epistles about a “widows list.” Perhaps a flagrant abuser of the church’s generosity might be excommunicated for a time (cf. Paul’s action with the sexual offender in 1 Cor. 5).

The Church’s generosity apparently was so extravagant that pagans made fun of it when they began to notice. Lucian’s The Death of Peregrinus is a rather hilarious example about a (in Lucian’s view) faux-philosopher that was taken in for some time by gullible and generous Christians. This would make a delightful text for an episode. It is not too long, and Lucian is hilarious.

And another little bit that I like here: For all the stress on the really tough stuff in the Sermon on the Mount, 6:12 acknowledges that not everybody can live up to it.

Meat Sacrificed to Idols

1 Corinthians notwithstanding, it was the near universal teaching of the early Church that one should refrain from meat sacrificed to idols. The Fathers explained the relevant passages in 1 Cor 8 in different ways: I’ll tuck that idea away for a future blog post.

One problem with 1 Cor. in particular is that it is sometimes difficult to determine where the Corinthians’ position ends and the Pauline one begins. One could certainly make the argument that Paul’s reporting a Corinthian argument at the beginning of 1 Cor 8 and then transitioning at vs. 6. into his rebuttal. Cf. in 1 Cor 6, where “All things are permissible” is probably a citation from a Corinthian letter.


I think these are Pharisees. As I understand it, Monday and Thursday were traditional days for private fasts among observant Jews.

Why the insistence on changing the fast day? Holy Week and the resurrection changed the day of Christian worship, and they are, I imagine, responsible for changing the fast days too. The fast days represent Jesus’ betrayal (Wednesday) and crucifixion (Friday), or so I normally hear it said.

Differentiation from Jews certainly was important for many groups of early Christians, but this also seems to me an outworking of Jesus teaching on fasting. Our fasting should be oriented towards our bridegroom, not the types and shadows he fulfilled.


“Díd-a-kay” is the most common pronunciation I’ve heard (so David). But “die-da-kay” (so Michael) is not impossible. The great vowel shift messed up quite a bit, so we typically pronounce the Greek letter π as pie, when it is really pee (I have to think that middle school math teachers everywhere are thankful for that fact).

One could also throw the modern Greek pronunciation into the mix: You can go here and click the speaker.

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