“There are two ways: one is the Way of Life, the other is the Way of Death; and there is a mighty difference between these two ways.” (Didache 1.1)
Thus begins the Didache, that early Christian text also called the “Teaching of the Lord Given to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles.” Since its rediscovery in 1873 by Philotheos Bryennios, the Didache has fascinated scholars and Christians with its short yet dynamic statements on the manner in which Christians should live their lives. It was thus with great eagerness that I read Thomas O’Loughlin’s The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).
O’Loughlin posits his book as an introduction to this “early Christian training guide” for non-specialists, and he admirably succeeds in this task. He begins with a fascinating overview chapter which traces the loss, rediscovery, and subsequent journey of the Didache, contextualizing this important document and offering his comments on its creation, purpose, and provenance. Here O’Loughlin does a fine job of explaining why we should consider engaging an ancient Christian text (for insight into the New Testament and context of early Christianity) and how we should approach this text on its own terms. A central theme for this volume involves approaching ancient concepts and writings on their own terms and not merely imposing our own concerns onto theologies of the past.
The next several chapters of O’Loughlin’s work outline the topics and theology of the Didache. This involves discussions of the Two Ways (the Way of Life and the Way of Death), Baptism, Prayer and Fasting, early Christian meetings and the Eucharist, the early Christian network of teachers and preachers, and apocalyptic expectations of fear and hope. Each of these chapters considers the text of the Didache and then investigates the theology presented therein, both contextualizing these doctrines and practices in their ancient contexts and offering reflections—sometimes critical, sometimes affirmative—on the value of these statements for Christian theology today. Connections to the writings of the New Testament (especially Paul’s epistles and the Gospels) are consistently noted, as O’Loughlin paints a broad image of the contours of early Christian theology.
O’Loughlin’s presentation of the Didache closes with a chapter on the challenge of this text and its theology for Christians today, especially on the issues of Christian morality and ethics, the Eucharist, and the conversion of new followers of Jesus. Finally, O’Loughlin offers his translation of the Didache, ostensibly intended for an oral presentation, as it would have been encountered originally. This translation of the Didache is clean, easy to understand, and strikes a fine balance between dynamic and static translation. O’Loughlin takes something of an RSV approach to translation, making the prose beautiful in its oral presentation but leaving some terms rather unclear for entry-level readers. Though this entire work does not contain footnotes (or textual notes in the translation), a helpful list of suggestions for further reading is included in the end matter of this volume.
While the overarching presentation of the Didache and early Christian faith and practice stands as a valuable resource for those engaging the early decades of the Church, O’Loughlin’s presentation does leave some things to be desired. For starters, his placement of the full translation at the end of the volume remains perplexing. Though this volume is intended as an introduction to the theology of the Didache rather than a commentary, an encounter with the primary source material from the start would have been a more appropriate way to introduce non-specialist readers to the actual text. Second, O’Loughlin’s engagement with “scripture” in early Christianity ultimately obfuscates more than it clarifies the role of specifically Christian writings in the first and early-second centuries, as he dichotomizes between “useful” writings (such as the Didache) and those which ultimately became the New Testament. Unfortunately, this dichotomy is overly simplistic and ignores the manner in which early Christian writings were composed, employed, and subsequently canonized.
Finally, O’Loughlin’s comments on the Eucharist in his final chapter are perplexing at best, as he seems unsure of how to cast the value of the Didache for today’s Christians. Though attempting to balance the ever-important concerns of relevance (why we should read and study this text) and context (how this text speaks best to the first century, not the twenty-first), O’Loughlin ultimately presents an uncomfortably muddled picture of how Christian doctrine develops and how contemporary Christians should engage an ancient text such as the Didache. This last chapter offers a critique of history (which for O’Loughlin is apparently unable to inform anything other than questions concerning the present) and a critique of Christian practice (especially the various ways in which Christians understand and practice the Eucharist) that serves as a convoluted ending to an otherwise informative and thought-provoking volume.
Overall, however, The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians presents a plethora of valuable contextualization and insight into one of the most important early Christian documents. As an introduction to the theology of the Didache, this volume has few peers, especially for a popular or introductory audience. O’Loughlin’s overarching presentation of early Christian theology and worship also stands as a valuable resource for understanding those facets of Christianity. In the end, then, this volume comes highly recommended for those desiring to engage the theology of the Didache and early Christianity more fully, and for those hoping to see “the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.”
I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.