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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Early Christianity: The Didache on the Two Great Commandments

Other than the writings of the New Testament canon, the earliest compilation of Christian teachings is The Didache. According to Aleteia (the Catholic News and information website), it is "the oldest catechism in Christian history," and it was probably written sometime between the years 65-80 CE. Hence, The Didache provides us with a rare and important insight into the beliefs and practices of First Century Christians (see What is the Didache and why is it important? and The oldest catechism in Christian history). Moreover, the book claims to be a summary of "The Lord's Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations."

Interestingly, The Didache affirms the teachings of this blog about a Christian's obligation to observe the two greatest commandments of Torah (the ones identified by Jesus of Nazareth). The premise of the book is that there are two ways of life: one leading to life through Christ's righteousness, and the other being a life of sinfulness resulting in death. The anonymous author of the book frames it in these terms: "There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you." Students of the New Testament, of course, will recognize these statements as reiterations of Christ's teachings found in Matthew 7:12 and 22:36-40.

The author went on to reference a number of Christ's teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere as representing practical ways of putting those principles into practice as a moral code. He/she wrote: "And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy. Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts. If someone strikes your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect. If someone impresses you for one mile, go with him two. If someone takes your cloak, give him also your coat. If someone takes from you what is yours, ask it not back, for indeed you are not able. Give to everyone who asks you and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings (free gifts). Happy is he who gives according to the commandment, for he is guiltless. Woe to him who receives; for if one receives who has need, he is guiltless; but he who receives not having need shall pay the penalty, why he received and for what. And coming into confinement, he shall be examined concerning the things which he has done, and he shall not escape from there until he pays back the last penny. And also concerning this, it has been said, Let your alms sweat in your hands, until you know to whom you should give."

The author then focused on the second commandment: "And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. You shall not covet the things of your neighbor, you shall not swear, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not speak evil, you shall bear no grudge. You shall not be double-minded nor double-tongued, for to be double-tongued is a snare of death. Your speech shall not be false, nor empty, but fulfilled by deed. You shall not be covetous, nor rapacious, nor a hypocrite, nor evil disposed, nor haughty. You shall not take evil counsel against your neighbor. You shall not hate any man; but some you shall reprove, and concerning some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life."

Continuing, he/she wrote: "My child, flee from every evil thing, and from every likeness of it. Be not prone to anger, for anger leads to murder. Be neither jealous, nor quarrelsome, nor of hot temper, for out of all these murders are engendered. My child, be not a lustful one. for lust leads to fornication. Be neither a filthy talker, nor of lofty eye, for out of all these adulteries are engendered. My child, be not an observer of omens, since it leads to idolatry. Be neither an enchanter, nor an astrologer, nor a purifier, nor be willing to look at these things, for out of all these, idolatry is engendered. My child, be not a liar, since a lie leads to theft. Be neither money-loving, nor vainglorious, for out of all these thefts are engendered. My child, be not a murmurer, since it leads the way to blasphemy. Be neither self-willed nor evil-minded, for out of all these blasphemies are engendered. Rather, be meek, since the meek shall inherit the earth. Be long-suffering and pitiful and guileless and gentle and good and always trembling at the words which you have heard. You shall not exalt yourself, nor give over-confidence to your soul. Your soul shall not be joined with lofty ones, but with just and lowly ones shall it have its intercourse. Accept whatever happens to you as good, knowing that apart from God nothing comes to pass."

For those who are interested in imitating First Century Christianity - the moral standards which Christ and his apostles taught, this is an excellent summary of the material found in the New Testament. The teachings are clearly derived from those two great commandments of Torah, but they do NOT enjoin a Christian to use Torah as his/her standard. As with the sayings of Jesus recorded in the canonical Gospels, this ancient manuscript enjoins Christians to conduct themselves at all times in a way that reflects LOVE (for God and each other). In other words, the Christian is encouraged to internalize these principles rather than appeal to a list of dos and don'ts. In short, the Christian is encouraged to judge his/her own behavior based on whether his/her motivation(s) in acting a certain way is consistent with the intent of those two great commandments! In doing so, the righteousness of Christ's disciples would exceed the scrupulous Torah observance of the Jews of the First Century. 

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