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Church Fathers: The Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas

By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 19, 2014 | In Fathers of the Church

The Didache

One of the most important sources from the age of the Apostolic Fathers is “The Lord’s Teaching through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations,” commonly referred to by its short name, the Didache (Greek for “teaching”). While the Didache was lost until the mid-19th century, it was known to and quoted by the Fathers Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St. Athanasius, the latter of whom recommended it for the instruction of catechumens. Indeed, the importance of the Didache is such that some of the Fathers considered it part of the New Testament, though ultimately it was not included in the canon.

The author of the Didache does not give his name; the title should not be seen as a claim to authorship by the Twelve themselves, but as an indication that it passes down what they taught.

Rather than teaching doctrine, the Didache focuses on prescribing ecclesiastical discipline and moral and liturgical practice. As such, it is considered the first of all Church Orders, and Johannes Quasten calls it the prototype of all ecclesiastical law [Patrology, Vol. 1, 1950, p. 30], a judgment vindicated by the other early sources that borrowed from it: these include, in 3rd-century Egypt, the Apostolic Church Ordinance, and in 4th-century Syria, the Apostolic Constitutions. Equally important, it gives us an idea of the life of the 2nd-century Christian community.

The Didache is divided into two parts, the first of which consists of liturgical instruction and the second of which sets forth ecclesiastical discipline. It concludes with a chapter on the parousia, the second coming of Christ.

The liturgical section begins with moral instruction for catechumens. This is organized in a two-part structure unfamiliar to modern Christians but which seems to have been used in Hellenistic synagogues: the Two Ways, that of Life and that of Death.

The Way of Life begins with the Two Great Commandments and the Golden Rule:

There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways. First, thou shalt love God who made thee; second, thy neighbor as thyself; and all things whatsoever thou wouldst should not occur to thee, thou also to another do not do.

It continues with loving one’s enemies and giving without expecting anything in return, and lays out numerous moral precepts, both positive and negative. Fornication, adultery, theft, murder, bearing false witness, hypocrisy, hatred, and covetousness are listed among the “gross sins” to be avoided, but also the practices of magic, abortion and infanticide, and pederasty.

The description of the Way of Death likewise includes many of these sins, but also such evils as “not pitying a poor man, not laboring for the afflicted, not knowing Him that made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him that is in want, afflicting him that is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor.”

Liturgical Instruction

The liturgical section provides us with invaluable information about Baptism, the Eucharist and confession. The Trinitarian formula for baptism is given, along with the indication that baptism by immersion in running water is customary at this point, though if this is not possible, baptism by infusion (pouring water over the head) is permissible. Both the baptizer and the baptized are to fast prior to the administration of the sacrament. Here the early Christian practice of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays is explicitly set against the Jewish fast days on Mondays and Thursdays.

After an instruction that the Lord’s Prayer should be prayed three times a day, we have the oldest recorded Eucharistic prayers. Only the baptized are permitted to receive the Eucharist, which is referred to as “spiritual food and drink” in the thanksgiving prayer also included. Johannes Quasten writes that “these prescriptions were intended to regulate the First Communion of the newly baptized on Easter Eve” [Patrology, Vol. I, 1950, p. 33].

Later in the Didache, there are instructions for the normal celebration of the Eucharist on Sundays. Notable are the reference to the Eucharist as a sacrifice and the command to confess one’s sins before the breaking of the bread:

But every Lord's day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, saith the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.

The earlier section on the Way of Life, too, refers to confession: “In church confess your sins, and do not come to your prayer with a guilty conscience.” Quasten suggests that this would have been a public, liturgical confession akin to the Confiteor [ibid].

Ecclesiastical Discipline

The second part of the Didache outlines the proper reception of teachers, apostles, prophets, bishops and deacons, as well as some more general rules for charity and hospitality. The hierarchy and relation between these various groups is not made entirely clear. The prophets seem to be of great importance. Guidelines for identifying true and false prophets and teachers are provided, based not only on their teaching but on their behavior and whether they take undue advantage of the hospitality and support of the community.

True prophets and teachers are to be supported by the community; the former in particular are entitled to tithes because “they are your high priests.” In accordance with that role, prophets should be permitted “to make Thanksgiving [Eucharist] as much as they desire.” Prophets who prove true are not to be tried or judged by any but God Himself.

In comparison to the prophets, not much detail is given about bishops and deacons (episcopoi and diakonoi). Christian communities are instructed to “appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord… for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers.” The author says little about this local hierarchy except to emphasize that the bishops and deacons are no less worthy of respect: “Despise them not therefore, for they are your honored ones, together with the prophets and teachers.”

The final chapter of the Didache describes some of the signs to precede the parousia, exhorting the faithful to watchfulness since the time of this event is uncertain yet imminent.

Origins and Sources

Scholars have been able to come to no consensus about the Didache’s original date of composition. An argument can be made for placing it close to Apostolic times (perhaps even before 70 A.D.) due to the primitive state of the liturgy and Church hierarchy; at the latest it dates to the early 2nd century. It is believed to have been written in Syria.

It came to the modern age as part of the Jerusalem Codex, written in Greek in 1056 and discovered in 1873 by the Greek Metropolitan of Nicomedia, Philotheos Bryennios. Since its discovery, fragments of the Didache in Latin, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Syriac have been found, as well as a complete translation in Georgian. The Jerusalem Codex also contains some of the other earliest Patristic writings: the Epistle of Barnabas, the First and Second Epistles of Clement, and the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, all of which were already extant.

The Epistle of Barnabas

While not approaching the importance of the Didache, the so-called Epistle of Barnabas is worth mentioning both because of its early date and because its final chapters consist of an exposition of the Two Ways very similar to that found in the Didache. Scholars have hypothesized that both documents drew from an earlier Jewish Two Ways tradition and perhaps even from an earlier document, though there is no evidence that such a document existed.

Occasionally jumbled and incoherent in structure, the Epistle of Barnabas is neither an epistle or written by Barnabas. To be precise, while it takes the literary form of an epistle, it is not addressed to any specific person or community, nor does it include any personal information about the author. In the early centuries of the Church it was traditionally ascribed to St. Barnabas, the missionary companion of St. Paul, but for both chronological and doctrinal reasons it is now clear that he was not the author. In Chapter XVI it is made clear that the text was written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., which Barnabas did not survive.

Allegorizing the Old Law

The author’s interpretation of the Old Testament and the Jewish Law is also far removed from that of St. Paul, whom St. Barnabas accompanied on his travels. In the Pauline view, the Old Law, while it had no salvific power in itself, was nonetheless divinely ordained and paved the way for Christ who fulfilled and replaced the old regulations with the New Covenant.

The author of the Epistle of Barnabas, on the other hand, claims that the literal interpretation of the Mosaic Law by the Jews was a complete misunderstanding; he goes so far as to compare Jewish worship with pagan worship and says that the Jews took the Law literally “because an evil angel deluded them.” He also claims that the Old Law was intended not for Jews, but for Christians from the beginning. Much of the Epistle is therefore dedicated to showing the true spiritual meaning of the Old Law by allegorical interpretation.

Some of these explanations will be familiar. The scapegoat is a type of Christ. Rather than material gifts and sacrifices, God desires the offering of a repentant heart. Rather than literal circumcision, He wants us to circumcise our hearing so that our minds will be set on the things of God. Somewhat more complex is the numerological interpretation of Abraham’s 318 circumcised servants to mean the words “Jesus” and “cross.”

More outlandish, though, are the author’s interpretations of the dietary regulations. The Jews, the author claims, foolishly believed they were forbidden from eating swine, when really they were being forbidden from associating with men who behave like swine:

For when they live in pleasure, they forget their Lord; but when they come to want, they acknowledge the Lord. And [in like manner] the swine, when it has eaten, does not recognize its master; but when hungry it cries out, and on receiving food is quiet again.

The various unclean birds represent those who acquire food not through honest labor but by seizing it from others; the hare represents corrupters of boys, the hyena adulterers, the weasel those who sin with the mouth, “for this animal conceives by the mouth.” The author also has allegorical explanations for the clean animals: for example, the cloven-footed animal represents “That the righteous man also walks in this world, yet looks forward to the holy state (to come).”


For all this, there are some points of doctrinal interest in the Epistle. The author enumerates places where baptism and the cross are prefigured in the Old Testament. He describes how baptism makes man into a spiritual temple, as opposed to the Jewish temple which was destroyed. He affirms the preexistence of Christ at the beginning of creation with God the Father. He clearly explains why Christians worship on the eighth day of the week (Sunday) rather than on the Sabbath, because Christ rose on a Sunday.

The author interprets God’s finishing creation in six days to mean that in six thousand years, world history will end and Christ will return, based on the Scriptural saying that for the Lord, a thousand years are like a day (Psalm 90:4). It is uncertain whether the author holds the view of the end times known as chiliasm, or millennialism, later to be declared heretical in the 4th century. This is because he does not make clear whether he believes that the seventh day represents a thousand-year-long reign of Christ on earth followed by the end of the world and the “beginning of another world” on the eighth day, or that the seventh and the eighth day will, in effect, begin together with the end of the world.

Origins and Sources

The Epistle appears in the Codex Sinaiticus, a 4th-century Greek Bible, included (along with parts of the Shepherd of Hermas) as one of the books of the New Testament and placed after the Apocalypse. There is also a 3rd-century Latin translation. Because it relies heavily on allegorical interpretation of Scripture, it is considered to have originated in Alexandria where that style of exegesis was popular. Modern scholars tend to date the Epistle to the period 117-132, though it may possibly date to the earlier period 70-79. One argument for an early date is that the document contains no quotations of the New Testament. As already mentioned, however, it is clear from the text itself that it was written, at the earliest, after 70 A.D. when Jerusalem was destroyed.

Previous in series: Introducing the Church Fathers
Next in series: St. Clement of Rome

Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for, hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Oct. 31, 2014 10:49 AM ET USA

    The Didache can be used to evangelize those who believe baptism should be done only "in Jesus's name," as it says 3 times in Acts. It gives the Trinitarian formula as in Matt 28, but then-2 sections later-it says that the Eucharist is not to be given to anyone not yet baptized in the Lord's name. Having already given the proper formula, it wasn't necessary to give the formula again. A good example to show why Luke wrote "in Jesus's name" 3 times in Acts--everyone knew he was referencing Matt 28.

  • Posted by: LaudemGloriae - Aug. 22, 2014 8:21 PM ET USA

    As to why it was not included in the Canon, J.N.D. Kelly, in his book "Early Christian Doctrines", covers some of it as well. He says, and this may be his own opinion based on much reading, the criterion which seemed to prevail was aptolicity: either direct authoriship or authority behind a work. Apparently the Apocalypse of Peter and Hermas's Shepherd fall in this category as well as the Didache. Thanks for the good historical analysis of this important work. Hope to have more.