Ancient Witnesses to the Catholic Faith: The Didache

By: Msgr. Charles Pope

The Didache is one of the earliest written documents of the Church other than Scripture itself. It was written sometime between 90 and 110 AD. It may not have had a single author but may have been compiled from the Apostolic Teaching as a kind of early catechism and a summary of the essential moral tenets of the Faith. It’s existence demonstrates that many current teachings of the faith,  often under attack by modernity, are in fact very ancient, going right back to the beginning. Let’s take a look at some excerpts from the Didache that are especially pertinent for today’s controversies. My comments are in red after the italicized quotes. The Full text of the Didache is available here: DIDACHE

Sins against life, sexual sins and abortion: 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 begotten. (# 2) Hence the teaching against abortion is not recent as some have tried to suggest. It was not proposed in the 1950s, it was not proposed in the Middle Ages. It goes right back to the beginning. “Pederasty” refers to a homosexual relationship between an older man and a post pubescent adolescent boy. It is distinct from pedophilia which involves a sexual relationship between an older person and a pre-pubescent child. In the modern sex abuse scandals, proper distinctions have not always been made. Cases of true pedophila are rare compared to pederasty (male homosexual involvement with adolescent boys), and statutory rape (the sexual violation of an underaged post pubescent female by a male).  In the Greek world Homosexual activity was a widespread moral evil and the Didache’s specific mention of it (as also with Paul) indicates this. The statutory rape or sexual abuse of young females was probably more rare given the early age of marriage which took place soon after puberty for girls.

That the clergy ought to be worhty and then respected and honored - My child, him that speaks to you the word of God remember night and day; and you shall honour him as the Lord; for in the place whence lordly rule is uttered, there is the Lord (#4)…..Therefore, appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money,  and truthful and proven; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers. Despise them not therefore, for they are your honoured ones (# 15)

That confession of sin should be frequent and precede the reception of Holy Communion and fellowship In the church you shall acknowledge your transgressions, and you shall not come near for your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. (# 4) It is thus, the long standing practice of the Church that one ought to confess serious sin prior to attending Mass and surely prior to receiving Holy Communion.

That Baptism may be conferred by pouring only if immersion is not easy or convenientAnd concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have not living water, baptize into other water; and if you can not in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. (# 7) Some, among the Protestants consider that Baptism must be administered by immersion. But this text indicates that in the ancient practice, simply pouring water over the head is sufficient. Living water (i.e. moving water such as in a stream) is preferred. Cold water is preferred over warm but warm water is allowed (perhaps in winter to avoid colds?). And yet, in the end, if such arrangements are not possible a simple infusion of water over the head suffices.

An Early Eucharistic Prayer or Hymn: Now concerning the Eucharist, thus give thanks. First, concerning the cup: We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David Your servant, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever. And concerning the broken bread: We thank You, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom; for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever. But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, Give not that which is holy to the dogs.  (# 9). This prayer of thanksgiving (Eucharistia) is beautifully preserved in the hymn “Father We Thank Thee.” The contents of this prayer mysteriously do not include the words of Institution (This is my Body….This is my Blood….). However, another more detailed description by Justin Martyr written around the same time does include these words (See video below). Note too that the restriction of the Eucharist to fully initiated Catholics is an ancient practice. The Eucharist, or Holy Communion was not to be shared except by those who had true communion by the Grace of God working through the sacraments. Namely, Baptism and Confirmation which both sanctified and incorporated one into and as a  member of the  Body of Christ. Holy Communion thus had to be preceded by the Communion effected by Baptism and Confirmation.  

That Sunday Attendance at Mass was requiredBut every Lord’s day 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  (# 14) Again note that attendance is required every Sunday and that such attendance be accompanied by any necessary confession of sins. See how ancient these practices are.

That the practice of the faith must be consistent and that without the practice of it and the attendance and reception of the Holy Mysteries we shall not attain to the holiness necessary to see God. But often shall you come together, seeking the things which are befitting to your souls: for the whole time of your faith will not profit you, if you be not made perfect in the last time….. (# 16).  

Thus many of the current practices and teachings of the Church go right back to the beginning. Our Tradition is thus intact and ancient, reaching back to the Apostles and Jesus Christ.