Have you ever wondered what it was like to be a new Christian in the first century right after Christ departed? What did those early Christians tell new gentile converts about how to be a Christian? Did they have any sort of manual for instructing new converts? Well, yes, in fact they did. It was called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles or the Didache (DID-ah-kay), which means “Teaching.”
The Didache was a training manual that was well known to early and later Christians. Eusebius, a fourth-century church historian, mentions it in his writings. But Renaissance scholars, who were rediscovering many ancient documents, searched for but could not find a copy of this well-attested-to text. Nineteenth-century scholars had been able to piece some of it together from various quotes they found in other documents, but an actual copy of the Didache had not been seen for centuries—perhaps for as many as 15 centuries.
In 1872, Philotheos Bryennios was appointed an Archbishop of the Orthodox Church. Before advancing in the church hierarchy, he had taught church history, and he kept pursuing that interest even after his promotions. In 1873, he was browsing in a library in Istanbul in the Greek Convent of the Holy Sepulchre and opened a bound collection of early church documents. He found tucked within the pages of this collection a document from the eleventh century that he had never seen before but which seemed somewhat familiar. He took the next ten years to review and study the document before finally announcing that he had found an actual copy of the Didache.
Other scholars were skeptical and suspected forgery, but over time, it became clear that Didache had been found. When it was published in English in 1884, the first run of 5,000 copies sold out the first day.
You can read the text of the Didache here. It will take you about 15 minutes, but you are reading words that may be some of the earliest Christian writing produced. Words from the Gospel of Matthew are found in abundance, but it is not clear if the Didache is quoting Matthew or if both books are using phrases well known in Christian circles at the time. Nevertheless, reading this document gives you an insight into early church thought and practice that you can find nowhere else.
Aaron Milavec is the foremost scholar on the Didache. His book The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary gives the text in English and in Greek and his commentary is extremely enlightening. Originally the text was transmitted orally, and it was organized to start with simple ideas and rules and progress to more difficult ones. The rules are formulated for Greek converts who would be unfamiliar with laws Jews were already following. Thus there is clear teaching against abortion and infanticide as well as sorcery and pederasty, sins which were rarely found in Jewish communities. But on the other hand, Milavec writes, the Jewish rules against working seven days a week and against graven images were not reiterated because they would have been unworkable in Greek-Roman society. Milavec’s book is only about 100 pages, so you can learn a lot in a short time. If you are interested in early Church history and in what early Christians thought and taught, I recommend taking a coffee break and reading the Didache.