The main and most interesting part of Aaron Milavec’s The Didache is the commentary. His subtitle is Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary. I had expected the analysis in a separate section, but what he means by analysis is the way he has broken down and outlined the translation. So the commentary is the longest section of the book.
I am always unsure how to proceed when summarizing and reflecting on a commentary. This one moves through the document chapter by chapter and section by section. Milavec often refers to more detailed discussions that are in his longer book. Since I am not making the effort to read that, I am going to try not to bash him for assumptions he makes here which he defends there.
So I guess I will just proceed with some thoughts about how he deals with the Didache’s first two chapters.
If you read the first chapter you will see that it draws heavily from what we know as teaching of Jesus, especially as found in Matthew’s gospel. There is the great commandment, the golden rule, the call to turn the other cheek, pray for enemies and give to anyone who asks of you. There are differences too. For instance, you are supposed to fast for your enemies as well as pray for them. The maxim about giving to those in need is balanced by a criticism of those who receive when they are not in need.
Now Milavec does not believe that the Didache depends on Matthew. He thinks the gospels all came after the Didache. His belief is that the oral tradition about Jesus got applied to the particular situation of this early community. That situation (for which the detailed argument is in the other book) is that the community consists of people who have been rejected, often cruelly, by their families. They have sought to follow Jesus and for this find themselves domestically persecuted. They find themselves attacked and shunned by their families and friends.
This is why instructions about dealing with persecution and enemies is the very first part of this catechism or training program. Each person who comes to the community gets an individual master teacher. This teacher’s task is not to impart intellectual knowledge but to, first of all, train new members of the community in how to deal with the hostility and baggage from their abusive pasts.
As the first chapter draws from the teaching of Jesus, the second chapter depends on the Ten Commandments and related commands from the Hebrew Bible. These all retain the thou-shalt-not form. Some of them, however, bring out implications of the commandments. Among these is the command not to kill a child by abortion! Milavec’s outline relates this chapter back to the opening words of the Didache where the golden rule is given in negative form as avoid “as many things as you might wish not to happen to you”. My interpretation of the prohibition of abortion then would be that the living are glad abortion didn’t happen to them, so– .
Milavec says this chapter is an example of how the community applied the Decalogue to gentiles. The Didache only explicitly deals with the last five commandments. This was because some of the first five were just unworkable for gentiles. In order to abandon graven images they would have to abandon their buildings, their cities and their money. In order to keep the Jewish Sabbath they would have to become unemployable in the Roman world. But members of this community depended on making a living by the work of their hands. To honor father and mother in Roman context would have meant not turning away from ancestral gods. In the situation of the Didache community, family values and Roman filial piety would not work.
Milavec says that the community would have understood that even God does not demand the impossible.
All the commands have a future tense. This means that the novices adopted them as a future life-style. They had probably broken them in the past. Some of them may have practiced sorcery, slandered others, or committed fornication . Milavec does not see these commandments as condemning them. The attitude of the master trainer would be that they should not be depressed or weighed down by regret. Rather, although they should reflect on how they were formerly ignorant or misled, from this point on they were expected to live by the new Way.
Was this community formed mostly of those displaced by hostility from their own families? For more detail about this, Milavec refers to his longer book. Although it seems he is making a big leap, such domestic alienation must have often occurred. The gospels seem to show that many of the original disciples of Jesus were cut off from their families. To think of such people and their needs does allow for a novel and insightful approach to the Didache.