There is a theory about early Christianity that comes from Gerd Theissen and gets modified by John Dominic Crossan. It is that Jesus founded a movement of wandering charismatics. This partly comes from Theissen’s sociological model (his book was The Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity). Its basis in the New Testament is the missionary discourses of Jesus in Mark 6:8 ff., Matthew 10 and Luke 10. These, according to the theory, derived from a manual for the behavior of wandering charismatics. These nomadic preachers and healers committed themselves to poverty and depended upon the hospitality of the villages or communities they visited.
Aaron Milavec, in his commentary on the Didache, applies this theory to what that text says about prophets. They are itinerant charismatics who, because of their offensive social message, have lost whatever wealth or family connections they once had. They now live a radical life-style that is an inspiration and role-model for more settled believers, like those in the Didache community.
But prophets are not fully distinct from apostles and teachers in Didache chapter 11. It is clear that the prophets are itinerant. They are to stay in one place no more than two days. Yet the apostles and teachers (trainers) also seem, in some sense, to be charismatic wanderers who stand apart from the community. So the rules in chapters 11-14 mostly apply to all three groups.
This is in contrast to the overseers and deacons of chapter 15. These are local officials not distinct from the community, although they may function as prophets and teachers. This may have been very controversial within the early church. The wondering charismatics may have resented local officials presuming to prophesy or teach. The tenor of chapter 15 is to shore up these local officials and insist on honor and respect for them.
So we have a window into a time when both charismatic influence and administrative influence were vying for the upper hand. We know that the rise of bishops and hierarchy eventually marginalized charismatic influence in the church. But at one time it was the bishops who were in danger of being marginalized.
I have to take this whole section of Milavec’s commentary with a grain of salt. In the paragraphs above I have tried to summarize the discussion and stress the points that make sense to me.
But Milavec is way too confident about his overall scheme. He goes into great detail about the lives and motivations of the wandering prophets. Based on what? He comes close to psychoanalyzing them. He assumes they were once farmers, and that they lost their land. Again, based on what? He assumes that they once enjoyed a joyful family life that came to a bitter end. Some of them may have been in this situation, but are we projecting historical fact from a sociological model? And is that really a good way to proceed? I get a different impression of traveling charismatics in early Christianity from the letters of Paul.
However, sometimes speculative theories stimulate the imagination and help us get our minds around what certain historical communities may have been like. You just can’t get carried away by the speculations.
One thing I think I agree with Milavec about is that the prophets, apostles and teachers are mostly interchangeable in 11-14–which makes the application of their roles to local officials in 15 that much more startling.