Aaron Milavec, in his The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary, has given his view of the Didache as a template to be memorized and improvised upon by spiritual fathers and mothers to train their spiritual children (novices in the community).
It starts off teaching what the Way means in the circumstance of being abused and abandoned by families. It moves on to deepen “father-son” and “mother-daughter” one-on-one mentor relationships leading to baptism and first communion initiating full membership in the community.
In the last chapters the new members of the community are alerted to both benefits and dangers of visitors to the community. They learn to respect the local overseers and teachers.
Finally, they internalize the expectation of the coming of the Kingdom and how it will appear in stages.
Questions I have about this include how the community viewed Jesus. Some of the teachings of Jesus appear in the opening chapters. But then most of the instruction seems to go back to the Hebrew Scriptures: the Ten Commandments, the tithing of first fruits, and quotations of Malachi 1:11 and the last part of Zechariah 14:5.
These quotations are attributed to “the Lord”, leading Milavec to conclude that for the Didache “the Lord” is not Jesus but the God who speaks through the prophets. However, the “clouds of heaven” at the very end comes from Daniel 7:13 where one like the son of man comes on the clouds of heaven. It seems to me that there is room to understand Jesus as a spiritual entity somehow identified with God.
Nevertheless, the text does not quote Jesus directly and never refers to the passion or any other incident in his life. So Milavec is on solid ground in playing down any christological interpretation.
So another question would be where the Didache fits in early Christianity. The fact that it seems oblivious to Pauline Christianity fits with Milavec’s idea of date at about the same time as Paul. It would have to be located somewhere cut off from the Paul’s and his colleague’s mission.
This, it seem to me, calls into question the Syrian province (partly based anyway on the connection of the Didache with Matthew’s gospel, which Milavec rejects). I would speculate that the locale was some gentile-populated area in the Decapolis. But who knows? Any place close to the metropolitan churches around the northeast Mediterranean seems unlikely.
On the other hand, if it was in a place either geographically or somehow religiously cut off from the developments in both Jerusalem and the Mediterranean churches, then the date could be later. One point to note is that the concern with appointing local officials is similar to that in the Pastoral Epistles attributed to Paul–but which I think come from later in the first century. The Didache reflects the same move from charismatic leadership to the official leadership of bishops and other functionaries.
Another possible argument from silence is that the Didache does not show any awareness that the Jewish temple was still operating. We know from Paul that many Christians in the mid first century still honored the sanctuary in Jerusalem and made pilgrimages to it. Both Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus sometimes did this. Also the church at Jerusalem was respected as a kind of mother church. But the Didache community seems to have no relationship to the Temple or the Jerusalem church of James–contrary to what I would expect in the mid first century.
I do not see any strong argument for either dating. Mine are shaky arguments from silence. But I do think several things in the Didache would become much harder to explain if you put it in the second century.
There are characteristics to the Didache community, as Milavec sees it, that resemble a cult. People displaced from their families and culture are being reprogrammed. So perhaps the community cut itself off from other influences.
We know that there was a strain in early Christianity that developed quite independently of the Pauline tradition and the Synoptic tradition. That is the line of thought that led to the Gospel of John. I think I see in the eucharistic prayers of the Didache some ideas that might have developed into motifs in John. However, there is quite a jump from the apparently low doctrine of Christ in the Didache to the high doctrine of Christ in John.
So the Didache remains a puzzling document. Still Milavec’s way of interpreting it has promise. It gives us some insight into the diversity of early Christianity. And it could be a resource for talking about spiritual formation, especially for people who are recovering from abuse or family alienation.