(Book Review by Paul Turner)
Aaron Milavec has turned one of the earliest documents of the liturgy into a fanciful mess. In his book The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis and Commentary (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2003), he painstakingly reconstructs a Greek text, boasts the ability to recite it from memory, translates it, but then imports strange ideas about what it all means.
The problems stem from his conviction that the Didache builds a case from start to finish, like the flow charts he appends to his book. The author is not critical enough about lacunae in the Didache, which he fills with imaginative details.
More probably, the Didache is a collection of strains of thought. It explains how to live as a disciple of Jesus, how to baptize and celebrate the eucharist, and how to wait for the coming of Christ. It is one of the earliest sources of catechesis, liturgy, morality and the law of the Church. Scholars typically conclude it was composed in Syria or Egypt by the turn of the 2nd century.
But Milavec believes the Didache predates the gospels, setting it at the mid-1st century. He never says where it came from. This keeps one from comparing his interpretation with information from geographically related sources.
Milavec contends that the Didache presents a unified theme in 5 parts: a training program in the Way of Life; regulations for eating, baptizing, fasting, praying; regulations for hospitality/testing various classes of visitors; regulations for first fruits and for offering a pure sacrifice; and closing apocalyptic forewarnings and hope (43). Indeed, the document easily breaks into 5 parts, but they do not necessarily interrelate. Milavec translates the word Didache as “Training” – not with the more traditional word “Teaching”. He believes that part one explains how gentile converts are to be trained before their baptism, which is described in part two, together with the baptismal eucharist, and that the rest of the book applies to the baptized.
Part one tells how good Christians live. It probably did aid one’s preparation for baptism, but it surely helped the baptized as well. The Acts of the Apostles indicates that baptisms were practically spontaneous after a profession of faith. If part one was used for baptismal preparation, it argues against a mid-1st c. dating of the Didache.
Further, there is no clear evidence for a baptismal eucharist until Justin the Martyr (mid-2nd c.) and the Apostolic Tradition (3rd-4th c.) The New Testament never says that baptisms took place during the eucharist. The Didache does not either.
Milavec makes a number of assumptions: that training took place one on one (48), that the Ten Commandments were abridged because the converts were all gentiles (52f), that there were no baptisms of children (60), that the faithful made a weekly confession of sins at a public gathering (61), that rivers and jars were used for baptism (109), that women presided at the mid-1st century eucharist (57), that “the Lord” of the Lord’s Prayer does not refer to Jesus (65), that the Lord’s Prayer deals exclusively with eschatology (in spite of its use of the word “today”) (66), that “Prayer books were not in use before the early medieval period” (67) – even though prayer texts were written and handed down throughout the entire Christian era, and that the Didache’s subsequent references to the eucharist are distinct from the baptismal eucharist (77).
Milavec frequently refers the reader to his thousand-page commentary on the Didache (39), but this book does not adequately support these claims.
It does not help that Milavec’s own book contains editorial inaccuracies. The table of contents tells more about the appendix than about the commentary that makes up the heart of the book. It also includes a heading for the translation that does not appear in the body of the book (1). The translation of the short title of the Didache appears differently on pages 2 and 40. Page 41 refers the reader to the words “the Lord” in section 9:3, where one finds “Jesus” instead. When a single Greek word requires two words in English, the translation separates the English words with an underscore, but this device is abandoned for the expression “good news.”
Milavec says the Didache “holds the secret of how and why Jesus . . . went on to attract and convert the world” (39). But one will understand that better by reading the gospel.
A Greek-English side-by-side analytical translation of the Didache is always a welcome sight. It would have been helped by a more careful commentary.
Paul Turner is pastor of St. Munchin Church in Cameron and St. Aloysius in Maysville. His books include The Hallelujah Highway: A History of the Catechumenate (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2000).This review first appeared as “Reviews: Books: The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary.” Pastoral Music 29/4 (April-May 2005):44, 46.