H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 32)

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The Didache—Pt. 2
Jesus/Joshua is not divine and he is not “Lord”

We recall that most scholars date the Didache around 100 CE—some towards the end of I CE, and others (such as Detering and Niederwimmer) to the early part of II CE. This dating has great significance for the issues raised below.

First of all, in the preceding post I pointed out that the Didache nowhere mentions ’Iésous “of Nazareth.” This must strike the reader as astonishing, given that scholars universally assume the text to be all about Jesus. They are, of course, looking at the text through a later filter—and scarcely realizing that fact. It is perhaps a minor detail, but a 100 CE Christian with no knowledge of Nazareth is at least a clue that this text may have a different view of the ‘Jesus’ we know today…

The more one investigates the Didache, the more heretical the Greek text becomes. ’Iesous (“Jesus”, “Joshua”) is mentioned a few times in the 16 chapters—and he is emphatically not divine. To better understand the Didachist’s religious views, we will briefly take a look at five of the text’s critical terms: God, Lord, Father, Christ, and Joshua/Jesus. The results are illuminating.

God. Kurt Niederwimmer (who has written the standard commentary on this text) and Dr. Detering both assert that the Didache is essentially a Jewish work with but a thin veneer of subsequent Christian editing. One way to gauge exactly how “Jewish” and how “Christian” the text is, is to examine its view of God. In the Didache “God” (theos) occurs 14 times. We learn, above all, that God is creator of all. God made man and all the creatures (1:2; 5:2b). This, of course, coheres with the Yahweh of Jewish scripture. It also signals that the Didache is no Marcionite tractate—its God is clearly Lord of the material realm.

Lord. Besides “God” being creator, we also read that “You, almighty Lord, created all things” (Did 10:3). This tells us that “Lord” (kyrios) and “God” are synonyms for the Didachist. That inference is buttressed by the fact that the “Lord” (26x in the work) has no evil in him (4:12), gives commandments that are to be scrupulously kept (4:13), is almighty (10:3), is the recipient of offerings/sacrifices (14:1,3), and is the source of all proclamation (kerygma). Again, this sounds quite like the Jewish God, Yahweh.
     However, some distinctively non-Jewish elements are also ascribed to the Lord. These include baptism (unknown in Judaism) “in the name of the Lord” (9:5), the “gospel” (euaggelion, 8:1; 15:4), and the “Church” (10:5). Thus, we conclude that while the community of the Didache venerates Yahweh, it does so in distinctly new ways. This is confirmed at Did 14:1, where the community is directed to assemble “every Sunday of the Lord”—not on the Jewish sabbath (Saturday)! Obviously we are dealing here with a new dispensation, one in which the Didachist’s Jewish community is boldly striking out on a very un-Jewish path.
     Christians traditionally believe that Jesus will come at the end times as judge. The Didache, however, does not convey that belief at all. In this text, it is the Lord (not His servant Jesus) who comes at the end times as judge (16:1 ff, and see below). Thus, the Didache does not seem to know the assimilation of Jesus to the Godhead.

Father. This is a third term that the Didachist uses for “God” and “Lord.” We are able to make the equivalence between those three terms for various reasons: the Father is in heaven (8:2), power and glory forever belong to him (8:3,4), King David is the servant of the “Father” (9:2), and glory is due to the Father forever (9:2). In certain cases these same attributes are elsewhere ascribed to the “Lord” (9:5; 10:3). Hence it is quite clear that, in the Didachist’s mind, God/Lord/Father/and Yahweh are all synonymous.

Christ. The term in Greek is Χρiστoς. It means “anointed one,” and there is no denying that it directly translates the Semitic meshiach (discussed in the preceding post). Thus, use of the term is undoubtedly messianic: ’Iησou Χριστou (Did 9:4) means “[of] Joshua/Jesus the Messiah/Anointed One.”
     The term “Christ” and its permutations occur only three times in the Didache, and in three contexts: once as “Jesus Christ” (9:4), once as “Christian” (12:4), and once simply as “Christ” (12:5). Despite its rarity in the work, it is clear that the term was already well known: “Jesus Christ” is a title, and its use shows recognition of that title by a community. Use of the term “Christian” likewise shows that such self-designated individuals already existed. The term was not new when the Didachist was writing.
     Because the term “Christ” draws on the entire Semitic tradition of the messiah, we must place Christianity within that tradition. This is obviously the Didachist’s point of view. “Christ” for him is a/the messiah in the Jewish tradition. This gives Christianity a long history even before the appearance of a founder prophet towards the turn of the era (whom I suggest was the renegade Pharisee Yeshu ha-Notsri).

Joshua/Jesus. The name Iesous (which Greek uses for “Joshua” as well as “Jesus”) occurs 5x in the Didache. And here Christians are in for a surprise: that figure is emphatically not divine. Quite the contrary: he is repeatedly characterized as a “servant” (paidos: 9:2,3; 10:2,3). Interestingly, in the Didache Iésous is always linked to the “Father”—never to “God” or to “Lord.” This may only be a preference on the part of the Didachist, for we have seen above that “Father”, “God”, and Lord” are synonymous. Thus it would have been entirely correct for him to write “Joshua, God’s servant,” or “Joshua, the Lord’s servant.” But he doesn’t. In his text, Joshua/Jesus is always servant of the Father.
     At Did 9:2 “Iésou your servant” is in apposition to “(King) David your servant.” This shows us that, for the Didachist, both David and Iésous were human. Indeed, that very verse explains the relationship between the two figures:

As for thanksgiving, give thanks this way.
First, with regard to the cup:
“We thank you, our Father,
For the holy vine of David your servant,
Which you made known to us,
through Jesus your servant.
To you be glory forever.”

And with regard to the bread:
“We thank you, our Father,
For the life and knowledge
which you made known to us
through Iésou your servant.
To you be glory forever.” (Did 9:1—3)

     Thus, we see that David brought “the holy vine” (that is, Jewish ancestry), but Iésous brought “life and knowledge.” The former gift is physical, the latter gifts are spiritual. For the Didachist, King David and Iésous complement one another.
     Nowhere in the Didache is there any reference at all to the crucifixion, or even that ‘Jesus’ suffered—much less that he died ‘for our sins.’ This strongly suggests that the author was not aquainted with the passion narrative nor with the canonical gospels (on this, see the next post #33). Nor is there any whiff of the doctrine of atonement or redemption. These generalities allow us to place the Didache in the same chronological stage as another work about ‘Jesus’ where we also find no crucifixion, no passion, and no vicarious atonement: the Gospel of Thomas. When we recognize that we are speaking of the early second century CE (on dating, see above and the preceding post), then the reality emerges: still in early II CE there was (at least for some ‘Christians’) no knowledge of the crucified Jesus, no knowledge of the passion of Jesus, no knowledge of vicarious atonement, no knowledge of Jesus as part of the godhead—in short, no core belief in the Pauline kerygma and in what later becomes normative Christian belief. All this coheres very well with the ‘new chronology’ espoused in these posts (here and here): ‘Christianity’ as we know it, centering on the biography of Jesus the Nazarene/of Nazareth, is emphatically a second century creation.
     In the Didache, Jesus/Joshua is a conduit for all good things. Iésous “revealed the life and knowledge of the Father” (9.3), he made available to mankind the “glory and power” of the Father (9.4), and he made God’s grace possible (10.3). But in no sense is he divine. Nor is there any intimation that he will come at the end time as judge. That honor is reserved exclusively for the “Lord” (16:1-2), to whom Iésous is but “servant” (above).
     In these and other more subtle ways, the theology of the Didache must shock mainline Christians. For example, at Did 9:5 we read of “baptism in the name of the Lord”—not in the name of Jesus!
     In conclusion, one sees that the Didache portrays a Iésous figure who is thoroughly human. He is a prophet, a perfect “servant” of the Father/God/Lord of creation. His principle role in history as Messiah/Christ is to bring to all mankind “knowledge of the Father”—gnosis.

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website www.NazarethMyth.info.


H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 32) — 4 Comments

  1. I would question the following: “…… even before the appearance of a founder prophet towards the turn of the era (whom I suggest was the renegade Pharisee Yeshu ha-Notsri) “. The Rabbis woke up late to the burgeoning Xian religion in the Gentile world. There was (IMO) no possibility of someone with that name existing before the modern era. The Rabbis responded to Xianity with a tirade of scurrilous propaganda, not well coordinated, the Panthera fairy tale etc. This is not to say that what they were trying to trash was in any way true, and their fairy story was as good as the other one. However, the ha-Notsri is clearly an attempt to create a Jewish Nazorean character. I cannot imagine a date any earlier than c. 40CE for the invention of the word ‘Nazorean’ (Nazoraios) Gk Nazwraioj. No contemporary literature knows of this word at any earlier date. It is (IMO) a Graecised form of the (Aram) Natsarayya – meaning ‘Guardians’

    • Interesting. While I agree that some elements in the pertinent passages on Yeshu in the Talmud are hostile propaganda (his worshipping a brick, his interpreting a comment lewdly…), to me these only confirm that the Rabbis themselves made the connection between the birth of [Christianity] and Yeshu. And, if this is the case, one must ask: Why did the rabbis place Yeshu in the time of Janneus, Simon ben Shetach, and ben Perachiah? I can’t accept that this is all simply an error. After all, the Talmud interweaves historical details in its relevant accounts for which there is no reason to doubt, such as the letter from ben Shetach in Jerusalem to Perachiah in Alexandria (even though the contents of that letter may be idealized). Then, too, the Mandeans venerated the term Natsuraiia (the one skilled in esoteric knowledge–Drower & Macuch 285) and I belong to those who posit a ‘pre-Christian’ origin for the Mandeans. One notes that Epiphanius knows a pre-Christian sect of Nasarenes and in one place actually dates Jesus to the time of Janneus. Finally, as Detering has brought out, the Therapeutae were definitely ‘pre-Christian’ contemplatives and show decided links to Alexandria, Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity. For all these reasons, I don’t think one should dismiss the Rabbi’s recollections of Yeshu out of hand.

  2. The Didache attempts to force the Christian (originally gnostic) context of the eucharist into Jewish eating habits. Whereas Jews bless ha-Shem for creating the vine as a physical object, the Didache thanks (eucharistei) the Father, that is, the gnostic transcendental god (identified by the Christians with the Jewish god). The vine has become symbolic of the Christian church as the messianic kingdom of the true Israel which has superseded the temple-cult.

  3. I read the Holy Vine in the Didache as supersessionist as paralleling the usage of the vine in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament, particularly Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah. The once splendid vine, planted by the Jewish god, is said to have been corrupted (Israel adoring idols) and needs to be destroyed, even replanted according to Isaiah 27.

    The misbehaving tenants in Matthew 21 mirrors this same tradition.

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