The Didascalia Apostolorum or “Teaching of the (Twelve) Apostles”

In my last post regarding the origins of Christianity in Syria, I mentioned a number of early Christian texts believed to have been authored somewhere within the Roman imperial province. One of those is the Didascalia Apostolorum, Latin for “Teaching of the Apostles.” Most scholars believe the DA was authored in Greek in the third century of the Common Era but by the next century it came to be translated into both Latin and Syriac, the language spoken in much of Syria. Among those cities in which the DA may have originated are Aleppo (modern Halab, southeast of Antioch), Bosra (modern Busra al-Sham in southeast Syria), and Edessa (modern Sanli Urfa in western Syria). The DA shows the influence of both the Hebrew Bible and certain rabbinical texts, indicating an origination point in a location with a significant Jewish-Christian population.

Because of its relatively late date of authorship vis-à-vis the New Testament, it is clear that the DA was not written by the twelve apostles of Jesus. Nevertheless, it purports to expand upon the apostolic decree fashioned by James, Peter, and John and recorded in Acts chapter 15. In that way the DA associates the resolutions derived from that apostolic conference of 48 C.E. with more recent prescriptions applying to the author’s third or fourth-century community.

A surface reading of the DA might seem to indicate that it is anti-Jewish. It reacts negatively to certain Jewish practices and rejects rules about which foods are proper to eat, and the efficacy of celibacy and vegetarianism. But recently scholars such as Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert have shown that such is not the case. In fact, the DA appears to have been written within a Christian community whose members were also Jewish. Its reaction is not to Biblical Judaism, but to developments within Judaism that began with the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Once the temple was destroyed, the Jewish priests were disempowered, leaving a vacuum that was ultimately filled by a Pharisaic group of rabbis who began to codify in writing the unwritten “oral law.” This body of legal interpretations (halakah = “repetition” or “secondary”) supplemented the written Torah (first five books of the Bible) and clarified for Jews the proper way to obey the Law whenever questions arose regarding its proper implementation. The collation of these rabbinical interpretations was recorded in the Mishnah as well as other, later texts.

The position of the DA was that members of its community who accepted the guidelines offered by the rabbinical Mishnah were misguided. These rabbinical interpretations were unnecessarily burdensome and should be avoided. In fact, the DA calls these rules the “second legislation” as opposed to the “first legislation”, i.e. the Torah. But according to the DA, even the Torah is overcomplicated. It rejects those laws of the Torah that were written after the Hebrews rebelled against Moses when they built for themselves a golden calf idol while he was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. These laws, found in the Bible after Exodus chapter 32, were unnecessary extensions given to the people because they had sinned and were incapable of faithfully following the simple law (mimosa peshitta) of Moses. The Ten Commandments, according to the DA, are all that is necessary for proper worship and behavior.

Nevertheless, the DA then proceeds to establish its own interpretation of how to best follow these “simple” commandments, creating its own Christian Mishnah, or, as Fonrobert calls it, anti-Mishnah. What we see here is a power play for the hearts and minds of Jews during a time when they, as members of a religion whose central authority had been taken from them, were looking for guidance. The rabbis (“masters” or teachers of Torah) developed and collected authoritative interpretations for how Biblical law should be followed by the people of Israel in this brave new world. The Jewish-Christian teachers did the same. According to them, the twelve apostles were the original Christian rabbis whose teaching offered the only authoritative method for living as true members of Israel in the post-temple world. The DA seeks to reflect what it believes is consonant with the teachings of those original twelve beginning with their first ruling recorded in Acts 15.

However, a reading of the Ten Commandments and the “pre-calf” laws leads to some interesting problems that the Christian rabbis had to overcome. For example, what did it mean for a Christian to keep the Sabbath holy? By the time of the DA, Sunday had become the primary holy day for Christians. The DA resolves the issue by asserting that, as the first day of the week, Sunday has priority over the other days just as a first-born child (in those days, at least) had priority amongst its siblings. As Fonrobert points out, the requirement to rest on the Sabbath was interpreted in the DA as an allegory reflecting a future time in which the messiah, in lieu of the Sabbath, would offer true rest for all who believe in him.

    Bibliography

An English translation of the Didascalia Apostolorum, from a Syriac version of the text, can be found in Alaistar Stewart-Sykes, The Didascalia Apostolorum (Brepols, 2009). Two articles of note are Charlotte Elishiva Fonrobert, “The Didascalia Apostolorum: A Mishnah for the Disciples of Jesus,” (Journal of Early Christian Studies 9:4, 2001: 483-509), and Joseph G. Mueller, “The Ancient Church Order Literature: Genre or Tradition?” (JECS 15:3, 2007: 337-380).

3 thoughts on “The Didascalia Apostolorum or “Teaching of the (Twelve) Apostles”

    1. C.E. (“Common Era”) and B.C.E. (“Before the Common Era”) have become the generally accepted academic chronological designations replacing B.C. (“Before Christ”) and the Medieval Latin A.D. (“Anno Domini”, after the Lord). The move was made to neutralize the designations and make them more inclusive of non-Christians. For some, B.C.E./C.E. are interpreted as “Before” and during the “Christian Era.” This is in fact the case because, no matter how you slice it, the division was made in the sixth century to reflect the periods both before and after the birth of Christ. Unfortunately, the ancients got it wrong and Jesus was not born in year 1 of either era (there is no year zero). I generally follow the academic conventions because most of my writing these days is for academic purposes. Either is still acceptable. Thanks for the question!

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