Guest Blog: Evan K. von Knappenberger on the Didache

Reprinted from Academia:

 Enemy-love and Moral Vision in Didache 1:3

EK Knappenberger for Dr. David Evans Eastern Mennonite Seminary15 Oct 2016

“The way of life is this: “First you shall love God who has created you; second, your neighbor as yourself. Whatever you do not want to happen to you, do not do to another.”  

This is the teaching [that comes] from these words: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what grace do you expect if you (only) love those who love you? Do not even the nations do that? As for you, love those who hate you, and you will not have any enemy.” 1

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 2 

““But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” 3 

“How does love become unconquerable? By never asking what the enemy is doing to it… Faced with the way of the cross of Jesus Christ, however, the disciples themselves recognize that they were among the enemies of Jesus who have been conquered by his love. This love makes the disciples able to see, so that they can recognize an enemy as a sister or brother and behave toward that person as they would toward a sister or brother… That is how love makes disciples able to see, so that they can see the enemies included in God’s love, that they can see enemies under the cross of Jesus Christ… God’s love seeks the enemy who needs it, whom God considers to be worthy of it. In the enemy, God magnifies divine love.” 4


The idea of enemy-love is central to the Christian identity and ethos, and deep within the self-awareness of the early Jesus movement. Though it was once placed at the core of first-century Christian faith (as well as community interpretations of Jesus’ teachings,) love of enemies has been re-interpreted over the centuries to suit myriad ideological agendas.5 To recover an accurate historical sense for the recognition of the centrality of enemy-love within Christian identity, we should look to an expository text in the extra-canonical material. This paper will offer a brief glimpse of the radical moral vision of the earliest Christian ethos, through the lens of the document known as “The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles”, also called the Didache, shedding light on the theological ethics of the earliest Jesus movement. By means of a historical contextualization, we will be able to re-examine with fresh minds what it means to love one’s enemies. 

Background: The Didache

Rediscovered in 1873 by a 19th century Greek Orthodox bible scholar, the Didache is one of the oldest Christian documents, about the length of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and does not fit into any easy categorization as church document. 6 It is at once a church manual, a spiritual handbook, and a monastic rule.7 The Didache is attested by and directly quoted in a plethora of ancient sources.8 It has parallels in both the synoptic (especially the theoretical Quelle) sources 9 as well as the apocryphal sayings gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas.10 The Didache’s actual authorship remains unknown, though the document itself is ultimately attributed to the teachings of the twelve apostles, a dubious claim to some recent New Testament scholars.11 Since its rediscovery, the Didache has been an important source in both the study of biblical literature and in the quest for the historical Jesus.12 It is also more recently becoming a spiritual and ecclesiological resource.13 Dating the Didache accurately has proved a contentious exercise: 19th and 20th century scholars placed it in the early 2nd century, but recent scholarship has placed it earlier, its being written perhaps even before the majority of the canonical New Testament.14 At any date, the glimpse that the Didache offers into the understandings of the early Christian community extends no doubt through the oral tradition back into the middle of the first century and beyond, and can by virtue of this fact alone shed light on the canonical sources as they have been passed down to this day.15 Due in part to its unique genre-bending literary form, the Didache functions both as pragmatically proscriptive – giving rules for proper community life – as well as ethically and spiritually informative. It is on this second function that we shall now turn our focus.


In the Rabbinic traditions, the key ethical demand is taken from the Torah, more specifically, the shema, Duet. 6:4-5, which Jesus himself quotes and expands in Mark 12 (vv. 28-34)as “the first” and“second commandments.” Here Jesus is extolling neighbor-love as secondary to love of God, an understanding which should be seen as contextually normative.16 Christians have an expanded moral horizon centered around the shema. Again in Luke 10:25-37 – the story of the Good Samaritan – Jesus compels expansion of the moral horizon of his movement by deconstructing, deepening or re-imagining the social construct of“neighbor.” Here the Lukan author makes it clear that the former socio-ethical categories are no longer operative in the new relational moral paradigm inaugurated by Jesus.17 Lastly,in Luke 6 (vv. 27-36) and Matthew 5 (vv. 43-48), Jesus makes a final move to cement the moral frontier of his spiritual vision by commanding love of enemies as a form of imitatio dei . But the nomenclature of moral reasoning is still lacking in the synoptic accounts, and begs clarification: thus what was likely intended to be a straightforward foundation for ethical nonviolence has, over the course of two millennia, been reworked by the forces of imperial and colonial theology into oppressive and violent authoritarian ethical frameworks.


 Here we must raise another set of questions. In the context of messianic expectation before the destruction of the second temple, was the divine order to love even enemies not a counter-revolutionary claim? By rejecting the overtly violent aspects of messianic power, is Jesus confirming Caesar’s authority or siding with the Jewish collaborators of colonial occupation? The rejection of cultural expectations of triumphant violence accompanying the return of the anointed “Son of Man” – expectations that had been nurtured at least since the Maccabean period— would have been tantamount to treason to many of Jesus’own followers.18 Alternatively, from a distance of two thousand years,Christians may wonder at Jesus’ utilization of moral categories such as enemy. In other words, by engaging within the very lexical dualism that presupposes the status and function of enemy-ness, is Jesus not confirming its primacy as a method of understanding self and other? That this was a 1st-century as well as a 21st century concern is implied within the first three verses of the Didache. Didache as Moral Document. In his short 2007 essay on moral vision in the Didache, Jeffrey McCurry sketches a speculative phenomenology of the concept of enemy.19 Although the Didachist is not primarily concerned with theological metaphysics, the theological vision of the Didachist, McCurry argues, is radically opposed to“the moral nomenclature of the enemy entirely.” The Didachist “deepens” and expands the concept of enemy love, even to such an extent that it becomes self-contradictory – properly loved, there is no one left in the category of enemy-requiring-love.Taken at face value, the Didache “seems to imply that…describing someone as enemy obviates the possibility of love at all.”20 McCurry goes on to offer a phenomenological explanation of enemy-love that is faithful simultaneously to both the canon and Didache 1:3; i.e. by creating a new “spiritual art of moral perception” Christians can transform enemies altogether.21 What McCurry gets right in his well-nuanced reading of the Didache is both contextual and implicit. That the primary purpose of the Didache was formational – i.e. catechumenal 22  – implies that the purpose – at least to the degree that it was engaged with the teachings of Jesus – was to clarify the extant Jesus traditions within the first century Christian community.23 That this is a metaphysical or even an epistemic praxis is irrelevant to the underlying point which McCurry is making: namely that the commands of Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 6:27-36 should be read in a very specific and straight forward way; and that this methodology coheres with the larger moral logic of Mark 12:28-34 and Luke 10:25-37. Theoretically, a straight line could be drawn, starting with the shema, proceeding through the synoptics, and ending with the Didache – that would illustrate the ultimate evolution of Christian moral reasoning.

Reading the Didache (along with McCurry) as an exposition of Jesus’ commitment to a deep ontological nonviolence entails, we must admit, not merely a rejection of physical and emotional violence, but the rejection altogether of fallacious, top-down categorical nomenclatures that enable violence on a metaphysical level. Jesus, at least according to the members of the community to which the Didachist belonged, had a moral vision which overturned human notions of friend and enemy, making such distinctions meaningless in the face of the Father’s overwhelming love. This is the critical insight, the hidden kernel of subversive truth which is antithetical to the very nomenclature that encapsulates it, that has at times been articulated by Christians such as Francis of Assisi, the nonresistant Anabaptists, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a simple thing, a matter of a few clarifying words in an obscure archaic source – and yet, properly understood, has a world-changing power. May we all someday know such truth.

Works Cited

Alison, J. Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. Doers Publ., 2013.

Bonhoeffer, D., G.B. Kelly, and J.D. Godsey.Discipleship. Fortress Press, 2001.

Brueggemann, W. and T. Linafelt. An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and ChristianImagination. Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

Coogan, M.D., M.Z. Brettler, C.A. Newsom, and P. Perkins. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version. Oxford University Press,2007.

Crossan, J.D. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant . Harper Collins, 2010. Draper, J. A. “Torah and Troublesome Apostles in the Didache Community.” Novum Testamentum 33,no. 4 (1991): 347-72.

Draper, J. A. “Ritual Process and Ritual Symbol in “Didache” 7-10.”Vigiliae Christianae 54, no. 2 (2000):121-58.

Fredriksen, P. From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus. Yale University Press, 2008.

Garrow, A. J. P.The Gospel of Matthew’s Dependence on the Didache. Journal for the Study of the New Testament. Supplement Series. London: Continuum, 2004.

Henderson, Ian H. “Didache and Orality in Synoptic Comparison.” Journal of Biblical Literature 111, no. 2(1992 1992): 283-306.

 Jefford, Clayton N. Locating the Didache. Vol. 3, 2014.McCurry, Jeffrey. “”Indeed You Will Even Have No Enemy”: A Spirituality of Moral Vision in the Didache.”Spiritus 7, no. 2 (2007): 193-202.

Milavec, A.The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E . Newman Press, 2003. Milavec, A.The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary . Liturgical Press, 2003.

Milavec, A. “Synoptic Tradition in the Didache Revisited.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 11, no. 4(2003): 443-80.Miller, R.J.The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version. Polebridge Press, 1994.

Niederwimmer, K. and H.W. Attridge. The Didache: A Commentary . Fortress Press, 1998.

O’Loughlin, Thomas.The Didache : A Window on the Earliest Christians. Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Academic, c2010., 2010.

Pelikan, J. Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. Yale University Press, 1999.

van de Sandt, H.W.M. and D. Flusser. The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and Its Place in Early Judaism and Christianity . Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2002.

Zangenberg, Jurgen and Hubertus Waltherus Maria van de Sandt.Matthew, James, and Didache : Three Related Documents in Their Jewish and Christian Settings. Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008.


1. Didache 1:2-3; as trans. in K. Niederwimmer and H.W. Attridge, The Didache: A Commentary  (Fortress Press,1998). Pp 64-73.

2. Matt. 5:43-48, NRSV; all canonical ref. from M.D. Coogan et al.,The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version (Oxford University Press, 2007).

3. Luke 6:27-36

4. D. Bonhoeffer, G.B. Kelly, and J.D. Godsey, Discipleship (Fortress Press, 2001).

5. Starting with the advent of imperial (Constantinian) theology, continuing with Augustinian Just War theology, then again with Protestant ethical dualism, and finally with modern Christian pacifism. For a helpful account of the process of this re-interpretation, see J. Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (Yale University Press, 1999).

6. Thomas O’Loughlin,The Didache : A Window on the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Academic, c2010., 2010). Pp 3 f.

7. Niederwimmer and Attridge,The Didache: A Commentary . p 2.

8. Ibid. pp. 4-13.

9. A. Milavec, “Synoptic Tradition in the Didache Revisited,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 11, no. 4 (2003).

10. Cf. the Jesus Seminar treatment of NT literature, in e.g. R.J. Miller,The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version (Polebridge Press, 1994). or J.D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant  (Harper Collins, 2010).

11. A. Milavec,The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary  (Liturgical Press, 2003). Pp 54-58.

12. See especially Nieder wimmer and Attridge,The Didache: A Commentary . Introduction and analysis; A. J. P.Garrow, The Gospel of Matthew’s Dependence on the Didache, Journal for the Study of the New Testament.Supplement Series (London: Continuum, 2004).; Ian H. Henderson, “Didache and Orality in Synoptic Comparison,” Journal of Biblical Literature 111, no. 2 (1992 1992). Jurgen Zangenberg and Hubertus Waltherus Maria van de Sandt,Matthew, James, and Didache : Three Related Documents in Their Jewish and Christian Settings,Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008).

13. For several examples of this, see J. A. Draper, “Torah and Troublesome Apostles in the Didache Community,”Novum Testamentum 33, no. 4 (1991).; J. A. Draper, “Ritual Process and Ritual Symbol in “Didache” 7-10,” Vigiliae Christianae 54, no. 2 (2000).; O’Loughlin,The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians.

14. O’Loughlin, for example, places it as one of the earliest Christian documents. For more on this, Clayton N. Jefford, Locating the Didache, vol. 3 (2014); Milavec, The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary 

15. A. Milavec, The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E (Newman Press, 2003). Pp 12 ff. Indeed the“two ways” teaching tradition of the Didache extends farther back into Jewish antiquity. For more on this see H.W.M. van de Sandt and D. Flusser,The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and Its Place in Early Judaism and Christianity  (Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2002).

16. W. Brueggemann and T. Linafelt, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Westminster John Knox Press, 2012). p 111.

17. J. Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice (Doers Publ., 2013). pp 527 f.

18. For more on this, see P. Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus (Yale University Press, 2008).

19. Jeffrey McCurry, “”Indeed You Will Even Have No Enemy”: A Spirituality of Moral Vision in the Didache,”Spiritus 7, no. 2 (2007). p 198.

20. Ibid. p 194.

21. Ibid. p 196 f.

22 Milavec, The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary . pp 75 f.

23. McCurry, “”Indeed You Will Even Have No Enemy”: A Spirituality of Moral Vision in the Didache.”

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