book report: The Teaching of the Twelve by Tony Jones (2009)

Early on in Christendom, the Didache was esteemed as holy scripture by some churches and early leaders after the apostolic age, but was eventually kicked out of the canon. I appreciate the efforts of Tony Jones to bring to the Christian reading audience an old book to complement their efforts to worship God rightly, especially in their lifestyles with his book, The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community. I found out it was on sale in the Kindle store for under a dollar and grabbed it.

The text itself is uncomplicated. It is brief and speaks simply. There is not much nuance. I appreciated some of these verses.

1:6 Let your alms sweat in your hands until you know to whom to give them.

2:2 you shall not murder a child, whether it be born or unborn

2:7 Hate no one; correct some, pray for others, and some you should love more than your own life.

3:3 My child, don’t be lustful, for lust leads to illicit sex. Don’t be a filthy talker or allow your eyes a free reign, for these lead to adultery.

4:5 Do not be one who opens his hands to receive, or closes them when it is time to give.
4:6 If you have anything, by your hands you should give ransom for your sins.
4:7 Do not hesitate to give, and do not complain about it. You will know in time who is the good Rewarder.
4:8 Do not turn away from one who is in want; rather, share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are sharers in what is imperishable, how much more in things which perish!

With such direct statements, what is Jones to do with it? He finds a fellowship of believers who try to use the Didache as a way to live, and shares the perspective of one of their teachers, Trucker Frank.

Despite the apparent simplicity, Jones is very good at turning over stones and finding complexity. He reflects on the verse from 2:7 noted above,
Instead, correct them, pray for them, and some, love with a love that you didn’t even know you had. What the Didache doesn’t say is that the community should shun or excommunicate those who commit the forbidden sins. In fact, “correct some, pray for others, and some you should love more than your own life” makes plain that the worst sinners should be showered with the most love. The obvious parallel comes from Matthew 18, in which Jesus instructs his disciples that in their group, one who sins should first be confronted by an individual, then by the community leaders, and ultimately by the entire community. If the sinner refuses to abandon the unrighteous behavior, Jesus teaches, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” While that sentence has long been used to ostracize sinners from the church, if we take a minute to think about how Jesus treated tax-collectors and sinners, it becomes clear that Jesus was not advocating excommunication but rather hospitality toward the sinner. “Hate no one” is the guiding premise of the community; their tag line; their mission statement. That, says Trucker Frank, is the heart of God on paper.
I can agree with Frank and Jones but I feel more dimension is needed to understand this. Jones posits that this document was written without knowledge of Paul's works. But Trucker Frank and Jones know Paul's writing on excommunication, also, I've written before about whether Matthew 18 even has anything to do with excommunication. I'm perplexed at why Frank's community does not apply the rest of the New Testament and falls back to the Didache as the final authority. That seems backward. Perhaps they don't, but I don't learn from Jones either way. Which is one of the difficulties with this commentary by Jones. Is it a commentary on Trucker Frank's community or on the Didache?

Tracker Frank points out to Jones that the Didache community seem to have a focus on living instead of knowing. But as Jones's book points out, it's hard to live without knowing. Self-contradictory statement reduce the seriousness that I can give to Trucker Frank. Is he making it up as he goes along? It seems to me that the Didache is very much like James, a practical guide for Christian living. But if one elevates the Didache to canon, as it seems Trucker Frank's community almost does, but not any major branch of Christendom, then how do they reconcile with Paul's writings, themselves inspired by the Holy Spirit?

Jones does not answer these questions. Perhaps the answer is best left unknown for those who prefer to make it up as they go along, which is a very popular option among those in the church at large. Where is the locus of authority? The Bible? The extra-canonical writings of the Bible? The church's tradition? The church's hierarchy? Tracker Frank's community is a loose affiliation, with members who belong to a broad spectrum of the church. It's not a community of authority, because the ethic is that of doing their own thing. Hence, it's members still attach to those bodies that do claim authority. It's an interesting exercise, but, in the end, it's recreational, and not transformational over people's life times.

This book is interesting for it's sociological example, but not for it's theological input.

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