Featured: THE TEACHING OF THE TWELVE – Tony Jones. [Vol. 3, #2]

January 22, 2010

 

A Rich, Organic and Conversational Vision
of the Local Church Community

A Review of
The Teaching of the Twelve:
Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity
of the Ancient Didache Community
.
by Tony Jones.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.


The Teaching of the Twelve:
Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity
of the Ancient Didache Community
.
Tony Jones.

Paperback: Paraclete Press,  2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

[ Click Here to Read an Excerpt from this book! ]

Tony Jones - The Teaching of the TwelveThe Didache was one of the first texts that sparked my interest in the life of the earliest church communities.  In the wake of 9/11 and the many signs of the church’s domestication to American culture, the Didache as a powerful reminder that another way was possible, a way that is not rooted in returning evil for evil, a way that leads to life.  Over the last decade, I have read a number of books on the Didache, but none has been so vibrant and accessible as Tony Jones’ new book The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community.  Jones not only seeks to introduce the Didache to a broad audience – an excellent task by itself – but also to make a case for the significance of its message in these postmodern times that in many ways resemble the era in which the Didache was written.  He says in the book’s introduction:

The Didache offers something of an alternative to what many know of Christianity.  The real power of the Didache is its ability to remind us of what is truly important in  Christianity: showing the love of Jesus to the world. (11)

In addition to the full text of the Didache (in English translation) , which is roughly similar in length to one of Paul’s Epistles, Jones offers his own reflections on the text  illustrated with stories from a church community in Missouri that calls themselves the Cymbrogi (pronounced koom-BRO-gee), a Celtic word meaning “Companions of the Heart.”  Jones engages this community primarily through conversations with one of their more scholarly members. The Cymbrogi, Jones argues, are a community not unlike the original Didache community whose members are striving together to understand and shape their lives around Jesus’ teachings.

For churches in the pre-Ignatian era of Christianity – i.e. before Ignatius argued for a systematic hierarchy of church leadership and before the canonization of Scripture – the church’s work of discernment was crucial in interpreting what it meant to follow in the way of Jesus.  Similarly, the Cymbrogi today offers us a compelling vision of the life of a church community in conversation.  Jones says: “[The Cymbrogi] don’t talk about how to grow their church!  Instead they study Greek together.  They don’t worry about paying someone to lead them and teach them.  Instead, they all pitch in to the conversations about how to live faithfully” (44).

Jones begins the book by setting the Didache in its context, briefly describing its relatively recent discovery, and what is known about the community out of which it was written.  He establishes here some parallels – to which he will return over the course of the book – between the world in which this original Didache community existed and the world of today.  Following the introduction is the full text of the Didache, and after that Jones reflects on four key themes developed over the course of the text:

1) Training in the Way of Life

2) Sex, Money and Human Relationships (a surprisingly brief chapter)

3) Living Together in Community

4) The End is Nigh (Thankfully, a brief chapter!)

The chapter on “Living Together in Community” struck me as the heart of the book.  Here Jones explores what the Didache says about idolatry, baptism, Eucharist, fasting, hospitality and leadership.  He summarizes these facets of life in the Church community:

Live reconciled with one another;
Confess and forgive one another;
Appoint some among you to preside over the community and others to serve;
And treat those you’ve appointed with respect (111)

As one who has a deep appreciation and who has written about the life of the early church communities, I am excited to see the Didache explored in fresh and exciting ways as Jones does here.  However, what is even more enthralling about The Teaching of the Twelve is the rich, organic and conversational vision of the church community that it offers.

In recent conversations with a number of churches, I have found that there is a growing hunger for churches to be more than merely religious communities, but rather real, holistic communities, the gathered life of which extends throughout the week.  This distinction was a key facet of a missional church gathering at which I spoke recently.  It seems that what Jones offers us here is an historical and theological grounding for deeper, conversational church communities – like the one of the Cymbrogi that he describes.  Without the textual authority of the Canon or the guiding authority of institutional church hierarchies, the original Didache community had to labor together to discern the shape of their obedience to Christ.  In these postmodern times, when the authorities of texts and institutions are – for good reasons – suspect, we find ourselves in a situation not unlike that of the Didache community.  As Jones so wonderfully expounds here, we would do well to reflect on their example and discern together the shape of our faithfulness in today’s world.

  • Justin Anthony Knapp

    Chris,

    Right now, I have checked out Aaron Milavec’s The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. I’ll have to check out this one as well, when I get the chance.

    -JAK

  • editor

    Justin —

    This book would be a nice complement to Milavec’s…
    as well as a more engaging alternative for folks who wouldn’t pick up Milavec…

    Peace,
    Chris