The Didascalia Apostolorum
By Dr Denis O’Callaghan
A treatise which pretends to have been written by the Apostles at the time of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), but is really a composition of the third century. It was first published in 1854, in Syriac. In 1900 a Latin translation, perhaps of the fourth century, was discovered, more than half of which has perished. The original was in Greek, and this can be to some extent restored by a comparison with the Apostolic Constitutions, the first eight books of which are simply a revised and enlarged edition of the Didascalia. The attempt at restoration made by Lagard was a failure but an excellent guide is now at hand in the new edition (1906) by Funk, in which the Greek of the Apostolic Constitutions is printed side by side with the Latin of the Didascalia, a translation from the Syriac supplying the lacunae of the old Latin version. Everything in the Apostolic Constitutions which is not found in the Didascalia is underlined, so that the relations of the two documents, and to a great extent the original Greek of the Didascalia, can be seen at a glance.
The full title given in the Syriac is "Didascalia, that is, the Catholic doctrine of the twelve Apostles and the holy disciples of our Lord". The contents are the same as those of the corresponding books of the Apostolic Constitutions. Especially noticeable is the treatment which bishops are ordered to give to penitents. Even great sinners, on repentance, are to be received with kindness. No sins are excepted. The canonical penance is to be of two to seven weeks. This legislation is obviously subsequent to Novatianism; it is not so certainly aimed against Novatianism. The church officials are bishops, deacons, priests, widows (and orphans); deaconesses are also added, in one place rectors, and once subdeacons. These last may have been interpolated. This organization is behind that of Rome under Pope Cornelius in 251; hence Funk in 1891 placed the date of the work in the first half of the third century. But the whole Western system never spread to the East, and the development was uneven. Funk therefore withdrew this opinion in 1901, giving the second half of the century as the true date. The heresies mentioned are those of Simon Magus and Cleobius (this name is given also by Hegesippus), with Gnostics and Ebionites. Against these, Christians must believe in the Trinity, the Scriptures, and the Resurrection. The original Law of Moses is to be observed, but not the Second Law, or Deuterosis, which was given to the Jews on account of the hardness of their hearts. The Old Testament is frequently quoted, and often at great length. The Gospel is cited by name, usually that of St. Matthew, the others less often, and that of St. John least of all, as it was traditionally held to have been written at a much later date than that which the Didascalia claims for itself. Acts and nearly all the Epistles are freely employed, including Hebrews, but the Apocalypse is not cited. None of these could be named. Harnack has gone quite wrong in arguing that the only place in which the Fourth Gospel is quoted formally as the Gospel is an interpolation, with the inference (at which he naturally expresses his surprise) that the author did not know or did not esteem that Gospel. (A quotation of the pericope de adulterâ, John 8, is important.) Harnack further holds that the gentle treatment of sinners is an interpolation intended against Novatianism, and that the deaconesses as well as the subdeacon are a later addition, He dates the original form in the first half of the third century, and the additions in the last quarter of it; but the reasons given are very weak. Achelis leaves the whole of the century open, but says that the later the work is placed in it, the better he feels he understands it.
The earliest mention of the work is by St. Epiphanius, who believed it to be Apostolic. He found it in use among the Audiani, Syrian heretics. The few extracts he gives do not quite tally with our present text; but then he is notoriously inexact in his quotations. Next we find the whole work incorporated into the Apostolic Constitutions, at the end of the fourth century, and soon afterwards it is quoted in the Pseudo-Chrysostom's "Opus Imperfectum in Matt." But the work never had a great vogue, and it was superseded by the Apostolio Constitutions. The place of composition was Syria, though what part cannot be determined. The author was apparently a bishop, and presumably a Catholic. His book is badly put together, without logic, but not without some good sense. It never touches upon dogma but concerns itself entirely with practice. It has been called the earliest attempt to compile a Corpus juris canonici.