The Didache and Prophets

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. I: The Beginnings of Patristic Literature, from the Apostle’s Creed to Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1983) 34.

Quasten discusses the Didache, a Christian document from the second century C.E. After quoting Didache 15:1-2, which concerns bishops, deacons, prophets, and teachers in the church, Quasten states the following about the Didache’s stance on prophets:

This reference prompts us to conclude that beside the local hierarchy the so-called prophets played an important role. In ch. 13, 3 we read regarding them: ‘They are your high priests.’ They are entitled to celebrate the Eucharist: ‘Permit the prophets to give thanks…as much as they desire’ (10, 7). They are entitled to tithes of all earnings: ‘Therefore, take all first fruits of vintage and harvest, of cattle and sheep, and give these first fruits to the prophets…Likewise, when you open a fresh jar of wine or oil, take the first draught and give it to the prophets. Of money and cloth and any other possession, first set aside a portion according to your discretion and give it according to the commandment’ (13, 3-7). The position they occupied was evidently held in high esteem for it was said of them that they could not be judged: ‘He (the prophet) is not liable to your judgment, for his judgment rests with God’ (11, 11). To criticize them is in effect a sin against the Holy Spirit: ‘If any prophet speaks in ecstasy, do not test him or entertain any doubts; for any sin may be forgiven, but this sin cannot be forgiven’ (11, 7).

A few pages later, Quasten says that the Didache emphasizes the prophets’ importance to correct a prevalent disregard for them: “the regard for the prophets of the New Dispensation is waning and has to be stressed anew” (36).

This quote interested me for three reasons.

1. First of all, it shows how an early Christian document dealt with the issue of tithing. Tithing is a controversial issue among Armstrongites and those recovering from Armstrongism. The Worldwide Church of God argued for a long time that the ministry was the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament priesthood, so it was entitled to the congregants’ tithes and offerings. My dad tells the story of when he was in the Worldwide and a nice couple brought fresh vegetables to church. The minister said that he had first pick of the veggies, since he was a Levite and didn’t have an inheritance (see Numbers 18:23-24). The brave couple responded, “Okay, take what you want, but you won’t get anything more from us!”

Against the Armstrongite position, ex-Armstrongites argue that tithing is not a New Testament command for the church, and that the church doesn’t have an equivalent to the Old Covenant priesthood, which passed away with the Old Covenant. For them, the parts of the NT that talk about “give, give, give” concern voluntary giving, not a mandatory tithe. It’s interesting that the Didache resembles the Armstrongite position: it says that a group of people in the church is equivalent to the Old Testament priesthood and should receive firstfruits.

2. The Didache is not like Armstrongites and other cessationists on the issue of prophecy, however. Cessationists believe that spiritual gifts like tongues, healing, and prophecy have ceased for the church, since we now have the Bible. If they believe that prophecy still exists, they define “prophecy” as preaching and expounding the word, not as ecstatic utterance. My impression of Armstrongism was that it was anti-charismatic and pro-Sola Scriptura, but there were exceptions. Garner Ted Armstrong called himself a prophet and referred to a vision he had of standing before authorities and causing the earth to shake. And John MacArthur, in Charismatic Chaos, refers to Herbert Armstrong’s alleged supernatural experiences to argue that a belief in continued revelation can lead to cults.

In any case, the Didache is not cessationist, for it holds that ecstatic prophecy is still for the church.

3. The part about not testing or questioning prophets rubs me the wrong way. The fact that the Didache equates doing so with blasphemy against the Holy Spirit outrages me even more! According to the New Testament, prophets are supposed to be tested. I Corinthians 14:29 states, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (NRSV). The word for “weigh” is diakrino, the same word that Didache 11:7 uses when it tells Christians not to test their prophets. And Revelation 2:2 has, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false.”

At the same time, I think that Quasten’s quotation of the Didache is pretty one-sided. Here is Didache 11, in whatever translation the “APE” on my BibleWorks is. I’ve emboldened the parts that I want to highlight:

1 Whosoever, therefore, cometh and teacheth you all these things that have been said before, receive him.
2 But if the teacher himself turn and teach another doctrine to the destruction of this, hear him not; but if he teach so as to increase righteousness and the knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord.
3 But concerning the apostles and prophets, according to the decree of the Gospel, thus do.
4 Let every apostle that cometh to you be received as the Lord.
5 But he shall not remain except one day; but if there be need, also the next; but if he remain three days, he is a false prophet.
6 And when the apostle goeth away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodgeth; but if he ask money, he is a false prophet.
7 And every prophet that speaketh in the Spirit ye shall neither try nor judge; for every sin shall be forgiven, but this sin shall not be forgiven.
8 But not every one that speaketh in the Spirit is a prophet; but only if he hold the ways of the Lord. Therefore from their ways shall the false prophet and the prophet be known.
9 And every prophet who ordereth a meal in the Spirit eateth not from it, except indeed he be a false prophet;
10 and every prophet who teacheth the truth, if he do not what he teacheth, is a false prophet.
11 And every prophet, proved true, working unto the mystery of the Church in the world, yet not teaching others to do what he himself doeth, shall not be judged among you, for with God he hath his judgment; for so did also the ancient prophets.
12 But whoever saith in the Spirit, Give me money, or something else, ye shall not listen to him; but if he saith to you to give for others’ sake who are in need, let no one judge him.

Far from telling Christians not to test prophets, Didache 11 provides them with guidelines on how to do so. False prophets teach wrong doctrine, are greedy, and/or do not practice what they preach.

But it’s one thing to test a prophet and examine his fruit. It’s another thing to have a hyper-critical spirit, one that disrespects true prophets and their message of righteousness, refuses to give people the benefit of a doubt, and is stingy about the needs of others. The line between these may look thin and obscure. Many may do the latter (hyper-criticism), claiming that they’re doing the former (well-intentioned testing). And power-hungry false prophets may accuse people who test them of doing the latter (hyper-criticism), when they’re actually doing the former (testing). I wish the line were clearer in the Didache, if the Didache is correct that crossing it leads to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which cannot be forgiven. At the same time, the Didache prompts me to ask myself why I am criticizing a person: is it out of good motives, or bad?

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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5 Responses to The Didache and Prophets

  1. Jason says:

    If you read the Didache, it makes no mention of the tithe. It is quite strange that Quasten is writing about patristics and is oblivious to the absence of tithing in prenicene writings. There is ample evidence besides outright statements like certain ones from Irenaeus that the Jews tithed but christians have a community (koinonia) of goods under the New Covenant which is not like the Old Covenant made with the fathers before John the Baptist. Jason

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  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    But, as you can see from the Quasten quote, Quasten does quote from the Didache. But the passage mentions firstfruits, not tithes specifically. Thank you for your allusion to Irenaeus. I do think that there were attempts in pre-Nicene writings to compare the clergy to the Old Testament priesthood. But, as you note, there may have been the opposite, as well, since the ancient Christians believed that the Old Covenant and the New Covenant differed from each other.

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  3. Jason says:

    He states the following “They are entitled to tithes of all earnings” not as a discussion but as a matter of fact and then somehow tries to connect that to first fruits analogy which was even attributed to a certain day in particular, the day the Lord resurrected was one of them.

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  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I’ll quote the passage. I’m drawing it from here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html

    “Chapter 13. Support of Prophets. But every true prophet who wants to live among you is worthy of his support. So also a true teacher is himself worthy, as the workman, of his support. Every first-fruit, therefore, of the products of wine-press and threshing-floor, of oxen and of sheep, you shall take and give to the prophets, for they are your high priests. But if you have no prophet, give it to the poor. If you make a batch of dough, take the first-fruit and give according to the commandment. So also when you open a jar of wine or of oil, take the first-fruit and give it to the prophets; and of money (silver) and clothing and every possession, take the first-fruit, as it may seem good to you, and give according to the commandment.”

    It seems to me to be a command or exhortation for Christians to give firstfruits to prophets. Are you disagreeing with that? Or is your point that firstfruits are different from tithes? Or something else?

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  5. Jason says:

    Most are taught to “tithe” but in reality Old Testament Judaism was a series of tithes which totalled around 23%. 1. It was all consumables of agriculture and livestock. Money was only permitted if goods could not be transported to the feast of Tabernacles 2. There were three different recipients of the tithes. Levites & priests, the poor within the gates and the feast of Tabernacles. The day of first fruits is Nisan 17 which was a Sunday when the Word rose again. First fruits is the best at harvest. The early church did not tithe (s), they did use examples like manna, first fruits, muzzling of oxen… in order to convey a visual of the subject at hand.

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