Ephesians 4-6 and Colossians 3-4: An Apostolic Didache?

It can be argued that the material in Ephesians 4-6 and Colossians 3-4 reflect an early form of apostolic teaching or catechism material. The terms kerygma and didache are used to distinguish between two types of apostolic message.  Kerygma is the “preaching” material of the gospel for sinners (Christ’s death and resurrection), while didache is the teaching material aimed at the person that has already accepted this message and is concerned with the living out of that message in terms of ethical behavior.

didache-largeThis may imply some pre-existing documents that eventually are used in the production of the New Testament books, although these types of materials also circulated orally.  The kerygma material, for example, may include 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 or Phil 2:5-11.  But this is not to say that there was any single document called “kerygma” – the word simply refers to the material that was used in evangelism by various preachers in the early church.

The same applies to the term didache.  There would have been a core of teaching that Paul used in establishing churches and training leaders.  That material would have been generally the same in every church (i.e. qualifications for elders and deacons) but flexible enough to adapt to a slightly different cultural situation (the difference between the qualifications list in 1 Timothy and Titus, for example, show some adaptation for the situation on Crete where Titus was to appoint elders). By the end of the first century a short book of church practice known as Didache did circulate, although the contents are not quite the same as this collection of material.

This core of teaching is found as early as Acts 2:42, where we are told that the new converts were devoted to the daily instruction of the apostles. Since all of these converts in the early part of Acts are Jews, and likely observant Jews in Acts 2, the need for ethical instruction would have been less of a priority than instruction in the teachings of Jesus (i.e. doctrine – Christology (who was Jesus, what did he teach) and Eschatology (the Christ is returning very soon).  It is not unlikely that at this stage that the stories of Jesus’ acts and his teachings began to be passed from the Apostles to their disciples.

What are the implications that Paul might have used and adapted a kind of “standard teaching” in these two letters? Does this “early Christian standard” of ethics help us understand how the Church was teaching ethics in the first century?

Some bibliography: E.  G.  Selwyn, The First Epistle of St.  Peter, 363-466; Philip Carrington, The Primitive Christian Catechism; A. M. Hunter, Paul and his Predecessors; C. H. Dodd,  The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments;  Everett F.  Harrison, “Some Patterns of the New Testament Didache” BSac V119 #474 (Apr 62) 118-129; V. P. Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul, 68-111.

5 thoughts on “Ephesians 4-6 and Colossians 3-4: An Apostolic Didache?

  1. This is interesting to me that in the first century they would reserve on literature for those who were believers and another gospel for the sinners and unbelievers. I am still trying to find what strikes me in this post, because right now I see nothing that says wow!….

    It would be interesting to know the exact use of the biblical books by the preachers in the first century. What else is fascinating is that the Apostles could have just now been extending the responsibility to their disciples of telling the acts’ of Jesus and his teachings to others. Giving them the responsibility as firm “educated” believers who could tell people an un-tampered with gospel. Making ambassadors for Christ.

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  2. The implications of Paul using and adapting a “standard teaching” aren’t bad, in my opinion. It seems like it would be important to have a sense of unity in what he was teaching to both the church at Ephesus and the church at Colossae. That being said, it does seem uncomfortable to think of Paul borrowing ideas or teachings from other documents and texts and adapting them to fit a certain church or culture. However, we do much the same thing today, only we use the Bible. In many ways this is good and helpful to the understanding of the Bible, especially in those individual’s lives who have yet to accept Christ’s gift of salvation. Yet taken out of context, we can use the Bible for corruption and degradation of people (think of the the way white plantation owners in the United States used the Bible to justify slavery). For Paul, it seems like a “standard teaching” would be a tool to unify the Body of Christ amongst the churches, seeing as the churches were scattered. It seems as though it would make it easier for the churches themselves to preach and act on these ethics so as to draw others to Christ and to the Church. It is important, I feel to address the fact that Paul was not preaching a salvation through the law, but rather seeking a set of ethical areas, in which every Christian should follow, so as to increase the harvest amongst the churches. Think of the impact that these verses have on us today as well, it’s important to note that God was the divine inspiration and author as well and it was Him speaking through Paul, so it is these truths that needed to be presented to the churches as Ephesus and Colossae, but also to us today. Paul taught the churches, the churches taught to the masses, and we are taught through the Word of God and we understand through the wisdom revealed to us by God. Yet even through all of this there is a unity between us all in these ethical areas, but also through Christ’s work of salvation for us.

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  3. Using a standard of teaching and tailoring it to fit the differences in each situation seems to be the most effective way to teach moral ethics. It seems as though that would be the best way to promote unity among believers in the different churches and regions. Had there not been one general teaching with slight variations, it seems like “unfairness” would have been a problem. To know the implications of Paul using a standard method of teaching ethics, I think it is important to look at the implications had Paul not done so. If his material was based on teachings already circulating, it would possibly be a smoother transition for moral unity among the believers. I don’t see this as a negative thing that Paul did because it provided a basis for what Christianity should look like.

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  4. The audience of Paul’s letters consisted primarily of young churches filled with new believers. With this in mind, it would make sense that he would have to explain the same basics of Christianity to most of them. Personally, I don’t think it matters much whether or not Paul wrote down this foundational church doctrine, or simply knew it well enough to explain it in a similar way ever y time. Whatever the case may be we can be confident that the Word of God that has been passed down to us is true, and we can trust it to guide our lives.

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  5. Implications that Paul might have used and adapted a kind of “standard teaching” in the two letters include the two types of apostolic message; kerygma and didache (Long, “An Apostolic Didache”). This “early Christians standard” of ethics does help us understand how the Church was teaching ethics in the first century. Kerygma material such as Phil. 2:5-11 is a great example of the benefits of including this material. Phil. 2:5-11 is often referred to as “Christ’s Hymn” and is a beautifully written piece that was once thought to have been sung or recited in poetry form (“Phil.” sermon by Jeff Manion). When viewed this way, it has a powerful impact and can bring about a different style of worship for the reader when read or sung. I agree with Emily that using a standard of teaching and tailoring it can be very effective. We “tailor” certain Biblical passages and read them in a way that fits modern culture. I do not think that we should take these passages out of context, but they still have value regardless of which culture one belongs to and will be applied differently in varying circumstances. Paul was providing some basics of Christianity to multitudes of people similar information because at the time that was needed.

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