This is a book of rare quality and importance that has already been recognized by the most prominent scholars in the field as the fundamental reference work for the study of the Didache. Building on, but also fundamentally correcting more than a hundred years of research and interpretation, Milavec's basic thesis, convincingly demonstrated in magnificent detail, is that the Didache is neither a church order in the ordinary sense of the word, nor a text sometimes awkwardly patched together by several hands from several sources, nor a document that is dependent on any of the gospels (it's actually prior to them) or on other Christian texts, but an orally transmitted guide for mentors given the responsibility of progressively introducing adult pagans into this new Christian way of life.
It is also a book that could not have been written even as recently as one or two decades ago. To list some of the reasons for this: (a) the relative maturation of nonpolemical approaches to matters of Christian origins—no longer is interpretation driven by a specifically Catholic or Protestant confessional need to prove this or that; (b) the maturation and broad acceptance of sociological analyses of the New Testament and Early Christianity; (c) the general availability of an explosion of knowledge about postbiblical Judaism and about late antiquity in general; (d) a methodological shift away from the relative dominance of textuality over orality-i.e., one no longer assumes that the first question is how this document developed as a written text, but is ready to ask first about the life situation that can explain the text as received. In other words, the fundamental principle of interpretation that Milavec consistently follows to good effect is not to look for exogenous reasons for interpreting the text, but to go the extra mile in allowing the text, as received, and from its own context, to explain itself.
Following this method of interpretation, Milavec shows that the Didache is not only not dependent on any of the gospels, but is most likely prior to them and, in any case, theologically very different. What it reveals is a, so-to-speak, pre-Christological stage of Christianity. There is no mention of Christic sacrificial atonement; no mention even of the passion and death of Christ. Instead Jesus is spoken of as the "Servant"; nor is it Jesus, but the Father, who is spoken of as the Lord, the one who will come in the Last Days. In fact, Jesus is not even spoken of as the Messiah. Then, because he reads the received text as an oral document pastorally designed to guide mentors, whether men or women, as they progressively guide (and accompany) Christian novices as they break away from their pagan past (the "way of death") and enter into their new "way of life," Milavec is able to interpret in that context many things that used to be thought of as awkward omissions, or repetitions, or simply passed over as cruces interpretum. Perhaps the most notable example of this is the double treatment of the Eucharist, first in chapters 9 and 10, and then again in chapter 14. Only in the latter is there a confession of faults "that your sacrifice may be pure" (14:1). Read as a church order, this is a sign of patchwork editorial inconsistency. But read as an orally transmitted guide for Christian mentors, it fits nicely with the appropriateness of the neophyte's first eucharistic experience being one of totally positive joy. Dealing with community failings comes later. In sum, in reading the text this way, Milavec felicitously shows how it fits in with what we have been learning in recent decades about early Christianity and early eucharistic developments. He is constantly pointing out that to which we can reasonably conclude, and that to which, without further study or information, we can only conjecture.
] There is, in other words, one relatively simple, fundamental insight from which the whole book develops. Thus, when read through consecutively, it can sometimes seem repetitive, because it is the same fundamental insight that must be repeatedly appealed to. This means, on the one hand, that Milavec could have presented this in a briefer format—which in fact he has done in The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2003. pp xxi + 111. $9.95 pb. ISBN 0-8146-5381-8. Both books begin with the Greek text with facing English translation arranged in sense lines that clearly reveal the orality of the text. However, the apparent repetitiveness of the longer book has its purpose. It enables Milavec to present each topic and issue in its own full context, thus relieving the reader of the need to keep everything already said in mind, or to keep awkwardly paging back to earlier sections.
Each of the 15 chapters comes with a detailed table of contents containing up to 30 items and, in addition, up to two dozen "Background Discussion[s] Found in Boxes" that serve, by way of excursus, to contextualize this or that topic either in the life of the ancient world or in the life of recent scholarship. Extensive indexes make the book an extraordinarily valuable research work.
Typographical and other minor flaws are admirably few. The only thing that I could classify as a gaffe is the mention on p. 372 that in the current Roman Catholic Eucharist the celebrant breaks the host before the words of consecration. Most celebrants, following the prescribed rubrics, do not do this until just before Communion. Indicative of the age in which we are living, the final page of the book gives information about "Electronic Aids for the Study of the Didache": an audio cassette with the Didache presented in both a male and a female voice, and information about interactive software and a web site for articles, exchanges, and feedback.