Thomas O’LOUGHLIN, The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010. xvii + 185 pages. $24.99 pb. ISBN 978-0-8010-4539-4.
Reviewed by Robert P. RUSSO, Lourdes University, Sylvania, OH 43560

Thomas O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham, has previously authored volumes regarding Celtic theology and the works of Saint Patrick. In his latest offering, O. seeks to create an introductory volume that serves as a re-examination of what many scholars contend is an early first century document. More than a training manual or a series of instructions for those being initiated into the Faith, the Didache “is precious. It gives us insight into how those [early Christian] communities came into being, how they viewed themselves, and their practice as disciples” (xvi). O. succeeds in providing a basic volume that will appeal to a large target audience, including “university undergraduates…seminaries and convents… [and] at gatherings of ministers of various denominations” (ix).

The thesis of O’Loughlin's book is that it is possible to carefully and critically examine extant documents and apply certain tenets to current situations. O’Loughlin. believes that “[r]ecalling these forgotten aspects [i.e. that the Eucharist was originally centered around a larger, communal meal] can teach us humility before the past, the dangers of just repeating practice, and that there are aspects of Christian practice that we need to recover” (xiv). A secondary theme underlying O’Loughlin.’s latest publication is that the Didache is more than likely an early first century document, as opposed to being written in the fourth or fifth century. This view is substantiated by the language used, the baptismal formula (if this were a fourth or fifth century writing, the baptismal formula would have already been well known through the writings of Chrysostom, Augustine, and the Cappadocian Fathers), and especially the description of the Eucharist “which, incidentally, reveals that most of the quarrels relate to later developments when the Eucharist had changed almost beyond recognition from the meal practice of Jesus and the first churches” (17).

O’Loughlin.’s treatment of the Didache is logically organized into eight chapters, with units dedicated to the rediscovery of the document during the late-nineteenth century, becoming a Christian, prayer and fasting, and a network of service. The most fascinating chapter, entitled “Choosing a Way,” describes the decisions the earliest Christians had to make between the paths of life or death. Here, the Didache affirms the most important commandments to follow (e.g. “you shall love God who created you; second, your neighbor as yourself [Did. 1.2]”). However, O’Loughlin rightly asserts that the Didache is not merely a list of “do’s and don’ts,” but “is actually a far more sophisticated vision of Christian living than a simple checklist of actions” (32). The way of life continues with the realization that we must act in accordance with how we wish to be treated by others. O’Loughlin opines that this type of wisdom “consists in appreciating that individuals act within society and the actions of each must be those that build community” (33). Communal development is a prevalent theme of the Didache, and equally relevant in today’s culture of pluralism and fractured faith. It is only in recovering the mores of the earliest disciples, that we can begin fostering a community that is truly geared toward the greater good.

O’Loughlin.’s latest publication is highly recommended for the groups listed in the first paragraph (e.g. undergraduate students, at gatherings of various denominations, etc.). It is clearly written and concise, providing many thought-provoking concepts. This work would also be appropriate for those seeking to study early Christian history. Although O’Loughlin considers his latest work to be elementary, he does provide an extensive list of in-depth publications on the Didache, for those wishing to pursue greater study.

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