Early Christian Spiritism in Translation: The Didache 11

The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles, or The Teaching of the (Twelve) Apostles, as it was known in ancient times, or simply the Didache ("The Teaching"), as it is usually referred to today, was known from references to it by ancient writers (some of whom used it as "Scripture," e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Didymus the Blind).  No copy was known to exist until 1873, when Bryennios discovered a manuscript that contained the full text of the Didache, which he published in 1883.  The Didache is composed of two parts: (1) instruction about the "Two Ways" (1.1-6.2); and (2) a manual of church order and practice (6.3-16.8).  Similar material is found in other Christian writings from the first through the fifth centuries, including the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didascalia, the Apostolic Church Ordinances, the Summary of Doctrine, and the Apostolic Constitutions.  The fact that the Didache is a teaching "to the Gentiles" suggests that it is a Jewish-Christian text meant for non-Jewish Greek Christians and converts new to the fledgling Christian movement.

The date and place of the composition of the Didache is difficult due to lack of hard evidence and the fact that it is a composite document.  The date when the anonymous author(s) stitched together the document on the basis of earlier materials must be differentiated from the time represented by the materials so utilized.  At any rate, most scholars will agree that the Didache may have been put into its present form as late as 150, though some believe a date closer to the end of the first century seems more probable; so anywhere from late first century to mid second century.  As to place, Egypt or Syria are mentioned most often as possible places of origin of the Didache.  The final editing may have occurred elsewhere.  For the extant Greek texts and English translation, see Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999; fourth printing, 2005).

Didache 11 is a very brief exposition on "apostles" and "prophets" and suggests how to welcome and deal with itinerant prophets and how to tell the difference between a true and false prophet.  The Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11 and Didache 11 share much in common on the point of discerning the spirits who speak through a prophet based on the "life and conduct of the prophet."  These points in common will be shown in the comment below.  For now, Didache 11.

[1] So, if anyone should come and teach you all these things that have just been mentioned above, welcome him. [2] But if the teacher himself goes astray and teaches a different teaching that undermines all this, do not listen to him.  However, if his teaching contributes to righteousness and knowledge of the Lord, welcome him as you would the Lord. [3] Now concerning the apostles and prophets, deal with them as follows in accordance with the rule of the gospel. [4] Let every apostle who comes to you be welcomed as if he were the Lord. [5] But he is not to stay for more than one day, unless there is a need, in which case he may stay another.  But if he stays three days, he is a false prophet. [6] And when the apostle leaves, he is to take nothing except bread until he finds his next  night's lodging.  But if he asks for money, he is a false prophet. [7] Also, do not test or evaluate any prophet through whom a spirit is giving instruction, for every sin will be forgiven, but this sin will not be forgiven. [8] However, not everyone who is a speaking medium through whom spirits give instruction is a [true] prophet, but only if he exhibits the Lord's ways. By his conduct, therefore, will the false prophet and the [true] prophet be recognized. [9] Furthermore, any prophet through whom a spirit orders a meal shall not partake of that meal; if he does, he is a false prophet. [10] If any prophet teaches the truth, yet does not practice what he teaches, he is a false prophet. [11] But any prophet proven to be genuine who does something with a view to portraying in a worldly manner the symbolic meaning of the church (provided that he does not teach you to do all that he himself does) is not to be judged by  you, for his judgment is with God. Besides, the ancient prophets also acted in a similar manner. [12]  But if a spirit speaking through someone says, "Give me money," or anything else, do not listen to him.  But if he tells you to give on behalf of others who are in need, let no one judge that prophet through whom the spirit has so instructed.


My translation, "a prophet through whom a spirit" orders a meal or gives instruction is a translation of the Greek text that reads propheten lalounta en pneumati, "a prophet who speaks with a spirit."  The prepositional phrase "with a spirit" (oftentimes rendered as "in the spirit" even though the article "the" is absent in the Greek text) is a Semitic grammatical construction used in Mark 1:23 and 5:2 anthropon en akatharto pneumati, "the man with an unclean spirit," that conveys the notion of a spirit "inside" of the person.  This phrase is also used in 1 Cor 12:3 (in the same context as we see in Didache 11) where one is said to speak en pneumati hagion, "with a holy spirit," and en pneumati theou, "with a spirit of God."  Thus, the Semitic expression en pneumati can be used either in the context of involuntary possession by an unclean or evil spirit, such as we find in Mark 1:23 and 5:2, or in the context of voluntary possession by a holy spirit or a spirit of God for the purposes of instruction from on High.  The latter is what we find in the Didache, but the Didache warns that both [true] and false prophets voluntarily allow spirits to speak through them in a trance.  The problem is how to tell the difference between the two, for, at one level, both types of prophets are "inspired," i.e. are deep-trance instruments through whom a spirit speaks and communicates.

Just as in the Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11, the "true prophet" in Didache 11 is simply called "the prophet" without the qualifier "true" while the qualifier "false" is used for prophets who are not true prophets, or "false prophets." Hence, I have bracketed the word "true" above in the translation.  There are four points that Didache 11 shares in common with Hermas, Mandate 11:

(1) discerning true and false prophets based on their lives, actions, and whether they "walk in the ways of the Lord" [Didache 11:8 and Hermas, Mandate 11.7,16];

(2) holy spirits speak on their own accord and not by what a person wants to hear them say [Didache 11:7 and Hermas, Mandate 11.5,9];

(3) only false prophets through whom earthly spirits speak ask and receive money for their instruction [Didache 11:12 and Hermas, Mandate 11.12]; and

(4) both true and false prophets are instruments through whom spirits may communicate [Didache 11:8 and Hermas, Mandate 11.16].

This uncanny consistency shows that there were established norms and criteria for the practice of communicating with the spirit world AMONG EARLY CHRISTIANS.  Spirit communication was not a parlor game of tricks, fanciful entertainment, or the like.  Early Christian spiritism had only one goal in mind: to be instructed by God via His holy spirits who communicated that instruction through instruments, i.e., speaking mediums ("prophets"), prepared for that purpose.  Hence, it was necessary to sift out the false prophets from the prophets of God.  One must not think that Didache 11:7, "do not test or evaluate any prophet through whom a spirit is giving instruction," is in any way a contradiction of the earlier injunctions to, indeed, be sure to "test the spirits" and to "discern the spirits" as we see in 1 Cor 12:10 and 1 John 4:1-4.  Rather, Didache 11:7 is talking about the "true" prophet, that prophet who has already been judged by the Christian household as being a true prophet who "exhibits the Lord's ways."  This is apparently the case, for the very next line, Didache 11:8, introduces how one recognizes the "false prophet" and how he might be known as such apart from "the prophet" mentioned earlier in 11:7.  Once an instrument has been satisfactorily determined by those present as being an instrument through whom only spirits of God speak, then there is no need to "test and evaluate" that instrument once the spirit begins his address through the instrument.  But this does not necessarily mean that tests and evaluations of prophets should never take place, for this is the very thing that Didache 11 is impressing upon its readers: ALL prophets need to be tested and evaluted to determine whether they are true or false, i.e., to determine whether the spirits communicating through them are from God or not.  Even if a prophet passes the evaluation during a prayer service, the spirits must continually be tested during subsequent prayer meetings through that same prophet.

The fact that spirits might deceive people while speaking through a prophet did not discourage early Christians from communicating with the sprit world.  Both the Didache and Hermas share at least one sign of a false prophet, that of prophesying for money.  The New Testament gives very meagre evidence on how to discern or test spirits to see whether they are honest or deceptive.  The spirit must acknowledge Jesus as "Lord" (1 Cor 12:3) and must express that Jesus came to earth in the flesh in order to Redeem humanity (1 John 4:1-4).  But the New Testament does not give any details as to how to unmask a deceitful spirit, i.e., a deceitful spirit who claims "Jesus is Lord" in order simply to masquerade as a holy spirit.  How might early Christians have discerned these spirits from the real holy spirits?  Apparently, holy spirits were identified not only by their acclamations "Jesus is Lord" and "Jesus has come in the flesh," but also by the content of their messages and addresses from on High: does the spirit's message speak of God and Christ in approving terms, in terms of praise, etc.?  The discernment also fell on the character, actions, and life of the prophet himself, the person through whom these spirits spoke and communicated.  The prophet was expected to exhibit in his life "the ways of the Lord" and this apparently meant the behavior and conduct of the prophet.  Does the prophet himself recognize God and Christ in approving terms? Is he patient, understanding, honest, meek?  What is the quality of his life?  Does he live up to the instruction of the spirits speaking through him?  Does he take care of himself?  What kind of company does he keep?  What kind of attitude does he have?  Of course, a true prophet is not expected to be "perfect" because no human being is perfect.  The true prophet is expected to be willing and very careful in his (or her) discernment of the spirits whom he allows to enter into his midst and, eventually, to enter into his body in order to speak out of it.  Discernment must begin with the prophet; he must first be aware of the spirits who surround him.  Often times prophets can see, hear, and/or sense the presence of the spirits.  This allows the prophet to assess the quality of the spirits present.  The Christian prayer service is meant for the very purpose of attracting the high heavenly spirits of God, the holy spirits, in order to help ensure that holy spirits will be present and give instruction through the prophet to those gathered for instruction from on High.