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The Didache (full text) is an early Christian document giving advice on various "practical matters" such as how to baptize, when to fast, how to celebrate the Lord's Supper, etc. It's hard to date, but generally scholars think it was contemporary with at least parts of the NT. And it claimed apostolic authority.

Although the Didache enjoyed high status in the second-century church, the document ultimately did not make the Canon of the New Testament. There doesn't seem to be a documented reason for the exclusion in the writings of the Church Fathers, so I imagine it is mostly speculation on what caused its decline in popularity and ultimate failure to make the canon. Nonetheless, what reasons have scholars cited as possible reasons for its exclusion?

(Although I do consider "the Holy Spirit didn't guide believers to preserve it" a valid reason for exclusion, that isn't what I am looking for here.)

  • It's only a list (with many quotes from the NT) with very little amplification. I can see how that would be a reason it was excluded. catholicplanet.com/ebooks/didache.htm – Steve Aug 18 '15 at 1:05
  • @Steve: So Numbers should also be excluded? :) – Flimzy Aug 18 '15 at 1:21
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    @Steve My personal view is that it was an early catechism, that is instructions on religious practice, probably designed for teaching new believers. I also think it roughly contemporary with the gospels - the gospels were written to explain the theology, the Didache was written to explain the practice of religion, and the letters were written for correction, encouragement or other specific needs that arose. Not sure that explains why it would be rejected (or more accurately fall out of favor), though. – ThaddeusB Aug 18 '15 at 1:27
  • XVI. " 1. Watch over your life; let not your lamps be quenched and let not your loins be unloosed, but be ye ready; for ye know not the hour in which our Lord comes." This would seem to imply not to have sex. However, married people are encouraged to have sex. 1 Cor 7:2 biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+cor+7&version=Nkjv Scripture typically uses the word fornication or adultery to prevent this confusion. – nickalh Oct 13 '15 at 9:51
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Since the Didache was discovered in the late 19th century, scholars have provided a number of rationales, ranging from the typical standards of canonicity (late age, mysterious authorship, poor quality) to its association with an early heresy.

Age

The simplest explanation that many scholars have provided, either directly or indirectly, is that the work was not written in the apostolic age. Such arguments were more common in the years immediately following the discovery of the Didache; Charles Bigg argued for a fourth-century date,1 while J. A. Robinson held that:

the writer of the Didache took the Two Ways from Barnabas, and also made use of the Shepherd of Hermas; and [...] consequently he cannot have written at an earlier date than between 140 and 160 A. D.2

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948 led to most scholars to reject this idea of the Didache depending on Barnabas. But Bruce Metzger (1989) reports that "most" scholars still "prefer a date in the first half of the second century."3 That puts it on the very fringes of the apostolic age.

It's true that modern dating discussions do not necessarily tell us what the fathers thought about the age of the work, which makes this probably the weakest point. Furthermore, more recent scholars have trended toward earlier dates for the work, and have largely abandoned this explanation for the Didache's exclusion from the canon.

Authorship

Concerns about the authorship of the Didache are expressed in two ways: the author himself, and the location where he wrote.

Not surprisingly, the early scholars that argued for a late date (again, an idea that is now widely rejected) find no evidence for apostolic authorship. Robinson, for example, argues that the "mysterious" author simply recast the Epistle of Barnabas,4 and "was merely imaginatively reconstructing" what he thought was the teaching of the twelve apostles.5

Bruce Metzger interacts with the authority alleged in the title of the work:

The authority for these teachings, as suggested by the subtitle, is none other than Jesus through the mediation of the apostles. The word 'apostles', however, does not occur in the book itself, except at xi. 3–6 where it refers, not to the Twelve or Paul, but to itinerant evangelists. The title, therefore, seems to have been added sometime after the document was drawn up.6

Many scholars prefer a rural origin for the work, perhaps in a relatively "isolated" Christian community, like Syria.7 Aaron Milavec suggests that the consensus among scholars in the 19th century and earlier was that this was the reason the fathers rejected the Didache:

Everyone knew that Origen and Athanasius had made early reference to the Didache by way of naming ancient works whose reputation was too local to allow inclusion in the universal canon.8

This is still seen as the likely cause of its rejection by some today:

The Didache was not incorporated into the Canon (not for any heretical teaching that it contained, but probably simply because it had stayed too closely bound to its roots within Israel).9

Quality

The quality of the Didache is also sometimes cited as a rationale for rejecting the work. Henry Clay Vedder's analysis is typical:

Except that the first part is little more than a chain of quotations from the apostolic Scriptures, it is difficult to understand how any Father should have come to quote it as Scripture, as Clement of Alexandria undoubtedly did, since its quality is so different from the canonical writings. That difference of quality is enough to account for the fact that Clement stands quite solitary in his treatment of the Didache as having the character or authority of Scripture.10

As an aside, it's worth noting that many are much more hesitant to say that Clement quoted the Didache; another option given by those preferring a later date is that Clement was quoting a work that is now lost but served as a source for the author of the Didache.11

Montanism

Perhaps the most intriguing rationale given for the Didache's rejection is its perceived support for Montanism, or New Prophecy. In the late second century, this movement, emphasizing new prophecies and the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit, led to significant conflict in the early church. Tertullian was a prominent proponent, but many adherents were excommunicated and the movement was ultimately regarded to be heretical.

In this theological milieu, the argument goes, a work referring to "prophets," like the Didache, could not have been accepted as canonical: the church fathers were reacting against a heretical movement and considered the Didache to be associated with it. Some scholars contend that as a second century work it was itself proto-Montanist,12 but others, holding to an earlier date of composition, argue that its mere mention of prophecy in the church (11:3–11) was damning. Aaron Milavec makes the case:

Owing to the massive reaction against the New Prophecy, prophecy of any kind in the church became suspect during the third century. In this climate, the Didache itself may have become suspect in many circles because it had been used to sustain the claims of the New Prophecy. Interestingly enough, this was the very time when church councils were endeavoring to hammer out a universal canon of inspired books. In this climate, needless to say, the Didache did not make it into the canon. [...] Had the New Prophecy not erupted in North Africa and had the backlash against it not been so vigorous, then we would surely have been reading the Didache in our bound versions of the Christian Scriptures today.13

Summary

Scholars have suggested the traditional arguments against canonicity—late date, mysterious authorship, merely local influence, and low quality. But perhaps these traditional arguments were supplemented by concerns that the work, if not heretical itself, supported a heretical movement, and thus could not be accepted into the canon.


References and notes:

  1. Bigg, The Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles, p23
  2. Robinson, Barnabas, Hermas and the Didache, p45
  3. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, p49–50
  4. Robinson, p70
  5. Draper, The Didache in Modern Research: 1996, p10
  6. Metzger, p50
  7. Early Christian Writings: Didache. See particularly the quotes from Crossan ("My own preference for a rural over an urban setting comes [...] from the Didache's rhetorical serenity, ungendered equality, and striking difference from so many other early Christian texts") and Kraft ("most commentators now seem to opt for Syria (Audet 1958; Hazelden Walker 1966; Rordorf and Tullier 1978) or Syro-Palestine (Niederwimmer 1977) as the place of origin").
  8. Milavec, The Didache, p4
  9. Patrick J. Hartin, "Ethics in the Letter of James, the Gospel of Matthew, and the Didache," in Matthew, James, and Didache, p314
  10. Vedder, Our New Testament, p225
  11. Robinson, p62
  12. Draper, p11–12, mentioning Connolly and Kraft.
  13. Milavec, p489
  • I am accepting this answer because it is the most thorough and is well research. The material about Montanism is especially interesting... I do not personally find the date argument very convincing as 1) it is quite hard to date, 2) an early date seems more likely than not based on the content, 3) I am completely convinced that Didache does not depend on Barnabas - they either drew form similar sources or Barnabas drew from Didache. The quality argument is quite weak, as it is a post hoc judgment informed by the fact it was excluded, but no doubt is actually an argument some make. – ThaddeusB Oct 16 '15 at 18:25
  • @ThaddeusB I agree; the age and Barnabas arguments in particular have been largely rejected by recent scholars. I included them for completeness more than anything else, but perhaps I can make that more clear. – Nathaniel Oct 16 '15 at 21:14
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+50

Lee McDonald says in The Biblical Canon that the most common criteria in identifying what was and wasn't canonical for the early church was apostolicity, orthodoxy, antiquity, and use, and adaptability and inspiration were also used to a lesser extent.

David King, a UMC pastor, utilized McDonald's categories in a 2012 paper on the pericanonicity of the Didache written for a Master's-level course at Iliff School of Theology. King says that the early church would have identified shortcomings in the Didache's apostolicity, antiquity, and inspiration, and that these shortcomings were enough to exclude it from the canon:

We can relate all of these to Didache's dependence on Matthew and Luke. If Didache is dependent on the synoptics, then it is later than they are. If it comments upon them, then it is derivative. Being also anonymous, Didache fails the test of apostolicity. It represents the work of someone just outside the apostolic age. It thus also fails the test of antiquity, though just barely. No doubt, Didache is old, probably older than some texts in the canon. Still, it represents an adaptation of and commentary on the gospels. For this very reason, one might question its inspiration. All these factors may have led to Didache being placed outside, but just outside, the canon.

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    I decided to award the bounty to this answer because, while not as thorough as Nathaniel's, it did point me to King's fascinating paper. I find his case for dependence on Matthew and Luke to be quite strong and agree with him that Didache's derivative nature (and perhaps thus being of the "wrong" genre) combined with uncertain authorship is the most probable explanation for its eventual exclusion. – ThaddeusB Oct 16 '15 at 18:29
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Dr. J. Carl Gregg stated:

In the first century knowledge was decidedly more local. For example, scholars tell us that the Gospel of Luke can claim with presumed honesty to have “gathered [all available] primary sources as background research for writing his Gospel, but “these sources apparently did not include even a single copy of any of Paul’s letters, which, at the time of his writing, had been in circulation for over twenty years.” Thus, “even after being circulated and used regionally, the Didache failed to have enough clout to gain inclusion in the fourth-century universal canons of books,”

Geoff Trowbridge says, "The work was never officially rejected by the Church, but was excluded from the canon for its lack of literary value." And even though he isn't a Biblical Scholar, I found the link through a credible site.

Professor Stephen Voorwinde at the Reformed Theological College in Australia wrote:

[Conservative Lutheran scholar Theodor] Zahn believed that the important factor in canonical development was the use of the New Testament writings in the worship of the Church. It was the suitability of the writings for this purpose that gave them a place in the canon. But this criterion does not do justice to the facts. The Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache were so used at an early point. On the other hand, there is little evidence to suggest that 2 Peter, 3 John and Jude were used for public lection in the early Church. As was the case with apostolicity, [Harry Y.] Gamble also expresses positive appreciation for this criterion, but again not without qualification: "This criterion was not definitive: many documents which met it quite adequately were not admitted into the canon ... while other writings lacking longstanding and broad currency nevertheless did gain canonical recognition, although tardily."

  • This is not so much a comment on your answer, which is fine, but rather a general comment for anyone reading... Gregg's assertion that Paul's letters had been circulating for 20 years seems utterly baseless. Some may have been written 20 years prior, depending on how you date Luke, but there is no reason to believe they went into wide circulation immediately. One also wonders why Gregg thinks Luke must have drawn on letter written for instructed specific churches while writing the history of the Jesus movement. Seems more likely than not he wouldn't use them even if he had the letters. – ThaddeusB Oct 16 '15 at 18:20

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