When we consider that most of the final chapter of the Didache is centered on eschatological themes, it is surprising to discover that so little has been written about the role this specific chapter plays overall doctrine of the “Last Things.” There have been a few articles, but nothing has been written that approaches the thoroughness of the unpublished 1949 Harvard dissertation of George Eldon Ladd titled “The Eschatology of the Didache.”
Here is my own translation of the chapter:
16:1 Be watchful over your life;
do not let your lamps be quenched,
and do not let your waists be ungirded.
But be prepared,
for you do not know the hour in which our Lord is coming.
16:2 And frequently be gathered together,
seeking what is appropriate for your souls;
for the whole time of your faith will not benefit you
unless you are perfected in the last time.
16:3 For, in the last days
the false prophets and corrupters will be multiplied,
and the sheep will be turned into wolves,
and the love will be turned into hatred.
16:4 For, when lawlessness increases,
they will hate each other
and they will persecute
and they will betray each other.
And then will appear the world-deceiver as a son of God,
and he will do signs and wonders,
and the earth will be delivered into his hands,
and he will do unlawful things
that never have happened from eternity.
16:5 Then the human creation will come
into the fiery test,
and many will be led into sin and will perish,
but the ones remaining firm in their faith,
will be saved by the curse itself.
16:6 And then the signs of the truth will appear:
first, a sign of an opening in heaven,
then a sign of a trumpet sound,
and the third [sign will be] a resurrection of dead ones—
16:7 but not of all [the dead],
but as it was said:
“The Lord will come and all the holy ones with him.”
16:8 Then the world will see the Lord coming atop the clouds of heaven …
The chapter opens with an intense three-fold exhortation: 1) “be watchful” 2) “be prepared” and 3) “be gathered together.” With these imperatives, there is only one indicative statement that serves to be the basis for the three admonitions: “for you do not know the hour in which our Lord is coming.” Then follows the details of this coming with a series of future indicative statements in 16:3-8, with no further imperatives. We do not know if there originally were additional exhortations following 16:8 since it probably is not the original ending – more on that soon.
The reference to being “perfected in the last time” recalls the other reference to being “perfect” in 6:2. The author skillfully placed these references at the beginning and the end of this second main section of the book to serve as an inclusio that frames this part of his literary discourse.
These urgent exhortations are in light of what must have been considered an imminent coming of the Lord, and they are consistent with similar exhortations in the NT in light of the parousia (Matt. 24:42-44; Luke 12:35; 1 Thess. 15-18; 2 Pet. 3, etc.). Many writers have affirmed that Matthew’s “Olivet Discourse” and especially 24:42 must have influenced the writer in these verses. The current scholarly preference is that here and elsewhere he utilized oral Jesus tradition and was not using any proto-canonical writings. My own opinion is that the Didachist is here and throughout the chapter influenced by what he also calls the “Gospel of our Lord,” a Greek translation of Matthew’s logia. I also conclude that, whatever sources he may or may not have used, he adapted them and shaped them into this form for his own purposes
There is an intensely practical purpose that the Didachist has in all this: the preparation of his readers for the difficulties of the end. The “World Deceiver” (ὁ κοσμοπλανὴς - a title coined by the Didachist?) will shortly appear as a false son of God and will deceive the entire earth by claiming divine powers. The one way to withstand these troubles is by faithful attendance at the Christian gatherings. He urges his readers to faithfulness so that they will not be among those who turn away.
There has been much speculation about the identity of the “curse” in 16:5b: “but the ones remaining firm in their faith, will be saved by the curse itself.” The word is καταθεμα, one of a number of words that can mean “curse.” The word does not occur in the LXX and appears in the NT only as a preferred variant reading in Rev. 22:3. One could wish that the statement by Paul in Gal. 3:13 might use this word: “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree,” but the “curse” there is καταρα. , Schaff comments, “This is the most difficult passage (in the Didache) next to “the cosmic mystery” in XI. 11.” Even in 1887 he mentions at least seven interpretations of the word. It is probably still best, in light of Deut. 21:23, (despite the different Greek word), that this 16:5 is a paradoxical statement that the “cursed one”(i.e., Jesus) will save the faithful from the eschatological curse, because he already experienced it by being cursed by God. Probably the Didachist had Deut. 21:23 in mind and simply used another word.
The three “signs of the truth” that he describes in 16:6, 7 have similarities to Matthew’s discourse but also differences. He mentions an “opening in heaven,” which could be simply a preparation of the sky for the later appearing of the Lord (16:8). Some scholars, however, have translated the word evkpeta,sewj as a “spreading out,” signifying a celestial “sign of the cross” being displayed. The “trumpet” echoes (pardon the pun) the same sound in Matt. 24:31; 1 Cor. 15:52; and 1 Thess.4:16. To think that the Didachist, however, is referencing any Pauline statement is simply not valid. Paul and the Didachist were probably both echoing an original statement of “the Lord.”
The final sign, “a resurrection of dead ones,” should not surprise Bible readers familiar with Daniel’s 12:2: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” What we do not expect, however, is that the Didachist limits the ones in this resurrection. He adds, “but not of all [the dead]” and then quotes Zech. 14:5, applying the “holy ones’ in that passage to “saints” not angels. This has often been taken as indicating the chiliasm, or millenarianism of the author. Since 2nd century authors like Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian were pronounced chiliasts, we should not be surprised if the Didachist was also sympathetic to this view of the future kingdom.
This brings us to the end of the book, which just about all, including Leon the scribe, believe was not the original ending. “Leon” indicates by the blank lines following 16:8 in his manuscript that his vorlage also did not contain anything beyond these words and that this was not the original ending. Since the Apostolic Constitutions and other works that incorporate the Didache do have additional words at this point, scholars have speculated if these works may contain the original ending. Robert E. Aldridge suggests that a combination of Constitution’s ending and that of the Georgian version “may be accepted as the proximate true ending.” However, I would like to offer my own solution as a variation of Aldridge’s. Since part of Constitution’s ending is very clearly a borrowing of Paul’s statement about the glorious eschaton in 1 Cor. 2:9, I offer the ending without that insertion which I am sure that the original Didachist would not have used. Thus after 16:8 would be the following words:
“…with the angels of His power, in the throne of His kingdom, to condemn the devil, the deceiver of the world, and to render to everyone according to his deeds. Then shall the wicked go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous shall enter eternal life. And they shall rejoice in the kingdom of God, which is in Christ Jesus.”
In his dissertation, Ladd suggests that the abbreviated ending of the chapter 16 may not have been accidental. While not being dogmatic, he suggests that the original ending of Didache may have contained a clear reference to an earthly kingdom following the resurrection of the righteous dead and preceding a resurrection of the wicked dead after that kingdom. By the third century, when chiliasm had fallen out of favor with many segments of the “Great Church,” the chiliastic ending was stricken and its more generic ending left. What appeared in the Apostolic Constitutions and the Georgian version thus was a doctored ending that omitted the chiliastic reference in favor of a view more amenable to the church at that time, even adding the Pauline statement from 1 Cor. 2:9 for good effect.
(For further study, see my article in Bibliotheca Sacra, “The Didache Apocalypse and Matthew 24” (Vol. 165, 2008).