The Eucharist, Part 38: Didascalia Apostolorum

Note: This is part of this series on the Eucharistic liturgy found in the patristics. The series is an expanded response to FishEaters’ “What the Earliest Christians Wrote About the Eucharist.”

The original liturgy:

The Roman liturgy:

Didascalia Apostolorum

What is the Didascalia Apostolorum? Let’s let the Catholic Encyclopedia explain:

Catholic Encyclopedia — Didascalia Apostolorum
A treatise which pretends to have been written by the Apostles at the time of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), but is really a composition of the third century. It was first published in 1854, in Syriac. In 1900 a Latin translation, perhaps of the fourth century, was discovered, more than half of which has perished. The original was in Greek, and this can be to some extent restored by a comparison with the Apostolic Constitutions, the first eight books of which are simply a revised and enlarged edition of the Didascalia.

The earliest mention of the work is by St. Epiphanius [c.320 to 403], who believed it to be Apostolic. He found it in use among the Audiani, Syrian heretics. The few extracts he gives do not quite tally with our present text; but then he is notoriously inexact in his quotations. Next we find the whole work incorporated into the Apostolic Constitutions, at the end of the fourth century, and soon afterwards it is quoted in the Pseudo-Chrysostom’s “Opus Imperfectum in Matt.” But the work never had a great vogue, and it was superseded by the Apostolio Constitutions. The place of composition was Syria, though what part cannot be determined. The author was apparently a bishop, and presumably a Catholic. His book is badly put together, without logic, but not without some good sense. It never touches upon dogma but concerns itself entirely with practice. It has been called the earliest attempt to compile a Corpus juris canonici.

Citation: John Chapman, “Didascalia Apostolorum.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol 4. (1908)

The Didascalia Apostolorum is a heretical forgery of questionable reliability. The document is not completely useless for our purposes, but it’s not particularly helpful either. There are, however, a few areas of interest.

Didascalia Aspostolorum

Do you therefore present your offerings to the bishop, either you yourselves, or through the deacons; and when he has received he will distribute them justly. For the bishop is well acquainted of those who are in distress, and dispenses and gives to each one as is fitting for him; so that one may not receive often in the same day or in the same week, and another receive not even a little. For whom the priest and steward of God knows to be the more in distress, him he succours according as he requires.

Citation:Didascalia Apostolorum.”

The offering described is the tithe for the poor.


If then the Lord, by the gift of His grace, has set you loose and given you rest,

and brought you out into refreshment [Ps 66.12 (65.12 LXX)],

that you should no more be bound with sacrifices and oblations, and with sin offerings, and purifications, and vows, and gifts, and holocausts, and burnt offerings, and (Sabbath) idlings, and shewbread, and the observing of purifications; nor yet with tithes and firstfruits, and part-offerings, and gifts and oblations, — for it was laid upon them to give all these things as of necessity, but you are not bound by these things, — it behoves you to know the word of the Lord, who said:?

Except your righteousness abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shalt not enter into the kingdom of heaven [Mt 5.20].? 

Now thus shall your righteousness abound more than their tithes and firstfruits and part-offerings, when you shall do as it is written:?

Sell all thou hast, and give to the poor [Mt 19.21; cf. Lk 12.33].?

So do, therefore, and keep the command through (him who is) bishop and priest and thy mediator with the Lord (p. 42) God.

All the obligations under the Old Testament for sacrifices and oblations have ended. All of them. What is left is the voluntary offering of tithes and firstfruits for the poor as established by the Lord.

This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is very far from me [Isa 29.13; Mt 15.8];

but do thou love and honour the Lord with all thy strength, and offer His oblations ever at all times.? And hold not aloof from the Church; but when thou hast received the thanksgiving of the oblation, that which comes into thy hands cast (in), that thou mayest share it with strangers:? for this is collected (and brought) to the bishop for the entertainment of all strangers.

The Didascalia Apostolorum describes the (2-3) thanksgiving—eucharist—of the oblation, or as Justin Martyr would have put it: “eucharisted.” It is the offering of the tithe, to God, to be distributed to the poor according to their need.

Didascalia Aspostolorum

For it is written:?

Let not the sun go down upon thine anger [Eph 4.26]

against thy brother; and in David also He saith: (p. 54)

Be angry, and sin not [Ps 4.5; Eph 4.26];

that is, be speedily reconciled, lest, if anger continue, malice arise and beget sin. He saith in Proverbs:

The soul that keepeth malice shall die [Prov 12.28; cf. Herm Vis 2.3.1 (7.1)].

And our Lord and Saviour also said:?

If thou offer thy gift upon the altar, and there remember that thy brother keepeth any malice against thee, leave thy gift before the altar, and go, first be reconciled with thy brother:? and then come, offer thy gift [Mt 5.23-24].

Now the gift of God is our prayer and our thanksgiving. If then thou keep any malice against thy brother, or he against thee, thy prayer is not heard and thy thanksgiving is not accepted ; and thou shalt be found void (both) of prayer and thanksgiving by reason of the anger which thou keepest. A man ought to pray diligently at all times; but those who bear anger and malice towards their brethren God does not hear; and though thou pray three times in one hour, thou shalt gain nothing, for thou art not heard by reason of thine enmity against thy brother.

This describes the basis for the (1) Dismissal. The unreptentant could not offer their thanksgiving offering—eucharist—for it would not be accepted.

Didascalia Aspostolorum

…but do you, according to the Gospel and according to the power of the Holy Spirit, come together even in the cemeteries, and read the holy Scriptures, and without demur perform your ministry and your supplication to God; and offer an acceptable thanksgiving, the likeness of the royal body of Christ, both in your congregations and in (p. 119) your cemeteries and on the departures of them that sleep — pure bread that is made with fire and sanctified with invocations — and without doubting pray and offer for them that are fallen asleep

Here we have the (2-3) offering of the thanksgiving—Eucharist—and the (4) consecration by invocations. These are notably separate, but it is less clear what to do with the “likeness of the royal body of Christ” and the “pure bread that is made with fire and sanctified with invocations.” Are these one thought or two?

The former is clearly symbolic language, but is also vaguely like the Roman liturgy where the body of Christ is offered as a sacrifice. Of course, Christ himself said that the bread of the thanksgiving was his body, so the Didascalia isn’t actually saying anything new here. Is this unconsecrated or consecrated bread being called the body of Christ? Is it a figure of speech? It is logically consistent with what the Roman liturgy says, but it doesn’t actually describe that liturgy.

The latter is vague as well and implies that the bread is just plain bread until it is sanctified with the invocations, which is precisely what that ancient liturgy suggests. Since the Eucharist is separate from the invocation, this would seem to describe the ancient liturgy. And, unlike above, this implies that the bread is still just plain bread—baked in the oven with fire—even when it is in the likeness of the royal body of Christ until the invocation.

Much of this depends on translation and punctuation. For example:

Didascalia Aspostolorum
…your supplication to God, and offer an acceptable thanksgiving, the likeness of the royal body of Christ—pure bread that is made with fire and sanctified with invocations—

I took out the parenthetical phrase in the original to make one possible meaning clearer. The “likeness of the royal body of Christ” is the “pure bread that is made with fire and sanctified with invocations.” This is not the Roman liturgy.

In the ancient liturgy, you first have prayers, then you have offerings of thanksgiving (including bakes bread made with fire), then lastly you have the likeness of Christ sanctified by invocations (i.e. invoking the words of institution). That’s the (2-3) Eucharist followed by (4-5) the Lord’s Supper. The Roman liturgy is not found here.

However, it is possible to make it appear to lean in a Roman direction and there is additional some ambiguity regardless:

Didascalia Aspostolorum
…your supplication to God, and offer an acceptable thanksgiving, the likeness of the royal body of Christ—pure bread that is made with fire and sanctified with invocations—…

The highlighted portion, which lacks an ‘and’ (or some other separator or indication of a sequence) after the comma, makes it seem as if what is offered is the consecrated bread. But, as we saw above, the document calls the already eucharisted food “the thanksgiving of the oblation” and says that it is this that “thou hast received.” If the Roman Catholic were to cherry-pick out this meaning, they would cause the Didascalia to contradict itself.

It is quite tempting to interpret this heretical forgery in a pro-Roman way in order to say that it was the origin of the later apostasy and innovation.[1] The main reason to take a pro-Roman conclusion is due to its relationship to the much later Apostolic Constitutions. Although the portion that we have quoted here is found in the Connolly, Funk, and Lagarde translations, it is missing from the Gibson translation from the Syriac, and more importantly, it is not found in the Apostolic Constitutions.

The reader will have to decide for himself what to make of the Didascalia. Personally, I don’t think such an ahistoric, anachronistic explanation is a legitimate way to interpret this passage, especially because we don’t possess the original Greek. I still consider Cyril to be the first writer that we’ve examined in our series to explicitly sacrifice the (symbolic) body of Christ in the thanksgiving.

No matter what else we might say, the Didascalia does not explicitly (that is, without significant ambiguity) state anything other than the ancient liturgy. We might be able to make some alternative inferences, but it will be difficult to justify doing so. Whatever the case, the Apostolic Constitutions had a more significant influence in the latter part of the 4th century than the Didascalia Apostolorum did in the latter part of the 3rd century.

Does the Didascalia Apostolorum offer Christ’s symbolic body as a sacrifice? Is it the first to do this perhaps up to a full century before Cyril did it in 350? I can’t say definitively yes or no, simply because the document itself doesn’t make it clear, and the document we have is of questionable authenticity. If more conclusive evidence is brought to my attention, I’ll revisit this post in the future.


[1] This is not unprecedented. Other forgeries—the Apostolic Constitution, the Gnostic Protoevangelium of James, Donation of Constantine, and the False Decretals—were used in the development of Roman Catholic church law and other innovations of doctrine and practice.

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