Milavec, Aaron. "The Saving Efficacy of the Burning Process in Didache 16.5." in Jefford, Clayton (editor). The Didache in Context: essays on its text, history, and transmission. Leiden: Brill, 1995, 131-155
The concept of a fire which purifies, a "purgatorial fire," is often thought to arise in the third century. However, Milavec takes it to be the concept of Didache 16.5 and not to be original in the work of the Didachist (Milavec 1995, 131).
The idea of a fire as judgment is common, especially within the New Testament. Yet Milavec does not find it applied to the individual believer as a means of purification from sin (Milavec 1995, 132). This concept was not codified in terms of purgatory until at least the 13th century. However, recent scholars suggest that purgatory is rooted not in particular biblical passages, but in early Judaic traditions (Milavec 1995, 133).
Didache 16.5-8 speaks of the coming judgment, which involves a burning which tests humans. Some remain faithful and become partakers of the resurrection. Then the Lord comes (Milavec 1995, 134). Milavec particularly evaluates the linguistic structure of Didache 16.5, as it is an obscure statement. "Those who have remained firm in their faith will be saved . . . by the curse itself" (Milavec 1995, 135). At issue is the identification of the curse. Milavec considers numerous possibilities but does not appear convinced that any can be stated with certainty.
Linguistic parallelism used in Didache 16.5 suggests to Milavec that "the curse" may well be the burning process (Milavec 1995, 137). The burning which tests all and which only some survive would rightly be seen as a curse to those who perish. In this instance, God's act of judgment may be referred to as "the curse." This view, though similar in wording, differs from a traditional interpretation that Jesus himself is "the accursed."
Milavec explores the difficulty of considering alternative explanations of a concept once one explanation has become ingrained (Milavec 1995, 139). The assumption that "the curse itself" referred to Christ may have blocked out other possible explanations. Once it had been articulated by Harris and Harnack in the 1880s, the concept was seemingly permanently cemented in place (Milavec 1995, 140).
Milavec considers three difficulties with the interpretation. There is no clear evidence that the Didache was influenced by Galatians 3:13 or 1 Corinthians 12:3, so we do not know those passages were understood as apposite (Milavec 1995, 142). Further, the apparent diversity within early Christianity does not guarantee that different communities would understand being saved through a curse the same way as each other. This casts doubt on the interpretation that may have been intended (Milavec 1995, 143). Finally, there is not adequate internal evidence in Didache 16.5 to identify the referent of the curse. We simply cannot say from the text what it is speaking about (Milavec 1995, 144).
Fire is the prominent metaphor used in Didache 16.5, as the means of testing. Milavec explores fire as a metaphor (Milavec 1995, 145). Not only is it a means of judgment or testing, but we also find in Isaiah 33 that surviving fire is a sign of God's protective care. The righteous are unharmed, but the wicked are consumed. Malachi in particular uses fire as a sign of the process of refinement (Milavec 1995, 147). Fire therefore takes on the dual purpose of judging and refining. Milavec finds this to be a valid understanding of fire metaphors throughout the biblical and early Christian corpus (Milavec 1995, 150).
Milavec finally asks whether the Didachist was referring to one judgment in 16.5, then another at the end of the world. This question is made more significant by the possibility that there was once a longer ending to the Didache (Milavec 1995, 152). The current consensus is that the final judgment pictured by the Didachist occurs after the testing by fire.