Milavec, Aaron. The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. New York: The Newman Press, 2003.
Chapter 2 “The Economic Safety Net in the Roman World of Systematic Exploitation” pp. 173-227
Milavec views the economic aspects of the Didache as an attempt to counteract the rampant exploitation which he finds in the Roman world. In the Christian communities he finds a somewhat voluntary form of collectivism which would prevent the participants from entering into servitude (Milavec 2003, 176). Milavec finds the Roman Empire as a society where a very small part of the population controlled the majority of the wealth in such a way as to live a life of leisure while being supported by the work of the poor and enslaved people (Milavec 2003, 177). he asserts that there were rigid social heirarchies based on income. The only way anybody could earn a comfortable living was by exploiting and oppressing others. This condition, he says, became worse through the first three centuries of the Christian period (Milavec 2003, 179).
Milavec believes the Didache describes a community made of those working in the trades. He adduces 1:5 and 4:6 to demonstrate that giving would be related to manual labor (Milavec 2003, 180). Likewise, in 13:3-7 people would show gratitude to the Lord by bringing offerings, which Milaec sees as very simple items (Milavec 2003, 180). He also notes that entertaining of guests was to be only for a short time (12:2-4). This would indicate a life of work and modest resources (Milavec 2003, 180).
Milavec cites Celsus and his late second century objections to Christianity. Celsus’ chief objection to Christianity was based on the fact that some Christian teachers rose from the ranks of relatively uneducated manual laborers (Milavec 2003, 182). His assumption that only philosophers could guide others into the truth was countered by Origen. Origen contended that people of ordinary intelligence could be wise and godly. They would be able to guide others.
The cultural distinctions in antiquity were clear, though. Yet Milavec concedes that many slaves, especially in urban areas, were well educated and could expect opportunity and, eventually, independence (Milavec 2003, 183). It was not unusual for slaves and masters to work side by side in both urban and rural settings.
Because of the economic realities, Milavec concludes, the novices would be instructed to give freely (1:5). This was a way of giving what belongs to God so as to care for those in need (Milavec 2003, 184). Jewish culture would call for examining some appeals for help. But the Didache speaks of no such examination. Milavec understands this to assert that the need was to be accepted and cared for (Milavec 2003, 186).
If the standard in Didache is to give to all who ask, one may ask about 1:6, which says to find one worthy of a gift. Milavec suggests that there may simply be a variety of situations requiring generosity. The novices are to give to those who ask but also to seek out those to receive (Milavec 2003, 187). Milavec goes on to describe a number of possible solutions to the apparent contradiction, especially those which take a higher critical approach to reconciliation of 1:5 and 1:6.
It seems clear that the text pursues a priority of sharing as a way of service and imitation of God, whether one is taken advantage of or not (Milavec 2003, 190). Members of the community were not to live life in order to become wealthy but to care for others. In the Didache, acts of giving specifically distribute things which belong to God the Father. Milavec states that this is “the oldest known Christian document to make the principle clear (Milavec 2003, 191). The idea continues to arise in other, later documents.
Underlying the idea of generosity, then, is the concept of Christians acting as God’s agents for good in the world. Milavec wonders at this. “When it came to the response demanded by the poor . . . the church fathers embraced a Jewish perspective alien to their culture” (Milavec 2003, 193). This, of course, presupposes that there was not a distinct departure from the Roman or Hellenistic culture found within Christianity. If Christians routinely took on the humanitarian ethic of Judaism, this would have become the culture of the Christian Fathers. Regardless, we do find that Christians typically practiced charity very freely. This would be countercultural in the paganism of the Roman Empire, but probably not within Christianity or Judaism.