Milavec, Aaron. The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. New York: The Newman Press, 2003.
Chapter 7 “Learning Gratitude by Offering First Fruits” pp. 491-525.
While the New Testament does not prescribe an offering of first fruits in a specific manner, the Didache does. Milavec does say that the New Testament references are “purely metaphorical” (Milavec 2003, 494). Whether this is accurate or not, Milavec is clear that the gift is to be made, and that it funds the prophets (13:3). The Didache speaks more broadly than the Old Testament. While Leviticus 23 assumes the gifts are made from agricultural products from Palestine, the Didache does not have a geographic element. It also allows processed products among first fruits (Milavec 2003, 495). The actual donation of an animal may not have been of use to someone who moved about like a prophet (Milavec 2003, 496). In fact, the Didache does not discuss the “first born” specifically, but only “first.” The Levitical rules for redemption of humans and unclean animals would also conflict with the Didache, as silver was not to be given to the prophets. Milavec is clear that the offering of first fruits was not a tithe. It was a token offering, not a precise amount based on a whole harvest (Milavec 2003, 498). Milavec does observe that the terms used in Didache are slightly vague, possibly by design. The reader, whether from a Jewish or Genitle background, would understand the directions in the context of his own culture (Milavec 2003, 500).
Didache gives no motive for the offering of first fruits. However, the Jewish tradition shows this as an expression of gratitude to God (Milavec 2003, 500). These offerings were regularly for consecration to God, not for the support of the priests. The prophets of the Didache, further, were residing with families where they would receive food (Milavec 2003, 501).
For greater insight into the custom of offering first fruits, Milavec turns to the Talmud. Because the earth belongs to the Lord, all which comes from the earth is from the Lord. Therefore, all reception of the things of the earth is accompanied by thanksgiving (Milavec 2003, 503). Within the Didache communities, it would seem a natural move of piety to make an offering of the first gain, both to Gentiles and Jews. The custom was common in a variety of traditions (Milavec 2003, 504).
In the Didache offerings are given “to the prophets for they themselves are your high priests” (13:3). During the period of the Jewish temple, the priests of the temple received offerings. Milavec finds in Didache a systematic move to replace the temple cult (Milavec 2003, 505). He finds this specifically at 8:1, 8:2, 14:1-3, 1;3, and 16:3-8. The result, in using the oppressed and dispossessed prophets as the recipients of gifts (rather than presumably privileged and oppressing priests?) could work toward social goods such as gratitude, humility, confidence, honor, and charitable care (Milavec 2003, 506-507). Milavec draws a sentimental picture of people bringing gifts to the prophets who would again learn to trust God and man and in turn would offer kind and meaningful prayers (Milavec 2003, 508). Milavec is clear that this is all in the realm of imaginative conjecture.
The offering of first fruits is specifically extended from harvest to bread, wine, oil, and increases of possessions (13:5-7) (Milavec 2003, 509). The Old Testament and other Jewish tradition makes comments about offerings of bread. It would seem appropriate to view all sorts of gain as a gift of God which would inspire an offering (Milavec 2003, 510).
While discussing the offerings for the prophets, Milavec deals with two critiques made against the authors. First, some observe that offerings are prescribed both at harvest and at the point of consumption (Milavec 2003, 511). However, within Jewish custom it was common to make offerings at various stages of the harvest to consumption process. Philo also uses the concept of a first fruits offering at various stages (Milavec 2003, 512). Milavec is clear that these were not the tithes, used to support priests, but were other offerings (Milavec 2003, 513). A second critique is the apparent equating of the prophets with “high priests.” However, no such objection seems to have come from Jewish converts to Christianity. Possibly the semantic range of the term was sufficient to allow the language without issue. There is no record in the Didache of just how people brought their offerings to the prophets or what kind of thanksgiving or subsequent offering might have been made by the prophets (Milavec 2003, 514).
The Old Testament spells out a number of economic protections for the Israelites, which are absent in Roman soeity. In Jewish thought the land and its increase belong to the Lord. Because of God’s care for the poor, they have a right to some provision (Milavec 2003, 516). Milavec finds, however, that under Roman occupation the poor did not receive such assistance. This was possible in large part due to transfer of land to Romans, thus making the Jubilee invalid (Milavec 2003, 517). Because the Didache communities were under Roman law, any limits to slavery or other care for the poor was purely voluntary. The first fruits would have proven of assistance to the poor (Milavec 2003, 518).
Milavec concludes (somehow) that outside of the Didache communities, early Christians had no means or process for dedicating gifts in honor of the Lord (Milavec 2003, 518). He explains that offerings were given to prophets because of a hostility to the custom of the Jewish temple (Milavec 2003, 519). In the absence of prophets, gifts were given to indigent people, who might give thanks as well (4:5-6). This giving, Milavec says, “had absolutely nothing to do with charity. Rather it is what ‘the Father wishes’ and was a proleptic foretaste of that new order that would prevail when his ‘will is born on earth as [it is now already operative] in heaven’ (8:2)” (Milavec 2003, 519). Milavec’s philosophy further shows when he asserts, “The huge gap between rich and poor sanctioned by society stands as ample proof that God is not in charge” (Milavec 2003, 519-520). The social demands of the Didache indicate a people getting ready for a time when God will rule.
Milavec asks whether the first fruits rules in the Didache reveal a date or time setting (Milavec 2003, 520). Following E.P. Sanders, Milavec expects first fruits customs to apply only to products from Palestine. However, the specific requirements of Judaism may not have been applied to the converts of a Didache community (Milavec 2003, 521). Again, the Jewish offerings were brought to the temple, which was destroyed in 70. However, Milavec alleges an anti-temple bias, so dating the Didache based on this offering and the date of the destruction of the temple is not conclusive.
It is unclear whether Christians continued offerings of first fruits in the second or third centuries. The matter is not widely discussed among the Fathers (Milavec 2003, 522). It is clear that charity toward the poor was practiced. By the fourth century and the Apostolic Constitutions some form of first fruits giving was expected. This practice has continued in some communities (Milavec 2003, 523). By the fourth century, the offerings are brought to designated priests, not to the prophets of the Didache (Milavec 2003, 524).