Milavec, Aaron. The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. New York: The Newman Press, 2003.
Chapter 15, “Whether the ‘Burning Process of Testing’ (Did. 16:5) Offers Evidence for the Dual Functioning of Eschatological Fire” pp. 809-838.
In this chapter Milavec seeks “to reexamine the long standing practice of finding in Did. 16:5 an implicit reference to the saving activity of the crucified Christ” (Milavec 2003, 811). Milavec’s contention is that in the Didache communities the saving activity resided in the Father and that Pauline theology is entirely foreign to the writers of the Didache.
The canonical Scriptures frequently picture final judgment as a fire which destroys evil (Milavec 2003, 811). Milavec finds no evidence of the fire purging remaining sins from Christians. This, he notes, was one of the points of contention at the time of the Reformation (Milavec 2003, 812). While Rome tends to consider purgatory as an understanding which grew logically from Christian roots, they will admit that it was not fully developed until the twelfth century (Milavec 2003, 812). The idea of a purufication can be found, at least to some extent, as early as Clement of Alexandria and Origen (Milavec 2003, 813). Because the concept of eschatological fire has some early application as a purging of sin, Milavec asks if that root goes back as far as Didache 16.
In Didache 16 the end times will require faithfulness in gathering as people who hope in the Lord. Those who could make people fall away fom the Way of Life are to be feared an defended against. The hope is the coming judgment, resurrection, and the personal coming of the Lord (Milavec 2003, 813).
To begin his evaluation of the situation, Milavec first looks at the linguistics of Didache 16:5 (Milavec 2003, 814). Here, those who remain are saved “by the curse itself” (16:5). The term in question, katathema, appears to be a variant of anathema, more often used for a ban or curse (Milavec 2003, 814). “Historically, the overwhelming judgment of scholars has been that ‘the curse’ is a veiled reference to Christ” (Milavec 2003, 815). Milavec considers a variety of stated nouns in the text to which “the curse” could refer. He also finds that 16:4 gives negative and positive results of the burning process (Milavec 2003, 816). Milavec concludes that the final fire may effectively burn away the impurities of the faithful (Milavec 2003, 817).
Milavec does grant that once we are accustomed to understand a text in one way it is hard to identify alternatives (Milavec 2003, 817). Didache 16:5, assumed as a reference to Christ, was quickly taken as the authoritative interpretation. Milavec notes several authors in the early part of the modern scholarship of the Didache who described the “accursed one” as Jesus. Milavec finds that there are three primary weaknesss in the view. First, it is problematic to assert an idea which depends on a text that it may not have been aware of (Milavec 2003, 819). If the interpretation depends on Paul and the Didache does not, the interpretation is unreliable. Second, if Christianity was as diverse as Milavec maintains, it may be unlikely to depend on multiple authors drawing on the same tradition of interpretation. Third, a text should be interpreted based primarily on its own text (Milavec 2003, 820). Because Milavec doesn’t find a view of salvation based on Christ becoming accursed in the Didache, he does not think it likely that it would be the case here (Milavec 2003, 821).
The metaphoric use of fire in Didache 16 also deserves reconstruction. In the Old and New Testaments fire frequently functions as God’s means of judgment (Milavec 2003, 821). Fire is also used to show God’s protection. He brings his people through fire safely. Milavec finds this concept helpful in understanding both the righteous and sinners passing through the fire (Milavec 2003, 822).
Milavec notes that the New Testament passages of 1 Corinthians 3:13-15, 1 Peter 1:5-7, and 1 Peter 4:12-13 may suggest a use of fire to purify the Christians (Milavec 2003, 822). Other early Christian writings do tend to capture a function of purifying the Christians. Milavec describes Shepherd of Hermas at several locations (Milavec 2003, 823-824). Another work, the Sibyllines, from the second entury, has righteous and impious together passing through the same fire, which destroys the impious and purifies the righteous (Milavec 2003, 825). Fire seems to become an agent of purification, that which leads to salvation (Milavec 2003, 826).
Milavec further mentions Lucius Lactantius, a fourth century convert to Christianity who wrote a treatise explaining Christianity. The text has parallels to the Didache. Milavec finds the same fire destroying the sinners and purifying the elect (Milavec 2003, 826).
Another difficulty to address in the Didache is whether it originally had an ending which we no longer have (Milavec 2003, 828). There is a purification which prepares for a resurrection. This is common in apocalyptic literature. Milavec, considering Jonathan Draper (1997), evaluates the possible interplay with Zechariah 14:5 (Milavec 2003, 829). It is relatively rare to see this passage used to indicate a resurrection of the righteous but not a general resurrection (Milavec 2003, 830). According to Milavec, Draper finds the prophets to be martyrs and thus the holy ones who are resurrected. However, Milavec questions a requirement of martyrdo to be among the righteous. He also notes that Zechariah 14:5, when used by the rabbis, does not define the “holy ones” as prophets. This is the case throughout Draper’s study (Milavec 2003, 831). At the same time, the burning judgment of 16:5 is applied to the followers of the Way of Death as a penalty and to followers of the Way of Life as purification. Therefore, an appearance of the Lord in 16:8 would not be to bring judgment.
To add to the difficulty, we must recognize the common scholarly opinion that some sort of additional ending may have existed on the Didache. The manuscript, from 1056, has seven blank lines after 16:8. There is no other text which the copyiest is known to have copied with such a space (Milavec 2003, 833). Then again, Milavec observes, the next item in the manuscript starts at the top of a page. The evidence of a doubtful Gregorian version and of Apostolic Constitutions book seven possibly show longer endings, but these are not necessarily identical works. Milavec notes that Apostolic Constitutions does not have the earlier judgment so delays all until God’s coming. Further, eternal punishment rather than destruction awaits the unrighteous (Milavec 2003, 834).
Milavec also considers and rejects the idea that Matthew 24 is intended as a parallel for Didache 16, providing the longer ending (Milavec 2003, 834). The context and signs are divergent in enough ways Milavec considers them thoroughly independent of each other (Milavec 2003, 835). He finally concludes that we do not know what, if any, additional portions may have existed at some point (Milavec 2003, 836).
In conclusion, Milavec finds Didache 6 to be consistent with the expectation of prayer found in the Didache. The prayers found in chapter ten express the same exchatological hope found in chapter 16 (Milavec 2003, 837). The community looks forward to a coming rule of God.