Conversatio Divina

Part 9 of 16

Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture

The Two Ways

Michael Glerup

The early Christian writers were well versed in the metaphors of scripture. They explored these metaphors within the context of the overarching narrative of scripture and employed a variety of strategies to achieve their goal of an integrative reading. A basic element of the interpretative process was to determine reliable meanings of important words used in various contexts and genres.

01.  Introduction

Basil of Caesarea takes the opportunity in his Commentary on Psalm 1 to explore life as a way. Basil states:

We read in the Book of Psalms: “Blessed is the one who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor follows in the way of sinners.” Life has been called a “way” because everything that has been created is on the way to its end.

When people are on a sea voyage, they can sleep while they are being transported without any effort of their own to their port of call. The ship brings them closer to their goal without their even knowing it. So we can be transported nearer to the end of our life without our noticing it, as time flows by unceasingly. Time passes while you are asleep. While you are awake time passes although you may not notice. All of us have a race to run, towards our appointed end. So we are all “on the way.” This is how you should think of the “way.” You are a traveler in this life. Everything goes past you and is left behind. You notice a flower on the way, or some grass, or a stream, or something worth looking at. You enjoy it for a moment, and then pass on. Maybe you come on stones or rocks or crags or cliffs or fences, or perhaps you meet wild beasts or reptiles or thorn bushes or some other obstacles. You suffer briefly then escape. That is what life is like. Pleasures do not last but pain is not permanent either. The “way” does not belong to you nor is the present under your control. But as step succeeds step, enjoy each moment as it comes and then continue on your “way.”Thomas Spidlik, Drinking From the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary, Paul Drake, trans. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1994), 38.

A life grounded in evil is characterized by instability. People living this way are easily distracted by the circumstances of life. On the other hand, those grounded in the goodness of God and the hope of life eternal in the company of God live confidently in the grace of Christ.

Basil harbored no illusions. Life is difficult. Disappointment, loss, and suffering, as well as the allure of wealth and fame, can become impediments to the godly life. Only with the end—telos, the life of blessedness fully manifested in Christ—in mind will the faithful be able to continue in the face of temptation and disappointment.

02.  The Two

Early Christian communities adapted earlier Hebraic pat-terns, which taught there were two contrasting paths available. In distinction to Psalm 1’s “way of the wicked” was the “way of the Lord” (Acts 18:25) or the “way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). The Psalms, though a significant source for understanding these divergent ways, were not the only source for reflection. More importantly, it seems the early Christians grounded their convictions in Moses’ last discourse to the Israelites: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments . . . then you shall live.”,Deuteronomy 30:15–16. All Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, copyright © 1989, 2021 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Essentially, Moses asked the Israelites, “Will you choose the life of obeying God, or will you opt for the way of death by rejecting him?” One of the earliest surviving works, the Didache, dedicates six short chapters to defining these two ways.Manuscript discovered by Archbishop Bryennios in the library of a Jerusalem monastery of the Most Holy Sepulchre in Istanbul. It had two titles: the first (shorter) Training of the Twelve Disciples, and second (longer) Training of the Lord Through the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles. Both contain the Greek word for training: didache. It is an anonymous document, most likely a composite; that is, it did not originate from a single individual. Most likely the teachings circulated orally between communities before a scribe prepared a textual version. The opening of the Didache begins:

There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways. On the one hand, then, the way of life is this: first, you will love God who made you. Second, you will love your neighbor as yourself. On the other hand the way of life is this: as many things as you might wish not to happen to you, likewise, do not do to another.

And of these words, the training is this: speak well of the ones who speak badly of you, pray for your enemies, and fast for those ones persecuting you. For what thanks do you deserve, if you love them that love you? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? But do love those who hate you, and you will not have an enemy.Aaron Milavec, The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 3.

The way of life, according to the Didache, follows Jesus’ affirmation (see Luke 10:25–28) that the way to eternal life is to love God and to love your neighbor. Second, the way of life is personal and implies an apprenticeship.Milavec, The Didache, 47, 51. It is passed on from mentor to trainee. The newly baptized were trained to incorporate the habits of the way increasingly into their personal interactions. In addition, the training is practical. As a result of their religious conversion, initiates in the Way faced immediate harassment from friends and relatives. For these novices to continue in the Christian way of life, it was important to learn and develop the habits of praying, fasting, and speaking gracefully to detractors.

Following scripture, the early Christian interpreters contrasted the two ways in pairs: life versus death, righteousness versus wickedness, wisdom versus ignorance, and light versus darkness. Life, Righteousness, Wisdom, and Light are all attributes of Christ. Therefore, the way into this life is through the way of imitation. Commenting on Jesus’ call of the disciples, Bede writes:

From [John’s] disciples [Jesus] summoned two to follow him, and one of them, Andrew, led his brother Peter to him also. According to the spiritual sense, it is clear what it means to follow the Lord. . . . You follow the Lord if you imitate him. You follow the Lord if, insofar as human weakness allows, you do not abandon those examples of humility that, as a human being, the Son of God demonstrated. You follow [the Lord] if, by showing yourself to be a companion of his sufferings, you painstakingly long to attain communion in his resurrection and ascension. (Homilies on the Gospels 1.17)Joel Elowsky, ACCS: John 1–10 (ACCS NT Iva). (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 79.

Bede highlights two dispositions—humility and willingness to endure suffering for the well-being of others—that frequently appear in early Christian literature as essential characteristics of those following the Jesus way.

Similarly, early Christian commentators taught that to follow the Jesus way was to learn from his example. Gregory the Great instructs his readers on how to respond to insults:

He provides us with an example of what we should do in such a situation when he adds, “I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks and judges.” We know that it is written that “the Father has given all judgment to the Son,”John 5:22. and yet we see that when the Son receives insulting words he does not seek his own glory. He leaves the offenses offered him for the Father’s judgment. And so he suggests to us how patient we should be when even he, the Judge, does not wish to avenge himself. (Forty Gospel Homilies 16)ACCS NT IVa: 312.

03.  Following Jesus

The early church understood that the Jesus way was not for everyone. They argued that what mattered to Jesus was not the number of disciples, but rather their faithfulness.

The following passage from Cyril of Alexandria’s commentary on John 6:60–71 focuses on Peter’s response to Jesus’ query, “Do you also wish to go away?”

“To whom shall we go?” Peter asks. In other words, “Who else will instruct us the way you do?” or “To whom shall we go to find anything better?” “You have the words of eternal life”; not hard words, as those other disciples say, but words that will bring us to the loftiest goal, unceasing, endless life. . . . These words surely make quite obvious to us the necessity for sitting at the feet of Christ, taking him as our one and only teacher and giving him our constant and undivided attention. He must be our guide who knows well how to lead us to everlasting life . . .

The Jesus way is not a “hard word” to those who receive it as word that leads to Life. Cyril continues:

It is entirely self-evident that the desire to follow Christ alone and to be with him always is a good thing leading to our salvation. And yet, we can learn this from the Old Testament as well. When the Israelites had shaken off Egyptian tyranny and were hurrying toward the Promised Land, God did not allow them to march in disorder. The lawgiver [Moses] did not let each one go where he wanted to since, without a guide, they should undoubtedly have lost the way completely. . .Cyril then quotes Numbers 9:15–18, Septuagint.

They were ordered to follow: to set out with the cloud, to stop with the cloud and to rest with the cloud. When they stayed with their guide then it was the Israelites’ salvation, just as not leaving Christ is ours now. For he was with those people of old under the form of the tabernacle, the cloud and the fire. . . .

They were commanded to follow and not undertake the journey on their own initiative. They were to set out with the tabernacle and stop with it, that by this symbol you might understand Christ’s words: “Whoever serves me must follow me, so as to be with me wherever I am.”John 12:26. When you are always in his company, it means you are resolute in following him and constant in holding on to him. (Commentary on the Gospel of John 4.4)ACCS NT IVa: 247–48.

The way of Jesus is both a new way and an ancient way. The novelty of following Jesus was grounded in the practice of the ancient Israelites. The early church would concur with Peterson’s statement, “The way of Jesus did not originate with Jesus, although he certainly provided its final and definitive articulation.”Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 11.


Michael Glerup, PhD, serves as Research and acquisitions editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS), a twenty-eight volume patristic commentary on scripture. ACCS, published by InterVarsity Press, is an ecumenical project promoting a vital link of communication between the varied Christian traditions of today and their common ancient ancestors in the faith. Read more at