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Traces of the Earliest Christian Liturgy

It is universally agreed that the earliest forms of Christian worship were integrally related to the congregation’s communal meal or agape. This is certainly the case with the fullest description of worship from the New Testament (1 Cor 11-14), from the Didache (ca. 100), and from Pliny’s Letter to Trajan (ca. 111). Pliny, the governor of Bithynia, gave this account of interrogations he conducted with certain lapsed Christians:

They stated that the sum total of their error or misjudgment, had been coming to a meeting on a given day before dawn, and singing responsively a hymn to Christ as to God, swearing with a holy oath not to commit any crime, never to steal or commit robbery, commit adultery, fail a sworn agreement or refuse to return a sum left in trust. When all this was finished, it was their custom to go their separate ways, and later re-assemble to take food of an ordinary and simple kind. But after my edict which forbids all political societies, they did in fact give this up (Epistle 96).

This account, extracted from informants who had abandoned their Christian faith as long as twenty years previously (that is, in the early 90s), indicates two forms of Christian gathering. First, in the early morning there was some sort of service for prayer and moral instruction. Second, the church re-convened in the evening for a communal meal. It is likely that the first meeting took place early on the Sabbath. By Jewish liturgical reckoning, since the agape began after sundown, it fell on “the first day of the week” (Ac 20:7). The pre-dawn meeting may well have been patterned on the Jewish synagogue service. The distinctive element in Christian worship was the conduct of their religious meal.

Most of the earliest post-biblical descriptions of Christian worship, however, describe a liturgy in which the actual meal is absent. According to Justin Martyr’s First Apology (ca. 150), the Christian gathering began with Scripture reading, a sermon, and prayer. Then, bread and wine were brought forward, prayed over by the “president” of the community, and distributed to the faithful. Much is made of the Eucharistic bread and cup, but the agape is nowhere to be found. Sometime between Pliny and Justin, the Eucharist became separated from the fellowship meal and attached to the morning prayer service.The same basic skeleton is at the heart of liturgical worship even today. And of course, it is likely that what Justin described was customary in Rome, and possibly elsewhere, several decades before he wrote.

Traces of earlier patterns, where Christians gathered around a dinner table for worship, are rare and often subject to diverse interpretations. One must therefore proceed with due humility in attempting to reconstruct the earliest Christian meal-liturgies. There are no fully-developed descriptions of such rites, although early sources such as the Didache — and indeed the New Testament itself — provide important clues as to the general structure. Other clues are present in alternative traditions which seem to preserve older patters that eventually fell out of use. These liturgies are “alternative” only in that they ceased to be mainstream, continuing in the church’s memory only as the idiosyncracies of small, perhaps remote populations or as reminiscences of earlier times.

The Symposium and the Seder

Both Christian and Jewish meal rituals developed from the ancient Greco-Roman symposium, literally “drinking party.” The original symposium had a two-part structure. First came the meal, introduced by a blessing of the bread. Then came the symposium proper, the after-dinner entertainment introduced by a blessing of wine. Though there were certainly immoral excesses, condemned as much by pagan moralists as by Christians, often the entertainment consisted simply of conversation on traditional philosophical themes.

This basic structure of bread (meal)-wine (interaction) is perhaps implied by the organization of Paul’s instructions concerning Chrisian worship in 1 Corinthians 11-14:

  • 11:2-16: Propriety in “praying and prophesying” (at the bread blessing?)
  • 11:17-34: Propriety during the meal itself
  • 12:1-14:40: Propriety during the “symposium”

Guests may have greeted each other with a kiss upon arriving at the banquet. The custom of a kiss before a meal is seen, for example, in Luke 7:45 (where its omission is considered a great insult). Early on, the kiss was understood to be an act of reconciliation with one’s brothers and sisters before the offering as commanded by Jesus in Matthew 5:24. The Didache expresses a similar sentiment when it enjoins worshipers to confess their faults to one another before celebrating the Eucharist so that their sacrifice may be pure (Did 14:1).

Christian liturgy ultimately developed from the Greco-Roman symposium as filtered through the banquet customs of Second Temple Judaism. The Passover Seder is of particular importance, although other communal Jewish meals, including the weekly Sabbath banquets, would have certainly exerted an influence on Christian patterns. The Seder provides an important benchmark precisely because there is sufficient information to reconstruct the broad outlines of Christian observance of the Pascha (Easter) in the mid-second century.

Dennis E. Smith’s research (From Symposium to Eucharist [Fortress, 2003] 147-150) suggests that the earliest form of Passover Seder would have been in basic conformity to the wider Greco-Roman banquet pattern. In its most primitive form, its liturgy would probably have been something like this:

The Appetizer Course

  • Hand-washing (one hand only)
  • Blessing of the wine and the day (kiddush) over the first cup
  • Appetizers: greens, bitter herbs, and fruit pur?©e (charoset)

The Main Course

  • Hand-washing (both hands)
  • A blessing spoken over the unleavened bread
  • The Passover meal itself

The “Symposium”

  • The grace after the meal (birkat ha-mazon) spoken over the second cup
  • The Haggadah or “table Talk,” centered on the Exodus story
  • Chanting of the Hallel Psalms (Pss 113-118)

Later alterations or elaborations to this basic pattern were made until the liturgy began to approximate its current form sometime in the second century. Three significant changes should be noted. First, two additional cups of wine were added to the symposium, one dividing the Hallel into two halves and the other at the conclusion of the Hallel. Second, the grace after the meal was moved from the second cup to the third. Finally, the “table talk” was repositioned before the meal rather than after.

The Quartodeciman Pascha

When compared with the Christian paschal celebration in the mid-second century, we see how his pattern became adapted for Eucharistic worship. Apparently, Christians preserved the link between agape and Eucharist at the special occasion of Pascha even when they allowed the two observances to diverge generally. The outlines of the paschal feast may be discerned from the practice of the Quartodecimans. These second-century dissenters preserved the original date of Easter, the fourteenth of the Jewish month of Nisan (quartodecim is Latin for “fourteenth”) but they were not distinctive in their manner of observance.

In the Epistle of the Apostles 15 (ca. 150), we read Jesus’ own imagined instructions to the disciples regarding how to celebrate the Pascha:

After I return to my Father you are to remember my death whenever Pascha comes about. Then will one of you be thrown into prison on account of my name, and will be in trouble and sorrow because he is in prison while you are keeping Pascha, and he is not keeping the festivity. For I shall send my power in the form of my angel and the gates of the prison shall be opened. He will come out and will watch with you and remain until the cock crows, when you will have completed my agape and my commemoration, and he will be thrown once again into prison as witness to me, until he comes out and proclaims as I have commanded. So we said to him: “Lord, have you not fulfilled the Pascha? Is it necessary that we should take the cup and drink it again?” He replied “It is indeed necessary, until I return with those who died for me.”

In other words, Easter worship consisted in its most basic form of (1) a night vigil lasting until the early morning, (2) an agape meal, including (3) the “commemoration” of Christ: the Eucharist. It is not entirely clear whether the Eucharist would have come before or after the meal. A formal meal in the ancient world concluded with a dessert, which in the Seder was replaced by a final piece of bread known as the aphikoman. If this morsel were intended to represent the presence of the Messiah (see Melito of Sardis, On Pascha), it would not be a great leap to conceive of this as Eucharistic bread once the Seder became Christianized. This would suggest the pattern was agape-then-Eucharist. This would also account for the church’s early adoption of the customary liturgical dialogue preceding the prayer after meals as a prelude to its Eucharistic prayer.

On the other hand, the weight of evidence overall suggests the Eucharistic action would have come before the meal. In the Didache, which predates the Quartodeciman sources, the blessings of the cup and the bread come before the communal meal, not after.

Devotional and theological reasons might be advanced for either option. For instance, a desire to fast before Communion would imply the necessity of placing the Eucharist before the agape. Likewise, having Communion first might have been intended to set a properly worshipful tone for the entire evening. Conversely, in some congregations the Eucharist may have come last so as to end the evening on a high note. Furthermore, If the meal customarily began before sunset on Saturdays, it may have been desirable to wait until the end of the meal — after dark — in order to celebrate the Eucharist on what would then be “the first day of the week.” Clearly, different customs arose in different localities, which were only later harmonized with each other into a more or less uniform liturgical practice.

A Eucharistic Agape

Let us concentrate on the Eucharist-first pattern, simply because it eventually became the most popular option. By filling in some of the details by way of other sources we may propose the following outline for the paschal vigil:

  • Scripture Readings (the Exodus narrative, and possibly the Old Testament prophets)
  • “Table Talk”
  • Eucharist
  • Agape Meal
  • Psalmody (the Hallel Psalms?)

In both Judaism and Christianity, the “table talk” shifted to a position before the meal — and the fact that both communities made the same shift suggests that the relocation first occurred quite early. In the Jewish Seder, it came between the appetizer and the main course. Since the Christian Pascha came at the end of a fast, the appetizer course was omitted, and the “table talk” became the first element in the whole observance. It seems likely, however, that the entire liturgy still took place around the dining room table.

The connections with Justin’s liturgy are hard to miss. The service begins with reading and discussing scripture and moves on to the Eucharist. But in Justin’s description of the normal Sunday ritual, the meal had fallen away.In this light, mention should also be made of an intriguing reminiscence from John Chrysostom (4th century). Chrysostom related a tradition that, in the earliest years of the church, Christians regularly held a fellowship meal after worship. He wrote,

The faithful, after hearing the teaching, after the prayers and the communion of the sacraments, when the assembly was now over, did not leave at once for their homes, but the wealthy and well-off brought food and provender from their homes, called the poor, and offered communal tables, communal dinners, and communal banquets inside the church itself. In this way, the love between them was strengthened by the sharing of the table and by the piety exuded by the place and on all sides. As a result, they were on the one hand happy, and on the other greatly benefitted. Indeed, the poor took great comfort and the wealthy won the favor both of the people who ate and of God, for whom they did all these things. And having received much divine grace, they returned to their homes. (Homily 27 on 1 Cor 11:17)

The pattern is virtually the same: scripture teaching, corporate prayers, Eucharist, then a meal.

Next: Later Developments

technorati tags: agape, communion, eucharist, lord’s supper, pascha, quartodeciman

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7 Comments

  1. mike says:

    Clayton Jefford, Enrico Mazza, and others have been arguing for an earlier dating of the liturgical portions of the Didache. Mazza believes they’re no later than A.D. 48.

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  2. Carl Sommer says:

    I enjoy reading your thoughts on the development of the Liturgy. Just one tiny demurral. There is, possibly, a different understanding of Pliny’s brief comment. Perhaps he meant that the Christians got together for what we would call the Eucharist on Sunday morning, then gathered again in the evening for the Agape. Thus, the split between the two would already have occurred at that time. In any case, Pliny got his information by torturing two Christian women, so the information might not have been accurate. Also, since he had no firsthand knowledge of the subject, he might have misunderstood what he was being told. The development of the Liturgy up to 150 is extremely difficult to trace.

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  3. D. P. says:

    Mike: I personally think the Didache is roughly comtemporary with Paul, so you’ll get no argument from me on this front.

    Carl: You’re quite right. Nobody should be basing their understanding of early Christian worship practices exclusively on Pliny’s letter, and I’m probably claiming more than I have a right to in any case 🙂

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  4. Carl Sommer says:

    D.P:

    I think you proceeded with “due humility”, as you stated in your article. The fragments of evidence are so few that we all try to make them do too much. Have a blessed Easter!

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  5. […] Traces of the Earliest Christian Liturgy […]

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  6. […] blog, which I’d not come across before, but shall be adding to my feedreader. He discusses the separation of Eucharist and Agape, and has a lot of useful comment on the topic. He is quite […]

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