Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Daily Prayer in Early Christianity

I saw a Facebook post earlier today that asked if Muslims pray 5 times a day, why can't Christians likewise develop a daily pattern of prayer. The post went on to announce a noon day prayer service at a local church pastored by a former student and her husband.

This is really a good question - especially since it seems quite clear in the historical record that early Christians universally participated in a daily cycle of prayers - not unlike modern Muslims.

The historian of early Christianity, Eusebius, writing in the early 300s, stated that "throughout the whole world in the churches of God at the morning rising of the sun and at the evening hours, hymns, praises, and truly divine delights are offered up to God."

This practice in the early Jesus movement was no doubt inherited from its Jewish forebears. In Jerusalem - before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 - specific prayers were associated with the morning and evening (Tamid or daily) sacrifices. It is reasonable to think that the Psalms played a major role in these daily prayers.  Jews living outside Palestine - who could not participate in the Temple sacrifices - often practiced prayer at these same appointed times. It is very unlikely that Jesus and his earliest followers - all practicing Jews - would fail to observe this pattern of daily prayers.

We do not know many of the details of this early Christian prayer cycle. We do not know with certainty the nature of these prayers? Were some communal? Some familial? Some personal? Neither do we know the content or specific language of these prayers, although early Christian writers speak of psalms, scripture readings, and hymns during these times of prayer.

It does not appear that there was a single worldwide structure to the daily cycle of Christian prayer. Some writers describe a two-prayer cycle (morning and evening), paralleling the times of the Temple prayers. Others write of a three-fold pattern of prayer, following the normal divisions of the day (morning, noon, and evening). Yet others tell of a five-fold pattern of daily prayer (early morning, the third hour (9 AM), the sixth hour (noon), the ninth hour (3 PM), and the evening). It is quite possible that in some places , some of these prayers were made in a community assembly (especially the morning prayers), while others were probably made privately or in a home setting (especially the evening prayers associated with the lighting of the lamps - a really great symbolism).

While we cannot know for certain the content and nature of these daily prayers, it is safe to assume that these were times of praise and petition and, sometimes, meditation and lament. We do know from the instructions of Jesus that his followers were to pray with "watchfulness" and readiness for God's saving action (Matthew 25:1-13 and Luke 12:35-48). Early Christian prayer was always "an expectant vigil for the imminent return of the Lord" (Oxford History of Christian Worship).


  1. Interesting suggestion--why Christians might not have a daily prayer routine. I'm of the opinion that, just as Joe suggested, they likely did so, following the Jewish pattern of prayer. The brief comment by Luke that Peter and John went to the temple "at the hour of the prayer" (Ac. 3:1, Greek text, notice the articular construction, "the hour of THE prayer") suggests the time of Jewish prayer. At least we can say that the earliest Christians still revered the temple as sacred space (after all, they met there in Solomon's portico), and they continued to participate to greater or lesser degrees in temple services. Paul, for instance, took a Nazirite vow (Ac. 18:18) and along with some other Christian brothers completed it in the Jerusalem temple (Ac. 21:21-26), a vow that stipulated the offering of appropriate sacrifices (cf. Nu. 6). That they did complete these offerings is specifically state in Ac. 21:26b. Hence, it is not a great stretch to assume that the earliest Christians followed the Jewish pattern of daily prayer also.

  2. One further comment on whether the early Christians practiced communal prayers as well as private prayers. In what we popularly call "The Lord's Prayer" (though strictly speaking, it is "our" prayer, the one that the Lord taught us), there are two features that are suggestive. First, in Matthew's version, the leading line is "Our Father..." The use of the possessive personal pronoun "our" (which is certainly there in the Greek text) suggests that this prayer is communal. It is not "My Father..." but "Our Father..." Hence, this seems to be a prayer for the community, not merely the individual.

    Second, in Luke's version of the prayer, which occurs in a different context (which in turn might suggest that Jesus taught this to his disciples on more than a single occasion), the language seems to indicate that the prayer was memorized and to be repeated verbatim. According to Luke, Jesus said, "When you prayer, say..." This way of putting it suggests a carefully worded composition that should be preserved and used just as it was given.

  3. Dan: You raise a very interesting - very important - issue: the relationship of the early Christians to the Jewish temple. (Of course, I am referring to the followers of Jesus who were ethnic or converted Jews; Gentiles - whether followers of Jesus or not - NEVER had obligations to obey the Jewish law or worship at the Jewish temple.)

    Clearly - as you pointed out - there are indications that the earliest followers of Jesus understood themselves as practicing Jews to whom the law of Moses and temple obligations still applied. Even among this early group, there was divided opinion. The division between the Hebraists and Hellenists in the early Jerusalem community (Acts 6) - if it is related to Stephen's "temple sermon" (Acts 7) as it seems to be - may well have extended beyond language and cultural differences to a fundamental difference regarding obligations to the temple and other Jewish institutions.

    This "ambiguity" (as James D. G. Dunn calls it) among the early Jewish Christians regarding the temple and its accompanying sacrifices reached its extreme in the book of Hebrews and the tendency among future Christians to read its arguments in supersessionist terms. [Notice I did not say in Paul's arguments in Galatians and Romans.]

    It seems to me that there are several blog discussions in all of this: (1) the extremely early interpretation of the death of Jesus as a Hebrew "sin offering" (perhaps even the Yom Kippur atoning sacrifice) and its implications for later theories of atonement, (2) the apparent continued covenant obligations (Torah observance and temple worship) on ethnic Jewish followers of Jesus, and (3) the overall question of whether the New Testament presents Christianity as superseding Judaism (the roots of anti-Semitism throughout later Christian history).