Friday, October 16, 2015

Early Christian Worship: Part 1

                Here I Intend to begin the first of four posts on the nature of early Christian worship as it can be gleaned from the bits and pieces as referred to in the New Testament.
                While to greater or lesser extent the earliest Christians still participated in both the temple (until its destruction) and the synagogue (until it became impossible to continue), they also began distinctively Christian worship. While such Christian worship was not directly connected to either temple or synagogue, it drew from temple motifs and synagogue patterns.

                Jesus left no formal order of worship, though he did leave two mandates for the sacramental practices of baptism and Eucharist. The earliest Christian worship services in Jerusalem seem to have been somewhat informal and convened on a daily basis:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Ac. 2:42) 

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. (Ac. 2:46-47a) 

They [Sanhedrin] were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. (Ac. 4:2) On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported… When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer… After they had prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly (Ac. 4:23-24, 31)

All the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. …more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. (Ac. 5:12, 14) 

Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ. (Ac. 5:42) 

At this early juncture, it is probably fair to say that Christian worship was not yet normalized, that is, that there were as yet no formal principles regulating the service of worship. This is no more than would be expected of a group that had no formal mandate for a worship order. The expression “they broke bread” probably refers to the observance of the Eucharistic meal (Ac. 2:42, 46), and of course, baptisms were conducted for converts (Ac. 2:41). The apostles taught and preached the message of Jesus (Ac. 2:42; 4:2), and communal prayer was offered (Ac. 2:42; 4:24). The fact that they met in the temple courts suggests that they retained the basic concept of sacred space set apart for the worship of God (cf. Ac. 2:46; 5:12, 19-21, 42a), but the fact that they also met in homes implies their confidence that the indwelling of the Spirit sanctified all places where they gathered (Ac. 2:46; 5:42). The fact that the early Christians followed the “teaching of the apostles” (Ac. 2:42) distinguishes Christian allegiance from the teaching of other groups (Pharisees, Essenes, etc.) and implies that Christians believed the Torah had been fulfilled in Jesus. Only after the Christian circle expanded beyond the environs of Jerusalem do we find the nucleus of an order of Christian worship.

Mostly what we find concerning early Christian worship services are bits and pieces. There exists in the New Testament no objective description of an early worship service. When Peter was arrested, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him” in the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark (Ac. 12:5, 12). In a gathering of Christians for worship at Antioch, Syria, Paul and Barnabas were commissioned as missionaries (Ac. 13:1-3). At Troas in western Asia Minor, Christians gathered on Sunday evening “to break bread”, which implies the Eucharistic meal (Ac. 20:7, 11). In this context, Paul taught at length in an upstairs room illuminated by oil lamps (Ac. 20:8-9). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul could assume that his converts would gather for worship in the name of the Lord Jesus (1 Co. 5:4; 11:18). He also could assume that in their corporate worship they would observe the Eucharistic meal (1 Co. 10:16-17; 11:17-34). Their meetings typically would be on Sunday, the first day of the week (1 Co. 16:2). During their worship gatherings, considerable room was afforded for congregational participation in song, instruction, and the expression of spiritual gifts (1 Co. 14:26). Both women and men were allowed to pray and address the congregation, though there were expected patterns of decorum (1 Co. 11:4-5; 14:39-40).

Some corporate, liturgical elements are clearly indicated, such as, “the Thanksgiving” (1 Co. 14:16), “the Amen” (1 Co. 14:16; 2 Co. 1:20), and the closing “Maranatha” (= “Our Lord, come!” 1 Co. 16:22).

And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God. (2 Co. 1:20).

The references to “the thanksgiving” and “the amen” clearly have the definite article in the Greek text, which implies a formal element. Paul refers not merely to some incidental or spontaneous “thanksgiving” and “amen,” but rather to the amen and the thanksgiving. Unfortunately, some translations, such as the NIV, omit the definite articles, thus obscuring the liturgical framework. Maranatha is given in Aramaic. The fact that Paul would give a closing prayer in a language that ordinarily would hardly be understood by Corinthians in the Greek Peloponnesus almost certainly denotes a liturgical element, since otherwise it would have been incomprehensible unless it was a regular part of the service carried over from Palestine. What is true for Maranatha is equally true of Amen, which is a Hebrew word transliterated into Greek (and eventually, into English). Similarly, the word ‘Abba in addressing God, the Aramaic word for father, goes back to Jesus’ prayers and the Lord’s Prayer (cf. Mk. 14:36; Ro. 8:15; Ga. 4:6). The most natural context in which a Greco-Roman Christian in Italy or Asia Minor would employ the Aramaic word ‘Abba would be in reciting the Lord’s prayer.

                The widespread use of doxologies in the New Testament—standardized formulae offering praise to God—may well have been taken from worship settings (Ro. 16:27; Ga. 1:5; 1 Ti. 1:17; 6:16; 1 Pe. 5:11; Jude 25; Rv. 1:6; 7:12; 19:1). Doxologies typically begin with “Blessed be…” and are directed toward God. Typically they end with “Amen” (Ro. 1:25; 9:5; 11:36; 16:27; Ga. 1:5; Ep. 3:21; Phi. 4:20; 1 Ti. 1:17; 6:16; 2 Ti. 4:18; He. 13:21; 1 Pe. 4:11; 5:11; 2 Pe. 3:18). Often, they consciously refer to the Father, the Son and the Spirit (Ep. 1:3; 3:21; Ro. 16:27; He. 13:21; Jude 25; Rv. 5:13). Most naturally, such doxologies would have come at the conclusion of prayer. Similarly, New Testament benedictions—parting words of blessing upon God’s people—may also have been drawn from early Christian worship settings (e.g., 2 Co. 13:14).

                Other bits and pieces of evidence highlight music and singing. While we have no direct evidence about the use of musical instruments one way or another, it is possible if not likely that the early Christians did not use them, following synagogue practice, where they were banned. Still, vocal music clearly held a prominent place in Christian worship. Paul can assume that in Corinthian worship one of the expressions offered to the church would be “a hymn” (1 Co. 14:26). In Ephesus and Colossae, he can refer to “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Ep. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Psalms would have included antiphonal singing (cf. Ezra 3:11; Ne. 12:24, 31), drawn from temple and synagogue, and hymns may have been original compositions, at least if Paul’s reference to hymns is analogous to similar references by his contemporary Philo. James can urge joyful Christians to “sing songs of praise” (Ja. 5:13), and while they were not exactly in a worship service, Paul and Silas sang in the midnight darkness of the Philippian jail (Ac. 16:25). Many scholars have suggested that the poetic forms of various New Testament passages may themselves have been derived from early Christians hymns. Luke’s Gospel contains several: the Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55), the Benedictus (Lk. 1:68-79), the Gloria in excelsis (Lk. 2:14) and the Nunc Dimittis (Lk. 2:29-32), to borrow their Latin titles. The Book of Revelation contains several more (Rv. 4:8, 11; 5:9-10, 12, 13; 7:10, 12; 11:15, 17-18; 15:3-4; 22:17). All these parallel very closely the ancient psalms, and most scholars agree that they follow to a large measure the style of the Eighteen Benedictions of the temple and synagogue service. Later, these same compositions would be taken up in the liturgical use of the post-apostolic church. Such references occur in the Apostolic Constitutions, a compilation of directives concerning early church teaching and worship and derived from various sources and periods. Some probably go back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries, some perhaps even earlier, others later.

                In addition to the poetic compositions more generally recognized as early Christian hymns, one should also recognize various passages in the Pauline literature that well may be fragments of early Christian hymns (Ep. 5:14; Phil. 2:6-11; 1 Ti. 1:17; 3:16; 6:15-16; 2 Ti. 2:11-13). In particular, Paul’s citation in Ephesians 5:14 is prefaced with the words, “Wherefore he [or “it] says…”

Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.

We might suppose that Paul is here quoting from the Old Testament, but in fact, he is not. Most scholars agree with the ancient opinion of Origen (AD 185-254) and Theodoret (5th century) that this is a fragment of a Christian hymn, possibly sung in the context of Christian baptism.

                In general, it is fair to say that these fragments, if indeed they are from the hymnody of the apostolic church, focus upon the central issues of the gospel itself—deeply held truths like the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, the messiahship and lordship of Jesus, the worthiness of God to be glorified, the Christian hope and so forth. None of them seem to give substantial attention to the psychological self of the worshipper. The center, just as with the ancient worshippers of the Old Testament, is the worth-ship of God, especially as mediated through his Son, Christ Jesus the Lord.


  1. Dan: Thank you for this sweeping overview of early Christian worship drawn for both biblical and post-apostolic sources. As always, your presentation was well-structured and informative. Likewise, you are never afraid to offer a personal insight or support a controversial view.

    I want to ask a couple of questions that arise out of your posts. I will ask one question - or better, one set of questions - at a time.

    Daily table fellowship and the Eucharistic meal.

    Table fellowship - inclusive of unexpected guests from the margins of society - lies at the bedrock of the Jesus tradition. The Palestinian obligation of hospitality ran headlong into apparent violations of Jewish purity laws at the table Jesus shared with "tax collectors and sinners" as well as his closest followers. Table fellowship was a great - if not the greatest - offense of Jesus' public ministry (at least until the eschatological act of cleansing the Jerusalem temple).

    Obviously, the Eucharistic meal was different than these daily meals in the context of the ministry of Jesus. I feel - following the lead of Joachim Jeremias - that the "last supper" was a Seder, a Jewish Passover meal, celebrated on the night before Jesus' death.

    Both types of meals - daily table fellowship and Eucharistic meals - were emulated by the earliest Christians. In both cases, these followers defined their behaviors by imitation of their master. In both cases, the meals "make sense" (at least in their earliest expressions) as Palestinian Jewish celebrations.

    Here is my question: Did these two different types of meals blend (or maybe, blur) together into one in earliest Christianity? Did the earliest Christians pronounce the Eucharistic "words of institution" each time they "broke bread" together? Or did the two types of meals maintain distinction in early Christianity - with the Eucharistic celebration practiced under more specific and special circumstances than the daily shared meal? How long did the Eucharistic meal retain the "Jewishness" of its Passover roots in earliest Christianity? And ultimately, should Christians today look to the Hebrew Passover as the pattern for the Eucharistic meal?

    1. What an excellent set of questions! I may not be able to offer definitive answers, but I will hazard some (educated?) guesses.

      First, I agree that table fellowship in the ministry of Jesus was a sign of God’s mercy and an open invitation to the reign of God. I also agree that the Last Supper (following the work of Jeremias and I. Howard Marshal) was a seder meal. Having said that, however, it seems to me that while table fellowship was a central expression of openness by Jesus, it also was to some degree restricted, if for no other reasons than practical ones. All these expressions were within the Jewish community, obviously to many Jews who were considered “sinners” (people of the land who were not overly fussy about the Oral Torah). I don’t find this happening outside the Jewish circle. Jesus did travel briefly to non-Jewish communities (the Decapolis, Syro-Phoenicia), but we have no examples of table fellowship in these brief interludes. It remains unclear whether or not Jesus would (or did) extend table fellowship beyond the Jewish circle, at least during his public ministry.

      Switching over to the early Palestinian Christians, once again table fellowship is an important part of their practice, but once again, it is within the Jewish circle, at least at the beginning. To be sure, the boundaries were being pushed by Philip’s sermons in Samaria and the outreach to Jews with despised trades (e.g., Peter’s stay with a tanner, who by his occupation was in constant contact with corpses and blood, and by secondary transmission, would have communicated his uncleanness to Peter). Shortly, Peter ends up preaching to a non-Jewish God-fearer in Caesarea. Nonetheless, when Peter was examined by the Jerusalem church, a primary objection was that he had eaten with pagans (Ac. 11:3). In the end, of course, the Jerusalem leaders all had to acknowledge that this Gentile God-fearer must be included in the family circle, since God had given him the gift of the Spirit also.

      It is in Paul’s missionary trips to non-Jewish communities that the mentions of table fellowship begin to drop off. Paul invariably began with the synagogue, but when/if Gentiles were attracted to the message of Jesus, he openly redirected his attention to them as well. Perhaps here is where open table fellowship of the sort practiced by Jesus and the early Palestinian Christians began to be problematic. Pagans already practiced a kind of table fellowship, usually linked with sacrifices to the pagan deities, inviting neighbors and friends. To the Corinthians, Paul is at some pains to find a middle road between offering the gospel to non-Jews and maintaining his guard against paganism. He ends up saying that Christians can attend meals at pagan homes, but they must not indulge in paganism itself. He seems to preclude attending meals in a pagan temple. I’m thinking that it may be here that the meals of open table fellowship and the Eucharistic meal began to merge, the former taking on the exclusivity of the latter. Paul’s treatment seems to refer a large meal, not just a pinch of bread and a sip of wine, but he clearly envisions it as Eucharistic as well. On the other hand, he simply doesn’t address the issue of Christians inviting pagans to a Christian meal. Somewhat later, however, Jude comes close by upbraiding those who allowed flagrantly immoral people to attend such meals, and he calls them “blemishes at your love feasts”.

      In the end, my hazarded guess is that the two meals did, in fact, merge into one. The original openness that is to be seen in the ministry of Jesus and the early Palestinian Christians met head-on with paganism, and this was the catalyst for change. The Eucharistic meal continued to retain some of its Jewish character, but it also changed as it confronted raw paganism.

      Some years ago, I had opportunity to have lunch with Mark Nanos, who as you know vigorously presses the Jewish aspect of early Christianity. I wish I had your questions to pose to him then!

  2. Another Question: The Fulfillment of the Torah versus the Torah of Jesus

    Did the earliest Palestinian members of the Jesus movement - they were probably not known as Christians at this time - follow the "Torah of Jesus," a different interpretation of Torah obligations distinct from (but in most cases, very close to) the Pharisaic schools of Hillel and Shammai? Jesus was clearly a halakhic teacher, offering his own interpretation of the Torah, throughout the gospel of Matthew.

    You stated - quoting Matthew's gospel - that the "Christians believed that the Torah had been fulfilled in Jesus." Does this imply that the Torah was abandoned or superseded as a thing of the past, replaced by God's coming kingdom and his unique action in Jesus?

    The bottom line is this: Was the Jesus movement - both during his life and after his death - a rival "Judaism" within the pluralism of first century Judaism? Or was the "parting of the ways" - the separation of Judaism and Christianity into different and rival religions - inherent in (and inevitable because) of the new action of God in Christ?

    1. Another highly insightful question, Joe… My understanding of “the fulfillment of the Torah” does not mean either the abandonment of the written Torah nor it being superseded as a thing of the past. I do think that the early Palestinian Christians fully embraced Jesus’ teaching about the Torah, which, as you say, was not entirely different that Hillel and Shammai (though, at least in the question of divorce, Jesus was much closer to Shammai). This amounts to what you’ve called a “Torah of Jesus”, a set of loyalties to the Torah but with some significant new horizons for what it meant to be a Torah observant Jew. Still, late in the Book of Acts, when Paul comes to Jerusalem, there appears the very clear observation that “you see how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the Torah.” This, it seems to me, precludes the view that the Torah was perceived as superseded or abandoned. Quite to the contrary, the Torah had (in their view) now reached its ultimate goal, a Torah written in their hearts so that they could fully obey its obligations in accord with the new horizons taught by Christ. Far from replacing the Torah, Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah had become the defining norm for the kingdom of God. Josephus references to James also seem to suggest that this half-brother of Jesus was a deeply Torah observant, albeit from a Jewish-Christian point of view. Hence, it is not far-fetched to say that this form of early Christianity functioned as a form of Judaism within the larger circle of competitive Jewish views. As has become increasing apparent in recent studies, there was no single Judaism in the time of Jesus and the period of the earliest Christians prior to the debacle in AD 70. Only after this event did the Pharisaic form of Judaism become the surviving norm.

      However—and this is a big however—it seems to me that the answer to your question is “both/and” rather than “either/or”. Inherent within Jesus’ new horizons for understanding the Torah were the seeds that eventually would lead to the separation of Christianity from Judaism, particularly after the emergence of the Pharisaic strand of Judaism as the single surviving form. Incredible pressure was put upon Christian Jews to support the 1st Jewish revolt, and when they didn’t (and according to Eusebius removed themselves from Jerusalem to the Transjordan at Pella), it became much harder for Jewish Christianity to survive as a form of Judaism. It did survive to some degree for a time (even in such obscure groups as the Ebionites), but with the expansion of the eighteen benedictions in the synagogue service to include the birkat ha-minim, I tend to agree with Raymond Brown that this was a deal-breaker.