Search for the Origins of Christian Worship

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Title: Search for the Origins of Christian Worship

Author: Bradshaw, Paul F.

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This is a substantially expanded and completely revised verision of Bradshaw's classic account, first published in 1993. Traditional liturgical scholarship has generally been marked by an attempt to fit together the various pieces of evidence for the practice of early Christian worship in such a way as to suggest that a single, coherent line of evolution can be traced from the apostolic age to the fourth century. Bradshaw examines this methodology in the light of recent developments in Jewish liturgical scholarship, of current trends in New Testament studies, and of the nature of the source-documents themselves, and especially the ancient church orders. In its place he offers a guide to Christian liturgical origins which adopts a much more cautious approach, recognizing the limitations of what can truly be known, and takes seriously the clues pointing to the essentially variegated character of ancient Christian worship.


1. Shifting Scholarly Perspectives

  • Book about the first few centuries of Christian worship
  • The Philological Method
    • Early study was based upon the assumption that Christ or at least the apostles - would have left clear directives
    • The variety of eucharistic rites must be ultimately derived from a single apostolic model
    • Apostolic Constitutions discovered in late 17th century was believed to be the comprehensive liturgy as set forth by the apostles.
    • "The philological method does not function nearly as well with such material as it does with parallel texts that can be compared with one another.
    • Liturgical manuscripts are not unique in this respect. They belong to a genre which may be called "Iiving literature'.This material which circulates within a community and forms a part of its heritage and tradition but is constantly subject to revision and rewriting to reflect changing historical and cultural circumstances.
    • Some liturgical texts included "liturgical debris"
  • The Structural Approach
    • “In his well-known work, The Shape of the Liturgy, first published in 1945, Gregory Dix (1901-52) was one of the severest critics of attempts to find a single original apostolic eucharistic rite.16 However, he did not really abandon the theory, but merely revised it. In his view, the various forms of the Christian Eucharist did have a common origin, but this was to be sought in the structure or shape of the rite rather than in the wording of the prayers:”
    • “first-century Jewish liturgy from which Christian worship took its departure was not nearly so fixed or uniform as was once supposed, and that New Testament Christianity was itself essentially pluriform in doctrine and practice.”
    • “what was once one loose collection of individual local churches each with its own liturgical uses, evolved into a series of intermediate structures or federations (later called patriarchates) grouped around certain major sees.”
  • The ‘Organic’ Approach
    • “The basic flaw in this approach was a failure to recognize the essential difference between nature and culture:”
  • The Comparative Method
  • “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion”
    • “it is dangerous to read any ancient source as though it was a verbatim account of a liturgical act.”
    • “Even the fourth-century sets of homilies delivered to new converts to Christianity and intended to instruct them in the meaning of the liturgies of baptism and the Eucharist cannot be presumed to be mentioning everything that was said or done in those services.”
    • “we need to be aware of being too ready to draw the following conclusions:
      • (a) That Authoritative-sounding Statements are Always Genuinely Authoritative” “When some early Christian author proudly proclaims, for example, that a certain psalm or canticle is sung ‘throughout the world’, it probably means at the most that he knows it to be used in the particular regions he has visited or heard about”
      • “(b) That Liturgical Legislation is Evidence of Actual Practice”
        • “Just because an authoritative body makes a liturgical regulation does not mean that it was observed ”
        • “Synodical assemblies do not usually waste their time either condemning something that is not actually going on or insisting on the firm adherence to some rule that everyone is already observing. ”
        • “John Chrysostom describes those who fail to stay for the reception of communion at the celebration of the Eucharist as resembling Judas Iscariot at the Last Supper,”
      • “(c) That Even When a Variety of Explanations Exist for the Origin of a Practice, One of Them Must be Genuine”
        • “Sometimes several writers will allude to the same custom but offer widely differing stories as to its true meaning or origin”
    • “Indeed, the very existence of multiple explanations and interpretations is itself a very good indication that no authoritative tradition with regard to the original purpose and meaning of the custom had survived, and hence writers and preachers felt free to use their imaginations. ”

2. The Background or Early Christian Worship

  • “The Influence of Paganism”
  • “Gordon J. Bahr in 1970, which encouraged many subsequent scholars to look more closely at the Graeco-Roman background of both Jewish and Christian meals in their attempts to understand the early Eucharist,9 there can be seen a growing trend to take more seriously the influence of the wider pagan environment on the earliest patterns of Christian worship.10
  • The Influence of Judaism”
    • “On the other hand, the recognition that Christianity inherited many of its liturgical practices from Judaism has been very long established, and can be traced back at least to the late seventeenth century.”
    • “1945 of Gregory Dix’s magisterial work The Shape of the Liturgy'* it became axiomatic for those searching for the origins of every aspect of primitive Christian liturgical practice to look primarily for Jewish antecedents”
    • “While at one time it seemed perfectly possible to state with a considerable degree of assurance what Jewish worship was like in the first century, now things are by no means so clear. What can only be described as a revolution in Jewish liturgical studies has taken place, a revolution which has almost completely changed our perception of how sources should be used to reconstruct the forms of worship of early Judaism”
  • “Earlier Jewish Liturgical Scholarship”
  • “The Influence of Joseph Heinemann (1915-77)”
    • “Heinemann argued that the process of standardization took place only gradually. By the second century CE ‘only the number of the benedictions, their order of recitation, and their general content had been fixed, as well as the occasions of their recitation and the rules which governed them, but not their exact wording”
  • “More Recent Jewish Scholarship”
    • “the rabbis set down in the Mishnah,Tosefta, and the twoTalmuds as ‘normative’ necessarily originated with the masses and not within rabbinic circles themselves.”
    • “The newer school of rabbinic scholarship, however, approaches the sources with an awareness that one cannot automatically assume a simple historical reading to be reliable. Rabbinic literature, like the biblical books, was created not simply to chronicle the past but to promote and justify the world-view of those responsible for its redaction.”
    • “Judaism underwent after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The religion which emerged in the period afterwards was by no means identical with the religion which had been current in the decades preceding it”
  • “Reconstructing the Jewish Background to Christian Worship”
    • “John Chrysostom tells us that some ordinary Christians were attending both synagogue ”
    • “On the other hand, after the close of the first century, liturgical influence from Judaism to a now predominantly Gentile Church is likely to have been relatively marginal,”
    • “What is equally important for the background of Christian worship is that we should not single out any one Jewish tradition as normative and treat others as deviations,”
    • “we shall examine briefly four areas: possible elements of synagogue liturgy; the practice of daily prayer; forms of prayer themselves; grace at meals
  • “Synagogue Liturgy in the First Century?”
    • “The Mishnah lists five actions which it says cannot be performed communally without the presence of a quorum of ten adult males: the recitation of the Shema, the recitation of the Tefillah, the priestly blessing, the reading from the Torah, and the reading from the Prophets.”
    • “The Babylonian Talmud prescribed that the entire Pentateuch should be read through in a year, on a consecutive basis, interrupted only by special lections on festal days. The Palestinian practice, on the other hand, was different, and the traditional scholarly theory has been that in this case there was a standard lectionary cycle lasting exactly three years, both for the Torah and for the Prophets”
  • “The Question of Psalmody”
  • Daily Prayer
    • “Whatever its origins, there are a number of signs that the twice-daily recitation of the Shema was already more widely practiced prior to the destruction of the Temple.”
    • “An important dimension of post-70 CE Judaism was the obvious need to stress its continuity with the past, and to give authority to the practices it then prescribed by affirming their antiquity.”
  • “First-century Jewish Prayer-patterns”
    • “Grace at Meals According to the Mishnah, nothing was to be eaten without God having first been blessed for it, and the short berakot to be used for each kind of food are quoted (Ber. 6.1-3). Zahavy has suggested, however, that this fully-fledged system of food-blessings, recited before eating, was not formalized until at least the middle of the second century, and was built upon an older tradition of saying blessings over wine and grace at the end of a meal,”

3. Worship in the New Testament

  • “The Tendency Towards ‘Panliturgism’
    • While some scholars have been inclined to deny that the New Testament supplies much evidence at all for what the early Christians were doing in their regular worship, others have sometimes displayed what has been called a certain ‘panliturgism’ - a tendency to see signs of liturgy everywhere,' ”
    • “For example, it has often been stated that the Gospels were intended for public reading within regular Christian worship, and hence their composition would have been shaped to some extent by the Jewish lectionary”
    • “Most of these theories do not have the slightest evidence to support them.”
    • “Closely related to these claims is the question of the extent to which Christianity separated itself from Judaism from the outset, and therefore the degree to which Jewish liturgy would have continued to exercise a formative influence on Christian worship, especially in the predominantly Gentile churches founded by Paul”
  • “The Tendency to Read Back Later Liturgical Practices”
  • “The Tendency Towards Harmonization”
    • “Each of the New Testament books, therefore, needs to be examined for what it may have to reveal about the worship of the particular Christian community from which it emerges, as well as for remnants of even earlier liturgical traditions which it may have preserved, before any attempt is made to look for common features shared by these different churches.”
  • “Liturgy in the Acts of the Apostles”
    • “One of the major problems with regard to the New Testament is that nearly all the explicit references to and descriptions of Christian worship occur in one book - the Acts of the Apostles”
    • “Although various scholars have expressed a strong preference for one position or another in both these and other instances in the Book of Acts, the inevitable uncertainty which is raised by the alternative explanations means that it is difficult to use the evidence of this source with any degree of confidence to reconstruct first-century Christian liturgy.”
  • “Literary Metaphor or Liturgical Practice?”
    • “The other New Testament books, and especially the Epistles, tend to offer possible allusions to what Christians were doing liturgically more often than explicit descriptions of practices. But once again there is a serious difficulty about how these should be interpreted”
    • “The same questions have been asked of other baptismal images in the New Testament. For example, Christians are spoken of as having been sealed with the Holy Spirit (see 2 Corinthians 1.22; Ephesians 1.13; 4.30), and Revelation 7.3f. describes the sealing of the servants of God as being ‘upon their foreheads’. Is this merely a metaphor, or an allusion to a liturgical ceremony of making the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the newly baptized, ”
  • “Possible Early Christian Hymns and Prayers”
    • “reveal how extremely difficult it is to establish objective criteria to distinguish actual hymns from mere poetic passages,55 or to know whether the composition simply originated with the author or some other anonymous person, or was in real liturgical use in a Christian community. ”
  • “The Origins of Christian Baptism63”
    • “The custom of baptizing new converts to Christianity appears to have been derived from John the Baptist, but the source of his practice is uncertain. ”
    • “All three synoptic Gospels record Jesus’ own baptism by John but say nothing of him baptizing his followers. “The Gospel of John, on the other hand, does not mention Jesus being baptized but does speak of him baptizing others”
    • “On the other hand, what is clear from the New Testament is that the process of becoming a Christian was interpreted and expressed in a variety of different ways. So, for example, in some traditions the emphasis was clearly placed on the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2.38); in others the metaphor of birth to new life was used (John 3.5f.; Titus 3.5-7); in others baptism was understood as enlightenment (Hebrews 6.4; 10.32; 1 Peter 2.9); and in Paul’s theology the primary image was union with Christ through participation in his death and resurrection (Romans 6.2ff.)”
  • “Last Supper and Lord’s Supper
    • One of the major difficulties faced by scholars with regard to the origins of the Eucharist is the question of how far the accounts of the Last Supper (Matthew 26.17-30; Mark 14.12-26; Luke 22.7-38; 1 Corinthians 11.23-6) may be treated as reliable descriptions of an actual historical event and how far they have been affected by the later liturgical practices of the first generation of Christians”
    • “There is no firm evidence at all for the liturgical use of an institution narrative until the fourth century, and then it has the marks of an innovation rather than a well-established custom”
  • “Passover and Last Supper”
    • “Whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover meal has also been a topic of great debate. ”
    • “Those who reject the notion that the Last Supper was a Passover meal have not been slow to offer alternative hypotheses for the occasion.”
    • “Even if it were a Passover meal, no exclusively paschal practices appear to have been retained in the primitive Church’s eucharistic celebrations, least of all restricting it to an annual occasion; and even if it were not a Passover meal, it still took place within a Passover atmosphere and context”
  • “Breaking of Bread and Eucharist”
  • “Recent Trends in the Search for Eucharistic Origins”
    • “two other principal trends can be seen in more recent New Testament scholarship. One is to look at the Last Supper within the context of the significance of human meals in general and of the cultural background of Graeco-Roman practice in particular, and especially the pattern of the symposium, where drinking wine followed the meal.35 The other is to locate the roots of the Eucharist more broadly within the context of other meals in Jesus’ life and not merely the Last Supper”
  • “Did the Eucharist Ever Conform to the Shape of the Last Supper?”
    • “Even if they thought that Jesus had said, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’, they did not necessarily interpret this to mean, ‘Do this, in exactly the same order, in remembrance of me.’ It is more likely that they understood the command to mean that whenever they ate a ritual meal together, whatever form it took, they were to eat and drink in remembrance of him”
  • Conclusion
    • “This chapter has offered many more questions than answers, and that indeed was its purpose. Too often in the past, over-confident assertions have been made about the nature of Christian worship in the first century on the basis of false assumptions and methods, or of dogmatic rather than historical criteria. ”

4. Ancient Church Orders: A Continuing Enigma

“Ancient church orders constitute one of the more fascinating genres of early Christian literature, purporting to offer authoritative ‘apostolic’ prescriptions on matters of moral conduct, liturgical practice, and ecclesiastical organization and discipline. What these pseudo-apostolic texts have to say about the apostolic age itself may be of little interest, but they are potentially valuable sources of evidence for the thought and practices of the periods in which they were composed.”

  • Their Discovery
    • Prior to 1800 only one such document was generally known, the Apostolic Constitutions, first published in 1563. ”
    • “in 1875 Philotheos Bryennios discovered the only known Greek text of the Didache, or ‘Teaching of the Ttoelve Apostles”
    • “Although no new church orders have been added to the list of discoveries since the beginning of the twentieth century, some new manuscripts of various recensions have been found,”
  • “Their Relationship
    • As the various church orders began to appear, it rapidly became obvious that they were more than merely parallel examples of a particular type of literature. Parts of the different documents exhibited such a marked similarity to one another that it clearly pointed to a direct literary relationship.”
  • The individual documents
    • 1. The Didache
      • “Although the Didache is generally accepted as having originated in Syria, estimates of its date have varied widely. Some place it in the second century, others assign it to the first century, and some argue that it ante-dates many of the New Testament writings”
    • 2. Didascalia Apostolorum
      • “This church order is obviously modelled on the Didache,”
      • “The Syriac, which thus constitutes the sole witness to the complete text, is preserved wholly or partially in a number of manuscripts, the oldest of which dates from the eighth century. The fourth century has been proposed as a possible date for this translation, but certain features of it might suggest a somewhat later period.27 ”
      • “The Didascalia was almost certainly composed in North Syria during the first half of the third century, probably c. 230”
    • “3.    Apostolic Church Order”
      • “After a short introduction (1-4), the first half (5-14) is an adaptation of Didache 1-4, and the second half (15-30) issues brief regulations”
    • 4.    Apostolic Tradition
      • “After a very brief prologue this church order begins with directions for the ordinations of a bishop, presbyter, and deacon, and provides an ordination prayer for each one”
      • “It is commonly assumed that these reconstructions present us - at least substantially - with what the author originally wrote. This assumption, however, is very much open to question, and some scholars have argued that parts of the original work may have been retouched by later hands in order to bring it into line with current doctrine and practice.”
      • “There are further doubts concerning its place of origin and authorship. The majority of scholars have supported the view that it originates from Rome and is the genuine work of Hippolytus, written c. 215, but this is far from sure.”
      • “Metzger argued that its lack of unity or logical progression, its frequent incoherences, doublets, and contradictions, all point away from the existence of a single editorial hand. Instead, it has all the characteristics of a composite work, a collection of community rules from quite disparate traditions”
      • “This church order therefore deserves to be treated with greater circumspection than has generally been the case, and one ought not automatically to assume that it provides reliable information about the life and liturgical activity of the church in Rome in the early third century.”
    • “5. Canons of Hippolytus”
      • “Schwartz and Connolly had demonstrated that it was in reality merely a derivative of the Apostolic Tradition, it came to be considered as the latest of the group of related church orders, dating from the fifth or sixth century, and interest in it declined”
      • “Nevertheless, it warrants more attention than it has hitherto received, both because it constitutes an important source for our knowledge of fourth-century Egyptian church life, about which we have relatively little other evidence, and because it may actually have something to contribute to the reconstruction of the original text of the Apostolic Tradition.”
    • “6. Apostolic Constitutions
      • This is a composite work, comprising the Didascalia” “(forming Books 1-6 of the work), the Didache (Book 7), and the Apostolic Tradition together with some other material (Book 8) - all of the sources having been extensively reworked in the process”
      • “It is generally agreed that it was written in Syria, and probably in Antioch, between 375 and 380”
    • “7. Testamentum Domini
      • This church order is a much enlarged version of the Apostolic Tradition, set within the context of instructions given by Jesus himself to his disciples before his ascension, and beginning with an apocalytic discourse.”
      • “Most scholars believe that the work originates from Syria, though Asia Minor and Egypt have also been suggested, and it has usually been regarded as the last of the church orders to have been written, dating most probably from the fifth century.”
  • The Collections
    • “The church orders, therefore, should not be treated in the same way as other ancient works. When we encounter variant readings between different manuscript traditions, we are not always looking at accidental dislocation and copyists’ errors: we are frequently seeing deliberate emendations designed to alter the sense of the text. This of course makes the task of restoring the original more difficult than it is in other types of literature.”
  • Sources
    • There are certainly signs which suggest that at least some of the documents are made up of a number of different strata of material.”
  • Conclusion
    • The jigsaw puzzle is far from solved, and other pieces still need to be inserted. For example, published versions and recent critical editions are still lacking for several parts of this literature.”
    • “Perhaps the whole church order literature is not so much a simple jigsaw puzzle but, as Friedrich Loofs suggested at the end of the nineteenth century,72 a giant kaleidoscope, capable of being arranged in a variety of patterns wherein each person can see the image that they wish to find.
    • “Yet, in spite of the apparent morass which first impressions present, if we are willing to take account of the total complexity of the literature and avoid the practice of simply abstracting pieces without reference to their context - what one might call the ‘hit and run’ approach to historical sources - we can begin to discern an underlying pattern and a logical progression in its development, which may help us to understand it better.”

5. Other Major Liturgical Sources

6. The Evolution of Eucharistic Rites

7. Christian Initiation: A Study in Diversity

8. Liturgy and Time

9. Ministry and Ordination

10. The Effects of the Coming of Christendom in the Fourth Cenury

Other facts

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