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date: 24 June 2017

Early Christian Worship

Summary and Keywords

The forms of Christian worship changed and developed considerably during the first four centuries of its existence, not least from a distinctive local or regional diversity to an increasing standardization of practice throughout the ancient world. One of the major factors influencing these changes was the eventual adoption of the New Testament as the Christian scripture, and another was the emergence of the church into public life early in the 4th century. Rites of initiation chiefly involving baptism in water marked the entry of new converts into the community of believers. The central observance was the Eucharist, celebrated every Sunday from at least the end of the 1st century. This was supplemented by services of the word on certain days of the week and by regular times of prayer each day undertaken by individuals or small groups of believers. Annual festal celebrations, the majority of which were associated with the anniversaries of martyrs and others who had died, also increased in number as time passed.

Christians understood the worship that they offered through Jesus Christ to be the spiritual fulfillment of the sacrificial cult of the Old Testament. Although at first insisting that they were not a religion like others around them—indeed, they were regarded as atheists by their contemporaries—they ultimately came to adopt the language, images, and terminology of standard religious discourse once their persecution had ceased and the Church had emerged as a cultus publicus in the 4th century. This also coincided with a shift from an understanding of worship as an essentially corporate action presided over by its appointed ministers to one where those ministers were seen as carrying out its liturgy on behalf of the people.

Keywords: Eucharist, festivals, initiation, prayer, sacrifice, scripture, service of the word

From Variety to Increasing Uniformity

The story of the development of early Christian worship seems to have been of a movement not from uniformity to increasing variety, but rather from considerable differences over quite fundamental elements to an increasing amalgamation and standardization of local customs. The beginnings of this trend can already be seen in the 2nd century, but it gathered much greater momentum in the 4th, as the Christian church expanded, as communication—and hence awareness of differences—between different regional centers increased, and, above all, as orthodox Christianity tried to define itself against what were perceived as heretical movements; for in such a situation any tendency to persist in what appeared to be idiosyncratic liturgical observances was likely to have been interpreted as a mark of heterodoxy.

The earliest Christian community life centered on regular shared meals, just as it did for other associations of people in the ancient world, but the forms of these meals that would evolve into the later Eucharistic rites seem to have been quite diverse. Although bread was the staple element in all meals, and especially those eaten by the poor, in some communities a thanksgiving over the cup preceded the thanksgiving over the bread; in others both bread and cup were prayed over together. Some communities used wine in the cup, others only water, while still others do not seem to have attached any significance at all to what was drunk. Similarly, converts might have been initiated into Christianity in a ceremony that involved simply immersion in water in some communities; in others, anointing with oil preceded the water rite; and in others still, anointing instead came immediately after the immersion. It is even possible that some early groups may have employed anointing with oil alone and not water in the making of those called Christians (who are, literally, “the anointed ones”), or simply the washing of the converts’ feet—compare John 13:8, where in response to Simon Peter’s refusal to have his feet washed, Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”

In particular, marked differences in customs can be seen between communities that appear to have been strongly influenced by their Jewish-Christian roots and others that seem to have originated in the Gentile mission. Such customs as the regular reading of the Old Testament at Sunday worship, the refusal to fast on Saturdays, and the observance of an annual Pascha (Passover or Easter, the same word being used for both) on the same day as their Jewish neighbors distinguish churches in some parts of the ancient world with a strong Semitic background from those in other places where none of these practices was the case.

Liturgy and Scripture

While it is obvious that the actual practice of Christian worship was in existence before the writings that were eventually to constitute the New Testament canon were composed, it is often assumed that once those books were written and began to be disseminated, they would necessarily have affected the form that Christian liturgical practices took and the theology that was attached to them, especially the celebration of the Eucharist and of baptism. However, in reality that does not seem to have been the case. A considerable period of time elapsed between the emergence of the individual writings that were thought to be apostolic compositions and their eventual general recognition as authoritative, and this to some extent accounts for the delay in adapting liturgical practices to their apparent New Testament model. Yet, that in itself is insufficient as a complete explanation. While the recognition of the canon as a whole might have come much later, individual Christian communities from early times valued certain of the writings as providing reliable apostolic witness to the words and deeds of Jesus, and thus one might expect what was recorded there to have been taken as authoritative prescription in matters of liturgical theory and praxis. But the evidence suggests otherwise. It appears, therefore, that early Christian communities inherited strong independent oral liturgical traditions that shaped their practices and theology, and that the New Testament writings at first had only a secondary influence on them.

To begin with baptism: one might expect to find practices in the early centuries that resemble baptisms that are described in the New Testament—the baptisms performed by Philip in Samaria, for example, where Peter and John subsequently lay hands on the baptized and they receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17), or the baptism of the disciples at Ephesus, where Paul again lays hands on them and they receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:6), or, above all, the baptism of Jesus himself, where the Spirit is said to descend on him when he comes out of the water. But that is not so. Only the North African writers Tertullian and Cyprian in the 3rd century describe a post-baptismal imposition of hands associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit; in all other sources prior to the 4th century, either no mention is made of any ritual other than immersion in water or an anointing with oil precedes the immersion, with the Eucharist coming immediately after it. We do not even find the baptismal theology of Saint Paul in Romans 6, so influential in later centuries and in modern liturgical revision, referred to in these latter sources. His concept of dying and rising with Christ is not one that shaped most early baptismal thinking, which focused instead on ideas such as illumination and new birth. It is for that reason that a preference for Easter as the baptismal season is also found only in North African and Roman sources prior to the 4th century.

Similarly, one might have expected early Eucharistic practice to conform at least to some extent to the model of the Last Supper, but there is no evidence for any celebration that followed that particular pattern. As noted earlier, in some cases the blessing over the cup appears to have preceded that over the bread, in others both were prayed over together. While some early writers do recall sayings of Jesus about the bread being his body and the cup his blood, and in some cases also the command to “do this in remembrance of me,” no writer uses the longer forms of these sayings found in the synoptic Gospels with their reference to his sacrificial death nor do they make reference to the particular occasion on which they were uttered. Others speak of flesh and blood rather than body and blood and emphasize its nutritional, life-giving spiritual character rather than its sacrificial role, paralleling the thought of John 6, and some even use phrases that appear to imply familiarity with the story of the feeding of the five thousand recounted in that chapter. It is only from the middle of the 3rd century onward that the New Testament versions of the narrative of the Last Supper begin to assume an authoritative role in shaping Eucharistic theology and practice.

On the other hand, the situation was quite different with regard to the Old Testament. This text appears to have been accepted as authoritative scripture from the first, although opinions differed as to how far the ceremonial law, as distinct from the moral law, was to be regarded as in some way still binding on Christian practice. Agreement was general, however, that the whole Old Testament and not just its prophetic books was to be seen as finding a spiritual fulfillment in the Christian church. Thus, for example, its prescriptions concerning the sacrificial cult were viewed as having been fulfilled both in the self-sacrificial lives of Christians (see Rom. 12:1) and also in their offering of a “bloodless sacrifice” in their worship. The Psalms, more than any other book, were regarded as messianic prophecy and selected ones were regularly sung as Christological songs at Christian Eucharistic meals alongside new hymnic compositions. By the 3rd century some Christians were even adding psalms of praise to their daily prayers.

Patterns of Christian Initiation

Out of the diversity of earlier practices, two main patterns can begin to be discerned in the 3rd-century evidence, one in Syria and the other in North Africa (the latter mirrored to a large extent in later Roman sources), although both still show signs of some local diversity in details. The Syrian evidence suggests that after a period of ethical instruction, potential converts, or catechumens (literally, “learners”) as they were known, were invited to repent of their sins and confess their allegiance to Christ. They then entered a time of final preparation for baptism, probably lasting three weeks, during which the truths of the gospel were revealed to them. The initiatory rites themselves involved anointing with oil (either the head alone or the head and whole body) and immersion in water accompanied by the Trinitarian formula, “I baptize you in the name of . . .,” after which the neophytes were immediately admitted to share in the Eucharist.

In North Africa, on the other hand, after an initial period of instruction, and probably an examination of the candidates’ readiness for baptism based on the witness of their sponsors concerning the conduct of their lives (though this is explicit only in later Roman sources) followed by a final period of preparation, the initiation rites took place, primarily at the Easter vigil. These involved: prayer over the water invoking the Holy Spirit; the renunciation of evil by the candidates and a threefold interrogation about their belief accompanied by triple immersion in water; an anointing with oil that was associated with the priestly anointing of Aaron; an imposition of the bishop’s hand with an invocation of the Holy Spirit (in latefur Roman sources there appears here a second anointing with oil, which is associated with the gift of the Spirit); and admission to the Eucharist, which also included partaking of milk and honey on this first occasion.

Eucharistic Assemblies

As noted above, the earliest sources suggest some variety of form and meaning, but by the early 3rd century, if not sooner, larger congregations were being forced to abandon a full evening meal in favor of the reception of token quantities of bread and wine (or still in some cases, water) at an early morning gathering because it was impossible to accommodate everyone for a complete meal in one place. Sunday remained the regular day for the celebration of the Eucharist, but Communion may also have been distributed on some other days, and it is known that at least some Christians habitually took consecrated bread (and perhaps wine) home to consume daily. Additional celebrations of the Eucharist on the anniversaries of the deaths of martyrs were also emerging, usually at the place of burial, arising out of the custom in Greco-Roman culture of regular graveside meals with deceased members of one’s family. It is possible that Saturdays too might also have been marked with a Eucharist in some communities with strong Jewish roots, although explicit evidence for this is does not appear until the 4th century. By this time the Eucharistic rite generally included a substantial ministry of the word, intercessory prayer concluding with the exchange of a kiss between members of the congregation, a prayer of praise and thanksgiving over the bread and cup, and their consumption by all the baptized present as well as their distribution to those who were unable to be there because of sickness or imprisonment.

Services of the Word

The early Eucharistic meals were apparently accompanied by the singing of selected Old Testament psalms and/or new hymnic compositions by church members and also by discourses given by Christian prophets and others, but it is not clear whether any other gatherings centered exclusively around the public reading and exposition of the meaning of the Old Testament scriptures took place among Christians in the 1st century. Assemblies like this certainly occurred among pious Jews every Sabbath and also on the days of the week prescribed for fasting, Mondays and Thursdays. One might reasonably expect some such custom to have been continued by Jewish Christians, and an early Christian church order known as the Didache does prescribe Wednesdays and Fridays as the regular days for fasting. Later sources not only speak of these as fast days, but also provide evidence for services of the word taking place at the conclusion of the fast at the ninth hour of the day (around 3 p.m.). At these services, passages from the Old Testament were read and preaching took place. There is at first little sign of specific readings being assigned to particular days, except at major festivals, and it seems rather that the biblical books were read consecutively (a practice known as lectio continua). Later, in the West, these services became combined with a celebration of the Eucharist in the morning.

Daily Prayer

Distinct from these services of the word was the practice of daily prayer. The New Testament gives signs of the existence of some definite pattern to daily prayer (e.g., Acts 2:42: “persevering in . . . the prayers”) but no evidence as to what that might have been. The Didache prescribes prayer three times each day, but it does not specify what those times were, presumably because they would have been known to its readers. Morning, noon, and evening seem likely, but later evidence also suggests prayer being recommended at the third, sixth, and ninth hours of the day (approximately 9 a.m., 12 noon, and 3 p.m.). This latter pattern would have been appropriate in urban settings because these were the hours of the day that were publicly signaled in Roman cities. In the middle of the 3rd century, Cyprian in North Africa prescribes what appears to be a fusion of the two patterns, prayer five times a day: morning, third hour, noon/sixth hour, ninth hour, and evening. The sources also refer to prayer in the night. It was common in the ancient world for people to wake for a while in the night after a period of sleep and then to engage in a “second sleep” after that.

The observance of these regular times of prayer, and especially those in the night, were understood by the earliest Christians as part of their readiness and watchfulness for the return of Christ. Later, these times became associated with particular moments of prayer mentioned in the Old and New Testaments. The precise contents of the prayer are not described in the available sources, but by the 3rd century we learn that some of the more pious were adding to them the singing of certain psalms that contained an Alleluia refrain when praying with friends or members of their family—a practice taken over from their communal Eucharistic meals.

In the 4th century only the morning and evening hours were generally celebrated publicly in the newly built basilica churches, and people were expected to continue to observe the other hours individually or in family groups. In practice, however, the full round of hours tended to be kept only by the newly emerging monastic communities, as also was the practice of daily Bible reading. These communities added a further occasion of prayer at bedtime, to produce the biblical total of seven times of prayer each day (Ps. 119:164). The public services consisted mainly of a small number of what were thought to be appropriate psalms, most of them repeated every day, and extensive intercessions.

From at least the beginning of the 3rd century, if not sooner, some individuals thought that prayer several times a day was insufficient to fulfill the apostolic injunction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) and that what was needed was truly ceaseless prayer. This ideal was embodied in the practice of the desert hermits and ascetics who emerged in the 4th century. They allowed only the minimum interruption to their prayers for sleep and meals, and they usually employed all 150 Old Testament psalms in their devotions, learned by heart and recited in order, alternating each one with a period of silent reflection, the psalm providing the “food,” as it were for the meditation that followed it. The Book of Psalms was preferred to other biblical books because it was thought to have been composed by David under the influence of the Holy Spirit, with each psalm thought to be about Christ, addressed to Christ or to be Christ speaking. The use of psalms in this way and the observance of a lengthy vigil of prayer for part of every night were later incorporated into the rules of monastic communities both in the desert and more generally.

The 4th-Century Transformation

There is a danger of overemphasizing the extent of the changes in liturgical practice that came about after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Some of the developments that became widespread in the latter half of that century already have roots in the 3rd century, at least in places such as North Africa where Christianity had become well established and had grown in numbers and wealth. Nevertheless, it would be true to say that many of the elements that tend to be regarded today as standard parts of Christian worship achieve dominance over other forms in the period only after the Council of Nicaea in 325, when church leaders seem to have consciously attempted to bring their liturgical practices into greater conformity with one another. As noted earlier, this was, in part, because they were now more aware of what others were actually doing, as they traveled farther afield on pilgrimages or to attend the meetings of councils, and, in part, because of their desire not to be thought heterodox due to some idiosyncrasy in their liturgical customs.

Other 4th-century developments came about as a consequence of the changed cultural context in which Christianity found itself. So, for example, what had been perfectly adequate methods of initiating new converts into the church when Christian communities were small and catechumens highly motivated needed some radical changes to deal with the greater numbers of those now wishing to enroll, who in many cases seemed to lack anything comparable to a conversion experience. Thus, the associated ceremonies became more dramatic and secretive in character with the aim of producing a powerful psychological impression on the candidates, and the theology of baptism began to move toward the idea of its effecting an inner change in nature rather than an outward—and verifiable—change in behavior.

Above all, a real need existed to mount more of a direct challenge to paganism, or rather to the risk that many new Christians might be tempted to try to combine the faith into which they had been baptized with practices from their past, whether that was the Jewish synagogue or a pagan temple. In particular, several features of the emerging liturgical year seem to have the express object of providing a counter-attraction to pagan celebrations taking place on the same day. Yet, paradoxically, at the same time as the church was trying to ward off the threat of paganism to its integrity, it was also beginning to appropriate language, images, and ceremonies from pagan practice to serve its catechetical and liturgical ends, displaying itself as a cultus publicus that was seeking the divine favor to secure the well-being of the state and as the true fulfillment of that to which other religions had dimly pointed.

The Liturgical Year

Festal observances among early Christians were very sparse indeed. It is true that certain days of the week were given particular prominence: Sunday, as “the Lord’s Day,” was honored with a celebration of the Eucharist; Saturday continued to be observed as the Sabbath by many Jewish-Christians; and Wednesdays and Fridays were widely kept as regular days of fasting. But annual celebrations were very few. Even Easter does not seem to have been universal at first, but apparently it began as an adaptation of the Passover among Jewish Christians, held during the night following the Jewish feast and focused on Christ as the true Passover lamb sacrificed for believers (see 1 Cor. 5:7). It is only from the middle of the 2nd century onward that there is evidence for other Christians adopting the festival, but on the Sunday following the Passover. It was preceded by a day of fasting and vigil on the Saturday, often joined to the normal Friday fast of that week to form a three-day observance, although in some places by the 3rd century, notably Syria and Egypt, the fasting was extended backward to a full six days. The only other days marked in the calendar of a church would be the dates of the death of any local martyrs, termed their birthdays (natalia) into the kingdom of heaven and observed with a Eucharist at the place of their burial, if possible. Pentecost—a period of fifty days of continuous rejoicing after Easter and marked, like all Sundays, by refraining from either fasting or kneeling for prayer—first emerges in various places around the end of the 2nd century.

It is therefore not until the 4th century that any significant expansion of the liturgical year takes place. The roots of the creation of Holy Week (or “Great Week” as it is called by Eastern Christians) lie in Alexandria in the 3rd century, when a shift in understanding of the festival can be seen there, one that focused upon “passage” rather than “passion”—the passage from death to life. As theologians incorporated this concept into their exegesis of the feast, the two days of preparatory fasting together with Easter Day began to be thought of as a triduum, a three-day commemoration of Christ’s transition from death to resurrection, but it was only in the 4th century that this new understanding was given liturgical expression. It seem to have arisen first, not surprisingly, in Jerusalem, where throngs of pilgrims wanted to visit the actual places associated with Christ and recall the events of his life there. Thus, not only Good Friday (the day of Christ’s death) but also Holy Thursday (the day of the Last Supper) and Palm Sunday (the day of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem before his death) received special commemorative liturgies, and in time so did other days associated with New Testament events, including Ascension Day (when Christ was believed to have ascended into heaven forty days after his resurrection; see Acts 1) and the Day of Pentecost (the day associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit, fifty days after Christ’s resurrection; see Acts 2).

At the same time, Lent was also emerging as a universal observance. Its roots seem to lie in an early local Egyptian practice of observing a forty-day period of fasting in remembrance of Christ’s fasting in the wilderness (see Mark 1:13), beginning on the day after January 6, which the Alexandrian church observed as the celebration of the baptism of Jesus, and culminating in the baptism of new converts at the end of the season. Rome and North Africa, however, had regarded Easter as the most appropriate time for baptisms with a shorter period of preparation preceding it, and so, in the process of increasing standardization that affected Christian liturgical practices in the 4th century, Easter came to be regarded as the normative time for baptisms nearly everywhere, and the forty-day season prefixed to it.

The other major festivals that emerge by the middle of the 4th century were Christmas (December 25) and Epiphany (January 6). The latter appears to be the older of the two and observed everywhere except Rome and North Africa as the celebration of Christ’s “appearing,” variously understood as his birth or his baptism, and often also associated with other revelations of himself, especially the visit of the Magi (see Matt. 2:1–12) and the wedding at Cana (see John 2). In reaction to this, Rome and North Africa then appear to have adopted December 25 as the feast of the incarnation of Christ, and through the process of liturgical exchange and standardization to which we have already referred, by the end of the century most churches were keeping both dates, though with differing emphases. Churches in the East celebrated Christ’s birth and the visit of the Magi on December 25 and his baptism and presence at the wedding in Cana on January 6, while Rome, followed by other churches in the West, celebrated Christ’s birth on December 25 and the visit of the Magi on January 6.

Why either of these particular dates was chosen as a Christian festival, however, has been the source of much debate and uncertainty. Two main hypotheses can be cited. One has attributed both dates to the results of different attempts to calculate the exact day in the year on which Jesus had actually been born, and the other held that December 25 was selected to provide a Christian counter-attraction at Rome to a popular pagan feast, the dies natalis solis invicti, the birthday of the invincible sun, while January 6 emerged to perform a similar function in relation to a pagan festival in the East on that date. Because evidence for such a pagan festival in the East is elusive and even the celebration of the dies natalis solis invicti at Rome is now questioned, the former theory tends to be favored today, though neither is without its difficulties and it is possible that both computation and the need for a rival attraction to pagan festivities may have played their parts in bringing the Christian observances into being.

Finally, the 4th century also saw the beginnings of the expansion of the sanctorale, the annual cycle of saints’ days. From being exclusively confined to martyrs, it was gradually extended to include other holy men and women, although at first still usually celebrated only at the place of their burial. Because of this latter factor, the list of such saints celebrated by each church also generally continued to be primarily local in nature in the West, as Roman law forbade the opening or re-siting of a grave. In the East, however, there was no objection to either translatio, the rehousing of remains, or dismemberatio, taking them to pieces and distributing them to several churches, even to those in the West. In this way, the cult of saints began to spread beyond the merely local, and churches increasingly traded between one another both relics and the annual observance that accompanied them. A quite early element in this expansion of the calendar was the emergence of several annual festivals in honor of the Virgin Mary, driven by the reverence being accorded to her as theotokos, God-bearer, in spite of there being in this case no relics available around which to focus the cult. Instead, these festivals seem to have originated in celebrations at holy places in Jerusalem associated with her and spread from there.

The Theology of Worship

Two distinct traditions of referring to Jesus in prayer among the earliest Christians seem to have emerged. One described him as God’s servant who was the mediator of God’s revelation, the other as the Christ/Son of God who, exalted to heaven, was the mediator through whom the church’s praise and intercession were offered, and hence he came to be designated also as high priest. In some circles, prayer might be addressed not merely through him but to him, and in others, the Holy Spirit might be invoked directly instead, before the increased pressure for orthodox doctrine in the 4th century made the so-called classical pattern of prayer being offered to the Father through the Son in the Spirit predominate.

The early Christians viewed their whole life as being an act of worship, a “spiritual” or “living” sacrifice offered to God (see, e.g., Rom. 12:1; 1 Pet. 2:5). Within this broad definition, particular acts of praise and prayer were also understood in sacrificial terms. Thus, the Letter to the Hebrews urges its readers to offer through Jesus “the sacrifice of praise continually to God, that is, the fruit of the lips that confess his name” (Heb. 13:15). The expression, “the fruit of the lips,” meaning what comes out of the mouth, and here specifically the verbalization of praise also occurs in Isaiah 57:19 and Hosea 14:2 and had already been taken up by the Jewish sectarian community at Qumran, who, finding themselves unable to perform the requisite sacrifices in the Temple because they regarded it as corrupt and defiled, were forced to turn to the offering of verbal praise as a temporary substitute for that activity. However, what they regarded as merely temporary became for Christians the permanent replacement for those sacrifices.

As part of their polemic against Judaism, Christians understood their regular practice of daily prayer as being the true fulfillment of the “perpetual” sacrifices prescribed in the Old Testament (in Hebrew, tamid: see, e.g., Exod. 29:38–42) because it was offered at all times and in all places, whereas those sacrifices had been offered only twice a day and only in the Temple at Jerusalem. Similarly, all acts of prayer and thanksgiving, but the Eucharist in particular, were viewed as fulfilling the “pure” offering “in every place” spoken of in Malachi 1:11 because it was a “spiritual victim,” a “bloodless” sacrifice, in contrast to the animal sacrifices of the Temple.

Nevertheless, Justin Martyr in the middle of the 2nd century connected the act of thanksgiving not only with words spoken, but also with the bread of the Eucharist, interpreting it as the fulfillment of the thank-offering prescribed in the Old Testament for those cured of leprosy (Lev. 14:10). Later in the century Irenaeus chose as the archetype for the Eucharistic bread and cup the Old Testament offering of the first-fruits of the harvest in thanksgiving (see, e.g., Deut. 26). Such associations led to the bread and wine being commonly understood as the “oblation,” the substance of the Eucharistic sacrifice itself. This offering was viewed as being made in remembrance of Christ, and especially of his sacrificial death. Alongside this, his remembered words at the Last Supper identifying the bread and cup with his body and blood were understood as meaning that he was present in some way in the Eucharistic bread and wine for the spiritual nourishment of the recipients through the invocation either of Christ himself as the divine Word or of the Holy Spirit. When these various ideas were combined, the stage was set for the theologies of Eucharistic sacrifice and presence that were developed in later centuries.

The emergence of the Christian church into the world of the 4th century as a recognized religion led to the adoption of a rather different understanding of the way in which Christian worship fulfilled the promise of the Old Testament than that found in the earlier centuries, with a tendency to look for a more one-on-one correspondence between elements of the cult then and now rather than for a more spiritualized counterpart. So, for example, Christians began to speak of their church buildings as temples, their deacons as Levites, and their morning and evening worship as the equivalent of the twice-daily sacrifices of the Jerusalem Temple.

Similarly, the style of Eucharistic worship that had suited smaller “domestic” gatherings was now out of place in the large and formal setting of the basilica churches that were being built in major cities for congregations that often included to a considerable extent those choosing to remain as unbaptized catechumens for a long period of time. What they experienced needed to communicate to them the majesty of God and the reverence required in its liturgical activity. Consequently, more elaborate ceremonial, music, and vesture emerged than before, as well as a profound sense of mystery and awe both in the preaching and in the worship of the late 4th century. The sense of unworthiness that these changes created in the hearts and minds of those attending public worship led to many being willing to receive Communion only very rarely and to their assuming a more passive role in general in worship, with the clergy who served them becoming less the leaders of the corporate action of a priestly people and more a priesthood acting on behalf of the people.


Recent research into the origins and early development of Christian worship has been shaped less by the discovery of new primary sources (which have been very few indeed) and much more by the reinterpretation of existing ones, setting them within a new matrix. Because the extant sources are relatively sparse, traditional historical scholarship tended to bridge the wide gaps between them with the assumption that there had been a very large measure of continuity of practice between a group of Christians in one place (for which there was some evidence) and another group in quite a different part of the ancient world (for which evidence was lacking) and a similar continuity between the practice of the earliest generations of Christians and those of later centuries. Similar presuppositions also governed the study of Jewish liturgy. Thus, evidence from the 4th century might be used to supplement the more meager testimony of older sources in order to fill out the picture of the forms of worship practiced in those earlier times.

This scholarship also tended to presume that development took place from an original simplicity and relative uniformity to increasing complexity and diversity, with any exceptions to these rules regarded as aberrations from the norm by heretical and schismatic groups, and thus conveniently ignored. So, for example, it was accepted that a single archetypal form of the Eucharist had been celebrated in apostolic times that gradually gave rise to the multiplicity of later forms of the rite found in the churches of East and West.

All this has been called into question since the 1980s. While some still cling to traditional methods, other scholars now increasingly hesitate to make generalizations about what Christians everywhere were doing on the basis of just two or three scraps of evidence from quite diverse places and times. They are also less likely to dismiss witnesses whose evidence does not fit the traditional picture as isolated deviants or as depicting something other than normal practice (for example, as being a community supper but not a Eucharist as such or as referring merely to “private” prayer rather than “public” worship). Instead, such sources now tend to be taken more seriously as evidence for a much wider diversity of early Christian practices than previously recognized, and the true story of the evolution of Christian worship increasingly understood as being from an initial variety between different communities to a growing standardization within what came to be the mainstream tradition, with other customs eventually dying out or being excluded from it.

Because of the paucity of other primary sources, the genre of “apostolic” church orders occupied a prominent role in the 20th-century reconstruction of primitive practice. Although quickly recognized as not being genuine compositions from the apostolic period, they tended to be treated as being authoritative sets of directions for Christian life and liturgy, each one belonging to a specific community at a particular time period. Major use for this purpose was made of one of these church orders that had been identified at the beginning of the century as being the Apostolic Tradition compiled by Hippolytus of Rome in the first half of the 3rd century. More recent research, however, has determined that nearly all these documents are not the work of a single author but belong to the category of “living literature,” being supplemented and corrected by different hands over a period of time and thus not a witness to one particular era nor necessarily to one specific geographical area.

Primary Sources

Those attempting to discover what the worship of Christians was like in the first few hundred years of the church’s history face the problem that very few extant liturgical texts as such exist prior to the 8th century. The material available from which to reconstruct earlier practices consists chiefly of brief, and often partial, descriptions of rites in letters and sermons; of even briefer, and less easily interpreted, allusions that appear in writings dealing with some quite different subject; of pieces of legislation affecting liturgical matters that occur among the canons produced by various councils and synods; of a small number of generally fragmentary texts of what appear to be actual prayers; and of the enigmatic literature known as ancient church orders.

Fortunately, a good number of relevant extracts from these widely scattered primary sources have been included in English translation in various modern collections. The most comprehensive of these is the four-volume work Worship in the Early Church: An Anthology of Historical Sources (also available on CD-ROM) by Lawrence J. Johnson.1 There are also useful sets of some of these excerpts in the early pages of collections that cover a longer period of Christian history. For baptism, the standard work is Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy by E. C. Whitaker,2 for the Eucharist, Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed by: R. C. D. Jasper and G. J. Cuming,3 and for various aspects of early worship, Sacraments and Worship by Maxwell E. Johnson.4

To these collections may be added the English translation of relevant portions of 4th-century baptismal homilies delivered by Ambrose of Milan, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia5 and a substantial assembly of material relating to the celebration of Easter by Raniero Cantalamessa.6

There are also translations of some individual works, and in particular the pilgrimage diary of a 4th-century visitor to Jerusalem, which contains valuable details concerning liturgical practices there7 and a collection of prayers from a 4th-century Egyptian bishop.8 In addition, a number of volumes in the Alcuin Club/GROW Joint Liturgical Studies series contain short extracts from relevant primary sources. Finally, there are modern editions of some of the church orders.9

Further Reading

Bowes, Kim. Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Bradshaw, Paul F.The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Bradshaw, Paul F.Reconstructing Early Christian Worship. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Bradshaw, Paul F.Eucharistic Origins. Alcuin Club Collections 80. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Reprinted Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012.Find this resource:

Bradshaw, Paul F., and Maxwell E. Johnson. The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity. Alcuin Club Collections 86. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Ferguson, Everett. Baptism in the Early Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.Find this resource:

Hurtado, Larry W.At The Origins of Christian Worship. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.Find this resource:

Johnson, Maxwell E.Praying and Believing in Early Christianity. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013.Find this resource:

McGowan, Andrew B.Ascetic Eucharists. Oxford: Clarendon, 1999.Find this resource:

McGowan, Andrew B.Ancient Christian Worship. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014.Find this resource:


(1.) Lawrence J. Johnson, Worship in the Early Church: An Anthology of Historical Sources (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009).

(2.) E. C. Whitaker, Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy, 3d ed., edited by Maxwell E. Johnson, Alcuin Club Collections 79 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003).

(3.) R. C. D. Jasper and G. J. Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed, 3d ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990).

(4.) Maxwell E. Johnson, Sacraments and Worship (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2012).

(5.) Edward Yarnold, The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation, 2d ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1994).

(6.) Raniero Cantalamessa, Easter in the Early Church (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993).

(7.) John Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels, 3d ed. (Warminster, UK: Aris & Phillips, 1999).

(8.) Maxwell E. Johnson, The Prayers of Sarapion of Thmuis (Rome: Pontificio Istituto Orientale, 1995).

(9.) These include Kurt Niederwimmer, The Didache: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg fortress, 1998); and Paul F. Bradshaw, Maxwell E. Johnson, and L. Edward Phillips, The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002).