The Jewish Roots of Christian Liturgy

I Introduction First Christian communities appeared in Jewish Palestine and Diaspora after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ, around 30 CE. Not only Jesus himself was a Jew, but also his followers and very first members of the new growing community were mainly Jews. They all shared the Jewish belief, the Sacred Scripture that Christians later started to call the Old Testament (OT), and were not aware of founding a new religion. A closer examination of Jewish worship will let us understand how it influenced the new Christian worship.

We will have a closer look at places of worship, liturgical sources and customs which were common at that time. A last task will be to ask whether there are any significant Jewish elements missing in the later Christian Eucharistic liturgy. II Early Christian roots in Judaism A. There were three major places of Jewish worship (Foley: 4-9) – the Temple, the synagogues, and home. The Jerusalem Temple was the religious centre. It served as the only place for sacrifices until its destruction in 70 CE.

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Synagogues were gathering places for local communities where they prayed, read and studied the Scripture on the Sabbath, feast days, and some weekdays. In the first decades of the first century Jewish Christians continued to attend synagogue services until they gradually separated from them after 80 CE (6). Besides, everyone’s home was the main place of daily blessings and prayers. Meals were celebrated as sacred acts. They were a sign of the covenant that God has made with Israel.

Foley stresses that the home was especially important as familial and social institution for new Christian communities (8). Thus the question is not about the emergence of Christian liturgy out of Jewish sources; it is about the absorbed specific elements of the Jewish worship in the Temple, synagogues and homes into Christian liturgy. B. The main difficulty is the reconstruction of first-century Jewish worship due to the absence of Jewish liturgical sources from the time of Jesus. Apart from the OT, the earliest sources date from the fourth century CE on (Kavanagh: 618).

Bradshaw, extensively focusing on this task, comes to the conclusion not to consider the influence of the Temple liturgy, but, besides the influence of Passover feast, to examine these ‘four areas: possible elements of synagogue liturgy; the practice of daily prayer; forms of prayer themselves; and grace at meals’ (Bradshaw: 35). Although we don’t have enough evidence about the Temple cult, its sacrificial element, especially in the context of Passover feast, was put by Christians in a direct connection with the death of Jesus.

The Christ himself was believed to be the true Passover lamb, the Lamb of God, who was sacrificed according the God’s salvation plan of the OT (Kavanagh: 620; Wegman: 31; Jn 1, 29. 36; 1Cor 5,7). Thus the Jewish Passover and the OT got a new significance for Christians, and, as Deiss emphasizes, the references to the OT are basic elements of both the Jewish and Christian worship (3). There is another element of Temple cult to be mentioned, the times of Temple sacrifice (morning, evening and midday) influenced the times of synagogue worship and thus the early Christian prayer and the later liturgy of the hours (Kavanagh: 619).

C. The next area of influence is the synagogue liturgy in the first century. Bradshaw expresses doubts about the traditional scholarly understanding of a regular Sabbath liturgy, prayers and use of psalms in the synagogues at that time and refers to the latest researches based on archaeological and literary evidence. It seems that 1 synagogues were primarily established for reading and studying the Torah and later also the Prophets (Bradshaw: 36-38).

Obviously, Christian Liturgy of the Word, the elements of reading and understanding the Scripture, is rooted in the synagogic practice. Moving on to the practices of daily prayer; Bradshaw argues that compared to the synagogue liturgy there is more evidence. At the times of Jesus the Shema was widely recited individually twice a day (39f). Opinions differ, whether another oldest prayer Tefillah, which consisted of series of prayers, was recited already three times daily. However, later it formed a main part of the synagogue liturgy.

It was said loudly only by the leader, while the assembly responded to each prayer with Amen. The prayer seems to be retained in the Christian form of intercessional prayer (Wegman: 22). Undoubtedly, we know from the gospels (Mk 1,35; 6,46; Lk 10,27) that morning and evening prayers were offered, and it could also have influenced the later Christian liturgy of the hours (Wegman: 23). Talking generally about the Jewish prayer and its influence, there is more to say about some prayer forms.

The most significant prayer form for Christian worship was berakah (from Hebrew barak, “to bless”). It could appear in different forms and lengths, from a very short ones like ‘Blessed is the Lord for ever’ to extended forms with remembrance and thanksgiving clauses about the God’s deeds of creation and covenant and with confessional and petitionary elements as well (Bradshaw: 43). For the Christians berakah became trinitarian, where the main God’s deed was seen in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the ongoing God’s faithful care in the Holy Spirit.

Such trinitarian doxologies are often used at the end of Christian prayers. Also the 2 famous Christian songs of Zechariah (Lk 1,68-79) and of Mary (Lk 1,46-55) are typical berakah prayers (Wegaman: 21f). A similar form of prayer to say praise was hodayah. The difference with berakah is that it is expressed through thanksgiving and it primarily meant acknowledgement and sometimes also confession of sins rather than gratitude (Bradshaw: 43f). There are some references to this pattern in the gospels (e. g. Lk 2,38; Mt 11,25-30; Jn 11,41-42).

Further we will see how some of these prayers in connection with the domestic Jewish worship were essential for the Christian liturgy of the Eucharist. D. The third main place of Jewish worship was home, especially during the time of meal. In the OT the communion of meal and feast was understood as a sign of covenant (eg. Gen 26,30). The Sabbath as a day was a special sign of covenant with God (Ex 31, 13-15) and so was the meal. The main meal of the year was the Passover meal, as a memorial day for the Lord’s passover in Egypt and deliverance from slavery (Ex 12).

The weekly Sabbath meal on Friday evenings and the yearly Passover meal thus became quite elaborate. Bradshaw reminds that there is unfortunately no detailed evidence about meal-prayers in the first century, but according to the later evidence many assume that every meal started with berakot (plural of berakah) and ended with them. The opening berakot were pronounced over wine and bread, while the berakot at the end of the meal, called Birkat ha-mazon, consisted of a berakah for food, a hodayah for revelation and a tefillah for redemption (Bradshaw: 44f; Kavanagh: 621).

For Christians the Last Supper with Jesus, which was a Passover meal, assumed a new meaning (Eucharist) – as a thanksgiving and remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and of the new covenant with God. We do not know the prayers Jesus used during the meal when he “gave thanks” or “blessed” the 3 bread and cup of wine, since the common practice of that time is not preserved in writing and the gospels pay attention just to the new meaning (Mk 14,17-26; Mt 26,26-30; Lk 22,14-20).

Despite that, in the very early Christian description of a Eucharist in the Didache are clearly recognizable forms of berakah over the cup and bread and of Birkat ha-mazon (Martimort: 25; Kavanagh: 622f). Also in the earliest Eucharistic Prayer from the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus the main body of prayer consists of clauses of remembrance, thanksgiving and petition and is encircled by opening and closing (doxology) berakah. The prayer is intended to be answered with Amen (Martimort: 28f). Not only the Jewish meal, but also the domestic vessels for holding the bread and wine gained a role in the Christian Eucharist (Foley: 19).

Deiss also points at the Kiddush, the prayer for the Sabbath before meal, ‘which has provided the Roman Missal with its prayers for the presentation of the bread and wine’ and at the Kaddish, a prayer that shows some similarity to the first part of the Christian Our Father. (Deiss: 4,16f). Thus we can see that the Jewish prayer patterns were passed on and at least partly shaped the Christian prayer. E. Finally, it would be necessary to draw attention to the influence of the Jewish liturgical year. The Christian liturgical year kept the Jewish seven ay week, where the Christian day of resurrection (Sunday) replaced the Sabbath (Saturday). The Easter (Greek Pascha from Aramaic Pasha) replaced the Passover, but Pentecost got new meaning and replaced the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Kavanagh: 618). There is a hypothesis that rabbinic tradition influenced also the computation of Jesus’ and John’s days of conception and birth. According to the tradition it was believed that the birth and death of patriarchs occurs on the same day, either at Passover or Tabernacles.

Both feasts in the solar calendar were associated with the Spring and Autumn equinox 4 of the Northern Hemisphere. Jesus’ death was believed to be his conception date and associated with the Spring equinox, but John the Baptist’s conception was associated with the Autumn equinox. Following these calculations, Jesus’ birth was set to the Winter Solstice and John’s birth set to the Summer Solstice (619). III A lost Jewish liturgical element? Without doubts the main Christian liturgical event is the celebration of the Eucharist, the remembrance of Jesus’ Last Supper.

The celebration of the Eucharist in it’s form changed throughout the first centuries. In this part of my work I will briefly examine, if there are any important liturgical elements or notions lost. Although we know very few details about the original Last Supper, it is clear that it was a meal. We saw also that the meal, especially the Sabbath meal and Passover meal, one of which was the Last Supper, had a prominent place in Jewish liturgical practices. The earliest mention of the early Christian Eucharist we find in Paul’s letter to Corinthians (1Cor 11,17-33).

Paul’s concern is division and disrespectful behaviour in the community during the meal time. Apart from that, the Gospels, especially Luke, show the meal as a place where Jesus acts and teaches. Feeding the multitudes is the only narrative of a miracle which is included in all four Gospels (Mt 14,13-21; Mk 6,31-44; Lk 9, 10-17; Jn 6,5-15). Also after the resurrection of Jesus there are two Gospel narratives where Jesus acts and reveal himself. Luke points to the supper at Emmaus where Jesus is being recognized by blessing and breaking the bread (Lk 24,30f).

Similarly, John tells about the breakfast on the beach during which the apostles met the Lord (Jn 21,12f). There is another already mentioned document 5 among the earliest Christian writings, the Didache, which includes the first detailed description of the Eucharistic liturgy. What notions can we find in this document? Dirk Lange in his article ‘The Didache: Liturgy Redefining Life’ examines the dynamics of the used symbols of the text in order to understand the ethical notions of an early Christian community.

He points up that the description of the Eucharist mentions neither the passion of Christ nor the later common words of institution over the bread and the wine. There is no mention of ‘the body’ and ‘the blood’ of Christ. Instead, the Didache’s Eucharist says thanks over the wine to Father ‘for the holy vine of David your servant which you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant’ (9,2) and over the bread ‘for the life and knowledge, which you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant’ (9,3). The bread is further used as an image of gathering the ecclesia in God’s kingdom.

Lange convincingly argues that all images express communion. The ‘vine of David’ shows the realization of community as ‘true’ Israel which through Jesus is represented in the cup (Lange: 220). The bread is associated with the life, knowledge and gathering. Thus, as Lange puts, Eucharist ‘encompasses life: (.. ) It is Christ’s life, Christ’s way, Christ’s truth, Christ’s knowledge which is being given to the people as life’ (221). Lange draws attention that the first part of Didache, the so called ‘two-ways tractate’, seems describing the right and the wrong way of living.

However, in light of the Eucharistic prayer the ‘ethical’ part can not be longer understood as a pattern for individualistic ethics. Rather, it leads into a communitarian way of life and calls ‘to live a sign of that unity which Jesus sought in the meal tradition’ (212). Lange comes 6 to the conclusion that Didache reveals Eucharist primarily as a meal of thanksgiving and as a celebration of discipleship and communion with the Lord (224f). My question is, whether the celebration of the Eucharist has not lost the communitarian dimension with a particular awareness of meeting the Lord in the community during a meal?

The Jewish tradition of the communitarian meal liturgy is echoed in the early Christian documents and is set in a direct connection with Jesus in both pre and post-resurrection periods. For example, the Eucharistic liturgy in the current Roman rite still has something to do with formal eating and drinking, but lost any practical notion of a meal. The understanding of meeting the Lord has shifted from sitting at a meal in a community to receiving Christ’s body and blood in a very formal, even individualistic way. The true meal times, however, have lost particular Eucharistic character.

I notice here a danger for the local Church not to live and to realize itself fully as a community of Christ’s disciples. That leads to further question if such incomplete community does not partly lose the ethical qualities which were characteristic to the first Christian communities? IV Conclusion In main points, the examination of Jewish worship elements of the first century showed that, firstly, Christian liturgy inherited from Judaism the synagogic use of OT as a revelation of God’s salvational plan and also the ways of its use in terms of reading, studying and referring to it in prayers.

Secondly, the Jewish concepts of God’s covenant, sacrifice, Passover and Passover meal, and Sabbath were retained, but acquired a completely new dimension through belief in Jesus, the sacrificed and resurrected Christ. That caused a shift in the perception of the new covenant, Lamb of 7 God, Easter and Eucharist, and Sunday. Thirdly, the Jewish prayer practice and patterns, especially the blessing and thanksgiving at meals, were absorbed in the main Christian liturgical act, the Eucharist.

The communitarian element of a real meal, which was very important for the first Christians and was the core part in their way of life as Christ’s disciples, however, lost it’s significance in later Eucharistic liturgy. 8 Bibliography [Bradshaw, P. F. , The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: sources and methods for the study of early liturgy, 2nd ed. , SPCK, London, 2002] [Deiss, L. , Springtime of the Liturgy: liturgical texts of the first four centuries, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn, 1979] [Foley, E. From Age to Age: how Christians celebrated the Eucharist, Liturgy Training Publications, Chicago, IL, 1992] [Kavanagh, A. , ‘Jewish Roots of Christian Worship’, in Fink, P. (ed. ), New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1990, pp. 617-623. ] [Lange, D. G. , ‘The Didache: liturgy redefining life’, Worship 78 no 3 (2004), pp. 203-225] [Martimort, A. G. (ed. ), The Church at Prayer: an introduction to the liturgy. Vol. 2, The Eucharist, Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1986] [Wegman, H. A. J. , Christian Worship in East and West: a study guide to liturgical history, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn, 1993] 9

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