First-century Christian synagogue liturgy

This article isn’t really ready for prime-time. It’s a set of notes I collected for myself many years ago, as I was studying to satisfy my own curiosity. Some day I’ll have to go back and cite sources for everything. But some of these notes don’t seem to be online elsewhere, and I’d like to have them available, so I’m leaving this online as a placeholder. — Silouan

It seems fairly obvious that Christians, as a sect within first-century Judaism, worshipped essentially as other first-century Jews did. And we are justified in expecting to find in historical Christian worship some vestiges of earlier Jewish liturgy.

But in looking for parallels, it would be a mistake to assume that modern Jewish liturgy is identical – or even very similar – to the way first-century Jews worshipped. A modern Jewish prayerbook is not much help in reconstructing the prayer and worship of first-century Judaism, or in comparing it with later developments in Christian liturgy.

Instead of any modern source, I’ve turned to the Mishnah, the compilation of accounts of Temple and synagogue practice in areas of of worship, sacrifice, purifications, observations of appointed times, and so on.

First-century Judaism was not a single, monolithic religious establishment; Josephus described three sects, the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes (Wars Book 2, Ch 8), while a talmudic reference records that when the Temple was destroyed there were twenty-four kinds of Judaism. (See y. Sanh. 29c.) In any case there was no central authority defining “true Judaism”; in fact there was not even an agreed canon beyond the Torah. So it is important not to single out any one Jewish tradition as normative and treat others as deviations. While Pharisaism may have been an important school of thought in first century Judea and highly influential on later rabbinic Judaism, it was not necessarily the chief influence on the early Christians.

First century Jewish prayer-patterns

The berakah, (plural berakot) derives its name from the Hebrew verb barak, ‘to bless’, and several variant types of liturgical formulae using its passive participle baruk (or in Greek, eulogetos) can be found in the Scriptures. As well as very short doxological formulae such as “Blessed is the Lord forever” (Psalm 89:52) there are longer acclamations containing further clauses to express the reason for the blessing, as in Exodus 18:10, “Blessed is the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hands of the Egyptians.” Although in the Hebrew Bible these berakot are nearly all cast in the third person, there developed in the intertestamental period an increasing preference for the second person instead, as for example in 1 Maccabees 4:30ff, “Blessed art Thou, O Savior of Israel, who didst quell the violence of the mighty…”

On the other hand, the praise of God might be expressed in ways other than the berakah. An alternative construction, called the hodayah, used the Hebrew verb hodeh, in an active and not a passive form, addressing God in the second person. Although hodeh is usually translated into English as ‘give thanks’, its primary meaning is not the expression of gratitude but rather confession or acknowledgement that something is the case – the same word is used for the confession of sin. It was at first translated into Greek by the word homologeo, although later eucharisteo became established as an alternative. Like barak, it could be used in doxologies, as in Psalm 30:12 “O Lord my God, I will give thanks to Thee forever”, or with an additional clause to express the reason for the praise, as in Isaiah 12:1 “I will give thanks to Thee O Lord my God, that though Thou wast angry with me, Thine anger turned away and Thou hast comforted me.”

These two patterns may be combined; Daniel 2:20-23 begins with a berakah and ends with a hodayah; 1 Esdras 4:59-60 and 1 Maccabees 1:11-17 are similar examples.

The liturgy of the synagogue 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. (Megillah 4.3) Scholars believe that these constituted the main elements of the Sabbath synagogue service of the time.

The Shema

In its fully-developed form, the Shema consists of three Pentateuchal passages (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41) and takes its name from the opening Hebrew word of the first passage (‘Hear’). The Mishnah presupposes that it is to be recited twice each day, in the morning and in the evening, accompanied by berakot – in the morning two before it and one after (Ber. 1.1-4). It also claims that the Shema had been recited by the priests in the Jerusalem tample, where it had been preceeded by the recitation of a single berakah and the Decalogue, and followed by three berakot (Tamid 5.1). It appears, then, that the general obligation to recite the Shema developed out of an earlier Temple ritual.

There are signs that the twice-daily recitation of the Shema was already widely practiced prior to the destruction of the Temple. There are apparent allusions to it in the Letter of Aristeas 158-60 (probably written in the mid-second century BC) in Philo (De Spec. Leg. 4.141), and in Josephus (Antiquities 4.8.13; 1 QS 10.10).

The Tefillah

The Tefillah, ‘prayer’ (later known as the Amidah, ‘standing’, indicating the posture to be adopted for it), was also called the Shemoneh Esreh, the ‘Eighteen [berakot]’, from the fact that its contents became fixed at eighteen (later nineteen) separate sections, each of which had a short berakah appended to its conclusion. By the end of the first century AD, the number and content of the berakot were established, and on Sabbaths and festivals a different order of only seven berakot was substituted. According the the Mishnah, the Tefillah was to be said three times each day – in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening (Berakot. 4.1) – and there are indications that the custom of threefold prayer was well established in earlier Judaism (Ezra 9:5ff; Daniel 9:20; Judith 9:1ff; Luke 1:10). It is mentioned in Psalm 55:17 and Daniel 6:10; and the afternoon time of prayer – the ninth hour – is referred to in the New Testament (Acts 3:1; 10:3,30). The late-first century Didache contains a corresponding instruction to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day (Didache 8)

The thrice-daily prayer corresponds to the Temple sacrifice twice each day plus the observance of the closing of the Temple gates at evening. (Taanit 4.1) It has been suggested that the Shemoneh Esreh originated as the main liturgical practice of the deposed priestly aristocracy after the destruction of the Temple, and that the Shema and the Tefillah represent the prorotypical liturgies of competing social factions. Later, during the second century, a compromise was reached and the two together formed the core of rabbinic liturgy.

The priestly blessing

According to the Mishnah, the pronouncing of the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:24-26) over the people originated in the Temple ritual in connection with the daily sacrifices (Tamid 7.2) So it is possible that it was not transplanted to the synagogue until after 70 AD. Its position in the synagogue service – after the Shema and Tefillah but before the Scripture readings – is interesting, since one might have expected it to have been placed at the end of the whole liturgy. A possible explanation may be that the Tefillah and the blessing were viewed as a single liturgical unit, perhaps because the Tefillah came to be thought of as a substitute for the Temple sacrifices and hence the blessing followed it, as it had in the Temple ritual.

The readings from the Torah and the Prophets

The reading of a portion of the Torah on every Sabbath morning and festival was a regular feature of the synagogue from the outset, and may have constituted the fundamental reason for the emergence of that institution. Portions of the Torah also came to be read at the Sabbath afternoon service and on Monday and Thursday mornings. This observance continued after the destruction of the Temple, as may be seen obliquely in Didache 8:1 [late first century] which instructs Christians not to fast on Monday and Thursday as the ‘hypocrites’, but rather on Wednesday and Friday (this practice that continued into the early twentieth century in Western Christianity, and is still current in the East.) The reading included passages from the Prophets by the time of Christ (Luke 4:16; Acts 13:15) and a translation into the vernacular (cf. Nehemiah 8:1-8) and could be concluded with further explanation or teaching.

The Babylonian Talmud prescribed that the entire Pentateuch should be read through in a year, on a consecutive basis interrupted only by special readings on festal days. But the Palestinian practice was less specific. The Mishnah prescribes twenty-one verses of the Torah as the minimum to be read each sabbath, but specifies no maximum, and consequently different synagogues could have reached different places in the Torah on any given occasion.

The Kaddish

At the end of the readings, the worshippers praised God who had just spoken to them, and in an essentially eschatological prayer, they asked Him to hasten His word’s fulfillment:

Magnified and sanctified be His great Name in the world which He hath created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, even speedily and at a near time.

This prayer, the Kaddish, whose similarities to the Lord’s Prayer are obvious, has for centuries concluded the synagogue’s reading. A similar prayer would have done so at the time of Jesus.

The Temple and the Ekklesia

During the Exile, the synagogue had arisen as a substitute for the Temple. Synagogues did not fade away after the return as perhaps might have been expected; rather they multiplied as a complement to Temple sacrifice.

This introduced into Judaism a factor crucial to the later development of Christianity. A new notion: God is not only in the Temple; God is where the congregation is.

R. Haninah b. Phradyon said: “…two that sit together and are discussing some words of the Law have the Shekhina among them, as it is written [Mal. iii. 16]: ‘Then conversed they that feared the Lord one with the other; and the Lord listened and heard it,’ etc.” — Mishnah, M. Avot 3.2.

While all Jews knew the Lord was uniquely, locally present in the Holy of Holies, and made pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feasts whenever possible, they also could gather weekly to honor God together with the qahal – the congregation – in Greek, the ekklesia.

As a result of the new concept that God is present wherever the ekklesia gathers, by the time of Christ, at least one group of reformers had come to a new conclusion: Believing the Temple priesthood to be corrupt, the Essenes disdained the sacrificial worship at the Temple and denied the validity of the priesthood, retreating to Qumran to pursue a “purified” Judaism until the judgment day which they expected soon. The parallel to the Protestant Reformation should not be minimized.

This concept also made it possible for the synagogue to replace the Temple after 70AD as the only remaining Jewish occasion of corporate worship – a shift the increasingly-Gentile Church had mostly made already.

The Christian synagogue

Josephus and Eusebius record that for the Christianity’s first decades it remained a sect of Judaism.

Not surprisingly, the liturgy that spread with the Gospel into the Gentile world was a Jewish synagogue liturgy, augmented by the Christian Eucharist which was becoming separate from the Agape meal. The center of the Jewish synagogue service, as in the Christian synagogue’s Liturgy of the Word, is the proclamation of the word of God. In the Jewish Synagogue salvation is hoped for; in the Christian synagogue it is received.

Justin Martyr, around 150AD, describes the outline of Christian worship with which he is familiar.

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

Then we all rise together and pray, and when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the one presiding in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.  –First Apology, ch. 67

Justin’s description remains very similar to the Jewish liturgical prototype. The elements of both services can be lined up in parallel:

Synagogue Service
Profession of faith
Prayer of eighteen blessings
Readings (Law, prophets)
Priestly blessing
Liturgy of the Word

Prayers of intercession
Readings (Gospel, apostolic writings)


This resemblance is even more striking when the Creed, the Church’s profession of faith, assumes its position in the Christian liturgy in later years.

The second part of Justin’s description of Christian liturgy is the Eucharist.

And when the one presiding has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those whom we call deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion. And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.

For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “Do this in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things.  –First Apology, ch. 65

The Eucharistic service has no parallel in the synagogue, but is very similar in overall structure to the Passover Seder. It should be noted that while we are familiar with the modern Seder, we have very little information about the Passover meal as it was celebrated at the time of Christ; there are no extant texts of the Passover liturgy dating from that period. However the Mishnah and Tosefta provide some information; there we see again a close correspondence between the Jewish Paschal prayers and the Christian Eucharist:



Jewish Passover
Praise to God for the creation of the people of Israel
Praise to God for the redemption of Israel through Moses
Zikkaron: Participating in the events of the historical salvation of Israel by the eating of the Paschal Lamb
Expectation of the coming of Christ
Psalms of praise
Christian Eucharist
Praise to God for the creation of the world
Praise to God for the redemption of humanity through Christ
Anamnesis: Participating in the historical salvation of humanity by the eating of the Body and Blood of Christ
Expectation of the return of Christ
Final doxology


Sabbath and Sunday

The two services – on the Sabbath and on Sunday – were not mutually exclusive for early, Jewish Christians. At the end of the Sabbath comes an observance called Havdalah, in which candles are lit on Saturday evening. Liturgical Christianity still retains this traditional service of prayer at the kindling of the evening light, known in English as Vespers.

For liturgical Christians, the day still begins with Vespers, at sundown; so on Saturday evening the resurrection observance begins.

For early Jewish Christians, the weekly celebration of the resurrection of Christ on the first day of the week was the natural sequel and conclusion of the Havdalah on Saturday evening. One illustration of this is Paul’s experience at Troas (Acts 20:6ff), when he preached late into the night and then “broke bread”, leaving Troas at dawn.

In lLater decades, with the fall of the Jerusalem Temple and the growing estrangement of Christians and Jews, along with the influx of Gentile converts, the Sabbath observance largely faded out of Christian experience. After the events of Acts 15, only the minority of Jewish Christians celebrated both the Sabbath service and the Eucharist (See Eusebius Book 3 ch.27, and Ignatius’ letter to the Magnesians 9:1-2) Later generations responded to Judaizers in the Church by forbidding Christians to observe the Sabbath at all, while the Jewish Rabbi Johanan in 250 AD went on record as forbidding Gentiles to observe Israel’s Sabbath.

Nevertheless, the Sabbath is not forgotten. It remains a day to rest from spiritual struggle; in the canons of the eastern Church, fasting and kneeling are not permitted on Saturday or on Sunday.

The Sanctus and the Kedusha

The Sanctus can be found in every modern Christian liturgy, and appears to have been part of the very earliest Christian liturgical prayers. Its origin lies in Isaiah 6:3, “Holy, holy, holy Lord of Hosts; heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.” This passage is not repeated or quoted anywhere in the Hebrew Bible after Isaiah’s time. Yet there are abundant allusions and quotations in the deuterocanonical and pseudepigraphic literature between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. A few of them include the Apocalypse of Abraham 17:7; 1 Enoch 39:12 [Ethiopic version]; 2 Enoch 20 [Slavonic version]; Testament of Adam 1:4; Testament of Isaac 8:3. In the Dead Sea Scrolls the Sanctus occurs in the Hymns of Thanksgiving and the Angelic Liturgy.

Very early in Christian times, it appears in writings from Rome (1 Clement 34:6,7), Asia Minor (Revelation 4:8, Ignatius to the Ephesians 4:2), Alexandria (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 7:7:12), and in the Martyrdom of St Perpetua. The Sanctus must have been part of the early Christian synagogue liturgy. Long before St John’s quotation of Isaiah 6:3 in the Revelation, St Luke had paraphrased a Jewish liturgical version of this prayer – the Kedusha deSidra – it in his Gospel, as part of the angels’ hymn (the Gloria).

Glory to God in the highest; and on earth, peace, good will to men.
Kedusha deSidra
Holy is He in the highest heavens, the place of His divine abode; holy upon the earth, the work of His might. The whole earth is full of the radiance of His glory,

Clement of Alexandria says of this prayer:

For this reason also we raise the head and lift the hands toward heaven, and stand on tiptoe as we join in the closing outburst of prayer, following the eager flight of the spirit into the intelligible world. And while we thus endeavor to detach the body from the earth by lifting it upwards along with the uttered words, we spurn the fetters of the flesh and constrain the soul… to ascend into the holy place. –Stromata 7:7:40

This gesture – surging up on tiptoe with each repetition of “Holy!” – is still seen today in some Hasidic groups.

Fr Silouan Thompson

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