Sunday, June 7, 2015

Kristianoi at Prayer

In accounts of the early followers of Jesus—mockingly called Kristianoi in Greek-speaking Asia Minor—we are told about their daily attendance to the temple, private breaking of bread in their homes, along with much praising, prayers and "gladness and simplicity of heart."

The Temple

When Acts says Christians went to the temple, the book means the one built in Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity on the site of the earlier place of worship built by King Solomon. It was the place in which Jewish priestly practice, from which Christianity drew many essential ideas about worship, was observed—at least until the fateful year 70.

Temple worship included sacrifices of animals, readings from the Torah and sessions of public prayer. Only the latter two were carried forward to the Jewish synagogue in the dispersion, after 70.

Synagogues (or meeting places) are not priestly temples in the Judaic perspective, despite their sometimes flamboyant contemporary names that include the word "temple." Only a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem could fill that role—and Judaic voices differ, naturally, on whether such a project should even be undertaken.

Jews in the diaspora continued public readings and prayer in their synagogues, but over time, these shifted predominantly to private homes—often in secret due to persecution. Today the Friday family meal of Sabbath anticipation, with its many blessings, its breaking of bread and sharing of wine, is the broadest religious practice in Judaism.

Let's recall in this context that the Kristianoi were—until the controversial emergence of the "Gentilizing" apostle Paul and the catastrophe of the year 70—little more than a Jewish sect. Their practice paralleled that of other Jews. Separately and extra-biblically, evidence suggests that at least in some places some Christians continued attending services in Jewish synagogues as late as the 8th century of our era.

Breaking Bread

Similarly, Acts repeatedly mentions gathering to "breaking bread" in the homes of believers, unquestionably a reference to an early form of the Eucharist ritual.

"Eucharist" comes from the Greek ευχαριστία (eukaristia), meaning "thanksgiving." On Sundays, the early Christians gathered in commemoration to give thanks for the rising from the dead of Jesus, whom they acknowledged as their Kyrios (Greek for the Hebrew Adonai, meaning "Lord") and Kristos (Messiah).

Their model was the distinctly Christian variation of rabbinically prescribed rituals for a chaburah meal (or supper among friends; the Hebrew chaber means "friend") that occurred in what we know as the Last Supper. There are various accounts of that event in the gospels, but the earliest version known to us came second hand, from Paul. It is found in I Cor. 11:23-25.

The first century Eucharist lasted no more than 15 minutes and involved only the blessings given by Jesus at the Last Supper—no opening or closing prayers, no processions and no scriptural readings. There was probably little singing, to avoid drawing attention to what were secret gatherings due to persecution.

What today we know as the readings and sermon part of Eucharist services were was carried out separately as the Synaxis (from the Greek synago, meeting), primarily for educational purposes and usually in the middle of the week. In Eastern Orthodoxy, there are various assemblies for liturgical, or worship, purposes called Synaxis today. And, of course, there's the Jewish Synaxis, which takes place in a synagogue, a word from the same Greek root.

Alternative to these bare and quick gatherings, there are reports of something called agapai (or "love gatherings," from the Greek agape, love) starting with the letter of Jude in the New Testament. There is considerable debate as to whether these were lineal ancestors of today's Eucharist or parallel eucharistic rituals.

I will address how this set of practices evolved into the hour-long (or sometimes longer) Sunday ritual churchgoers experience today as I press on with the Story of the Faith series. For those interested in some answers now, I refer you to a discussion paper I wrote some years ago, Liturgy: A User's Guide, which readers may request free as noted below.*


The only prayer distinctly attributed to Jesus, known as the Our Father from its Latin opening words (Pater Noster), or also as The Lord's Prayer, is not distinctly Christian—Jews or Muslims could recite it without doing violence to their teachings of their faiths (see details of the prayer in DJ Jesus teaches prayer, posted earlier in the Story of the Faith series).

Yet of all the utterances put in the mouth of Jesus by the New Testament, it is probably the least edited, to the point that if Jesus said anything at all, he surely said these actual words.

Certainly also, the introduction to the gospel of John (John 1:1-18) is thought to have been an early Christian hymn—presumably composed for one of the festive Agapai. The passage's opening sentence attests to poetic flight, the author placing the story of Jesus as central to the history of the universe itself: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

That is why, perhaps, the Kristianoi spoke of the accounts of Jesus life as what British people of the past rendered in Old English as godspel—the "good message," from which we get the word "gospel." Hence their gladness.

* Email me at
cecilieaux at gmail

1 comment:

Anne Malcolm said...


I just came home from visiting family in MD and while there thought, "I'll have to pray for ..."

This is a common "vocation" for me, whether I do so or not in the end. So perhaps the call to prayer among humans... and I'm coming to believe it's a small percentage, is the sign _of_ vocation. I would never have returned to the Church in the first place if it had not been for this call (I had a sister in hugely traumatic need... against the backdrop of a brother's need where I did not pray... in my teens).

It is not something that can be imposed by someone else... a parent, a priest, or a bishop, although they can provide a venue.

[When I hear of people "sending thoughts" for someone else's need, similar to the popular "sharing" of a meme to help someone on FB, I can't help but wonder what good will that do.]