In the pages of the New Testament (and some other early Christian literature) we get various instructions about what Christians should do when they meet for worship, and various glimpses of special gatherings. However, we don’t get a full description of an ordinary Christian worship assembly. For such a description we have to wait till the middle of the second century, for a writer called Justin, a Greek-speaking immigrant to Rome from the Palestinian Samaritan city now known as Nablus. Justin was a philosopher who appears to have made his living as a teacher, both before and after he became a Christian.
He’s famous as the first Christian apologist – a word which means someone who mounted reasoned public defences and commendations of Christianity to outsiders. We have different writings from him which engage both philosophically minded Jews and Romans. He was also a martyr, giving his life in witness to the truth of the God he wrote, preached and taught about. This was important enough (and perhaps rare enough at the time1) that he is universally known as Justin Martyr.
Towards the end of his first apology he gives some descriptions of baptism and the eucharist. This is what he says about the Sunday assembly.
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, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president 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 succours 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 Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.Justin Martyr First Apology 67
See https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ante-Nicene_Fathers/Volume_I/The_First_Apology [accessed 22/09/18] This is an online and freely available version of a major collection of early Christian writings published at the end of the 19th century.
Justin describes a three-part act of worship: word, prayers, sacrament. Word is essentially readings and sermon. There doesn’t appear to be any clear pattern of readings at this early stage, or any set prayers. It is either prophets or apostles, and the reading goes on for as long as time permits.
The memoirs of the apostles are definitely gospels: he has just said so in the previous chapter when he recalled the narrative of the last supper underpinning the eucharist. It is not quite as clear what Justin means by prophets. There’s a good chance he may mean much or even all of the Old Testament. Earlier in his apology he quotes Genesis, for example, as the words of “Moses, the first of the prophets”, and the psalms as the “prophecies of David”.2
The scripture reading is followed by a sermon or homily exhorting people to live in the light of what they have listened to. The congregation to which Justin belongs appears to be seated for this liturgy of the word, but when the sermon is over, they stand to pray. Standing seems to have been the most common posture for prayer among early Christians.
It looks as though these prayers are offered by various members of the congregation, but “we” might mean teachers like Justin. It seems however, not to include the president, whose main prayer is yet to come. Nor is there any explicit statement of what status the president has.
Then bread, wine and water are brought forward, and the president offers prayers and thanksgivings, before the people receive communion. It’s unclear when the offering of financial gifts is made, and whether it’s in the worship or as some kind of retiring collection.
The picture overall is recognisable as the sort of activity found in churches around the country today. Public reading of scripture is foundational for Christian worship, and it goes back as far as we can trace the history. It has simply, along with the rest of the liturgy, become more organised and patterned, as the life of the church has developed. We will look at some of the ways it is patterned when we get to the second main section of this series: the firmware.
- Despite the commonly-held picture, persecution seems to have been local and intermittent. The popularity of a handful of individual martyrdom stories probably suggests they were fewer, and more personal, than many people think. Empire-wide persecution only appeared in the middle of the 3rd century.
- “Moses, the first of the prophets” is First Apology 32, “prophecies of David” is First Apology 40