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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

New Testament Communities

The patterns of Israelite worship described above reflect a stage more than 500 years removed from Moses and Joshua. The books of the Hebrew Bible come not from nascent Israel but from monarchic and post-exilic Israel. In contrast, the New Testament comes from nascent Christianity. Most books were written during the second half of the first century C.E., and all were written by the mid-second century.

Early Christianity experienced dramatic cultural transformations as its locus and demography changed from Palestine and Jewish to Empire and Gentile. First-century Christian communities (for in truth there was no single community) were characterized by a variety of shifting, rather amorphous structures and patterns of worship, and such terms as “priest” and “sacrament” were not part of their vocabulary. Furthermore, no New Testament book describes worship directly. In short, our knowledge of Christian worship prior to the mid-second century is fragmentary.

Jesus and all his disciples were Jewish. The synoptic Gospels regularly portray Jesus at prayer and in the synagogue, and they narrate his final meal with the Twelve as a Passover celebration. John regularly describes Jesus at the temple during pilgrimage-feasts. However, the gospels also depict aspects of Jesus' worship life that are unique or unusual. He uses the intimate familial term “Abba” to address God in prayer; he interprets scriptural texts and festivals in terms of himself; he disagrees with the Pharisees on issues of sabbath-observance and purity, eliminating some conventionally accepted lines between sacred and common; and although his angry expulsion of the money changers shows zeal for temple reform, he does not bring sacrifices.

In the immediate aftermath of Jesus' death and resurrection, his followers were more a Messianic Jewish sect than a new religion. The Acts of the Apostles portrays them attending the temple for daily prayer, and Eusebius (ca. 260–340 C.E.) quotes a tradition that James, the brother of Jesus, prayed in the temple so frequently that his knees hardened like a camel's! As the sect opened to include Hellenistic Jews, then Samaritans, and finally Gentiles, tensions developed over the extent to which traditional Jewish practices were obligatory for non-Jewish followers of the Messiah/Christ. Apparently, a number of Jewish Christians continued to feel strongly connected to dietary laws, circumcision, the temple and its purity regulations, the calendar of sabbaths and festivals, and synagogues. Other Christians, both Jewish and non-Jewish, argued that Jewish piety was optional for Christians because Jesus, not Torah and temple, was the center of life. Belonging to Christ was sealed by baptism not circumcision, and Christian worship was principally conducted at the table not the temple.

In 70 C.E., the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple, and the residual attachment to it among Jewish Christians was broken. The Epistle to the Hebrews describes Jesus as the final high priest, who offers himself in the heavenly temple as the perfect sacrifice for sin. The Gospel of John understands the divine presence to be bound not to the temple but to the person of Christ, mediated through baptism and the Lord's Supper. Nonetheless, complex dynamics of continuity as well as contrast continued to shape worship as Christianity separated itself definitively from Judaism.

Baptism was in some ways continuous with Jewish rituals of purification. Like Jewish washings, it cleansed and set one apart from the common and impure for the holy, and it delivered one from evil powers. Like the Jewish immersion of proselytes (probably a pre-Christian custom), it marked one's incorporation into religious community. In other ways, however, baptism was discontinuous with Judaism. Almost all Jewish water rituals were self-administered, but baptism was not. And if the “households” baptized into Christianity included children, this too was a departure from Judaism. Furthermore, baptism came to symbolize such distinctly Christian meanings as dying and rising with Christ, being born anew, putting on Christ, and being enlightened. Finally, baptism was linked to God's bestowing of the Spirit on new Christians. Because of God's indwelling presence, Paul could refer to the community of Christian persons as “God's temple” (1 Cor. 3.16 ), a clear departure from Jewish tradition.

Paul's letters and the Acts of the Apostles suggest that early Christians gathered in a local home for prayer and worship, often in the context of a joyful meal. For example, the earliest communities celebrated a Passover meal, associating that season with the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Passover themes of freedom from Egyptian bondage and deliverance from the overseer's lash were interpreted by Christians as freedom from sin and deliverance from punishment for sin. Not until the second century was this Christian celebration dissociated from the Jewish date for Passover and developed into a special “Easter Sunday.” It seems that first-century communities observed every first-day of the Jewish week by remembering the Lord's resurrection. Jewish-Christian house groups probably extended sabbath gatherings—devoted to praying, praising, and eating—through Saturday night, culminating in a Sunday-dawn meal. Later, non-Jewish house groups omitted the sabbath observance but, consonant with the Jewish seven-day week, retained a regularly recurring first-day observance, whether at dawn or in the evening or both. By the end of the first century, Christians began to call the first day “the Lord's Day.”

Unfortunately, New Testament authors presume readers' knowledge of Christian house groups, and none offers a detailed description of their worship or leadership. Paul offers a set of disparate data about the meal and the worship that accompanied it (1 Cor. 11 ). Noteworthy components are: prayer, prophecy, and conversation; celebration of “the Lord's Supper” in unconsecrated space, with thanksgiving to God, the breaking and sharing of bread, and the blessing and drinking of a cup; recitation of a tradition about Jesus' institution of the meal; anticipation of Christ's return to earth; and participation by both women and men. Paul states that the meal (bread and cup as “body” and “blood”) binds the community into one body through communion with Christ, the crucified and risen Lord. He also speaks approvingly of Jewish sacrificial meals, while forbidding Christians' participation in pagan sacrificial meals (1 Cor. 10.16–22 ). Perhaps Paul found the Jewish model of joyful communion with the invisible but vividly present God helpful in interpreting the Christian meal, even though blood—actual or symbolic—played no part in Jewish meals. The Johannine community understood the bread and wine to be the very flesh and blood of Christ, the sacred food and drink effecting unity with Christ and imparting eternal life (John 6.53–58 ).

Some communal meals may not have had eucharistic meaning. Some corporate worship may not have been connected to a meal. Paul does sum up components of community worship without connecting them to a meal (1 Cor. 14 ). Those he mentions include: singing, instruction (e.g., reading scripture and commenting on its meaning, or reading an apostolic letter), prayer, praise and thanksgiving, prophecy, and speaking in tongues if accompanied by interpretation. Paul seems to presuppose random expressions of the Spirit (albeit “decently and in order”) rather than a fixed liturgical sequence.

By no later than the mid-second century, liturgical forms had developed. Baptismal liturgies seem to have included preparatory fasting, answering questions, renouncing evil, disrobing, professing faith, being immersed in the name of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, donning a fresh garment, receiving chrismation, and breaking the fast (the Eucharist). First Timothy 4.13 mentions scripture reading, exhortation (preaching), and teaching as components of public worship. The lasting influence of synagogue patterns is visible here. A second-century book of church order, the Didache or “Teachings,” urges Christians to gather every Lord's Day to break bread and give thanks. It requires confession of sin and reconciliation between persons before the Eucharist and prescribes words for prayers over the cup and the broken bread and at the end of the meal. As for private piety, the Didache urges Christians to pray the Lord's Prayer three times daily and prescribes fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays.

In the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr becomes the first to speak of a bread and cup ritual outside the context of an entire meal. Performed at the Sunday gathering by the “president” (i.e., bishop), the ritual is preceded by reading from memoirs of the apostles or writings of the prophets, the president's exposition of the text, and group prayers; it is followed by an offering for the poor.

At the same time, in a different cultural world, a small Jewish-Christian community, the Ebionites, still observes the sabbath, practices circumcision, eats unleavened bread and water at the ritual meal, and faces Jerusalem when praying. Theirs, however, is not the way of the future.

The community of ancient Israel related to God in large part through media of worship associated with the place of God's immanence—the sanctuary. The Jewish canon of the Hebrew Bible ends, appropriately, with King Cyrus of Persia authorizing the building of the second temple (2 Chr. 36.23 ). New Testament communities related to God in large part through media of worship associated with the person of God's immanence—Jesus, the Christ. The Christian canon of the Old Testament concludes, appropriately, with the promise of the age of the Messiah (Mal. 4.5–6 ). And the New Testament closes with two elements of worship (Rev. 22.20b–21 ): an eschatological prayer used by some Christians at the end of the eucharistic meal, “Come, Lord Jesus!”; and a benediction, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.”

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