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Lectionaries

This entry consists of two articles on readings from the Bible in liturgical contexts, the first in Jewish Tradition, and the second in Christian Tradition.

Jewish Tradition

Though it has no lectionary in the formal sense, Jewish liturgy draws extensively on the Hebrew Bible with readings, direct quotations, and textual references to explain the significance of portions of the service.

One of the oldest uses of the biblical text within the liturgy is Deuteronomy 6.4–9, the Shema. These verses express the essential Jewish belief in a single God and provide a course of action for demonstrating this belief. This paragraph is followed in the traditional prayer service (omitted in Reform Judaism) by two other biblical passages, Deuteronomy 11.13–21 and Numbers 15.37–41, that state the consequences both of following God and of disobeying Him. The Shema is the focus of the first part of the service.

Similar to the Christian lectionary is the annual Jewish cycle of Torah readings. The Torah is a handwritten scroll containing the Pentateuch. The fifty‐four pentateuchal readings progress weekly, with successive portions of the Pentateuch, some weeks having double readings. Special Sabbaths and holy days have their own Torah readings, conveying the meaning of the holy day and replacing the weekly reading. For example, the reading for the holiday of Shavuʿot (Pentecost) is Exodus 19–20, which includes the Ten Commandments. This reading emphasizes the meaning of Shavuʿot as celebrating the acceptance of the Torah by the people of Israel. The Torah is traditionally read on Monday, Thursday, and Sabbath mornings. On Sabbath afternoon, the reading for the following week is begun.

On the Sabbath and holy days there is an additional reading from the Prophets called the Haftarah. Each Torah reading has a designated Haftarah that is meant to parallel and illuminate the message of the Torah reading. Thus, the Torah portion mentioning the building of the tabernacle in the wilderness is accompanied by a Haftarah about the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. Holy days have special Haftarah readings.

The Torah reading, central to the Jewish service, is accompanied by Devar Torah (“word of Torah”), a sermon drawing upon the weekly portion in order to teach a lesson for daily life. The portion is also used as a focus for study during the week.

Five other biblical books, collectively known as megillot (“scrolls”) are read in full during the year. The scroll of Esther is read on the festival of Purim, commemorating the salvation of Persian Jewry. Song of Songs is read on Passover. In ancient Israel, Passover took place at the early spring harvest, alluded to in Song of Songs. This book is understood as an allegory of God's relationship with the Jewish people, a relationship that began with the Exodus celebrated on Passover. The book of Ruth is read on Shavuʿot (Pentecost), a holiday that celebrated the late spring harvest, mentioned in Ruth. In addition, it is the holiday of accepting the Torah, and Ruth in Jewish tradition is an exemplary model of a convert who accepts God's teachings. The book of Lamentations is read on Tishʿah BeʾAv (the ninth of Ab), the day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Ecclesiastes is read on the holiday of Sukkot (Booths), because the holiday takes place in the fall and Ecclesiastes is written in the autumn of the preacher's life.

The service surrounding the actual reading from the Torah draws on numerous biblical verses. The introductory part of the service on Sabbath and holidays strings together verses thematically emphasizing God's eternal rule and his relationship with the people of Israel (Pss. 86.8; 145.13; 10.16; 93.1; Exod. 15.18; Pss. 29.11; 51.20 [18]). This is followed by a series of verses tied to the idea of bringing out God's teaching. Numbers 10.35 is chanted in imitation of Moses' action when the ark traveled. Then Isaiah 2.3 is chanted, describing the Torah as being the word of God emanating from Zion. This is followed by the Shema (Deut. 6.4), emphasizing God's unity; Psalm 34.4 (3), a call to exalt God's name; and Psalm 99.5, 9, in response to the call. After the Torah reading, Deuteronomy 4.44 and Numbers 9.23 are sung in confirmation that the Torah was given to the people of Israel by God through Moses. As the scroll is returned to its ark, the liturgy mirrors the beginning of the service with a call to exalt God's name (Ps. 148.13–14) followed by a song of exaltation (Ps. 29: Sabbath; Ps. 24: other occasions). When the scroll is placed back in the ark, there is another selection of verses strung together thematically referring to the ark being brought to rest. This selection emphasizes the centrality of the Torah to the relation between God and Israel, reaffirming the Torah as the “tree of life” (Num. 10.36; Ps. 132.8–10; Prov. 4.2; 3.18; 3.17; Lam. 5.21).

Within the central part of the service called the Amidah (standing prayer), Isaiah 6.3, Ezekiel 3.12, and Psalms 146.10 are the focal point in the Kedushah (“sanctification”). The priestly blessing (Num. 6.24–6) appears on special occasions. Numerous other verses are interpolated into the prayers as well.

Psalms are also widely used in Jewish liturgy. There is a psalm for each day of the week, a psalm for the Sabbath day (Ps. 92), a series of psalms recited Friday evening to represent the weekdays (Pss. 95–99), psalms recited in the introductory service on the Sabbath morning (Pss. 145–150). There is also a special addition to the service on holy days called the Hallel (“praise”), consisting of Psalms 113–118. While all the psalms give word to the individual's desire to praise God, those appearing in the introductory portions of the service help prepare the individual spiritually for the service.

Often the influence of the Bible on liturgy is interpretive. The public reading of the Torah is said to be based on Exodus 24.3 and Deuteronomy 5.1 and 31.11–12, all examples of Moses reciting commandments or laws to the people of Israel. The action and wording of the call to prayer at the beginning of the service is based on Nehemiah 9.5. The essential portion of the prayer service is recited standing, attributed to Phinehas's action in Psalm 106.30, the interpretation being that the act of standing will be counted in one's favor. The prayers of supplication in the daily service are based on Daniel 9.3–19; Ezra 9.6–15; and Nehemiah 1.4–11. The inclusion of a prayer for the welfare of the government in the Sabbath service is derived from Jeremiah 29.7, where the exiles are told to seek the welfare of the country in which they reside. Even relatively late additions to the prayer book use biblical verses as their foundation.

Michal Shekel

Christian Tradition

A lectionary is a set selection of passages from the Bible to be read aloud in public worship over a fixed period of time. The designation may refer to a book in which is actually printed each assigned reading or simply to a list of chapters and verses that are then read from a Bible. Sometimes the specific pericopes (selected passages) for the lay reader, deacon/priest, and cantor are printed in separate books (the Lectionary, the Book of Gospels, and the Gradual, respectively). A community may employ multiple lectionaries, with different sets of readings for Sunday, for weekdays, for celebrations of the Eucharist, and for Services of the Word. Not all Christian communities follow a formal lectionary.

The practice of reading scripture when Christians gather for worship can be traced back very early, and is related to some extent to the Jewish practice of continuous Torah reading in the synagogue (see previous article in this entry on Jewish Tradition). Already in the second century CE, Justin Martyr described how “the memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read for as long as possible” (Apol. 67). The pilgrim Egeria, in recounting her visit to Jerusalem in the fourth century, noted that in the church there the biblical readings were chosen so as to be appropriate for the feast or the place. Various early tables of readings are attested from both the Eastern and Western churches and exhibit great diversity in both the number and selection of readings according to language, region, and liturgical rite. In Augustine's church of the fifth century, for instance, the bishop exercised some freedom of choice, but the readings for the major feasts were basically already fixed. More complete lists have survived from the eighth century, most notably the Comes of Wurzburg, the Liber Commicus of Spain, and the Lectionary of Luxeuil from Gaul.

After the Reformation, distinctive lectionary traditions developed in the Lutheran and Anglican communities, while most of the “Free Churches” abandoned the imposition of a lectionary. The Greek churches have largely maintained the Byzantine lectionary of the eighth century. The Roman church of the West retained the Missal of Pope Paul V from 1570, with a one‐year cycle of New Testament readings.

In subsequent centuries relatively little attention was paid to the lectionary until the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic church called for a major reform of the entire lectionary, with the intent that “the treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 51). A complete revision for Sundays, weekdays, feasts, sacraments, and other rites was completed in 1969 and prepared for worldwide use in 1971; some slight revisions and a more extensive introduction were published in 1981. Various Protestant churches, particularly in North America, quickly adopted this lectionary, usually with minor changes (especially in the structure of the liturgical year and substitutions for the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books). The most important of these adaptations of the Roman lectionary is the Common Lectionary of 1983 and the Revised Common Lectionary of 1992, prepared by the Consultation on Common Texts, an ecumenical forum of Christian churches in North America. In addition, numerous other lectionaries, independent of the Roman lectionary, have been developed in the last decades, often on a regional or denominational basis; one of the most widely used is the two‐year thematic‐type lectionary proposed by the Joint Working Group in Britain in 1967, revised to a four‐year cycle in 1990.

Certain fundamental principles guide modern lectionary planning and revision: a desire to read extensively and widely from the Bible in public worship; assignment of the more important biblical passages to Sundays and solemnities; maintenance of certain pericopes that historically have been long associated with major feasts; and a doxological, Christocentric orientation that reflects the doxological nature of liturgy rather than an academic or didactic orientation. In the Roman lectionary and its adaptations, these principles find expression in the Sunday lectionary in the development of a three‐year cycle, with one gospel read in a semicontinuous fashion over each year and the gospel of John used to supplement Mark and for much of the Lenten and Easter season. A second New Testament reading from the Epistles is also semicontinuous. The Roman lectionary has a first reading, chosen from the Old Testament (except during the Easter season when it is from Acts) on the basis of a thematic connection with the Gospel; the Revised Common Lectionary now offers an alternative system of semicontinuous reading of Old Testament narratives for the Sundays after Pentecost. In addition, a psalm is provided for each Sunday as a congregational response between the first and second reading. The weekday lectionary is based on a two‐year cycle of two semicontinuous pericopes, except for the Advent–Christmas and Lent–Easter cycle, where the readings fit the liturgical season.

Ongoing discussion and critique have focused on the fundamental nature of a lectionary as such and on the specific choices of a certain lectionary. A lectionary implies an inherent element of selectivity; it always excludes as well as includes, and to that extent it establishes its own canon of texts that form the basis for popular knowledge, preaching, and even catechetical instruction. The most problematic issues raised about specific lectionaries are questions concerning the presence or absence of biblical passages about women; the use or nonuse of passages that speak negatively about the Jews (see Anti‐Semitism); problems in the typological use of the Old Testament; and the difficulty of preaching on the basis of two or three virtually independent readings. Yet for many Christians the revised Roman lectionary is recognized as one of the major achievements of the Second Vatican Council. Its adoption and adaptation by many Protestant churches, even those churches that traditionally had not used a lectionary, has brought an unforeseen degree of ecumenical convergence in the scriptures that are read each Sunday throughout a large portion of the Christian church.

Eileen Schuller

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