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The Jewish Components of Christian Worship

The Shape of Synagogue Worship

Most scholars agree that the structure of Christian worship came almost directly from the Synagogue form of Jewish worship. [1] The importance of the synagogue to the Jews was due to a historical experience, the Babylonian exile. With no Temple in which to worship and sacrifice, faithful Jews were forced to gather around their elders to listen to the Word of God, for teaching, and to worship. This form was retained and matured after the return from the exile, and became a normal part of Jewish religious life. It was patterned on Temple worship, and was held at the same times as services in the Temple.

A brief description of the architecture of the average synagogue in the time of Christ can help explain these factors. There were several very distinct features. The first was the seat of Moses, which was represented by seats in the synagogue occupied by the rabbis. These seats were located on a raised platform called a bema, which had a central location in the synagogue building. Each synagogue had an Ark, which was protected by a veil and before which burned a seven-branched candlestick — the Menorah. "The Ark in the synagogue contained the Scriptures and spiritually pointed to the Ark of the Temple, as the physical alignment of the synagogue pointed toward Jerusalem. The ultimate focus of synagogue worship was the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem, just as the focus of worship in the Temple was likewise the Holy of Holies." [2] Note that the synagogue was oriented toward Jerusalem, as can be seen in the diagram below.


Luke tells us Jesus went to the synagogue as was His custom and was asked to read the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:16-30). Alfred Edersheim in his book about the life of Jesus cites the typical order which Jesus Himself experienced the day he began his ministry in Nazareth. "On his entrance into the Synagogue, or perhaps before that, the chief ruler would request Jesus to act for that Sabbath as the Sheliach Tsibbur (the representative of the people). For, according to the Mishnah, the person who read in the synagogue the portion from the Prophets, was also expected to conduct the devotions. Then Jesus would ascend the Bema and, standing at the lectern, begin the service by two prayers:

"Blessed be Thou, O Lord, King of the world, Who formest the light and createst the darkness, Who makest peace, and createst everything; Who, in mercy, givest light to the earth, and to those who dwell upon it, and in Thy goodness, day by day, and every day, renewest the works of creation. Blessed be the Lord our God for the glory of His handiworks, and for the light-giving lights which He has made for His praise. Blessed be the Lord our God, Who has formed the lights.

"With great love has Thou loved us, O Lord our God, and with much overflowing pity has Thou pitied us, our Father and our King. For the sake of our fathers who trusted in Thee, and Thou taughtest them the statutes of life, have mercy upon us, and teach us. Enlighten our eyes in Thy Law; cause our hearts to cleave to Thy commandments; unite our hearts to love and fear Thy Name, and we shall not be put to shame, world without end. For Thou art a God Who preparest salvation, and hast in truth brought us hear to Thy great Name that we may lovingly praise Thee and Thy Unity. Blessed be the Lord, Who in love chose His people Israel.

"After this followed what may be designated as the Jewish Creed, called the Shema, consisting of three passages from the Pentateuch. This prayer finished, he who officiated took his place before the Ark, and there repeated what formed the eulogies or Benedictions. After this, such prayers were inserted as were suited to the day. The liturgical part being thus completed, the (chief ruler) approached the Ark and brought out a roll of the Law. On the Sabbath, at least seven persons were called upon successively to read portions from the Law, none of them consisting of less than three verses. Upon the Law followed a section from the Prophets, the reading of which was in olden times immediately followed by an address, discourse or sermon."

From Edersheim's description we can see the six basic components in synagogue worship, and with minor differences most scholars agree with his observation.

  1. The Litany. The first and opening part of the synagogue service was a series of prayers, a litany, blessing God for His love toward mankind. In its present form, the Orthodox liturgy begins with the Great Litany. The celebrant says, "In peace let us pray to the Lord," and the people respond, as they do to each of the following petitions, "Lord, have mercy."
  2. The Confession. The Litany was immediately followed by a confession of God's faithfulness and of mankind's sin. In the Orthodox Liturgy, these may be found in the prayer between the Great Litany and the Scripture reading.
  3. Intercessory Prayer. The third part was the Eulogy, the prayers of intercession. Likewise these intercessory prayers complement the confessions in preparation for the Scripture readings.
  4. Scripture Readings. This was followed by the Reading from the Law and the Prophets. In today's Orthodox Church, as with any church using lexionary readings, these include Old Testament readings as well as Epistle and Gospel readings.
  5. Preaching. The reading was followed by a discourse or sermon which expanded upon the reading and clarified its application to daily life. This is the homily or sermon in modern services.
  6. Benediction. The service concluded with a Benediction, which means "good word."

On the Sabbath, the assembly gathered around the Ark with the rabbi to hear his teaching and to meditate on the Law and the Prophets, at a time in conjunction with worship in the Temple. Although the synagogue service centered on the reading of the work of God, it was not exclusively so; it was also communion with God in prayer and praise. It was also one of the forms of worship which Jesus practiced. Upon entering the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus was asked by the ruler of the synagogue to be the liturgist; He participated in the antiphonal litanies which blessed God and began that synagogue service. He joined His neighbors in confessing the faithfulness of God. The intercessory prayers were His prayers also. Then after the reading of the Law, He was asked to read the Prophets. This He did, and then to the amazement of those gathered, He did more — He interpreted them! It is unlikely that He heard the benediction, however, given the reaction He received that day.

The most common translation of leitourgos is "the work of the people". It is that common act of God's people together offering praise to Him in the manner which He revealed that they should. This was the type of worship which took place in the synagogue, and which came into the early Church. Edersheim goes so far as to say that "the synagogue became the cradle of the Church." [3] And as if that weren't enough, the components of Jewish worship which came into Christianity did so in the same order. This is evident in that the basic six-point structure of synagogue worship previously described still constitutes the core of Christian worship, and more or less has for two thousand years. This "dependency of order" verifies the historical and theological truth of the worship practices of the Christian Church as the fulfillment of that which God began in Israel.

As previously described, early Christian Churches used a design very similar to Jewish synagogues. A natural development occurred as the new Christian Church formulated its own theology and understanding, but the core connection to Judaic form was never lost. This can be seen in the oldest Syrian churches that have been excavated: "the chair of Moses has become the Episcopal seat, and the semi-circular bench that surrounds it the seat of the Christian 'presbyters.' But as in the synagogue they remain in the midst of the congregation. The bema is also there, not far from the Ark of the Scriptures which is still in its ancient place, not at the far end, but some distance from the apse. It is still veiled with its curtain and the candlestick is still beside it. The apse, however, is no longer turned toward Jerusalem but to the East, a symbol of the expectation of Christ's coming in His parousia in the Syrian church this eastward apse now contains the altar before which hangs a second curtain, as if to signify that form now it is the only 'holy of holies' in the expectation of the parousia." [4]

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The Passover

Passover is perhaps the ultimate example of how Jesus Christ transformed a Jewish worship practice into something new and different. One of the three major holy days of Israel, Passover celebrated their deliverance by God from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. It included the sacrifice of a lamb in the forecourt of the Temple, and the partaking of the seder or Passover supper including part of the sacrificed lamb. This lamb called to mind the lambs slain in Egypt; their blood brushed on the doorposts and lintels to stay the destroying angel. More than just symbolic, this sacrificed lamb accomplished the deliverance of the people of God for yet another year, while the seder, the Passover supper, established the reality of communion between God and mankind. That is why every Jew made it a point to be in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover at least once in their life; only in Jerusalem was it possible to celebrate the Passover completely.

Jesus had entered the city of Jerusalem prior to Passover, desirous of sharing this final supper with His disciples. They asked Him what they must do to prepare for the Passover (Jn. 13:1 and Mt. 26:17), and He instructed them about preparing the upper room. The disciples undoubtedly expected to celebrate the actual Passover meal with their Lord, for they were in Jerusalem. What they were not expecting was that which took place: Jesus Christ in the context of a supper, offering Himself as the Lamb of the world. Jesus undoubtedly gathered them for a supper, for all the Gospels record it.

But the supper which Jesus and His disciples celebrated together was not the seder supper of Passover. It certainly was a supper in the context of Passover, and the types of the Passover festival were present, including the breaking of bread and the drinking of the cup, but it was not the actual Passover seder because it took place on Thursday evening. The Passover seder would have had to be celebrated on Friday evening, at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, and in this case the beginning of the Days of Unleavened Bread.

Because the supper took place on Thursday night, the day before Passover, there was no slaughtered lamb from the Temple to partake of; and without the sacrificed lamb from the Temple, the meal would not be a seder. According to St. John, the death of Christ took place the next day, Friday, while the lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple (18:28). Thus, the Last Supper is an anticipation of the sacrifice of Golgotha, rather than an actual Passover meal. Jesus was crucified on Golgotha the following day, on Friday, in order that the Jewish authorities could complete His death before the Sabbath and the beginning of Passover on Friday evening.

Luke tells us that Jesus told the disciples at the table that he "desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; but I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God" (Luke 22:15-16). Jesus himself said that He would not eat another Passover until it had been fulfilled in the Kingdom; therefore, what was eaten by Him and the disciples must not have been a Passover meal. Our Lord gathered His disciples for a ritual meal, which was the same as the prayer of sacrificial representation in the Temple. Jesus did not intend to eat Passover with His disciples in Jerusalem, for He knew that He was the lamb to be sacrificed on Friday!

The lambs being slaughtered in the Temple are of the Old Covenant; the Lamb being sacrificed on the cross is the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus Christ, in the offering of His Body and His Blood, is the sacrificial Lamb. Rather than sharing lamb from the Temple to accomplish their deliverance for yet another year, Jesus was offering Himself in whom they and all the world would be delivered from sin and death. Our Lord himself took a specific Jewish worship practice, one that had been revealed by God, filled it with the new meaning of the New Covenant, and transformed it into Christian communion. He had become The Passover Lamb, ready to be sacrificed for the deliverance of God's creation. And while the Eucharist was instituted for the Twelve within the context of the Passover Feast, it was not instituted at a Passover meal. In this Jesus actualized the Church and brought it into being. It is no wonder that the early Christians thought of the Eucharist as delivering them from death (bestowing life) and establishing communion with God (unity in Christ). Deliverance and communion were the focus of the Passover, which had now been refocused in Christ Himself.

The problem with understanding the Last Supper as the Passover seder and by extension of understanding the Eucharist as a re-presentation of the Last Supper is that it results in the observance becoming a dramatic memorial. The Last Supper was a historical event that occurred once. In contrast, the Eucharist is the actual experience of the Lamb who was eternally offered on the cross. True, the crucifixion occurred once in time and need not occur again, as the New Testament clearly states. But, the crucifixion of Christ is an event with eternal consequences. Through this event all humankind before and after the cross, in fact all creation, may be saved; and in this sense it is an eternal sacrifice. Not that Christ is eternally re-sacrificed, but that the scope of the crucifixion is eternal — reaching out to each communicant in the Eucharist.

That is why in the Orthodox prayer before Communion, the priest says: "remembering... the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand and the second and glorious coming" What do Christians remember? Those actions of Jesus Christ which are eternal (past, present and future), which transcend time and space and in which Christians are saved to eternal life. The Eucharist is the actualization of the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection and the Second Coming.

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The Jewish Berakoth

If the Last Supper wasn't a Seder and if it wasn't a Passover meal, then what was it? Many scholars, led by Roman Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer, make a direct connection to the Jewish tradition of berakoth prayers. This Jewish word has been translated into Greek and English as thanksgiving, but is best translated in its Jewish usage as "blessings." Unlike the contemporary English usage of thanksgiving as meaning gratitude, berakoth, like the Greek word eucharistia is primarily a proclamation of the miraculous work of God, and is not limited to the gift received or the human response that it may prompt.

There are two principal types of berakoth in the Jewish traditon: "One type is a brief formula that became very soon stereotyped and is composed merely of a praise-thanksgiving, a 'blessing' in the narrowest sense. The other is a more developed formula in which the prayer of supplication has its place, although always in a 'blessing' context. The first is destined to accompany every action of the pious Jew from his awakening in the morning to the moment that sleep overtakes him in the evening. The second has its place either in the Synagogue service (in the morning, at noon and at night) or in the meal prayers, particularily those accompanying the final cup shared by all the participants." [5]

Of specific interest for understanding the development of the Eucharistic component of early Christian worship is the meal berakoth. In principle it was required for every Jewish meal, and included the expectation of the messianic banquet by the remnant of Israel, and so became a unique sacrifice of its own. The meal was preceded by an obligatory hand-washing, followed by the drinking of a first cup of wine by each person who repeated the following blessing:

"Blessed be thou, Yahweh, our God, King of the universe, who givest us this fruit of the vine."

The meal then began, with the father of the family or presiding member of the community breaking the bread which was to be given to all present, with the following blessing:

"Blessed be thou, Yahweh, our God, King of the universe, who bringest forth bread from the earth."

Following the meal, the father or presiding member, with a cup of wine mixed with water, invited those present to join with his act of thanksgiving, saying:

"Let us give thanks to the Lord our God."

And those present responded:

"Blessed be he whose generosity has given us food and whose kindness has given us life."

Then the father or presiding member chanted a series of berakoth (typically three), the first of which went back to Moses and was a blessing for nourishment. The second went back to Joshua and was a blessing for the promised land. The third went back to David and Solomon and was a supplication that the creative and redemptive action of God in olden times be continued and renewed today, and find its ultimate fulfillment in the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

Fr. Bouyer points out that the Passover meal followed this pattern, but was "distinguished by special foods, bitter herbs, and the lamb, which were used together with the special corresponding prayers and the dialogued recitation of the haggadah (a kind of traditional homily on the origin and the ever fresh sense of the feast). But the Last Supper was not a Passover meal, because it preceded Passover, and Jesus did not connect the Eucharist ic institution to any of the details that are proper to the Passover meal alone. In every case, however, the essential ritual act came at the end of the meal." [6] A lamp was brought in and blessed by the father or presiding member of the community, with a blessing that recalled the creation of the luminaries to light up the night. After this, incense was burned with a proper blessing, and then a second general hand-washing took place; the one who presided received the water from a servant or the youngest person at the table.

If we consider the elements of the berakoth and compare them to the New Testament accounts of the Last Supper, we see a very high degree of similarity. The first cup that followed the first hand-washing is mentioned by St. Luke as the fruit of the vine which he would no longer drink with his disciples before they met again in the Kingdom. The breaking of the bread correlates directly with the bread which Jesus Christ blessed and broke. The second ritual hand-washing was changed by Jesus, in that rather than washing hands, He took the water brought by St. John, the youngest disciple, and washed the feet of his disciples, beginning with Peter.

The origins of the form of Christian worship come from and combine the praise and teaching elements of the Synagogue service with the sacrificial elements of Temple worship. At the very core of Christian worship is the Eucharist. Its form and structure is also Jewish, given new content and meaning by Jesus Christ. Fr. Bouyer provides this summary:

"From this point on we can understand that we must place what we call today the 'words of institution' of the eucharist back into their own context which is that of the ritual berakoth of the Jewish meal, so that we may perceive the sense and the whole import of their expression. The words announcing everything that was to follow in the Last Supper, as preserved for us by St. Luke, are connected with the preparatory berakoth over the first cup. The blessing over the body (or the flesh) of Christ is connected with the initial berakoth of the breaking of bread, and that over the blood of the new covenant with the second and the third final berakoth. Finally, the sentence about the 'memorial' corresponds to the feastday interpolations in the third berakoth.

"We must go further. These words of Christ which were to give rise to the Christian eucharist arise from a whole structure underlying the Gospels, the Jewish liturgy in which they were inserted. If we separate them from it, we misunderstand the whole movement which inspired them. Reciprocally, their exact meaning risks being lost once we no longer perceive all that they accomplish and complete. Early Christianity was preserved from ever committing such an error by the fact that Christian prayer continued to develop within the forms of the Jewish berakoth and the tefillah, i.e. the prayer of petition which evolves without ever becoming actually detached from it. The first formulas of the Christian eucharist, in imitation of what Christ himself had done, are but Jewish formulas applied by means of a few added words to a new context, which, however, was already prepared for them." [7]


Parts of this page are excerpted from: Williams, B. and Anstall, H.; Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity with the Synagogue, the Temple and the Early Church; Light and Life Publishing, Minneapolis, 1990.

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[1] Alexander Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology; St. Vladimir's Press, New York, 1973

[2] Louis Bouyer, Liturgy and Architecture; Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, p. 13

[3] Edersheim, op cit, p. 55

[4] Louis Bouyer, Eucharist; Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1968, p. 26

[5] Bouyer, op cit, p. 50

[6] Bouyer, op cit, p. 80

[7] Bouyer, op cit, p. 106