Origins and influences VIII: The earliest known Eucharistic prayer?

It is easy when we look at ancient texts to forget that they come from cultures very different to ours.

It is generally helpful to maintain a hermeneutic of suspicion – to strip away our presumptions, and work hard at noticing what is actually there in the text, and where there are ‘absences’, things we might expect to be there, but that the text is silent about.

This week we look at a very early Christian text, from a work known as the Didache, the ‘Teaching’. In it we find some prayers related to eucharistia, the ‘Thanksgiving’.

Different dates for the Didache are suggested – some as early as the earliest writings of the New Testament, and others well into the 2nd C AD. If it is as early as some thing it not only gives us what is possibly the first Eucharistic Prayer but also the earliest record of the Lord’s Prayer! It is a notable document.

A word of caution though. We need to ask whether Didache‘s ‘Thanksgiving’ the equivalent of our Eucharist? It is an obvious question, but scholars argue over the answer. What seems safest is to say it is an early Christian meal, and most likely one of the rituals out of which developed the (now) classical forms of the Eucharist of the Church, East and West.

The full text of the relevant extract from the Didache can be downloaded here

Didache provides prayers to be said before and following a meal.

The description begins with a prayer of thanksgiving over a cup and then a thanksgiving and intercession over what is described as ‘broken bread’. Was the bread broken before or during the meal? Before, during or after the thanksgiving and intercession? The text itself gives no indication – and other ritual traditions make any of these options possible.

Let’s look at the first prayer, concerning the cup.

We give thanks to you, our Father,
for the holy vine of David your servant,
which you have made known to us
through Jesus your servant;
glory to you for evermore.

The prayer over the cup gives thanks to God – “our Father”. Thanks is given for “the holy vine of David” made known to us (ie to the Christian community – an identification supported by words related to the bread) through Jesus. So presumably the cup is a cup of wine. And arguably what the prayer is thanking God for is the community’s being part of, or joined with, the holy vine, through Jesus, the Father’s servant.

The Greek here translated ‘servant’ is ‘pais’, which can also be translated child. Both terms are of course respectful and helpful ways of referring to Jesus. However it is most common in the Church’s earlier prayers – from a time when the Church was seeking to find the right language to speak of Jesus. It tends to suggest that the prayer uses a relatively ‘low’, early, Christology. That said – in our day when the Church continues to struggle to share the good news with the most vulnerable and is herself perceived as oppressive – it might be language we would do well to recover and make fuller use of – without compromising our fully developed and established Christology which acknowledges Jesus also as our Lord and God, and as Second person of the Holy Trinity.

If this were a typical Eucharistic Prayer from our time we would expect the cup to be blessed after the bread. However recall that Luke’s account of the ritual at Last Supper begins with a thanksgiving over a cup, and that Paul at 1 Cor 10.16-17 speaks first of a cup of blessing before he speaks of bread broken. Other early evidence also suggests that at least some Christian communities were familiar with this practice at (what is certainly) celebrations of the Eucharist.

One of the things we might expect if this were Eucharist is a explicit association of cup with Last Supper and the blood of sacrifice. But Didache does not provide us with that, nor does it when it comes to the words over the bread.

We give thanks to you, our Father,
for the life and knowledge
which you have made known to us through Jesus your servant;
glory to you for evermore.

As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains
and having been gathered together became one,
so may your church be gathered together
from the ends of the earth into your kingdom;
for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for evermore.

Again the focus is not on Last Supper and Passion, but on the integrity of the church gathered in Christ. That focus is there in our contemporary Eucharistic Prayers too, but it is less to the fore. One of the reasons for looking back to ancient texts is to be helped to notice things we may be less attentive to in our current texts!

In the extracts from Didache that we have looked at, maybe nothing so far leaps of the page saying these are prayer for Eucharist, not just a thanksgiving at a regular meal.

But next comes the following instruction:

Let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist but those who have been baptized in the name of the Lord. For concerning this also the Lord has said, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs.”

This is no ordinary meal. It is a holy meal, reserved to a people who have chosen Christ and who have been baptised into him.

The preceding chapters of Didache present the sort of moral and ethical teaching that they may have negaged with before being admitted to baptism, a teaching of the Two Ways, a teaching which interestingly does not name Jesus, though it does quote teaching of his that we are familiar with from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Again all this would seem to suggest this is an early work, maybe written before Matthew and Luke, but familiar with some of the prior traditions on which those Gospels would draw.

The prayers from Didache quote above are used before eating and drinking the food and drink of the Thanksgiving. The next rubric intorduces a concluding prayer saying

After you have had your fill, give thanks thus:

‘After you have had your fill….’ Does this indicate a substantial meal followed the prayer? Or simply a partaking of holy bread and cup?

The prayer that follows suggests it could have been either.

That prayer, the prayer after the meal, gives thanks for the holy name (not here, ‘Jesus’, but the Father’s ‘name’), and gives thanks for faith and eternal life made known in Jesus; also for creation – especially food and drink, (particularly spiritual food and drink), and prays that the Church will grow into the kingdom.

We give thanks to you, holy Father, for your holy name
which you have enshrined in our hearts,
and for the knowledge and faith and immortality
which you have made known to us
through Jesus your servant; glory to you for evermore.

You, Almighty Master,
created all things for the sake of your Name
and gave food and drink to humans for enjoyment,
that they might give thanks to you;
but to us you have granted spiritual food and drink and eternal life
through Jesus your servant.

Above all we give thanks to you because you are mighty;
glory to you for evermore. Amen.

Remember, Lord, your church, to deliver it from all evil
and to perfect it in your love,
and gather it together from the four winds, having been sanctified,
into your kingdom which you have prepared for it;
for yours is the power and the glory for evermore.
Amen.

May grace come, and this world pass away. Amen.

Hosanna to the God of David.

If anyone is holy, let him come;
if anyone is not, let him repent.

Maranatha. Amen.

This section of Didache concludes by saying

But allow the prophets to give thanks as long as they wish.

This raises the question, who prayed this prayer. Sometimes prophets, who could extemporise on the prayer. At other times who? And were they constrained to use the given text or could they too improvise, with a warning not to go on too long!? We do not know.

But the recognition that those Christians with the standing and authority of prophets were free to vary the texts suggests, and reminds, that Didache comes from a time when characteristic Christian practice was being formed.

The Church’s prayers have a never simply come out of nowhere. Often they are fashioned and refashioned by reflecting on her tradition, adapting what has been used previously and fitting it for its new purpose.

We see this in how the Synoptic Gospels present Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper. He offers fresh meaning – and in this case – imparts new reality through his adaptation of the Passover meal – what was active remembrance of God’s saving act in liberating his people from Egypt becomes sacramental anticipation of the salvation won in the Sacrifice of Calvary.

Many scholars suggest that what we see in the ‘eucharistic’ prayers of Didache is an adaptation of what was a usual form of Jewish prayer, Blessings prayed at the end of a meal. The earliest full texts we have for these Blessings date from the 9th C AD but it is possible that there were relatively little changed from the pattern of prayer familiar even in the 1st C AD.

You can download an example of the Jewish prayer below.

The Jewish prayer offers blessing to God for food; thanksgiving and blessing for the Land, Law and Life; and offers intercession and blesses God for mercy to the people Israel and on Jerusalem.

Perhaps Didache riffs on this tradition (if it was such by that time) giving thanks for food, faith, and interceding for Church – drawing from Jewish tradition but also marking out its distinctive, different faith and identity.

Some questions for reflection

  • How would you explain for the generous hospitality to all offered by Jesus at the multiplication of the loaves and fish, and the instruction to share ‘eucharistic food’ only with the baptised?
  • What are the pros and cons about extemporising prayer? Why do most established Christian traditions use approved prayer texts?
  • For what are you mindful of thanks being given at Mass in our contemporary Eucharistic Prayers?
  • Are you familiar with the practice of praying at meal times? What is its value?

A log with links to previous postings in this series is kept here.

Acknowledgements

  • Translation of Didache: (c) Paul F. Bradshaw, Maxwell E Johnson. Published in The Eucharistic Liturgies. Collegeville: Pueblo Books, Liturgical Press, 2012.
  • Photographs. (c) 2013, Allen Morris, Grave marker, Arles Antique, Arles, France.
  • Text (c) 2021, Allen Morris.

2 thoughts on “Origins and influences VIII: The earliest known Eucharistic prayer?

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