Reading the Scriptures in the Post-Apostolic Church

Justin Martyr recorded the fullest and earliest descriptions of a worship service outside the New Testament where reading the Scriptures was a part of the service (1 Apology 67). Before him, testimonies suggests the continuation of the apostolic tradition of public Scripture and correspondence reading. When Ignatius wrote to the Ephesians, he hinted at the second letter to a joint assembly which suggested that the first letter was publicly read—“…in a second letter that I intend to write to you I will further explain to you the subject about which I have begun to speak….All of you, individually and collectively, gather together in grace…in order that you may obey the bishop and the council of presbyters with an undisturbed mind” (Eph. 20.1–2). By the time of Ignatius, the polity of the local church had branched out from elders (presbyters) overseeing the congregation to a bishop and a presbytery managing the local church.

Justin Martyr’s description of the worship service recorded that the “memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets [were] read” (1 Apology 67). What is not mentioned is whether the reading was on a liturgical cycle like the reading of the Law in the synagogue. Everett Ferguson advocated that the reading was not of a fixed length, but that it might have been continuous from the previous Sunday’s readings. It was rather lengthy given Justin’s phrase “as long as time permits.” How one might define the “memoirs of the apostles” is subject to interpretation, but generally speaking, many have suggested that this was a reading of the gospels.

What may also reconstruct an early Christian assembly was that in Justin’s description of the worship, the Scriptures were read to coincide with the Lord’s Supper. This suggestion would posit that the public Scripture readings in early Christian gatherings, though not limited to Sunday meetings, would have had an efficacy when the Lord’s Supper was eaten. This same theory has been applied to the ending of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Tertullian made no mention of the Scripture reading coinciding with the Lord’s Supper in his account. His description indicates that the reading was relevant to the context of the church so that any necessary warnings or recognitions could be made (Apology 39). From Tertullian’s description, the reading served a preaching function that appears to have coincided with any exhortation or message that followed. The effect of the Scripture reading according to Tertullian gave development to Christian conduct: “…with the holy words we feed our faith, we arouse our hope, we confirm our confidence. We strengthen the instruction of the precepts no less by inculcations; in the same place, there are also exhortations, rebukes, and divine censures.”

In the early church after the time of the apostles, despite having no New Testament canon, there was emerging a body of writings identified as sacred Scripture. These books (memoirs of the apostles) were read alongside the prophets which had already been deemed as Scripture. The early church, despite the illiteracy among a considerable number of the population, was a textual community whose faith revolved around the actual texts given from Israel and then the apostles of the church in the first century. While the government of the local church had changed, attention given to the Scriptures elevates them above any local polity only because they were believed to have been divine and from God.

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.

2 Comments
  1. Reply
    Karen March 1, 2016 at 7:22 am

    This was timely for me as I’m studying NT practices of worship. Most of the references i see for worship don’t involve group/”church”, rather individual worship. Could you direct me to books that explain where the current church got it’s form(s) of worship used in the church today as I don’t find this in the NT. Many thanks.

    • Reply
      Steven Hunter March 2, 2016 at 7:52 am

      Karen,

      You might begin with Harry Y. Gamble’s book “Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts.”

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