Jewish antecedents to Christian Eucharistic liturgies

Schenck, Rev. Paul

The Didache appears to be a threshold document that straddled the phase in which the Church transitioned from being predominantly Jewish in custom and culture to Gentile and universal. Parallels between the structure and content of the prayers of the Didache and those of the birkot ha-mazon, the Jewish table prayers, are striking. In fact, the similarities are so consistent, that it is indicated that the Didache is the most complete repository of the liturgy of the ancient Jerusalemite Judeo-Christian Church. An examination of Didache 9, 10 reveals a pattern, or blueprint of prayer structure that nearly exactly correlates with the Jewish prayers of the New Testament era.

The Didache, together with several other sources, among them the Jerusalem Codex, Eusebius of Caesarea and the remarkable find of a Hebrew fragment at Dura-Europas in Syria, points to an early, though no longer extant, Jewish-Christian Eucharistic rite in Hebrew or Aramaic which included a Eucharistic prayer similar to the Didache prayer.

The Textual History

The complete text of the Didache has survived in only one manuscript, an eleventh century miniscule called variously, The Manuscript of Jerusalem, Heirosolymitanus 54, or the Jerusalem Codex H. Significant parts are contained in two fourth century parchment fragments discovered at Oxyrhynchus, a fifth century Coptic leaf from Cairo and inserts within the Ethiopic Church Order. In addition to these, J. L. Teicher, late Don of Cambridge, argued that a fragment uncovered in 1936 from the foot of the embankment in Wall Street behind the Synagogue at Dura-Europas in Syria contains a Hebrew version of the prayer found at Didache 10, 3-4.

According to Teicher, the fragments from Dura-Europas “are substantial, although incomplete text.”[1] One is very small with only a few letters on it, but the other two, A and B, contain respectively, eight lines with approximately 30 words or parts of words and seven lines with approximately 16 words or parts of words, in all cases in a Palestinian Hebrew script.

The Dura-Europas fragment presents a case for an early Hebrew or Aramaic Eucharistic text, which was subsequently translated and preserved in the Greek Church.

The Content of the Hebrew fragments

In his analysis of the Dura-Europas texts, Teicher asserts–

The contents of the Dura-Europas texts are very closely connected with the Eucharistic prayers in the Didache 10, 3-4; to such an extent, indeed, that the text of the Christian prayers offers excellent guidance as to how the mutilated Hebrew texts ought to be read and reconstructed. This in itself is a direct proof that the texts of the Dura-Europas parchment are Christian, not Jewish.[2]

 Teicher translates the Greek text of Didache 10, 3-4 as –

3. Thou, O Lord, Almighty, hast created all things for the sake of Thy name, hast given food and drink to the children of men for enjoyment, but to us Thou hast granted spiritual food and drink for eternal life through Jesus, Thy servant.

4. For all these things we thankfully praise Thee, because Thou art powerful. Thine is the glory forever. Amen.

In comparison, the Hebrew of Fragment A is translated:

Blessed be the Lord, King of the Universe, who created
All things, apportioned food, appointed drink
For all the children of flesh with which they shall be satisfied
But granted to us, human beings, to partake of the food
Of the myriads of his angelic bodies. For all this
We have to bless with songs in the gatherings of [the] people.     

Clear parallels can be seen with the Didache prayer. What is visible can be translated as follows –

To praise his greatness
Small and great animals
All beasts of the fields
Food for the birds of heaven
And clothed him with skin and flesh

Origins of the prayers

There are parallels as well with the Birkot-ha-mazon, the Jewish blessings over food and wine. The Eucharistic prayers of the Didache and the prayers of the fragments have undeniable antecedents in the birkot.

These prayers, being older than the Didache, have their parallel in the Jewish rites that open and conclude a Jewish ritual meal. The attachment of the Didache community to the Judaism of their environment must still have been very strong, which is not surprising. For we may expect that the first converts continued to adhere to the pattern of daily prayer, which was observed by the Jews of the time.[3]

The first lines of the Didache prayer and the fragments are reminiscent of the she’hakol, the general blessing over foods other than bread and wine:


The translation is roughly –

Blessed art Thou, LORD our God, King of the universe,
Who by His Word brings about all things.

 The Blessing for Food continues –

Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who in his goodness, loving kindness, and mercy, nourishes the whole world. He gives food to all flesh, for his loving kindness is everlasting. In his great goodness we have never lacked food, for the sake of his great name. For he nourishes and sustains all, and prepares food for all his creatures that he created. Blessed art Thou, Lord, who provides food for all.[4]

The Great Jewish blessing was in fact a sequence of four blessings, which can be found, in another form and different order, in Didache 10.[5]

The similarities in the prayers are striking. The Jewish origins of both the Didache prayers and the Dura-Europas prayers are quite evident. The correspondence between them indicates that the ancient Christian communities of the Didache and the Syrian community at Dura-Europas had in common the Hebrew-Aramaic-Jewish religion and culture of Judea and Palestine.

Fr. Paul CB Schenck is a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg. Raised Jewish, he attended Hebrew School as a child, and studied Hebrew in college. He holds degrees in Biblical Studies, theology and ethics. He presently directs the Respect Life Office for the Bishop of Harrisburg and is chairman of The National Pro-Life Center on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

[1] J.L. Teicher, Ancient Eucharistic Prayers in Hebrew, in Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. LIV, No. 2, October, 1963. 99.

[2] Ibid, 103.

[3] Hube van de Sandt and David Flusser, The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and its place in Early Judaism and Christianity, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002) 309.

[4] Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin, To Pray as a Jew, (New York: Basic Books, 1980) 289.

[5] Willy Rordorff and others, The Eucharist of the Early Christians, translated by Matthew J. O’Connell, (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1978) 10.

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