Ed. The following article was included in The Hebrew Catholic #82, Fall 2005-Winter 2006. All rights reserved.
An Ancient Jewish-Christian Eucharistic Prayer
by Chaim Chaim Benedicta Schenck
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.
Jerusalem Codex H (JC H) was discovered in Constantinople and published in 1883. In 1887 it was transferred to the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. It contains all but the final lines of the Didache. It also includes other patristic material as well as a list of “names of books used by the Hebrews” which involves titles transliterated from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek.
The colophon of the codex has the name of the scribe as , “Leon, notary and sinner” and the date of June 11, 1056. Because of this late date, the authenticity and reliability of JC H has been called into question. The transliterations, however, present very compelling evidence that it is a reproduction of a much earlier work.
The Ethiopian Church has a strong Jewish connection and though history outside Ethiopia traces the origins of the Church there to the fourth century Frumentius (St. Sellama), tradition traces it back to the Eunuch of Acts 8, to the Apostles and in particular, St. Matthew. This explanation is consistent with the clearly Semitic antecedents of Ethiopian Christianity, its Jewish identity and the Semitic vocabulary of Ge’ez (Ethiopic).
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, taken together with the Coptic and Ge’ez material, 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
The Greek text of Didache 10, 3-4 with the Coptic variants 3 reads:
Teicher translates –
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. Fragment B is much less preserved, and at least two lines are indiscernible. Nonetheless, 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
There are parallels here with the long “Prayer for proclaiming the diversity of divine providence” found in the Apostolic Constitutions Book VII, which is a reiteration and expansion of the Didache.
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. 4
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 .5
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. 6
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.
A Hebrew Eucharistic Prayer
The Eucharistic prayer found in the Dura-Europas fragments is the only surviving Christian liturgy in Hebrew. Although ancient liturgical texts exist in Aramaic (Syriac), Ge’ez (Ethiopic) and Coptic that reflect Hebraisms, indicating that the original texts were Hebrew, Chaldean or Aramaic, none of those originals are extant. If the Dura-Europas fragments are indeed Judeo-Christian liturgical texts, and Eucharistic texts at that, than they are still unique, seventy years after their discovery.
The evidence seems to weigh heavily in favor of these prayers being Eucharistic and presumably a part of an equally ancient, Apostolic Eucharistic liturgical rite that is partly preserved in the Didache. Subsequent rites, such as The Anaphora of the Apostles and of Addai and Mari may have incorporated elements of that Hebrew rite.
Archeological and further textual evidence for a Judeo-Christian rite
Archeological activity in Israel and Syria over the past 100 years has revealed significant data on the early Jewish-Christian communities in the Holy Land. 7 That a considerable number of Jewish-Christian churches and communities existed has been amply demonstrated. Eusebius writes that an earlier historian named Papias recorded that “Matthew composed his history (Gospel) in the Hebrew dialect, and everyone translated it as he was able.” He also cited that the bishops of Jerusalem were “among the circumcision” for nearly two centuries, listing “Judah” as “the last of the Hebrew succession”. 8 That these bishops, who used a Hebrew, or at least an Aramaic, Gospel, read the Old Testament books in Hebrew and lived within the Jewish milieu of Jerusalem and other Jewish towns, would have composed a Hebrew liturgy is quite plausible. According to Teicher –
The existence of a Christian Eucharistic prayer in Hebrew, which cannot be later than the second half of the third century 9, indicates that Hebrew was a liturgical and ecclesiastical language in the Church during the first centuries. 10
Such a liturgical language would surely have been used in the Eucharistic synaxes of Jerusalem, Judea and Palestine, and other Jewish-Christian communities.
1. J.L. Teicher, Ancient Eucharistic Prayers in Hebrew, in Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. LIV, No. 2, October, 1963. 99.
2. Ibid, 103.
3. Teicher suggests that the Coptic version is more suitable for the purpose of correlating the Greek with the Hebrew of the Dura-Europas fragments.
4. 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.
5. Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin, To Pray as a Jew, (New York: Basic Books, 1980) 289.
6. Willy Rordorff and others, The Eucharist of the Early Christians, translated by Matthew J. O’Connell, (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1978) 10.
7. For a summary of archeological work, see Jean Briand OFM, The Judeo-Christian Church of Nazareth, translated by Mildred Deuel, (Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1982).
8. Eusebius Pamphillus, The Ecclesiastical History, translated by Christian Frederick Cruse, (Grand Rapids: Guardian Press, 1976).
9. Flusser cites Rordorf and Tulier’s claim that JC H “is based on a source from the fourth and fifth century” The Didache, op cit, 18.
10. J.L. Teicher, Ancient Eucharistic Prayers in Hebrew, op cit, 108-109.
Ed. The following biographical information was obtained from http://www.priestsforlife.org/staff/schenck.htm
Dr. Paul Schenck serves as a Pastoral Associate with Priests for Life and Director of Gospel of Life Ministries, an ecumenical outreach to the broader Christian community that seeks to form alliances across denominational boundaries. Gospel of Life is an initiative of Faith and Action, Priests for Life and the National Clergy Council in which Biblical, Evangelical Christians can find common ground with Catholic Christians in the effort to build a “Culture of Life.”
Raised in a Jewish family, “Chaim” was baptized at age 16. He served for twenty-two years as an Evangelical minister and Anglican pastor. He is the author and/or editor of five books and a founding editor of a quarterly journal covering moral, theological and social issues. He founded two parochial schools, a ministry to the homeless and an international relief organization providing medical, dental and hygienic care to the poorest on the planet. For three years he was Executive Vice President, with Jay Alan Sekulow, of the American Center for Law and Justice, a public interest law firm advocating for pro-life, pro-family and religious liberty cases. He was also a founder of the National Clergy Council now headquartered in Washington, DC, and has spent twenty years in pro-life activism.
… Dr. Schenck holds degrees from a missionary bible college, a Baptist seminary, was given the Life Achievement Award by the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio and is currently pursuing a Catholic theological degree. He is a trustee and Visiting Professor of Evangelization at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire (and Rome, Italy), which bestowed on him the Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causae. He was also granted the honorary Doctor of Divinity from the Methodist Episcopal College. He married his high school sweetheart, Rebecca, shortly after they graduated and they have eight children.