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The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, for example, has been traced to the fourth century, and is purported to be based upon even earlier forms. The Liturgy of St James is even more ancient, and is supposed to be the oldest liturgy still in common use.

I have two related questions:

  • What is the earliest Christian liturgy that we have the actual (complete or partial) text of?
  • What is the earliest Christian liturgy, whether anonymous or attributed to a particular author, that is specifically referred to in ancient sources?
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    "The Last Supper" doesn't count? – svidgen Jul 29 '13 at 21:50
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    Possible starting point for an answer: newadvent.org/cathen/09306a.htm#section2 – svidgen Jul 29 '13 at 21:55
  • Its difficult to suggest a complete or even partial text of an early liturgical structure, Christianity was still in its infancy. However, If I had to suggest something it would be Apostolic Tradition--early third century. – frank.s Jul 30 '13 at 0:28
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    To @svidgen: I was thinking exactly that. :D – Jayarathina Madharasan Jul 30 '13 at 5:27
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    Didaché contained some rules how to celebrate Eucharist - it's a step forward from Bible records of the Last Supper, but still a long way to something like the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Also, "Sub tuum praesidium" was recorded as a part of Coptic liturgy around 250 AD, so there must be some written liturgical texts from this time. – Pavel Aug 1 '13 at 14:06
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The first source for the history of the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist is obviously the account of the Last Supper in the New Testament. It was because Our Lord told us to do what He had done, in memory of Him, that Christian liturgies exist. Despite the differences in the various Eucharistic liturgies they all obey His command to do "this," namely what He Himself had done. A definite pattern for the celebration of the Eucharist had developed within decades of the death of Our Lord, a pattern which was carried on well past the conclusion of the 1st century, and which can still be discerned clearly in the finalized Roman Mass of 1570.

The earliest and most detailed account of the Eucharist is found in St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, which, of course, predates the Gospels, and was written in Ephesus between 52-55 A.D. Scholars agree that the Consecration formula used by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 11, quotes verbatim from a stylized formula already in use in the Apostolic liturgy. St. Paul's account reads:

"For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and giving thanks, broke, and said: Take ye, and eat: This is My Body, which shall be delivered for you: this do for the commemoration of Me. In like manner also the chalice, after He had supped, saying: This chalice is the new testament in My Blood: this do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of Me. For as often as you shall eat this Bread, and drink the Chalice, you shall show the death of the Lord, until He come. Therefore whosoever shall eat this Bread, or drink the Chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the Body and of the Blood of the Lord." [1 Cor: 11: 23-27].

Throughout the first century or so after St. Paul's description of the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist there can be found written fragmented accounts of how the early liturgical celebrations developed. Most of these accounts are the testimonial fruits of of religious intolerance and/or persecution.

One account comes from Pliny (C. Plinius Caecilius, c. 62-113). About the years 111-113 he writes as the young governor of Bithynia to his master, the Emperor Trajan, to ask about what he should do to Christians. He describes what he has learned about them from Christians who had apostatized under torture. Referring to his apostate informers, he recounts what the apostates revealed about Christian worship:

“They assert that this is the whole of their fault or error, that they were accustomed on a certain day to meet together before daybreak and to sing a hymn alternately to Christ as a god, and that they bound themselves by an oath (sacramento) not to do any crime, but only not to commit theft nor robbery nor adultery, not to break their word nor to refuse to give up a deposit. When they had done this, it was their custom to depart, but to meet again to eat food - ordinary and harmless food however.”

The earliest account of a finalized liturgy is given to us by St. Justin Martyr (100–165). In his apologetic account of Christian life to the Roman hierarchy he describes the Christian liturgy of the Early Church in his First Apology (ca. 150) (Chapter 65):

“But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president (i.e. presiding Presbyter) of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο (so be it). And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.”

Although the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist has has somewhat changed extrinsically since the Last Supper, its basic components and movements have remained very similar to the liturgy described above in Justin Martyr’s apologetic account – especially in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. The current ordinary form of the Latin Mass is synonymous to his liturgy in almost every aspect.

  • Actually the Eastern Orthodox liturgy of the anaphora is the most similar, as it keeps all the elements in the right place, including the kiss of peace at the beginning, which the Latins moved to the end, close to reception of communion. This is true of the Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, and St. James (written by James the Just, first bishop of Jerusalem and oldest rite in continuous use), all continuously in use by the Eastern Orthodox. The place of the kiss of peace is important, since as the congregation participates in the anaphora, they must first be at peace with each other – theo Apr 24 '17 at 15:38
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One of the oldest preserved liturgies (a 1st Century liturgy) is for "St. Mark the Evangelist" and writer of the 2nd Gospel (and also a disciple of St. Paul, review Acts 15:37, 2Tim 4:11) who came to Egypt through Libya, established one of the earliest churches, and His liturgy was well preserved and later included entirely in St. Cyril liturgy that the "Coptic Orthodox Church" still pray till date. The additions made by St. Cyril are known and old papyrus in the desert monasteries in Egypt helped scholars (such as late Fr. Matta El Meskeen) identify the additions by St Cyril.

The Liturgy (as it stands today) uses 3 clear sections (if we may call it that) Thanks Giving and Raise of Incense, Biblical Catechism of Salvation, and then the divine Sacramental Eucharist (Anaphora). This allowed new comers to Faith and those repenting a drastic turn away from Faith as well as Baptized practicing believers to join together in Thanks Giving and Biblical readings (Pauline, Catholic, Praxis, Synaxarion and Gospel) then all leave except practicing believers and doors to be closed to attend and participate in Eucharist (It starts with Nicene Creed, Prayer of Reconciliation, Holy Kiss then the Anaphora).

  • Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. Thanks for offering an answer here. If you could provide some links or references to where these documents may be found, plus relevant scholarship on them, that would greatly improve your answer. See: What makes a good supported answer? Meanwhile, I hope you'll browse some of the other questions and answers here. – Lee Woofenden Apr 25 '17 at 18:33
  • Could you pls supply a source reference for your early dating of the St. Mark’s liturgy Adel Mansour – Richard7 Feb 1 '18 at 15:52
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The Anaphora of the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to Hippolytus, is a relatively primitive portion of the Eucharistic liturgy, though clearly a predecessor of the modern Roman rite. It presumes that the celebrant is a bishop, does not draw attention to a change in substance of the gifts, and lacks a Sanctus.

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