How Do We Know Which Books Early Christians Used in Liturgy?

As Valeriy Alikin of St. Petersburg Christian University explains,“Christians began to read apostolic epistles in their gatherings at the latest from the middle of the first century onwards.” At the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul instructs,“I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brethren”(5:27). And after the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, the leaders of theChurchsend Paul and St. Barnabas to Antioch with a letter addressed to“the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia”(v. 23). Alikin points out that this address signals that the letter was to be a “circular” (meaning that thechurchin Antioch would copy it and pass it along to the next localchurch), read liturgically in each of the localchurches. We get a more explicit example of this in Colossians 4:16:“when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in thechurchof the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea.”

Do these books include the four Gospels?

According to St. Justin Martyr, they do. Justin explains that“on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read.” As we’ve already seen,“memoirs of the apostles”is the name Justin gives for the Gospels. He doesn’t name them, but we can piece together which books he considered the “memoirs” (and thus, which Gospels were being used in his day) from some of his other references.

For instance, he writes that“when a star rose in heaven at the time of his birth, as is recorded in the memoirs of his apostles, the Magi from Arabia, recognizing the sign by this, came and worshipped him.” That’s a clear reference to Matthew 2, the only book to record those details. We’ve also already seen an apparent reference to the Gospel of Mark (calling it the memoir of Peter), in which Justin mentions that Christ gave the nicknameBoanergesto James and John (Mark 3:17).

Did you enjoy this excerpt? Order your copy of The Early Church Was the Catholic Church today!

Mar 21st 2022 Joe Heschmeyer

Recent Posts