10 November 2015

Gnostic Eucharist prayers

The following passage is taken from the late first century document commonly known as the Didache.  In the early centuries of the Church, it was deemed part of the sacred New Testament canon, before that became standardized.  The prayers are those for the Eucharistic meal, and meal it was at that time, before the blessing was divorced from the meal it blessed and reduced to the equivalent of a magic incantation.

The form follows that of the traditional blessing at a first-century chavurah meal, which became the basis for Jewish meal blessings to this day.  First, there is a cup of sanctification upon the proceedings; then the blessing of the bread, which blesses the entire meal; third and last, the thanksgiving after the meal, which, although the text did not say (but the first-century reader would have known), was followed with another cup of wine.

‘First concerning the Cup:

‘We give you thanks, Father, for the holy vine of your servant David, which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus; glory to you forever.

‘And concerning the broken Bread:

‘We give you thanks, Father, for the Zoe (Life) and Gnosis (Knowledge) which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus; glory to you forever.  As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains but was brought together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom, for yours are the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.

‘But after you are satisfied with food, thus give thanks:

‘We give you thanks, holy Father, for making your holy name dwell in our hearts, and for the Gnosis (Knowledge) and Pistis (Faith) and Athanasia (Immortality) which you revealed to us through Jesus your servant; glory to you forever.
            ‘You, Lord Almighty, created all things for your name’s sake, and gave all humanity food and drink for our enjoyment, that we might give thanks to you, but you have blessed us with spiritual food and drink and Aiónio Fos (Eternal Light) through your servant.  Above all we give thanks that you are mighty; glory to you forever.
            ‘Remember, Lord, to deliver your Ekklesia (Church) from all evil and to make it perfect in your love, and gather it together in holiness from the four winds to the kingdom which you have prepared for it; for yours are the power and the glory forever.
            ‘Let Charis (Grace) come and let this Aeon (World/Age) pass away.  Hosannah, God of David.  If anyone be holy, let them come! If anyone be not, let them repent: Maranatha.  Amen.’ (Didache, chapters 9 and 10)

These benedictions, which take the rarer form of Jewish prayer known as hodayot (‘We give thanks…’), rather than the more standard berakot (‘Blessed be…’) mention nothing about any of what were later considered the high points by later Neoplationist-influenced Christianity such as the Virgin Birth, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, not even the Last Supper and the Words of Institution.  Indeed, though the Didache in the form we have it dates from the end of the first century, these prayers likely predate the Gospel of Mark, originally written in Alexandria around 75 CE (though the form we have now is post-135 CE, after the Bar Kokhba War).

Two other features are of great interest. 

First, the Greek word used for both David and for Jesus, pais, can mean either ‘servant’ (as in bonded servant, or slave) or ‘child’; either way, the prayers place the two on the same level in regards to their relationship to God.

Second, the use of phrases and terms shared with Gnostic schools; these are the ones in Greek underlined and in bold.  Despite the title of this essay, these do not signify that this set of prayers is necessarily Gnostic (the rest of the Didache argues against that), just that Gnosticism and Christianity coming out of the same milieu shared much of the same sectarian language.  Several—Zoe, Pistis, Ekklesia, Charis—are also names of Aeons in many Gnostic schools; the term Aeon itself as used here another feature of Gnosticism; the idea of Aionio Fos belongs to both Gnostics and Hypsistarians (as well as Mazdayasnists); the three references to what the Father “revealed to us”.

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