The First 300 Years of Christian Worship

The first Christians were disciples, who became the Apostles.  Those included women.  That is, perhaps, unusual for any religious movement. Please take the time to review an excellent study of the importance of women in the Jesus movement at .  Of course, it was limited in what remained a man’s world, and it was not long-lived.

The disciples, being Jewish, first worshiped in the synagogues. Their scripture was Jewish, of course reinterpreted to have foretold “Jesus the Christ,” the Jewish Messiah,  Its forms of worship, including music, were Jewish.  It was only with the expansion of the Christian message to the non-Jews, “the Gentiles,” through the missions of Paul and others, that pagan practices associated with non-Jews entered Christian worship  and practice.

Ephesians 5:19 and Collosians 3: 16 refer to Christian worship in “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.”  “The earliest Christians were Jews who recognized and accepted Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah, and the worship that they practiced was liturgical because Jewish worship was liturgical.”  See  That site provides an excellent and succinct description of the earliest Christian music: and an excellent recording of an “Allelujah” chant which it implicitly suggests is representative of early Christian music.  The Psalms also described various ways of praising God with instruments, singing and dancing.  To the degree such Jewish practices continued in Jesus’ time, I presume that the first Christians also adopted them for their own praise and adoration.

I suggest that shared worship practices developed along two main paths: Jewish practices and traditions for Jewish Christian, and pagan inheritances for non-Jewish or Gentile Christians.  That took some time to develop.  We know that it took some time for Christianity to work out whether a Christian had to be a Jew, or at least had to observe Jewish purity and Mosaic laws.  That was not finally settled until the Council of Jerusalem at which time the question was decided in the negative.

I had not understood the distinction of “Jesus” and “Christ” until I read  some 30 years ago Schillebeeckx’s Jesus: An Experiment in Christology.  Put succinctly, the study of Jesus concerns the historical Jesus.  The first writings concerning the life of the earthly Jesus did not begin to appear until 40 years or so after his death.  That raises problems for a scholar in that he or she is confronted with records of similar accounts with different chronological orders, or which otherwise conflict.  It was after Jesus’ death that various disciples, and ultimately Paul, experienced the risen Lord. That necessarily raised questions of what was the meaning of the Jesus they knew and of the apparitions of him which they experienced after his death.  It was only after two disciples had walked with “the stranger” a significant distance on the road to Emmaus, after which they invited him into their home for a meal, and then only after he blessed the bread, broke it and gave thanks, that the disciples recognized him as Jesus.  Upon recognition, he vanished. Jesus is reported then to have appeared to the original Disciples, minus Judas, who had hanged himself, and minus Thomas, who was to become “Doubting Thomas,” as they were hiding in a reclusive room for a meal.  We are told that some of them experienced Jesus’ ghost while others experienced the person of Jesus, but a different Jesus than they had known.  This Jesus was not constrained by physical barriers, such as walls and closed doors, for we are told in the account that all access to the room in which he appeared to them was closed.  Actual physical bodies, whether alive or resurrected, do not walk through closed doors or walls.  It was only after such experiences that they were able to “put together” what Jesus had said during his life with them.  Once such meaning was identified and assigned, that became a faith statement of his new role  as the Christ, forfetold by the prophets.  See, also, the Frontline article, From Jesus to Christ, at

It took some time for Christians to develop a body of writings that their spiritual leaders considered to be authentic and authoritative.   Those had been written, collected, and canonized as the New Testament by the end of the First Century.

The first writing we have concerning Christian organizational matters is the Didache, dated generally in the first part of the Second Century.  It addressed the appointment of bishops and deacons and criteria for the discernment of true prophets from false prophets.  About two centuries later, Constantine adopted the symbol of the cross to lead his soldiers into battle, transforming the prior meaning of the “power of the cross.” Perhaps, more as a talisman for his own continued military and political success, Constantine recognized the church as the official state religion.  He then organized and presided over its Council at Nicaea.  That council agreed upon a statement of beliefs that was intended to unify Christians throughout the Roman Empire.  Itlaid the foundation for the Church’s doctrinal development thereafter as a political tool to bolster and justify political authority. Upon the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Church assumed that military power in the form of the Papal States.

Christianity would never be the same after Constantine.  Its rituals and practices would also be changed forever.  But the social stability that the Church provided also allowed its music, art, and architecture to flourish.

For an excellent article on early Christian art, see

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