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“Ancient Christian Worship”: McGowan’s New Book

April 9, 2015

Andrew McGowan’s new book, Ancient Christian Worship:  Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2014) is now a major new resource for any who share my interest in historical origins of Christian worship practices.  (The publisher’s catalogue entry here.)  His focus is on practices, but he does include evidence of how early Christians regarded them and what these practices meant as expressions of their faith.

The scope of topics/practices covered is impressively wide, as is the time-frame covered (the first five centuries or so).  The chapter titles will indicate the topics.  After an introduction, we have “Meal:  Banquet and Eucharist” (chap. 2), “Word:  Reading and Preaching” (chap. 3), “Music:  Song and Dance” (chap. 4), “Initiation:  Baptism, Anointing, and Foot Washing” (chap. 5), “Prayer:  Hours, Ways, and Texts” (chap. 6), and “Time:  Feasts and Fasts” (chap. 7).

For me, given my own focus on the first couple of centuries or so, the larger chronological breadth of McGowan’s discussion of each of the topics covered was informative.  He cites primary texts helpfully, and shows a generally impressive familiarity with scholarly work of others.  My main emphasis, therefore, is commendation of this book to anyone interested in the early history of Christian worship practices.

But there were a few surprising disappointments.  In his treatment of baptism, McGowan doesn’t even mention that our earliest texts refer to baptism “in/into Jesus’ name” (e.g., Acts 2:38; and Paul’s allusion to this in Romans 6:3 “baptized into Christ Jesus”).  This apparently involved the ritual invocation of Jesus’ name (by the person being baptized and/or by the person administering baptism).  McGowan mentions neither this practice (strange for a work focused on practice) nor the substantial scholarly works on it.  The older, classic study was Wilhelm Heitmüller, “Im Namen Jesu”: Eine sprach-und-religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung zum Neuen Testament, speziell zur altchristlichen Taufe, FRLANT, 1/2 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1903).  But more recently there are the several publications by Lars Hartman, especially his book:  ‘Into the Name of the Lord Jesus’: Baptism in the Early Church (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1997); and an earlier journal article:  “Baptism `Into the Name of Jesus’ and Early Christology: Some Tentative Considerations,” Studia Theologica 28 (1974): 21-48.

As Hartman showed, the expression “in/into the name of Jesus” seems to have conveyed the notion that the person baptized came thereby into a new/special relationship with Jesus, in some sense under Jesus’ ownership.  Hartman concluded that the Greek expression translates an earlier Semitic expression, meaning that the practice of baptism “in/into Jesus’ name” goes back into the earliest circles of emergent Christianity. The (subsequently) more familiar “Trinitarian” formula drawn from Matthew 28:19 may have become ascendant as Christianity became more dominantly composed of former pagans, whose baptism involved a renunciation of pagan gods as well as allegiance to Jesus.

I also was surprised to find no reference in McGowan’s book to the practice of “confession” of Jesus as “Lord”, which seems to have been a collective act as part of early Christian worship-gatherings.  Paul refers to this practice in Romans 10:9-13, and scholars commonly see allusion to it also in 1 Corinthians 12:3, and probably in Philippians 2:9-11 (the latter text projecting a universal confession of Jesus as “Kyrios”).  And, again, the practice seems to have originated in Aramaic-speaking circles, as reflected in the curious “maranatha” formula in 1 Corinthians 16:22 (which appears to = “marana (a)tha” = “O Lord, Come!”).  (I find no reference to “maranatha” at all in McGowan’s book.)

This “confession” of Jesus as “Lord” is what Paul seems to mean by referring to “calling upon” Jesus as Lord in Romans 10:13.  It’s striking that he uses an expression that derives from OT texts that originally referred to invoking/worshipping God (YHWH), appropriating it for the reverence to be given to Jesus.  Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul can simply designate Christians as “all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  This rather obviously reflects how typical the practice had become broadly in the young Jesus-movement.

Although McGowan’s acquaintance with scholarly work is generally impressive, there are a few other (smaller) matters of curious lapse.  E.g., his reference to the puzzling fragment, P. Oxy. 840, shows no knowledge of what is now its major study: Michael J. Kruger, The Gospel of the Savior : An Analysis of P.Oxy.840 and Its Place in the Gospel Traditions of Early Christianity (Leiden: Brill, 2005).

But these complaints don’t prevent me from recommending McGowan’s book heartily.  The breadth of coverage, the wealth of detailed information, and the balanced judgments (e.g., on the “fantasy” that December 25 was a major sun-feast day then taken over by Christians) combine to make it essential for the study of early Christianity.

  1. Thanks for this scholarly assessment.

  2. James permalink

    Hi Larry,

    You note that the expression “into Jesus’ name” goes back into “the earliest circles of emergent Christianity.” And you further state that the “Trinitarian” formula drawn from Matthew 28:19 may have become ascendant as Christianity became more dominantly composed of former pagans, whose baptism involved a renunciation of pagan gods as well as allegiance to Jesus.” Sorry for my ignorance but Is it possible you could elaborate on that point, since I can’t quite follow how the change to the longer formula of “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” relates to the renunciation of former pagan gods? Wouldn’t the shorter “into Jesus’ name” accomplish the same thing?

    • James: I was simply echoing a suggestion found among scholarly proposals. Jews would be expected to recognize only their one God, and so baptism with reference to Jesus would be sufficient to signal their initiation into the Jesus-movement. In a “pagan” context, however, it might have been useful to define the faith-commitment more explicitly by reference to the God as “Father” (of Jesus), and to the Son and to the Spirit. For a recent review of scholarly work on Matt 28:19, see Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 132-38 (with references to further scholarly publications).

  3. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Does he enter into the debate between Dunn and yourself over whether early Christians worshipped Jesus?

    • Alas, no. Dunn freely grants that Jesus was worshipped, eventually (and certainly by the late first century), the only debating point between us is whether we can ascribe this to Paul. But, no, McGowan doesn’t enter the fray on this matter.

  4. Sean permalink

    Don’t forget James 2:7, which (depending on when you date James) provides further evidence of baptism into the name of Jesus.

    • Sean: Commentators weigh whether James 2:7 refers to the name of God or Jesus. I tend to favour the latter, but I think not all do.

  5. McGowan’s new book is a stimulating read and accessible to a wide audience. It is not comprehensive, but sweeping in its scope and design. Hopefully, my forthcoming book “Caesar and the Sacraments” (Cascade, 2016) will fill some of the gaps on baptism. I would also like to recommend my book, “Subversive Meals,” which examines Eucharistic practices in the first century.

    • Thanks, Alan. I have your book and have only dipped into it thus far. But I can see that you seem to push a strongly “anti-imperial” notion about the early Christian meal.

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