Today we have standardized versions of the words of institution at Mass and of the Lord’s Prayer.

At least within a given language group and rite of the Church, you’ll find priests saying the words of institution and the faithful saying the Lord’s Prayer the same way.

But in the first century, things were not fully standardized.

Originally, the Christian community passed on the Jesus traditions orally, and this oral transmission gave rise to slightly different wordings that are preserved by the New Testament authors.

An interesting result is that we can tell something both about how the New Testament authors said Mass and prayed.


How First Century Christians Said Mass

The New Testament gives us four accounts of the words of institution at Mass. They are found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and 1 Corinthians.

Here is Matthew’s account, with the words he has in common with Mark bolded:

Take, eat; this is my body. . . .
Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 26:26-28).

And here is Mark’s account, with the words he has in common with Matthew bolded.

Take; this is my body. . . .
This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many (Mark 14:22-24).

You can see how similar they are. Matthew has a few additional words of explanation, which is typical of how his Gospel works. Mark’s is more terse, leaving more for the reader to infer.

Now here’s Luke’s version, with the elements he has in common with Matthew and Mark bolded. I’ve also put certain elements in red, for reasons we’ll see in a moment.

This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. . . .
This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood (Luke 22:19-20).

Already you can see how different Luke’s version is. The red elements aren’t in Matthew or Mark.

But they are in Paul.

Here’s Paul’s account of the words of institution, with the words he has in common with Matthew and Mark bolded and the words he has in common with Luke in red:

This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. . . .
This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me (1 Cor. 11:24-25).

You can see how similar Paul’s version is to Luke’s. It has an additional sentence at the end, which parallels the words regarding the body to those of the blood, but it is much closer to Luke’s version than to Matthew and Mark’s.


What This Means

What this means is that there were at least two significant streams of tradition regarding the words of institution in the first century—one represented by Matthew and Mark and one represented by Luke and Paul.

There may have been others also, but they did not find a place in the New Testament.

We can also infer something about why these two streams of traditions are represented in the New Testament books they are.

It is almost universally agreed that there is a literary relationship between Matthew and Mark. Either Matthew copied from Mark or Mark copied from Matthew. So the account of one Evangelist could have influenced the text of the other.

But this isn’t the whole of it.

If, as our earliest information indicates, Mark was based on the preaching of Peter, then Mark’s version of the words likely stems from that source: It was how Peter said Mass.

This, as well as the concision of Mark’s account, means it is likely a very early and original version of the tradition.

It’s also probably how Mark himself said Mass (Mark being the first bishop of Alexandria).

Matthew—also an eyewitness of the Last Supper—has a similar but somewhat clarified version of the tradition, and it is likely how Matthew himself said Mass.

Even if Matthew used Mark, when he came to this passage he likely used his own experience in saying Mass when writing this passage.

What about Luke’s version?

We do not have a strong tradition of Luke being a bishop or a priest (note Jerome’s failure to mention him being either of these in his Lives of Illustrious Men, ch. 7).

As a result, Luke may not have been drawing on his experience of saying Mass but on his experience of hearing it, and we know one person who he would have regularly heard saying Mass: St. Paul.

Luke was a regular travelling companion of Paul, as indicated by the “we” passages in Acts (i.e., the passages in which the narration shifts from describing Paul’s travels in the third person to describing where “we” went—indicating the author’s presence at the events).

These passages indicate that Luke was with Paul for long periods of time, and he would have heard Paul say Mass frequently.

Further, both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts were addressed to a particular man, who Luke refers to as Theophilus (Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1), though this may have been a codename to protect his identity (the name means “God-lover” in Greek).

Since Acts abruptly stops in A.D. 60, when Paul is awaiting trial before the Emperor Nero in Rome, it is likely that this is where and when Acts was written. Theophilus was likely an influential Roman Christian, and he may have even been the patron who subsidized the writing of these two works.

Given the interest that Acts takes in Paul, who becomes the dominant figure in Acts (after Peter played this role in the book’s early chapters), Theophilus was likely quite interested in Paul.

Acts—and even the Gospel of Luke—may have been prepared with an eye toward explaining to Theophilus how the Christian movement began and how Paul came to be awaiting trial in Rome.

This means that Theophilus likely knew Paul and had frequently heard him say Mass.

Whether because Luke had often heard Paul say Mass or because Theophilus had (or both), it would be natural for Luke, when coming to the account of the Last Supper, to use a version of the words of institution that Paul often employed.

Luke certainly either had Mark or Matthew in front of him (or both, as other passages in his Gospel show), but he didn’t use the tradition for the words of institution found in those Gospels. Instead, he used the same stream of tradition represented in 1 Corinthians.

We thus could infer from 1 Corinthians itself that this was how Paul usually said Mass, but the evidence of Luke’s use of the same tradition confirms it.

This has implications for something else . . .


How First Century Christians Prayed

Christians in every age have had many free-form, spontaneous prayers, but they also have pre-formed prayers—most notably the “Our Father” or Lord’s Prayer, which is represented in two of the Gospels: Matthew and Luke.

Here is Matthew’s version, with the words he has in common with Luke bolded and with words omitted from Luke in red:

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Matt. 6:9-13).

Here is Luke’s version, with the words he has in common with Matthew bolded:

hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread;
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us;
And lead us not into temptation (Luke 11:2-4)

As you can see, both versions are similar, but Matthew’s has an additional petition (“Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”) and various clarifying elements (“Our,” “who art in heaven,” and “but deliver us from evil”). The two versions also have a paraphrased element regarding our sins/debts and how we forgive those indebted to us.

Since such clarifications are typical of Matthew’s Gospel, it may be that Luke’s version represents an earlier form of the tradition regarding this prayer.

However, even if it doesn’t, it likely represents something else: How Paul prayed.

Just like the words of institution represented a Jesus tradition that was memorized and frequently repeated in the life of the early Church, so does the Lord’s Prayer.

Indeed, the first was regularly repeated only by priests, while the latter was regularly repeated by all the faithful.

If Luke used what he heard from Paul’s lips at Mass when writing his Gospel, it’s very likely he did the same for the Lord’s Prayer as well.

This would not only have been how he (and Theophilus) heard the Lord’s Prayer from Paul but also how they said it themselves.


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