In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Worship in the New Testament and Earliest Christianity

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works and Introductions
  • Recent Major Studies
  • Roman Religious Context
  • Transcendent Character
  • Worship of Jesus
  • Hymns
  • Sacred Meal/Eucharist
  • Sunday
  • Worship Locations
  • Gestures/Posture

Biblical Studies Worship in the New Testament and Earliest Christianity
Larry Hurtado
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0141


In distinction from magical rituals, which are typically intended to ward off malevolent beings or to coerce spirits to do the will of the person or persons performing the rituals, in worship devotees express a more positive stance of thanksgiving and adoration, subordination to, and dependence on the object of worship. Although worship can be offered by individuals privately, early Christian worship was more typically sited in the gathered ekklēsia (congregation/church). Historians of liturgy probe early Christian texts for origins of subsequent liturgical practices and forms but with limited results. The earliest Christian texts (e.g., the New Testament) presuppose early Christian worship, however, and do not reflect any common order of worship. The earliest examples of any set liturgical order come from the 3rd century CE and later. New Testament scholars have tended to focus on various matters other than worship (e.g., early Christian beliefs, social setting, and questions about specific texts), but in recent decades there has been a small renewal of interest in worship as an important topic. Some recent studies explore the relationship of early Christian worship practices to the Roman-era context and especially the Jewish religious matrix in which Christian faith emerged. However, similarities granted, several features distinguish early Christian worship. Along with ancient Judaism, early Christians also were to worship solely the one God of biblical tradition and to refuse to worship the various other deities of the Roman world. At an astonishingly early point, however, believers also treated the risen/ascended Jesus as rightful recipient of corporate and private devotion with God, thereby also distinguishing themselves from the Jewish tradition. In addition, Sunday (the first day of the week) became the particular and distinguishing day for corporate worship. Moreover, whereas animal sacrifice was a typical component of worship in pagan circles and also in Jewish religion (prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple), it was not a feature of early Christian worship. The specific phenomena of early Christian worship also form a scholarly focus. Practices likely varied among churches of the time, but verbal expressions of praise, thanksgiving, and adoration including hymnic ones were apparently common. Spiritual gifts (e.g., prophecy, tongues speaking), phenomena ascribed to the Holy Spirit, are also featured. Corporate worship was to be regarded as an occasion of transcendent significance and character; angels were thought to be present as the earthly worship joined with that of heaven.

Reference Works and Introductions

Aune 1992 and more recently Hurtado 2009 offer overviews of the textual data and scholarly issues (and also provide bibliographies) concerning worship in the New Testament period and are good places to start. Delling 1962, Martin 1974, and Moule 1978, although somewhat dated, review some basics for students and remain helpful introductions. Hurtado 2000 is a small series of lectures on some key features that characterized and distinguished earliest Christian worship, setting it in the context of the Roman-era religious environment and underscoring the distinctive inclusion of Jesus as recipient of corporate worship. Peterson 1998 discusses briefly evidence from Acts of the Apostles, the earliest narrative account of the Christian movement, and is a good introduction to the Acts data.

  • Aune, David E. “Worship, Early Christian.” In Si–Z. Vol. 6 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 973–989. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    A concise and informed overview of issues and primary evidence.

  • Delling, Gerhard. Worship in the New Testament. Translated by Percy Scott. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962.

    A review of basic phenomena of worship in the New Testament.

  • Hurtado, Larry W. At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.

    Sets earliest Christian worship in its historical context, discusses key features, and particularly notes the inclusion of Jesus as corecipient of worship with God. Originally published in 1999 (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster).

  • Hurtado, Larry W. “Worship, NT Christian.” In S–Z. Vol. 5 of The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, 910–923. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

    An introduction to phenomena and key scholarly issues in current scholarly study of earliest Christian worship.

  • Martin, Ralph P. Worship in the Early Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974.

    A good student-level survey of the New Testament data focusing on the basics. Originally published in 1964.

  • Moule, Charles F. D. Worship in the New Testament. Bramcote, UK: Grove, 1978.

    Brief and introductory student-level discussion.

  • Peterson, David. “The Worship of the New Community.” In Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts. Edited by I. Howard Marshall and David Peterson, 373–395. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.

    Synthesis of references in Acts of the Apostles to early Christian worship.

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