Epistles as Probably Homilies before the Eucharist

Return to Index

[The following appeared as "Canon Cuming's 'Service-Endings in the Epistles': A Rejoinder", New Test. Stud. 24 (1977-78), pp. 545-547.  It argues that the 'peace' - 'grace' - 'kiss' pattern is more likely to indicate that an epistle was used as a homily before the Eucharist than that it signified the end of a service, as suggested by Canon Cuming.]

        Canon G. J. Cuming in his short study, 'Service-Endings in the Epistles',01 has argued that all epistles of the New Testament apart from 2 Peter, the Johannines and Jude, show extended or attenuated elements of what appears to be basically a concluding three-part formula, and this formula he labels a 'service-ending'.  The purpose of this note is to suggest that 'sermon-ending' or even (to speak anachronistically) 'synaxis-ending' might be more in keeping with the available data which he has noted and also with data from Luke-Acts which he has not considered.  It is the probable significance of this data from Luke-Acts to which we would especially draw attention here.
        Canon Cuming detects the simplest form of the basic three-element sequence in Romans: Rom 15.33: 'The God of peace be with you all.  Amen.'  16.16a: ''Greet one another with a holy kiss.'  16.20b: ''The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.'02  He then goes on to note that the core element of the sequence appears to have been the kiss, which survived in later usage in conjunction with the third element.  'The kiss', as Canon Cuming indicates, is subsequently called 'the kiss of peace' in Tertullian (De Oratione 18) and Hippolytus (Apost. Trad. 4.1; 22.6) and finally simply 'the peace' by the time of Innocent I and the Testamentum Domini (fifth century).
        Canon Cuming notes that in Justin, Hippolytus and the later liturgies the kiss is followed by the eucharist (apart from Africa and Rome where it occurs after the eucharistic prayer).  It is this sequence of the kiss followed by the eucharist which led Hans Lietzmann,03 followed by J. A. T. Robinson04 among others, to take the relevant phrases in 1 Corinthians 16 as marking a transition to the eucharist itself.  Cuming thinks that they may have been over-influenced by the later developments, and he himself suggests instead that 'the precedent of the synagogue services makes it highly probable that in New Testament times there was also an independent non-sacramental meeting for worship' which 'might well have ended with prayers, the kiss and the "Grace"'.05 
     Although Canon Cuming may be correct, we would suggest that there is another possibility, one related to the suggestion of Lietzmann and Robinson, and that this possibility is at least as probable, if not more so, than the conclusion proposed by Canon Cuming.  This is to regard the epistles as constituting the homilies which ended the ministry of the Word and immediately preceded the eucharistic action.
        This brings us to the new material in this note, namely, the data from Luke-Acts.  Elsewhere the present writer has shown that the Emmaus incident (Luke 24.13-33) and the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8.26-39) are parallel narratives with sixteen points in common sequence.06  This means that it is almost a certainty that the breaking of the bread in Luke 24.30 alludes to the eucharist, since it occurs at the point in the narrative structure that corresponds to the eunuch's baptism (Acts 8.38b).  In both narratives we find a homily immediately followed by the sacramental action.  In Luke 24.27 the sermon is indicated by the words, 'And beginning from Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things about himself'.  In Acts 8.35 the parallel passage is: 'And beginning from this scripture, he preached to him the good news, Jesus'.
        These two narratives appear to reflect a common liturgical structure, probably reflecting the usage prevalent in the Lucan church, as can be seen below (the first and last items are bracketed as being less certain):

(a) [Greeting of the assembly] Luke 24 .15, 17 Acts 8.. 30
(b) Reading of scripture lections .27 .29, 32 f.
(c) Preaching of a sermon .25-27 .35
(d) Examination of baptismal candidates (missing) 36b07
(e) Eucharist/Baptism .30 f. .38b-39a
(f [Dismissal] .31b-33 .39b, c

        The relationship of this general structure to that of subsequent liturgies is too obvious to need further comment here, but if it be granted that the outline is basically cogent, then it is evidence that in at least some churches in the first century CE there was a single service consisting of a ministry of word and sacrament.  Within this structure the logical place for the reading of an epistle would appear to be in the position of the sermon.
        Thus there is a reasonable basis for concluding, against Canon Cuming, that the fusion of the synaxis and the eucharist may have occurred in some or perhaps all churches either from the very beginning,08 or at least well within the first century, and therefore the sequence which he has investigated may indeed have been intended in at least some of the writings to lead to the eucharistic action as immediately following upon their being read to the congregation.
        If one is inclined to follow J. C. O'Neill's hypothesis that at least the Pauline epistles were subject to modification by the churches that used them,09 then it might even prove to be the case that part of the adaptation was the introduction or reinforcement of the very sequence that Canon Cuming has discussed.  Cuming has used the three-part pattern as discerned in Romans for his basic example, and it is striking that there are manuscript uncertainties concerning the location of one of the passages cited and concerning a verse closely associated with another of the three, Rom 16.20b, "The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you', occurs in some Western witnesses instead at 16.24 as 'The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.  Amen' (D(G) itd*,g/Sedulus Scotus), while other witnesses place this after the doxology of 16.27 (P 33 104 256 263 436 1319 1837 syrp arm).  Associated with 16.16a, 'Greet one another with a holy kiss', is 16.16b, 'All the churches of Christ greet you', and this is missing at this point in the same first group of manuscripts (D G it) which has it instead as an addition to the list of those sending greetings in 16.23, 'and all the churches of Christ'.10  This variety might well be due at least partially to a variableness in where additions were made when or after Rom 16 was added to the letter rather than due simply to scribal modifications of an Ur-text11  If this possibility is seriously entertained, then it would tend to place the development of the 'peace'-'grace'-'kiss' pattern, or at least its widespread use, somewhat later, and this in turn would increase the likelihood that the sequence was intended to function as an introduction to the eucharist.

01 N.T.S. 22 (1975-76), pp. 110-13. (Back to text)
02 Ibid. p. 111.  One might query the validity of the discovery of the pattern in Romans, at least as far as one attributes the pattern in this letter to Paul himself, since Rom 1.1-15.33 plus 16.22-4 can be shown to be an overall chiastic unity with the centre in 8.17b-18 [see
Romans: Chiastic Structures for details], so that it is highly likely, as has often been argued, that Rom 16 lies outside the original letter.  However, as we shall suggest, the whole pattern may be a church adaptation of Romans when or after Rom 16 was added to the letter.  (Back to text)
03 Messe und Herrenmahl (1926; E.T. Mass and Lord's Supper, 1953), p. 186.  (Back to text)
04 'Traces of a Liturgical Sequence in I Cor. 16:20-24', J.T.S. n.s. IV (1953), 38-41, and republished as 'The Earliest Christian Liturgical Sequence?' in Twelve New Testament Studies (S.B.T. no. 34, SCM, London, 1962), pp. 154-7.  Against Lietzmann and J. A. T. Robinson, Cuming (op. cit. p. 113, n. 2) cites C. F. D. Moule, 'A reconsideration of the context of Maranatha', N.T.S. vi (1959-60), 307 ff., stating that 'Moule ha shown that "Come, Lord" may be an invitation to judgement, rather than to the eucharist'.  But in 1 Corinthians there is a repeated linking of 'real' presence, judgement and eating (presence and judgement: 5.3; 12.3; 14.24-5; cf. 16.22-3; food and judgement: 6.13; 10.31; presence, eating and judgement: 10.1-10; 11.19-22, 26-32).  Thus, the maranatha of 1 Cor 16.22 is likely to be an invitation to both judgement and the eucharist.  (Back to text)
05 Op. cit. p. 113.  (Back to text)
06 'Luke 24: 13-33 and Acts 8:26-39): The Emmaus Incident and the Eunuch's Baptism as Parallel Stories', Bangalore Theological Forum, vii, i (January-June, 1975), 17-31. [See
Luke 24.13-33 and Acts 8.26-39: Emmaus Incident and Eunuch's Baptism(Back to text)
07 Acts 8.36, the eunuch's woprds, 'What hinders me being baptized?' would appear to point to almost an inversion of the examination of baptismal candidates.  The implied answer to the eunuch's question is that nothing hinders him, not even his being a eunuch.  On κωλύειν , 'to hinder', being used with reference to baptism, see O. Cullmann, Baptism in the New Testament (S.B.T. no. 1; SCM, London, 1950), pp. 71 ff.  (Back to text)
08 As is argued by O. Cullmann, Early Christian Worship (E.T. of Urchristentum und Gottesdienst, Zürich, 1950; S.B.T. no. 19, SCM, London, 1953), pp. 26-32.  (Back to text)
09 J. C. O'Neill, The Recovery of Paul's Letter to the Galatians (London, 1972), p. 12, works on the hypothesis that the history of the text of Paul's epistles 'was a history of continual expansion as explanatory and expository notes were added to the text'.  A similar statement may be found in O'Neill's The Theology of Acts in Its Historical Setting (2nd edition, London, 1970), an edition not at present [i.e., at UTC, Bangalore] accessible to this writer.  (Back to text)
10 It is worth noting that there is variable manuscript evidence concerning the greetings of 1 Cor 16.19, once again in connection with the kiss (1 Cor 16.20b).  (Back to text)
11 In the case of 2 Corinthians, the large chiastic units are 1.23-7.16 (minus 6.14-7.1) with centre at 5.1, 8.1-9.15 with centre inthe middle of 8.22, and 10.1-13.10 with centre in 11.31.  Not only does this support the often-asserted composite nature of the letter, but it makes the 'peace', 'grace' and 'kiss' elements of 2 Cor 13.11-13 more suspect than ever of being a church addition. [See
2 Corinthians: The three chiastic units and their significance.] (Back to text)