Early Eucharistic Prayers: Oral Improvisation and Sacred Language – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass, Part IV
May 25, 2021

Early Eucharistic Prayers: Oral Improvisation and Sacred Language – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass, Part IV

Historians of early Christianity agree there was no fixed written form of liturgical prayer in the first two or three centuries and that room was given to improvisation. But such improvisation was hardly haphazard; rather, it took place within a framework of stable elements and conventions that governed not only content but also structure and style in a manner that was largely indebted to biblical language. Allan Bouley notes that such “are ascertainable in the second century and indicate that extempore prayer was not left merely to the whim of the minister. In the third century, and possibly even before, some anaphoral texts already existed in writing.” Hence, Bouley identifies an “atmosphere of controlled freedom,”[1] since concerns for orthodoxy limited the bishop’s or priest’s liberty to vary the texts of the prayer. This need became particularly pressing during the doctrinal struggles of the fourth century, and from then onwards the texts of Eucharistic prayers, such as the Roman Canon and the Anaphora of St John Chrysostom, were settled.

Oral Transmission and Memorization

In a study on improvisation in liturgical prayer, Achim Budde analyses three oriental anaphoras used over a considerable geographical area: the Egyptian version of the Anaphora of St Basil, the West Syrian Anaphora of St James, and the East Syrian Anaphora of Nestorius. Applying a comparative method, Budde identifies common patterns and stable elements of structure and rhetorical style, which he argues go back to the pre-literary history of these Eucharistic prayers and may have been transmitted by memorization.[2] Budde’s methodological approach is an important supplement and corrective to that of Bouley, who would appear to underestimate the significance of memory in an oral culture. Sigmund Mowinckel, known especially for his exegetical work on the Psalms, has observed that rapid development of fixed forms of prayer corresponds to an essential religious need and constitutes a fundamental law of religion.[3] The formation of stable liturgical texts can thus be ascertained from early on as a strong force in the process of handing on the Christian faith.

The largely oral practice of early liturgical prayer means that only a few written anaphoras have resulted that may be dated with some probability to the pre-Nicene period. Three texts are usually mentioned: the model Eucharistic prayer from the Apostolic Tradition (which has been discussed in the second installment of this series), the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, and the Strasbourg papyrus. However, questions regarding their date and possible early form elude definitive answers. Thus the warning of the Anglican liturgist Kenneth Stevenson is worth quoting in full: “Every liturgical expert on antiquity knows that Hippolytus might, conceivably, have been a sham Syrian archaizer, doing his own thing, out of favor with the Pope; Addai and Mari could have been mutilated beyond recognition at the time of Patriarch Iso’yahb’s liturgical adjustments in the seventh century (which involved abbreviations) and the Strasbourg papyrus could be a fragment of an early anaphora that went on to include material now lost but quite different in style and content from the later (complete) Greek Mark. With compilers of liturgical texts, all things are possible.”[4]

The Barcelona Anaphora

Of significant import is the research of Michael Zheltov on the so-called Barcelona Anaphora, which is found on the fourth-century papyrus P. Monts. Roca inv. 128-178. This Greek text of Egyptian origin is the oldest material witness to a fully developed Eucharistic prayer.[5] The anaphora contains an opening dialogue, a prayer of praise and thanksgiving leading to the Sanctus, an oblation of the bread and the cup, a first epiclesis asking the Father to send the Holy Spirit on the bread and cup and so to make them the body and blood of Christ, an institution narrative followed by an anamnesis, a second epiclesis asking for the spiritual fruits of communion, and a concluding doxology.

Like the slightly later Strasbourg papyrus, the Barcelona Anaphora belongs to the Alexandrian tradition. The fact that it is a fully developed Eucharistic prayer strongly supports the argument that the Strasbourg papyrus is fragmentary and does not contain a complete anaphora (as has been proposed). At the same time, the Barcelona text lacks some elements of the later Alexandrian tradition, such as the long intercessions that precede the Sanctus. Michael Zheltov also notes that the liturgical texts on the papyrus display archaic theological features (e.g., addressing Jesus as “child” or “servant” as in the Didache and the Apostolic Tradition), which might point to a third-century origin of the anaphora. The Barcelona Anaphora certainly calls for a revision of recent scholarship on the early development of Eucharistic prayers. At the very least, it questions the theory advanced by Paul Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson, among others, that elements, such as the institution narrative and the epiclesis, should be considered a fourth-century interpolation. As Zheltov argues, “these parts do not have an interpolated but an organic nature.”[6] If the Barcelona Anaphora can indeed be dated to the third century, it would increase the plausibility for a similar timeline for the Eucharistic prayer in the Apostolic Tradition.

Liturgy and Sacred Language

Liturgical language is distinguished from other forms of Christian discourse by employing linguistic registers that express the community of faith’s relation to the transcendent in forms of praise, thanksgiving, supplication, intercession, and sacramental participation. The use of language in liturgy shows general characteristics that, to a varying degree, set it apart from everyday parlance.

According to Christine Mohrmann, the early practice of improvisation within a stable framework led to a distinctly traditional style of liturgical prayer.[7] There exists a similar phenomenon in the field of literature, the stylised language of the Homeric epos with its consciously archaic and colourful word forms (Homerische Kunstsprache). The freedom of individual singers to improvise on the given material in epic poems helped to create a stylised language. The language of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which is also found in Hesiod and in later poetic inscriptions, was never a spoken language used in everyday life.[8]

With Mohrmann, we can name three characteristics of sacred or, as she also says, “hieratic” language. First, it tends to show tenacity in holding on to archaic diction (an example in contemporary English use would be “Our Father, who art in heaven…”); second, foreign elements are introduced in order to associate with venerable religious tradition, for instance, the Hebrew biblical vocabulary in the Greek and Latin use by Christians, such as amen, alleluia, and osanna (this is already noted by St Augustine);[9] and, third, liturgical language employs rhetorical figures that are typical of oral style, such as parallelism and antithesis, rhythmic clausulae, rhyme, and alliteration.


At the heart of the Eucharist stands the great prayer of thanksgiving, in which the offerings of bread and wine are consecrated as the body and blood of Christ. Scholars continue to debate questions of dating and of possible earlier forms of the Eucharistic prayers that are held to have originated from the pre-Constantinian period. While the fourth century and fifth centuries reshaped the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist, the theological and spiritual contents of the anaphoras emerging from this period built on already existing foundations. The next instalment in this series will offer a survey of these “classical” anaphoras of the Christian East.

For previous instalments of Father Lang’s Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass series, see Part I, Part II, and Part III.


  1. Allan Bouley, From Freedom to Formula: The Evolution of the Eucharistic Prayer from Oral Improvisation to Written Texts, Studies in Christian Antiquity 21 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1981), xv.
  2. See Achim Budde, “Improvisation im Eucharistiegebet. Zur Technik freien Betens in der Alten Kirche,” in Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 44 (2001), 127-144.
  3. Sigmund Mowinckel, Religion und Kultus, trans. Albrecht Schauer (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1953), 8, 14, and 53.
  4. Kenneth Stevenson, Eucharist and Offering (New York: Pueblo, 1986), 9.
  5. Michael Zheltov, “The Anaphora and the Thanksgiving Prayer from the Barcelona Papyrus: An Underestimated Testimony to the Anaphoral History in the Fourth Century,” in Vigiliae Christianae 62 (2008), 467-504.
  6. Ibid., 503.
  7. See Christine Mohrmann, Liturgical Latin: Its Origins and Character. Three Lectures (London: Burns & Oates, 1959), 24. Her collected studies are published in: Études sur le latin des chrétiens, 4 vol. (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1961-1977).
  8. See Mohrmann, Liturgical Latin, 10-11.
  9. Augustine of Hippo, De doctrina christiana, II,11,16.
Father Uwe Michael Lang

Father Uwe Michael Lang, a native of Nuremberg, Germany, is a priest of the Oratory of St Philip Neri in London. He holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and teaches Church History at Mater Ecclesiae College, St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and Allen Hall Seminary, London. He is an associate staff member at the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, and on the Visiting Faculty of the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, IL. He is a Corresponding Member of the Neuer Schülerkreis Joseph Ratzinger / Papst Benedikt XVI, a Member of the Council of the Henry Bradshaw Society, a Board Member of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, and the Editor of Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal.