“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship,to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Acts 2:42 NASB
Acts 2:42 is a commonly used text to talk about the community dynamics and priorities of the Church at its absolute earliest moments, often as an ideal to be reached or restored. Here we pay particular attention to the final of the four aspects mentioned: what the NASB and NIV translate “prayer.” The difficulty here is two-fold: (1) the word “prayer” in Greek is actually plural and (2) it is prefixed by the definite article, which would commonly be translated as “the.”
So a more literal translation would be that “they were continually devoting themselves…to the prayers.” Of all the modern translations, only the NRSV and ESV capture both of these aspects.
What are the implications for these translation choices? We can start by easily saying the verse is most likely not referring to prayer in general, as in, the early Christians were simply devoted to the concept, or even the practice, of prayer. This verse is telling us more than that. In all likelihood, it is referring to a collection of set “prayers” (the plural) that were well known (“the” prayers). The word “the,” in Greek, as well as in English, can oftenfunction to indicate something that is well known to people. For example, if I tell someone, “go get the shirts,” or “go get the car,” it is unnecessary for me to specify “the shirts we are wearing for the wedding tonight” or “our car,” because everyone involved in the communication knows what “the one(s)” is/are.1
That “the prayers” the early Christians were devoted to were set liturgical prayers is likely for at least three reasons:
1) liturgical prayers were common in Judaism, in both temple and synagogue worship
2) connection to the temple is made in Acts 2:46 and 3:1, where such liturgical prayers were made
3) In Luke 11:2-4 Jesus teaches his disciples a set prayer for them to use.2
I often hear reference to “getting back to the early church.” This often involves an idealistic notion of (1) worship with little to no set structure (2) completely bypassing the intervening 1900+ years of Church history and making a straight connect to the “early church.” In the process, we wind up baptizing as the “restoration of early church practice,” many styles, techniques, and modalities that undeniably bear the marks of our present culture and would seem utterly foreign to early Christians. What if the prayer and worship the Early Church was devoted to was a continuation of the liturgical prayers of the temple and synagogue, and later Christian adaptations of them? Is it possible that earlyChristian practice had a greater continuity with the Jewish liturgical tradition than contemporary free-church or charismatic traditions? Everything we know about Christian worship from the 2nd century indicates that this was likely the case. So could this mean that “restoring the practice of the early church” might look more like the churches who have maintained and developed that continuity of liturgical prayer and worship?
Picture is from a third century catacomb