Lessons And Lectionaries

Acts xv. 21. "Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach

him, being read in the Synagogues every Sabbath Day." The reference is

to the Mosaic regulations which were to a certain extent to be observed

by all Christians, out of consideration for those Christians who were

also Jews: be sure that thou eat not the blood, for the blood is the

life was a precept which would create a difficulty in a Jewish

n's mind if a Gentile Christian disregarded it. Similarly as

to meats offered to idols (cf. 1 Cor. viii. 10-13).

There was then in the Synagogues of the first century a "First Lesson"

from the Law.

{52} Acts xiii. 27. "The voices of the prophets which are read every

Sabbath Day." There was then in the Synagogues a "Second Lesson" from

the Prophets.

Acts xiii. 15. "After the reading of the Law and the Prophets the

rulers of the Synagogue sent unto (Paul and his companions), saying, Ye

men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people,

say on."

The passage selected from the Law was associated with a passage

selected from the Prophets--there was a Lectionary for Sabbath

Services. The present Jewish Lectionary associates Isaiah i. 1-28 with

Deut. i. 1-iii. 22 as the Lessons for the Sabbath of Temple


In S. Paul's Exhortation which followed (vv. 16-41) there are, in

vv. 17-19, three words rarely found in the Bible, but of their rare

use one ("exalted") is found in Is. i. 2, and the others in Deut. i.

31, 38 ("suffered their manners" and "gave for an inheritance").

The reference, in v. 20, to "judges" is also to be noted in

connection with Is. i. 26. Bengel reasons that we may safely conclude

that the two Lections on that day were those which we have just

mentioned as associated together in the present Jewish Lectionary[3].

S. Luke iv. 15-20. Jesus . . . taught in their Synagogues--came to

Nazareth--"entered, as his custom was, into the synagogue on the

sabbath day, and stood {53} up for to read. And there was delivered

unto him the book of the prophet Esaias." It appears from what follows

(vv. 17-20) that the Lord read Isaiah lxi. 1, 2, either instead of

the appointed passage from Isaiah, or after He had read the appointed

passage. For Isaiah lxi. does not now appear in the Jewish Lectionary,

and we know no reason for its omission now, if it was included before.

In any case what He said about it, He said as the Exhorter[4]. They

divided the Law into 53 or 54 portions, and read the whole of them

between one Feast of Tabernacles and the next, whether the Sabbaths

were 50 or more. Each portion was divided into seven parts, read by

seven different Readers (a Priest and a Levite being the first two).

This Lesson apparently stood alone until in B.C. 163 Antiochus

Epiphanes forbade the use of the Pentateuch. Lessons from the Prophets

were used instead, and were not discontinued when the use of the

Pentateuch was restored. Thus arose a practice of having a First

Lesson from the Law, which they called Parascha (or, Division), and a

Second Lesson from the Prophets, called Haphtarah (or, Conclusion).

The word Holy was said before and after the First Lesson and a

Doxology before and after the Second Lesson--an arrangement similar to

our own. We may, indeed, believe that we derived from the Jews this

and other uses of our Services. For we read in Acts vi. 7 that a great

company of the priests were obedient to the faith, and {54} in Acts

xviii. 7, 8 that at Corinth, when they ceased to be able to go to the

Synagogue, the ruler of the Synagogue himself went with them to the

worship and teaching which they carried on in a house hard by. It

would not be surprising, then, if the worship thus begun was arranged

after the old pattern to which they were all accustomed. For there

are, not a few, proofs in the Acts of the Apostles that in those early

days they attended the Services of the Temple at Jerusalem, and of the

Synagogues in other places.

Justin Martyr[5], writing in defence of Christianity to the Emperor of

Rome, describes the Holy Communion Service of his time as comprising

two Lessons--one from the Prophets and the other from the Apostles,

i.e., we suppose, the Gospels; a stage nearer to the two New Testament

Lessons which are read at the Communion now. The use of an Old

Testament and a New Testament Lesson at Daily Prayers may be a survival

of the intermediate stage as described by Justin.

A Lectionary is a Table of Lessons arranged for a year. Our Table of

Epistles and Gospels is derived from one which has been attributed to

S. Jerome. The Sermons of his age show that there were stated Lessons

for particular days[6]. Moreover, certain variations in the

manuscripts of the New Testament are explained by the early use of

books in {55} which the Lessons for the days were written out in

full[7], called Lectionaries or Evangelistaria.

The principle which governs our own Lectionary is that the Bible shall

be read through[8]. The books are taken in order, beginning with

Genesis, S. Matthew, and Acts on January 2, and going straight on, with

two exceptions. First exception: Isaiah's clear prophecies of Messiah

are deferred to Nov. 18 &c., so as to be read in Advent. Second

exception: Revelation is read in the latter half of December.

The effect of beginning the New Testament in two places on Jan. 2 is

that it is read twice through in the year--once at Morning Prayer and

once at Evening Prayer.

For Sundays a different arrangement is made with regard to the Old

Testament. The Sunday year begins with Advent, which is the season

occupying twenty-eight days before Christmas. Selections from Isaiah

are read on these four Sundays, on Christmas Day, and on the four or

five Sundays which usually follow Christmas before Septuagesima. At

Septuagesima we are anticipating Lent and the Passion: Genesis

therefore supplies the Lessons, followed by Exodus at Passion-tide, and

the other books in regular course.

To this brief description we may add that Proper Lessons, specially

chosen from Old and New Testament, are appointed for special Sundays

and special {56} Holy Days. These take the place of those which appear

in the regular list for the same days. If two special days coincide,

the minister may read the Lessons of either, except that, on Advent

Sunday, Easter Day, Whitsunday and Trinity Sunday, the Lessons for

those days are to be read.

The principles of this arrangement have been in use since 1549;

alterations in its details were made in 1559, 1604, and 1871.

In 1559 the Apocrypha was appointed for many of the Saints' Days, which

nevertheless were left with their Old Testament Lessons in the

Calendar. Thus these latter were invariably unread.

In 1604 this defect of the Calendar was corrected by moving the Lessons

forward to make room for the Proper Lessons, and omitting some few of

those which "might best be spared."

Until 1871 the New Testament was read through thrice in the year, the

Lessons being usually whole chapters. And the Gospels were always

Morning Lessons, and the Epistles and Acts always Evening Lessons.

Revelation was almost altogether omitted.

From 1604 till 1871 the First Lessons from Sept. 28 until Nov. 23 were

from the Apocrypha--eight weeks. The Apocrypha Lessons continue now

only from Oct. 27 to Nov. 18.

The principle of selection has in all these changes been recognised;

but always subordinate to a larger principle of reading in Church the

whole Bible. Prior to 1871 the two Books of Chronicles were not read,

being regarded as sufficiently represented by the corresponding

chapters from the Books of the Kings. In {57} 1871 eighteen Lessons

from the Chronicles were introduced in place of the corresponding

passages in the Kings.

We shall find in the next chapter that all these Lessons in Church are

to be thought of in connection with their attendant Canticles--so that

a Lesson and its Canticle form an act of Praise: "as after one angel

had published the Gospel (S. Luke ii. 10-12) a multitude joined with

him in praising God, so when one minister hath read the Gospel, all the

people glorify God" (S. Luke ii. 13, 14)[9].

Rubric. Then shall be read distinctly, &c.] The words of this

rubric were altered to some extent in 1662, the only notable change

being the alteration of "The minister that readeth" to "He that

readeth." The object of the change seems to be that one who is not

'the minister' may read the Lessons. The minister is still directed to

declare where they begin and end.

He is to turn himself so as to be heard: and Canon 80 requires the

churchwardens to provide a "Bible of the largest volume." A desk or

Lectern is therefore implied as one of the 'Ornaments of the Church.'

It is usually assumed that the Congregation sits during the Lessons

except when the Gospel is read in the Communion. Probably there were

not seats for them when the rubrics were drawn up: custom has

authorised their addition to the list of 'ornaments.' The movable

seats, bequeathed by incumbents to their successors or others as they

thought fit, are not recognised by any words in the Prayer Book.