From Bible to Lectionary: Scripture for Liturgy

The lectionaries we use in liturgy today are books with the readings for Sunday and weekday Masses and for celebrating the sacraments set out under appropriate headings, preceded by “A reading from…” and followed by “(This is) the Word of the Lord” – in other words, printed exactly the way the reader proclaims the scriptures. The history of how this form of lectionary developed is interesting.
The first Bibles themselves were, of course, handwritten. There was usually just one sacred book for each worshipping community and in the margins of the book were markers that said things like “start here” and “stop here” to assist the lector, the one who proclaimed the scriptures at worship.
In the sixth century the first books of biblical passages copied out in “pericopes” or “lections” to be proclaimed at the celebration of the eucharist on Sundays and feasts appeared. They were still handwritten, so variations in the texts were common. A monk copying texts hour after hour in the scriptorium could easily omit or repeat words or phrases if he nodded off for a few minutes or became distracted.
The language of these passages was Latin. When the church first started using Latin in the liturgy, it was the language of the people. St Jerome who translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into Latin in the fourth century called his translation the “Vulgate”, meaning that it used “language spoken by the people”. However, by the fourteenth century only the clergy and the well educated understood the Latin of the liturgy. Nevertheless, translating the Bible into vernacular languages was forbidden and John Huss was burned at the stake in 1415 for daring to do so!
During Martin Luther’s imprisonment from 1521 for “protesting” against the Catholic Church, he translated the New Testament into German. The recent invention of the printing press meant that his translation was quickly and widely disseminated. While parts of the Bible were translated into English soon afterwards, the first complete printed Bible in English, the King James Version, did not appear until 1611.
At the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) the Catholic Church reaffirmed St Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, by then well over 1000 years old, as the authentic version of scripture.
Standardising the liturgical books, including the lectionary, for the whole Church after Trent was possible because the printing press eliminated accidental (and deliberate!) variations made during transcription by hand. The selection of readings in the prescribed lectionary was quite narrow: readings were repeated every year; the Gospels relied heavily on Matthew, used very little of Mark and omitted most of the well-known stories from Luke; only one percent of the Old Testament was included.
Four hundred years later, the “Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation” of Vatican II called for “suitable and correct translations in various languages” to be made of the Bible, where possible “jointly with churches separated from us” (#22). The Council encouraged Catholics to read the Bible on their own and called for a wider use of scripture in worship. In 1969 a new order of readings was promulgated by Pope Paul VI and lectionaries were created from translations of the Bible approved by the bishops of particular language groups. This systematic 3-year cycle was employed as the basis of the 1983 Common Lectionary, revised in 1992, used by many other Christian Churches. Hence the majority of Christians hear the same scriptures when they worship in their respective churches each Sunday.


Elizabeth Harrington