6. Of the Pericopae
Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER XI. Use of the Holy Scriptures in religious worship
6. Of the Pericopae
It has been before remarked that particular lessons were set apart from the gospels and episdes to be read on certain sabbaths and special festive occasions. The custom was derived from the Jews, who were accustomed to read different portions of their Scriptures on their several festivals. These specific selections from the writings of the New Testament were denominated Pericopae. When these selections were first made, is a question on which the learned are greatly divided. Some contending that they are of apostolic origin; others, that they originated in the fourth century; and others again, dale them back no farther than the eighth century. For a discussion of these several theories, the reader is referred to the author, and the authorities quoted by him.
[One end to be answered by making these extracts, was no doubt to assist those who had not free access to the Scriptures in learning the substance of what the Scriptures teach. Nothing in the history of the primitive Christians is more worthy of admiration than their profound reverence for the word of God, their diligence in reading the sacred Scriptures, and their surprising familiarity with truths of revelation. "At a time when the copies of the sacred volume were all in manuscript, and very scarce, – being so dear as to be beyond the reach of many to purchase, and when multitudes of those who had been converted to Christianity were unacquainted with the first elements of reading, the great majority of them were conversant with the phraseology and the matter of the Word of life, to a degree that may well put Christians of later days to shame. Those of the men who could read, never went abroad without carrying a Bible in their pockets – while the women wore it hanging about their necks, and by frequently refreshing their memories by private perusal, and drawing little groups of anxious listeners around them, they acquired so familiar an acquaintance with the lively oracles, that there were few who could not repeat those passages that contained anything remarkable respecting the doctrines of their faith, or the precepts of their duty. Nay, there were many who had made the rare and enviable attainment of being able to say the entire Scriptures by heart. One person is mentioned among the martyrs in Palestine, so well instructed in the sacred writings, that; when occasion offered, he could, from memory, repeat passages in any part of the Scripture as exactly as if he had unfolded the book and read them; a second, being unacquainted with letters, used to invite friends and christian strangers to his house to read to him, by which means, he acquired an extensive knowledge of the sacred oracles: and another may be mentioned, of whom the description is so extraordinary, that we shall give it in the words of the historian, Eusebius, who knew him: 'Whenever he willed, he brought forth, as from a repository of science, and rehearsed either the law of Moses, or the prophets, or the historical, evangelical, and apostolical parts of Scripture.
Indeed, I was struck with admiration when I first beheld him standing amidst a considerable multitude, and reciting certain portions of holy writ. As long as I could only hear his voice, I supposed that he was reading; but when I came close up to him, I discovered that, employing only the eyes of his mind, he uttered the divine oracles like some prophet.' – Every day it was the practice for each individual to commit a portion of Scripture to memory, and for the members of a family to repeat it to each other in the evening. So much was this custom regarded as part of the ordinary business of the day, that they had a set time appointed for conning the daily lesson – an hour which, though every individual fixed it as suited his private convenience, was held so precious and sacred, that no secular duties, however urgent, were allowed to infringe upon it; and while some, who had their time at their own disposal, laid their memories under larger contributions, and never relaxed their efforts, till they had completed the daily task they had imposed on themselves, others were obliged to content themselves with such shorter passages as they could learn during the intervals of labor, and amid the distractions of other cares. By all classes, however, it was considered so great an advantage – so desirable an attainment to have the memory richly stored with the records of salvation – that while in the lapse of time many ancient practices became obsolete, and others more suited to the taste of succeeding ages were adopted into the church, this excellent custom still maintained its place among the venerable observances inherited from primitive times; and the pious Christians of the first centuries would have regarded it as a sin of omission, for which they had occasion
expressly to supplicate for pardon in their evening devotions, if they were conscious of having allowed a day to pass without having added some new pearls from the Scriptures, to the sacred treasures their memory had previously amassed."
To aid those who could not read, pictures of Scripture scenes were also hung upon the walls. In the idolatrous devotion with which popish superstition bows down before the images and paintings of the sainted dead, the intelligent reader will easily discover only a perversion of the pure intents for which primitive piety first introduced them into the ancient churches. – TR.]