Service and performance: 'Leitourgia' and the study of early Christian ritual

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Patricia Cox Miller


Service, Christian, Ritual, Leitourgia

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Religion


This dissertation traces the history of the Greek word leitourgia ("service") in order to illuminate the development of public worship in early Christianity. Rather than focusing on sacramental theology, I consider Christian worship in light of social exchange and physical labour: two elements that made up an important part of the cluster of meanings surrounding the word leitourgia in its classical context. This approach allows me to focus on underappreciated aspects of worship in early Christian societies in the West, including the roles played by the body, by physical artifacts, and by participants' perceptions of space and time in ritual.

The way that the word leitourgia was used by speechwriters and philosophers in classical Greece almost always included connotations of hard work and military defense. Furthermore, there was a well-developed vocabulary--first among Greek rhetoricians, and later among Roman government officials--to describe the reluctance that characterized the people upon whom liturgies were imposed.

These connotations influenced the ways in which Paul, Clement, and other early Christian writers imagined the religious "services" that they performed for their communities. For Paul, leitourgia was intimately connected with the sacrifices, financial and otherwise, that members of young Christian communities made for one another. The way that he makes his case depends entirely on the classical connotations of the word: for him, liturgies are burdens, fraught with difficulties, dangers, and expenses.

The purpose of this dissertation is to enrich modern scholarly perceptions of liturgy by emphasizing aspects of leitourgia that have often been neglected in the scholarship of the past two hundred years. I also consider some of the reasons why earlier connotations of the word fell out of favour during the European Renaissance, why the word was revived (through the Latin neologism liturgia ) after the In its final chapter, the dissertation provides what I call a "leitourgiac" reading of a mediaeval Christian ritual manual, contrasting that hermeneutical method with the "liturgical" hermeneutics that have been dominant in the scholarship of the past two hundred years.


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