A lectionary (Latin: Lectionarium) is a book or listing that contains a collection of scripture readings appointed for Christian or Judaic worship on a given day or occasion. There are sub-types such as a "gospel lectionary" or evangeliary, and an epistolary with the readings from the New Testament Epistles.


The Talmud claims that the practice of reading appointed Scriptures on given days or occasions dates back to the time of Moses and began with the annual religious festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles (Talmud, Megilah 32a). The Mishnah portion of the Talmud, probably finished in the early 3rd century AD/CE (Anno Domini or Common Era) contains a list of Torah readings for various occasions (Talmud, Megilah 32a) and assumes that these special readings interrupt a regular schedule of Torah readings (Talmud, Megilah 29a, 30b). In addition to these Torah readings, the later Gemara portion of the Talmud also knows of assigned annual readings from the prophets (Talmud, Megilah 31a).

By the Medieval era the Jewish community had a standardized schedule of scripture readings both from the Torah and the prophets to be read in the synagogue. A sequential selection was read from the Torah, followed by the "haftarah" – a selection from the prophetic books or historical narratives (e.g. "Judges," "Kings," etc.) closely linked to the selection from the Torah. Jesus may have read a providentially "random" reading when he read from Isaiah 61:1-2, as recorded in Luke 4:16-21, when he inaugurated his public ministry. The early Christians adopted the Jewish custom of reading extracts from the Old Testament on the Sabbath. They soon added extracts from the writings of the Apostles and Evangelists.[1]

Both Hebrew and Christian lectionaries developed over the centuries. Typically, a lectionary will go through the scriptures in a logical pattern, and also include selections which were chosen by the religious community for their appropriateness to particular occasions. The one-year Jewish lectionary reads the entirety of the Torah within the space of a year and may have begun in the Babylonian Jewish community; the three-year Jewish lectionary seems to trace its origin to the Jewish community in and around the Holy Land.[2] The existence of both one-year and three-year cycles occurs in both Christianity and Judaism.

Within Christianity, the use of pre-assigned, scheduled readings from the scriptures can be traced back to the early church, and seems to have been inherited from Judaism. The earliest documentary record of a special book of readings is a reference by Gennadius of Massilia to a work produced at the request of Bishop Venerius of Marseilles, who died in 452, though there are 3rd-century references to liturgical readers as a special role in the clergy.[3] Not all of the Christian Church used the same lectionary, and throughout history, many varying lectionaries have been used in different parts of the Christian world. Until the Second Vatican Council, most Western Christians (Catholics, Old Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and those Methodists who employed the lectionary of Wesley) used a lectionary that repeated on a one-year basis. This annual lectionary provided readings for Sundays and, in those Churches that celebrated the festivals of saints, feast-day readings. The Eastern Orthodox Church and many of the Oriental Churches continue to use an annual lectionary. Within Lutheranism there remains an active minority of pastors and congregations who use the old one-year lectionary, often referred to as the Historic Lectionary. The Reformed churches divided the Heidelberg Catechism into 52 weekly sections, and many churches preach or teach from a corresponding source scripture weekly.

Lectionaries from before the invention of the printing press contribute to understanding the textual history of the Bible. See also List of New Testament lectionaries.

Western lectionaries

Catholic Mass Lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary

After the Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965, the Holy See, even before producing an actual lectionary (in Latin), promulgated the Ordo Lectionum Missae (Order of the Readings for Mass), giving indications of the revised structure and the references to the passages chosen for inclusion in the new official lectionary of the Roman Rite of Mass. It introduced an arrangement by which the readings on Sundays and on some principal feasts recur in a three-year cycle, with four passages from Scripture (including one from the Psalms) being used in each celebration, while on weekdays only three passages (again including one from the Psalms) are used, with the first reading and the psalm recurring in a two-year cycle, while the Gospel reading recurs after a single year. This revised Mass Lectionary, covering much more of the Bible than the readings in the Tridentine Roman Missal, which recurred after a single year, has been translated into the many languages in which the Roman Rite Mass is now celebrated, incorporating existing or specially prepared translations of the Bible and with readings for national celebrations added either as an appendix or, in some cases, incorporated into the main part of the lectionary.

The Roman Catholic Mass Lectionary is the basis for many Protestant lectionaries, most notably the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) and its derivatives, as organized by the Consultation on Common Texts (CCT) organization located in Nashville, Tennessee. Like the Mass lectionary, they generally organize the readings for worship services on Sundays in a three-year cycle, with four elements on each Sunday, and three elements during daily Mass:

Three-year cycle

The lectionaries (both Catholic and RCL versions) are organized into three-year cycles of readings. The years are designated A, B, or C. Each yearly cycle begins on the first Sunday of Advent (the Sunday between November 27 and December 3 inclusive). Year B follows year A, year C follows year B, then back again to A.

The Gospel of John is read throughout Easter, and is used for other liturgical seasons including Advent, Christmas, and Lent where appropriate.

Alternative cycles

In October 2013, The Christian Century featured a discussion of new, expanded lectionary proposals, including The Year D Project, The Narrative Lectionary, The One-Year Lectionary, and the African-American Lectionary, some of which call for more thorough exposure to the Gospel of John, but all of which are, in their own way, concerned with fostering greater biblical literacy.[4]

Narrative Lectionary

The Narrative Lectionary is a four-year cycle of Bible readings designed for preaching sermons that extends from the Sunday after Labor Day to the Day of Pentecost with texts following the biblical story. The remainder of each year of the cycle may consist of preaching series on biblical books or topics that fall outside the narrative cycle. The cycle is arranged to highlight the major story arcs of the Bible:

The Liturgical Year works with the Narrative Lectionary. At Advent, Old Testament readings conclude with the prophets who speak of hope for a Messiah. Readings from the gospels parallel the events of Jesus' life from Christmas and Epiphany to Holy Week and Easter. The book of Acts and Paul’s letters tell the story of the earliest Christian movement, culminating with the Pentecost readings on the Holy Spirit.

The Narrative Lectionary was developed[5] by Profs. Rolf Jacobson and Craig Koester of Luther Seminary.

Daily lectionaries

The Roman Catholic lectionary includes a two-year cycle for the weekday mass readings (called Cycle I and Cycle II). Odd-numbered years are Cycle I; even-numbered ones are Cycle II. The weekday lectionary includes a reading from the Old Testament, Acts, Revelation, or the Epistles; a responsorial Psalm; and a reading from one of the Gospels. These readings are generally shorter than those appointed for use on Sundays. The pericopes for the first reading along with the psalms are arranged in a two-year cycle. The Gospels are arranged so that portions of all four are read every year. This weekday lectionary has also been adapted by some denominations with congregations that celebrate daily Eucharistic services. It has been published in the Episcopal Church's Lesser Feasts and Fasts and in the Anglican Church of Canada's Book of Alternative Services (among others).

This eucharistic lectionary should not be confused with the various Daily Office lectionaries in use in various denominations. The Consultation on Common Texts has produced a three-year Daily Lectionary which is thematically tied into the Revised Common Lectionary, but the RCL does not provide a daily Eucharistic lectionary as such. Various Anglican and Lutheran Churches have their own daily lectionaries. Many of the Anglican daily lectionaries are adapted from the one provided in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

Other lectionary information

In some churches, the lectionary is carried in the entrance procession by a lector. In the Catholic Church, the Book of the Gospels is carried in by a deacon (when there is no deacon, a lector might process in with the Book of the Gospels). When the Book of the Gospels is used, the first two readings are read from the lectionary, while the Book of the Gospels is used for the final reading.

The lectionary is not to be confused with a missal, gradual or sacramentary. While the lectionary contains scripture readings, the missal or sacramentary contains the appropriate prayers for the service, and the gradual contains chants for use on any particular day. In particular, the gradual contains a responsory which may be used in place of the responsorial psalm.

Eastern lectionaries

In the Eastern Churches (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Catholic, the Assyrian Church of the East, Ancient Church of the East, and those bodies not in communion with any of them but still practicing eastern liturgical customs) tend to retain the use of a one-year lectionary in their liturgy. Different churches follow different liturgical calendars (to an extent). Most Eastern lectionaries provide for an epistle and a Gospel to be read on each day. The oldest known complete Christian Lectionary is in the Caucasian Albanian language.

Byzantine lectionary

Those churches (Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic) which follow the Rite of Constantinople, provide an epistle and Gospel reading for most days of the year, to be read at the Divine Liturgy; however, during Great Lent there is no celebration of the liturgy on weekdays (Monday through Friday), so no epistle and Gospel are appointed for those days. As a historical note, the Greek lectionaries are a primary source for the Byzantine text-type used in the scholarly field of textual criticism.

Epistle and Gospel

The Gospel readings are found in what Orthodoxy usually calls a Gospel Book (Evangélion), although in strict English terms the Greek ones are in the form of an Evangeliary, and an Epistle Book (Apostól). There are differences in the precise arrangement of these books between the various national churches. In the Byzantine practice, the readings are in the form of pericopes (selections from scripture containing only the portion actually chanted during the service), and are arranged according to the order in which they occur in the church year, beginning with the Sunday of Pascha (Easter), and continuing throughout the entire year, concluding with Holy Week. Then follows a section of readings for the commemorations of saints and readings for special occasions (baptism, funeral, etc.). In the Slavic practice, the biblical books are reproduced in their entirety and arranged in the canonical order in which they appear in the Bible.

The annual cycle of the Gospels is composed of four series:

  1. The Gospel of St. John
    read from Pascha until Pentecost Sunday
  2. The Gospel of St. Matthew
    divided over seventeen weeks beginning with the Monday of the Holy Spirit (the day after Pentecost). From the twelfth week, it is read on Saturdays and Sundays while the Gospel of St. Mark is read on the remaining weekdays
  3. The Gospel of St. Luke
    divided over nineteen weeks beginning on the Monday after the Sunday after the Elevation of the Holy Cross. From the thirteenth week, it is only read on Saturdays and Sundays, while St. Mark's Gospel is read on the remaining weekdays
  4. The Gospel of St. Mark
    read during the Lenten period on Saturdays and Sundays — with the exception of the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

The interruption of the reading of the Gospel of Matthew after the Elevation of the Holy Cross is known as the "Lukan Jump" The jump occurs only in the Gospel readings, there is no corresponding jump in the epistles. From this point on the epistle and Gospel readings do not exactly correspond, the epistles continuing to be determined according to the moveable Paschal cycle and the Gospels being influenced by the fixed cycle.

The Lukan Jump is related to the chronological proximity of the Elevation of the Cross to the Conception of the Forerunner (St. John the Baptist), celebrated on September 23. In late Antiquity, this feast marked the beginning of the ecclesiastical New Year. Thus, beginning the reading of the Lukan Gospel toward the middle of September can be understood. The reasoning is theological, and is based on a vision of Salvation History: the Conception of the Forerunner constitutes the first step of the New Economy, as mentioned in the stikhera of the matins of this feast. The Evangelist Luke is the only one to mention this Conception (Luke 1:5-24).

In Russia, the use of the Lukan Jump vanished; however in recent decades, the Russian Church has begun the process of returning to the use of the Lukan Jump.

Old Testament readings

Other services have scriptural readings also. There is a Gospel lesson at Matins on Sundays and feast days. These are found in the Evangelion. There are also readings from the Old Testament, called "parables" (paroemia), which are read at vespers on feast days. These parables are found in the Menaion, Triodion or Pentecostarion. During Great Lent, parables are read every day at vespers and at the Sixth Hour. These parables are found in the Triodion.

Syriac and Malankara churches: Catholic, Orthodox

In the Jacobite Syriac Churches, the lectionary begins with the liturgical calendar year on Qudosh `Idto (the Sanctification of the Church), which falls on the eighth Sunday before Christmas. Both the Old and the New Testament books are read except the books of Revelation, Song of Solomon, and I and II Maccabees. Scripture readings are assigned for Sundays and feast days, for each day of Lent and Holy Week, for raising people to various offices of the Church, for the blessing of Holy Oil and various services such as baptisms and funerals.

Generally, three Old Testament lections, a selection from the prophets, and three readings from the New Testament are prescribed for each Sunday and Feast day. The New Testament readings include a reading from Acts, another from the Catholic Epistles or the Pauline Epistles, and a third reading from one of the Gospels. During Christmas and Easter a fourth lesson is added for the evening service. The readings reach a climax with the approach of the week of the Crucifixion. Through Lent lessons are recited twice a day except Saturdays. During the Passion Week readings are assigned for each of the major canonical hours.

If there is a weekday Liturgy celebrated on a non-feast day, the custom is to read the Pauline epistle only, followed by the Gospel.

See also


  1. "Lectionary". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-07-06.
  2. Elbogen, Ismar. Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History. Original publication 1913. Trans Raymond P. Scheindlin for Jewish Publication Society edition 1993.
  3. Palazzo,Eric, A History of Liturgical Books from the Beginning to the Thirteenth Century, p. 91, 1998, Liturgical Press, ISBN 081466167X, 9780814661673, google books
  4. Thorngate, Steve (October 16, 2013). "What's the text: Alternatives to the common lectionary". The Christian Century. Retrieved 2017-11-20.
  5. Jacobson, Rolf (Spring 2012). "The narrative lectionary". Lutheran Forum. 46 (1): 24–26. ISSN 0024-7456.

Further reading

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