Silent Prayer in Antiquity

in Numen
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In antiquity prayers were said out loud and silent prayer was regarded as an anomalous practice that was looked upon with great suspicion. It was brought into connection with a variety of base motives which it was feared would be strongly objected to by others, foremost among which are wishes to practice magic, to have illicit sex, or to conceal crimes or criminal plans. It was also feared that one's prayer might be counteracted or undone by more powerful prayers of the opponents. It is only in circles of later (esp. Neo-)Platonism, in the framework of the increasing transcendentalisation in its concept of deity and the corresponding downgrading of anything material or corporeal, that complete silence as the purest form of worship was gradually accepted. This new trend had its influence on the Jewish philosopher Philo and especially on Churchfathers from Clement of Alexandria onwards (and also on some Hermetic and Gnostic circles). But in Jewish and Christian documents there was also another motive that facilitated a gradual acceptance of silent prayer as a respectable form of worship, namely, the biblical story (in 1 Samuel 1) about Hanna's inaudible prayer that was heard by God. It is the combination of these Platonic and biblical influences that brings about a change of attitude towards speechless prayer in both Judaism and Christianity, but the evidence clearly demonstrates that this was a very slow process, because the old suspicions surrounding this phenomenon did not easily disappear.


International Review for the History of Religions



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