Ancient Basis for Liturgical Dance

Paul Dilley at Bible History Daily has an interesting post titled “Jesus as Lord of the Dance.” In his post he talks about ancient forms of Christian dance. Several times I have spoken about my aversion to liturgical dance on the blog; however, as a self-proclaimed “liturgical historian” I am fascinated by anything ancient, especially if it responds to modern controversies.

Dilley in his article begins by mentioning a scene in the apocryphal Acts of John in which the apostles dance around Jesus:

the apostle John recalls how, on the night before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus commanded the apostles to form a circle around him, and to dance as he sang a hymn to which they responded in a series of “Amens.”

Most scholars agree that this fascinating text functioned as an etiology (a foundational narrative) for a ritual of dance.

According to Dilley, this dance scene finds its way into the psalms of the Manichaeans, a gnostic sect. It is easy to dismiss this dance since it occurs in an apocryphal text and later on in the texts of a gnostic sect; however, as Dilley points out:

“New” evidence has complicated this picture, namely the recent publication of a Coptic manuscript…dated to approximately the ninth century, containing a very similar dance scene. The manuscript was discovered in an abandoned monastery at Qasr el-Wizz—a settlement in Nobadia, the northernmost of the three medieval Christian kingdoms of Nubia—during rescue excavations in the 1960s (the site is now under Lake Nasser near the southern borders of Egypt). One of the texts, which scholars call the Dance of the Savior, features a dance similar to the one in the Acts of John. As the apostles circle around, Jesus addresses the cross in a series of short hymns, proclaiming the glory and triumph of the crucifixion.

The presence of a dance scene in a Coptic manuscript similar to that found in the Acts of John suggests that “liturgical” dance was not only a gnostic or heretical practice. Rather, it is possible that some orthodox communities practiced some sort of liturgical dance as well. Dilley also notes that this manuscript not only speaks to the presence of dance in Nubia, but to its presence throughout the Roman Empire as well.

In the Christian Roman Empire, liturgical dancing was a part of common events such as saints’ festivals. Some polemicists saw this as an inappropriate expression of piety, uncomfortably close to pagan traditions like pantomime or Dionysian revelries. But it was also related to imperial celebrations.

Based on the limited evidence available, Dilley admits that “the role of dance in the medieval Nubian liturgy is uncertain.” Despite Dilley’s uncertainty, his analysis of this ancient manuscript is fascinating. Dilley’s exploration might not change my feelings about the practice of liturgical dance in the West today, but it does reshape my views on the history of liturgical dance.


  1. I am confused by his nomenclature: he says that “liturgical dancing was a part of common events such as saints’ festivals.” But saints’ festivals are not liturgies, so how can it be “liturgical” dance? Anybody care to clarify?

    1. @Doug O’Neill – comment #1:
      That is why I put “liturgical” in quotes the first time…it is unclear from his post if it is a rite or part of a liturgy. He seems to try and suggest it was liturgical in nature.

  2. Has anyone else been present for the Ethiopian Office and Divine Liturgy. There are certainly ‘ritual movements and gestures’ (dance ?) which are a large part of the ‘action’. In some sense this is also true in the monastic chanting of the Divine Office. And this is to be found in processional movements too — a couple of examples, the procession at Echternach, Luxemburg (Tuesday after Pentecost) and the Precious Blood procession on Ascension Day in Bruges, Belgium. Of course, the Pontifical Solemn High Mass in the Extraordinary Form could be considered a sort of formal ‘ballet’.

  3. Why do all the scholars agree this incident in the gnostic Acts of John could only be interpreted as ritual and liturgical rather than spontaneous and birthed out of Jesus heart and His great love for the world, realizing He was about to suffer and die?

    Can we, as 21st century believers, only conceive of Jesus Christ in forms of stiff, coded rituals rather than a living, breathing, ever changing Spirit?

    Virginia Peterson

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