Every Sunday, Christians around the world (and sometimes even in space) consume small amounts of bread and wine as part of an ancient ritual shared by nearly all denominations1, though the details and theological significance may vary. Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches call this ceremony the Eucharist, from the Greek eucharistia, meaning “thanksgiving”. To Catholic and Orthodox believers, the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ, and consuming them plays a direct role in the believer’s salvation. By contrast, evangelical Protestants (who are likely to use grape juice instead of wine) call the ritual “Communion” and see it as merely a symbolic remembrance of the crucifixion. Anglicans and traditional Protestants fall somewhere in between.
Even in the early years of Christianity, there was diversity in the ritual’s liturgy and symbolism. The traditional conception of the Eucharist as a rite taught by Jesus himself to the disciples, preserved in the New Testament, and transmitted faithfully from generation to generation runs into problems when the evidence is examined closely. In the past, scholarship naively assumed an over-simplified view of the ritual’s origins and the homogeneity of early Christian practices. (König 123) In the twenty-first century, however, the views of scholars have changed remarkably thanks in part to fruitful comparisons with the Greco-Roman practices of the early Christian era.
Part of the challenge of understanding the Eucharist’s origins is that (1) modern readers tend to retroject their own beliefs and practices into the very brief descriptions given by the Bible and other writers, and (2) there is a strong tendency to interpret descriptions of the Eucharist in light of the passion story, even in texts that predate the Gospels.
The Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians
The Bible itself does not explicitly mention any ritual called the “Eucharist”. Instead, we first read of a practice known as the Lord’s Supper in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The topic comes up several times, but Paul provides the most detail in chapter 11 while addressing discord among his Corinthian audience.
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was delivered up took bread, and having given thanks (eucharistēsas), he broke it and said: This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
And likewise the cup, after the supping, saying: This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor. 11:23–26)
Without reading the later Gospel tradition into Paul’s brief description, we may note several points of interest.
- Paul claims to teach what he “received from the Lord”—a personal revelation or vision he has received from the risen Christ, if we take this statement at face value. Some scholars accept this interpretation; others, finding this hard to believe, suggest that Paul is relaying a standard Christian tradition that the risen Christ has confirmed to Paul personally. (See Goguel 126 for an early discussion of this topic; also Wells  26.) It is typical for Paul to insist that his teachings come from direct revelation and not from any man (see Gal. 1:11-12), so that is a reasonable assumption here as well. Dr. James Tabor (professor of religious studies at UNC) takes this view in his book Paul and Jesus as well as an article posted to his blog not long ago. Whatever the source of Paul’s teaching, it cannot be the as-yet-unwritten Gospels.
- Paul associates the ritual with the Lord being “delivered up”. The Greek verb paradidōmi does not indicate betrayal by an enemy. (The normal Greek word for “betray” would be prodidōmi.) Rather, this is the word Paul frequently uses to describe the act of God delivering Jesus up unto death. Cf. Rom. 8:32, “[God] did not withhold his own son, but delivered him up for all of us,” or Gal. 2:20, “…the son of God who loved me and delivered himself up for me.” Paul’s use of this specific term probably derives from LXX Isaiah 53:6-12, which uses the same Greek word several times: “The Lord delivered him up for our sins. …his soul was delivered up unto death. …yet he bore the sins of many, and was delivered up for their iniquities.” (Crossan 439ff.)
- “Lord” in Paul’s theological vocabulary refers to Christ after his crucifixion and resurrection (as in Phil. 2:11). Accordingly, Paul is describing not a historical scenario, but a mythical one taking place in the heavenly sphere (Smith 189; see also Mack  53).
- The purpose of the ritual is to continually proclaim the Lord’s death. It is remarkable that the resurrection is not in focus. Some scholars, like Mack (2011, p. 54), believe that these words served as a memorial for Jesus as a martyr.
- The ritual is to be celebrated every time the believers gather for meals. It is not a separate ceremony conducted only on special occasions.
- The symbolism is focused on the community. The bread is the body of Christ—i.e., the church, whose disunity provides the occasion for Paul to remind them of the ritual. See also 1 Cor. 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The cup is the new covenant2 established by Christ for the community of believers, allowing them to belong to Israel (ibid.).
In short, whatever Paul may have believed about the historical circumstances of Jesus’ death, the Eucharist he describes is focused on theological symbolism. Furthermore, the context is not that of a new teaching, but to admonish the Corinthians for allowing division and inequality when they come together to eat the Lord’s Supper—a full meal shared by the believers—by reminding them of what the meal signifies.
When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. […] So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. (1 Cor. 11:17–21, 33–34)
The Eucharist in the Didache
The Didache, an early church manual that appears to pre-date the Gospels in much of its content, describes a Eucharist that is quite different from Paul’s.
Concerning the eucharist, give thanks thus:
First, concerning the cup: We give thanks to you, our Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant. To you be glory forever.
And concerning the broken bread: We give thanks to you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant. To you be glory forever.
As this broken bread was scattered upon the hills and has been gathered to become one, so gather your church from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. (Didache 9.1-4)
Here, we have a similar ritual involving wine and bread, but the symbols function differently. The wine represents not Jesus’ blood, but the “holy vine of David” as revealed through Jesus.3 The bread is not Jesus’ body, but represents “life and knowledge” as well as the church, gathered into God’s kingdom the way wheat is gathered to make bread. There is no mention of Jesus’ death, and no suggestion that Jesus himself instituted this ceremony.4
Evidently, the Christian Eucharist was diverse in its earliest stage, without a universally agreed-upon symbolism or clear historical origin.
The Last Supper in Mark
Mark’s Gospel, written two or three generations after Paul, gives us a scene in which Jesus himself leads a Eucharistic ritual quite similar to Paul’s.
And evening having arrived, he came with the twelve. … And as they were eating, having taken bread and blessed it, he broke it and gave it to them, and said: Take; this is my body.
And having taken the cup and given thanks (eucharistēsas), he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And he said to them: This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.
Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God. (Mark 14:17, 22-25)
In Mark’s story, this is ostensibly a Passover feast and is eaten shortly before Jesus’ betrayal by Judas. There are several difficulties, however, with the traditional reading of this supper as a historical event.
For one thing, the supper and the events surrounding it appear to be composed out of bits and pieces of Old Testament scripture, as Strauss (pp. 611ff) pointed out more than a century ago. For example, when Jesus presciently sends two disciples ahead where they will meet a man carrying water who will lead them to the house where they are to spend the Passover meal (Mk 14:12-16), this sounds much like 1 Samuel 10 in which Samuel sends Saul ahead and predicts that he will meet men carrying animals for a sacrifice along with bread and wine whom he should follow.5 Furthermore, the betrayal of Jesus by a close friend who is present at the supper appears to come from Psalm 41:9 (John 13:26, in fact, recognizes this and quotes it as a fulfilled scripture): “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.” And as scholars have noted, the nighttime Gethsemane arrest story after the supper parallels the Davidic saga in 2 Samuel 15–17, 20.6
Next, there is a minor internal contradiction in the story. Two disciples have gone ahead to prepare the Passover meal (14:16), yet when evening comes, Jesus goes to Jerusalem with twelve disciples when it should be ten (v. 17). “Twelve” seems to be an important theological element that Mark repeats again in v. 20.7
Another problem has to do with the supper itself. Although Mark intends for it to be interpreted as a Passover meal, many scholars note that the connection with the Passover is tenuous. The late Nineham, in his excellent commentary, remarks:
If this was a Passover meal…the meal will have intervened between vv. 22 and 23…; the fact that no one would get that impression from a simple reading of Mark shows how little concerned St Mark was with the original setting of the incident, Passover meal or not. (p. 385)
Vernon K. Robbins expands on the problem in a recent essay (p. 25f):
If an account of a passover celebration [in Mark] ever existed…, the scenes which now succeed it do not develop naturally out of it. The eating scenes which stand at 14:17-21 and 14:22-25 do not recount passover activities for two major reasons: (a) no bitter herbs are mentioned, and (b) there is no recitation of liturgy related to eating the passover lamb.
…In all likelihood Jesus did participate in a passover celebration at some point in his life…but the Evangelists have little interest in such a thoroughly Jewish activity. This opens the possibility that the eucharistic stories which they recount are fashioned by Christian practice and theological concerns.
Another problem is one of timing. Mark 14:12 states that the disciples made the Passover preparations on “the first day of Unleavened Bread”, but this is not literally possible. Nisan 14 was the day of preparation, and the Unleavened Bread Festival took place a day later, on Nisan 15. Robbins has an explanation that also solves an obscure riddle in Mark: the reference to “the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” in 8:15. If I understand him correctly, the two Feeding Stories, in which the disciples fail to comprehend Jesus’ mission, are closely linked with the Last Supper in Mark. Leaven represents religious and civil authority as envisioned by the Pharisees and Herod—a polemical reference to the hopes for an earthly messiah among Mark’s contemporaries—but Jesus’ true power is revealed during the third feast with unleavened bread: that his sovereignty will come about through sacrificial death and resurrection (Robbins 28, 39). Associating the Last Supper with the Unleavened Bread Festival establishes that symbolic connection.
The Problem of Theophagy and Blood Consumption
There is another serious problem facing the historicist interpretation of Mark’s Last Supper: eating human flesh and consuming the blood of any creature is anathema in Jewish culture, and it is unlikely that a Jew would have taught his companions to do so, even symbolically. F. Gerald Downing declares that “there is no plausible Jewish context, no otherwise suggested Galilean Jewish context in which this might seem acceptable.” (Downing 1129) Theologian J. Fenton concurs: “The taboo against eating a human body and drinking any sort of blood was so strong, that it is impossible to imagine any Jew of the first, or any other, century seriously inviting his friends to do it.” (Fenton 416) Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby also agrees: “The followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, who were pious Jews and would have regarded the idea of eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood as repugnant, never practised this rite….” (Maccoby 118) Biblical studies professor Michael J. Cahill published a paper in the Biblical Theology Bulletin in 2002 highlighting the problem and upbraiding his academic colleagues for ignoring or sidestepping the issue when discussing the Last Supper. Much of the scholarship examined here came about after his paper and, in some cases, was a response to it.
The Relationship between Mark and 1 Corinthians
Mark’s Eucharist is similar to Paul’s but has some differences.
- Mark establishes clearer parallels between the bread (“this is my body”) and wine (“this is my blood”). His focus is on the body and blood as components of Jesus himself during the violence of the crucifixion—especially the blood, which is “poured out for many”.8
- For the bread, Mark’s vocabulary and sequence are almost identical to Paul’s. Christ “takes” the bread, “breaks” it, and says “this is my body”. The main difference is that Mark’s Jesus blesses the bread instead of giving thanks. The blessing of the bread in Mark’s supper links it to his Feeding Stories.
- Mark constructs a thanksgiving for the cup which parallels the blessing and breaking of bread. (Paul only says “and likewise the cup”.)
- Mark’s Jesus gives the bread and cup to the disciples, and they all drink.9 Paul’s celestial ritual has no disciples present, but is addressed to all believers. However, the words of Jesus in Mark operate at the narrative level and are aimed at the reader; the disciples within the story do not yet know of Jesus as a crucified saviour are are in no position to understand the symbolism of the Eucharist, unlike Mark’s readers.
- Mark adds a further statement by Jesus in which he foreswears wine until God’s kingdom is established.10 According to Robbins, “This saying was not an integral feature of the tradition which transmitted the words about the bread and the cup. This suggests that Mark is recounting the liturgical practice of the portion of the church which he represents.” (Robbins 37)
- Mark’s account includes no explicit command to institute a regular practice. (It is absent of any wording like “do this in remembrance of me”.) Perhaps there was no need for Mark’s Jesus to command a ritual that was already being followed.
In short, Mark incorporates a modified version of Paul’s eucharist into a Passover feast narrative that sacrifices historical concerns for reinforcement of the symbolism and liturgy already used in Mark’s church.
The Last Supper in Matthew and Luke
Matthew copies Mark’s supper with very few changes. He adds “forgiveness of sins” to the symbolism of the cup and fleshes out the Judas story using additional material from the Old Testament. He also has all the disciples (instead of just two) go ahead of Jesus to make preparations, eliminating Mark’s continuity error.
Luke, however, alters the sequence of the entire supper. First he has Jesus refuse to eat the Passover, unlike the other Synoptics. Then Jesus gives thanks over the cup, omitting any mention of blood. Then he delivers Mark’s statement about foregoing wine until the kingdom. Lastly, he gives thanks over the bread, saying “This is my body.” After that, some manuscripts have copied Paul’s words about the cup into Luke so that the cup ritual appears both before and after the bread. Without going into the reasons for these changes, suffice it to say that Luke feels free to adapt the “historical” last supper to reflect his own community’s practices.
The Missing Eucharist in John and Hebrews
Remarkably, the Gospel of John has no Passover meal and no Last Supper ritual. There is a last meal (in ch. 13), but instead of teaching the Eucharist, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.11 After eating, Judas goes out for what the disciples presume is the task of shopping for the Passover festival (which has yet to take place).
Now, Eucharistic language does appear in chapter 6:
Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day. (John 6:53b–55)
However, as pointed out by Bultmann and many scholars since, these verses must be a later addition. They contradict what Jesus says immediately before, as well as John’s eschatology in general, and the passage reads more logically without them (Bultmann 218ff. and Daly-Denton 350ff.). And even if one accepts them as original, there is no suggestion that Jesus is teaching a bread-and-wine ritual to his followers.12 As Fenton observes, “Anyone reading John 6 and 13 who did not already know that Christians practised a rite that included eating bread and drinking wine, would not find it in the text, because it is not there.” (Fenton 422)
The Epistle to the Hebrews similarly passes up at least two opportunities to mention the Eucharist where we would expect it. One is in chapter 9:
For when every commandment had been told to all the people by Moses in accordance with the law, he took the blood of calves and goats…and sprinkled both the scroll itself and all the people, saying: This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you. (Hebrews 9:19-20)
This is a quotation of Exodus 24:8, the same verse Paul’s Eucharist also alludes to, yet the author here makes no reference to the Eucharist or any ceremony to commemorate Christ’s blood.
Additionally, in Hebrews 7:1–3, the author directly compares Jesus to Melchizedek and summarizes his priestly role in Genesis 14, yet neglects to mention that Melchizedek brought bread and wine to Abraham. The opportunity to mention the Eucharist is so obvious that some interpreters are convinced the author of Hebrews must have intended Eucharistic symbolism here. But we cannot find what is not there.
It seems, then, that the authors of John and Hebrews either did not know of the Eucharist, or they did not approve of it. It has hard to imagine that the earliest Christians could have forgotten or rejected a sacred ritual that Jesus himself had taught.
Given the understanding that the early Christian Eucharist was diverse in both liturgy and symbolism, with some groups not following it at all; and furthermore, that the Synoptic last supper passages are improbable as literal history, many scholars have sought its origins elsewhere.
Eucharistic Rituals in Other Religions
Although details about other Greco-Roman mystery religions are sparse, we know that some of them had rituals very much like the Christian Eucharist. In Mithraism, for example, members would regularly share a sacred meal in which bread and a cup (of water13 or wine mixed with water) were eaten and drunk to commemorate the passion of Mithras when he slew the eternal bull, whose blood watered the earth to bring forth grapes and other plants, and whose tail became the wheat from which bread was made. After slaying the bull, Mithras had ascended to heaven in Sol’s chariot. (Nabarz 37, 52) By partaking in these symbols and repeating the Mithraic liturgy during their meals, adherents could also achieve salvation.
The Mithraists even historicized this ritual as a “last supper” that Mithras had eaten with his companions before leaving them. There are ancient reliefs that depict Mithras and Sol reclining on couches at a supper table covered with a bull skin, performing the ritual together with their companions. In their hands are cups, and a plate of loaves with crosses (!) cut into the crust sits before them. This seems like a close analog to the last supper of the Gospels, though one is iconographic and the other literary.
Now, this is not to suggest that Christianity borrowed the Eucharist and the Last Supper from Mithraism or some other religion. More likely, similar rituals in all these religions developed out of a common Hellenistic culture and similar meal practices, as we shall see below.
Nevertheless, early Christian theologians were painfully aware of the similarity between their own Eucharist and the practices of other cults. Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, admitted the similarities between the sacred meal of the Mithraists and the Eucharist. His explanation was that the devil had counterfeited the Christian ritual in advance and had his demons teach it to followers of Mithras (Apologia I.65–67). Tertullian would make the same argument 50 years later (De praescriptione haereticorum 40.4).
Paul himself confirms the existence of Eucharist-like rituals dedicated to other divinities, and urges his audience to avoid them:
You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the Lord’s table and the table of demons. (1 Corinthians 10:21)
In context, the “cup of demons” and “table of demons” must refer to similar pagan rituals involving a meal and cup. (Paul uses the word “demons” in its Septuagintal meaning of “foreign gods”—not minions of the devil as later Christians used the word.)
Greco-Roman Association Meals
A widespread social phenomenon in the ancient Mediterranean world was that of the Greco-Roman association or collegium. These first emerged in classical Greece and were fellowship clubs organized by people with common interests—philosophy, religion, business, etc. Associations would regularly meet together in a temple, private home, rented space (like an “upper room”), or some other venue for a shared fellowship meal. A formal association banquet would consist of a main course, the deipnon, followed by a second course of wine and dessert, the symposium (Smith  28–29). These meals always had a religious element, (Öhler 483) and would include prayers to the patron god(s) at appropriate junctures. In particular, there would be a toast or libation of wine given in honour of the patron deity after the deipnon, while the transition to the symposium was occurring. (Smith, op. cit.) When followers of Mithra, Attis, and other mystery cults observed their communal rituals, it was as part of an association meal.
There is widespread agreement that early churches in Corinth and elsewhere also took the form of Greco-Roman association meals—not in conscious imitation of other religions, but because this was how all such fellowships were conducted. Bread—a symbol of food in general—and wine served as the main symbolic elements during the religious invocations of these gatherings, because they were always present. The bread (main meal) usually came first, followed by the wine. This is an important piece of the puzzle for understanding the origin and format of the Lord’s Supper. Burton Mack writes:
It is not surprising that Christian meetings followed the same pattern…. There was no other model available. Thus we can understand the emergence of “house churches” with their “elders” and patrons, the frequency of the terms fellowship (koinonia) and gathering (ekklesia) to describe their congregations, the use of christos to name their patron deity, and the fact that they gathered for common meals. So all we need to do in order to understand the supper text is recognize that social formation had taken place on the association model, that meeting together had been recognized as the moment when the purpose of the group was experienced, and that the symbols chosen were natural to this setting. (Mack  89)
In other words, there is no mystical reason behind the selection of bread and wine in particular; these were just typical elements present at every communal meal, and it was natural to attach symbolism to them as part of the rituals that developed around them. Paul’s explanation of the ritual in 1 Corinthians, then, is an etiology, “a myth that tells how something happened for the first time and explains why it continues to be done” (op. cit. 91). And the belief that Christ had died “in accordance with the scriptures” (see 1 Cor. 15:3, for example) led the early believers to find new associations between Christ’s death and the language of covenant and sacrifice (especially Passover and Yom Kippur) in the Jewish scriptures, adding new meaning to the Eucharist over time.
The development of the Eucharist from a simple association meal to a sacramental ceremony symbolizing the death of Christ occurred in tandem with the establishment of a Last Supper story that would cement those symbols in place. There is mutual reliance between myth and ritual: the story of Jesus’ last supper is composed of symbols that are meaningless without a communal meal ritual in place to celebrate those symbols. Conversely, the symbols of the ritual—the blood and the cup—gain meaning by being grounded in the martyr myth. (Mack  55) Furthermore, as we’ve seen, different Christian communities had developed their own ideas of what the Eucharist symbolized while the New Testament documents were still being written. The Old Testament was gradually reinterpreted to incorporate covenantal and sacrificial meaning into the symbolism of the Eucharist and, by extension, the death of Christ himself. Later still, the Eucharist would become a full-fledged sacramental rite separated from fellowship meals and presided over by a priest.
Lastly, the Eucharist suggests to us that the Gospel stories were neither meant as literal history nor as deceptive fiction, but as a mythic portrayal of Christ’s life that was used to explain the ritual practices of the early church. Thus, we have four separate accounts of Jesus leading a Eucharist ritual (in addition to John’s Eucharist-free supper) in the Bible, and all differ according to the time and place of writing.
1 The Salvation Army apparently does not observe any sacraments, including the Eucharist.
2 The association of blood and covenant harkens back to Exodus 24:8: “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord made with you concerning all these words.” Exodus 12:7-14 also contains several elements in its Passover instructions that reappear in Paul’s Eucharist: the salvific nature of the blood, the eating of bread, the nighttime setting, and the command to remembrance.
3 The exact meaning of “holy vine of David” is unclear. As with Paul’s “new covenant”, it may be intended to establish a relationship between the participants and Israel. Interestingly, it does not describe Jesus as a Davidic royal heir or messiah. (See Koester, From Jesus to the Gospels, 2007, p. 389.)
4 The Didache is often associated with the Q sayings of Luke and Matthew, which also make no mention of Christ’s death, resurrection, and atonement. Some scholars believe the community associated with this material to have been the original Jesus followers.
5 The earlier pericope in which Jesus sends two disciples into Jerusalem to fetch a donkey (Mark 11:1–6) is a very close parallel and also draws upon the story in 1 Samuel in addition to Zech. 9:9: “Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey….” These parallel stories about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem bear the hallmarks of literary creations shaped by the Old Testament.
6 Wheeden provides a list of citations as well as his own comparison of the two episodes. In his view, for reasons too complicated to cover here, the entire Gethsemane story is solely Mark’s creation. If so, Mark may be furnishing a historical setting for the nighttime “betrayal” alluded to in 1 Corinthians.
7 It should be noted that some scholars believe all references to “twelve” disciples in Mark to be redactional additions.
8 Crucifixion doesn’t actually involve the victim’s blood “pouring out”. However, this language describes a libation of wine quite well.
9 Including Judas!
10 According to Wheeden, Mark understood Jesus as being absent from the community of believers from the crucifixion until the future eschaton and the “fully actualized presence of the kingdom of God”. (Wheedon, Mark-Traditions in Conflict, 85–89) Mark’s church would therefore be remembering Christ’s death and continuing absence during their Eucharist.
11 Curiously, Anglicans and Episcopalians refer to the anniversary of the Last Supper and institution of the Eucharist as Maundy Thursday, even though the name is derived from the Latin word mandatum, meaning “commandment”, from Jesus’ statement “a new commandment I give to you” — which comes from John’s foot-washing passage in which the Eucharist is completely absent.
12 It is possible, of course, that the Johannine community observed a Eucharist without the symbolism of blood consumption (like the Didache), and they found Mark’s Last Supper to be inappropriate for that reason.
13 Some Christian texts, such as the Gospel of Philip and the Acts of Thomas, suggest that water was used instead of wine for the Eucharist in certain Christian communities. The “cup” in Paul’s ritual is a metonym for its contents, which needn’t actually be wine in every instance.
Jason König, Saints and Symposiasts: The Literature of Food and the Symposium in Greco-Roman and Early Christian Culture, 2012.
Maurice Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History?, 1926.
James Tabor, Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, 2010.
John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity, 2010.
Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World, 2003.
Burton Mack, “Rereading the Christ Myth”, Redescribing Paul and the Corinthians, 2011.
Burton Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament?, 1995.
David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, 4th edition, 1902.
Dennis Nineham, The Gospel of St. Mark, 1963.
Vernon K. Robbins, “Last Meal: Preparation, Betrayal, and Absence (Mark 14:12-25)”, The Passion in Mark, 1976.
F. Gerald Downing, “Jesus and Cynicism”, Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 2011.
J. Fenton, “Eating People”, Theology 94, 1991, pp. 414-23.
Hyam Maccoby, The Mythmaker, 1986.
Michael J. Cahill, “Drinking Blood at a Kosher Eucharist? The Sound of Scholarly Silence”, Biblical Theology Bulletin 32/4, 2002.
Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John, 1971.
35 thoughts on “The Roots of the Eucharist, Christianity’s Oldest Ritual”
Is there anything in Christianity that wasn’t stolen/appropriated from someone else?
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Yeah. It’s a subtle point that’s hard to get across without overstating the case. On the one hand, the copying and repurposing of earlier traditions (especially from the Old Testament) is so pervasive when you start looking at the New Testament closely. On the other, the pagan parallels are hard to pin down because not much of their writings survive. The current thinking (among critical scholars) seems to be that the same pan-Hellenistic cultural practices and trends influenced Christianity and pagan practices in similar ways.
Although I didn’t cite it here, I did a lot of reading from J. Smith’s Drudgery Divine, which has had quite a bit of influence in its criticisms of the Protestant, anti-Catholic bias that persists in early Christian studies.
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Perhaps this is all too obvious, but I’m often struck by the failure to note that early Christians were embedded in a matrix of Jewish culture: “on the night when he was delivered up took bread, and having given thanks (eucharistēsas), he broke it”. Of Course he gave thanks to the “King of the Universe,who bringeth forth bread from the earth”
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It’s incredibly striking just how Hellenicised Christian belief and practice had become only a generation or two after Jesus.
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Another great article Paul. I think you’ve seen it but for those who have not I list out the parallels between Jesus/Saul’s search for donkeys here:
“Donkey King by Intendo. Saul/Jesus King Parallels.”
With so many otherwise unnecessary/trivial details matching it appears that “Mark” wanted The Reader to channel the Saul story. I think though that “Mark” intended to go (way) beyond presenting fictional history repeating itself to saying that this was the same Christ, the exact same Christ(Spirit), that was in The Jewish Bible, with his Separationist Theology.
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I’ve always found it striking that not only does the Didache, Q and James (and Thomas, which “followed” James prior to gnosticizing and setting up the obscure Thomas as leader) not only not mention any sort of atonement theology but have zero mentions of resurrection, and these 3 documents are the earliest “Jewish Christian” surviving works we have.
Shows that there were very early proto-Christian communities (perhaps the earliest) which did not adhere to the Pauline formula at all but saw Jesus more as martyr/prophet/future eschatological judge than Messiah. Which makes sense, as that conforms to Judaism much more than Pauline theology.
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Good observation, Andrew. Quite a few scholars appear to think that the earliest Christians regarded Jesus as a divinized martyr figure, rather than a messianic figure.
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To return to my earlier comment, the term “Messiah”, of which “Christ” is a Greek translation, is an interesting one. Literally it simply means “anointed”, and Isaiah II applies the expression to Cyrus. But in the Passover narrative, in a section probably dating to around the second or third century CE, we have reference to “the days of the Messiah and the life of the world to come”, which for Pharisees at least involved the physical resurrection of the dead.
To Jews of the time, of whatever sect, the idea that Jesus was the Messiah would have seemed merely heretical, whereas the claim that he was divine would have been blasphemous. What do we know about the history of the idea that Jesus was God incarnate, and how it came to be adopted by the Church?
My brief thoughts are this: there are (at least) two different things that “Messiah” gets used as a label for. In the OT, as you say, it’s just an “anointed” person, with the smearing of ointment designating the one chosen by God to be king. So when the OT talks about an anointed one, it’s usually a future king who will restore the Davidic throne. There’s nothing blasphemous about claiming to be such a person, as, say, Simeon Bar Kochba did. But anyway, I see no good evidence that early Christians made this claim about Jesus.
So then there’s the eschatological Messiah, the “Son of Man” or second power in Heaven derived from Enoch and other apocalyptic literature, which in turn comes from a reinterpretation (or misunderstanding) of Daniel’s vision of “one like a son of man”. Early Christians do claim Jesus was this divine individual, but it’s not clear at what point this happens. Paul never mentions the “Son of Man”, for example, and uses remarkably little—if any—messianic language at all. And since the quasi-divine messiah was not equated with the Father in early Christianity or Judaism, it’s not clear that such claims would have been blasphemous either.
That was the homoousion doctrine established at the First Nicene Council (325 CE). Christianity and Judaism had long parted ways by then. Before that, the term was mainly used by the Gnostics (e.g. Basilides), who understood Christ, the Logos, Sophia, etc. as emanations who were consubstantial to the Father. I’ve also seen it suggested that Athanasius was influenced by the Egyptian theology with which he grew up, in which Ra and Osiris (for example) were believed to be two incarnations of the same deity.
In Ehrman’s latest book, which I haven’t gotten around to reading yet, I think he proposes that Paul and other early “Christians” understood Jesus to be an angel, which also makes sense as a stepping stone toward full divinity.
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Good summary Paul. Yes, it’s becoming increasingly mianstream among biblical scholars to see that early Pauline Christian communities saw Jesus as an angelic divine agent and not God in a Trinitatian sense (although modern audiences generally suck at nuance, as what is and isn’t divine is usually not cut and dry, especially when one is looking at language used by mystics 2000 years ago . .it’s not like God is a species one can classify with its own genus and suborder). In addition, care must be taken as mythicists go several steps beyond and claim Paul (the other Paul!) made everything up, which doesn’t gel with the evidence.
One really doesn’t see proto-Trinitatian language until the 2nd century, and even then it’s lacking in places you’d expect it ( like in Acts).
My gut feeling is that Paul was less significant to the overall trajectory of Christianity than people generally think. Justin Martyr doesn’t even appear to have heard of him, for example. It seems to me, it was the Marcionites who put Paul in the limelight and saved what they could of his writing.
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Have you read the writings of Roger Parvus about Paul? Parvus proposes a fascinating explanation for why Justin Martyr does not mention Paul: Paul was known to Justin Martyr under a different name.
Certainly some mythicists may say that Paul made up the whole shebang, but I wouldn’t generalise it to all mythicists. Mythicism doesn’t require Paul to have created the idea from whole cloth, or any one person for that matter.
Very interesting and thought-provoking as usual. 🙂 Just one nitpick/question:
“Mark’s Gospel, written two or three generations after Paul”
Shouldn’t that be two or three _decades_ after Paul? Two or three generations (that is, some 50-80 years) after Paul would place Mark somewhere in the first half of the second century, to my count, which seems a bit late. Or am I missing something?
I was wondering if anyone would comment on that. I think Mark was post-80 and demonstrates knowledge of Josephus’s War of the Jews (published in the mid-70s). There’s no particular reason a date in the early second century would be impossible either. So I figured 50 years after 1 Corinthians (c. 50 CE) as a ballpark figure. I think the conservative strategy of asserting the earliest possible date as the definitive date is misguided.
Given this and the fact that Paul went to Antioch before he began his missionary journeys (Acts 11:26; Galatians 1:21), does it seem likely that Paul encountered gentile Christians who had incorporated pagan beliefs about becoming one with a god by eating him (like Dionysus), and that Paul incorporated these beliefs in his version of the Lord’s Supper?
I haven’t really read enough about the Dionysus cult yet. If I understand correctly, some Dionysiacs would sacrifice a calf and eat in a sacramental manner as though it were the body of Dionysus himself. It’s hard to see any obvious connection there with Paul’s Eucharist, in which the primary focus of the bread is the church as Christ’s body, and not Christ’s body as a sacrificial victim. (And it’s clear that some members of Paul’s audience didn’t eat meat, which you would expect from a theophagic ceremony.) I know the Passover imagery introduces that concept, but surely that’s more a Jewish contribution.
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What do you think the “table of demons” that Paul cautioned the Corinthians about consisted of? The same exact emblems used in his Lord’s Supper?
Apparently the cults of Cybele-Attis, Apollo, and Dionysos were all active in Corinth. All probably had association meals with rituals involving the food and drink. Paul’s audience could have been involved in any or all of those cults, and the Apollo cult was particularly known for practicing glossolalia and ecstatic utterances. (A practice also adopted by some in the Corinthian church.)
Hmmm…sounds like RPGers are similar to mystery cults with pizza & Mountain Dew as modern sacramental meals.
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And prayers for rolling 20s.
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But with both meals, there is the alleged transformation of mundane food (beef or bread) into the flesh of a deity. So is that not a connection/similarity? Or are you arguing that the body of Christ to which Paul refers is the Church? That may be so, but the language is in both rituals, even if the underlying symbolism is different: what outsiders see as ordinary food, the members of the cult refer to as the body of a divine figure.
Again, it’s really easy to read our modern experience of the Eucharist, in which the focus is on consuming Christ’s flesh and blood in the context of a violent execution, into Paul’s words. But Paul is simply taking an element of the meal, the bread, and using it to symbolize the “body of Christ”, which is one of Paul’s favourite ways to describe the community of believers, and is the only relevant meaning in the context of the passage. The connection with consuming flesh is very tenuous if at all present, unlike the Dionysiac ritual in which there is literally a sacrifice of an animal that represents Dionysus and consumption of its flesh.
(Obviously Christianity arrived at explicitly theophagic symbolism eventually as in John 6, but it doesn’t appear to have started there.)
Furthermore, if all Greco-Roman mystery cults were consecrating their food and/or giving libations in honour of the patron deity, it’s not unexpected that similar symbolism would arise in different cults without direct influence. Every association meal had religious elements, and if the patron deity was one that died or suffered, it was only natural to establish an association between those acts and the elements of the meal. At least, that’s how I understand it based on the works I’ve cited.
Dionysian, the word is Dionysian, not Dionysiac, no disrespect, but it’s like calling the followers of Jesus Christics
Both forms are possible, but Dionysiac seems to be a lot more common in the literature I read. A few examples:
• Konstantinos Spanoudakis. “Icarius Jesus Christ? Dionysiac Passion and Biblical Narrative in Nonnus’ Icarius Episode”. Wiener Studien 120 (2007).
• Natale Spineto. “Athenian Identity, Dionysiac Festivals and the Theatre”. A Different God (2012).
• Campbell Bonner. “Dionysiac Magic and the Greek Land of Cockaigne”. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 41 (1910).
In Galatians 1:21, Paul tells us he went to the regions of Cilicia, a major city of Tarsus. Plutarch wrote of Pompey, a first century BC Roman general who contended with Julius Caesar.
It is tempting to think Paul may have taken the rite from the Mithras cult but the practice seems to be much older and already in the region for centuries.
See also Jeremiah 44:15-18 where offerings and drinks are made to the queen of heaven.
There is textual evidence that the Eucharist passage in 1 Corinthians is part of a major interpolation. 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 sets up a pattern of an exhortation, a question, and an answer to the question using the same metaphors and pronouns as the question. However, the answer to the third question does not follow. But 1 Corinthians 11:30-31 does answer the question with the same metaphor and pronoun.
1 Corinthians 10:23-33 and 1 Corinthians 11:1 sound a lot like Paul. The rest of chapter 10 is much like 1 Corinthians 8:6-13 with a quote of Psalm 24:1 added in. 1 Corinthians 11:1a (“Be imitators of me”) is similar to 1 Corinthians 7:7a (“I wish that all were as I myself am”). Perhaps those are from another letter from Paul as they are like the similarities between Romans and Galatians.
But 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is more like the Pastorals, just as 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is like 1 Timothy 2:11-12 while 1 Corinthians 11:8 & 12a make a big deal of the order that Adam and Eve were created, just like 1 Timothy 2:13.
1 Corinthians 11:17-22, 27-29 gets back to abuses of the Lord’s table, again much like 1 Corinthians 8.
The Eucharist, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, interrupts that passage. I think the passage gets the betrayal and breaking of bread from Psalm 41:9 and the “pouring out” from Isaiah 53:12, but that is more Mark’s style than Paul’s more literal style. But Luke’s account is very similar to Mark and also has the “Do this in remembrance of me” phrase found in 1 Corinthians. (There are some manuscripts of Luke that lack that phrase.) I also favor that it comes from Luke if it was the Pastoral author, or one of his minions, because 1 Timothy 5:18 quotes Luke as scripture.
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Thanks for the comment Greg. Interpolation is always possible, and you do get the sense that the Corinthian epistles are composed of multiple letters if you read them through and try to follow the stream of thought. On the other hand, I’ve assumed for the sake of argument that Paul’s eucharist is original to him in this article.
I believe Loisy argued for a post-Pauline, but pre-Synoptic, interpolation, since a Jew like Paul could not have advocated the consumption of flesh and blood. Maccoby cuts the pie differently and says Paul wasn’t actually Jewish. I suspect both are anachronistically reading the Eucharist’s later flesh-and-blood symbolism into Paul’s words.
A separate, but stronger, argument is often made that vv. 3-16 of that chapter are an interpolation. And I find it hard to imagine that a post-Synoptic interpolator would insert the Eucharist here and yet leave out all its historical context (cf. 1 Timothy 6:13), or insist that it came directly from the Lord instead of, say, the disciples.
The problem here is that there is no hint in Paul’s eucharist of a traitor eating bread with Christ during the ritual. Psalm 41:9 is very much an element introduced by the Gospels, perhaps after early Christians searched the scriptures for more prophetic details about Jesus’ death.
when paul says “they added nothing to my message ” in :
6 As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message. 7 On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised,[a] just as Peter had been to the circumcised.[b] 8 For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. 9 James, Cephas[c] and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. 10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.
is paul saying that the ritual in which one consumes flesh and drinks blood was an agreed upon message when he says “they recognised the grace given to me” ?
since paul says that he received the ritual in a revelation , then it is not possible that the symbolic consumption of flesh and blood ritual was a practice done by the apostles, right?
i just read it again, it seems like paul is talking about where the gospel should go and the task of to whom it should be preached to, nothing about verifying the details about ritual of consuming flesh and drinking blood .
Yeah, I see no indication that the bread-and-cup ritual is part of Paul’s gospel, or that it plays a role in the controversy over Paul’s apostolic status.
Bart May 29, 2017
He claims he “received” it from others, and since that is not a common claim of his, it is usually taken to be right.
who are the “others” ?
I don’t quite follow. Could you be more specific? Paul says he received his eucharist teaching from the Lord.
“Paul says he received his eucharist teaching from the Lord.”
this is what i thought, but Dr Ehrman says that he got it from “others”
»Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God. «
This is probably too much of a stretch of the imagination, but using “fruit of the wine” instead of just “wine” leaves room for including the vinegar that he’s later offered on the cross. In fact he dies in the very next verse.
Interesting idea. If we tie it into the crucifixion, the wine with myrrh that Jesus refuses in Mark 15:23 might be a better fit.
Most commentators see the vinegar as an allusion to Psalm 69:22, where it is said that the righteous man is given vinegar to drink. (And Jesus seems to accept the vinegar, unlike the wine.) There might be a chiastic structure connecting the wine with the vinegar — Michael Turton examines that possibility in his online commentary: http://www.michaelturton.com/Mark/GMark15.html