The Roots of the Eucharist, Christianity’s Oldest Ritual

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. Continue reading “The Roots of the Eucharist, Christianity’s Oldest Ritual”

Moses and the Amazing Technicolor Water Fountain

Anyone who has been to Sunday school is familiar with the stories of the Wilderness wanderings — how the Israelites were made to spend forty years wandering in the parched desert between Egypt and Palestine after their escape from Pharaoh, forbidden to enter the lush and bountiful lands of Canaan. In one often-told story found in Exodus 16, the Israelites find themselves going hungry and yearning for their days in Egypt when they could eat their fill of meat and bread. God hears their complaints and promises the Israelites he will provide them their fill of meat in the evening and bread in the morning. Sure enough, from that point on, the camp is overrun with quail every evening, and in the morning, the dew deposits flaky “bread” — manna — for the people to gather and eat. Exodus 16:35 reads:

 The sons of Israel ate manna for forty years, up to the time they reached inhabited country: they ate manna up to the time they reached the frontier of the land of Canaan. (JB)

In an alternate version of the story found in Numbers 11, we read that the Israelites are given just manna at first, but that they soon tire of it, and complain that they want some meat. That really rustles God’s jimmies, so he decides that not only will they get their meat, he’ll make them eat it till they get sick of it. And so it happens, that a stiff wind blows in so much quail (“from the sea”), the ground around the camp is covered with them two cubits deep! (It’s just like “The Trouble with Tribbles”, but set in Bible times.) And then, for good measure, God strikes the Israelites with a plague while they are still eating the quail, killing a whole bunch of them. (Why don’t I remember that part from Sunday school?)

Tribbles

Imagine this, but with quails.

Of course, the people needed water too. In Exodus 17, immediately following the quail-and-manna story, we find the Israelites in the Wilderness of Sin without any water. (However, they do have livestock. Why didn’t they eat that while they were complaining about having no meat? But I digress…) God commands Moses to strike a rock, and when he does, it produces a spring of water. Incidentally, this account is etiological in purpose, as it is used to explain how a place called Massah or Meribah¹ got its name.

Continue reading “Moses and the Amazing Technicolor Water Fountain”