Origin of the Eucharist

Following the sacrament of baptism, the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion) is Christianity’s central sacrament. Even congregations that deny the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist nonetheless celebrate it, however irregularly. Very little needs to be said, of course, about the Catholic Church’s exaltation of this sacrament. The shocking thing about this towering sacrament, however, is that there is very little chance that it was instituted by the historical Jesus, at least in its present form.

Paul says that he received his doctrine about the Lord’s Supper from a special revelation from Jesus. It is essential to recall that Paul was not an original follower of Jesus. Paul never knew the historical Jesus. Paul was never an apostle; rather, he invented his own definition of “apostle” and made sure that it was broad enough to include himself. Paul on more than one occasion vehemently eschewed any notion that his Christ-doctrine, his Gospel, was derived in whole or in part “from men” – the men in this case being those who knew and followed the historical Jesus. Therefore Paul cut himself off from, and actually disdained the testimony of those who knew Jesus – those whom he dismissed as “so-called Pillars” of the Jerusalem Church. Armed with this knowledge, it comes as no surprise to the alert reader that Paul would introduce a new doctrine that came not from the historical Jesus or his disciples, but from a special revelation from Paul’s mystical, risen, exalted-glorified heavenly Lord.

Had the Pauline Eucharist been widely practiced in the church, Paul would not need to be introducing it as a novelty to a congregation that apparently had never heard of it. What we see Paul doing is conveying a personal revelation which mandates a new ritual for his congregations, a ritual that does not go back to Jesus.

Knowing Paul, his Eucharistic testimony is a bit startling, because Paul famously gives only a smattering of data that might possibly refer to the real Jesus. For example, Paul never mentions Jesus’ miracles, exorcisms, parables, conflicts with Pharisees; beyond Jesus’ death on the cross, Paul never mentions Jesus’ final days, his arrest, his Jewish trial, his appearance before Pilate, his ascent of Golgotha, his final words, or his burial by friendly Jews. Yet with jarring obtrusiveness, abruptly and seemingly out of nowhere, Paul gives “historical” details of a final supper held by Jesus on “the night before he was handed over”, in which Jesus institutes the Eucharist, in which his “body” is identified with broken bread and his “blood” is identified with wine, to be repeated as a “remembrance” of him, and to display community awareness of his death (1 Corinthians 11: 23-30). Paul seems to believe that the rite is a real link with Jesus, because he warns against partaking of it “unworthily”, and recommends an examination of conscience before consuming the ritual elements.

Obviously, Paul did not derive the Last Supper tradition from the Gospels and certainly not from Jesus’ Judean disciples. Rather, he himself is “instituting” it by conveying it to his audience. There is no compelling reason to charge Paul here with lying or “making stuff up”.

Paul was prone to mystical states, visions and revelations. His Eucharistic revelation seems to be just one more example of his mystical tendencies. Paul may have received his Eucharist from the glorified Jesus; from his own creative unconscious; from Judaic tradition or from (say) the Mithraic or other pagan myths that prevailed in his culture. The pagan explanation seems to be the least satisfactory because elsewhere, Paul is vitriolic in his condemnation of pagan ideas and rituals. The Judaic explanation hits a little closer to home, if only for the simple reason that Jews traditionally lcelebrated bread and wine consumption, both at regular meals and at Passover. But none of them associated home-blessed meals and Passover feasting with the symbolic consumption of a prophet’s flesh and blood. The real answer to where Paul got his Eucharist lies hidden in the depths of his own psyche. Yet the Eucharist is mentioned in all four Gospels, and is a widely-attested practice in primitive Christianity. So the question then becomes: what did the Eucharist mean for early Christianity, and why was it so universally ascribed to Jesus’ institution?

Most Eucharists were celebrated with bread and wine or bread and water. Many Eucharistic liturgies were sacrificial, in that they were linked to Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, and re-presented it in a non-bloody manner. However, the famous Didache, an early Eucharistic manual with strong Judaic affinities, did not primarily link the bread and wine to Jesus’ salvific death. Apparently there were different Eucharists for different congregations. Yet all seem to share with Paul the idea that Jesus held a special meal just before he died, wherein he ascribed special significance to the meal’s bread and wine.

My very tentative theory is that the Eucharist combines three elements:

1. The Pauline mystery previously discussed

2. Jesus’ practice of “table fellowship” or “open commensality” (John Crossan’s term)

3. Jesus’ substitution  of bread and wine for the temple’s sacrificial elements of animal flesh and blood;

See Bruce Chilton’s theory in the article at:

http://www.bib-arch.org/online-exclusives/easter-02.asp

One of the most striking features of Jesus’ ministry was his openness to the marginalized elements of his society. He was prone to traveling for days in open air with prostitutes, the possessed, tax collectors, and a host of social “rejects”. This policy was especially noticable in Jesus’ selection of meal partners. He could be found at meals, from the poorest celebrations to dinners with prominent teachers, Pharisees, and businessmen. The basis of Jesus’ cross-social meal fellowship was most likely an illustration of the universality of the Kingdom of God. All were invited to the table, but the marginalized and condemned would very often be the first to be seated. So already during his ministry, Jesus was using meals as examples of what life on earth should be like; life lived already in God’s Kingdom.

It is only a small stretch to picture Jesus developing open commensality to an even finer point among his most intimate disciples. It is easy to picture Jesus – in this private arena – attaching teachings to such a confidential, sequestered practice.

It seems that Jesus was in conflict with the current temple sacrificial system. He spoke against it, and finally he organized a protest demonstration that interrupted temple animal sacrifice. In this, Jesus was not being un-Jewish. Rather, he was reiterating a long-held minority-prophetic condemnation of temple sacrifice, as voiced in:

Jeremiah chapter 7: “Has this house, which is named for Me, become a den of robbers? … For I said nothing to your fathers about burnt offerings in the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt; but this I commanded them, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be my people…’ ”

And Hosea, “Loyalty is my desire, not sacrifice; not whole offerings but the knowledge of God”; “the Lord has no delight in sacrifices”.

And Isaiah, “I have no desire for the blood of bulls, sheep, he-goats – who asked you for this? There is blood on your hands – go wash yourselves clean” … “Who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a person”.

And Amos, “I will not accept your offerings  but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”.

And Psalms 40:66, “You [O Lord] did not desire sacrifice and offering … you have not required burnt offering and sin offering”.

Perhaps Jesus attached his own temple-protestation to his intimate meals with his disciples, and perhaps his final meal was regarded as the culmination of his revolt. In such a case, as Bruce Chilton has suggested, Jesus’ “words of institution” are transformed:

“This, my flesh” does not mean Jesus’ own body. It means that he is substituting bread as his choice of sacrifice. No more animal flesh is to be offered, but only the wheat-offering that Jesus and his disciples will present as a new form of sacrifice.

“This, my blood” does not mean Jesus’ own blood. It means that the sacrifice he and his disciples will bring to the altar will now be wine, not animal blood.

According to this interpretation, the traditional mistake has been to think that Jesus was speaking personally and autobiographically, as if he were identifying his own flesh with bread and his own blood with wine – whereas his real intent and usage  of “my” and “mine” is entirely possessive, not subjective. His “my” simply means, “Here is MY new substitute for flesh; here is MY alternative ‘wine, not blood’ sacrifice.”

Perhaps a blending of Pauline mystery, a memory of the open commensality that Jesus practiced during his ministry, plus a new sacrifice/anti-temple teaching attached to his final meal(s) account for the rich symbolism of the Eucharist as we have it today.

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