Without doubt, there is great meaning in the Christian practice of the Eucharist or Holy Communion, especially in its Roman Catholic expression, with its doctrines of transubstantiation and the Real Presence. Carl Jung’s great essay, Transformation Symbolism in the Mass, brings out levels of significance and symbolism perhaps unknown even to the most pious devotee of the Blessed Sacrament. I myself derived benefits from receiving the Catholic Eucharist for the first twenty-seven years of my life. Clearly, the Sacrament acted, at the very least, as a conduit for primal archetypal material and experience.
Having said that, however: as real as are the Eucharist’s deep meaning and spiritual nourishment, the sacrament itself – whether expressed in the Catholic Mass or the irregular Holy Communion of some “Bible churches” – is an invention not of the historical Jesus, but of Saul of Tarsus, or Saint Paul.
While the Synoptic Gospels contain similar versions of Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, this is not indicative that the ritual really goes back to Jesus. On the contrary, Jesus’ purported words and actions with the bread and wine are distinctly Pauline. That is, Paul wrote his letters many decades before the Gospels came to be, and his descriptions of the Lord’s Supper, as well as its practice in various churches, were wholely available to the Gospel authors for adoption and adaptation. And the Synoptics’ record of Jesus’ “words of institution” are indeed Pauline.
How is it possible that Christianity’s central sacrament, more highly invested with soteriological meaning and emotional poignancy even than Baptism, did not originate with Jesus? It may have occurred by deliberate importation into the general theology of the three evangelists whose Gospels contain the scene. With its implications of replacing Torah, Law, and the original Covenant with Jesus’ bloody self sacrifice on the cross, the Pauline Lord’s Supper was a handy if not crucial exemplar – supposedly from Jesus’ own life – of the replacement of Judaism with a “new” covenant based on Jesus’ death.
Strikingly, Paul himself plainly states that the Lord’s Supper originated in Paul’s own psyche, and not from any historical memory of, or sacramental practice by, Jesus’ original disciples of the Jewish church in Palestine. In other words, in a very real sense, Paul made it up.
Of course, this is not entirely fair to Paul, because he seemingly sincerely insists that he received his Eucharist directly from Jesus. Not from the historical Jesus known to the Twelve and other Judean followers, but from Paul’s own mystical, indwelling Christ – the Christ who, according to Paul, granted Paul a special revelation denied, and unknown to, Jesus’ own original Judean disciples. When Paul claimed to have received a novel Eucharistic revelation, he was surely acting in line with his prior belief that the risen Jesus was in the habit of granting Paul special revelations, prophetic knowledge and charismatic gifts withheld from the original disciples.
Paul is doing something disconcertingly daring here (1 Corinthians 11:23-26): he is proposing that the historical Jesus, “on the night he was handed over” – at his final meal with his disciples – instituted a Judaism-replacing ritual … of which the disciples themselves had either been unaware, or had the bad grace to cavalierly ignore, and/or promptly and carelessly forget!
Paul is explicit that he did not receive his Eucharist from the disciples or any other historical source or tradition. On the contrary, Paul claims to have received the Lord’s Supper solely from a revelation “from the Lord”. One can only imagine the Jerusalem disciples’ consternation and bafflement if and when they found out that Paul was teaching about a last meal that contained colossal, novel historical and soteriological significance – a crucial meal which the disciples themselves had never heard of. Surely they cannot be blamed if they thought of Paul as “preaching another Christ”.
The Eucharist or Lord’s Supper as we have it from Paul clearly did not originate with Jesus. This simple fact alone shatters the received Christian tradition at its roots. Strictly and fairly speaking, of course, it is probably inaccurate to say that Paul simply made it up, although he could have – and then been disingenuous about its origins in his own psyche rather than in the divine Word. But even if we take Paul at his own word, the situation still stands: at the risk of redundancy: the Pauline Eucharist originated with Paul, either as an invention or as a perceived revelation. Only its importation into the Synoptics creates the illusion that it originated with Jesus. The Blessed Sacrament as it is currently viewed is not devoid of meaning and positive spiritual influence, but it is certainly devoid of historicity. However … this news is not necessarily as grim as it sounds if we examine the general features of Jesus’ meals and link them to his attitude toward the Temple and animal sacrifice.
John Dominic Crossan’s work has delineated a special social context in Jesus’ meal-taking, which Crossan calls “open commensality”, that is, Jesus’ table fellowship was distinguished by its barrier-breaking inclusivity. Jesus apparently shared the table with all stripes of society, to the dismay of those who would overzealously impose purity rules on such meetings. It would seem, therefore, that Jesus had a strikingly novel way of public eating, one which went beyond the ordinary prayerful Jewish “breaking of bread”, and that he was publicly known for this unusual practice. Jesus’ meals were probably profoundly tied to his message that God’s Kingdom had already arrived “within” and “among” human beings, and thus his meals would have had a strongly eschatological significance, linked to the here and now inbreaking of the Kingdom.
Bruce Chilton 1) further suggests that Jesus’ already-special meals may indeed have been proto-Eucharistic, when they are considered vis-a-vis Jesus’ attitude toward priesthood, Temple, and animal sacrifice. Judaism contained an ancient anti-sacrifice tradition, in which Yahweh denied that he ever instituted the sacerdotal system. Apparently, Jesus agreed with and adhered to this strand of Judaism, as his demonstration of driving sacrificial animals from the Temple precincts clearly indicates. According to the Gospels, the authorities understood Jesus’ meaning and took it very seriously, to the point that from that time onward, they started plotting as to how to get rid of him. Chilton offers the idea that Jesus’ final meals, and perhaps even a “last” supper, reflected his denial of Temple and animal sacrifice.
In this scenario, Jesus’ words over the bread and wine took on a new meaning, closely tied to Jesus’ rejection of animal sacrifice. In this view, Jesus substituted bread for animal flesh and wine for animal blood, thus depotentiating the priesthood’s hegemony on sacrifice. When Jesus applied the personal pronoun “my” to the bread and wine, he was not speaking biographically, as if he was magically transubstantiating the elements into his own body and blood. Rather, his meaning was something like, “This bread is now my offering/sacrifice instead of animal flesh; this wine is now my offering/sacrifice instead of animal blood”.
Whether or not Chilton’s theory is correct, and whether or not this was Jesus’ true intent, at least the idea permits Christians to retain a Eucharist original to Jesus and uncontaminated by Pauline soteriology. Perhaps Paul had some awareness of this “original Eucharist” and either reacted to it with his own “corrected” interpretation, or had a sincerely-received vision that imposed an entirely different meaning on it. Then it would be a situation of Paul reinterpreting an originally Palestinian, anti-Temple, unbloody sacrificial meal performed by the historical Jesus as a Pauline sacrament, rather than a situation of Paul making up a last supper out of whole cloth.