Next to baptism, the Eucharist is Christianity’s most central and significant sacrament. It is an unsettling thought that the Eucharist, at least in its present form, did not originate with Jesus. This assertion flows from the similarity of the Synoptic gospels’ “last supper” presentation with that of Paul. Why is this a problem? It’s a problem because Paul claims that he “received” this idea not from the historical Jesus or the Jerusalem community of his Jewish disciples. Rather, Paul says, he got his Eucharist through a special revelation “from the Lord.” The revelation is a mystical communication from the risen Jesus, or it is an idea derived from Paul’s own psychology. In any case it does not derive from Jesus or his disciples. Yet most of its wording shows up in the Synoptic accounts of Jesus’ final meal twenty to forty years after Paul wrote his letters. The problem is obvious: if Paul received the Eucharist from a private revelation, its near-perfect duplication in later communities indicates that their Eucharist, too, was based on Paul, not on Jesus or his close disciples.
Yet there is a tradition common to the Synoptics and to various early Christian groups that Jesus hosted a special meal, or a special series of meals, during the final months or weeks of his life. None of the Synoptics supports the notion that this meal was simply a standard Passover meal. For example, in none of the accounts is a lamb mentioned. The “last” supper seems to have been a typical Jewish meal blessing-ritual with unique overtones imposed by Jesus.
The idea of a non-Pauline Eucharist celebrated in the primitive church is supported by the ancient liturgical document, the Didache. In this text there is no mention of typically Pauline elements such as the ritual presence of “the Lord’s body,” the proclamation of the Lord’s death “until he comes again,” etc. Instead, although the Didache is truly a Eucharist – a Thanksgiving – it gives thanks not for Jesus’ redeeming death, but rather for God’s gift of Jesus as God’s servant. Here Jesus is not a dying-rising Messiah or uniquely-begotten Son, but a representative of “David’s vine.” The Eucharistic elements are not imbued with a mystical presence of the Pauline Christ. The text thus seems to be an early Jewish Christian document unrelated to Pauline theory.
Perhaps there was a Jewish Christian ritual meal extant when Paul was writing. Perhaps Jesus had actually said over the bread, “This is my body,” and over the wine, “This is my blood,” and then somewhat later Paul received a revelation that was a development and commentary on these foundational phrases. It is difficult to imagine Jesus, a first-century Palestinian Jew, personally identifying himself with bread and wine and then inviting his fellow Jews to “eat my flesh.” There may, however, be a middle ground between these extremes. New Testament scholar Bruce Chilton offers the following as a key to unlocking this Eucharistic riddle.
Chilton reminds us that the earliest conflict involving Jesus, his disciples, and his early Judean movement was with the Temple and its corrupt, collaborationist priesthood. The priesthood’s leaders arranged to have Jesus executed and they persecuted his disciples after his death. Jesus himself acted out his dissatisfaction with the priesthood by disrupting the Temple’s sacrificial market system (the so-called Cleansing of the Temple) – an act which probably delivered his fate directly into the priesthood’s hands. The Gospels and the historical record as it has come down to us support the notion of an early and serious conflict between the Jesus movement and the priesthood.
John the Baptizer had set up an alternative means of sacrificial atonement separate from that in Jerusalem. Apparently he thought that the Temple’s time was up, or at least due for a serious overhaul. Other Jews felt the same, with the Qumran community creating its own alternative surrogate “Temple congregation.” It would be fitting that Jesus, following in the Baptizer’s path, would devise an alternative “cultus” to countervene priestly abuses. Chilton suggests that the Eucharist was Jesus’ response to the Temple. How so?
The priesthood offered sacrifice by means of the slaughter of animals (animal flesh) and the sprinkling of the immolated animals’ life serum (animal blood). Jesus broke entirely (Chilton argues) with this system. Instead of a bloody sacrifice, Jesus proposed a new, bloodless sacrifice – one which, like John’s baptism, was relatively inexpensive and available to all. The elements were simple bread and wine.
Instead of animal flesh, Jesus’ alternative offering was now bread; instead of animal blood, Jesus’ sacrifice would now be wine. So when Jesus said, “This – my flesh” he meant that this bread is the new sacrifice I will offer; when he said “This – my blood” he meant that this wine is the new sacrifice I will offer. Jesus was not identifying himself personally with bread and wine. Instead he was christening them as his innovative, alternative, unbloody offering. Perhaps this was in fact the historical basis for Christians thinking that the Covenant had, in the Eucharist, been renewed. Perhaps Paul, learning of the social context of Jesus’ alternative sacrifice, “received” a complex interpretation which now linked the Eucharist with the dying-risen Christ instead of an alternative anti-Temple ritual.
If Chilton’s solution seems a bit of a stretch, the Pauline and especially the Johannine Eucharists are an even greater stretch, because they imagine that Jesus did personally identify himself with the bread and wine, and expected his followers to dine on him. Chilton’s idea has the virtue of keeping the Eucharist reasonably historical and grounded in Jesus’ contemporary culture, while the Pauline and Johannine Eucharists lend themselves all too readily to paganizing influences and ritual theophagy – divine cannibalism – a harsh theological indictment indeed.