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The Meal of Jesus

ISS Reports


Seminar delivered by Rev'd Dr Andrew McGowan on July 28, 2004

Two Pictures of the Eucharist

The first slide is of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. The most familiar image of Eucharistic origins is arguably this renaissance scene from a monastic refectory in Milan. Leonardo's coherent group of disciples follows Renaissance rules of clarity – groups of three giving rise to gestures and lines that merge toward one-point perspective at the head of Christ. In a sense it also reflects the clarity of connection between the Church's eucharist and the Last Supper – although as you'll already know if you read the Da Vinci Code the meal elements don't look quite like those of the Mass.

The second slide is of the fresco in San Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna. This is a rather different image of the Last Supper – and the oldest one that survives, to be more specific. It gives a rather different picture of that foundational event, but also raises awkward questions about Gospel stories and Eucharistic origins, about food, and about symbol and sacrifice.

Eucharist and Meal

My one point tonight is that the eucharist is a meal. What I mean by that and the implications of saying that, may be less simple. Yet in what follows I want to approach the eucharist of the early Church as a meal, from somewhere between the two perspectives of historian and anthropologist, as usually conceived. Both aspects are controversial.

For the most part the historical study of ancient eucharistic traditions has avoided or simply refused the most obvious or matter-of-fact understanding of the communal meals of the early Christians. The eucharist has a formal resemblance to meal for some scholars, but solely because of an origin quickly left behind or, as some would allow, a setting within some other communal meal of lesser significance.

Anthropological study of the eucharist, on the other hand, may seem to run the risk of reductionism, of excluding the unique and sacral, or of substituting the sociological for the theological. The authenticity and value of considering eucharist as meal is therefore at issue.

The Ancient Eucharist as Meal

The founding event of the Last Supper is of course understood to have been a meal, but in the eyes of many scholars the eucharistic celebrations of the early communities are supposed not to have been. Certainly the Gospels depict Jesus taking specific foods and acting with them in the context of a meal, but how did continuing the tradition of this broken bread and cup relate to the rest of a communal meal?

In the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul castigates Corinthian eucharistic eaters and drinkers for eating their own food, getting full and drunk while some other members are going hungry because of a failure to share. Scholars often assume that the token sharing familiar to us stems from this exhortation, but that is simply to draw a line across a long period of relative silence about the precise character and form of the meal, between Pauline pot-luck and sacralized liturgy. I think it is fairly clear that by the third century most eucharistic meals were symbolic but not substantial; many would regard that as a very "high" date to allow. Yet we might do well to distinguish the historical disappearance of the substantial meal from erasure thereof by historians and theologians.

What, when and where?

What do we know? That in the earliest days of the Church, Christian communities gathered week by week for a ritual that would not necessarily have looked very much like other forms of worship know to that time or ours, but which unmistakably involved a meal. In an ordinary house, or as time went on perhaps in one owned and adapted by the Church, people gathered around a table with the most common meal elements of their time: bread and wine.

A presider, possibly the head of the household where the Church gathered or an itinerant prophet or apostle, might have called the community to prayer, breaking bread and offering the cup with thanks before all ate and drank from it. Before or, if they followed Greek and Roman conventions, after eating and drinking, there might have been readings from scripture – originally of course the Hebrew Bible – and stories or teaching concerning Jesus, as well as songs of praise, prayer, and confession of sins. In other words the ingredients of this meal, spoken or symbolic as well as what was literally eaten and drunk, might actually be familiar to us, even if much else differed.

This set of proceedings was perhaps somewhat more natural to them than to us. To us, breaking bread – literally – and hearing the word are specific to Christian worship, and somewhat unlike what we may do in the rest of our lives and meals. For those ancient eaters and drinkers, the connections between the one meal and others may often have been clearer.

This much is generally agreed upon. What is harder to establish is the relationship between the meal as a whole, the collection of events of the communal meal assembly, and the eucharist "proper." The most commonly held scholarly position has been that the eucharist would have been clearly identifiable, both as food and drink and as ritual action, from among the various eatings and drinkings that might take place on an ancient evening. So for instance when in the Lukan and Pauline institution narratives the expression "after the supper" is used to describe the time the cup is taken by Jesus, the "supper" is supposed by many to be something other than the bread, without good reason I would suggest. Since bread is food, staple food, what else do we expect the supper to be?


One of the stumbling blocks to imagining the eucharist as meal is the character of the meal elements of bread and wine. In an age when bread and wine do not play the same part in our diet or the symbolism of food, the simplicity of the eucharist is actually somewhat counter-cultural, although we perhaps do not often get to realizing that.

Bread and wine were, after all, the staple foods of the period, eaten by rich and poor alike, although in differing qualities and quantities. Even slaves got wine, of sorts. Wine then and now was nutritionally significant in a subsistence-agricultural economy and diet. The bread and wine for a eucharistic celebration were taken from among the general food offerings, brought by the community for distribution to the widows and orphans of the Church and to the poor generally.

Special meanings attached to the elements of the meal are not self-evident from their oddity, which is a myth; to the contrary, the common nature of the food and drink lends itself to constant reinterpretation and a variety of meanings, which must depend on context. It is hard to say whether it is preferable to avoid altogether the statements that are sometimes rather glibly made about what bread and wine "meant," and suggesting instead a certain symbolic neutrality, or to acknowledge that a surplus of meaning is always involved, many associations old and new.

It is also worth noting that there were other meal elements that might appear at a Eucharistic meal. While items such as cheese, olives and oil are attested as festive additions on occasions of special significance, the most striking variation from the expected bread-wine pattern is one where wine is omitted. A variety of Christian groups for whom the pagan associations of wine – poured in libations during Temple ritual and in domestic settings as well – were too great, avoided it altogether. These sectarian eaters also avoided all meat-eating, given the strong connections between the production of the meat and sacrifice. In an oblique way this concern about meat and wine can perhaps still be seen in the Ravenna mosaic where both are absent from a depiction of the seder of the Passover at which they might have been expected to be central.

How much?

The question of quantity of food has already been raised implicitly. How much did they eat? Even what may have been relatively small amounts of food – a chunk of bread and part of a shared cup of wine – were significant to the eaters, even in terms of physical nutrition, if also and primarily for other reasons. This last point really throws into question the whole distinction between 'real' and 'token' eating.

Of course "token amounts" is a difficult category that depends very much upon the wealth and power of the eating observer; one person's token amount is another's meal. In any case there is very little information to make it clear how much bread and wine people are eating and drinking eucharistically in the first two or three centuries. The assumption that token amounts were always and immediately involved, or even perhaps legislated for very early, after Paul's interaction with the eucharistically-indulgent Corinthians, owes more I think to that contemporary experience, or even to a sort of squeamishness derived from crumbs of sacramental theology, than to ancient evidence.

Such evidence as there is for quantities, if only in the form of hints, often implies or at least allows substantial eating. In First Corinthians for example, Paul urges his ancient readers to moderation, which implies other possibilities. We know that the Corinthians who tended to have access to the socially important meat-meals held in temples or homes, ate the sacrally charged sacrificial meat with relish as well as hope for what we might tend, dubiously, to separate into religious or social benefits. Not all pagan Corinthians, however, had equal access to any of those benefits, of diet or divinity.

An analogy seems to have held as far as the conduct of the Christian banquet was concerned. Paul tells those participants in what he regards as a failed Lord's Supper – banquet, we might translate in fact – to deal with their accustomed forms of eating at home, not because there will be nothing to eat at the meal, but because the amounts must be modest and equitable.

The Gospel of Luke and its sequel the Acts of the Apostles use the language of "the breaking of the bread," which while arguably a technical term evokes broader meal-practice and, I think, something other than token amounts. The Didache gives instructions for prayers over cup and bread, and then for prayers after the meal to be said "after filling up," which there is no reason to take other than literally.

When did all this change? I suspect both that it is time to push the date "up" somewhat, probably to the first half of the third century, but also to give greater room to the possibility – perhaps necessity – that there was no simple and sweeping move from substance to symbol alone, as though these were somehow self-evidently and essentially different. Whether or not all will be convinced to recast their picture of early eucharistic eating in the direction of a dietarily-significant meal, the very notion that these are adequate categories, that other meals eaten by Greco-Roman households and communities were somehow "secular", unrelated to matters of divine presence and power, is just as problematic, if not more so.

In dealing with evidence for what becomes the mainstream of emergent orthodoxy, some have seen the end even of a connection with meal in the conflict at Corinth. Some commentators are prepared to wait until the mid-second century and the evidence of the Apologetic writer Justin Martyr to claim a clearly and solely symbolic meal; I am not convinced that even fifty years or so later with Tertullian in North Africa we have altogether dispensed with the risk that some people may be getting enough to eat at the communal meal.

Cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas' work on "deciphering" meals does help indicate that meal structures and their significance are deeper matters than ones of mere quantity. The potential for considering eucharist as "really" a meal does not depend entirely on how far you may be willing to accompany me on reconstruction of the eucharist as more calories as well as communion. Even if the eucharist were no longer generally experienced as a substantial meal, whether that is an early or a later development, that is not to say that the interpretation of the eucharist can avoid consideration of it as meal, or even that the symbolic/substantial dichotomy can be used as easily and freely as we tend to have done.

So what?

Jewish and pagan groups gathered in similar fashion, most obviously as households, but also for religious or social gatherings where food made the bond between those who shared some common cause or interest. To eat bread and wine with others outside the immediate household was a recognizeable sign of being in community, of being a kind of spiritually-formed family as it were.

All this would have been evident even to the new convert who had not yet been catechized as to the exact significance of the meal. Not all of the meaning of what they did, or what we do was, or is dependent on the words used to explain the proceedings. Sometimes, the anthropologists' voice might suggest, the actions themselves are the key to what is communicated and affirmed.

Christians met to eat and drink, then as now, following the example of Jesus, whose eating and drinking had been a most visible and important part of his ministry. The character of the eucharist as meal of Jesus has shifted, however, sometimes to the point of obscurity. While even the earliest Christians did regard the food of the meal as sacred – indeed as really Jesus' body and blood in some sense – and not just as a model of sharing or community-building, as time went on the sacral character overwhelmed the meal aspect of the eucharist to a large extent.


Bibliography on Early Christian Eucharistic Meals

Paul Bradshaw [2002]: The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship (Revised ed.), New York: Oxford University Press.
Mary Douglas [1975]: 'Deciphering a Meal', Implicit Meanings, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 249-75.
Gillian Feeley-Harnik [1981]: The Lord's Table: Eucharist and Passover in Early Christianity, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
John Koenig [2000]: The Feast of the World's Redemption: Eucharistic Origins and Christian Mission, Harrisburg, Pa: Trinity Press International.
Enrico Mazza [1996]: 'Didache 9-10: Elements of a Eucharistic Interpretation,' The Didache in Modern Research, Leiden: E.J. Brill, pp. 276-99.
Andrew McGowan [1995]: "'First Regarding the Cup': Papias and the Diversity of Early Eucharistic Practice," Journal of Theological Studies n.s. 46, pp. 569-73.
Andrew McGowan [1997]: 'Naming the Feast: The Agape and the Diversity of Early Christian Ritual Meals,' Studia Patristica 30, Ed. E. Livingstone; Leuven: Peeters, pp. 314-18.
Andrew McGowan [1999]: "'Is There a Liturgical Text in this Gospel?': The Institution Narratives and Their Early Interpretive Communities," Journal of Biblical Literature 118, pp. 77-89.
Andrew McGowan [1999]: Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals, Oxford Early Christian Studies; Oxford: Clarendon.
Andrew McGowan [2001]: 'The Inordinate Cup: Issues of Order in Early Eucharistic Drinking,' Studia Patristica 35, pp. 283-91.
Andrew McGowan [2004]: 'Rethinking Agape and Eucharist in Early North African Christianity,' Studia Liturgica 34, [forthcoming]
Dennis E. Smith [2003], From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World, Minneapolis: Fortress.

The Rev'd Dr Andrew McGowan
Director of the Theological School and Joan F. W. Munro Lecturer,
Trinity College, University of Melbourne.

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