Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Seven Theses on Eucharistic Origins

(Prepared for the Meals in the Greco-Roman World Seminar of the Society of Biblical Literature, November 2007; see the two previous posts on "Rethinking Eucharistic Origins)


1. Drinking accompanied or preceded (rather than following) some early Christian meals, apparently following some versions of Jewish custom.


2. Food and drink in early Christian meals varied beyond the familiar bread and wine, largely in relation to ascetic and sacrificial concerns.


3. “Lord’s Supper” was not a name for early Christian banquets.


4. The “institution narratives” (stories of the Last Supper, used as prayer texts) were not the original forms of Eucharistic prayer but were interpolated in the 3rd century or after.


5. “Agape” (Love-feast) was not a distinct meal separate from the Eucharist, but a term applied to Christian banquets in some communities.


6. The Eucharist remained a substantial meal into the third century.


7. Diversity of early Christian meal practice was real but limited, its variety largely determined by ascetic concerns.

Bibliography on Eucharistic meals

“Eating People: Accusations of Cannibalism against Christians in the Second Century,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 2 (1994) 413-42.

“‘First Regarding the Cup’: Papias and the Diversity of Early Eucharistic Practice,” Journal of Theological Studies n.s. 46 (1995) 569-73.

“Naming the Feast: The Agape and the Diversity of Early Christian Ritual Meals,” Studia Patristica 30 (ed. E. Livingstone; Leuven: Peeters, 1997) 314-18.

“‘Is There a Liturgical Text in this Gospel?’: The Institution Narratives and Their Early Interpretive Communities,” Journal of Biblical Literature 118 (1999) 77-89.

Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in early Christian Ritual Meals (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999).

“The Inordinate Cup: Issues of Order in Early Eucharistic Drinking,” Studia Patristica 35 (2001) 283-91.

“Marcion's love of creation,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 9 (2001): 295-311

“Discipline and Diet: Feeding the Martyrs in Roman Carthage,” Harvard Theological Review (2003), 96: 455-476.

“The Meals Of Jesus And The Meals Of The Church: Eucharistic Origins and Admission to Communion”, in Studia Liturgica Diversa: Essays In Honor Of Paul F. Bradshaw (ed. Maxwell E. Johnson and L. Edward Phillips; Portland, Oregon: Pastoral Press, 2003), 101-115.

“Rethinking Agape and Eucharist in Early North African Christianity,” Studia Liturgica 34 (2004), 165-176.

“Food, Ritual, and Power,” in A People’s History of Christianity, Vol. 2: Late Antique Christianity (ed. Virginia Burrus;
Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 145-64.

Rethinking Eucharistic Origins (II)

(The second of three posts related to my presentation at the SBL Annual Meeting in San Diego in November 2007)

If the conventional account of eucharistic origins is inadequate, what will be needed to construct an alternative? I suggest three necessary elements or assumptions.

One is diversity. Following Paul Bradshaw’s lead – and more distantly Walter Bauer’s – I think the evidence reflects an early diversity involving locale, as well as connections that amount to other traditions or “trajectories”. Relevant evidence includes the supposedly eccentric, heretical or simply inconvenient. However, the discernable elements of diversity in ancient practice are not infinite in number or merely whimsical in kind. They are fairly specific and reflect fundamental choices and controversies about group identity, conformity and resistance in that milieu.

Second is what might, following Clifford Geertz, be called a “thicker” approach to evidence drawing on both wider historical knowledge and an eclectic mixture of tools related to social theory, employed piecemeal and heuristically. This also involves critical questioning in terms of (other) economic and social realia including gender. In this year of her death I acknowledge the particular contribution of Mary Douglas to revealing this possibility of implicit meal-meanings – in this case, encouraging the thought that Eucharistic rituals can be treated as meals, whether or not they involve large amounts of food. Thus foods themselves, issues of order, questions of time, and not only the stated theologies but other aspects of discourse such as nomenclature, as well as forms of utterance prove of interest.

This kind of approach also needs to be pursued further into areas such as gesture, posture, space, and participation including leadership – and some of these explorations are indeed taking place. This means to some extent assertion of synchronic interpretations, in resistance to the diachronic or teleological one. Yet I remain interested in seeing what different diachronic picture (or rather pictures) are possible when piecing together “thicker” evidence.

Third is what, following Levi-Strauss, we might call bricolage of the available “thickened” data. Instead of subjecting the evidence to a single grand theory, this means seeking smaller-scale patterns of practice, and drawing links between texts and other elements that may be either synchronic or diachronic, thus allowing the beginnings of reconstruction. Instances where the same names or foods or other characteristics appear in the meal invite comparison and interpretation.

And the results? My own reconstructions suggest that here are not two food rituals in early Christianity but many meals comprehensible as a loosely-unified tradition, out which the familiar sacramental ritual emerges and becomes initially somewhat distinct – in the later second century I believe – before general separation in the third.

I want to finish by pointing to one area which I think warrants further attention in this seminar and this field generally. This is sacrifice. I believe we tend to underestimate the significance of sacrifice for culinary and dining practices generally, perhaps under the influence of our own constructed categories of religion and ritual. Sacrifice was a culinary practice, and dining was a religious practice. The question of whether and how Eucharistic meals evoke, enact or reject sacrificial ideas and practices needs to be engaged with far more thoroughly and with attention to Greco-Roman sacrifice and not merely to the teleological narrative that runs from Israelite religion to Paul to later normative liturgy. I regard this category as a great and still largely unmet challenge for students of Christian meals, and one where issues of wider theological and theoretical significance meet exploration of meal traditions head-on.

Rethinking Eucharistic Origins (I)

(from a presentation at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego)

Thank you for this opportunity to think with you about my work or the issues it raises. Looking at the program for this Society of Biblical Literature meeting it seems one usually has to be far more distinguished a scholar than I am, or somewhat more dead, to have an entire session devoted to discussion of one's work. It may be that my colleagues’ judgement is that College presidency is in scholarly terms somewhat akin to being dead.

Given that the procedure of this Seminar on Meals in the Greco-Roman World has been to encourage reading in advance some published and unpublished material, I am not going to concentrate on summarizing the “what” of my various suggestions about early Eucharistic practices. The seven theses circulated can do this more succinctly. I would like to open the conversation by saying a couple of things about “why” and “how” instead.

The most fundamental question of the history of early Christianity is arguably this. How did a renewal movement within Judaism originating in Galilee become, in a space of a few centuries, the religion of imperial Rome?

My interest in the history of Eucharistic meals is an approach to that larger question, in the realm of liturgy, or of meal. Many have argued for essential continuity of practice between the first and fourth centuries, from models and understandings suggested by Jesus and/or Paul, at least of a core – sometimes of words, sometimes of theology, and famously of “shape” to the developed “normative” liturgies of the fourth and following centuries. On the other hand, and especially recently, some scholars prefer to present the significant changes in the conduct of Christian meals as a kind of “fall”, from diverse egalitarian commensality into uniform hierarchal ritual.

Neither of these narratives is quite as amenable to caricature as that summary might suggest; but I am unconvinced about both, just as I am unconvinced by either of the traditional paradigms about early Christian change and development generally, i.e., of either early and immediate orthodoxy, or of a post-canonical decline into enforced institutionalism.

However the historical consensus about Eucharistic origins at which, as Dennis Smith puts it, I have been “chipping away” for some years, has to a significant extent been shared regardless of whether interpreted as development or decline. It goes something like this: that while the earliest Christian communities celebrated their sacramental ritual in the context of a communal meal, the two were always conceptually distinct, the sacramental aspect involving uniform token use of bread and wine, celebrated in memory of the Last Supper of Jesus, with recitation of the institution narratives as the central prayer text. From a very early point these actually separated into two events, Eucharist and Agape. The resultant Eucharist was a morning sacramental ritual, with a universal order or structure, the remaining Agape a secular communal supper.

I accept none of this account as just stated. It simply omits too much evidence of early Christian meals altogether, and relies on forced interpretations of other parts, in its enthusiasm to narrate the evolution of normative liturgy. This account is teleological in an unjustifiable sense – it is liturgical history's version of "intelligent design" theory.

By implication, alternative approaches need to involve a series of alternative assumptions.

(to be continued...)