Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Eucharist and Sacrifice (III): The Septuagint, and the Didache


The Didache or 'Teaching of the Twelve Apostles' is the next surviving document after Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians directly to address the communal sacral meal of the Christians. This late first or early second century 'Church Order' document also gives a variety of prescriptions for ethics and liturgical life. It also uses the language of sacrifice to refer to the Christian meal.

If Paul’s appropriation and reconstruction of cultic logic for the meal is largely structural, the evidence of the Didache is more linguistic; but it assumes an earlier re-casting of sacrificial language, that of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Bible (i.e., Old Testament) that was read and used by most early Christians.

The Hebrew Bible does not have a single or simple term for 'sacrifice'. English translations are all confounded by this, and attempt to supply extended and tendentious phrases, including common elements like 'offering' and 'sacrifice' which are not there in the Hebrew, to translate the different forms of ritual prescribed (e.g.) in Leviticus.

The ancient translators of the Bible into Greek had a slightly different problem. The Septuagint’s use of Greek vocabulary to translate the sacrificial system of Israel was a more radical step than it might seem at first glance. To use words that were associated with idolatrous offerings involved a willingness to draw correspondences between the practices depicted in the OT narratives and still carried out in the Jerusalem Temple and those involved with Greco-Roman cults.

Among the choices made, the Septuagint uses the Greek word θυσία (thusia)--which refers in Greek religion to animal offerings slaughtered and shared as a feast among participants (with a portion burnt for the god)--as preferred translation for both Levitical zebaḥ and minḥāh. The first of these seems a close fit, since it is the word used referring to the peace or communion offerings of slaughtered animals prescribed in Leviticus, typically involving a shared meal. The second however refers to offerings of grain, made into cakes, not to animal sacrifice.

This step in translation draws grain or meal offerings into a closer relationship with other alimentary sacrifices
than might otherwise have been assumed, as well as making a clear statement of a cross-cultural nature about the parallel between the cultic practices of Judaism and those of the gentiles.

The extension of the meaning of θυσία in both these directions is significant; for present purposes, it paves the way for an extension of Greek cultic language to the meatless but bread-centred Eucharistic meal setting, simply as a direct and descriptive (and biblical) means of speaking about a sacral meal, even a meatless one.


The Didache uses the Greek term θυσία twice in ch. 14, both times in reference to the Eucharistic gathering, as well as in quoting Malachi 1:11 and 14, all within a brief prescription for Sunday meetings. Confession of sins is urged that the “sacrifice may be pure (καθαρὰ)” (14.1) or “may not be profaned (κοινωθῇ)” (14.2).


It is important that the Didache can use this language of "sacrifice" for the Eucharistic meal, despite the lack of knowledge of, or at least explicit interest in, the death of Jesus or themes of atonement and blood sacrifice in the document, because in this context θυσία does not need to entail these things.

The Septuagintal re-imagining of the Temple cereal offerings and of θυσία in terms of each other has opened a somewhat different path for the meaning of "sacrifice", and the Didache pursues it.


[I have used a different font for this post because it contained the required unicode extended characters to show my Hebrew transliteration and my Greek!]

Eucharist and Sacrifice (II): Paul to the Corinthians


Paul’s discussion of the communal meal at Corinth in 1 Cor 10 draws on a broad set of images and associations from both Jewish Temple cultus and practices more familiar to gentile Corinthians in local temples.

Paul argues that the meal is a sort of communion in the offering of a unique victim: “The cup of blessing that we bless [is] a sharing in the blood of Christ… The bread that we break…a sharing in the body of Christ…”

He draws an analogy with the Jerusalem cultus, not in relation to victims or offerings as such but with regard to the effect of sharing among participants:

“Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?” (18). The Christians’ “participation” in the body and blood of Christ works in the same sense that worshippers at the Jerusalem temple are participants in the “altar”, a sort of synecdoche for the cultus as a whole.

Paul then juxtaposes Christian and pagan meal types directly. “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” By analogy to Jewish participation in Jerusalem cult meals, devotees at Corinthian temples are in communion with the gods in their cultic meals.

However the specific homology of cup and table Paul draws, of the Lord and of demons, is constructed not between the Christian meals and the Jerusalem cultus, but between Christian and Greco-Roman pagan meals, which are understood therefore as strictly parallel as well as mutually exclusive events.

Paul thus suggests that the Christian meal is not merely a sort of shared supper expressing friendship or memorializing Jesus, but an effective analogue to cultic meals based in the Jerusalem Temple, and a superior as well as benign alternative to those celebrated by gentiles. Both comparisons influence his presentation of the meal; Paul’s theory of the Christian meal as cultic is not merely a reinterpretation or extension of the Levitical system of the Old Testament, but a presentation of the new meal as comparable to cultic meals of the gentiles.

So Paul actually creates here his own cross-cultural theory of sacrifice, to the extent that he suggests a set of generally-applicable understandings about cult meals as communion with the deity and between the participants. The Christian meal is indeed “sacrificial”, if by this we can understand not mere equivalence to older and other practices, but a dynamic reuse and reinterpretation of them.

Paul does not present Eucharistic meals as cultic merely as in relation to the Last Supper tradition as usually assumed; this is of course crucial for him, but is not discussed until the following chapter. Rather Christian meals are presented as directly bound up in a broader language and logic of offerings and sacrifices; yet in a new construction of ritual and cultus, Paul arguably changes the meaning of “sacrifice” even as he employs its logic.

Eucharist and Sacrifice: Rethinking the Origins (I)

Aztec human sacrifice
[From my paper at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in New Orleans, November 2009: "Sacrificing Eucharists: The Earliest Christian Ritual Meals and their Cultic Context"]

The relationship between the Christian Eucharist and sacrifice has long been debated. In this paper I wish not so much to ask yet again whether the Eucharist is sacrificial, as to question the consensus about the sacrifice whose reality or absence is contested. The first question must really be “is there such a thing as sacrifice?”

The first response of many to questioning the assumption that sacrifice even exists may be akin to Mark Twain’s response to the question of his belief in infant baptism: “Believe in it? Hell, I’ve seen it”. Those of us who have got at least our intellectual hands dirty—bloody even—with the realia or the literary remnants of sacrifice may initially find the suggestion odd.

What I mean to challenge is not the historical reality of the various ritual offerings grouped by scholars and others under this name; it is to ask whether the category of sacrifice itself is entirely defensible, and whether it is really such an obvious and stable concept to be evoked in interpretive practice of texts or objects without profound critical qualification.

“[The idea of Sacrifice] reveals”, suggests French classicist Marcel Detienne, “the surprising power of annexation that Christianity still subtly exercises on the thought of…historians and sociologists who were convinced they were inventing a new science.”

Detienne suggests that general theories of sacrifice, from Frazer through Robertson Smith and Durkheim, and on to their fulfilment perhaps in the curious and controversial work of René Girard, confuse a Judeo-Christian religious mythos with scientific method: they tend, for instance, to posit an essential or original sacrifice, sometimes of the self-offering god or hero; and thence they seek or find particular features, such as the altruistic human or divine victim, and an emphasis on substitution or expiation, typically with animal offerings as the proxy for human ones, as the interpretive key to a range of rituals and offerings which might otherwise not be seen in these terms.

The basic questions raised by such a critique cannot be resolved here; but if it is correct in whole or in part, the invention of “sacrifice” as a cross-cultural or totalizing theory does not really begin with Frazer, Robertson Smith and the now often-raked-over history of modern anthropological theory, but in the ancient world, and in the same crucible of theory and practice in which Christianity and Judaism arise.

Jews and Christians in the Hellenistic and Late Antique worlds found themselves changing the language of cultus and the practices to which they applied it, and so to explore these ancient ideas and practices is therefore to explore the origins of sacrifice, as generally understood. Once we critique claims to universal applicability of this idea of sacrifice, it can become more historically (and ultimately theologically) interesting, rather than less.