In one of the most influential, however small, books on early Christian worship, Paul Bradshaw maps the development of the meals of Jesus into the eucharist. I have added numbers and reformated the citation. See his book Reconstructing Early Christian Worship (pp. 18-19).
- I believe that the regular sharing of food was fundamental to the common life of the first Christian communities, as it apparently had been to Jesus’ own mission. At these meals they would have experienced an eschatological anticipation of God’s kingdom, one of the primary marks of which was that the hungry are fed and many come from East and West to feast (Matthew 8.11; Luke 13.29), and they would have responded by calling upon Jesus to return, crying Marana tha (1 Corinthians 16.22; Didache 10.6; Revelation 22.20)
- They would have recalled stories of Jesus eating – not just with his disciples, but scandalously with tax-collectors and sinners. They would have recollected that he had miraculously fed large multitudes with small quantities of food. And they would have remembered that he had at least once, perhaps in relation to one of these feeding miracles, associated bread with his own flesh.
- At least some communities of impoverished Christians, whose staple food would have been bread and little else and whose meals generally did not include wine, came to associate what they called the breaking of bread with feeding on the flesh of Jesus.
- In other cases, where wealthy members of the local congregation would entertain their brothers and sisters in the faith to a more substantial supper in their homes each week, either on the eve of the Sabbath or at its conclusion, the bread and wine of the meal might have been thought of as simply ‘spiritual food and drink’ (as in the Didache), or as the flesh and blood of Jesus, although in some Greek-speaking circles the expression ‘body and blood’ came to be preferred.
- In neither case, because they did not associate what they were doing specifically with the Last Supper or with the annual Passover meal, did they apparently experience any qualms about doing it much more often than once a year or feel the necessity to adhere strictly to the order of that meal in their own practices.
- Someone, however, possibly even St Paul himself, did begin to associate the sayings of Jesus with the supper that took place on the night before he died, and interpreted them as referring to the sacrifice of his body and blood and to the new covenant that would be made through his death.
- This interpretation had some influence within the churches founded by Paul and possibly beyond. It certainly reached the author of Mark’s Gospel, who inserted a version of the sayings into his already existing supper narrative, perhaps because he was compiling his account of Jesus in Rome, where the Christians were particularly subject to sporadic persecution and so the association of their own spiritual meals with the sacrificed body and blood of their Saviour would have been especially encouraging to believers facing possible martyrdom themselves, however novel to them was this juxtaposition of the two traditions.
- But this combination does not otherwise seem to have been widely known in early Christianity. It was only much later, as the New Testament books gained currency and authority, that it began to shape both the catechesis and the liturgy of the churches, and to shift the focus of eucharistic thought from feeding to sacrifice.
- Does any of this matter? Is it important whether the ultimate roots of Jesus’ sayings may lie in the life-giving feeding of those who were hungry rather than in primary association with his imminent death? Did not that sacrificial death also come to be viewed by Christians as life-giving, and therefore to an equal degree as spiritually nourishing? Was anything really lost?
- I think so. While I believe it was, and is, perfectly legitimate for Christians to interpret Jesus’ sayings in relation to his death, whenever and wherever they may have first been uttered, yet I believe a valuable balanced insight was lost by an excessive focus on the power of his sacrificed body and blood and a consequent diminishing of the value of his living and nourishing flesh and blood.
- In particular, it led in the course of time to a decline in the reception of communion, as that came to be seen as less important for believers than the offering of the eucharistic sacrifice – to a disproportionate emphasis, if you like, on altar rather than on table.
The critical mistake here is not considering enough the atonement saying of Jesus in Mark 10:45 as well as the many times when he clearly perceives his likely death combined with his interpretation of that death, including Passover themes well before Paul. See my Jesus and His Death as well as A Community called Atonement.