Bible Review 10:6, December 1994

The Eucharist—Exploring Its Origins

By Bruce Chilton

What Jesus was doing at the Last Supper has not been understood for the better part of 2,000 years. The reason for the misunderstanding is that Jesus, a Jewish teacher who was concerned with the sacrificial worship of Israel, has been treated as if he were the deity in a Hellenistic cult.

A generation after Jesus’ death, when the Gospels were written, the Romans had destroyed the Jerusalem Temple (in 70 C.E.); the most influential centers of Christianity were cities of the Mediterranean world such as Alexandria, Antioch, Corinth, Damascus, Ephesus and Rome. Although large numbers of Jews were also followers of Jesus, non-Jews came to predominate in the early Church. They controlled how the Gospels were written after 70 C.E. and how the texts were interpreted.

Within the Greco-Roman world, Jesus was readily appreciated as a divine figure, after the manner of one of the gods come to visit earth. Hellenistic religion of the first and second centuries was deeply influenced by cults called Mysteries, in which a worshiper would be joined to the death and restoration of a god by means of ritual. Jesus’ Last Supper was naturally compared to initiation into such a Mystery. He was a new kind of Dionysus, historical rather than mythical, who gave himself, flesh and blood, in the meals held in his name. After all, he had said, “This is my body” and “This is my blood” (Matthew 26:26–28//Mark 14:22–24//Luke 22:19–20). For many Hellenistic Christians, that could only mean that Jesus referred to himself: Bread and wine were tokens of Jesus that became his body and blood when believers consumed them!

The only serious question for Christian orthodoxy was how the transformation took place. Churches have gone to war (literally and figuratively) over that issue, but they have agreed that the meaning of body and blood is self-referential, or autobiographical—that Jesus was talking about himself, about his own flesh and his own blood.

That traditional understanding has gone virtually unchallenged, both in theological and in historical discussion. Churches have accepted the idea that the Last Supper initiated a Mystery religion in which their God gave himself to be eaten. Historians have told us that Jesus started a new sect of Judaism by telling his followers to eat bread and drink wine as if they were his own flesh and blood.

But is that plausible as history? What Jew would tell another to drink blood, even symbolic blood? The Mishnah,a to present an example of a heinous defect on the part of a priest involved in slaughtering the red heifer, pictures the priest as intending to eat the flesh or drink the blood (Parah 4:3). In fact, in Jewish tradition, people had no share of blood; that belonged only to God. The thought of drinking blood, even animal blood, was blasphemous. To imagine drinking human blood and consuming it with human flesh could only make the blasphemy worse.

So if Jesus’ words are taken with their traditional, autobiographical meaning, his Last Supper can only be understood as a deliberate break from Judaism. Either Jesus himself declared a new religion, or his followers did so in his name and invented the Last Supper themselves. Both those alternatives find scholarly adherents, and the debate between those who see the Gospels as literally true reports and those who see them as literary fictions shows little sign of abating.

There is, however, a more historical way of understanding how the eucharist emerged in early Christianity, an approach that takes account of cultural changes in the development of the movement.

Research in the social world of early Judaism indicates how Christianity emerged as a social movement within Judaism and then became distinct from it. We are no longer faced with the old alternatives—either the conservative position that the Gospels are literal reports, or the liberal position that they are literary fictions. Critical study has suggested a new possibility: that the Gospels are composite products of various social groups that belonged to the Jesus movement from its days within Judaism to the emergence of Christianity as a distinct religion. By understanding eucharistic practice within the social groups that made the Gospels into the texts we read today, we can begin to appreciate the meaning Jesus gave the Last Supper, and how his original meaning was later transformed.

The Synopticb Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) were composed by successive groups of teachers after Jesus’ death in about 30 C.E. The Gospel of Mark was the first written around 71 C.E. in the environs of Rome, according to most scholars. Matthew was next in about 80 C.E., perhaps in Damascus (or elsewhere in Syria). Luke came later, say in 90 C.E., perhaps in Antioch.

Some of the teachers who shaped the Gospels shared Jesus’ cultural milieu, but others never set eyes on him; they lived far from Judea at a later period and were not practicing Jews. The growth of Christianity involved a rapid transition from culture to culture and, within each culture, from sub-culture to sub-culture. A basic prerequisite for understanding any text of the Gospels, therefore, is to define the cultural context of a given statement. That is just what the usual reading of the Last Supper fails to do.

The Last Supper was not the only supper Jesus shared with his disciples—just the last one. Indeed, Jesus had a well-established custom of eating with people socially. There was nothing unusual about a rabbi making social eating an instrument of his instruction, and so it was part of Jesus’ method from the first days of his movement in Galilee.

Meals within Judaism were regular expressions of social solidarity, and of common identity as the people of God. Many sorts of meals are mentioned in the literature of early Judaism. From the Dead Sea Scrolls, we learn of banquets at which the community convened in order of hierarchy. Among the Pharisees, collegial meals were shared within fellowships (havuroth) at which like-minded fellows (haverim) shared food and company they considered pure. Ordinary households might welcome the coming of the Sabbath with a prayer of sanctification (kiddush) over a cup of wine, or open a family occasion with blessing (berakhot) over bread and wine.

Jesus’ meals were in some ways similar but in other ways distinctive. He had a special understanding of what the meal meant and of who should participate. For him, eating socially with that in the kingdom to come. A key feature of the fervent expectations of Judaism during the first century was that in the kingdom to come God would offer festivity for all the people on his holy mountain (see, for example, Isaiah 25:6–8). Jesus shared that hope, as can be seen in the following:

“Many shall come from east and west, and feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God.”

(Matthew 8:11//Luke 13:28–29)c

Eating was a way of enacting the kingdom of God, of eyes practicing the generous rule of the divine king.

Jesus’ meals were also distinctive in that they were inclusive; he avoided any exclusive practices that would divide the people of God from one another. He accepted all the people of God as meal companions—including tax agents and other suspicious characters—and even received notorious sinners at his table. The meal for him was a sign of the kingdom of God, and all Israelites, assuming they sought forgiveness, were to have access to it.

Jesus’ practice of fellowship at meals caused opposition from those whose understanding of Israel was exclusive. To them, he seemed profligate, willing to eat and drink with anyone, as Jesus observed in another saying:

“A man came eating and drinking, and they complain: Look, a glutton and drunkard, a fellow of tax agents and sinners.”

(Matthew 11:19//Luke 7:34)

Jesus’ opponents saw the purity of Israel as something that could be guarded only by separating from others, as in meals of their fellowships (havuroth). Jesus’ view of purity was different. He held that a son or daughter of Israel, by virtue of being of Israel, could approach his table and also worship in God’s Temple. (See the story of Jesus declaring a “leper” clean [Matthew 8:1–4//Mark 1:40–45] and the story of the woman with the ointment [Luke 7:36–50].) Repentance could be required—Jesus taught his followers to pray for forgiveness daily—but in his understanding all Israelites were pure and fit to offer purely of their own within the sacrificial worship of Israel.

Jesus’ views led to disputes in Galilee, but these were only of local interest. (Slightly deviant rabbis were far from uncommon there, which is why the region was known as “Galilee of the nations,” in Isaiah 9:1.) But when Jesus brought his teaching to the Jerusalem Temple, where he insisted on his own teaching (or halakhah) of purity, matters were different. The resulting dispute is reflected in an incident often called the cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:12–13//Mark 11:15–17//Luke 19:45–46//John 2:13–17). From the viewpoint of the authorities what Jesus was after was the opposite of cleansing. He objected to the merchants who had permission to sell sacrificial animals in the vast outer court of the Temple. In Jesus’ “peasant’s” view of purity, Israel should not offer priest’s produce for which they paid money, but their own sacrifices that they themselves brought to the Temple. He believed this so vehemently that he and his followers drove the animals and the sellers out of the great court, apparently with the use of force (Matthew 21:12//Mark 11:15–16//Luke 19:45//John 2:15–16).

Jesus’ interference in the ordinary worship of the Temple might have been sufficient in itself to bring about his execution. After all, for as long as it stood, the Temple was the center of Judaism. Roman officials were so interested in its smooth functioning at the hands of the priests they appointed that they were known to sanction the death penalty for gross sacrilege.1Yet there is no indication that Jesus was arrested immediately. Instead, he remained at liberty for some time and was finally taken into custody just after one of his meals, the Last Supper (Matthew 26:47–56//Mark 14:43–52//Luke 22:47–53; John 18:3–11). The decision of the Temple authorities to move against Jesus when they did is what made it the final supper.

Why did the authorities wait? And why did they act when they did?

The Gospels portray the authorities as fearful of the popular backing Jesus enjoyed (Matthew 26:5//Mark 14:2//Luke 22:2; John 11:47–48), and his inclusive teaching of purity probably did bring enthusiastic followers into the Temple with him.

But there was another factor: Jesus could not simply be dispatched as a cultic criminal. He was not attempting an onslaught upon the Temple as such; his dispute with the authorities concerned purity within the Temple. Other rabbis of his period also engaged in physical demonstrations regarding the purity they required in the conduct of worship. One of them, for example, is said once to have driven thousands of sheep into the Temple, so that people could offer sacrifice in the manner he approved (Babylonian Talmud, Beza 20a, b). Jesus’ action was extreme but not totally without precedent, even in the use of force.

The authorities’ delay, then, was understandable. We might even say it was commendable, reflecting continued controversy over the merits of Jesus’ teaching and whether his occupation of the Great Court should be condemned.

Why then did they finally arrest Jesus?

The Last Supper provides the key. Something about Jesus’ meals after his occupation of the Temple caused Judas to inform on Jesus. (“Judas” is the only name New Testament traditions have left us. Who or how many of Jesus’ disciples became disaffected after his occupation of the Temple cannot be known with any certainty.) Jesus’ meals had never been merely private, and any new meaning he gave them would quickly have become known in the tense period after his occupation of the Temple.

However they learned of Jesus’ new interpretation of his meals of fellowship, the authorities arrested him just after the supper we call last. After his “cleansing” of the Temple, Jesus continued to celebrate fellowship at table as a foretaste of the kingdom, just as he had before. But he added a new and scandalous dimension of meaning. His occupation of the Temple having failed, Jesus said over the wine, “This is my blood,” and over the bread, “This is my flesh” (Matthew 26:26, 28//Mark 14:22, 24//Luke 22:19–20; 1 Corinthians 11:24–25; Justin, Apology I.66.3).

In the context of his confrontation with the Temple authorities, Jesus’ words can have had only one meaning. He cannot have meant, “Here are my personal body and blood”; that interpretation makes sense only at a later stage in the development of Christianity. Jesus’ point rather was that, in the absence of a Temple permitting his view of purity to be practiced, wine was his blood of sacrifice, and bread was his flesh of sacrifice! These were his substitutes for the animal sacrifices at the Temple. When he said, “This is my blood, this is my flesh,” he meant that these—the wine and bread—were his sacrifices, replacing the blood and flesh of animals being sacrificed at the Temple.

In Aramaic, “blood” (dema) and “flesh” (bisra, which may also be rendered as “body”) are words that can have a sacrificial meaning; in the context of Jesus speech at the Last Supper, that is their most natural meaning.

Jesus claimed that by sharing meals in anticipation of the kingdom, he and his followers offered more acceptable worship than what was offered in the Temple. The wine was better blood, the bread better flesh, than Temple sacrifices that were little more than commercial devices.

The meaning of the Last Supper actually evolved over a series of meals following Jesus’ occupation of the Temple. During that period, Jesus claimed that wine and bread were a better sacrifice than what was offered in the Temple, a foretaste of new wine in the kingdom of God (see Matthew 26:29//Mark 14:25). At least wine and bread were Israel’s own, not tokens of priestly dominance.

No wonder the opposition to him, even among the twelve (in the shape of Judas, according to the Gospels), became deadly: In essence, Jesus made his meals into a rival altar.

This interpretation has two advantages over the traditional understanding of the words “This is my body, this is my blood.” The first advantage is contextual: this interpretation places Jesus firmly within the Judaism of his period, and at the same time accounts for the opposition of the authorities to him. The second advantage is its explanatory power: It enables us to explain subsequent developments in the understanding of the eucharist within early Christianity.

After Jesus’ crucifixion, his followers were convinced that God had raised him from the dead. They were thus encouraged to continue the pattern of social eating Jesus had established. They even claimed that the risen Jesus was present during such meals (Luke 24:13–35, 36–43; John 21:1–14).

Two groups especially influenced the way in which the eucharist was understood within the early Church, prior to the time the Gospels were written. The first (chronologically) was the group around Peter; the second was the group around James, the brother of Jesus.

The Petrine group drew its support from members who were active in Jerusalem, Galilee and Syria; conceived of Jesus as offering a fresh understanding of the covenant God had made with Israel. In stories like the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–9//Mark 9:2–10//Luke 9:28–36), Jesus is, in effect, portrayed as a new Moses. For the Petrine group this new Moses used wine to seal the covenant that his teaching conveyed. This is made explicit when Jesus is made to say, not simply “This is my blood,” but “This is my blood of the covenant.” (See Matthew 26:28//Mark 14:24. Compare Luke 22:20 and 1 Corinthians 11:25, which develop the thought still further: Jesus’ blood becomes the seal of the “new covenant.”)

In this interpretation, the blood and flesh are still not Jesus’ own. They remain the equivalent of the Temple offering of animal sacrifices. They are an appropriate offering within Jesus’ understanding of the covenant between God and his people. Remember that Moses had offered and sprinkled blood prior to giving the original covenant and even called it “the blood of the covenant” (Exodus 24:6–8). The Petrine group was simply following this tradition. But Moses did not use his own blood to seal the covenant: The very thought would have been repulsive. It is clear that the Petrine understanding of the eucharist as covenantal is inconsistent with the notion that Jesus is referring to his own blood when he says, “This is my blood.” For the Petrine group, the wine, representing blood, was the means of sacrificial confirmation, as in the case of Moses. The identification with Jesus’ own blood was not yet made.

The circle of James, Jesus’ brother, appears in almost every way to have been more conservative than the circle of Peter. Jesus’ brother was not a prominent figure in the movement until after the crucifixion, but he quickly took over leadership of the Church in Jerusalem from Peter, and insisted upon the central importance of worship in the Temple. James also insisted that the direction of the Church should be in the hands of practicing Jews, not under the control of teachers such as Paul who were willing to depart from Judaism (see Galatians 2 and Acts 21:17–36).

The circle of James, in keeping with its conservatism, contributed no language of its own to the words attributed to Jesus at the Last Supper, as the Petrine group did by referring to the “blood of the covenant,” instead of simply retaining “This is my blood.” But by other means the Jamesian group effected a tight restriction on who could rightly take part in the meal. They identified Jesus’ Last Supper in precise terms with Passover; his final meal Seder, with all its attendant preparations (Matthew 26:17–20//Mark 14:12–17//Luke 22:7–14).

Recent scholarship has rightly seen that the identification of the Last Supper with Passover is theologically motivated. After all, the Gospels themselves have the authorities resolve to deal with Jesus before the crowds of Passover arrive (Matthew 26:1–5//Mark 14:1–2//Luke 22:1–2). The basic elements of the Seder—lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs (see Exodus 12:8)—are notably absent at the Last Supper. By identifying Jesus’ Last Supper with the Passover meal, the Jamesian group managed to limit participation in the eucharist to Jews, since circumcision was a strict requirement for males who took part in a Seder (Exodus 12:48–49).

Paul never accepted the limitation of the Jamesian group. He placed the Last Supper on the night Jesus was handed over, not Passover (1 Corinthians 11:23). In that way, non-Jewish Christians—who were, Paul’s particular concern—could take part fully in the Lord’s supper. Paul also adopted the Petrine group’s understanding of the blood Jesus referred to at the Last Supper as the blood of the covenant. Quoting Jesus, Paul writes, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25). Paul wrote 1 Corinthians around 56 C.E., so it is plain that by that time there were rich and varying understandings of eucharist. Like Luke (22:20), Paul believes the covenant mediated by Jesus is “new,” a departure from old ways.

The Synoptic Gospels were written later than 70 C.E., but on the basis of earlier traditions. They reflect previous understandings of the eucharist, but they also develop the personal interpretation, which then becomes normative. They do so in the Passion Narrative, the story of Jesus’ last days.

The Passion Narrative (Matthew 26:1–27:61, Mark 14:1–15:47, Luke 22:1–23:55) is a source of early Christian teaching devised around 50 C.E. to educate converts in the Hellenistic world for baptism. The fact that the Passion Narrative focuses on Jesus’ death is significant. Unlike the early source of Jesus’ teaching, a collection of sayings known as “Q,” the Passion Narrative focuses on Jesus’ biography at the point of his death. His death, rather than his words, best conveys his meaning for converts.

The close link between the Last Supper and Jesus’ death assured that, in the Greco-Roman environment in which the Passion Narrative grew, the wine of the eucharist that represented the blood of sacrifice was understood to be Jesus’ own blood. In the Passion Narrative, written for non-Jews in the Hellenistic world, Jesus’ blood was shed not only for Israel, but for “many,” as Matthew 26:28 and Mark 14:24 have it, or for “you,” as Luke 22:20 has Jesus express it. In either wording, an extension to include the non-Jewish audience of the Gospels is apparent.

The Passion Narrative was originally composed in Greek. The Greek term for “body” (soma), unlike its Aramaic antecedent, unequivocally meant “body,” and not “flesh.” By the time the Gospel tradition took form in Greek and in the Greek world—during the period when Paul was active—Jesus was understood in the eucharist to be giving himself for the world, as was the case in the Passion Narrative. The wine as blood and the bread as flesh (now body) became Jesus’ own blood and body.

It was but a short step to the theology of John’s Gospel (written around 100 C.E.), where eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood becomes a condition of eternal life:

“So Jesus said to them ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. The one who consumes my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that one on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. The one who consumes my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever consumes me will live because of the Father, so whoever consumes me will live because of me.’”

(John 6:53–57)

The Johannine Jesus makes the eucharist into a Mystery: Each individual who takes bread and wine is joined to the divine flesh and blood that was offered in death and raised in triumph. The link between Jesus and the believer on a personal level is emphatic. “The one who consumes” his flesh (ho trogon, literally, the one who chews and eats) is promised personal and permanent transformation by ingesting divine food.

The eucharist developed within the Jesus movement from its earliest days until Christianity emerged as a religion distinct from Judaism. In order to understand eucharistic texts, we need to be sensitive to the meanings associated with the various cultures and sub-cultures of early Christianity. Those cultures and sub-cultures—each with its own meaning—generated the texts we read today. I call the analysis of the meanings that went into those texts the generative reading of the New Testament2.

The stages we have been able to trace within Jesus’ activity, within the circles of Peter and James, within the teaching of the Synoptic Gospels and finally within the Gospel of John, reflect practices and meanings of the eucharist at distinct moments in the development of early Christianity. They are what generated the texts. At no stage, however, is there a desire simply to record what once happened in the fellowship of Jesus. The texts were not composed to satisfy historical curiosity.

One of the tests of a generative reading is whether the movement from one meaning to another during the development of a text can be explained. That test is met in the present case regarding eucharistic practice. There is no need to suppose that a named or anonymous author simply concocted eucharistic practice and convinced the Church to accept it. Rather, each successive community imputed to the eucharist the form that corresponded to its own understanding of the meaning of that meal.

Sharing a festal meal was basic to Jesus’ program. He invited all Israel to anticipate the kingdom with an assurance of their fitness to do so, and later claimed his meals were preferable to sacrifice in the Temple. The circle of Peter saw in Jesus’ practice a confirmation of the covenant that was of Mosaic proportions. The circle of James believed that Passover among circumcised Jews was the ideal of Jesus’ fellowship. By the time the Synoptic tradition was framed, teachers such as Paul had done their work, and the eucharist was viewed as open to all who would follow in the footsteps of the self-giving martyred hero, who made his body and blood available for his followers as happened in Hellenistic Mystery religions. In John the language of Mystery becomes emphatic and unmistakable.

The movement from one meaning to another was not a matter of invention. Each meaning reflects what the eucharist represented for the community concerned, and each community formalized its understanding in its portrait of what Jesus did and said. That process is as natural as the development of liturgies throughout the history of the Church.

Only the persistent tendency to abstract the Gospels from history and practice can explain why modern discussion has split into a fruitless opposition between those who insist the Gospels simply relate what really happened, and those who postulate literary innovators bent on fiction. Neither alternative is appealing. But we need not limit ourselves to them. Examining the generative meanings within texts can help us see how the practices of early Christianity produced distinctive understandings, in this case of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper.