Wednesday, November 21, 2007

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procedure of this Seminar on Meals in the Greco-Roman World has been to encourage reading in advance some published and unpublished material, I am not going to concentrate on summarizing the “what” of my various suggestions about early Eucharistic practices.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...)

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