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.


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