Sunday, November 29, 2009

Eucharist and Sacrifice (IV): Some Preliminary Conclusions


[The last extract from my SBL presentation. I have omitted a section discussing Ignatius of Antioch, in hope I can hold something back for a published version!]

Eucharistic meal practice is not merely a passive object of a process wherein a fixed or essential idea of sacrifice was gradually used more and more to interpret it. Meals, here as elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean world, are settings where meaning is made and re-made.

Amid the rather unsystematic evidence for belief and practice concerning Eucharistic meals in these texts, there are at least two tendencies crucial in the subsequent development of sacrificial theories and practices in Christian contexts, and which have been neglected because of assumptions about sacrifice as an essentialized and stable object.

The first is conflation: a tendency by these authors and communities to recast the theory and practice of sacrifice through reinterpretation, combination and other changes to inherited understandings. The prior Septuagintal conflation and adaptation of cultic language and understandings particularly of the key term θυσία (thusia), is itself an assumption in the Didache. But these texts make their own contributions to further forms of re-imagining cultic language and practice, both by applying this biblical imagery directly and literally to new forms of meal and offering and also, in Paul’s case, by drawing new correspondences between the Christian meal and those of Greco-Roman religion.

The second is extension: a tendency to extend the reach and force of sacrificial understandings and interpretations to a wider range of practices. There is no need to identify this process with the “spiritualization” of sacrifice which Philo and the Letter to the Hebrews engage in; it may also be worth noting that these transformations are not dependent on the violent death of Jesus or the tradition of the Last Supper, although for Paul one or both contribute profoundly to his specific proposals. This is an organic, material process of extension from one cultic meal and tradition to another.

These two tendencies are instances, rather than the whole extent of, the transformation of sacrificial theory and practice in the crucible of early Christian meal practice. This crucible was to contribute further to the development of the more familiar ideas of sacrifice so important and yet so contestable for practitioners and theorists of religion alike, both in Eucharistic settings and otherwise.

These earliest texts certainly do not show all the features ultimately assumed as the meaning of “sacrifice” in contexts such as Medieval Eucharistic theology—strikingly, none of them is particularly interested in the Eucharist as an expiatory or substitutionary sacrifice at all. Other early Christian texts will manifest more profound unease about the logic and practice of both Jewish and pagan offerings.

These discussed above however are witness to the fact that what is typically called “sacrifice” can neither simply be identified or denied at the earliest identifiable level of Eucharistic origins, partly because it does not (yet) exist. Or to put it another way, “sacrifice” in this sense is both present, and absent, and in formation.

Untying the Knot: Church, State and Same-sex Unions

[a version of this piece was run by the Fairfax media in Australia as an op-ed on their combined National Times site on November 27]

Is it time to change the way Australian law deals with marriage? As the Prime Minister and the ACT government wrangle over civil unions for same-sex couples, it seems the peculiarity of Australian marriage law has led to a situation unhelpful and unproductive for governments, celebrants and couples alike.

Although most Australians now marry in civil ceremonies, these are secularized versions of a religious model, not a genuinely civil construction. Kahlil Gibran, balloons or doves and tapes of Michael Bublé have simply (if unaccountably) replaced St Paul, candles and Mendelssohn on the organ, but the knot is still tied by ritual.

Despite a general understanding that Church and State are separate, Australia has inherited a feature of the established religion that still prevails in the UK, in the form of religious ceremonies with actual legal force. Unlike European countries and the USA, where the contracting of a marriage is a purely civil matter and ceremonies optional according to personal belief, England’s and Scotland’s established Churches can and do marry all comers, as agents of the state.

Australia inherited and continued this connection, despite the fundamental constitutional difference. Since there is no single established Church, instead the Marriage Act of 1961 allows for any Church to nominate ministers “to meet the needs of the denomination”, who are then authorized to solemnize marriages. Civil “celebrancy” (has anyone pointed this one out to Don Watson?) emerged as a secular counterpart to this oddity.

It is the continued centrality of ceremonial—traditional or tasteless as it may be in a given case—that now provokes the difficulty over civil unions in the ACT and elsewhere. The inclusion of a ritual for civil unions as part of the ACT legislation does, as conservative objectors point out, mimic marriage as Australians know it. What is less well-understood is how peculiarly Australian this situation is.

We still find ritual significant, whether or not we find religion so. And the provision for ritual that meets changed and changing needs for marriages, as well as other life transitions, remains a reasonable hope. Yet this need lies far outside the proper realm of government; and the unwarranted confusion, having thus far lain dormant in our history, is now causing some difficulty and even injustice.

Although there are many Australians who seem uneasy about civil ceremonies for same-sex couples—the Prime Minister is savvy enough to feel there are votes to lose on this front—I suspect many of the same Australians feel it is iniquitous for same-sex couples not to have equivalent legal protections and security to those of conventionally-married couples. Yet where people of different faiths and none might, given the chance, agree over such legal protections for couples of the same sex, regardless of whether they all think such unions constitute marriage as traditionally understood, the ACT legislation and that in Tasmania (where the Federal government has no power to complain) repeats the problem enshrined in the Federal Marriage Act—it makes the ritual the point.

The Federal government would do better to withdraw from the realm of offering credentials to religious and civil celebrants alike, but to ensure that appropriate legal safeguards exist for traditional marriages, and for civil unions between persons of the same sex (as well as for de facto couples, as appropriate).

Couples should contract marriages, and other unions legally provided for, in a purely civil setting, and then be able to seek appropriate forms of celebration (if any) for their needs. Religious groups should similarly be free to express in their own rituals, and in the choice of those whom they welcome to them, the beliefs and values fundamental to their traditions.

There is still room for argument about the character and desirability of different forms of relationship, as there is about Churches, good taste and sexuality itself—yet government exists to ensure the inclusion and security of all, not the continued marginalization of any group for the sake of a knot between legal marriage and public ritual than would best be untied.

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.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

God in Early Christian Thought

[An extract from the preface of my new (edited, with Tim Gaden and Brian Daley SJ) book, God in Early Christian Thought; Essays in Memory of Lloyd G. Patterson)]

Early Christian studies have changed. New emphases on diversity of thought and practice, and on the experience and belief of Christians other than the great theologians, mean more and deeper attention to a variety of ancient texts beyond those previously regarded as useful or revealing, as well as to material evidence. The diversity of Christian discourses and rituals, the distinctive experiences connected with class and gender, concerns about the construction of the body as well as the progress of the soul, and the role and function of languages and texts themselves, are now being given fresh and deeper attention.

In the more specific realm of ideas and their history, theoretical assumptions somewhat different from those of classical historical theology now elucidate the most foundational of ancient theological texts. And scholars exploring the beliefs of the ancient Christians are less likely to focus their inquiry exclusively on the work of great theologians, but have come more and more to consider the thoughts, experiences and practices of various women and men, so far as they are accessible. Thus the great tradition of emergent Catholic Christianity once easily evoked by the term “Patristics” is increasingly viewed in relation to a diversity at best imperfectly dealt with by categories of “orthodoxy” and “heresy”.

In this different intellectual landscape, where practice is emphasized and doctrinal clarity challenged, the question of God is perennial and fundamental. This volume ventures into that area of greatest scope, editors and contributors aware not only of the trepidation proper to mystery, but also of new pitfalls, as well as opportunities, arising from the methods and interests now deemed appropriate or necessary.

Since the idea of a comprehensive or definitive approach to the topic is more problematic than ever, these essays take a variety of approaches to the early Christian experience of God that reflect the changes just described. While individually modest in scope, they seek to address questions of both ancient and modern significance, using particular issues and problems, or single thinkers and distinct texts, as means to engage far larger questions. They include studies of doctrine and theology as traditionally understood, but also explorations of early Christian understandings of the Christian God that emerge from liturgy, art, and asceticism, and in relation to the social order and to nature itself.

In their various ways these studies all grapple with what is arguably the distinctively Christian problem and promise: of holding the philosophical impossibility and the soteriological imperative of knowing God in creative tension.

[More information here.]