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.


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