Jesus, Inclusion, and Communion: Norman Perrin at St Gregory's

The remarkable St Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, justly admired for many reasons, is adorned with a mural of dancing saints.
Norman Perrin at St Gregory's;
linked from the Church site
The diversity of this company is striking; the presence of Malcolm X, Anne Frank and others who were not Christians may not be so surprising in a community where the traditional link between baptism and Eucharist is broken, or reversed. How other Muslims and Jews feel about these having been co-opted into the Christian saints I am not sure.

One of the other dancers is less well-known. The New Testament scholar Norman Perrin (1920-76) is not even a household word among the seminary-educated or, any longer at least, in the guild of NT scholars.

Perrin was however  a distinguished scholar in his time, best known for work on the Gospels and the historical Jesus which leaned towards the sceptical. Much of this was in his book Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York, 1967) The online guide to the mural at All Saints' Company (St Gregory's resource/outreach arm)  explains his particular appeal:
American Gospel scholar who developed new principles for recovering the probable original teaching of Jesus in the parables. He argued that Jesus’ central, daring witness was the sacred meal he kept with “unprepared sinners,” the sign we imitate at St. Gregory’s by welcoming everyone to share in Eucharist.
That brief description allows a misunderstanding about Perrin's thoughts regarding the "sacred meal."  Perrin was one of those New Testament scholars who believed that the Last Supper itself did not happen. He thought that a distinctive meal tradition going back to the ministry of Jesus explained the prominence of the Eucharist in the earliest Church, and also that the inclusive character of Jesus’ eating was the key reason for his rejection and death. This was bound up with his advocacy of a "criterion of dissimilarity" as one of the bases for determining which elements of the Gospels revealed the historical Jesus; where Jesus was, or appeared to be, different from ancient Judaism, he was most likely to be authentic.

The strengths and weaknesses of this position are too complex to do them justice here, but it must be said that the latter are now far more obvious. This is no insult to Perrin - it is just noting that the scholarship of a previous generation will always have to be criticized, used and superseded. A stern but not unappreciative summation has been offered by scholar April DeConinck, who I think has no theological axes to grind about the Eucharist, and who celebrates being inspired by Perrin's work in its time:
I am now in the position of saying that Norman Perrin's book might be fantastic, but it is bankrupt...
This assessment requires a little more comment, at least as far as meals and Eucharistic origins are concerned. Perrin's scholarship, like that of many others of his era, worked with the clear assumption that Jesus' relationship to contemporary Judaism was one of deep tension. His meal practice got him killed because he flouted legalistic strictures.

However this picture of the eating Jesus is not defensible, either from the Gospels or from more recent historical Jesus research. The question of Jesus and Judaism is a huge one, but it may be worth making the difficult observation that the popular picture of an inclusive, liberated Jesus opposing purity and exclusion often involves repeating deep-seated stereotypes about Judaism (or Catholicism, for which it can be a trope).

On meals themselves, a more recent pair of quite sceptical voices, Dennis Smith and Hal Taussig, suggest that “as much as one can reasonably affirm about the historical Jesus on [the] question” of eating is that he “probably attended banquets” (Many Tables [Philadelphia, 1990]).

There is, then, no distinctive meal tradition in the Jesus movement at all; that begins with the Church. Using the figure of Jesus to inform the Church's own meal tradition must involve the elementary rule of NT hermeneutics, that the Gospels depict not merely the historical Jesus but early Christian communities and their own reflections. Even the pictures of Jesus eating with the unlikely and excluded indicate the concerns of communities which were probably quite exclusive in their meal practice. For them, the remarkable thing was their own inclusion, freely shared with others--via baptism.

These simplified suggestions will be open to challenge, and should be. Whether they stand the test of time any better than Perrin's remains to be seen. But there is one certain lesson here; to canonize the scholarship of a previous generation and to apply it to liturgical and sacramental practice is a dangerous business. Do so and it might be "fantastic" - but it might also be found "bankrupt."

(for further reading, my chapter/article "The Meals of Jesus and the Meals of the Church: Eucharistic Origins and Admission to Communion" in Studia Liturgica Diversa: Essays in Honor of Paul Bradshaw [Portland, 2003] can be downloaded here )


  1. Anonymous10:03 am

    In the sacraments of the Gospel we face the most profound mystery,says one whose stance is decidedly traditional (if with a radical tinge), but at the least they involve personal dealings with Almighty God.

    Such dealings involve us humans repentance and faith, even if we seek to strength what of them we already have by these dealings. Taking up Andrew's reference to baptism, I recall from forty years ago, when (at least in Australia, influenced by the Parish & People movement) "baptisma" (= baptism, confirmation, first communion, all in one) was something of a rage, I heard the comment that the eucharist is the only part of one's baptism that is repeated. I'm not inclined to disagree (with qualifications, to play safe).

    And, while liturgical and sacramental practice must not become static, I suggest that to REVERSE long-standing practice calls for as close an approximation to the Vincentian canon as our sad divisions allow.

    Stephen Cherry, Melbourne, Australia


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