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.