Eucharist: a strictly historical/cultural consideration

This question is not aimed at addressing the faith-dogma aspect of the Eucharist - it is simply a matter of historical-cultural curiosity:

In all Catholic literature that I have consulted, it is unanimously agreed that, in his Jewish religious/social context, Jesus’ injunction to “eat my body and drink my blood” would have been considered utterly sacrilegous, first because of its cannibalistic implications and more crucially because it violates the Mosaic command not to consume blood. John’s Gospel itself implies that this is why so many - even Jesus’ own disciples - could not accept the idea.

We know Jesus was a spiritual innovator and pioneer (again I am not approaching this “from above” by faith or doctrinal christology, but “from below” via the historical approach). As such we could expect Jesus to preach and do things that might seem radically foreign to his time, circumstances, and culture. After all, the Buddha - another reforming innovator - essentially turned the received Hinduism of his time on its head. Presumably Jesus COULD have done the same with Judaism, but the NT’s whole thrust emphasises that Jesus fulfilled - not contradicted and shattered - the Mosaic directives. So can we see any historical or Torah precedents for the idea that, once the Messiah has come, we must eat his flesh and drink his blood? I don’t think so, but I could be mistaken.

So I would be very much interested in opinions that address the historical nature of Jesus’ Eucharistic teaching. Some questions might be:

  1. How did such a teaching originate AND PERSIST in its original JEWISH setting? How is it the Eucharistic-practicing disciples were not immediately censored for preaching and practicing this anti-Mosaic doctrine?
  2. How did they preach the eucharist as sacrifice, while at the same time continuing to be Temple-loyal Jews who continued to worship (Acts 3:1; 5:42) and even sacrifice (Acts 21:23-24) in the Temple?
  3. How did they justify and explain to fellow Jews the Real Presence/unbloody sacrifice as the fulfilment of Judaism? John 6 has Jesus harking back to the manna in the wilderness, not as a Eucharistic foreshadowing (at least I don’t take that from his words), but only as a symbolic parallel which is inferior to the (true) Bread of Life (e.g., people ate manna and died, but people who eat Jesus’ Eucharist will have eternal life).

So - just some discussion ideas, posed “from below” via historical-cultural standpoints. No offense to, or attack upon, Eucharistic teaching and/or standard christology. Any historical data or theories are welcomed. :slight_smile:

The only historical source we have from the first century is the New Testament itself. So if you’re looking for other historical sources to address these questions I think you will not find any that are historically definitive.

Actually, there are a few which are quite interesting. Fr. James O’Connor mentions them in The Hidden Manna, and quotes them at length. It’s clear that the early Church – and I mean here the first- and early second-century Church - believed and taught the Real Presence, and I think Fr. O’Connor does a great job assembling and explaining the evidence. I’m not sure about “definitive,” but the evidence is at least persuasive historical support.


As for the relationship between the Mosaic Law and the Eucharist, I think you’re over-complicating it. After all, eating a Man’s Body and Blood is seemingly against not just the Mosaic Law, but every sane moral code. It would be like someone in the future saying, “how could 21th century American Catholics have possibly believed in the Eucharist? They were anti-cannibalism. That doesn’t seem compatible.” **Of course **the two views are compatible. The Eucharist isn’t cannibalism, in that we aren’t destroying Christ’s Body (just as chewing your fingernails isn’t cannibalism).

But beyond that, since you bring up the Mosaic Law, Christ fulfills it – He doesn’t abolish it, but He shows its purpose. The Mosaic Law was a **preparation for **Christ, just as the fast before the Eucharist at Mass if a preparation for the Eucharist. The Eucharist *fulfills *the fast.

The difference between a fulfillment and an abolition is that in the latter, you’re acknowledging the original action as a mistake or a sin. We abolished slavery because it never should have been illegal. But the Mosiac Law **wasn’t **a mistake. It had a specific purpose, and it served it, and then it was done. Christians aren’t bound by the Mosaic Law, because it has been fulfilled. The New Testament, both Acts and Paul’s writings, make this quite clear.

As a result of this reality, early Christians didn’t abide by the Mosaic Law - this lead to the heresy of the Judaizers, who tried to force Gentile converts to be circumcised and keep the whole of the Law. To a non-Christian Jewish believer of the first century, circumcision is the biggie (since it was the mark of whether you were a Jewish male or not), not the Eucharist (presumably, since they didn’t believe in it, it wasn’t a violation of the Law, in their books; certainly, I’ve never heard it brought up by Jewish believers today as a source of conflict).

Read the NAB’s commentary on Acts 21:23-24, it’s quite good. Specifically, it explains that Paul was a Nazarite, as were the four other men. That’s the vow in question. The sacrifice they’re offering is what releases them from the vow - see Numbers 6:1-24. It’s an honorable discharge from the Law, if you will, and from their vows specifically. This shows again that the Christians viewed the law as fulfilled, not abolished.

Thou art a priest forever in the order of Melchizidek…

or Melchisedech

Here is what a search turned up in the Douay Rheims.

Here is one verse: Gen 14:18: But Melchisedech the king of Salem, bringing forth bread and wine, for he was the priest of the most high God…

Thanks to all for replying, it is much appreciated. :slight_smile:

What about the eating of the Passover lamb? God set up rules for celebrating Passover for the Jews, which include killing and eating the Passover lamb, so that their sins could be covered in front of God. Jesus is the real Passover Lamb, whose body must be sacrificed so that our sins could covered and whose flesh and blood must be consumed by us so that we might have true life within. In this light, the Jewish Passover isn’t abolished at all by Catholics; it is simply transformed and fulfilled.

I was only referring, of course, to the first century. And, OF COURSE, the consistent witness of the Church expressed a belief in the Real Presence.

If you (or Fr. O’Connor) have any historical references from the first century, please share. Note: an important source is The Didache, but as scholars differ on whether it was written in the first or second century, I’m not claiming that as definitively a first century source.

Fr. O’Connor dates the Didache as a whole as from 50 to 150 A.D, but notes that Sections 8 and 9, which are the Eucharistic sections, are dated from 30-100 A.D. His list of extra-Scriptural support from the first-century Church includes the Didache, the epistle of Pope Clement of Rome, Ode 19 of the Odes of Solomon, and the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Technically, Ignatius died in 107, but unless we’re claiming that the Eucharistic theology radically changed in that decade, I think he’s a fair representative of first-century thought.

Of these, the Odes of Solomon was the one I’d never heard of. They’re Jewish Christian poetry, not theology, so I think that’s why scholars are a bit more hesitant about using them, but Ode 19 is interesting. It uses some pretty strange imagery, referring to the Holy Spirit (in the feminine, strangely) as “milking” the Father, and saying, “The Son is the Cup, and the Father is He who is milked.” While not expressly Eucharistic, the relationship between us and Christ as expressed in Ode 19 is one of us feeding on Him, which is the sort of thought the OP hypothesized would be repugnant to Jewish Christians.

Right, the Didache may have been composed in the first century, or not. Inconclusive.

Where does Clement’s letter bear on the topic of this Thread?

Ignatius of Antioch, as you note, was clearly writing in the second century.

And again as you note the Odes of Solomon are ambiguous.



Diggerdomer, you’ve got a weirdly defensive tone, although that may just be how it’s coming across in text. Did I offend you in some way?

While the Didache’s overall date is disputed, and may be mid-second century, as I noted, the sections which are relevant are some of the oldest, and even the later dating is still late-first century.

As for Clement’s letter, sections 59 to 61 of the letter contain what may be the earliest extant portion of the Roman Liturgy we know of, but it’s not clear. In any case, Clement distinguishes between the laity and clergy, speaks of the liturgy, and notes that “our sin will not be a light one if we expel those who worthily and blamelessly have offered the gifts of [proper to?] the episcopacy.” In light of texts like Matthew 5:23, Leviticus 1:2, and 7:38, Fr. O’Connor notes that this is quite clearly referring to a sacrificial aspect of the Liturgy.

And what do you mean about the Odes of Solomon being ambiguous? I was saying that they offer a clear example of the sort of “feeding” references that Jewish converts supposedly wouldn’t be comfortable making, due to the Mosaic law. I’m not saying it’s unambiguously Eucharistic, but that it’s unambiguously referring to Christ in a way in which we feed off of Him.

No, I didn’t mean to come across as defensive. Sorry.

No offense, I sincerely appreciate your thoughtful and relevant posts.

I can’t find the reference of Clement you refer to. Are you talking of the 1st letter of Clement? When you say “sections” do you mean chapters, or paragraphs, or what? Thanks for any help.

Odes of Solomon are ambiguous, relevant to my point regarding 1st century historical Christian writings because the date and Christian provenance of the writing is debatable.

Hope this helps. Thanks again.

No problem. I just wanted to make sure I hadn’t done something unwittingly.

Fr. O’Connor refers to them just as “Sections,” but in the Clement-Hoole translation, they’re called “Chapters” So if you go to this link, it’s the prayer from Chapter 59 through 61 which is believed to be from an early form of the Roman Liturgy.

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