Was New Testament Communion a Sacrificial Rite?

Eucharistic Table

A eucharistic table prepared within the Lutheran tradition.

Who comes closest to the original New Testament view of Communion, Catholics or Protestants?

In other words, is the Eucharistic meal sacrificial, as Catholics maintain — a literal partaking, through consecrated bread and wine, of the body of Christ — or simply a memorial to his life, works and witness?

As one who holds a keen interest in early Christian origins, this historically contentious topic of debate has been a fascination of mine for quite some time. A remarkable book by noted Pauline/biblical scholar James D. Tabor, titled “Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity,” sheds some fascinating insight into this historical question. If he is right, Paul was not, as many believe, a kind of proto-Protestant who held a low sacramental view of the two basic rites of the faith: baptism and the Lord’s Meal.

Paul asks in Corinthians, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).

For his part, Tabor apparently believes that the Catholic conception of the Eucharist is closer to Paul’s view. But is this really surprising? After all, as Tabor stresses, Paul, a product of the first-century Mediterranean world, believed the “world is thick with angels and demons locked in battle with cosmic forces.”

Justin’s View of the Eucharist

And this mystical view of the elements did not end with Paul. Justin, writing a few decades after Paul, affirmed that “the food, which is blessed by the prayer of His Word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”

Subsequent generations of Christians carried over this sacrificial view of the Eucharist.  Tabor cites Ignatius, the second-century bishop of Antioch, who described the Eucharist as the “medicine [pharmakon] of immortality, the antidote that we should not die but live through all eternity in Jesus Christ.”  This appears to echo what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:30: that those who have discarded “the body of Christ” have become “weak and ill, and some have died.”

Offering an insight that some conservative Christians may find unsettling, Tabor also contends that this Pauline interpretation of the last meal is a expression of theophagy, “eating the body of one’s god,” a practice derived from Greek rather than from Judaic religious traditions.  He cites a Greek account written approximately during Paul’s time about a spell involving the consumption of a ritually consecrated cup of wine representing the blood of Osiris.  Consuming this consecrated wine purportedly enabled one to participation in the spiritual power of the love Osiris held for his consort, Isis.

A Jewish View of the Eucharist

Remarkably, many of the Jewish followers of Jesus would have found Paul’s concept of the Eucharist anathema, based on the strong injunctions in the Torah against consuming blood or eating the flesh of animals from which the blood had not been properly drained and removed.

One facet of this I find particularly interesting: Tabor apparently grew up in the churches of Christ, a faith tradition which, while emphasizing the centrality of the Lord’s Meal in worship, apparently holds to the Zwinglian view that the meal amounts only a memorial to Christ, not a mystical union with his body.

Even so, he takes issue with those Protestants through the centuries who have resisted a mystical and sacrificial view of the Eucharist.  Paul, Tabor contends, was no “post-Enlightenment rationalist” but a mystic who believed that the fantastic and miraculous are to be expected at every turn.”

A Messianic Banquet, Not a Sacrifice

There is another equally fascinating element in this story: the fact that the Jewish followers of Jesus clustered around James, Jesus’ brother, held a radically different conception of the meal, one that comported far more closely with Jewish traditions.   Tabor contends that this branch of the Jesus movement regarded the meal as a messianic banquet, which was consumed as an anticipation of the table banquet that would occur within the future kingdom of God.

Remarkably, a passage in Luke included immediately before a verse that portrays the meal in classic Pauline terms, appears to reflect this earlier Jewish interpretation:

“And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.  For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22:19-21)


About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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