The most central of all Christian rites -- the Eucharist or Holy Communion -- involves eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ. However understood -- symbolically or "literally," this practice is at once as familiar as it is strange. Millions participate in some form of this ritual regularly -- but where did it originate and how can we know?
Here is what Paul writes to the Corinthians around A.D. 54:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is [broken] for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me" (1 Corinthians 11:23-25).
Mark, our earliest gospel, written between 75-80 A.D. has the following scene of Jesus' Last Supper:
And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (Mark 14:22-24).
The precise verbal similarities between these two accounts are quite remarkable considering that Paul's version was written at least twenty years earlier than Mark's. Where would Paul have gotten such a detailed description of what Jesus had said on the night he was betrayed? The common assumption has been that this core tradition, so central to the original Jesus movement, had circulated orally for decades in the various Christian communities. Paul could have received it directly from Peter or James, on his first visit to Jerusalem around A.D. 40, or learned it from the Christian congregation in Antioch, where, according to the book of Acts, he first established himself (Acts 11:25).
What Paul plainly says is easy to overlook: "For I received from the Lord what I handed on to you." His language is clear and unequivocal. He is not saying, "I received it from one of the apostles, and thus indirectly it came from the Lord," or "I learned it in Antioch, but they had gotten it by tradition from the Lord." Paul uses precisely the same language to defend the revelation of his Gospel and how it came to him. He says he did not receive it from any man, nor was he taught it, but swears with an oath, "I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (Galatians 1:11-12). This means that what Paul passes on here regarding the Lord's Supper, including the words of Jesus over the bread and the wine, comes to us from Paul and Paul alone! We have every reason to take him at his word.
Though it might sound strange to us that anyone would claim to have received by revelation a narrative of Jesus' last meal with his disciples, years after the event, Paul considered that sort of thing a normal manifestation of his prophetic connection with the Spirit of Christ. One of the gifts of the spirit was a "word of knowledge," and such a revelation could apply to the past, the present, or the future. In the same way Paul claims to have received a detailed scenario of precisely what will happen in the future when Jesus returns. He prefaces his revelation with the claim, "For this I declare to you by the word of the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:15). Paul says that he hears from Jesus. To speculate as to where Paul derived the ideas he claims were given to him by revelation is to enter into his personal psychology to a degree to which we have no access. The task of a historian is to analyze what one might claim, but any attempt to rationally account for what a visionary claims to "see" outside the realm of historical inquiry.
Since Paul's account is the earliest we have of the Last Supper we have to be very careful in reading the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, all of which record a similar account, but were written decades later. In other words we can't begin with Mark, our earliest gospel, and assume that Jesus actually said these words at the Last Supper, and then go to Paul, who comes after Jesus, as if he is just echoing the primary account. Things are precisely the other way around. We have every reason to believe that Mark got his tradition of the words of Jesus at the last Supper from Paul! Matthew and Luke, who then use Mark as a source, are also, indirectly, just repeating what Paul had said decades earlier.
One way of sharpening this is to ask two questions that take us beyond Paul and back to Jesus. Is it historically probable that Jesus held a Last Supper with his disciples on the night before his death? Is it historically probable that Jesus uttered words about the bread being his body and the cup of wine his blood?
For the first question we have two independent ancient sources: Mark (who is echoed by Matthew and Luke) and the gospel of John. Both report that Jesus ate such a meal and it is reasonable to assume such is the case. For the second question Paul is our only source reporting that Jesus spoke of the bread as his body and the wine as his blood -- since Mark, Matthew, and Luke derive their accounts from him. John reports an intimate meal Jesus had with his disciples but never says anything about words such as these spoken over bread and wine. It is difficult to imagine John, who was aware of the other gospels, leaving such an important tradition out of his gospel except by intention. His silence is essentially his "no" vote on the historical reliability of our single source -- Paul.
But there is another reason for doubting the historical validity of Paul's account. Other than Paul, our earliest record of the words spoken at a Christian Eucharist celebration over the bread and the wine come from an early Christian text not in the New Testament called the Didache . In this precious document we seem to have a non-Pauline version of the Last Supper:
You shall give thanks as follows: First, with respect to the cup: "We give you thanks, our Father, for the holy vine of David, your child, which you made known to us through Jesus your child. To you be the glory forever." And with respect to the fragments of bread: "We give you thanks our Father, for the life and knowledge that you made known to us through Jesus your child. To you be the glory forever" (Didache 9:2-3).
This precious text, discovered quite by chance in the library in Constantinople in 1873, provides us with clear evidence that early Christian communities were gathering together for a common thanksgiving meal called the Eucharist, blessing bread and wine, but with no connection whatsoever to the Pauline words associated with the Lord's Supper that became the norm within Christianity. It is also noteworthy that both Jesus and David are equated in this prayer as "your child," showing the fully human understanding of Jesus as a bloodline descendant of David and thus heir of his royal dynasty. The Didache as a whole, shows no influence of Paul's teachings or traditions. It fits well with the broader picture we have seen based on the Q source, the letter of James, and the scattered texts that we can identify from later Jewish-Christian sources.
What Jesus said at his Last Supper with his disciples we have no way of knowing but there is evidence he thought of that meal as a "Messianic banquet" to be eaten in anticipation of the their table fellowship in the future kingdom of God. He tells the Twelve:
You are those who have continued with me in my trials: and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:28).
This saying of Jesus is from the Q source, which scholars consider to be the earliest collection of the sayings of Jesus, not from Paul. Notice in Luke it is connected to the Last Supper.
Luke relies on his source Mark his Lord's Supper account, including the Pauline tradition of the words of institution about eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus. But surprisingly, Luke knows another alternative source with no such language! He ends up placing them both into his narrative, juxtaposed one after the other:
[Tradition A: Alternative Source] 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: 15-18)
[Tradition B: Mark Source] And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." Luke 22:20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood (Luke 22:19-20)
When one reads both traditions as a unit it makes little sense, because Jesus ends up taking the cup twice, but saying entirely different things. When the two traditions are separated each forms a discrete unit.
This becomes all the more significant since Luke's Tradition A fits with what we might expect Jesus to have said in a Jewish Messianic context. Oddly, Mark appears to preserve just a bit of this more primitive Jewish tradition, since Jesus concludes the meal by saying: "Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God" (Mark 14:25). Matthew includes this verse as well, copying it from Mark (Matthew 26:29). The reason it is odd is that it does not fit well with the Pauline "this is my body" and "this is my blood" tradition that Mark makes the center of his Last Supper scene. Jesus is obviously not anticipating one day drinking his own blood with the disciples in the kingdom. Evidently Mark knew something of the two traditions but mutes the one while playing up the other. He was perhaps bothered by the idea of two different scenes of Jesus blessing the cup, but with different words of interpretation, so he drops the first one. Luke leaves them both, juxtaposed, even though they might be seen as contradictory. This convolution of Luke was sufficiently bothersome to some scribes that the Western text tradition (based on the 5th century A.D. Codex Bezae) drops the second cup scene (verses 19b-20) entirely; leaving a contradictory combination of Tradition A and B that makes little sense.
Luke's Tradition A, supported by Mark's concluding saying of Jesus at the end of the meal, is probably as close as we can get to what Jesus might have said on the last evening of his life. What he expects is a celebratory meal of reunion in the kingdom of God. This idea, often referred to as the "Messianic Banquet," is described clearly in the Dead Sea Scrolls. When the Messiah comes all his chosen ones sit down at a common table with him, in the Kingdom, with blessings over bread and wine:
When God brings forth the Messiah, he shall come with them at the head of the whole congregation of Israel with all his brethren, the sons of Aaron the Priest . . .and the chiefs of the clans of Israel shall sit before him . . . And when they shall gather for the common table, to eat and to drink new wine . . . let no man extend his hand over the firstfruits of bread and wine before the Priest; for he shall bless the firstfruits of bread and wine . . .Thereafter, the Messiah of Israel shall extend his hand over the bread and all the congregation of the Community shall utter a blessing . . .
One thing seems clear. The idea of eating the body and blood of ones god, even in a symbolic manner, fits nothing we know of Jesus or the Jewish culture from which he comes. The technical term theophagy refers to "eating the body of ones god," either literally or symbolically, and various researchers have noted examples of the idea in Greek religious traditions in which the deity was symbolically consumed. Although some scholars have tried to locate Paul's version of the Eucharist within the wider tradition of "sacred banquets" common in Greco-Roman society, his specific language about participating in the spiritual efficacy of Jesus' sacrificed body and blood by eating the bread and drinking the wine seems to take us into another arena entirely. The closest parallels we have to this kind of idea are found in Greek magical materials form this period. For example, in one of the magical papyri we read of a spell in which one drinks a cup of wine has been ritually consecrated to represent the blood of the god Osiris, in order to participate in the spiritual power of love he had for his consort Isis.
Jesus lived as an observant Jew, keeping the Torah or Laws of Moses and teaching others to do the same. Jews were strictly forbidden to consume blood or even to eat meat that had not had the blood properly drained and removed (Lev. 7:26-27).
The Jewish followers of Jesus, led by Jesus' brother James, were quite stringent on this point, insisting that it applied equally to non-Jews as well as Jews, based on the prohibition to the Noah and all his descendants after the Flood. They forbade non-Jewish followers of Jesus to eat meat that had been killed by strangling, or to consume any blood (Acts 15:19-20). Paul was admittedly lax on these restrictions and tells his followers they can eat any kind of meat sold in the marketplace, presumably even animals killed by strangulation, so long as no one present happens to notice and object on the basis of biblical teachings (1 Corinthians 10:25-29).
Given this background I think we can conclude that it is inconceivable that Jesus would have had his followers drink a cup of wine, even symbolically, as a representation of his blood, or break bread to represent his body, sacrificed for their sins.