The number of books written on the Eucharist runs into the tens of thousands. This is as it should be. The Eucharist is, after all, essential to the life of the church. Nevertheless, as vast as the literature is, there is always, it seems, room for more books that deal with particular aspects of the Eucharist.
Enter this new three-volume work, worth the time of anyone interested in the origins and contexts of the Eucharist. It is the product of two conferences, one held at the University of Kiel, Germany (August 6–10, 2012) and the other one on the island of Lesbos, Greece (September 14–21, 2013). The essays (75 to be exact), by an international, interdisciplinary, and interdenominational team of scholars, are wide-ranging in their scope. In fact, the range extends from the Old Testament, through the New Testament and patristic traditions, to some photographic images from the 17th century AD. Some entries are brief (e.g., Moss’s 9-page essay, “Christian Funerary Banquets and Martyr Cults” and Popkes’s 9-page essay, “Die verborgene Gegenwärtigkeit Jesu” [The Hidden Presence of Jesus]), but most are 20–30 pages.
Each volume focuses on a set of broad categories. Volume 1 covers the Old Testament, Early Judaism, and the New Testament. Volume 2 deals with patristic traditions and iconography. Volume 3 contains Near Eastern and Greco-Roman traditions, as well as archaeology, with over 100 pages of images and illustrations. All essays are written in either German or English, with an introductory abstract being in the opposite language for additional accessibility.
Limited by space considerations, this review will only provide a few summary highlights geared toward readers of this journal.
In Volume 1, Samuel Byrskog notes that if it was the normal practice for participants to use individual cups during a Passover meal (which seems to me the best explanation of the evidence), then Matthew “might have had additional motive for pointing out the unusual practice of all drinking from the same cup” in Matt 26:27 (p. 441). This potentially innovative, intentional change in the Passover tradition by Jesus is certainly worth considering further. Perhaps Jesus had his disciples drink from the same cup in order to stress the radical unity that was present and must continue in this new community.
Speaking of unity and the Eucharist, Paul Duff challenges several earlier, influential studies such as those of Gerd Theissen (The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982], ch. 4) and Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (St. Paul’s Corinth: Texts and Archaeology, 2nd ed. [Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 2002], 178–85), who argued that the “divisions” (σχίσματα) mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:18 were caused by wealthy members eating an earlier private meal, with more and better food, in a separate room. Instead, Duff suggests that the divisions most likely refer to selfish behavior on the part of some individuals in the community. In turn, part of Paul’s response in 11:17–34 is to insist that Jesus’s sacrificial death brought about the creation of the community as the body of Christ—a community free of divisions based on origin, gender, or status. “The effects of that sacrificial death,” Duff writes, “were intended to have a propagandistic effect: the creation of the diverse but unified community was proclaimed to all outsiders whenever the community gathered for its meal (11:26)” (p. 576).
Moving on to volume 2, Øyvind Norderval helpfully concludes his essay on the Eucharistic rite and its development through the texts of Tertullian and Cyprian by highlighting the socio-religious context of their time. He writes, “The Church had to deal with martyrs as well as with lapsed members. In this way, the sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist became an important mark of identity and a boundary for the fellowship within the Church. The Eucharist made Christ present to the persecuted church and thus constituted her unity. The bishop thus became the representative leader in Christ’s place, in order to guarantee the oneness of the Church, and he was the administrator of the unifying sacrament and of excommunication and penance” (p. 953).
In his essay on the Eucharist in Clement and Origen of Alexandria, Gunnar af Hällström notes some of the benefits of participating in the Eucharist according to Clement. For example, Clement appears to think there is a certain moral power in the Eucharist since our bodies are affected, able even to reduce carnal passions. Origen, on the other hand, seems to prefer dealing with the preconditions of rightly participating in the Eucharist more than elucidating its benefits. Nevertheless, along with other points of agreement between the two theologians, they both believed “that the spiritual eating is more important than the physical” (p. 1008).
Allan Fitzgerald’s excellent essay, “Eucharist and Culture in Ambrose and Augustine,” contains many salient points. Among them is the fact that during the time of Ambrose and Augustine, the Eucharist was not the focus of disagreement or heresy. Thus, it would be more appropriate today for us to study the impact that their experience of the Eucharist had on the way they spoke about other problems than to try to determine if they believed what we believe. Fitzgerald writes, “Since the Donatists were so focused on their own holiness, isolating themselves from anyone they found unworthy, the emphasis on the benefit of Eucharist for the many was a natural emphasis for Augustine. It was also the most significant dimension of the experience to which he points: Eucharist was—quite precisely—the sacrament that could bring the many into unity” (p. 1224).
Overall, unravelling the origins and contexts of the Eucharist is an ambitious task, even at 2200 pages. Nevertheless, this work gives us an insightful view of the past and provides a helpful guide for future discussions.