One of the most fundamental plot details of the narrative of the gospels is that Jesus held a final ritual meal with his disciples in the night hours before he was betrayed, tried and crucified. That final meal was the beginning of the eucharist rite that is celebrated in most churches in some form ever since.
But not all early Christian communities seemed to have believed this origin-story about this ritual. It seems to me that there is some reason to think that some Christians actually thought Jesus instituted this last supper after his resurrection. It was not a memorial of his death, or of his body, but a thanksgiving meal and recollection that he had come (if only for a short time) in the flesh.
The subversive point to this exploration is, of course, how to explain the types of divergences such as these in the extant early Christian evidence. Are they best explained by the historical Jesus/gospel narrative or some other model?
Now I cannot argue to the death that the evidence decisively proves this, but I do find the wording of Justin Martyr curious enough to think it likely. (I always am prepared for someone one day to tap me on the shoulder and explain to me that I am being misled by a particular English translation.) Not everyone will agree, I know, and I confess I am rarely rock-solid confident myself in my views about Justin Martyr’s writings. So consider this as an exploratory “discussion post”.
(Oh, and since it seems James McGrath does, after all, keep in touch with my posts, allow me to say, “Hello, Jim! Do please note that this is only an exploratory post of free-flowing ideas. It is not an argument for mythicism! — yes, I know it has the potential to be added to a “mythicist’s” arsenal, but it is equally capable of fitting in to mainstream historicist ideas if there is enough good-will. So even you can join in and ask for clarifications etc so you don’t have to fear misrepresenting anyone, and no-one will mind. Okay? Cheers!”)
First, some cultural background
Gregory J. Riley in Resurrection Reconsidered writes some interesting things about relevant ancient customs at the tombs of the dearly departed:
One of the more intriguing aspects of ancient custom, and most revealing concerning the substantial existence of the dead, was the cultus at the tomb. The dead required, in the first place, proper burial and lamentation, to prevent the disembodied pscyche (φυχη) from returning from the underworld to punish those who thus wronged it. This is visible as early as Homer . . .
Piety prescribed that the surviving members of a family care for their dead at the grave site. Relations brought offerings of meat, fish, bread, cakes, wine, oil, water, flowers, et alia, to the tomb and shared them with the deceased, usually on the anniversary of death. . . .
Meals for the dead were occasions for family members to express solidarity not only with the departed, but also with each other. In the words of Cumont, “No religious ceremony was more universally performed in the most diverse regions of the Empire than this cult of the grave. At every hour of every day families met in some tomb to celebrate their anniversary by eating the funeral meal.” Tombs were frequently supplied with dining furniture, and especially an offering table. The table was often fitted with depressions and carvings in the shape of saucers and containers for food and liquids. The covering slab of the grave itself was often this table, overlaying the remains of the deceased just below. Holes or tubes through the stone or earth into the grave conveyed the offered food to the dead family member. Concerning the social dimension of the meal for the dead as it continued in the early Church, Snyder writes:
The celebration was very social. It strengthened family relationships, either blood or primary, by including extended generations. The service itself included anointing of the stone of mensa, antiphonal singing, dancing, the agape or refrigerium meal with all the prayers and acclamations attending that.
The dead participant in the meal apparently enjoyed the experience. . . . The singing, eating, drinking, dancing and requests to the dead made this occasion an experience of family “life” with one of its honoured members. (pp. 44-47)
A small step to the post-Easter events
Comparison of these customs with the resurrection narratives of the New Testament is quite instructive. Offerings of food for and meals with the dead were common and important to the culture at large. The body of the deceased was cremated or buried, yet offerings were poured into the graves in both cases . . . . [T]hese dead without bodies were able to eat, drink and talk with the living. It seems but a small step to the post-Easter events. (p. 47)
Riley is addressing the scenes of Jesus eating with his disciples after his resurrection. It is me who is taking his words and suggesting they may have relevance for another idea.
So what we have here is a culture for whom sharing a meal with the dead is important, and Gospels (Luke and John) that also speak of Jesus having a meal with his disciples after his death and resurrection.
Gospel resurrections followed by meals
The Gospel of Mark relates a story of Jesus raising a twelve year old girl from the dead. All onlookers (the world) are convinced she is dead, but Jesus, who is the Son of God and imbued with another spirit can describe her state as one of sleep. What the world understands as dead Jesus views as sleep. So for Jesus raising the dead is no more difficult than awaking one out of sleep. And after he raises her up he orders that she be given something to eat.
Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.
Then there is John the Baptist’s death that in so many ways is signalled by Mark as a prefiguring of Jesus’ own death. This, too, is followed by a miraculous meal shared with one perceived to be John the Baptist resurrected. This is the feeding of the 5,000.
14 King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” . . . .
16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” . . . .
29 . . . . John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. 33 But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
35 By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. 36 Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
37 But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
Given the extent of Mark’s metaphorical or parabolic suggestiveness throughout his Gospel, these narratives suggest to me the linking of a ritualistic meal to a post-resurrection appearance. (I am not insisting that this is THE right way to read these passages. As I said, this is an exploratory post.)
Justin Martyr’s inferences
Now we come to the mid-second century and see what Justin Martyr tells us about “church practice” according to his experience and awareness.
Our canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are generally said to have been composed between around 70 and 100 c.e. That is, they were written some time during and after the period of the fall of Jerusalem, from about forty years after the presumed death of Jesus. Some scholars prefer to date them much earlier. Bruno Bauer once argued that the gospels should be dated well into the second century. It is said that J. B. Lightfoot has soundly trashed those arguments, but I would like to see both argument and rebuttal side by side before I am convinced.
While I am not prepared to argue that Justin Martyr, a “Church Father” writing around the 140s, definitely did not know the canonical gospels, I do find exploring what he appears to have known and not known a fascinating exercise.
In a recent post I pointed to his assertion that the disciples fulfilled prophecy by fleeing when the shepherd was struck, or when Jesus was crucified. The point of that observation was to encourage reflection on what this means for the canonical narrative that has the disciples betray and desert Jesus in Gethsemane as he is being arrested and tried several times and catapulted on his way to the cross.
Here are two places where Justin refers to the eucharist being established in the church. (Before I copy and paste that, however, do note that other remarks by Justin on the eucharist, such as how it was a thanksgiving memorial for Jesus having once come in the flesh [not quite what we read in the canonical gospels], as he explains in Trypho [do a word-search of the page]). So here ’tis:
Dialogue with Trypo, ch. 51
But if John came first calling on men to repent, and Christ, while[John] still sat by the river Jordan, having come, put an end to his prophesying and baptizing, and preached also Himself, saying that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and that He must suffer many things from the Scribes and Pharisees, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again, and would appear again in Jerusalem, and would again eat and drink with His disciples; and foretold that in the interval between His[first and second] advent, as I previously said, priests and false prophets would arise in His name, which things do actually appear; . . . . .
Is not the sequence there of interest?
- preaches the kingdom of heaven being at hand
- that he must suffer many things
- that he must be crucified
- that he will rise again on the third day
- that he would appear again in Jerusalem
- that he would again eat and drink with his disciples
It is very difficult, I think, to try to squeeze that last point into a promise of what he would do some time in the future when the kingdom came at Jesus’ second advent. Justin is informing us what Jesus both prophesied and what he did do in fulfilment of those prophecies.
There is nothing like this last detail in our canonical gospels.
Here is the second passage from Justin’s First Apology, chs. 65-67. It will be easier to follow if I quote the last line first here:
and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.
Justin seems to me to be telling us that Jesus taught his disciples a whole lot of things after his resurrection. In our canonical gospels we read that Jesus did teach them that he had just fulfilled a whole lot of scriptures. But Justin has listed a lot of very different things in the curriculum Jesus passed on after his resurrection. He begins with the practice of baptism.
(This section includes a section referencing the Memoirs of the Apostles which are called Gospels. Yet this application of the word “Gospels” to written narratives is unique in Justin, and it is not unreasonable to see this word as a scribal gloss. For Justin the gospel is the message, not a written narrative. A few scholars have also questioned whether the isolated passages in Justin’s writings speaking of the Memoirs of the Apostles are also later scribal insertions. I don’t know if I could argue that myself, however. But it is worth noting that in the following section there is an disjointed series of repetitions suggesting that something odd has happened to the original text. I personally tend to think that Justin did indeed speak of Memoirs of the Apostles, but that the confusion and incoherence of thought that is associated with his mentions indicates another later hand attempting to make hay with his remarks.)
But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled,
in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation.
Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss.
There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands.
And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to genoito [so be it].
And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
And this food is called among us Eukaristia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.
For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught 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.
For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things.
And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost.
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.
Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.
And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.
But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.
For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.
Is Justin here saying that Jesus instituted the church worship rituals and other Christian practices that were exercised each Sunday on the day of his resurrection?
If not, why not?
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