Religion Explained – Why Rituals (Explaining the origin of the Lord’s Supper)

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by Neil Godfrey

Why for that matter do people gather in a special building, listen to accounts of a long-past torture-session and pretend to eat the flesh of a god? (Boyer, p. 262)

As we noted recently, our historian friend Eddie Marcus made the following comment — I paraphrase:

Christians obsessed over the eucharist.

The reason we think it MUST have been Jesus was their obsession over it. ALL faith communities have this in common. . .  — this bread and wine ritual obsession. Something triggered that. Easiest explanation for that ritual is that one person did it.

I don’t think so. I think the explanation that “one person did it” is the most difficult explanation.

Luke 22:14-20
And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the apostles with him. And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: for I say unto you, I shall not eat it, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he received a cup, and when he had given thanks, he said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: for I say unto you, I shall not drink from henceforth of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. And the cup in like manner after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood, even that which is poured out for you.

The reason I think it is difficult to imagine one person starting the ritual as per the gospel narratives is that such an explanation fails to take into account the nature of ritual itself. What is the eucharist, or Mass, or Lord’s Supper? Before taking up the question of origins it is surely necessary to first understand what it is that we are seeking to explain.

We know of stories where comrades in arms, after experiencing a traumatic bonding time together, solemnly vow to meet every year to commemorate those who did not survive and renew their friendship. I don’t think we’ve ever heard of any of those gatherings expand to include their children and subsequent generations, certainly not other friends, continuing the anniversary long after the original parties have died.

But you will be quick to say that that is not a fair comparison because there is no divinity involved. I would say that the comparison rather draws our attention to what it is we are seeking to explain. What is a ritual?

Scholars of religion, including anthropologists and psychologists, have identified special characteristics about rituals that are unlike other sorts of behaviour and emotional responses.

One such theme in rituals is

purity, purification, of making sure that participants and various objects are clean, etc.

(Boyer, p. 237)

Paul stressed as much when he wrote:

Wherefore whosoever shall eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of the cup. For he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself, if he discern not the body. For this cause many among you are weak and sickly, and not a few sleep. But if we discerned ourselves, we should not be judged.

1 Cor 11:27-31

Yes, as Eddie said, the early Christians “obsessed” over the eucharist. But what he failed to appreciate is that most people who observe the ritual today also “obsess” over it. That they did so in Paul’s day is not necessarily a pointer to the historicity of its etiological myth any more than today’s “obsessives” are evidence of the historical truth behind Luke 22:14-20.

But Eddie did come very close to what is actually the defining trait of the ritual when he spoke of obsessive interest.

Rituals are not like ordinary behavior. They seem much closer to the automatic and compelling actions endlessly and pointlessly performed by individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). These people feel for instance a compulsion to wash their hands hundreds of times a day, or to check several dozen times that they locked their door, or to perform complicated sequences of meaningless actions before they start the day. Many afflicted with OCD realize how irrational their compulsion is. But they also feel that they cannot help it. It is quite beyond them to stop doing all this. Indeed, the very thought of not carrying out the exact sequence can fill them with anguish.

(Boyer, p. 238)

Oh yes. How I recall the mere thought of missing a “Passover” or “Lord’s Supper” observance with some “anguish”.

Many authors have noted the similarities between this condition and ritual performance, but it was very difficult to draw any conclusions from the parallel. Some described ritual as a form of collective obsession, and others saw obsession as a private religious ritual. Neither view made much sense, since very little was known about the mental processes involved in these two kinds of repeated and compulsory sequences. What had motivated this comparison was the presence in both situations of actions that make little practical sense but that must be performed, as well as the repetition of similar actions over time. Most anthropologists concluded that such similar features may well be a coincidence.

Alan Fiske

Then anthropologist Alan Fiske reopened this question, showing that the similarities between ritual and obsessive-compulsive behavior are deeper than mere repetition of nonpractical actions. Beyond this, we can also find a striking similarity in the concepts and emotional states activated. Comparing hundreds of ritual sequences with clinical descriptions of OCD cases, Fiske showed that the same themes recur over and over again in both domains. Indeed, Fiske’s list of common themes in rituals could be used as a clinical description of the common obsessions experienced by those with OCD. In both situations, people are concerned with purity and pollution; pollution can be averted by performing particular actions; there is often no clear representation of why these particular actions should have that result; the actions consist in repetitive gestures; there is a sense that great dangers lie in not performing these routines, or in deviating from the usual script; finally, there is often no obvious connection between the actions performed and their usual significance (in rituals people can rub bamboo shavings on a blade and say that “cleans” it, in the same way as obsessive-compulsive individuals will avoid treading on the lines of the pavement and assume that this protects them in some way).

(Boyer, pp. 238f)

Further on the “obsessive fear” of not partaking in the exact correct manner:

That there is a potential danger is intuitively perceived although no danger need be explicitly described. That specific and very precise rules must be followed seems compelling although there is no clear connection between them and the danger that is to be avoided. The overall sense of urgency may then be a consequence of the fact that one of the mental systems activated is one that happens to specialize, outside ritual contexts, in the management of precautions against undetectable hazards. Any cultural artifact, such as a ritual prescription, that alludes to such situations and presents what are usual cues for this contagion system is likely to be highly attention grabbing. So it is perhaps not surprising that people feel emotionally bound to perform rituals in the right way and that they fear dangers that are not directly detectable. This is what the contagion system is all about. These obvious features of ritual are not so much features of ritual as features of the system that makes rituals highly salient cognitive gadgets.

(Boyer, p. 240)

The simplest explanation? Ask the ritual observers themselves?

But as far as familiar religious performances are concerned, we often think that the answer is the official one given by the believers themselves or the authorities: We have these Sunday sessions in order to commemorate a crucial event, partake of supernatural blessings, celebrate a particular supernatural agent and renew a special contract with that agent.

This cannot be the explanation. These thoughts are all perfectly relevant to the situation in question, but they are not a description of the mental processes that make a Mass, or any other ritual, a salient event that people somehow assume they should perform again and again in the same specific way. The explanation for the cultural success of rituals is to be found in processes that are not really transparent to practitioners, that become clearer only with the help of psychological experiments, anthropological comparisons and evolutionary considerations.

People sacrifice the goat in the way prescribed, they circulate relics counterclockwise and make a young shaman climb a pole for the same reasons that make a whole variety of other rituals compulsive: because these are snares for thought that produce highly salient effects by activating special systems in the mental basement. Human minds are so constituted, with their special inference systems for unseen danger, their weak social concepts and salient social intuitions, and their notions of counterintuitive agents, that these very special performances become quite natural.

(Boyer, pp. 262f, my emphasis)

Keep in mind, too, that we have different very early accounts of the origin of the Lord’s Supper.

  • The synoptic gospels narrate Jesus initiating the ritual as a new meaning for passover for his apostles;
  • the Gospel of John rejects the idea that the Lord’s supper is a passover substitute and does not even describe it (for John Jesus himself is the passover lamb sacrificed on the cross);
  • Paul says the Lord (presumably in vision) initiated the passover through him.
  • Other factions Paul addressed included those who observed a meal of sorts but not the reverential one he taught.
  • The Didache speaks of a very early practice of the Lord’s Supper as a thanksgiving meal with no associations with the death or body and blood of Jesus at all. Was this the practice Paul opposed?
  • As late as the mid second century Justin Martyr writes that the eucharist was given to the twelve (not eleven) disciples after his resurrection, not on the eve of his death, in order to remind them that he came in the flesh. Presumably this view was generated by a wish to combat others who said Jesus only came in the appearance or form of a human. The gospel narrative was not known to or accepted by him.

Boyer discusses those “special systems in the mental basement” and how they help us understand the nature of rituals and what is going on as we observe them. I have really only cited some of the concluding statements in this post. Perhaps I can discuss more explanatory detail in future.

But the point we come to is this: How do we explain the origin of a ritual, any ritual? Once we understand what the ritual actually is, what is going on in our minds and feelings as we participate, then the simplistic explanation that “Jesus did it” becomes problematic. Eddie’s attempt to distance the eucharist from being an adaptation of the Jewish passover or some other comparable ritual runs up against not only what we know and understand about rituals themselves but even against the narrative myth itself when it says, point blank, that it is indeed an adaptation of the Passover. See the Luke 22 passage quoted above and Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 5:7

For our passover also hath been sacrificed, even Christ

An explanation that a ritual should be derived or adapted from pre-existing rituals sounds more plausible to me than that someone broke with a tradition and requested a new memorial service in honour of himself. The idea that all that we know about the psychology of rituals originated from one man’s request to be remembered after his demise is, I think, a simplistic explanation, not “the simplest” one at all.



Other posts based on the same work, Boyer’s Religion Explained, are in the Boyer archive.


Boyer, Pascal. 2002. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Reprint edition. New York: Basic Books.

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Neil Godfrey

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21 thoughts on “Religion Explained – Why Rituals (Explaining the origin of the Lord’s Supper)”

  1. I think the evidence is strong that the Pauline ritual was copied by the author of Mark, and thus made its way into the other Gospels. If this is true, then of course it shows that the ritual as practiced by Christians originated with Paul from “revelation”, it didn’t come from any observance of Jesus.

    And I think a proper reading of 1 Cor 11 shows that Paul was talking about Jesus being sacrificed, not betrayed and thus it’s really clear that Paul’s Eucharist is a theological construct. Given what we know about these types of practices among mystery religions, and the similarity of what Paul preaches with what we know of mystery religions, it seems to me that the best explanation for the Eucharist ritual is that it was basically Paul’s personal spin on a popular ritual among mystery religions. He took what was a common practice among the mysteries of Mithra, Dionysus, etc. and put a Jesus twist on it and related it to the story of Abraham and Isaac.

  2. Fwiw, since posting the above I have added one more early Christian variant account of the origin of the eucharist:

    As late as the mid second century Justin Martyr writes that the eucharist was given to the twelve (not eleven) disciples after his resurrection, not on the eve of his death, in order to remind them that he came in the flesh. Presumably this view was generated by a wish to combat others who said Jesus only came in the appearance or form of a human. The gospel narrative was not known to or accepted by him.

    1. That strikes as a distinction without a difference: gods not being men being one of the points of gods in the first place. I’ve never understood why Church Fathers had/have to overthink their theology: nonsense atop nonsense never makes anything clearer but only seems to lead to nasty disputes and, at the not-so-extremes, piles of corpses.

      1. The distinction becomes significant once we delve into church history and the conflicts preoccupying the “fathers” at the time. Justin said other things more orthodox from our perspective about the eucharist but the passage I am referring to is where he appears to be conscious of the “heresy” of docetism, or the idea that Jesus did not really come in flesh but only in the appearance of the flesh.

        In other places we find the eucharist with a very different emphasis that has no thought of docetism or any such view of Jesus. The orthodox view that we are used to is that the flesh and blood give us life eternal if we partake of them worthily. That’s a long way from the mere point that “he was flesh and not spirit”.

    2. Neil wrote “Justin Martyr writes that the eucharist was given to the twelve (not eleven) disciples after his resurrection, not on the eve of his death, in order to remind them that he came in the flesh. … The gospel narrative was not known to or accepted by him.

      Things like that, and the fact many passages in Justin’s writings are dubious versions of similar passages in the synoptic gospels as we know them, suggest Justin was early in the formative stages of the overall narrative.

  3. Like Kwanzaa, The Christian ritual originated in a milieu of similar rituals.
    • Per 1 Cor. 8:5, there are many gods and many lords.
    • Papyri (P. Oxy. 110 and 523.) found at Oxyrhynchus give invitations to ‘sup at the table of the lord Sarapis’.

    1. Hey db, it might be good if you unpacked that for us: notes are only good for the notemaker; we can’t read your mind, dude, and know exactly where you are going with this, you seem to have a wide grasp of the topic. Why don’t you expand on it? I’m sure we can have a good conversation and learn a lot from each other.

      1. Mack, Burton L. (1993). “Mythmaking and the Christ”. The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins. HarperSanFrancisco. pp. 219f:

        The evidence from Paul’s letters is that the congregations of the Christ were attractive associations and that their emerging mythology was found to be exciting. A spirited cult formed on the model of the mystery religions…

        R. M. Price (2000). “The Christ Cults”. Deconstructing Jesus, pp. 88, 92, 94, n. 17:

        [Per] banquets held in honor of the gods, e.g., “Pray come dine with me today at the table of the Kyrios Serapis.” It is no doubt such social events [as these] which trouble Paul in 1 Cor. 8–11, where he admits that indeed “there are gods aplenty and Kyrioi aplenty” (1 Cor. 8:5), but seems to need to remind his Corinthian Christians that “for us there is but one God, the Father, who created all things, and one Kyrios, through whom all things were made” (1 Cor. 8:6). [Wilhelm Bousset, Kyrios Christos: A History of the Belief in Christ from the Beginnings of Christianity to Irenaeus, trans. John E. Steely (New York: Abingdon Press, 1970), pp. 119–152.] […] Richard Reitzenstein and Wilhelm Bousset were two scholars who did manage to grasp the relevance of these ancient faiths for the study of early Christianity. Their conclusion was a simple and seemingly inevitable one: Once it reached Hellenistic soil, the story of Jesus attracted to itself a number of mythic motifs that were common to the syncretic religious mood of the era.

        • Kwanzaa, inaugurated in 1966, is a seven day festival/holiday that features a menorah-like object called a kinara that holds seven ceremonial candles as part of the ritual to commemorate seven featured principles. The kinara and other elements of Kwanzaa are clearly derived from other festival/holiday rituals.

        1. I’ve never quite understood Burton Mack. He heavily emphasised myth but never the less appeared to think Jesus was a real person and Q a real book. Unless his position has shifted, his thinking is contradiction ladled. I can see his distinct Christ Cult and Jesus People, but these would seem to be, if real, separate groups that converged. I can’t see such different groups being rooted in the teachings or life of the same,real, person; while I can see them developing from a euhemerised god or such and a real prophet figure who lived in the reign of Alexander Janneus.

  4. For the Christian Communion ritual particularly I think we have to look at parallels – ritual cannibalism (and other eating rituals) usually assumes that the eater takes on the characteristics of the eaten, you eat your enemies to add their strength to yours, you eat your relatives to make them part of you so they aren’t forgotten. This has been part of many human cultures apparently predating modern humans.


    And then there’s just plain superstitious ritualism – my team won last week when I wore these socks therefor I wear them this week to help my team win again.

    Patterns, patterns, real and false.

    1. We find these parallels in ancient Greek and Egyptian religion.

      From “Dining with John” by Esther Kobel:
      “By consuming the animal’s raw flesh along with wine, both of which represent the deity, followers shared in the vital forces of their god. They substantially ingested the god…Reading John 6:56-58, which contains strikingly peculiar and graphic vocabulary, in light of these traditions proves to be allusive of these motifs. Whoever chews Jesus’s flesh and drinks his blood and therein demonstrates belief in Jesus, is said to attain eternal life…The allusions of theophagy as known from Dionysian tradition may well function as a means of reasserting to believers that Jesus is present among them, even within them, and provides life for them even after his own death.”

      From “Homo Necans: The Anthropology Of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual And Myth” by Walter Burkert:
      “The association of wine and blood, especially around the Mediterranean where red wine predominates, is natural and is attested outside of Greece, in the Semitic realm…The Greeks tended to equate Dionysus and wine already in Classical times. Consequently, the drinker of the wine would be drinking the god himself.

      From “Osiris: Death and Afterlife of a God” By Bojana Mojsov:
      “All justified souls were admitted to the community of gods and spirits, modeled after the pattern of earthly society. The giving of the bread and beer that issue from Osiris was not unlike the Christian bread and wine offered at the mass of the Eucharist. Osiris, the Good Being, gave sustenance to the righteous and pointed the way to immortality with the shepherd’s crook.”

      From “Following Osiris: Perspectives on the Osirian Afterlife from Four Millennia” By Mark Smith:
      “The title of this spell is ‘Entering in front and going out behind in the midst of those who eat the bread of Osiris’…that of Spell 228 states that when someone who knows the spell proceeds to the god’s domain he will eat bread at the side of Osiris, while that of spell 339 promises that knowing the utterance means eating bread in the house of Osiris. The colophon of Spell 1079 states that anyone who knows the names of a group of kneeling deities will be with Osiris for ever and will never perish.”

      From http://www.historyplace.com/specials/slideshows/mummies/mummies12.htm:
      “Osiris, supreme god of resurrection, was closely associated with the life-giving forces of nature, particularly the Nile and vegetation. Above all, he was connected with germinating grain. The emergence of a living, growing, plant from the apparently dormant seed hidden within the earth was regarded by the Egyptians as a metaphor for the rebirth of a human being from the lifeless husk of the corpse. The concept was translated into physical form by the fashioning of images of Osiris out of earth and grain. These “corn-mummies” were composed of sand or mud, mixed with grains of barley.”

    2. And then there’s just plain superstitious ritualism – my team won last week when I wore these socks therefor I wear them this week to help my team win again.

      Patterns, patterns, real and false.

      Boyer explains how your little joke is actually closer to reality than we might like to think. Our brains are built to see “causes” and in a pre-scientific world causes were as a rule far from scientific. Even when we say a ball goes farther when hit harder because it has more “momentum” or “power” behind it is not a scientific explanation. We don’t understand Newton’s or other laws of physics to say something like that. The scientific details are absent. But we attribute a cause nonetheless.

  5. Something to consider is that, despite Didache, if we trust what Paul says, then what Paul says in 1 Cor 11 precludes the existence of a pre-Paul Eucharist. Paul is saying in 1 Cor 11 that *he* is the inventor of the ritual. Paul says that he got the ritual directly from revelation.

    A faithful Christian might argue that Paul could both be telling the truth and also Jesus really did the ritual in real life with his followers, but other than a divine miracle, that’s not possible.

    Either the ritual existed prior to Paul and Paul is lying in 1 Cor 11, or Paul is telling the truth and the ritual was invented by Paul. I don’t see any way around this. Either 1 Cor 11 is a lie, 1 Cor 11 is a later interpolation, or Paul invented the Eucharist himself which means it didn’t come from a human Jesus. One of those three statements must be true.

    1. Who else but the Apostle to the Pagans would serve symbolic blood and flesh as the main course; almost as bad as cooking young goat meat in its mother’s milk.

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