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.
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.
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.
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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