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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Problem of the early Eucharist : an historical examination of the Last Supper tradition and of the cultic meal in primitive Christianity MacLean, James Forsythe


The purpose of this thesis is to describe the cultic meal of primitive Christianity and its relation to the Last Supper of Jesus. The first chapter seeks to determine what Jesus did and said at his Last Supper, and whether or not he intended to institute a sacramental rite. An analysis of the Last Supper accounts in the New testament shows that Mark contains the most reliable version of the bread saying, whereas the Pauline-Lucan source is to be preferred for the wording of the cup saying; the "command to repeat" is however rejected. As for the vow of abstinence, the Marcan version is accepted over the more elaborate Lucan. Reasons are advanced for attributing these sayings to the historical Jesus. It is argued that the historical context for Jesus' eucharistic words was not some type of established Jewish religious meal (e.g., Passover, kiddush) but rather an essential element of Jesus' own ministry, his regular table fellowship. This chapter concludes by affirming that at his Last Supper Jesus parabolically interpreted his impending death as a covenant sacrifice which would bring about the new eschatological order, and that he did not intend these particular words and gestures to be repeated. The second chapter shows that during the greater part of the New Testament period there was no general uniformity in eucharistic practice and theology. The most primitive cultic meals were an outgrowth of Jesus' regular table fellowship, were characterised by a mood of eschatological joy, and were not directly connected with the Last Supper tradition or to a theology of Jesus' death. Out of this first type there developed two other basic types: 1) a bread and fish type, in which the dominant idea was eating with the resurrected Lord, and which referred back to the multiplication miracle as the moment of its institution; and 2) the classical bread and wine type, which was regarded as an anamnesis of Jesus' sacrificial death, and which referred back to the Last Supper as the moment of its institution. By an examination of the question of the influence of mystery religions, and by an analysis of the eucharistic theologies of Paul, the synoptic evangelists, the ecclesiastical redactor of the fourth gospel, Ignatius, and finally Justin, an attempt is made to explain the origins, evolution, standarisation and eventual domination of this classical type through the hellenisation, de-eschatologisation and institutionalisation of Christian theology. In addition to this, a brief account is given of the development of eucharistic liturgical prayers and of eucharistic ministry. The study concludes with an appendix which seeks to demonstrate that in the New Testament and patristic periods the eucharist was conceived of not in a rational way, but mythologically, and that the language of the early eucharist exhibits the essential characteristics of mythological thought (mythical notions of causality, death, symbols, time, and space) which have been delineated by phenomenologists of myth.

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