Friday, May 18, 2012

Paul’s Invention of the Eucharist

In 1 Corinthians 11:23–26, we have Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, or what he calls the “Lord’s Supper”:
Ἐγὼ γὰρ παρέλαβον ἀπὸ τοῦ κυρίου, ὃ καὶ παρέδωκα ὑμῖν, ὅτι ὁ κύριος Ἰησοῦς ἐν τῇ νυκτὶ ᾗ παρεδίδετο ἔλαβεν ἄρτον καὶ εὐχαριστήσας ἔκλασεν καὶ εἶπεν, τοῦτό μού ἐστιν τὸ σῶμα τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν• τοῦτο ποιεῖτε εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν. ὡσαύτως καὶ τὸ ποτήριον μετὰ τὸ δειπνῆσαι, λέγων, τοῦτο τὸ ποτήριον ἡ καινὴ διαθήκη ἐστὶν ἐν τῷ ἐμῷ αἵματι• τοῦτο ποιεῖτε, ὁσάκις ἐὰν πίνητε, εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν. ὁσάκις γὰρ ἐὰν ἐσθίητε τὸν ἄρτον τοῦτον καὶ τὸ ποτήριον πίνητε, τὸν θάνατον τοῦ κυρίου καταγγέλλετε ἄχρις οὗ ἔλθῃ.

“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was delivered up, took bread and, having given thanks, broke it and said: ‘this is my body for your sake; do this in remembrance of me.’ Similarly, with the cup after supper, saying, ‘this cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this as often as you drink it, for my remembrance.’ For as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:23–26).
The Eucharist described by Paul, in this cultic form, places the emphasis on Jesus’s body and blood as bread and wine consumed by Christians, and this is made explicit in 1 Corinthians 10:16–17:
τὸ ποτήριον τῆς εὐλογίας ὃ εὐλογοῦμεν, οὐχὶ κοινωνία ἐστὶν τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ Χριστοῦ; τὸν ἄρτον ὃν κλῶμεν, οὐχὶ κοινωνία τοῦ σώματος τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐστιν; ὅτι εἷς ἄρτος, ἓν σῶμα οἱ πολλοί ἐσμεν, οἱ γὰρ πάντες ἐκ τοῦ ἑνὸς ἄρτου μετέχομεν.

“the cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we the many are in the body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Corinthians 10:16–17)
There are a number of scholars who think that Paul is the author of the Eucharist (Lietzmann 1979: 208; Loisy 1948: 230–235), and that, in this form in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26, it does not go back to the historical Jesus.

Most notably, Hyam Maccoby revived this thesis in his work on the apostle Paul (Maccoby 1991a and 1991b).

There are a number of reasons why it is convincing, as follows:
(1) the verb παρέλαβον means “received” and, despite arguments to the contrary, can refer either to
(1) receiving something by revelation or vision, or
(2) from human beings by instruction.
To see that even Paul uses παρέλαβον in the sense of “receiving” something by revelation, we need only look at Galatians 1:11–12:
Γνωρίζω δὲ ὑμῖν, ἀδελφοί, τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τὸ εὐαγγελισθὲν ὑπ᾽ ἐμοῦ ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν κατὰ ἄνθρωπον• οὐδὲ γὰρ ἐγὼ παρὰ ἀνθρώπου παρέλαβον αὐτό, οὔτε ἐδιδάχθην, ἀλλὰ δι᾽ ἀποκαλύψεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.

For I make known to you, brothers, that the gospel preached by me is not according to man, nor did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but [sc. I received it] through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11–12)
In the last part of the passage, we have three clauses:
(1) οὐδὲ γὰρ ἐγὼ παρὰ ἀνθρώπου παρέλαβον αὐτό,
(2) οὔτε ἐδιδάχθην,
(3) ἀλλὰ δι᾽ ἀποκαλύψεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ [sc. παρέλαβον αὐτό].

(1) nor did I receive it from man,
(2) nor was I taught it
(3) but [sc. I received it] through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
The main verb in the first clause is παρέλαβον, the same verb used in 1 Corinthians 11:23.

Paul says “nor did I receive it [sc. my gospel] from man,” and it is obvious that, although he does not repeat the verb in the final clause, it is omitted (that is, this last part of Galatians 1:12 has no verb and is elliptical), and is to be understood as the verb of the last sentence by ellipsis: “but [sc. I received it] through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (see Boer 2011: 82).

Therefore Paul is perfectly capable of using παρέλαβον in the sense of revelation directly from the risen Jesus. The verb παρέλαβον seems to have been used in the Mystery religions for receiving mysteries and revelations as well (Maccoby 1991: 248; Schweitzer 1967: 266).

(2) Apologists argue that the Greek preposition apo (“from”) in the phrase “For I received from (apo) the Lord” indicates an indirect or remote source of information, while para indicates a direct and immediate source.

But the fact is that neither usage is some absolute rule never broken: the author of Colossians 1:17 uses apo in his statement “as you learned from Epaphras,” and Matthew 11:29 uses apo in “learn from me” (Maccoby 1991: 247).

The meaning of the passage should be quite clear: Paul is saying he received in a vision or revelation from Jesus what follows concerning the Eucharist.

(3) When Jesus says, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood,” this must be understood as requiring Paul’s gospel of salvation by faith and the abolition of the Torah (the Mosaic law). The Greek word diatheke (διαθήκη) or “covenant” is the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) translation of the Hebrew word berith (“covenant”). Paul refers to the Mosaic law as the “old covenant” at 2 Corinthians 12:14, and he says it has been done away with in Christ (that is, in Paul’s new gospel). At 2 Corinthians 3:6 we read that Christians are
διακόνους καινῆς διαθήκης, οὐ γράμματος ἀλλὰ πνεύματος• τὸ γὰρ γράμμα ἀποκτέννει, τὸ δὲ πνεῦμα ζῳοποιεῖ.

“servants of a new covenant, not of one written in letters, but in the spirit: for the written [sc. covenant] kills, but the spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
This is a juxtaposition of the written Mosaic law/Torah (which the Jerusalem church still followed and thought was indispensable to make the Jewish Christians just) with the new covenant of freedom from the Torah in Paul’s gospel of justification by faith and abolition of the Mosaic law by Christ’s death on the cross.

Paul’s use of he kaine diatheke (“the new covenant”) is a clear reference to the new covenant Paul thinks God has made through Jesus’s death and resurrection, and proclaimed in Paul’s own original gospel of freedom from the Mosaic law, part of which he laid before the “Pillars” (the Jewish disciples of Jesus) in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1–2). This passage, then, and the Eucharistic words of Jesus presuppose the radical Pauline gospel which the Pillars had not even heard when Paul presented it to them as described in Galatians 2:1–2. The Pillars had known of no such gospel from the historical Jesus, and they remained observant Jews as the Acts of the Apostles makes clear.
It is highly unlikely that the historical Jesus ever said any of the words Paul attributes to him, especially with their cannibalistic overtones, which would have been anathema to Torah observant Jews.

This strongly supports the view that Paul was the inventor of the Eucharist. Paul did not simply “invent” the Eucharist by borrowing the rite from the pagan mystery religions, however. He created it from some imagined, deluded “vision” from what he thought was the heavenly Jesus (whether this “vision” was a mere dream or oral and visual hallucination we cannot say).

If there was any influence from paganism, this must have been an “unconscious” influence on Paul, and I mean “unconscious” without any questionable and ridiculous Freudian concepts here. Paul lived and breathed in the ancient pagan cities of the eastern Mediterranean with their mystery religion rites, where pagans had their own “Lord’s suppers.” In Paul’s own home city of Tarsus, there was a cult centre of Mithras worship, in which initiates would be bathed in the blood of the bull as a rite (Wilson 1998: 25–26; cf. Coutsoumpos 2005: 19–20). Who knows how exposure to this world could have affected Paul’s mind when he dreamed or hallucinated?


Boer, Martinus C. de. 2011. Galatians: A Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky.

Casey, M. 1993, “No Cannibals at Passover,” Theology 96: 199–205.

Coutsoumpos, Panayotis. 2005. Paul and the Lord's Supper: A Socio-Historical Investigation, Peter Lang, New York and Oxford.

Goulder, M. D. 1995, St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY.

Hoffman, D. L. 1998, “Ignatius and Early Anti-Docetic Realism in the Eucharist,” Fides et Historia 30: 74–88.

Lietzmann, Hans. 1979. Mass and Lord’s Supper: A Study in the History of the Liturgy (trans. D. H. G. Reeve), Brill, Leiden.

Loisy, A. F. 1948. The Birth of the Christian Religion (trans. L. P. Jacks), G. Allen & Unwin, London.

Maccoby, H. 1986. The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (1st edn.), Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.

Maccoby, H., 1991a. “Paul and the Eucharist,” New Testament Studies 37: 247–269.

Maccoby, H. 1991b. Paul and Hellenism, SCM Press, London.

Schweitzer, Albert. 1967. The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (trans. W. Montgomery; 2nd edn.), Black, London.

Wilson, A. N. 1998. Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, W. W. Norton and Company, New York and London.


  1. Just to be clear, why would people be revulsed by cannibalistic undertones in what is supposed to be an analogy?

  2. Prateek,

    I don't think Paul thought this was merely an "analogy", or symbolic act - for him this is a mystery, an cult act that really did involve drinking Jesus's blood and body and thereby being mystically transferred into Christ's body, so that you have been crucified and resurrected with him.

    Blood drinking was anathema in Judaism, because it was thought that the blood contained the nephesh, the divine life animating force from god: “the blood is the life nepesh” (Deut. 12.23; see also Gen. 9:4 and Lev. 17:11).

    Paul says:

    “the cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16–17)

    While not the full blown eucharist in modern Christianity, it is nevertheless something not far from it.

    Also, in the gospel of John (written c. 100 AD) I think we have quite strong evidence that older Jewish Christians were disgusted by Paul's eucharist rite. The gospel of John projects sectarian disputes in its own time between Pauline Christians and Jewish Christians back into the time of Jesus.

    It has Jesus fictitiously implementing the eucharist and his own Jewish disciples being disgusted and abandoning him:

    John 6.35-66:

    "[sc. Jesus says] he that eats this bread [his flesh] shall live for ever... Many of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, 'this is a hard saying, who can hear it?' John 6.58-60.
    "from that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him".
    John 6.66

    You have an explanation/rationalisation here written c. 100 AD from Gentile Pauline Christians about why Jewish will not accept Paul's eucharist doctrine.

  3. What "ridiculous Freudian concepts" might you mean? I've seen that you're fond of beating up on Freud without elaboration, but in this case it just seems like an outright non sequitur.

    Anyway, the idea that brain processes not part of conscious thought will nonetheless play a role in shaping the conscious mind, even in its most general and unobjectionable sense, could be considered a Freudian concept. I take it that's not the part of Freud's oeuvre you hate?

    1. The notion of unconscious mental processes long preceded Freud and continues in a non-Freudian way:

      "In modern cognitive psychology, many researchers have sought to strip the notion of the unconscious from its Freudian heritage, and alternative terms such as "implicit" or "automatic" have come into currency. These traditions emphasize the degree to which cognitive processing happens outside the scope of cognitive awareness, and show that things we are unaware of can nonetheless influence other cognitive processes as well as behavior. Active research traditions related to the unconscious include implicit memory (see priming, implicit attitudes), and nonconscious acquisition of knowledge.

  4. Wow, consider me shocked.

    It may not have been anyone's intention, but all this paints a rather ghastly picture of Paul.

    A man with hallucinations of such strong fervour that he saw a dead man walk again in some newer divine form...and then a man with such pagan cultish obsessions, which went to the point of believing that he could consume the flesh of Jesus and transform himself into him...

    I'd be afraid to voice this possibility for fear of sounding like I have a nasty agenda. Of course, that does not preclude this from being truth. But some elements of Christianity described here border on animism and ancestor worship culture.