Eucharistic Origins

Bradshaw, Paul
SPCK (2004)
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It is in the nature of a mystery that fundamental disagreements will arise about its significance. That is certainly true in the case of the Holy Eucharist but there has been much less controversy about its origins, with the assumption that it was an amalgam of Jewish tradition and the words of Institution. The generation of theologians and clergy growing to maturity after the Second World War were greatly influenced by Dom Gregory Dix in his classic work The Shape of The Liturgy (1945) which, in conformance with the intellectual zeitgeist, sought to establish a unity and continuity of practice which, in summary, said that:

More than half a century after Dix it is easy to see how many of us accept, as basics, that a priest consecrates first bread, then wine and, through the power of the Holy Spirit (Epiclesis), the elements become the body and blood of Jesus and are at once given for us in sacrifice and given to us as "Heavenly food".

In the postmodern zeitgeist this is all too neat and tidy and Paul Bradshaw assesses fragmentary evidence with proper scepticism and a detective's keen eye for both peculiarities and patterns.

He starts with the deeply ambiguous 'Institution narratives', to show that there is no evidence that the Gospel and Pauline Eucharistic narratives figured in the rite before the middle of the 4th Century when they were introduced as catechetic devices for a church transformed from cells of believers worshipping in private to a state religion conducted in public. This transformation also accounts for the appearance of the priest as the primary officiant or President, replacing the Bishop of the third Century and before. Bradshaw also shows that Eucharistic observances in the time directly after the death of Jesus there was no settled order between bread and wine, some were bread only and later some were bread and water; and sometimes other food was used.

What we celebrate and contemplate theologically today, then, (summed up by Henri de Lubac in his famous phrase: "The Church is the Eucharist and the Eucharist is the Church") follows a pattern which only became clear and universal after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine and an appeal for authenticity to the Apostolic and Patristic church will yield little but confusion.

The theological implications of this meticulous research are clear. If we are to accept the contemporary celebration of the Eucharist as a valid invocation of the sacred Mysteries then we have to accept John Henry Newman's concept of evolutionary, organic theology. Conversely, if we wish to base any theological validity firmly on the testimony of Scripture we will have to accept both that it has little to say about the complex second millennium theology of the Eucharist we accept today and that for the first three centuries after the death of Jesus (A similar time span from the accession of the First to the accession of the Second Queen Elizabeth) Eucharistic rites throughout the diverse Christian world owed little to that testimony.

This is by no means an easy book but if you like reading your detective stories slowly you will enjoy this remarkably lucid and balanced account of a theme which will never cease to arouse controversy.