Paul Bradshaw: Eucharist Origins

"The fundamental thesis advanced by Gregory Dix in his classic work The Shape of The Liturgy (London, 1945), was a) that there was a very high degree of standardisation in Christian practice everywhere from a very early date; b) that the form of the Eucharistic rite was  first modelled on what Dix described as the sevenfold shape of the Last Supper (taking, thanking, breaking, distributing bread; taking, thanking, distributing wine) which was then modified at a very early stage into a fourfold shape of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing both bread and wine; c) that the meal as such disappeared from the rite at this same stage to become a separate institution called the Agape; and d) that instead the Eucharist was appended to a morning service of The Word inherited from the Jewish synagogue but transferred to Sunday. ... I intend ... to explore the basis on which his thesis is built ... and to suggest an alternative .. which leads to a very different vision of Eucharistic origins".

Compare: Matthew 26:20-29; Mark 14:17-25; Luke 22:14-20; 1 Corinthians 11:25-26.

Most scholars agree that there is a "Jerusalem" strand in Mark and Matthew and an "Antioch" strand from Luke and Paul; there is also the "double stand" of eschatology: "I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine ..." and the interpretative words relating bread and wine to the body and blood of Jesus (institution), the latter pre-dating Pauline influence.

Compare: Mark 14:17-25; Luke 22:14-22. The narratives make more sense if they liturgical blocks (Luke vv19-20, Mark vv22, 24-35) are 'lifted' out. the eschatological and interpretive traditions cannot be harmonised. There is no evidence to support a continuity of practice from the Last Supper to the writing of the NT. The accounts provide the basis for belief rather than describing liturgical origins. The texts were catachetical until they were later integrated into Eucharist Prayers which begin to appear in fragmentary form in the 4th Century.

The Didache (compiled between 15 and 250) deals with Eucharist in Sections 9.1-5, 10.1-7, 14.1-3 but the totality does not represent what came to be later practice; this could be because: it is ancillary; an alternative rite; Agape not Eucharist; primitive form. Most scholars now believe it to describe a form of Eucharist. A paradigm of parallel, local Eucharistic development would overcome the problem of forcing different elements into a common framework. Justin Martyr (First Apology 65.1-5, 66.1-4, 67.1-8) was supposed by Dix to verify the fourfold Eucharist, separate from a meal, transferred to Sunday and appended to a Service of the Word; but there is only third century evidence for these assumptions and there is evidence in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries of bread only, bread and water, bread and wine mix with water Eucharists but during that period Eucharistic theological consensus began to emerge on ideas such as ministerial (as opposed to collective) priesthood, sacrifice, consecration, epiclesis, the presence of Christ, culminating with Tertullian, but theology and practice were still diverse.

One element of the Dix model is the theory that Eucharistic Prayers were based on Jewish prayers but the evidence points to a variety of practice, most based on the Didache with a reversal of wine followed by bread.

There is a century gap between Cyprian of Alexandria and 4th Century evidence of Eucharistic practice, during which Christianity became the official religion with an identifiable priesthood  leading worship in dedicated buildings. Liturgy was required to be catechetical for the influx of converts and Eucharist became a drama. A simple meal had evolved into a sacred mystery viewed by spectators from afar.


Bradshaw, Paul: Eucharistic Origins, SPCK, 2004