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Why Did Eucharist and Agape Diverge?

As yet we have not addressed the most vexing question of all: why did Christians see fit to separate the Eucharist from the agape?

Abuses

As early as the New Testament itself evidence surfaces that there were abuses connected with the agape. These abuses apparently arose from failure to grasp the spiritual nature of the meal.

Paul described a situation in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 in which social stratification led to inequities in the food. As Paul described it, when the worshipers gathered for the agape, the rich (who, with more flexible schedules, are most likely to arrive early) shared their own higher quality food and wine before the poorer members of the church could arrive. One goes hungry, Paul observed, while another becomes drunk. As Theissen suggests, this seems to have been acceptable behavior by Greco-Roman standards. Paul was eager to expunge this practice from the Eucharist. He therefore urged the Corinthians to discern the body (11:29) so as to eat worthily. Rather than bring such behaviors into the observance where the church was to celebrate and demonstrate its unity and equality, Paul suggested those who wanted more sumptuous fare to eat at home before coming to worship. Otherwise, they must wait for everyone to arrive before beginning to eat.

Another form of abuse is hinted at when Paul speaks of drunkenness as a problem at the Lord’s Supper. Jude 12 also indicates immoral behavior as a blemish upon the church’s agapes.

All in all, the agape did not fare well when it first entered the Greco-Roman milieu. This may well explain the later exhortations to uphold the feast with sobriety and decorum. One early example of such exhortation is found in the Apostolic Tradition:

But when you eat and drink do it in good order and not unto drunkenness, and not so that any one may mock you, or that he who invites you may be grieved by your disorder, but [rather] so that he may pray [to be made worthy] that the saints may come in unto him. For he said, “You are the salt of the earth” (ApTrad. 26:7).

Such abuses would have created an impetus for removing the Eucharist from a morally questionable environment. Indeed, they probably played a part in the complete discontinuation of the agape. These abuses, however, do not provide the only rationale for separating the Eucharist from the fellowship meal. Additional factors also contributed to the separation.

Persecution

In Pliny’s letter to Trajan, he describes the practice of Christians in Asia Minor around the turn of the second century. According to lapsed Christians whom he interrogated, it was their former custom to gather for worship early in the morning, and then to re-assemble for an evening meal. Pliny further recounts that they had discontinued this meal practice after he issued an edict, following upon Trajan’s instructions, forbidding “political associations” (hetaeriae).

This imperial policy was probably instrumental in moving the Eucharist from evening to morning. By the time of Justin Martyr, a Eucharist at sunrise was apparently the norm. Justin’s accounts of the Eucharist make no mention of an agape. The first Christians perhaps could not bring themselves to completely abandon their communal banquet, but under the threat of persecution reasoned that it was justifiable to reduce it to only the barest elements.

A practical consideration at this point is the cultural expectations about supper as opposed to breakfast. In late antiquity the main meal of the day took place in the late afternoon or early evening. Breakfast, however, was traditionally quite small and simple. It often consisted of a single piece of bread. Pre-Christian sources sometimes even describe a breakfast of bread dipped in wine. So the transition from evening to morning Eucharist entailed a transition from supper to breakfast as the predominant mealtime frame of reference. It is not difficult to see how a light meal of bread alone could eventually become a single morsel of bread, eaten not to sustain the body but for purely sacramental motives.

Liturgical Minimalism

All of the New Testament accounts of the Last Supper show signs of liturgical shaping. Details of the Passover Seder became eclipsed so as to cast greater emphasis on Jesus’ words and actions surrounding the bread and the cup.

Lietzmann’s reconstruction of literary dependency would seem to hold:

  • The original tradition was preserved in two forms, Mark 14 and 1 Cor 11.
  • Matthew is an elaboration on the Markan form of the tradition.
  • Luke is dependent on both Mark and Paul.

Dix suggests that this phenomenon shows a growing disinterest in the details of the Last Supper itself, particularly in Mark and Matthew bringing together the bread and the cup.

No one would gather from either account that anything occurred in between. They are writing primarily for gentile readers, to whom the details of the Jewish custom would be unfamiliar and perhaps not particularly interesting. But they are also writing for Christian readers, and it rather looks as though the interrelation of Eucharist and supper to one another was no longer familiar or interesting to Christians.

Rather, the early Christian communities were re-casting the observance in terms of their own liturgical practice.

Asceticism

The ascetic impulse began early in Christian history. In second-century Syria, even John the Baptist’s food in the desert became something of an embarrassment. The statement that he consumed meat—albeit locusts—apparently caused a scandal among the ascetically minded. Some writers simply made John into a vegetarian, explaining the akrides of the Greek text either as a plant name, or as a corruption of akrodrua, “wild fruits.” Tatian removed the problem entirely in his Diatessaron by making John’s diet consist of milk and honey.

The ascetic standard with regard to food was simple, vegetarian fare, and as little as possible even of that. Athanasius’s Life of Antony describes the ideal ascetic diet:

[Antony] ate once a day, after sunset, sometimes once in two days, and often even in four. His food was bread and salt, his drink, water only. Of flesh and wine it is superfluous even to speak, since no such thing was found with the other earnest men. (Life of Antony 7)

In a subculture that stresses physical self-denial and fasting, even what was originally a full-on meal is likely to become attenuated until it is ultimately only a “token” eating.

Closed Communion

The earliest documentary evidence suggests that from the very beginning only baptized Christians were allowed to participate at the Eucharist. Even so, Paul voiced the expectation that there would be outsiders present at Christian worship assemblies (1 Cor 14:23-25). So from the beginning churches had to make arrangements for both restricted and unrestricted gatherings. Jeremias suggests that this might have been accomplished by holding the Eucharist at the very end of the agape, after outsiders had been dismissed. This theory assumes that originally all were invited to participate in the agape, a possibility raised by John Chrysostom’s mention of inviting the poor to the common banquet in Homily 27 on 1 Corinthians.

Of course, an equally compelling case can be made for holding the Eucharist first and then bringing in additional guests for the agape. At any rate, it was deemed necessary to separate the special food ritual of the Eucharist from the more common (albeit still religiously significant) agape ritual that the unbaptized could attend.

technorati tags: agape, apostolic tradition, communion, eucharist, lord’s supper


5 Comments

  1. […] Why Did Eucharist and Agape Diverge? […]

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  2. Mike Bird says:

    Darrell,
    My question is: was the separation a good thing or a bad thing? How early is the exclusion of outsiders? I don’t see that in 1 Corinthians at all.

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  3. D. P. says:

    I’ll leave it for you to ponder whether the separation of Eucharist and agape brought more good than bad or vice versa. As for exclusion of outsiders from the Eucharist (although perhaps not from the agape), I believe Wayne Meeks argues this custom was observed in the Pauline churches (see The First Urban Christians). It also seems to be the case for the community of the Didache, which I would place in the same time frame (this is the interpretation of Aaron Milavec, Joachim Jeremias, and others). Just because outsiders where excluded from some meetings of the church, however, doesn’t mean they were excluded from all. I’ll try to sort some of this out in my next installment.

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  4. […] blog posts by Darrell Pursiful on how and why the eucharist got separated from communal meals (see here and here). Interesting […]

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  5. NicholasMyra says:

    *3 years later*

    “Indeed, they probably played a part in the complete discontinuation of the agape.”

    The Agape was never discontinued in the East!

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