Christians today understand the Lord’s Supper by comparing common Reformation-era debates concerning the meal with the New Testament. The most important theological notions then become whether or not one holds to the real presence, spiritual presence, or memorial view of the Supper.
While such distinctions help us understand the Supper, we should not omit the wealth of historical and theological witnesses we have from the first and second century.
We have a number of writings that explain how the Lord’s Supper was understood and celebrated during the time of the apostles and while the New Testament still was being written. And we have additional witnesses that follow the apostolic age who adopted already established practices from the apostolic era.
Paul (d. c. 67 AD)
Paul wrote some of the earliest Christian documents that we know of. His early letters date to about 20 years after Jesus died. Hence, he gives insight into the earliest Christians. In his letter to the Corinthians, we can discern a basic pattern for the Supper.
First, Christians would celebrate the Supper according to Jesus’ words of institution. Paul cites the words of Jesus in ways approximating the later writing of the Gospel according to Luke. The meaning of the Supper then centres on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as well as the coming kingdom (1 Cor 11:23–36).
Second, the Lord’s Supper likely revolved around an actual meal since Paul advises, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (1 Cor 11:33). The meal would have happened somewhat regularly as Paul indicates (1 Cor 11:33). So the practice of the Supper included sharing a meal together semi-regularly in remembrance of the Lord’s death, resurrection, and kingdom.
Third, the purpose of the Supper (beyond remembering the Gospel) centred on participating in Christ through the bread and cup. Paul writes, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16). The cup participates in the blood and the blood in the body of Christ.
Due to this participation in Christ’s blood and body, his spiritual body (the church) becomes one: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). So the Supper communicated the body and blood of Christ to his church to cement the unity of the body, that is, the church.
Acts of the Apostles (c. 80 AD)
Luke’s record of the apostolic acts appeared later than Paul’s writings but gives insight into the practice of the Supper during the time when Paul actively ministered the Gospel. After Pentecost, the church’s first instinct was to grow in the apostolic teaching, devote themselves to prayer, and break bread (Acts 2:42–46). While this meal may simply refer to a love feast (Jude 12), it seems reasonable to conclude that love feasts also included the eucharistic meal.
According to Acts 20:7, on the first day of the week, Paul broke bread with believers and preached until midnight. And he would do this again while shipwrecked on Crete (Acts 27:35). Yet here the text says that Paul “gave thanks” (eucharistesen) for the bread before eating it, which may signal the eucharistic meal (eucharist means “thanksgiving”; cf. 1 Cor 10:16)
The Gospels (c. 60–100 AD)
As noted above, the Gospel books record Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper. The key elements follow closely with Paul’s theology of the Supper in 1 Corinthians 10–11. During the Passover, Jesus broke bread and gave a cup of wine to his disciples to remember his broken body and his death that inaugurates the new covenant while hoping for his return and kingdom.
Since these narratives familiarly recount the words of institution, it may pay to focus on the Gospel according to John which does not record the institution (John 13:1, 36–38). Instead, during the Last Supper Jesus explains how he will be present with his disciples despite being bodily absent. His answer: the Holy Spirit who will testify of Jesus (John 14:26; 15:26).
This may explain how feasting on Jesus’s flesh and blood signifies union with Jesus (John 6:56). John, likely writing some 60 years after Jesus’s death and so in a place to define what happens at the Lord’s Supper, communicates that feasting on Christ’s flesh and blood means union with him and Christ becomes present through the Holy Spirit after he no longer remains present bodily on earth.
He would not have to detail the words of the institution since the earlier three Gospel books had done so, Paul had done so, and the church had done so for about sixty years. What the church needed was to put words to their worship. John supplied that need for the Supper as he had done for the worship of Jesus and God by calling Jesus the Word of God who was with God and was God (John 1:1).
The Didache (c. 80–110 AD)
The Didache likely has its origins among the first Christians. It contains a guide for Christian ethics, prayer, and worship. Much of the language overlaps with the Gospel according to Matthew, suggesting an overlap between Matthew’s community and the community that birthed the didache tradition.
Whatever its exact history, it provides insight into how the earliest Christians understood and practiced the Lord’s Supper. In the first place, the Didache calls the meal “the Eucharist” following Jesus’ blessing of the meal (Matt 26:27) and Paul’s language (1 Cor 10:16).
During the liturgy, the church or a representative would give thanks for both the cup and the bread by thanking the Father for the Son (Did 9:1–3). The meal likewise had a unitive and eschatological purpose: “Just as this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, and then was gathered together and became one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever” (Did 9:4).
Second, access to Eucharist would only open for those who had been baptized. The Didache justifies this fence to the Eucharist by citing the words of Jesus: “Do not give what is holy to dogs” (Did 9:5).
Third, the eucharistic celebration had a meal which concluded with another thanksgiving (Did 10:1). The Didachist defines the meal as “spiritual food and drink.” The thanksgiving for the spiritual meal correlates to “eternal life through your servant” (Did 10:3) and “immortality (Did 10:2).
Likely, this spiritual view of the food that relates to eternal life, Christ, and immortality assumes or at least agrees with Paul’s view that the eucharistic elements participate in the blood and body of Christ.
Ignatius (died c. 110 AD)
Ignatius became the bishop of Paul’s sending church in Antioch. Ignatius wrote letters to a number of churches within Asia Minor (Turkey) while he travelled in chains to Rome, imitating Paul’s path to martyrdom. Given his martyrdom in about 110 AD, he may have become bishop from as early as 80 AD. Nothing in his letters indicates that he only recently ascended to the episcopacy. His easy confidence as bishop furthers this impression.
Given Ignatius’s relationship to Paul’s home church in Antioch, he has a distinctly pauline theology. Yet he also uses the traditional and apostolic language of the Didache. When he speaks of “breaking one bread,” he calls this meal “the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live forever in Jesus Christ” (Ig. Eph. 20:2). The notions of immortality and eternal life through the meal echo the Didache.
Ignatius describes what the Supper looked like among the Ephesians. First, “All of you, individually and collectively, gather together in grace, by name, in one faith and one Jesus Christ.” (Ig. Eph. 20:2).
Second, they would break “one bread, which is the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live forever in Jesus Christ (Ig. Eph 20:2). The corporate gathering alone permitted the eucharistic meal: “if anyone is not within the sanctuary, he lacks the bread of God” (Ig. Eph. 5:2).
Third, the purpose of the meal included the unity of the body. In his letter to the Philadelphians, Ignatius explains: “Take care, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup that leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop, together with the council of presbyters and the deacons, my fellow servants), in order that whatever you do, you do in accordance with God” (Ig. Phild. 4:1).
It is worth pausing here for a moment to highlight Ignatius’s use of “flesh” and not “body.” This usage of flesh likely draws on John’s view that feasting on the flesh of Christ unites one to Christ (John 6:56; see Alikin 2010: 134). Since John likely ministered in Asia Minor, he probably influenced Ignatius greatly. So the development of the eucharistic doctrine from the words of Institution and the Didache gains an apostolic authorization.
The way in which the body and blood of Jesus participate in the bread and wine and thus make the church one body (1 Cor 10:16–17) occurs through union with Christ (John 6:56). The Didache’s language of “spiritual food and drink” possibly clarifies how this union happens (i.e. via the Spirit).
Fourth, elsewhere Ignatius rebuffs those who deny that Christ came in the flesh by claiming: “they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ” (Ig. Smyrn 6:2). For Ignatius, the bread is the flesh of Christ. We should not impute later distinctions on Ignatius, but simply affirm that he denies Docetism by affirming that the bread is Christ’s flesh.
Fifth, the eucharistic meal happened only during authorized worship services. Ignatius explains, “Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid” (Ig. Smyrn. 8:1).
In sum, the church met together regularly with the bishop to celebrate the Eucharist. The purpose of the Eucharist centred on unity. This unity derived from the one flesh and blood of Christ in the meal (cf. 1 Cor 10:17). And the meal occurred only during officially recognized Christian worship services where the bishop or a representative was present.
Justin Martyr (d. 160s AD)
Justin Martyr died, as his namesake suggests, a martyr. Before gaining the crown of immortality, he wrote a number of apologetic and evangelistic works. In his First Apology, he provides key insight into how the early second-century church in Rome celebrated the Eucharist. Writing in the early 100s AD, his witness to the eucharistic celebration likely derives from even earlier practices possibly as far back as the first century.
For this reason, Justin provides key insight into how the church(es) in Rome worshipped. He describes roman worship in the following ways. In the first place, believers received baptism and catechal instruction. Next, the church prayed for the new convert and for people everywhere. Afterwards, Christians kissed each other.
“Then,” Justin explains, “there is brought to the Ruler of the Brethren bread and a cup of water and [a cup] of wine mixed with water” (1 Apol. 65). The Ruler (likely the presbyter) would give thanks for the Eucharist. He would then hand the bread off to the deacons who “give to each of those present a portion of the eucharistized bread and wine and water, and they carry it away to those who are absent” (1 Apol. 65).
By bringing the elements to those “absent,” the roman church showed their unity through the one bread. The meal occurred on Sundays during the worship service (1 Apol. 67). And according to Justin, the church in Rome called the food “eucharist” (1 Apol. 66). In agreement with the Didache’s rule for the meal (Did. 9:5), only baptized believers were permitted to partake of the meal.
When Justin explains the meaning of the Eucharist, he does so by interpreting Jesus’s words of institution. He (and by extension the churches in Rome) understood Jesus’s words in this way:
For we do not receive these things as common bread nor common drink; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior having been incarnate by God’s logos took both flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food eucharistized through the words of prayer that is from Him, from which our blood and flesh are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who became incarnate. (1 Apol 66)
Justin thus sees the thanksgiving (eucharistized) of the meal as the means by which it becomes holy (i.e., not common). Through eating this holy meal, believers “are nourished by transformation.” The meal works as a means of grace. It also represents the sacrifice of gentiles (Dial. 40:3;117:1; Mal 1:10–12) and commemorates the Lord (Dial. 70:4). Finally, like Ignatius Justin affirms that the food “is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who became incarnate.” All of this, he claims to have “been taught.”
Once again, imputing later meanings of “sacrifice” unto Justin and so making him mean transubstantiation or the like misses the mark. The reason why Justin calls the Eucharist a sacrifice of the Gentiles is to fulfill Malachi 1:10–12 and to show how the Christian sacrifice has overcome the Jewish sacrificial system. The Dialogues with Trypho in which he makes these comments represent an evangelistic and apologetic encounter with the Jewish Trypho.
Irenaeus (130–c. 200 AD)
Irenaeus represents a unique case. Despite the fact that his ministry flourished about 75 years after the apostolic age, he has a close connection to the Apostles. Irenaeus learned from Polycarp, himself a follower of John. So his words carry a surprisingly tight connection to the apostolic age.
Interestingly, Irenaeus knows of false practices of the Lord’s Supper (AH 1.13.2). So he attempts to articulate the Christian view of the Eucharist in contrast to a gnostic version. For Irenaeus, the Word of God joins the bread and cup as Paul too indicates (1 Cor 10:16; AH 5.2.3). He then affirms that our flesh can receive the gift (a term for the Eucharist), eternal life, and nourishment.
His main concern throughout is to rebuff a position that devalues the flesh, the human body. Hence, Irenaeus affirms that the incarnate Christ’s body participates in the elements, and we in him. In this argument, he cites Ephesians 5:30 “we are members of his body” and ties it the poem of Adam, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23; Eph 5:31–32). The point of these citations is to show that God nourishes the church through fleshly means and that we participate in the fleshly body of Christ through the Eucharist (AH 5.2.3).
Irenaeus further explains that the bread, “having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ” (AH 5.2.3; cited from newadvent.org). Like Justin, the blessing makes the bread holy, the body and blood of Christ. But Irenaeus explains why. The Eucharist supplies a key means of grace by which we receive nourishment, eternal life, incorruptibility. Yet eternal life comes not from the elements themselves but from God. Life without end comes from the “power of this Being, not from our own nature” (AH 5.2.3).
In another place, Irenaeus once again levies the doctrine of the Eucharist against those who deny the goodness of the human body. He writes:
Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity. (AH 4.18.5).
Irenaeus affirms that Christians offer sacrifices of thanksgiving (AH 4.18.4). And he finds it astounding that gnostic Christians would devalue the flesh despite taking the Eucharist themselves: “How can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life?”
He places them between the horns of a dilemma. They either get life from the flesh of Christ, or they deny the goodness of flesh, and therefore do not have life. Key for Ireneaus is the spiritual communion that the body has by the Eucharist: “For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit.” The offering of thanksgiving unites our flesh to the Spirit; and presumably through the Spirit, to the flesh of Christ.
He then shows why this matters by first affirming that the Eucharist contains both “earthly and heavenly” realities. On this basis, he concludes: ”so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity” (AH 4.18.5). The earthly elements unite to the incarnate flesh of the man from heaven, and thereby communicate his incorruptible life to us. And all this happens through the Spirit, the means by which feasters unite to the incarnate flesh in the Eucharist.
Irenaeus thus shares similarities to both Paul and John as well as Ignatius, the Didache, and Justin. Like Paul, he affirms that the bread and cup participate in Christ (1 Cor 10:16). Like John, he sees the Eucharist as a Spiritual union with Christ (John 6:56). Like Ignatius and the Didache, he sees the Eucharist as providing divine life, immortality. Like Justin, he sees the Eucharist as a oblation (or sacrifice) of thanksgiving.
Both contrast the Old Testament sacrifices to show the new and better sacrifice of the New Covenant. Hence, they speak of sacrifices to show fulfillment. They do not bring up the later development of sacrificing Christ in the Eucharist. Both seem to follow apostolic patterns of fulfillment and meaning for the Eucharist.
Immediately after Jesus ascended to heaven, the church began celebrating the Lord’s Supper. In reverence for the Lord’s words of institution, the term “Eucharist” became the most common designation for the Supper.
As early as the 50s, the Corinthian church celebrated the Lord’s Supper by seeing the bread and cup as participatory in the body of Christ, which in turn fostered unity in Christ (1 Cor 10:16–17). The Didache possibly drawing its tradition from the same era associates immortality and eternal life with the meal. Likely, that connection happened because these are the very benefits of union with Christ (John 6:56-57; 1 Cor 15:45).
The Gospel of John deepens one’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper by clarifying that union with Christ (John 6:56) by the Spirit (John 13–14) constitutes a reality of the Supper. Ignatius, drawing ideas that seem assumed by about 109 AD and so likely derive from much earlier, affirms the life-giving aspect of the Supper and its official nature in the church.
Like Paul and the Lord, Justin affirms the commemorative nature of the meal. Like Paul (and this makes sense because he pastored Paul’s sending church of Antioch), Ignatius sees Christ’s body and blood as participating in the bread and blood. Both Justin and Irenaeus make similar claims without needing to justify their view. It was assumed already by the apostolic church: Christ’s body and blood become the bread and wine.
How? None of the above authors explains how directly. But John and Ireneaus—and these two men find a link through Polycarp—affirm the Spirit’s role in uniting a person to Christ, a purpose of the Eucharist. So it stands to reason that something like the later Spiritual presence view was assumed.
Yet nobody seemed to care about articulating the exact relationship. This proclivity of ours to do so today may arise out of a later historical debate (during the Reformation), which brought this question to the fore. For the earliest church, Christ fellowshipped with the elements. The bread and wine were the body and blood.
We almost cannot help but see the later developments of the Mass and transubstantiation here. And yet no early Christian author surveyed above make these arguments. They seem to make the modest point that Christ fellowships with the bread and wine, and we fellowship with him through partaking of them so that we become one body and receive these means of grace, of life.