PSCO Presentation: 2 April, 2009

“Origins of the Eucharist or Mass in the Practice of Jesus”
Bruce Chilton (Bard College)


Jesus joined with his followers in Galilee and Judaea, both disciples and sympathizers, in meals that were designed to anticipate the coming of God's kingdom. This celebration was the root of the most distinctive ritual of Christianity: the Eucharist (as it is called from its Greek name) or Mass (from its Latin name). The willingness to provide for the meals, to join in the fellowship, to forgive and to be forgiven, was seen by Jesus as the sufficient condition for eating in his company and for entry into the kingdom.

At a basic level, Jesus followed the lead of many Jewish teachers of his time. Meals within Judaism were regular expressions of social solidarity and of common identity as Israel, the people of God. Many sorts of meals are attested in the literature of early Judaism. From Qumran we learn of banquets at which the community convened in order of hierarchy; the Pharisees shared meals within fellowships at which like-minded colleagues would share the foods and the company they considered pure. Ordinary households might welcome the coming of the Sabbath with a prayer of sanctification over a cup of wine, or open a family occasion with a blessing over bread and wine.

Jesus' meals were similar in some ways to several of these meals, but they were also distinctive. He had a characteristic understanding of what the meals meant and of who should participate in them. For him, eating socially with others in Israel was a parable of the feast in the kingdom that was to come. By understanding both Jesus' Jewish environment and his own uniqueness, we can discover the origins of the Eucharist.

Prof. Chilton is Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College. His books include Abraham's Curse; Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography; God in Strength; Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography; Judaic Approaches to the Gospels; Mary Magdalene: A Biography; Revelation; Trading Places; Jesus' Prayer and Jesus' Eucharist; Forging a Common Future; and Jesus' Baptism and Jesus' Healing.

Meeting and Dining

This meeting is scheduled for Thursday, 2 April, 7:00–9:00 pm in the 2nd floor Lounge of Logan Hall at the University of Pennsylvania.

As usual, those wishing to dine together before the seminar will meet at 6:00 pm in the Logan Lounge to go next door to the food court in Houston Hall.

Suggested Reading

Bernhard Lang, Sacred Games. A history of Christian Worship (New Haven: Yale University, 1997): a full sketch of historical developments, engagingly written with theoretical acumen

Bruce Chilton, Jesus' Prayer and Jesus' Eucharist: His Personal Practice of Spirituality  (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1997): a treatment designed for readers of English alone

Bruce Chilton, A Feast of Meanings. Eucharistic Theologies from Jesus through Johannine Circles, Supplements to Novum Testamentum 72 (Leiden: Brill, 1994): an academic monograph, with use of the original languages of the sources

Sacrifice in Religious Experience, Numen Book Series XCIII (ed. A. I. Baumgarten; Leiden: Brill, 2002): a fine volume of scholarly essays.