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Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 92/4 (2016) 549-579. doi: 10.2143/ETL.92.4.0000000
© 2016 by Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses. All rights reserved.
The Origins of the Sunday Eucharist
University of Leiden
Although I never studied under Frans Neirynck (1927-2012) and cannot
call myself his pupil, we knew each other fairly well1. We often met at
conferences and corresponded with each other with pen and ink. As long
as I knew him, I looked up to him with awe and respect. I learned an enormous amount from his publications, and I remain permanently in his debt
for the scholarly stimulus that I received from him. Let me give one example of this stimulating effect. In May 1980, I gave a short paper, in Dutch,
at the annual conference of the Dutch-Flemish Society for New Testament
Studies. My paper dealt with the question why Erasmus of Rotterdam
excluded 1 John 5,7-8 from the first two editions of his New Testament
(1516, 1519), but included it in the third and later editions (1522, 1527,
1535). Immediately after the paper, Neirynck approached me and asked
me to submit my paper to him for publication in English. I had not intended
to publish it, but I did not dare refuse, for Neirynck’s proposition sounded
more like a command than an invitation. A few months later my piece
appeared in the Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses2. It has become one
of my most frequently quoted publications. In 2008, a young Australian
scholar read the article, which had meanwhile been made accessible on the
Internet. He decided to do further research on this topic. His research grew
into a dissertation, which he defended three years later3. A revised version
of his dissertation is now on the verge of appearing at Cambridge University Press. This case shows not only how Neirynck promoted my work and
indirectly that of others, but also how he continues to influence scholarship
until the present day.
In the following paper I shall trace the development of the eucharist in
the first few centuries. This has often been done before, and there is a huge
mass of scholarly literature on the subject. But I wish to pay particular attention to a specific question, namely that of the day and time of day on which
the eucharistic meal was taken. This is important for an answer to another
question, namely, how the eucharist came into being. Several authors have
1. The second Frans Neirynck Lecture, delivered at the KU Leuven on 10 November
2. H.J. DE JONGE, Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum, in ETL 56 (1980) 381-389.
3. G.R. MCDONALD, Raising the Ghost of Arius: Erasmus, the Johannine Comma and
Religious Difference in Early Modern Europe, PhD diss., Leiden, 2011.
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derived the eucharistic celebration from one or another social activity practised by Judaeans on the Sabbath, either on Friday evening or on Saturday
in the daytime or on Saturday evening4. This derivation can hardly be
maintained if a plausible case can be made that the Christian community
meal, very early in its history, was held on Sunday evening. It is therefore
important to determine as precisely as possible at what time of the week
the Christian meals were taken.
One must be aware in advance that if a meal was a real, full meal at
which the usual quantities of food and drink were consumed, it was a supper
eaten at the end of the day. Ritualised, symbolic meals at which just small,
token quantities of food and drink were consumed, could be taken early in
the morning at dawn before work. It should also be remembered that in the
period under consideration, Sunday was a working day for everybody, not
a holiday. Sunday did not become a holiday until the laws of the Emperor
Constantine in the fourth century5.
We find the first reference to regular gatherings of Christians in Paul’s
first epistle to the Corinthians, chapters 11–146. The letter dates from
approximately 55 CE. The movement of Christ’s followers had been in existence for some 25 years. These were late afternoon or evening gatherings,
for the communal meal that was eaten during the meeting was called a
δεῖπνον, that is a supper or evening meal. Paul calls this meal “the Lord’s
Supper” (11,20, κυριακὸν δεῖπνον), “the Lord” being Jesus Christ. The
participants brought their own food (11,21) and probably also drink. The
drink included at least wine, for some participants became drunk (11,21),
4. The eucharist is derived from a (supposed) Sabbath meal on Friday evening by
P.F. BRADSHAW, Early Christian Worship, London, SPCK, 22010, pp. 84-85. Elsewhere the
same author argues that the eucharist had its origin in “the traditional festal meal held each
week at the conclusion of the Sabbath” (my italics); see BRADSHAW, Eucharistic Origins,
Eugene, OR, Wipf and Stock, 2012, p. 69. G. ROUWHORST, The Reception of the Jewish Sabbath in Early Christianity, in P. POST – G. ROUWHORST – L. VAN TONGEREN – A. SCHEER
(eds.), Christian Feast and Festival: The Dynamics of Western Liturgy and Culture (Liturgia
condenda, 12), Leuven, Peeters, 2001, 223-266, p. 253, rather suspects that the Christian
meeting on Sunday “arose as an extension of the Sabbath service”, that is, the meeting in
the synagogue on Saturday morning, which centred on the study of the Law. These theories
will be discussed below.
5. P. KRÜGER (ed.), Corpus Iuris Civilis. Codex Iustiniani, 2, Berlin, Weidmann, 121954,
III, xii, 2, De feriis, p. 127: “Omnes iudices urbanaeque plebes et artium officia cunctarum
venerabili die solis quiescant, etc.”. On further legislation concerning the observation of the
Sunday, see W. RORDORF, Der Sonntag: Geschichte des Ruhe- und Gottesdiensttages im
ältesten Christentum, Zürich, Zwingli, 1962, pp. 160-165.
6. 1 Cor 10,14-22, too, refers to meetings of Christians at which a blessing was pronounced over bread, which was then broken and eaten. A blessing was also pronounced over
a cup, from which all the participants drank.
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but water will not have been lacking, for in Greco-Roman antiquity wine
was almost always drunk diluted with water. It remains uncertain if any
other food besides bread was on the table. This communal evening meal in
Corinth was a full meal at which one could satisfy one’s hunger and thirst.
The quantities of food and drink enjoyed were not small symbolic portions.
To that extent it was a normal meal. The distinctive point was that it was
not a family meal, but a communal meal attended by members of several
different families. The number of participants can be estimated at between
twenty and thirty7, both men and women (11,2-16; 14,34). If the participants
did not recline, but sat, as was the case8, a large room in the private house
of a well-to-do member could accommodate this number9.
After the meal, the participants remained for a sort of after-party, a social
get-together in which they exchanged talk on all manner of topics. Some
gave edifying addresses, referred to as “prophecy” (12,8.10; 14,1-5.29).
Others shared revelations they believed they had received (14,6.30). Yet
others offered expositions of an instructive nature (12,28-29; 14,6) or struck
up a hymn or song (14,26). Finally, there were those who fell into a trance
and spoke in tongues (glossolalia; 14,26-39). There has been some debate
as to whether the long passage in which Paul discusses all these oral and
vocal interventions (chs. 12–14) does in fact refer to the same gathering as
that in which the communal meal was eaten (11,17-34) or to another, different gathering. But the majority of researchers nowadays regard the meal
and the social party as two successive stages of one and the same gathering.
This is supported by Paul’s consistent use of the phrase “when you come
together” (with the verb συνέρχεσθαι) both when he speaks about the
evening meal (11,17.18.34) and when he deals with the ensuing meeting
(14,23.26), and he makes no clear caesura between the passage on the evening meal10 and that about the group’s other activities. Chapters 11–14 appear
to describe a single gathering in two parts, the meal and the social party,
and not two distinct meetings.
Where did this custom of meeting for a regular communal meal originate? Paul introduced the custom in Corinth when he founded the Christian
community there in ca. 50 CE11. He must already have been familiar with
the idea of such a regular gathering in the Christian community at Antioch,
from where he had begun his journey to Greece12. At the latest, then, Paul
must have learned of the practice in the years from ca. 36 to ca. 49, that is,
7. M. KLINGHARDT, Gemeinschaftsmahl und Mahlgemeinschaft: Soziologie und Liturgie
frühchristlicher Mahlfeiern (TANZ, 13), Tübingen – Basel, Francke, 1996, p. 325.
8. 1 Cor 14,30.
9. A possible meeting place was the house of Gaius, who is called the “host of the whole
church in Corinth” (Rom 16,23). See KLINGHARDT, Gemeinschaftsmahl (n. 7), p. 325.
10. The discussion switches smoothly from the meal to the second part of the meeting
at 12,1.
11. 1 Cor 11,23.
12. Act 15,35.40.
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at some time during the fourteen years he remained chiefly in Antioch13.
It was during those years that Christian Judaeans in Antioch began to win
over non-Judaeans, that is Gentiles, for the Christian community14. This
happened around the year 40. It is impossible to say if Paul became familiar
with the Christian evening meal in the years after 40, when the community
at Antioch acquired a mixed Judaean – Gentile composition15, or before
that date, when the Christian community of Antioch still consisted exclusively of Judaeans16. It is not impossible that Christian Judaeans in Antioch
already met regularly in the years before 40 and that Paul got to know the
periodical gathering of Christians in that community of Christian Judaeans
in Antioch in the years 36 to 40. He may even have become acquainted
with meetings of Christian Judaeans as early as the years 33-36 in Damascus or elsewhere, or have heard about them in Jerusalem in the early 30s.
We simply do not know precisely when Christians began to meet for a
common meal and other communal activities. The book of Acts (2,41-42)
assumes that this custom existed in Jerusalem from the first weeks after
Jesus’ death. Although this assumption clearly reflects an idealisation of
the beginnings of Christianity and is probably not based on any tradition,
the possibility cannot entirely be ruled out that it is correct. If we want to
stay on the safe side, we might be inclined to trace the history of the Christian gathering no further back than the mixed Church of Antioch of the 40s
of the first century. But it remains possible that Christian Judaeans began
to meet and eat regularly as early as the 30s, in Jerusalem, Judea, Galilee,
Syria or wherever.
It is of course true that Paul in 1 Cor 11,24-25 suggests that the Lord’s
Supper goes back to the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper: “Keep
doing this” (τοῦτο ποιεῖτε). However, Paul’s account of the Last Supper,
framed as an institution narrative, shows signs of having taken shape after
the regularly repeated community meal of Jesus’ followers had already
become a Christian custom. In fact, in Paul, Jesus says “Do this, as often
as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11,25). The words “as often
as you drink it” strongly suggest that they were formulated by someone
who was acquainted with the Christian community meal as an already
existing, regular practice. Other words attributed to Jesus in 1 Cor 11,24-25
(“my body for you”, “new covenant in my blood”) probably betray postEaster knowledge of Jesus’ violent death and its interpretation as a salvific
event. It is hard to believe, therefore, that they record accurately what Jesus
13. These are the “fourteen years” preceding Paul’s visit to Jerusalem mentioned in
Gal 2,1. During these fourteen years (ca. 36-49) Paul stayed mostly in Antioch and from
here he made his journey to Cilicia (ca. 45-49 CE); see Gal 1,21 and Act 13,1–14,28.
14. Act 11,20-21.
15. Act 11,19-20.
16. Perhaps there were also some proselytes and people who had sympathised with the
religion of the Judaeans among them.
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As to the synoptic story of the Last Supper, its earliest version is that
of Mark (Mk 14,22-26a). It clearly derives from the same tradition as
Paul’s account of Jesus’ Last Supper in 1 Cor 11,23-25: Mk 14,22-26a
and 1 Cor 11,23-25 reflect a common tradition. But both in Paul and in
Mark this tradition is stamped, not only by a post-Easter understanding of
Jesus’ death, but also by existing cultic tradition, or as Frans Neirynck
expressed it, “liturgical practice is involved here”17. Understandably, this
tradition is now almost generally regarded as a cultic aetiology18, that is, as
a story whose function is to explain how the Christian custom of regularly
eating and drinking together came into being. In that case it must be considered a “catechetical” tradition, even though we do not know which shape
catechetical teaching took in Christian communities of that early period19.
Strictly historically speaking, it appears impossible to trace the origins of
the Christian group meal back to an injunction of the historical Jesus.
As already mentioned above, it is difficult to date the beginnings of the
Christian gathering before or after Gentiles were first recruited for the
Christian movement. However, irrespective of the exact moment at which
the Christian custom of regular gatherings took shape, the social pattern on
which the Christian assembly was modelled is quite clear: it was the periodical banquet of voluntary associations20. In the Hellenistic and Roman
world there existed numerous unofficial associations, clubs, societies, guilds,
corporations and fraternities whose members met voluntarily for religious,
professional, social or other reasons. “These associations provided members with a sense of belonging, along with some practical benefits such as
17. F. NEIRYNCK, John 5,1-18 and the Gospel of Mark, in ID., Evangelica, II (BETL, 99),
Leuven, Peeters, 1991, 699-712, p. 701.
18. See R. MESSNER, Der Gottesdienst in der vornizänischen Kirche, in L. PIETRI (ed.),
Die Geschichte des Christentums. I: Die Zeit des Anfangs, Freiburg – Basel – Wien, Herder,
2000, 340-441, p. 423: “Dessen Funktion im ersten Korintherbrief ist jedoch die einer Kultätiologie, die die Herrenmahlfeier, bzw. eine bestimmte Deutung des Kultmahls begründet”.
Cf. R. BULTMANN, Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck &
Ruprecht, 41958, p. 285 (on Mk 14,22-25): “eine Kultuslegende”; p. 286: “Kultlegende”;
H. CONZELMANN – A. LINDEMANN, Arbeitsbuch zum Neuen Testament (UTB, 52), Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 142004, p. 501: “ganz bewusst als ‘Kultlegende’ gestaltet”; see also
A.B. MCGOWAN, “Is There a Liturgical Text in This Gospel?” The Institution Narratives
and Their Early Interpretive Communities, in JBL 118 (1999) 73-87; BRADSHAW, Eucharistic Origins (n. 4), p. 14: “etiological stories”; A.B. MCGOWAN, Ancient Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic, 2014, p. 30: “intended to explain or interpret the
meal”. For a recent defence of the historicity of the institution narratives, see, e.g., B. PITRE,
Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, New York, Doubleday, 2011; and ID., Jesus
and the Last Supper, Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 2015.
19. For teaching and teachers in the Corinthian community, see 1 Cor 12,28; 14,6.19.29.
20. The main representatives of this view are KLINGHARDT, Gemeinschaftsmahl (n. 7)
and D.E. SMITH, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World,
Minneapolis, MN, Fortress, 2003. Their approach has been accepted to a considerable extent
by recent liturgiologists; see, e.g., P.F. BRADSHAW – M.E. JOHNSON, The Eucharistic Liturgies: Their Evolution and Interpretation (ACC, 87), London, SPCK, 2012, pp. 1-3.
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opportunities for networking, regular banquets and a decent burial”21. All
these associations held regular communal banquets, followed by a symposium and conversation. We should not assume a too strict, uniform model
for all communal meals, but if we allow for a certain degree of variation
in the procedure and ritual of the banquets held by different groups at different places, we may speak of a “common banquet tradition” which was
also taken up by Christian groups and adapted to various settings22.
One important aspect of the communal meal in Corinth is still uncertain,
namely, the frequency with which it took place and, if it was on a fixed day,
which day of the week or month that was. Paul does not tell us how often
the meal was held, nor, if it was a weekly event, on which day of the week.
Paul is so reticent about its frequency that a liturgiologist recently felt able
to argue that the meal referred to in 1 Cor 11 was probably an annual event,
specifically an annual commemoration of Jesus’ death23. This is extremely
unlikely. The way in which Paul criticises the abuses that marred the Corinthians’ communal meal, is clearly aimed at a meal that was held much
more often than once a year.
The meal in Corinth can certainly have been a weekly rite, but we cannot
be absolutely certain of this. Above all, we do not know if this ritual took
place on Sunday. This has been maintained24, but the chief argument used
to support the claim does not hold water. In 1 Cor 16,2 Paul urges the
Corinthian Christians to set aside some money on the first day of each week
for the collection for the benefit of the church in Jerusalem. But that does
not mean that there was also a gathering of the Christian community on the
same day25. True, it is quite possible that this was the case, but this cannot
be considered certain or even probable, on the basis of Paul’s text alone.
21. R.S. ASCOUGH – P.A. HARLAND – J.S. KLOPPENBORG, Associations in the GrecoRoman World: A Sourcebook, Waco, TX – Berlin, Baylor University Press – de Gruyter,
2012, p. 1.
22. SMITH, From Symposium to Eucharist (n. 20), p. 5. Cf. G. ROUWHORST, Christlicher
Gottesdienst und der Gottesdienst Israels: Forschungsgeschichte, historische Interaktionen,
Theologie, in M. KLÖCKENER – A.A. HÄUSSLING – R. MESSNER (eds.), Gottesdienst der
Kirche: Handbuch der Liturgiewissenschaft, Regensburg, Pustet, 2008, 491-572, see p. 557:
“Viele frühchristliche Mahlfeiern, auch solche, die ausdrücklich als ‘Eucharistie’ bezeichnet
werden (wie etwa das in Didache 9f. beschriebene Kultmahl), können bis zu einem gewissen
Grad als christliche Varianten des hellenistischen Symposions betrachtet werden”.
23. M.D. STRINGER, Rethinking the Origins of the Eucharist, London, SCM Press, 2011,
pp. 34-39.
24. S.R. LLEWELYN, The Use of Sunday for Meetings of Believers in the New Testament,
in NT 43 (2001) 205-223. See also N.H. YOUNG, The Use of the Sunday for Meetings of
Believers in the New Testament: A Response, in NT 45 (2003) 111-122. Young’s view that
the Corinthian Christians continued to gather on Saturday, as Judaeans did, is equally improbable. We do not know on which day Paul put the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor.
25. This applies also to Rev 1,10, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day”. The day mentioned is probably a Sunday, although it has sometimes been interpreted as the apocalyptic,
eschatological Day of the Lord or Judgement Day. But an unquestionably clear reference to
an assembly of a Christian community is lacking here to begin with.
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II. ACTS 20,7-12
The situation is different in the book of Acts, written three or four
decades after Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Luke, the author of Acts,
relates in ch. 20 that Paul travelled from Greece via Macedonia to Syria. En
route he remained seven days in Troas (v. 6). There a meeting of the local
Christian community took place “on the first day of the week” (v. 7). The
choice of the day was clearly not dependent on Paul’s travelling schedule,
but was fixed a priori. To keep on the safe side we will do best to regard
the reference to the custom of gathering “on the first day of the week” as
bearing on the time of the composition of Acts, say the 80s or 90s of the
first century, not on the time of Paul’s visit to Troas in the 50s.
Until recently, the question was debated whether according to Luke the
moment of “the first day of the week” when Paul joined the Christians of
Troas was on (what we would call) the Saturday evening, or on the Sunday
evening. Scholars have often argued that the assembly took place on (what
we would call) Saturday evening after sunset26, on the assumption that
Luke was using a Judaean system of timekeeping in which days began with
sunset of the preceding evening. Since Luke says that Paul intended to
leave τῇ ἐπαύριον (20,7), the scholars concerned interpreted this as “the
next morning”, not “the next day”, since otherwise they had to assume that
Luke made a new day begin sometime between the meal and Paul’s departure. In that case an evening meal “on the first day of the week” (20,7)
would inevitably fall on Sunday evening, because the first day of the week
would run from sunrise to sunset on Sunday, or, at the most, from midnight
before the Sunday to midnight after the Sunday, and the only evening of
that day is at its end, that is, on Sunday evening. In order to avoid this conclusion, the scholars at issue took τῇ ἐπαύριον to mean “the next morning”, which allowed them to suppose that the meal and Paul’s departure
fell on the same calendar day, namely “the first day of the week”, which
in their view ran from sunset on Saturday to sunset on Sunday.
However this interpretation runs up against at least three objections. In
the first place, Luke does not use a calendar system in which the days begin
at sunset27. In Luke and Acts the day is usually considered as beginning in
the morning. In the Greco-Roman world of the first century, the common
26. See, e.g., ROUWHORST, The Reception of the Jewish Sabbath (n. 4), p. 252: “All in
all, the most plausible solution seems therefore to be that the gathering at Troas took place
in the night from Saturday to Sunday and that this was conform the practice with which
Luke was familiar”.
27. Contra, among others, BRADSHAW, Eucharistic Origins (n. 4), p. 69: “Saturday evening, which according to the Jewish reckoning of the days was regarded the beginning of
the first day of the week” (my italics); BRADSHAW – JOHNSON, Eucharistic Liturgies (n. 20),
p. 26: “Jews counted each new day as beginning in the evening and not the morning”; and
ROUWHORST, as quoted in n. 26 above.
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people everywhere counted the days from dawn to dark28. Luke conforms
to this widespread custom29. It is true that later stages of the Old Testament
and Jewish usage sometimes reflect a practice of counting the day as beginning in the evening; see, e.g., Lev 23,32. But even when this system applied,
it did certainly not imply that the actual date of the new day (“first day”,
“second day”, etc.) took effect on the preceding evening of that day30. In
other words, even if the first day of the week was considered to begin on
Saturday evening, the “first day of the week” was still the Sunday and the
evening of the first day of the week was the evening at the end of the Sunday. However, in Acts, the day is usually considered to begin in the morning anyhow, in conformity with the common practice at the time. Acts 4,3,
for example, mentions that Peter and John are put in custody “until the
morrow, for it was already evening”, the obvious meaning being that the
new day would begin the next morning31. Accordingly, “the first day of
the week” in Acts 20,7 began on Sunday at sunrise and, as a consequence,
the evening of that day was Sunday evening, not Saturday evening32.
In the second place, those who want to put the meal in Troas on Saturday
evening have to suppose (as said before) that τῇ ἐπαύριον in 20,7 means
“the following morning”, not “the following day”. Now it is true that τῇ
ἐπαύριον can be used strictly with the meaning “the following morning”,
but also more loosely with the meaning “the next day”. However, it can
be demonstrated that Luke took τῇ ἐπαύριον naively and naturally to
mean “the next day”, and not “the next morning”. In fact, he uses this
expression ten times in Acts and in none of these instances is it necessary
to interpret it as “the next morning”; in all cases the less strict interpretation “on the next day” can apply. More importantly, Luke can even speak
of “the next day at noon”, τῇ ἐπαύριον ... περὶ ὥραν ἕκτην (10,9). Tellingly, the Vulgate renders all ten instances of Luke’s τῇ ἐπαύριον by a
phrase meaning “the next day”, never by “the next morning”33.
28. Pliny, Natural History 2.79.188, quoted by J. FINEGAN, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Peabody, MA, Hendrickson, rev. ed. 1998, p. 7.
29. Lk 4,40 implies that work was resumed on Saturday evening, and perhaps that work
was interrupted from Friday evening to Saturday evening, but certainly not that Luke
counted the seventh day as beginning on Friday evening. Besides, Luke 4,40 is dependent
on Mk 1,32; the timekeeping implied is Mark’s, not Luke’s.
30. FINEGAN, Handbook (n. 28), p. 8, illustrates this convincingly on the basis of
Lev 23,27.32. Nor does the fact that certain Judaeans ceased from working on Friday at
sunset (see, e.g., the Damascus Document, CD x 14-17; G.M. FLORENTINO – E.J.C. TIGCHELAAR [eds.], The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1, Leiden, Brill, 1997, pp. 566-569) imply
that the Sabbath or seventh day began on Friday evening.
31. FINEGAN, Handbook (n. 28).
32. On the whole subject, see also the most informative discussion by J. TROMP, Night
and Day, in R. BUITENWERF – H.W. HOLLANDER – J. TROMP, Jesus, Paul, and Early Christianity (SupplNT, 130), Leiden, Brill, 2008, 363-375.
33. Postera die (10,9; 14,20; 22,30; 23,22); altera die (10,24; 25,6.23); sequenti die
(10,23); in crastinum (20,7); alia die (21,8). Cf. V.A. ALIKIN, The Earliest History of the
Christian Gathering (SupplVigChr, 102), Leiden, Brill, 2010, p. 41.
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In the third place, Luke’s expression σήμερον καὶ αὔριον, “today and
tomorrow”, (Lk 12,28; 13,32.33; also in Mt 6,30 and Jas 4,13), a combination of two complementary notions, shows that αὔριον meant “the next
day”, “tomorrow”, not “the next morning”.
All this implies that Luke put Paul’s departure on the day after the meal,
assuming that a new day had begun after the normal hour of the meal and
before Paul’s departure. Since Luke states that the meal took place on “the
first day of the week” (20,7), the “next day”, on which Paul left, must be
the Monday. If this “next day” began at sunrise (or at midnight), the meal
fell on Sunday evening34.
Thus, everything seems to indicate that Luke regards the Christian
assembly at Troas as taking place on Sunday evening, not on Saturday
evening. It comprises a long speech given by Paul, which lasted until
midnight, then the common meal, and finally once again a long homily by
Paul, which lasted until dawn35. This programme looks exceptional and
may reflect Luke’s wish to paint an ideal picture of how favourably Paul
was received by the Christians of Troas and how assiduously Paul applied
himself to his missionary task.
At the end of the first century other Christian writings also mention or
allude to regular gatherings of Christian communities, but nowhere do they
say explicitly how often or on what day of the week they were held. The
letter to the Ephesians, addressed to Christian communities in Asia Minor,
warns the recipients in their meetings “not to get drunk with wine, ..., but
to be filled with the Spirit, and to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual
songs” (5,18-19). At such gatherings authoritative writings were also read
34. NT commentators tend to put the gathering in Troas on the Sunday evening and in
the night to Monday. See, e.g., C.K. BARRETT, The Acts of the Apostles (ICC), 2, Edinburg,
T&T Clark, 1997, p. 950, who referring to F.J. FOAKES JACKSON – K. LAKE, The Beginnings
of Christianity: The Acts of the Apostles, 4, London, Macmillan, 1933, p. 255, observes:
“Begs. 4.255 is probably right in taking the reference to be what we should call Sunday evening”. R.I. PERVO, Acts (Hermeneia), Minneapolis, MN, Fortress, 2009, p. 510: “Sunday evening
is more probable, at least in Lucan terms. See Cadbury and Lake (255) for evidence that Luke
begins the day at dawn”.
35. In Act 20,11, ὁμιλήσας has no indirect object or prepositional clause indicating with
whom or to whom Paul spoke, unlike Lk 24,14 and Act 24,26. Translations tend to supply
this information; e.g., “continued to converse with them” (NRSV). However, in the absence
of the indirect object or a prepositional clause it is better to take ὁμιλεῖν as an independent
verb, “he spoke”, “he preached”. Thus correctly E. HAENCHEN, Die Apostelgeschichte (KEK),
Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 61968, p. 518: “predigen”; and W. BAUER, Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, Berlin, de Gruyter, 61988, col. 1146, s.v.: “er predigte noch
lange weiter”.
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out (1 Tim 4,13), such as apostolic letters or Old Testament Prophets36. The
Letter to the Hebrews urges the hearers, probably in Rome or Italy, “not
to stay away from our meetings, as some do” (10,25). 1 Clement, written
in Rome about the end of the first century, admonishes the Christians in
Corinth “to gather together in harmony” (34.7), but does not say how often
or on which day of the week they should do this.
Both 1 Corinthians and Ephesians show that in the first century the communal gathering was still a largely informal and almost unstructured event.
There was no formal “order of service”, and nothing remotely resembling
a fixed liturgy. The gathering was a relaxed, sociable get-together for a
communal meal followed by lively discussion in which wine, song and the
spoken word all played an important part, and the speakers often did not
let each other finish. It is essential to be well aware that these gatherings
were still informal and irregular at the end of the first century and the
beginning of the second. This is important in judging the function of the
book of Revelation. Several passages in this book indicate that it was
meant to be read aloud in meetings of Christian congregations in Asia
Minor (1,3.11; 2–3; 22,18.21). It stands to reason to assume that these
readings took place in the periodical gatherings which comprised the communal meal and the social meeting. Recently, at the Colloquium Biblicum
Lovaniense of 2015, the President Adela Yarbro Collins admitted that
Revelation was meant “to be read aloud by an individual before gathered
members of a local community”. But she argued that the reading need not
have taken place in “the liturgy”. “There may well have been gatherings
completely devoted to the reading of Revelation”, she argued, and “it may
simply have been the gathered community” that provided the occasion and
setting for the reading of Revelation, “rather than a ‘liturgy’”37. However,
this view operates on the anachronistic supposition that around 100 CE
there was such a thing as a “liturgy” in our sense of the word. This was
not the case. The gatherings of Christians were no formally structured ceremonies; they were informal assemblies with little or no regular order,
sometimes even rather disorderly. In addition, the reading aloud of interesting or authoritative texts during the after-dinner party was common practice in the Greco-Roman world38. We must not assume a second type of
36. See my The Use of the Old Testament in Scripture Readings in Early Christian
Assemblies, in B.J. KOET – S. MOYSE – J. VERHEYDEN (eds.), The Scriptures of Israel in
Jewish and Christian Tradition. FS. M.J.J. Menken (SupplNT, 148), Leiden, Brill, 2013,
377-392, pp. 378-379.
37. A. YARBRO COLLINS, The Use of Scripture in the Book of Revelation, forthcoming
in EAD. (ed.), New Perspectives on the Book of Revelation (BETL), Leuven, Peeters, 2017.
In presenting her lecture, Professor Yarbro Collins said “rather than a formal liturgy” (my
38. ALIKIN, Earliest History (n. 33), pp. 148-150. According to Plutarch, for instance,
at the symposium following a banquet, the dialogues of Plato were fit to be read or even
performed; Plut, Quaest. conv. 7.711c.
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meeting simply to accommodate the reading aloud of authoritative texts.
Occam’s razor forbids us to multiply entities needlessly. It is probably
better, therefore, to suppose that Revelation was read out in the customary
community assemblies, in which the members enjoyed their common supper and oral and vocal interventions alternated with each other.
Apart from Acts 20, no first-century source says that Christians held
their periodical assembly on Sunday. In theory, all first-century allusions
to Christian meetings can relate to assemblies on Sunday, but strictly
speaking it is impossible to determine on which day of the week the gatherings referred to in other sources than Acts are supposed to have taken
Early in the second century (ca. 110), Ignatius, a leader of the Church
in Antioch, wrote letters to Christian communities in Asia Minor and
Rome. In one letter he states that a number of Judaeans who had become
Christians did not longer keep the Sabbath, but lived “according to the
Lord’s day, on which also our life arose, through him and his death”39.
This warrants the conclusion that Ignatius was familiar with Christian
assemblies held on Sunday. But Ignatius also summons the communities
whom he addresses “to meet more often”40 and it is quite possible that in
some places gatherings were held on other days of the week, even though
Sunday was evidently the most generally accepted day to meet. The meeting included a meal at which the participants ate “the bread of God”41.
The meal was undoubtedly a full, not just a symbolic meal42, held in the
late afternoon or evening.
Ignatius repeatedly exhorts his addressees “to celebrate just one eucharist”, and not multiple eucharists in separate groups, “for there is one flesh
of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup for union in his blood”43. If we survey Ignatius’ further remarks on the Christian gathering, we are struck by
three points: (1) the meal has come to bear the name “eucharist” (εὐχαριστία), clearly with reference to the prayers of thanks that were said over
the bread and the cup; (2) here is the first statement of the resurrection of
Christ as the reason why the Christian gathering normally took place on
Sunday; and (3) Ignatius assumed some form of Christ’s presence in the
IgnMagn 4.
IgnEph 13.1.
IgnEph 5.2.
This is implied in IgnSm 8.2: ἀγαπᾶν and ἀγάπην ποιεῖν.
IgnPhld 4.
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At the same time that Ignatius was writing his letters, there was a major
innovation in the way in which Christians in Asia Minor gathered together.
Pliny, the Roman governor of Pontus and Bithynia, which lay along the
south coast of the Black Sea, reported in ca. 112 CE, that the Christians
there “met regularly before dawn on a fixed day (stato die) to chant a hymn
in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath to
abstain” from immoral practices. “After this ceremony it was their custom
to disperse and reassemble later to take food”44. This is the first time we
hear of Christians also meeting in the early morning before daylight.
Unfortunately, Pliny does not say on which day. But “stato die” probably
means a fixed day of the week, not a fixed day of the year. It may have
been Sunday, but Pliny does not say so explicitly, perhaps merely because
the reckoning of time by the seven-day planetary week was still unfamiliar
to him. The seven-day week with the days named after the planets only
gradually became established in the Roman Empire in the first and second
The gathering early in the morning in Pontus did not comprise a meal.
According to Pliny, the Christian community meal continued to be a supper
in the late afternoon or the evening, after the working day was over. It is
not clear why the Christians began to hold also another meeting in the early
morning. To me, it still seems that the most likely explanation is that many
other religious groups gathered before dawn to worship their deities or the
Sun45. A close analogy to the Christian prayers at dawn in Pontus is the
morning prayer of the community of Theos Hypsistos, the Supreme God,
at Oinoanda in Lycia (third century CE)46. Similarly, an inscription from
Teos, situated between Ephesus and Smyrna in Lydia, dating from the
beginning of the Roman imperial period, prescribes that a hymn should be
sung every morning at the opening of the temple of Dionysius47. Christians
44. At the end of the first and beginning of the second centuries, the Christian movement
in Asia Minor grew by leaps and bounds. In order to diminish the risk of political disturbance,
the emperor Trajan forbade people to form associations (sodalicia, ἑταιρείαι). This caused
the Roman governor (legatus Augusti) in Pontus-Bithynia, Pliny, to feel obliged to investigate
the conduct of the Christians in his province. For his report, see Pliny Jr, Ep. 10.96.
45. Pace A.C. STEWART in his review of ALIKIN, Earliest History (n. 33), in JTS 62
(2011) 732-734; see p. 733.
46. Attested by the inscription SEG 933 (3rd century CE), published by H.W. PLEKET –
R.S. STROUD (eds.), in Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 27 (1977) 241-242. See on
this inscription S. MITCHELL, The Cult of Theos Hypsistos, in P. ATHANASSIADI – M. FREDE
(eds.), Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, Oxford, Clarendon, 1999, 81-148, pp. 86-108.
The inscription is also discussed by G.H.R. HORSLEY, Answer from an Oracle, in ID. (ed.),
New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity 2, North Ryde, Australia, The Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1982, 37-44, p. 39.
47. L. ROBERT, Études anatoliennes: Recherches sur les inscriptions grecques de l’Asie
mineure, Paris, de Boccard, 1937, pp. 18-21. For other religious practices performed early in
the morning, both by Gentiles and Judaeans, see ALIKIN, Earliest History (n. 33), pp. 85-86.
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may have taken over such customs in competition with, or on the analogy
of the cultic practices of other religious groups. Christians did not live in
isolation from their cultural environment and were exposed to influences
of numerous non-Christian groups surrounding them48.
VI. THE DiDache
That Christians celebrated the eucharist on Sunday, is evident from the
Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. This work, a sort of manual
for life and ritual in an early Christian community, is usually dated to the
first decades of the second century and considered to have originated in
Syria, possibly in the neighbourhood of Antioch. Two passages in this
work make mention of the eucharist. The first describes the prayers that
could be said at the meal (chs. 9–10). Another passage, later in the text,
instructs members of the community, when they gather together “on the
Lord’s day”, to confess their unlawful deeds before proceeding to celebrate
the eucharist (ch. 14). A general public confession of sins was to precede
the meal, in order that, as the text says, “your sacrifice may not be defiled”.
It is remarkable that this instruction appears so much later in the book than
the teaching about the prayers. Earlier interpreters therefore doubted
whether the instruction on confession referred to the same meeting as that
on prayer. At present it is generally accepted that it was one and the same
meal. The reason why the passages are so widely separated is probably that
the Didache was put together from diverse, fairly heterogeneous elements,
and was repeatedly reworked and edited; the instruction about the confession of sins was only included at a later stage in this process and at a later
point in the text.
The passage on the eucharistic prayers does not say that the eucharist
took place on Sunday. But the conclusion is justified that, certainly at the
time of the redaction of the Didache as we now know it, not only was the
eucharist preceded by a confession of sins (ch. 14), but also that the occasion for which the prayers were described (chs. 9–10), took place on Sunday. It was the same meeting and the same meal. According to the Didache
in its present form the celebration of the eucharist on Sunday was clearly
already a fixed and self-evident routine.
The meal that is called the “eucharist” (εὐχαριστία) in the Didache
was a full meal at which one could satisfy one’s hunger49. It was therefore
48. J.Z. SMITH, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and Religions of Late Antiquity, Chicago, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 141, where Smith
warns against “the stratagem of using some construct of Judaism as an insulating device
protecting early Christianity from ‘contamination’”. Cf. p. 81: one must not “use the image
of an insular and insulated Judaism in relation to its larger environment to claim that early
Christianity, as an originally inner-Jewish phenomenon, fell, likewise, within Judaism’s cordon sanitaire”.
49. See Did 10.1: “When you have had enough to eat”, “when you have eaten your fill”.
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an evening meal. The instructions that the Didache gives for the celebration
of the community meal are striking from several points of view. In the first
place, they give the earliest model texts of eucharistic prayers. According
to the Didache, these were thanks that were said at the beginning of the
meal separately over the cup and over the bread, and at the end of the
meal over food and drink together. Secondly, these prayers contain neither any form of the Pauline or synoptic institution story, nor any mention
of the interpretation of the bread and wine as Jesus’ body and blood. This
has led many scholars in the past to conclude that the eucharistic meal in
the Didache is not the same meal as that mentioned in 1 Cor 11,17-34,
Act 20,7-11 or Ignatius50. However, this verdict was due to the fact that
all authors on the subject were familiar with eucharistic liturgies that
include the institution narrative and words that identify the eucharistic
elements with Christ. This was not the case in the early Church. In early
Christian prayers pronounced at the celebration of the community meal,
any mention of the institution narrative or any interpretation of the elements as Christ is lacking. In 1 Cor 11, too, the institution narrative appears
only in the comments by which Paul wants to correct the abuses in Corinth.
The narrative was probably no part of what was said at the meal in Corinth;
had it been part of what was said, it would probably have precluded the
abuses criticised by Paul. The institution narrative is also lacking in descriptions of eucharistic celebrations in such second- and third-century writings
as the Acts of Thomas51 and the Acts of John52, as well as several thirdcentury eucharistic liturgies from Syria and Egypt53. There is no evidence
that the institution narrative and the interpretative words were included in the
prayers pronounced at the community meal before the fourth century. The
earliest evidence for the occurrence of the institution narrative in a eucharistic prayer is the West-Syrian liturgy transmitted in Pseudo-Hippolytus’
Apostolic Tradition 454, but this chapter is now usually dated to the midfourth century and considered a late element in the composite work which
the Apostolic Tradition is55.
50. IgnEph 13.1; IgnPhld 4.1; IgnSm 7.1; 8.1.
51. Acts of Thomas 49–50, 133 and 158; see J.K. ELLIOTT (ed.), The Apocryphal New
Testament, Oxford, Clarendon, 1993, pp. 467-468, 497 and 505.
52. Acts of John 85–86 and 109–110; in ELLIOTT (ed.), Apocryphal NT (n. 51), pp. 335
and 336.
53. For instance, the Sacramentary of Sarapion, the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, the
Anaphora of Mark and the Strasbourg Papyrus Gr. 254. On all these liturgies one may
consult P.F. BRADSHAW (ed.), Essays on Early Eastern Eucharistic Prayers, Collegeville,
MN, Liturgical Press, 1997; ID., The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources
and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 22002; and
ID., Eucharistic Origins (n. 4).
54. Hippolyte de Rome: La Tradition Apostolique, ed. B. BOTTE (SC, 11bis), Paris, Cerf,
1968, ch. 4, pp. 46-53.
55. G. ROUWHORST, The Roots of the Early Christian Eucharist: Jewish Blessings or
Hellenistic Symposia?, in A. GERHARDS – C. LEONHARD (eds.), Jewish and Christian Liturgy
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In spite of the absence of the institution narrative and the interpretative
words, the eucharist in the Didache unmistakably has a soteriological and
sacramental meaning. Bread and wine are designated as spiritual food and
drink. They stand for the knowledge and eternal life which the believers
have obtained through Jesus. The participants pray God to gather the
Church from the ends of the earth into his kingdom. Here the Didache uses
language resembling that of Judaean prayer traditions. This may be an
indication that the prayers transmitted in the Didache originated in a community which, in some stage of its history, counted Judaeans among its
Two final remarks about the Didache are apposite here. Firstly, the
Didache says little about other activities that took place in the assembly
before or after the meal. But this does not mean that the meeting remained
strictly confined to the eucharistic meal and included nothing but the meal.
It is entirely likely that there was an after-party in which participants
exchanged various oral and vocal contributions. After all, the end of ch.
10 does not say that the meeting was closed or that those present dispersed. The compiler of the Didache intended in chs. 10 and 11 exclusively to describe the kind of prayers that could be said at the beginning
and end of the meal56. It is not ruled out, and in my eyes even probable,
that the eucharistic celebration was followed by a social gathering resembling what we find reflected 1 Cor 12–1457. Secondly, we must not think
that the prayers referred to here were completely fixed formulae. They are
sample texts, that is, texts that merely aim to offer an example of what
might be said in the eucharistic prayers58. They are a help for less practised
leaders of the meal. This is apparent from the explicit permission given to
the more experienced speakers, the prophets, to formulate their own
eucharistic prayers59. Yet the instructions for the eucharistic prayer and
the confession of sins in the Didache are indicative of a certain ritualisation of the community meal.
and Worship (Jewish and Christian Perspectives, 15), Leiden, Brill, 2007, 295-308, p. 299;
BRADSHAW – JOHNSON, Eucharistic Liturgies (n. 20), p. 101.
56. K. NIEDERWIMMER, Die Didache (KAV, 1), Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht,
1993, p. 174: “Es wird keine Gesamtdarstellung der Feier gegeben, sondern es werden
lediglich bestimmte Gebete mitgeteilt”.
57. Pace G. ROUWHORST, Didache 9–10: A Litmus Test for the Research on Early Christian Liturgy, in H. VAN DE SANDT (ed.), Matthew and the Didache, Assen, Van Gorcum;
Minneapolis, MN, Fortress, 143-156, pp. 146-147. See also H.J. DE JONGE, The Community
Supper according to Paul and the Didache: Their Affinity and Historical Development, in
J. KRANS – B.J. LIETAERT PEERBOLTE – P.-B. SMIT – A. ZWIEP (eds.), Paul, John, and Apocalyptic Eschatology. FS M.C. de Boer (SupplNT, 149), Leiden, Brill, 30-47, pp. 36-37.
58. MESSNER, Der Gottesdienst (n. 18), p. 428, n. 435.
59. Did 10.7.
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The pseudonymous Epistle of Barnabas, written ca. 130 at an unknown
place (Alexandria? Syro-Palestine?) states that “we [the Christians] celebrate the eighth day with gladness, for on it Jesus arose from the dead”60.
It is hard to see what this celebrating with gladness could have implied if
not at least a communal meal as we know it from more or less contemporary authors and documents such as Ignatius and the Didache. According
to Barnabas, this joyful event takes place on the “eighth day”. This must
be the day after the seventh day or Sabbath, that is, the Sunday. Seeing
Barnabas’ aversion to any form of Judaean thinking61, he cannot be credited with using a time-reckoning in which days were thought to begin with
sunset on the previous day, if such a time-reckoning existed at all in his
day. All this means that Barnabas was probably familiar with eucharistic
celebrations on Sunday afternoon or evening.
We find an account of how the regular Sunday gatherings of Christians
in Rome were held by the middle of the second century in Justin Martyr.
He writes about them in the Apologia which he addressed to the emperor
Antoninus Pius in about 150 CE62. Let us look first at what took place in
these gatherings. After the participants had assembled, the meeting took
the following course: reading from the gospels or from Old Testament
prophets; a parenetic sermon pronounced by the president of the congregation; communal prayer; presentation of bread, wine and water; eucharistic prayer and thanksgivings pronounced by the president “to the best
of his ability”63 and confirmed by a communal “Amen”; then the distribution to, and consumption of, the bread, wine and water by those present;
finally, the delivery of bread and drink to those absent, e.g., the sick and
At the meeting described by Justin food and drink were consumed
in normal quantities, just as at an ordinary full meal, and not in small,
60. Barn 15.9: ἄγομεν τὴν ἡμέραν τὴν ὀγδόην εἰς εὐφροσύνην. See P. PRIGENT –
R.A. KRAFT (eds.), Épître de Barnabé (SC, 172), Paris, Cerf, 1971, pp. 188-189, where the
association of the Sunday with the day of Jesus’ resurrection in Barn 15.9 is called an
“étiologie chrétienne du dimanche”.
61. In spite of his knowledge of Judaean traditions, Barnabas had not the slightest congeniality with Judaean thought. Judaism is something totally strange to him. See P. PRIGENT,
in PRIGENT – KRAFT (eds.), Épître de Barnabé (n. 60), p. 28: “Le Judaïsme est pour lui
quelque chose de totalement étranger”.
62. Justin Martyr, Apologia I, 67. Since Justin was of Syrian descent, the gathering he
describes may be that of a community of Syrian Christians in Rome. His account is not
necessarily representative of assemblies of other Christian congregations in Rome.
63. Justin, Apol. I, 67.5: ὅση δύναμις αὐτῷ.
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symbolic quantities. For, firstly, according to Justin, the meal consisted of
“ordinary bread and ordinary drink” (66.2). Secondly, the fact that after
the meal deacons deliver food and drink of the same meal to those who
could not be present (67.5; 65.5), the needy (67.1), sick, prisoners and
Christians from elsewhere (67.7), confirms that the participants received
food and drink in normal amounts, not in symbolic portions64, the more so
because the information about the distribution of food is immediately followed by particulars about the collection of financial donations which are
spent on the care of the sick, widows, orphans, Christians passing through
and other needy persons. In fact, the needy, sick, prisoners and strangers
were in need of more than a token piece of bread and a sip of wine and
water. It follows that, contrary to what several scholars have claimed in
the past, Justin’s eucharist was an event that took place in the late afternoon or evening65.
In Justin’s community, the eucharistic elements are interpreted as the
flesh and blood of Christ. They were regarded as such after the eucharistic
prayer. Justin says: “The food over which the thanksgiving has been pronounced through a word of prayer which comes from him [i.e., from
Jesus], is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus”66. These words seem
to indicate that in the tradition followed by Justin the bread and drink
consumed at the eucharist were not only conceived as Christ’s flesh and
blood, but also deemed to undergo some transformation (obviously not yet
in the sense of a transubstantiation). Justin’s account seems even to suggest that the eucharistic prayer included some reminiscence of Jesus’
64. Pace BRADSHAW, Early Christian Worship (n. 4), p. 47: Justin’s eucharist “no
longer included a full meal”. See, however, the same author in Reconstructing Early Christian Worship, London, SPCK, 2009, pp. 20-22, where he argues that what the deacons
brought to those unable to be present was bread and wine in sufficient amounts to feed
those in want. Cf. A. LINDEMANN, Sakramentale Praxis in Gemeinden des 2. Jahrhunderts,
in M. GRUNDEKEN – J. VERHEYDEN (eds.), Early Christian Communities between Ideal and
Reality (WUNT, 342), Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2015, 2-27, p. 23: the deacons brought to
those absent “das Mahl”.
65. Pace BRADSHAW, Early Christian Worship (n. 4), pp. 47-48, where Justin’s eucharist
is put “early in the morning”. But shortly after, BRADSHAW (ed.), Essays (n. 52), p. 1, wrote:
“it could just as well have been in the evening, as seems to have been the original New
Testament custom”. MESSNER, Der Gottesdienst (n. 18), p. 434, rightly observes: “Die
Verlegung der Eucharistie auf den Morgen ist bei Justin noch nicht bezeugt (wird aber
vielfach in der Literatur eingetragen)”. According to BRADSHAW – JOHNSON, The Eucharistic
Liturgies (n. 20), p. 28, “the bread, wine, and water” consumed at Justin’s eucharist “could
be in sufficient quantities to constitute a filling meal, as could the leftovers that were taken
to those unable to be present, especially as financial provision for those in need is mentioned
in immediate juxtaposition to the reference to that act”. They rightly consider it therefore
an evening meal. But then they put it on Saturday evening, which cannot be correct, because
Justin’s Roman Sunday, ἡ τοῦ ἡλίου λεγομένη ἡμέρα, did not begin on Saturday evening,
but on Sunday.
66. Justin, Apol. I, 66.2: τὴν δι’ εὐχῆς λόγου τοῦ παρ’ αὐτοῦ εὐχαριστηθεῖσαν
τροφήν ... ἐκείνου τοῦ σαρκοποιηθέντος Ἰησοῦ καὶ σάρκα καὶ αἷμα ἐδιδάχθημεν
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interpretive words “This is ..., this is ... ”. But this is not to say that the
eucharistic prayer mentioned by Justin included the institution narrative.
Nor should it be thought that Justin’s description implies the use of a fixed
liturgy in his day67. This is clear from what he says about the prayer of
thanksgiving, namely that the president pronounced it “to the best of his
ability”, which strongly suggests that he extemporised it.
In another work, the Dialogue with Trypho, Justin gives further information on the theological meaning of the eucharist. First, it is a remembrance
of Christ’s suffering on behalf of his followers68. Secondly, it is a rite
through which the participants thank God for the creation of the world, for
having delivered them from evil, and for having destroyed the evil powers69. Thirdly, the eucharist is a sacrifice which the Christians offer to God,
and the only sacrifice agreeable to God at that70.
Interestingly, we learn from the account of Justin’s martyrdom (ca. 165)
that the Christian congregation to which he belonged had its meeting-place
in Justin’s own living quarters in Rome, which were situated above a bathhouse. Unfortunately, the name of the bath-house has been corrupted in the
manuscripts71. But it is clear that around the middle of the second century,
a Christian community could still assemble in the private house of one of
its members.
An important development in the second century is that in several places
the number of meetings of Christian communities increased from one, on
Sunday evening, to several per week. The morning assemblies of which
we heard from Pliny, spread to several or all the days of the week72. In
some cases the celebration of the eucharist was introduced into these
weekday meetings. At the end of the second century daily eucharists early
in the morning are attested by Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian of
Carthage73. But since the morning ritual had to be completed before the
67. L.W. BARNARD, Justin Martyr: His Life and Thought, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1967, p. 146: “there was no fixed liturgy with a ‘structure’ known to Justin”.
68. Justin, Dial. 41.1.
69. Ibid.
70. Justin, Dial. 97.1-3. For the idea of the eucharist as an offering of (sacrificial) gifts,
see already 1 Clem 44,4. It will be further developed in the Didascalia.
71. See Martyrium Justini, recensions A and B, 3.3, in H. MUSURILLO (ed.), The Acts of
the Christian Martyrs, Oxford, Clarendon, 1972, pp. xix, 45 and 49. In A, the place is called
“the baths of Myrtinus”, in B “the baths of a certain Martinus son of Timiotinus”. The
text-critical problem has not yet been solved.
72. Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.96 and 3.80.4.
73. Clement of Alexandria, Quis dives salvetur 23: Ἐγώ σου τροφεὺς ἄρτον ἐμαυτὸν
διδούς, ... καὶ πόμα καθ’ ἡμέραν ἐνδιδοὺς ἀθανασίας. Tertullian, De corona 3:
“Eucharistiae sacramentum ... etiam antelucanis coetibus ... sumimus”; De idololatria 7:
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working day began, it was greatly reduced: this meal in the early morning
could not be a full meal, but became a symbolic meal, at which the quantities of food and drink were strictly limited and sometimes water was used
instead of wine74. Meanwhile the eucharistic meal on Sunday evening
continued to exist as a full meal75.
Tertullian gives us detailed information about the form of the Christian
evening gathering in his Apologeticum of 197 CE76. It comprised the following parts in succession: opening prayer, intercession, reading of the
Scriptures, sermon with exhortations and admonitions, exercise of discipline and the communal meal (designated as cena, agape and convivium)77.
Subsequently, after the participants have washed their hands and lamps
have been lighted, a symposium takes place during which wine is drunk
and hymns are sung and which is concluded by a closing prayer.
The participants reclined on couches to enjoy this meal (discumbitur).
They ate their fill, including the poor and needy members of the community, for whom the meal served as a form of charity. In earlier research,
the gathering depicted by Tertullian has sometimes been considered a
“isti quotidie corpus eius lacessunt”; De oratione 6: “Itaque petendo panem quotidianum
perpetuitatem postulamus in Christo et individuitatem a corpore eius”; ibid. 19: believers
who stay away from the Eucharist on fast days because they do not want to break the fast
would do better to come and receive the “corpus Domini” and to preserve and consume it
after the end of their fast.
74. This occurred at least in the third century: Cyprian, Ep. 63.15-17, protests against
the use of water instead of wine in eucharists celebrated in the morning; see A. MCGOWAN,
Ascetic Eucharists, Oxford, Clarendon, 1999, pp. 204-211.
75. Clement, Strom. 1.1, criticises certain Christians for calling their luxurious feasts
“agape”, whereby they dishonour the true agape. BRADSHAW, Eucharistic Origins (n. 4),
p. 107, rightly points out that there is no reason to suppose that Clement himself saw the
eucharist and the agape as being different rituals. Tertullian, Ad uxorem (ca. 203 CE) 2.4:
“Quis nocturnis convocationibus, ... (uxorem) a latere suo adimi libenter feret?; ibid. 2.5:
Quis ad convivium dominicum illud, quod infamant, sine sua suspicione dimittet?”; De
anima (210/213 CE) 9.4: “Est hodie soror apud nos revelationum charismata sortita, quas
in ecclesia inter dominica solemnia per ecstasin in spiritu patitur ... Iamvero prout scripturae leguntur aut psalmi canuntur aut allocutiones proferuntur aut petitiones delegantur,
ita inde materiae visionibus subministrantur”. This concerns probably a Sunday assembly, but not one on Sunday morning, pace MCGOWAN, Ancient Christian Worship (n. 18),
p. 85.
76. Tertullian, Apologeticum 39.
77. Originally, “agape” (Jud 12; IgnSm 8.2; Epistola Apostolorum [ca. 180 CE; ELLIOTT, Apocryphal NT (n. 51), p. 565], 15; Clem. Alex., Strom. 1.1, etc.) and “eucharist”
were names for the same event; see A.B. MCGOWAN, Naming the Feast: Agape and the
Diversity of Early Christian Meals, in E.A. LIVINGSTONE (ed.), Studia Patristica 30, Leuven, Peeters, 1997, 314-318; ID., Food, Ritual, and Power, in V. BURRUS (ed.), A People’s
History of Christianity. 2: Late Ancient Christianity, Minneapolis, MN, Fortress, 2005,
145-164, pp. 155-156. It was only after the Sunday morning eucharist had become the main
eucharistic assembly (ca. 250 CE) that “agape” began to be distinguished from “eucharist”
and to take on the meaning of “charity meal”. An early instance of the differentiation
between eucharist and agape occurs in Acta Johannis 84 (ELLIOTT, Apocryphal NT [n. 51],
p. 334).
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morning service78. But this cannot be correct. A cena is a supper or evening
meal. The lighting of lamps points to a late hour of the day. The extensive
eating and drinking that Tertullian describes cannot possibly have taken
place early in the morning. Unfortunately, Tertullian’s account of this evening gathering does not specify that it is a gathering on Sunday. However, in
another chapter of his Apologeticum (16.11) Tertullian notices that Christians “devote the Sunday to rejoicing”79. It is very likely that the eucharistic
meal and symposium were part of the rejoicing on Sunday. Consequently,
Tertullian knows of a Sunday evening eucharist as well as of morning gatherings with a eucharist on other days of the week.
X. THE DiDascalia, CYPRIAN, THE apostolic traDition, ORIGEN
In the third century, a change in the relation between the Sunday evening assembly and that in the morning becomes observable at several places
in Syria, Africa and elsewhere. Owing to the growth of the Christian communities, it became increasingly difficult for them to accommodate all
their members at a full supper. Consequently, more and more members
participated in the simplified, ritualised eucharist on Sunday morning. The
Sunday evening meal continued to exist as a charity supper, attended by the
needy members of the community and, as a result, avoided by the well-todo. This is the situation reflected in the Didascalia, a church order probably
composed in North Syria during (the first half of?) the third century80. By
far the most important assembly is now that on Sunday morning81, including Scripture readings, a sermon and the eucharist82. The ceremony took
place in a sizeable building83, no longer in a private house, in the presence
of numerous people, who were sitting (on the ground?) or standing in
78. RORDORF, Der Sonntag (n. 5), p. 241, n. 39: “Morgengottesdienst”. But see MCGOWAN,
Ancient Christian Worship (n. 18), p. 49: “evening gathering”; p. 95: “evening agape”.
79. Tertullian, Apologeticum 16,11: “diem solis laetitiae undulgemus”. The Roman
“dies solis” begins at midnight or sunrise, and does not comprise the Sunday eve.
80. S. BROCK – M. VASEY (eds.), The Liturgical Portions of the Didascalia, Bramcote,
Grove Books, 1982.
81. At the time when other people went to their work, a spectacle or the theatre; see
ch. 13.
82. Didascalia 11–13 and 15.
83. Ch. 12. For the development of the spaces in which Christians gathered together in
the first to early fourth centuries, see B.S. BILLINGS, From House Church to Tenement
Church: Domestic Space and the Development of Early Urban Christianity – the Example of
Ephesos, in JTS 62 (2011) 541-569. Billings distinguishes roughly three periods: (i) 50-150:
gatherings in private houses of members and benefactors; (ii) 150-250: in private homes
renovated for Christian usage; (iii) 250-313: in private homes and public halls renovated
for Christian usage; larger buildings. In Origen, too, the church building appears as a separate, spacious building; see H. BUCHINGER, Early Eucharist in Transition: A Fresh Look at
Origen, in GERHARDS – LEONHARD (eds.), Jewish and Christian Liturgy and Worship (n. 55),
207-227, pp. 212-213.
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separate groups: small children with their parents, unmarried women and
men separately, the women in separate groups of girls, young women,
elderly women and widows. Deacons, deaconesses and presbyters, too,
had their own places. This assembly may easily have comprised a hundred
or more persons present. But alongside this Sunday morning service there
were suppers for widows (ch. 9) and possibly other needy members of the
community84. Although these charity meals were certainly opened and
closed by saying grace, they are no longer designated as “eucharists”.
The same development is perceptible in Carthage about the middle of
the third century and in the church order known as the Apostolic Tradition,
compiled in the third and fourth centuries at an unknown place85. Cyprian
of Carthage comments about 250 CE on the difference between the two
Sunday meals of the Christian community, the eucharist celebrated early in
the morning (mane) and the agape (cena, convivium nostrum) held in the
evening. The difference is, he says, that at the eucharist the community as
a whole (the plebs, omnis fraternitas) is present, whereas for logistic reasons the supper is only attended by part of the community, obviously its
poorer members. This makes Cyprian conclude: “‘The true sacrament’ is
the one we celebrate in the presence of the entire congregation”86. Here
we see how the ritualised and stylised eucharist of the Sunday morning
is upgraded as the real eucharistic celebration of the Sunday, while the
Sunday evening meal is devaluated to a less important event. Cyprian even
seems to be unaware that in former days the supper on Sunday evening was
the church’s only eucharist.
Similarly, the Apostolic Tradition states that the Sunday morning service, with its symbolic meal, was destined for “the whole community”
(ch. 22)87, whereas the supper, a full meal, was only attended by part of the
community’s membership (ch. 26: “the faithful who are present”). Obviously, a difference in appreciation developed between the service held on
Sunday morning, attended (in principle) by the whole community, and the
supper that continued to be held as a charity meal on Sunday evening for
the poorer members. The Apostolic Tradition even goes so far as to use
different terminology for the sacramental status of both rituals. The assembly of the whole community in the morning may be called a “eucharist”,
84. Such suppers for widows are also mentioned in the Apostolic Tradition, ch. 30;
Hippolyte de Rome, ed. BOTTE (n. 54), pp. 110-111.
85. Hippolyte de Rome, ed. BOTTE (n. 54).
86. Cyprian, Ep. 63.16: “Cum cenamus, ad convivium nostrum plebem convocare non
possumus, ut sacramenti veritatem fraternitate omni praesente celebremus”: “when we have
supper, we cannot invite the whole congregation to our communal banquet, with the result
that the true sacrament is the one we celebrate in the presence of the whole congregation
[i.e., the eucharist celebrated on Sunday morning]”.
87. That the eucharist on Sunday meant in ch. 22 is a morning service may probably be
inferred from ch. 36: “Omnis autem fidelis festinet, antequam aliquid aliut gustet, eucharistiam percipere”. Ch. 22 also mentions eucharistic celebrations held on other mornings
than Sunday morning.
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but the supper is just a “eulogy” or benediction (chs. 26 and 28). The text
states explicitly that the bread distributed at supper is “not the eucharist”,
for it is not the sign or image “of the body of the Lord” (ch. 26).
Apart from the eucharist and the eulogy, the Apostolic Tradition also
mentions gatherings on the mornings of weekdays in which no eucharist
was celebrated, but religious instruction (κατήχησις) was given88. This is
the type of assembly Origen used in Caesarea for delivering his daily homilies to catechumens. Besides these so-called “services of the word”, Origen
was familiar with celebrations of the Lord’s Supper on Sundays and Fridays89. In the celebration of the Lord’s supper on Sunday, the eucharist in
Origen’s community was connected with a service of the word consisting
of a reading, a homily, prayer and the kiss of piece90.
One chapter in the Apostolic Tradition still deserves our attention: ch. 4.
It is no doubt a late, probably fourth-century element in this composite,
repeatedly re-edited church order. Its relevance is that it is the earliest
complete ancient anaphora, including a thanksgiving, the institution narrative, an anamnesis, an epiclesis and a doxology. This liturgy reflects the
transformation the eucharist underwent in the fourth century and adumbrates the great Anaphoras of Mark, Basil, James and Chrysostom91.
We have seen from Acts 20, Ignatius, the Didache, Justin and Tertullian
that, from the end of the first until the end of the second century, the Sunday
evening was the most usual time for the assembly and common meal of
Christian communities. We find eucharistic celebrations on other days of
the week, for instance, in Tertullian and the apocryphal Acts of apostles92.
But the Sunday is the most privileged day and this continues to be so in
the third century, when the most important communal celebration becomes
the eucharist on Sunday morning93. Why did Christians prefer the Sunday
for their assemblies and communal meals?
The traditional answer is that the Sunday was the day of Jesus’ resurrection. However, the association of the Sunday with Jesus’ resurrection
Apostolic Tradition, chs. 35, 39 and 41.
Origen, Hom. Exod. 7, 5; Hom. Isa. 5, 2.
BUCHINGER, Early Eucharist in Transition (n. 83), pp. 211-212.
On these anaphora and on the development of the Christian liturgy as a whole, see
BRADSHAW (ed.), Essays (n. 52) and BRADSHAW – JOHNSON, Eucharistic Liturgies (n. 20).
92. For a eucharist on Friday at the 9th hour, see ActPetr, ELLIOTT, Apocryphal NT (n. 51),
pp. 415-416; for eucharists on unspecified days, see ActAndr, p. 279; ActPaul, pp. 365,
383; ActPetr, p. 399; ActThom, pp. 458, 467-468, 497, 505; Passio Matthaei, p. 521,
Epistula Apostolorum, p. 565.
93. For a eucharist on Sunday morning, see also ActThom, ELLIOTT, Apocryphal NT,
p. 459; for further eucharists on Sunday, see ActJoh, p. 106; ActPetr, pp. 397-398.
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does not emerge until the second century, in Ignatius (Magn 9.1) and
Barnabas (15.9). Their testimonies come too late to be accepted as indicative of the original reason for the choice of the Sunday94. Justin repeats the
reference to Jesus’ resurrection and adds another, still less plausible rationalisation: the Sunday is the Christians’ feast-day because the world was
created on a Sunday (Apologia I, 67.8). The question remains: why did
Christians choose the Sunday for their communal meals?
This is a much debated question to which no answer has yet been given
that commands broad agreement. I shall mention some answers that have
been given by previous researchers, before formulating a hypothesis of my
own. It should be said beforehand that several recent theories liturgiologists
have brought forward to explain the choice of the Sunday, e.g., those of
Bradshaw, McGowan and Rouwhorst, are based on four unproved and
doubtful assumptions: (1) there must be some form of continuity between
Jewish Sabbath observation and the Christian group meal; (2) originally,
the eucharist was celebrated on Saturday evening as an extension of Jewish
Sabbath observation (although most of the evidence points to the Sunday
evening as the time of the Christian gathering); (3) the Saturday evening
was counted as the beginning of the first day of the week or Sunday (quod
non; even if Jews ceased from working on Friday at sunset, the Sabbath and
the seventh day began on Saturday, not on Friday evening); and (4) the
eucharist was moved forward from Saturday evening to Sunday morning
(although, as said before, most evidence points to the Sunday evening as the
time when the eucharist took place, whereas there is not the slightest evidence for a transfer of the eucharist from Saturday to Sunday morning).
We shall briefly discuss here suggestions put forward by Rordorf (1972),
D.-A. Koch (2001), Rouwhorst (2001, 2008), Bradshaw (2004, 22012) and
McGowan (2014).
Rordorf argued that the weakly meal held by Christians on Sunday
evening was a continuation of the meals Jesus held with his disciples after
his resurrection, as narrated by Luke 24,36-43, John 20,19-23.26-29 and
Acts 1,3-495. However, it is not likely that the appearances of the risen
Christ and the post-resurrection meals with his disciples were of such a
historicity that the disciples could have found in it an impulse to keep
repeating these meals.
Dieter-Alex Koch explained the choice of the Sunday as the day on
which the Christian communities gathered and held their supper quite differently96. In his view, this choice was determined by the tradition that
94. Supposed that the choice of the Sunday goes back beyond Acts 20 to at least some
Christian communities around the middle of the first century.
95. RORDORF, Der Sonntag (n. 5), pp. 224-233. ID., Sabbat und Sonntag in der alten
Kirche, Zürich, Theologischer Verlag, 1972, pp. xvii-xviii.
96. D.-A. KOCH, The Early History of the Lord’s Supper: Response, in J.W. VAN HENTEN –
A. HOUTEPEN (eds.), Religious Identity and the Invention of Tradition (STAR, 3), Assen,
van Gorcum, 2001, 238-252, pp. 251-252.
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Jesus’ resurrection took place on the first day of the week. However, can
we be sure that this tradition is older than Mark, as Koch assumes? Paul
does not mention it and John may know it from one or more of the synoptics, yet in view of the wide spread of the choice of the Sunday in the
period 80 to 130 CE, the tradition of gathering on Sunday must have existed,
at least locally, as early as the middle of the first century, long before the
Sunday was associated with Jesus’ resurrection. Furthermore, was the tradition which puts the crucifixion on a Friday already known around 50 CE,
as Koch supposes, so that Paul, combining this tradition with that of the
resurrection “on the third day” (1 Cor 15,4), could put the resurrection
on the next Sunday? But what if Mark put the resurrection on a Sunday
because in his time the Sunday was already the day on which at least certain Christian communities gathered and enjoyed the Lord’s Supper in the
presence of the risen Lord? Using the same tradition of “on the third day”
Mark could then put the crucifixion on Friday. This is a suggestion made
long ago by Rudolf Bultmann97. Finally, why would one argue at all that
Paul knew a tradition which placed the resurrection on a Sunday, seeing
that he himself does not even suggest that the Lord’s supper was celebrated
on Sunday?
Rouwhorst tends to derive the timing of the Christians’ eucharist from
that of the synagogal gathering on Saturday98. His starting point is the
interpretation of Acts 20,7-11 as referring to a meal in the night from Saturday to Sunday99. He then assumes that “the liturgical meetings to which
several sources refer, took place in the night from Saturday on Sunday and
not on Sunday evening”. Finally, he surmises that these “Christian meetings on the first day of the week arose as an extension of the Sabbath
service to Saturday evening”. “It is quite imaginable that the earliest Christians gathered together immediately following the Sabbath, so on Saturday
evening”100. This explanation raises several questions in my mind. My main
objection is that it is not very likely that Judaean Christians on Saturday
afternoon and evening first held their festive Sabbath meal in the circle of
their family101 and then gathered with fellow Christians to enjoy the Christian supper later on Saturday evening.
97. BULTMANN, Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition (n. 18), p. 316.
98. ROUWHORST, The Reception of the Jewish Sabbath (n. 4), pp. 223-265.
99. Ibid., pp. 252-253.
100. ROUWHORST, Christlicher Gottesdienst und der Gottesdienst Israels (n. 22), p. 538.
101. Sabbath observance included at least a good supper on (what we call) Saturday
afternoon or evening. The evidence includes Jub 50.9-10, which instructs the Israelites “to
eat and drink their fill on this festival”, namely on the Sabbath, no doubt on Saturday afternoon; Mk 1,31 “she served them”, i.e., “she dished up their supper” (on Saterday evening;
the Sabbath is mentioned in 1,21); Joh 12,2 (Saturday before Palm Sunday); Persius 5.182184; Josephus, Bell. Jud. (the Sabbath meal is prepared on Friday and eaten on
the Sabbath day, not on the eve of Sabbath); Plutarch, Quaest. conv. 4.672a; Tertullian,
Apol. 16.11 (“Judaeans dedicate the dies Saturni to eating”, where “dies Saturni” cannot
possibly mean the Friday; ID., Ad nationes 1,13; and Didascalia 21. For Didascalia 21, see
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There are also some other problems with Rouwhorst’s hypothesis102. As
argued above, the meal in Troas (Act 20,7-11) is almost certainly a meal
on Sunday evening, not in the night from Saturday to Sunday; consequently, it can hardly be the extension of any Sabbath observation. Furthermore, which are the other “liturgical meetings to which several sources
refer” and which, according to Rouwhorst, would have taken place in the
night from Saturday to Sunday? They cannot be the eucharistic celebrations mentioned by the Didache, Justin or Tertullian, for they put these on
“the Lord’s day”, “the day called ‘of the sun’” or “the day of the sun”
respectively. These chronological indications, the first one typically Christian, the other two typically Roman and Gentile, cannot possibly be taken
to apply to the night from Saturday to Sunday103; they refer to the Sunday
that began at dawn or at midnight. Finally, how and why did the Christian
supper on Saturday shift to the Sunday?
Bradshaw suggests that early Christian congregations with strong
Judaean foundations probably retained the traditional assembly for study
of the Law on the Sabbath at first and transferred it much later, as a service
of the word, to Sunday to accompany the eucharistic rite104. Predominantly
Gentile congregations developed a service of the word before or after their
Saturday evening eucharistic meal, when the sabbath was over and the first
day of the week began. Both traditions “eventually moved the eucharist
BROCK – VASEY, The Liturgical Portions of the Didascalia (n. 80), p. 29. “The traditional meal
held each week at the conclusion of the Sabbath”, is also mentioned by BRADSHAW, Eucharistic Origins (n. 4), p. 69. W. HORBURY, Cena pura and Lord’s Supper, in ID., Herodian Judaism
and New Testament Study (WUNT, 193), Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2006, 104-140, has tried
to show that as early as “early in the second century” (CE), Jews enjoyed a meal, cena pura,
on Friday before sunset. However, there is no evidence that in the second century cena pura
was a meal at all, nor that in that period the main meal connected with Sabbath fell on Friday.
In Christian Latin, cena pura is just the name for the day before Sabbath, i.e., Friday. In the
first and second centuries the main Sabbath meal was eaten on Saturday in the afternoon and/
or evening, not on Friday (contra BRADSHAW, Early Christian Worship [n. 4], p. 44: “the most
important meal in connection with the Sabbath is that on Friday evening before sunset and the
onset of the Sabbath”). It is questionable whether cena pura was ever a Jewish meal. I see no
historical relationship between cena pura and the κυριακὸν δεῖπνον. Festus’ isolated reference to cenae purae, 230M, 338L, concerns Gentile meals.
102. It must be admitted that ROUWHORST advances his proposal with considerable caution
and strong hesitation, even more so in his Christlicher Gottesdienst und der Gottesdienst
Israels (n. 22), p. 538.
103. To my surprise, MESSNER, Der Gottesdienst (n. 18), p. 367, n. 139, has attributed
to me the opinion that the earliest Christians held their communal meal “am Abend nach
Ende des Sabbats (nach heutigem Zeitgefühl am Vorabend des Sonntags)”. Nothing is further from the truth. I have always argued and maintained that from the earliest times Jesus’
followers have met on Sunday: at first on Sunday evening, later both on Sunday evening
and Sunday morning, but at least until 200 C.E. not on Saturday evening. I now admit that
it is less clear on which day the Lord’s supper of 1 Cor 10–14 took place than I have thought
104. BRADSHAW, Eucharistic Origins (n. 4), pp. 72-73; ID., Early Christian Worship
(n. 4), pp. 84-85.
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from Saturday evening to Sunday morning”. Unfortunately, this theory
seems to raise more questions than it solves. Firstly, what needs to be
explained is not a eucharistic celebration on Sunday morning, but one on
Sunday evening, for whenever we can assign a eucharistic celebration in
the first or second century to an hour of the week, it is to Sunday evening,
not to Sunday morning105. Or, as Bradshaw himself states, “It is not until
the third century that we can encounter any indications in literary sources
that the Eucharist might have been celebrated in the morning rather than
the evening”106. Secondly, why would congregations have transferred their
Saturday meetings, either the assembly for study of the Law, or a “Saturday evening eucharistic meal”, from Saturday evening to Sunday morning?
Thirdly, is there any evidence at all that predominantly Gentile communities held a “Saturday evening eucharistic meal”?
McGowan’s proposal resembles those of Bradshaw and Rouwhorst107.
According to McGowan, the celebrations of the eucharist were “perhaps
held on Saturday nights (counted as the first part of Sunday by Jewish
reckoning) at first”, forming a complement to the Sabbath observance of
Judaean Christians. Subsequently, the meal was transferred from Saturday
night to Sunday morning. This resulted in the meals of Christian communities being held on Sunday morning. But this view, too, leaves many questions unanswered. Is it imaginable that on one evening and the ensuing night,
participants enjoyed first the Sabbath meal and then, as a complement, the
full meal of the Lord’s supper or eucharist (if that is what McGowan means
by “complement”)? Why was the eucharistic meal shifted to the Sunday
morning? Why do we not find any reminiscence of this shift in the sources
available? Is it imaginable that eucharistic meals, as long as they were still
real, full meals, including the drinking of wine (as was the case from Paul
to Tertullian), were held early in the morning before work? That is, could
the Sunday eucharists described by the Didache (9–10; 14), Justin and
Tertullian (Apol. 39) be held early in the morning before work? True, this
has often been believed with regard to the Didache and Justin. But this
view is being more and more challenged108, and rightly so. Furthermore,
105. This applies, e.g., to Act 20,7-11, Ignatius, Barnabas, the Didache and Justin.
106. BRADSHAW, Eucharistic Origins (n. 4), p. 68.
107. MCGOWAN, Ancient Christian Worship (n. 18), pp. 221-223.
108. For the Didache, see, e.g., W. RORDORF – A. TUILIER, La Doctrine des douze apôtres (Didachè) (CS, 248bis), Paris, Cerf, 1998, p. 66: “Mais il est sûr ... qu’elle avait lieu
le dimanche soir, puisque le repas principal était généralement pris en fin de journée”. For
Justin, see, e.g., KLINGHARDT, Gemeinschaftsmahl (n. 7), pp. 502-503: “auf den Abend bzw.
den späten Nachmittag (cena)”. As to Justin, MCGOWAN, Ancient Christian Worship (n. 18),
p. 48, says: “Justin’s eucharist seems to be a full meal”. Does this not imply that it was an
evening meal? BRADSHAW – JOHNSON, Eucharistic Liturgies (n. 20), p. 28, rightly observe
that Justin does not say explicitly that his eucharist fell on Sunday morning, thus leaving the
possibility open that it fell on an evening, but then go on to put it on Saturday evening. This
is an implausible option in the light of the fact that Justin places his eucharist “on the day
called ‘of the Sun’” (Apol. I, 67.3); this is the Sunday of the Roman calendar in which the
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why does McGowan try to explain the phenomenon of eucharistic celebrations on Sunday morning in the first place? Is there any indication that the
eucharist was celebrated in the morning before the end of the second century? Finally, was the Saturday night ever counted as part of the Sunday
in the first two centuries (see above)?
The hypotheses discussed above, which attempt to elucidate how Sunday
came to be chosen as the day for the communal meal of the Christians, are
somewhat complicated and not really convincing. In my view that choice
must have been made for more pragmatic reasons. My own tentative
explanation is the following.
The celebration of the eucharist on Sunday evening first becomes clearly
visible in Acts 20, Ignatius, the Didache and Justin. Seeing the spread of
this tradition in mutually interdependent sources, it must go quite far back
in time, perhaps to the middle of the first century. In some places the communal assembly and supper may have been held on other days, but from
the beginning of the second century at the latest, Sunday was the most
favoured day. An explanation of why the eucharistic celebration was held
on Sunday evening must fit into the situation of one or more Christian
communities around the middle of the first century.
Christianity emerged as a movement within Judaism. The Christians of
the thirties were still all Judaeans, and remained so for most of the forties.
We know that in many places Judaean families on Saturday afternoon or
evening, towards the end of the Sabbath, enjoyed a festive meal in their
family circle, to which guests could also be invited109. Many Judaeans who
became Christians would have continued to take part in these family meals
on Saturday evening. However, for them as Christians a separate communal meal with their fellow-Christians was more in agreement with their
beliefs. Only in such a group meal and in the social gathering that followed
it could they share their new convictions and expectations to the full with
their fellow-believers. Only at the Christian evening meal did they really
anticipate the ideal future that they expected. Only at this meal did they
experience being “a new creation”. Only this evening meal was the full
expression of their new identity. Compared to this, the Judaean family
meal, however festive it might be, left something to desire.
It is possible, as stated above, that Christian Judaeans already celebrated a separate group meal before Gentiles joined the movement of Jesus
believers. It is also possible that the Christian group supper only emerged
after Gentiles had begun to join the movement. In either case, however,
there was a certain inevitable competition for the Christian Judaeans
days were called after the planets and deemed to begin at midnight or sunrise. It cannot be
a Saturday, as BRADSHAW, Eucharistic Origins (n. 4), p. 69, senses: “Yet, would Justin have
described Saturday evening to the Emperor as being ‘on the day called of the Sun’ (67.3),
when the Roman reckoning of the day ran from midnight to midnight?”
109. See n. 101 above.
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between the new Christian communal meal and the Sabbath meal of their
Judaean families – albeit a competition within the framework of Judaism.
Unintentionally, the Christian group meal must have been experienced by
Christian Judaeans, not only as a sort of supplement to, but also as a correction to, or an improvement on the Judaean family meal of the Saturday
evening, as transcending the Sabbath meal, perhaps also as its completion
and sublimation.
Undoubtedly the Sabbath banquet of Judaean families also had a religious
function. But for those who participated both in the Judaean family meal
and the Christian group supper, the function of the second must have transcended that of the first. In this way the Christian communal meal became
for them a kind of corrective to the Judaean family meal. But to make up
for the imperfection of the family meal, its corrective (the Christian supper),
had to follow it as soon as possible110. For a correction is most effective
when it follows as quickly as possible that which it must correct. Hence the
appropriate time for the gathering of Christian Judaeans, after their family
meal on Saturday evening, was the end of the following day, after their
work was done. This was the first possible opportunity after the Sabbath.
And thus, according to this hypothesis, the Christian communal meal came
to be held on Sunday evening. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that,
according to Eusebius, around the turn of the first century a certain group
of Judaean Christians, the Ebionites, observed both the Sabbath and the
Lord’s day, on which they “celebrated rites similar to our own”111. The
observance of the Sabbath must have included the Sabbath meal on Saturday; the “rites” of the Sunday comprised no doubt the eucharist.
All this does not mean that the choice of Sunday evening was quite
deliberate. It may well have been made without much reflection or discussion, fairly spontaneously. But we can still detect a certain rationality in
the choice.
The case for such a theory of “correction” in the interest of constructing
a new group-identity has been sustained by P. Lanfranchi112. He points out
110. That Sunday was regarded as “superlative” compared with the Sabbath, is also
implicit in its regular designation as the “eighth day”; see, e.g., Barn 15.9; Justin, Dial. 38.1.
Sunday was of course the first day of the week in both the Judaean and the Christian calendar,
but it is often called the “eighth day” as though it surpassed and improved upon the Sabbath
or seventh day. See RORDORF, Der Sonntag (n. 5), pp. 271-280. For the idea of Sunday as
an improvement on, and the perfection of Sabbath, see also Apostolic Constitutions 7.36
(4th century), which contains a prayer for the Sunday which is a Christian reworking of a
Jewish prayer for the Sabbath. Moreover, the Christian editor explicitly says that Sunday
surpasses all values of the Sabbath: ... ὧν ἁπάντων ἡ κυριακὴ προούχουσα, i.e., “Sunday
surpasses all that” (7.36.6; I owe this reference to dr P. Lanfranchi).
111. Eusebius, Hist. Eccles. 4.27.
112. P. LANFRANCHI, Attitudes to the Sabbath in Three Apostolic Fathers: Didache,
Ignatius and Barnabas, in BUITENWERF – HOLLANDER – TROMP (eds.), Jesus, Paul and Early
Christianity (n. 32), pp. 243-259. J. WEISS, Der erste Korintherbrief (KEK), Göttingen,
Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 91910, p. 382, wondered “ob man den Tag nach Sabbat, oder
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that the compiler of the Didache goes so far as to reorganise time for his
community by replacing the current fast days, Monday and Thursday,
important identity markers for contemporary Judaism, by those of a competing ancient, sacerdotal calendar, Wednesday and Friday (Did 8.1). Lanfranchi also points to Ignatius’ view that for Christians keeping the Sunday
has taken the place of Sabbath observance (IgnMagn 9.1).
The available evidence does not allow us to describe a complete, continuous, linear and detailed genealogy of the eucharist in the first to third
centuries. Our sources are scanty and give scanty information. For many
places and long periods we have no information at all. An historical map
of the eucharist in this early period necessarily shows many blank spaces
and many uncertain indications. What is clear is that eucharistic practices
and ideas could widely differ from place to place and change with time.
They developed at different places at a different pace.
In spite of some uncertainty about the day on which the Christian community meal took place in the first decades after Jesus, Sunday evening
quickly became the time for many Christian communities to gather for
eating and drinking together. From Acts 20 (about 80-95 CE?) we can see
the eucharist being celebrated as a complete, full evening meal on Sunday
evening. Thereafter we can see the same thing in Ignatius113, Barnabas114,
the Didache, Justin and Tertullian. From the end of the second century
to the middle of the third we also find eucharists celebrated on Sunday
morning, mentioned by Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, the Didascalia,
Cyprian and the Apostolic Tradition, but in most if not all cases these celebrations took place alongside eucharists held at a later hour on Sunday, in
the late afternoon or the evening. The eucharistic celebrations held in the
morning had a stylised, ritualised form, and the food and drink was only
distributed in small, symbolic amounts. The reason for this was not only
that early in the morning participants had less time and less need for an
extensive meal, but also that the increasing numbers of believers could only
be served conveniently and smoothly if the shape and procedure of the meal
was simplified and the amounts of food and drink distributed were reduced
den 8. Tag, wie Barn 15,9 sagt, gewählt hat, bloss um sich irgend wie von den Juden zu
unterscheiden”. But in that case they could have chosen any other evening of the week; the
question is why they chose the first evening after that of the Sabbath meal.
113. Ignatius has certainly not used a calendar in which the days began on the evening
before, if such a calendar existed at all. He looked at Judaism as an outsider and opposed
any form of ἰουδαΐζειν and σαββατίζειν by Christians (Magn 9.1; 10.3). For him the
Sunday (κυριακή, Magn 9.1) can only have been the Sunday from dawn to sunset, or from
midnight to midnight. On Barnabas, see n. 61 above.
114. Barn 15.9: ἄγομεν τὴν ἡμέραν τὴν ὀγδόην εἰς εὐφροσύνην.
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to small portions. The effect was that ever growing numbers of Church
members attended the Sunday morning service, whereas the traditional supper on Sunday evening developed into a charity meal for the poor and needy,
among whom the better-off were less and less willing to be seen. Gradually,
the morning eucharist came to be considered the more important and the
evening eucharist the less important event, so much so that the evening meal
lost its sacramental status and, in the long run, disappeared.
It appears that as soon as the Sunday eucharist can be pinned down to a
certain part of the Sunday, this is to the evening, and not the eve of the
Sunday, but the later hours of the Sunday itself. This is clear in the case of
Acts 20,8, Justin, Tertullian and the “agapae” (which were eucharists)
criticised by Clement of Alexandria, but also plausible in the cases of Ignatius, the Didache and Barnabas. Moreover, as far as I know, there is no
clear indication that an early Christian eucharist was ever celebrated on
Saturday evening. Consequently, theories that try to explain the Christian
eucharist as a complement to the Judaean family supper on Sabbath or as
an extension of the Sabbath gathering in the synagogue for the study of the
law, fail to carry conviction, the more so since these theories do not explain
why at least in a number of cases that “complement” or “extension”
shifted to the Sunday morning and finally even to the Sunday evening. In
addition, it is hard to imagine how the Sabbath meal, which was normally
a good, festive meal, could be followed by a second full meal on the same
evening or in the same night.
It seems much more likely that, sometime in the 30s or 40s of the first
century, the eucharist originated as a Christian association banquet on
the analogy of the periodical parties of unofficial, voluntary associations as
were so numerous in the Hellenistic world, both among Gentiles and Judaeans. True, its weekly periodicity was based on that of the observance of the
Sabbath. The custom of saying grace before and after the meal was analogous to the practice of blessing or thanksgiving at meals as observed by
many Judaeans. In certain cases the Christian prayers of thanksgiving could
even resemble those said in Judaean circles. But all this does not mean that
the Christian eucharist can be regarded as emanating, directly or indirectly,
from a Sabbath meal or from the synagogal meeting on Sabbath devoted to
the study of the Law. Using the widely popular model of the banquet of the
voluntary association, Christians created their own community feast. In and
through this ritual they created for themselves a symbolic universe in which
they could express and experience their relation with God, Christ and each
other and also give expression to the joy of their salvation, the ideal of
mutual equality and community, and their anticipation of the age to come.
Zeemanlaan 47
NL-2313 SW Leiden
The Netherlands
[email protected]
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Henk Jan
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ABSTRACT. — As soon as the time at which the eucharist took place can be
pinned down to a certain part of the week, this is to the evening, not the eve of
the Sunday. Consequently, theories that try to explain the Christian eucharist as a
complement to the Judaean family supper on Saturday evening or as an extension
of the Sabbath gathering in the synagogue for the study of the law, fail to carry
conviction, the more so since there is no evidence that the eucharist was ever
moved from Saturday evening to Sunday morning or evening. Using the widely
popular model of the banquet of the voluntary association, Christians formed their
own community feast on Sunday evening. They may have chosen this evening
because for Judaean Christians who also participated in the Sabbath meal of their
family on Saturday, the significance of the Christian communal supper transcended
that of the family meal held on Saturday. For them, the eucharist was a completion
or sublimation, and thus sort of a corrective of the family meal. Therefore, it had
to follow the latter as soon as possible, that is, on Sunday after work was done – for
a correction is most effective when it follows as quickly as possible that which it
tries to correct.
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