Origins and Influences IX: Eucharist in the 150s AD

Justin Martyr, as he is usually termed, was born c100AD in Samaria, Palestine. He converted to Christianity, probably from paganism. His surviving works are all defences of, arguments for, Christianity – and in two of them he addresses the theme of the Eucharist.

The first of them, The Dialogue with Trypho, offers a conversation between Justin and Trypho, a Jew. In conversation, Justin tries to persuade Trypho to convert to Christianity, and answers his various objections. In the dialogue Justin argues that the Eucharist is the Sacrifice pleasing to God, which is offered now by the Church in the bread and cup of thanksgiving. (cf Malachi 1.10b-12a). He argues this has replaced the sacrifices of Judaism (which, in any case, had ceased with the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple).

The second, the First Apology, dated around 150AD, is addressed to the Emperor, Antoninus Pius, arguing against the persecution of the Church, and defending the virtue of Christianity. For our purposes it is most notable for giving us our earliest (relatively) full description of how Christians celebrated Eucharist.

In the Apology Justin actually gives us two descriptions, the first being the conclusion of a longer baptismal liturgy and the second seemingly an account of the more usual Sunday practice.

The conclusion of a Baptismal Liturgy

65.1 After we have thus baptized him who has believed and has given his assent, we take him to those who are called brethren where they are assembled, to make common prayers earnestly for ourselves and for him who has been enlightened’ and for all others everywhere, that, having learned the truth, we may be deemed worthy to be found good citizens also in our actions and guardians of the Commandments, so that we may be saved with eternal salvation.

When we have ended the prayers, we greet one another with a kiss.

Then bread and a cup of water and (a cup) of mixed wine are brought to him who presides over the brethren, and he takes them and sends up praise and glory to the Father of all in the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and gives thanks at some length that we have been deemed worthy of these things from him. When he has finished the prayers and the thanksgiving, all the people give their assent by saying “Amen.” “Amen” is the Hebrew for “So be it.”

And when the president has given thanks and all the people have assented, those whom we call deacons give to each of those present a portion of the bread and wine and water over which thanks have been given, and take them to those who are not present.

There are a number of points that are worth commenting on.

  • The common prayers would seem to be akin to the Prayer of the Faithful of Mass today. Prayers offered by the Church for the world, for herself and for particular needs.
  • The kiss -the sign of peace – here follows the common prayers, preceding the bringing of the offerings to the altar, perhaps in conscious obedience to Jesus’ words at Matthew 5.23-24: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift”
  • The elements brought to the altar may have been not only the bread and cup of wine mixed with water but also a second cup which was of water only. There is a certain ambiguity in the Latin, one cup with wine and water mixed or a cup of water and a cup of wine mixed with water. There is a plausibility with either reading, but Justin does not explain further on the significance of the two cups.
  • There is little detail given of the prayer of Thanksgiving, the Eucharistic Prayer, but Justin notes the particular significance of the congregation’s concluding and affirming Amen.
  • The Prayer is offered by the ‘President’. Justin uses the word proestos – a Greek word meaning ‘leader’ – the implication being this is a corporate work carried out by a leader with others, not a (for example, priestly) work for the congregation.
  • Deacons distribute the Eucharistic food and drink to the gathered assembly, and then take some of it to those who are not present. Again there seems to be an emphasis on the integrity of the body of the faithful – all of those present, and with those unable to be present.

Our thanksgiving/eucharistic food

This account of the Eucharist which concludes the Baptismal Liturgy is followed by a further exploration of the nature of Eucharist

66.1 And we call this food “thanksgiving“; and no one may partake of it unless he is convinced of the truth of our teaching, and has been cleansed with the washing for forgiveness of sins and regeneration, and lives as Christ handed down.

For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but just as our Saviour Jesus Christ, being incarnate through the word of God, took flesh and blood for our salvation, so too we have been taught that the food over which thanks have been given by a word of prayer which is from him, (the food) from which our flesh and blood are fed by transformation, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.

For the apostles in the records composed by them which are called gospels, have handed down thus what was commanded of them: that Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and said, “Do this for the remembrance of me; this is my body”; and likewise he took the cup, gave thanks, and said “This is my blood”; and gave to them alone.

And the evil demons have imitated this and handed it down to be done also in the mysteries of Mithras. For as you know or may learn, bread and a cup of water are used with certain formulas in their rites of initiation.

  • The  food and drink is named after the action, the praying over them – thanksgiving/eucharistein.
  • The eucharistic food and drink is reserved for those who have been baptised. This same care is there right from the beginning that the Eucharist is food and drink for those who have been baptised and who live as Christ handed down. We have previously observed in the Didache.
  • Justin considers the gospels to have been written by the apostles. Scholars now see the link between the apostles Matthew and John and the gospels that bear their names as less immediate. Mark and Luke of course were not apostles, although traditionally Mark and Luke were close to Peter and Paul respectively.
  • Mithraism was a religion popular in the 1st and 2nd Centuries. It had elaborate initiation rites and, as Justin notes, these included a share meal. It seems unlikely that there was direct influence of Christianity on Mithraism or vice versa.

The Sunday Liturgy

67.1 And thereafter we continually remind one another of these things. Those who have the means help all those in need; and we are always together.

And we bless the Maker of all things through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit over all that we offer.

And  on the day called Sunday an assembly is held in one place of all who live in town or country, and the records of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as time allows.

Then, when the reader has finished, the president in a discourse admonishes and exhorts (us) to imitate these good things

Then we all stand up together and send up prayers; and as we said before, when we have finished praying, bread and wine and water are brought up, and the president likewise sends up prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the people assent, saying the Amen; and the (elements over which) thanks have been given are distributed, and everyone partakes; and they are sent through the deacons to those who are not present.

And the wealthy who so desire give what they wish, as each chooses; and what is collected is deposited with the president.

He helps orphans and widows, and those who through sickness or any other cause are in need, and those in prison, and strangers sojourning among us; in a word, he takes care of all those who are in need.

And we all assemble together on Sunday, because it is the first day, on which God transformed darkness and matter, and made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour rose from the dead on that day; for they crucified him the day before Saturday; and the day after Saturday, which is Sunday, he appeared to his apostles and disciples, and taught them these things which we have presented to you also for your consideration.

I will not comment on all the significant elements of the passage above, only those which did not appear in the previous excerpts from Justin’s 1st Apology.

  • Justin twice observes that the community gathers on Sunday – in the opening and closing sentences of this section. The reason for Sunday gathering will be explored below, but here it suffices to note that Justin does not tell us when on Sunday the assembly gathers. Is it on Saturday evening, in Roman counting, but the beginning of Sunday, according to Jewish custom? Or is it Sunday itself, as it were? We don’t know. Neither do we know whether at this time the weekly gathering was still preceded by a shared meal as was the earlier custom, or whether there had been a separation between them, even a jettisoning of the shared meal in favour of (only) the Eucharistic rite.
  • Justin says readings from apostles or prophets are read. Does this mean sometimes readings came from the Old Testament and sometimes from the New? Or might it be both. Either way the reading seems to be determined not by set readings from a Lectionary but reading (and listening!) according to the time available.
  • The reader reads, and the presider, with the rest of the assembly listens. Then the presider gives his discourse. This same model is the norm proposed by the Roman rite today where readers, psalmist and deacon proclaim the word, and then the priest/bishop preaches.
  • In the same way that there does not seem to have been a Lectionary, neither did the President have the convenience of a Missal with composed Eucharistic Prayers – he prayed to the best of his ability. Later, perhaps in order to protect against heresy being imported, presidents were required to use given texts for the thanksgiving.
  • If we have doubt as to whether this is Mass, perhaps the reference to a collection will assuage those doubts!
  • It is perhaps surprising that what is collected (money, food? We are not told) is lodged with the president. Surprising only because one might have thought it would be given to the deacons to dstribute – but Justin only witnesses to their service of the distribution of the eucharistic food (and drink?). It is the president who is singled out as the caregiver here.
  • And finally Justin again returns to Sunday and now gives expounds on its meaning.

A familiar pattern for the Eucharist

Taken all together these descriptions of the Church’s prayer can provide the following structure pretty similar to the outline of our celebrations of Mass today,

  • Gathering of the Assembly
  • Readings
  • Homily
  • Prayer of the Faithful
  • Kiss of Peace
  • Presentation of the gifts/collection for the poor
  • Prayers and thanksgiving by the Presider
  • Distribution of the ‘eucharistized’ bread and wine

There are of course differences to what we do know, but not many. And maybe those differences challenge us about how we are and how we do things – maybe particularly the effects of doing things by the book; the direct link between our Sunday assembly and the care of those not able to be present, and of those in need.

Reflection questions

  • What most strikes you in Justin’s account of the Thanksgiving?
  • Is there anything notable absent from it?
  • What do you think are the positives and what might be the negatives of Liturgy from the Books?
  • How is ministry encouraged in your community?
  • How does the community take responsibility for the care of absent members and the needy?

A log with links to previous postings in this series is kept here.

Acknowledgements

  • Translation of First Apology taken from R.C.D Jasper and G.J Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist Early and Reformed. 3rd revised edition. Collegeville: Pueblo Publishing, The Liturgical Press, 1990.
  • The Roman Missal (c) 2010, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation. All rights reserved.
  • Photograph (c) 2012, Allen Morris. Statue of St Justin Martyr, from church of Justin Martyr, Nablus, Palestinian Authority territory.
  • Graphic (c) Jonathan Stewart, 2007
  • Text (c) 2021, Allen Morris.

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