Evening Prayer, week of Easter 3


Scripture: John 21: 4-13 Nigel Bunce

Bread-and-fish eucharists originated from today’s Scripture story, along with the Feeding of the Five Thousand.  But why depart from the ‘traditional’ bread-and wine Eucharist?  One answer is that, in principle, any ordinary food or drink couldbe made holy. But, more controversially, perhaps, for some early Christian communities the idea of eating  Christ’s body and drinking his Blood deeply was offensive.  


Linking tonight’s Evening Prayer to last Sunday’s homily

This evening’s reading was also last Sunday’s Gospel, when I talked about fish and bread eucharists. I mentioned then, and on Maundy Thursday, that John’s Gospel omits the Passover meal that Jesus ate with his disciples. Tonight, I’ll discuss some controversial theories about why some of John’s communities might have preferred a bread and fish eucharist for religious reasons.

Dating of New Testament Eucharist accounts

St. Paul gave us the earliest account of what we know as Communion, in First Corinthians, Chapter 11. That was little more than a decade after Jesus’ crucifixion. Twenty years later, Mark repeated much the same narrative. Followed, some 15 years after that, by Matthew and Luke.

John’s Gospel didn’t appear till almost the turn of the century. Therefore, it seems almost inconceivable that John didn’t know about what we call the Last Supper. So he must have omitted it deliberately. The question is why.

Was the issue an early temperance movement?

One possibility is that Paul wrote that in his day, the Lord’s Supper was a real sit-down meal. Not a symbolic one. Paul criticized his community for not sharing at that “pot-luck” type of event. Also, some members over-indulged and got drunk at the meal. Possibly, John’s community was very ascetic. Maybe they wanted to keep their members from the temptations of alcohol?

Or, did some communities find the words of the bread-and-wine Eucharist offensive?

In my mind, a more plausible explanation is that John’s community was indeed ascetic. But their concern was that they found the words of the conventional eucharist offensive. Take, eat, this is my body. And even worse, Drink this, this is my Blood. Jewish converts to emerging Christianity would have been horrified by the suggestion of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood. Indeed, during the early Christian centuries, outsiders suspected that the Christian Eucharist was some kind of cannibalistic ritual.

An unresolved problem

I had forgotten, until Jan reminded me last week, that John’s Gospel contains a single passage that disagrees with what I just said. I’m quoting from John 6: 53-56, on the exposition of the Feeding of the 5000.

53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

However, although scholars date John’s Gospel to the end of the 1st century CE, no complete MS is known for more than a century later.  That leaves plenty of time for scribal amendment to harmonize John with the synoptic traditions. In addition, recent work by Jan Heilmann discounts the idea that John 6: 53-56 necessarily implies a conventional Eucharist.

For the moment, I’ll stick to my theory about Jewish sensibilities. But, I will keep researching the matter. However, some early Christian communities definitely did celebrate eucharist with bread-and-fish, not bread-and-wine.

Further, they relied mainly on John’s Gospel with its twin emphases on the feeding miracle and the post-Resurrection meal on the beach. Amen.