The essay will briefly describe what both Eucharistic and sacrificial meals consisted of in antiquity, followed by a discussion on Paul’s own understanding of them, seen in his first letter to the Corinthians. Whilst exegetically discussing the relevant passages (mainly 1 Cor 8 and 10) the piece of writing will include both modern and patristic understandings of the comparisons between the two meals, according to the Apostle Paul.
The Eucharistic meal would be initiated with a blessing, followed by the distribution of bread, then the meal itself, ending with a solemn blessing over the cup. This structure, used in the Early Church is attested to by the Didache. Indeed, there is reference to this meal in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians when complaining about the drunkenness and selfishness in the Eucharistic celebration (1 Cor 11:20-23) Perhaps this is why the meal itself was excluded from the practice, even though this part would probably have been significant for the great number of gentile Christians. Fr Giles Dimock argues that the Eucharistic meal stems from the Jewish passover meal (rather than from meals celebrated by gentiles) in the sense that, ‘hands were washed, cups of wine blessed and drunk, and bread was eaten in an atmosphere of celebration.’ For Giles, it is through Christ that ‘participation in the body of Christ’ (1 Cor 10:16) exists with the breaking of the bread, at this new passover offered by God to man. The ‘new covenant’ (1 Cor 11:25) is established, replacing the old ways of animal sacrifice. For this reason, Fr Giles describes it as ‘a new Passover from death to the life of the new Paschal Lamb, Jesus.’ The fulfilment of Jewish law and sacrificial meals can be seen here, ‘for Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed’ (1 Cor. 5: 7) on behalf of all. By partaking in His Eucharistic meal, we ‘proclaim the Lord’s death’ (1 Cor 11:26) in remembrance.
Meals involving the sacrifice of an animal (usually taking place in settings such as temples, clubs, private parties or banquets) on the other hand, formed one of the most important gatherings in all cultures of the ancient Mediterranean, in Paul’s context. The consumption of meat constituted the highest form of eating in relation to the gods, and involved sharing the food with them in a sense. Within Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the Lord’s Supper is discussed in order to distinguish itself from a sacrificial meal; in featuring bread instead of meat. Sacrificial meals involved the animal being slaughtered (somehow with its own consent) and finally shared unequally, according to the hierarchy of the people present. The meal itself creates differentiations; with the higher ranking, male citizens gathering round the altar roasting the ‘splanchna’ (heart, liver lungs and kidneys) before placing the god’s portion onto the altar. If anyone present was not who they claimed to be, it was said that the gods would show signs on the meat and the barbecue would be aborted. The splanchna (especially the liver) is seen as the receptor of communication from the gods. The second stage of the meal consisted of the ‘lower class’ citizens being offered portions of boiled meat (usually the thighs). We can thus conclude that sacrificial meals lack a sense of unity, as they differentiate between various sectors of society. In opposition to this, partaking of the ‘one bread’ (1 Cor 10:16) results in spiritual unity among its members of Christ’s body, with the meal bringing God’s faithful together regardless of social status or gender, for ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ.’ (Gal 3:28). All members drink from the same cup and celebrate the Eucharist equally.
The details regarding sacrificial meals are in fact of great important for Paul, as for most of the gentiles who constitute his churches. Any special meal or celebration will have be constituted by similar sacrificial activities in this period. Neither the Corinthians, nor the Apostle Paul could make sense of the Eucharistic celebration without a clear comparison with sacrificial meals; the most well known at that time. The Eucharist, according to Ron Cameron, certainly inhabits a culture centred on ‘θυσία.’ The difference is of course that the Eucharistic meal, although a partaking of and participation in Christ (Who sacrifices Himself for us) clearly has no connection to slaughter or violence of any kind. For Cameron, Paul’s interpretation of the Eucharistic meal shares the basic assumption with the sacrificial practice, that those who are present are liable to divine judgement. Paul warns the faithful that one has to be suitably prepared to partake of Christ’s body and blood - by testing himself. One must therefore take part only if their disposition towards the consecrated bread and wine is correct (1 Cor 11:29). One cannot argue against the fact both meals have a sense of preparation (and feeling of unworthiness standing before the divine). Perhaps this comparison also overlooks the fact that self-examination, repentance, and ones preparation for Christ’s eternal kingdom (and therefore for the Eucharist) is a central theme within the Gospel and is vital for the Christian’s life and relationship with God; not just something passed on by pagan culture by the gentiles.
The cup offered to the Christian community, ‘which we bless’ (1 Cor 10:14) is an offering to God. This Eucharist (Εὐχαριστία) is the faithful’s participation in, and the partaking of, Christ; as one body. Sacrificial, pagan meals on the other hand, according to the Apostle Paul, are an offering to demons. 1 Corinthians 10 warns us that rather than being partakers of demons, Christians are called to be partakers of God. It is important to note that the Eucharistic meal, for early Christians in Paul’s time, is the source and summit of their spiritual lives. The Church is changed from a human community into the body of Christ. Worship is the most profound activity of the people of God, with the Eucharistic meal especially at the heart of the Church’s life; meaning that to partake of an act in complete opposition to this meal would be understandably unacceptable and incompatible (1 Cor 10:20). The ‘new life’ (Rom 6:4) offered to us by Christ is constantly renewed, preserved and nurtured by the Eucharist. We, as Christians (whether from a gentile or Jewish background) are called to ‘commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God’ as the ancient liturgical tradition remind us. This means remaining faithful to our own Eucharistic practice, without involving ourselves in sacrificial meals offered to ‘gods,’ or rather demons - for we should not ‘be partners with demons.’ (1 Cor 10:20) Our goal is to ‘do all to the glory of God’ (1 Cor 10:31). Through our conscience, we can judge whether actions and decisions are acceptable to God. For example Saint Paul tells us that eating meat sold in the market is acceptable as ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ (1 Cor 10:26). However the distinction between this and sacrificial meals is that they clearly involve rituals and practices contrary to Christ’s teaching and commandments to love Him with all our heart, and our neighbour as ourselves (Matt 22:34-40), in other words equally and fairly (not the case with segregating sacrificial meals).
For Saint Paul, sacrificial meals are offered to non-existent idols. There are many so-called gods and idols, but only ‘one God, the Father, from whom are all things..’ (1 Cor 8:6) He thus stresses that we, as followers of Christ, ascribe glory, thanksgiving and worship to our one Creator and Lord; this being the case within the context of the meal. Paul recognises that ‘not all possess this knowledge’ (1 Cor 8:7) however it is for those who do know, to create an example to others by abstaining from meals within idol’s temples. According to the Church Fathers, knowledge is useful in itself if it is humbled by love. Paul strikes down the notion of pride and self-exaltation as a result of knowledge, by stating that ‘Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.’ Egoism leads to divisions, where as for Paul, love unites and leads to knowledge.
Saint John Chrysostom argues that for Paul, the idols do not have any power, for they do not even exist. One may argue that Paul is admitting (in 1 Cor 8:5) that there are indeed ‘gods’ and ‘lords,’ who perhaps have power and some form of authority. On the contrary, Chrysostom tells us that Paul uses such phrases ‘not in reality.. but in name.’ In other words, in Paul’s context, pagan worship of pseudo-gods is a common and well known practice and occurrence, and therefore he is simply using the terms used in antiquity. As Fredriksen points out, virtually all social activity throughout this period involves interaction with the ‘gods.’ One noticeable method Paul uses in order to preach, is not only knowing the people’s strengths and weaknesses, but also local practices and culture. This culture of worshipping local ‘gods and lords’ was prominent and had to be addressed. The fact he clarifies that an idol is nothing, for there is no other God, emphasises that for Paul this passage is a matter of how one should relate to sacrificial meals, and not a question of monotheism.
Although Chrysostom’s stance is clear, 1 Corinthians 8 still undoubtedly poses an interpretive problem for us. As previously mentioned, Paul clearly argues that idols (εἴδωλον) do not exist and therefore eating food offered to them (εἰδωλόθῦτος) does not pose a great issue. The second half of the chapter however, refutes this by arguing that this knowledge may lead the weak to catastrophe. This then allows us to question how (if idols really are nothing to worry about) the weak can be destroyed? Wendell L Willis argues that the passage is in fact a response to a letter sent to Paul by the Corinthians. Much of St Paul’s passage can then be seen as quotations from the suggested letter, rather than his own position. The Corinthians would probably have reached their own conclusions about eating sacrificial meat already, and are writing to share this with Paul. This offers us another explanation for why the Apostle Paul seems to refer to the gods in that manner; as this is the way the gentiles would have culturally referred to them. He then responds to their view by stating our actions should be based on love (ἀγάπη) rather than supposed knowledge. Daniel C. Ullucci notes that the problem for Paul is direct participation in the sacrifice to idols (as seen in 1 Cor 10, actively partaking in the demonic practices of sacrificial meals). This point describes the main difference between the Eucharistic meal and the sacrificial meal; by partaking in a sacrificial meal we are actively connecting ourselves to evil, whereas partaking of the Eucharist connects us to our life-giving Creator as one body in Christ.
Paul’s audience, unlike the earlier Apostles, is pagan, not Jewish. Paul’s pagan, ‘god-congested environment’ (as Fredriksen writes) means that he has to deal with these ancestral, local gods - as John Chrysostom suggests. After all, we come across these gods within the Old Testament Scriptures, giving ‘thanks to the God of gods.’ (Ps 136:2) These ‘gods’ may be dependent on the Creator, however if they have some limited form of power as errant angels, it would explain why Saint Paul warns us of taking part in meals offered in their name; as they are demonic. (1 Cor 10:20-21) Even though Paul’s gentile followers will have retained their native ethnicities, they no longer worshipped their native gods. We are told that ‘all the nations will turn (επιστρέψουσιν) in fear of the Lord God.. and bury their idols.’ (Tob 15:6)
John Chrysostom gives us a concise exegetical comment, regarding the importance of the Eucharistic meal as the ‘cup of blessing.. a participation in the blood of Christ.’ For Chrysostom, this is a statement of faith and awe; the fact that the Eucharist is this indescribable gift (2 Cor 9:15) sharing in Christ, praising Him and partaking of Him. The Lord gives us this gift, for us to participate together in His loving communion, putting aside the former dead flesh (Eph 2:1; Col 2:13). On the contrary, participating in the celebrations consisting of sacrificed food would be to turn back on ourselves, falling into the animalistic ways of the flesh. Clement of Alexandria notes that Paul is not saying we should abstain due to fear, but rather for the sake of our consciences. This suggests that the Eucharist cleans the human being and his holy conscience (1 Cor 10:28-29), whereas the sacrificial celebration defiles it. Feeding on Christ, at His ‘feast of love’ (as it was known) fills man with divine contemplation, ensures spiritual growth, stability and purity as opposed to feasting on sacrificed earthly creatures, connected to gluttony, bodily pleasures and satisfaction.
To conclude, following the historical descriptions of the Eucharistic and sacrificial meals, the essay has discussed ways in which we can compare and contrast them in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians - using the writings and arguments of Saint John Chrysostom, Paula Fredriksen, Daniel Ullucci and other patristic and modern scholars.
Calivas A 1988, The Sacrament of the Economy of Salvation in ‘One Loaf, One Cup - Ecumenical Studies of 1 Cor and Other Eucharistic Texts, Cambridge: Mercer.
Cameron R 2011, Redescribing Paul and the Corinthians, Atlanta: SBL.
Chrysostom J 1956, Homilies on First Corinthians - Homily XX, Michigan: Eerdmans.
Dimock G,The Eucharist: Sacrament and Sacrifice (Online).
Fredriksen P, The Question of Worship: Gods, Pagans and the Redemption of Israel (Online).
The Church’s Bible 2005, Cambridge: Eerdmans.
Ullucci D 2012, The Christian Rejection of Animal Sacrifice (Published to Oxford Scholarship Online)