When Was the First Communion?

How Jesus’ Last Supper in the Bible was commemorated by early Christians

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it, he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”—Matthew 26:26–28

last-supper

Jesus’ Last Supper in the Bible. The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci portrays Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples before his crucifixion.

When was the first communion?

The event described in Matthew 26:26–28 (also in Mark 14:22–25 and Luke 22:14–23) is known as the Last Supper. It was Jesus’ last meal with his disciples before his crucifixion. In that meal, which was a Passover meal, Jesus gave bread and wine—representing his body and blood—to his disciples. These were symbols of his new covenant. Further, he charged his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19), meaning Jesus’ followers were to partake of bread and wine and remember him. Jesus’ Last Supper in the Bible is the foundation for the Christian tradition of taking communion—known as the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion and the Eucharist.

Early Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper as a full meal, but by the third century, it had ceased to be a banquet and had become a ritualized small meal instead. Steven Shisley examines how the Lord’s Supper transitioned from a full meal to a ritual in his Biblical Views column “From Supper to Sacrament: How the Last Supper Evolved” published in the March/April 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Shisley explains that in the first and second centuries C.E., Christians usually gathered in individual homes for a communal evening meal to commemorate the Lord’s Supper. Although these meals generally fostered community, they sometimes led to disagreement, discord and debauchery. Shisley elaborates:

Early Christians participated in meals characterized by inclusivity, care for one another and unity (Acts 2:43–47; cf. Acts 6:1–7). But as Paul’s letters indicate, these idealistic practices at the Lord’s Supper sometimes became abused because Christians either practiced Jewish purity laws at the table (e.g., considering what types of foods were appropriate to consume), or they transformed the meal into a gathering modeled after Greco-Roman banquets by drinking too much wine (Galatians 2:11–14; cf. Romans 14–15; 1 Corinthians 11:17–34).

kathedrale-sancti-spiritus

When was the first communion? The tradition of communion originated with the Last Supper in the Bible, when Jesus gave bread and wine to his disciples as symbols of the “new covenant.” This painting of the Last Supper appears in the cathedral of Sancti Spíritus, Cuba. Photo: “Cathedral of Sancti Spiritus, Cuba” by Anagoria is licensed under CC-by-3.0.

Such misuses of the Lord’s Supper factored into communion becoming more controlled and structured in the Christian Church; communion became less of a meal and more of a ritual. In his column, Shisley explores several additional reasons for this shift, one of which relates to the time of day that Christians gathered to assemble. During the third century, Christians began assembling in the morning: “[T]he apologist Tertullian [c. 155–240 C.E.] recounts how his community in Carthage began to assemble in the mornings to participate in a separate Eucharistic ritual at an altar (De Corona 3). … According to Cyprian, a third-century bishop, Christians in Carthage regularly gathered as one large assembly in the morning at an altar for a Eucharistic sacrifice in buildings devoted to religious activities (Epistle 62.14–17; Epistle 33.4–5).” The growing size of the Christian community and the desire for all local Christians to meet together, which often necessitated a formal religious structure larger than a house, also likely contributed to the Lord’s Supper becoming a ritualized meal.

To learn more about the Lord’s Supper and its development from a full meal to a ritual, read Steven Shisley’s Biblical Views column “From Supper to Sacrament: How the Last Supper Evolved” in the March/April 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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BAS Library Members: Read the full column “From Supper to Sacrament: How the Last Supper Evolved” by Steven Shisley in the March/April 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on April 10, 2017.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder? by Jonathan Klawans

The Hungry Jesus by Andrew McGowan

Did Jesus’ Last Supper Take Place Above the Tomb of David?

A Feast for the Senses … and the Soul
 


 

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  • TJ says

    Fascinating article and discussion points. I wish BAS/BAR would do an in-depth article about the Didache’s (Dihd-uh-kay) view on communion. (The Didache, aka “The Teachings of the 12 Apostles,” is considered to be the earliest Christian manual/handbook for newly baptized Christians or for pagans/Gentiles pre-baptism.) There is no mention of body and blood. In fact, the Didache has blessing the cup/wine FIRST and talking about Jesus as being of the vine of David (more about Jesus’s messianic genealogy) and then the bread second. (Opposite of what we do in most mainline Catholic/Protestant Christian services.) This would seem to logically indicate that all the body/blood stuff was later added by Paul and the early Christian Church.

  • Brian says

    The Christianity that sprang from Rome erred in the persecutions of Jews, for their origins were Jewish through Peter and Paul, and the first bishops of the Christian Churches that were founded there. In Rome, it was only after the appointment Xystus / Sixtus that Rome lost its Jewish ness, and became eminently Gentile.

    Of this, a fragment of Irenaeus states:
    “And the presbyters preceding Soter in the government of the Church which thou dost now rule – – I mean, Anicetus and Pius, Hyginus and Telesphorus, and Sixtus – – did neither themselves observe it, nor permit those with them to do so.”

    Elsewhere, in Antioch of Syria, in Ephesus of Asia, in Corinth of Achaia, and in Alexandria of Egypt, such an effect of a breaking away from Judaism had not yet truly come about. In regards to a return to its Jewish roots, the Church of Rome almost did so with the help of John the Apostle’s Disciple in the mid-150s A.D. In circa 157 A.D., shortly before his martyrdom in Smyrna, the 116 years old plus Polycarp did bring to Rome, and help to reinstate the Passover. From that visit to Rome, through the acceptance of Polycarp’s witness by Rome’s bishop Anicetus, we have ever after celebrated that Tradition of the Passover in the Church. That Passover is kept by and through the Communion with the bread and wine. The partaking of the bread is from taking the Passover’s second of three Matzot, which is hidden away and brought back to the table. That second Matzoh is then “broken up”, and taken with the third cup of Passover wine: the cup of Communion.

    And continuing in the history left us by a fragment of Irenaeus, we read:
    “And when the blessed Polycarp was sojourning in Rome in the time of Anicetus, although a slight controversy had arisen among them as to certain other points, they were at once well inclined towards each other, not willing that any quarrel should arise between them upon this head. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp to forego the observance, inasmuch as these things had been always [so] observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant; nor, on the other hand, could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus to keep , for he maintained that he was bound to adhere to the usage of the presbyters who preceded him.
    And in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other; and Anicetus conceded to Polycarp in the Church the celebration of the Eucharist, by way of showing him respect; so that they parted in peace one from the other, maintaining peace with the whole Church, both those who did observe [this custom] and those who did not.”

    That Jewish-ness of Christianity, as brought forth by Polycarp, shortly before his martyrdom, had been dissipated since circa 119 A.D with Sixtus. Sixtus had become Bishop over the Churches of Rome only 17 odd years after the death of Judeo-Christian Clement in circa 102 A.D. The lack of Jewish ness to Christianity in Rome in this period, may have simply been the by-product of a largely underground Church whose elements and fundamental doctrines were evangelically geared to a non-Jewish congregate.

    The Passover Seder is the true Communion Ritual Heritage celebrated by we of the nations down to this day. It would have been nice had additional and more comprehensive literacy on this topic been done USING IRENAEUS regarding the true history of the Communion adoption into what later came to be known as Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity, since that Communion ritual compromise in the Second Century A.D., is the one most of us are weekly or monthly most familiar with.

  • CB says

    Everybody seems to skip over the problem: Jews do not consume blood — I’m sure even symbolically. Deuteronomy and Leviticus say in at least seven places that a Jew does not consume blood. For Jesus to command such a thing — even as a symbol, even as a “new covenant” — would have been unthinkable. This ritual was invented by Paul (or other early Christians) in Tarsus where Mithras-worship was widespread. Initiation into a Mithras group involved drinking the blood of a bull. Let’s throw out the religion invented by Paul and recover the original beliefs of the Jesus group, best seen now in the Epistle of James, Jesus’ brother, who led the Jesus group after Jesus’ crucifixion.

    • Randy says

      Jesus did things that were unacceptable to the Jewish understanding of the Torah, such as his claim of deity, healing on the Sabbath, forgiveness of sins, failing to fast during Yom Kippur, and driving out demons. Jesus and his disciples were at times in conflict with Jewish Traditions, such as eating with sinners, failing to fast more than once a year, and eating without washing their hands.

  • John says

    The origin of the Passover dates back to the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, and it was no coincidence that Jesus was put to death on that very same day. When Jesus was about to be baptised by John the Baptist, he said that Jesus was the Lamb of God (John 1:29), and Paul at 1 Corinthians 5:7 called Jesus the Passover lamb and his sacrifice was for all mankind’s benefit, IF they accept it.. the value of that sacrifice.
    Paul had to correct some of those in the Christian congregation in Corinth because they had obviously ‘gone off the rails’ as far as the memorial of Christs death was concerned. (1 Corinthians 11:20-22). Evidently some were even turning up intoxicated.
    When Jesus instituted this observance of his death, He said keep doing this in remembrance of me…….when we observe of celebrate an event, we do it on an annual basis not weekly, or any other interval.
    REV says: ” No one wonders how many were with him? It should have been all his followers at the time – 250 – 300.” The Bible clearly states that there were only the 11 apostles (Judas had gone). Luke 22:14, 15; Mark 14:12-25;

  • RASIAH says

    Although our Lord Jesus Christ participated in Last Supper along with twelve apostles, why he did not eat anything on that table according to all scriptures. There must be the reason which God shows me the revelation through the Son of God.

    R. Thomas,
    Nagercoil,
    Tamilnadu – India.

    E-mail: biblicalrevelationofchrist@gmail.com

    • John says

      Rasiah, When Jesus and his twelve disciples sat down and ate the Passover meal, Jesus told them that one would betray him, Judas. When Jesus instituted the ‘Last Supper’ he did not partake of the unleavened bread or the wine……..Jesus was the mediator of a New Covenant, in other words Jesus was setting-up this covenant between God and a select group that would rule with Jesus Christ in God’s Kingdom .Revelation 5:9, 10 points out that those who have have been selected will rule as kings and priests in that kingdom…….verse 12 also goes on to say that the Lamb, who was slaughtered was worth to receive the glory, power and honour
      At Hebrews 7:11-14; Hebrew 8:6, 7, 13 it points out that if the Law had been a success there would have been no need for a New Covenant, but Paul said that the old covenant was obsolete……finished. Jesus had instituted the Christian way of life through his death, and one must be a disciple, (or literally a footstep follower of Christ), to attain the promised blessings of life………everlasting life.

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