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