Questions in the Quest for the Origins of the Eucharist – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass, Part II
Mar 24, 2021

Questions in the Quest for the Origins of the Eucharist – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass, Part II

In one of his letters, Erasmus of Rotterdam (d. 1536) buttressed the great project of Renaissance Humanism to return to the sources (ad fontes) with the claim: “It is at the very sources that one extracts pure doctrine.”[1] In the history-conscious 19th century, St. John Henry Newman (d. 1890) illustrated his theory of the development of doctrine (and worship) with a strikingly different image: “It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full.”[2]

The search for the origins of the Christian liturgy certainly vindicates Newman over Erasmus. The sources that have come down to us are a few and far between, and it is disputed to what extent they represent a normative Christianity. Moreover, as Joseph Ratzinger—Benedict XVI—observed, “the Last Supper is the foundation of the dogmatic content of the Christian Eucharist, not of its liturgical form. The latter does not yet exist.”[3] This liturgical form was shaped by apostolic tradition, which was initially handed down not by reference to written texts (books were luxury goods to which only few had access) but in fidelity to oral teaching, with a special role for memorization. The Apostle Paul offers an example of this process: he had already instructed the Christian community in Corinth about the Lord’s Supper during his long stay in the city. In writing, he addresses only the specific problems that arose and does not repeat his entire teaching. In fact, he prefers to resolve matters in person (1 Corinthians 11:34). Early Christian authors, such as Tertullian (d. after 220), St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258), and St. Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) confirm the importance of unwritten liturgical and devotional practice.[4]

Challenges of History

The very nature of oral tradition frustrates the historian’s effort at reconstruction; hence our knowledge of liturgical practice in the earliest period is very limited and much scholarship in this field is hypothetical. The “breaking of the bread,” which the Acts of the Apostles present as “eucharistic celebration and proleptic participation in the messianic banquet,”[5] is held “at home” (Acts 2:45 and 5:42). Hence it is often concluded that the Eucharist was originally celebrated in a domestic setting, which could range from the town houses (domus) and country estates of the upper classes to apartments of different sizes, as well as shops used for commercial and residential purposes. More recently, the idea of “house churches” in early Christianity has come under scrutiny, and scholars have argued for a more formal and hierarchical setting of early Christian liturgy.[6]

A key text for the early Christian understanding of the Eucharist is Malachi 1:11: “from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering.” Against the background of blemished sacrifices offered by a corrupt priesthood, God himself announces, through his prophet, a “pure offering.” The Hebrew word used here is minhah, which designates the bloodless meal offering, typically a baked loaf and wine libation, that accompanied the burnt offering in the Temple of Jerusalem (see Numbers 15:4-5).

Beginning with 1 Corinthians 10, this sacrifice to be offered “in every place” (not just in the Temple) was identified by early Christians with the Eucharist.[7] In antiquity, the sacrifice of animals and of the produce of the land was at the very heart of religious worship, both pagan and Jewish (before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70). Through the words and actions of Christ, the concept of sacrifice is not superseded but transformed. Hence the Eucharist, while initially being linked with the community meal of the local church (as evident in Didache, 9-10), was considered a sacrificial action (Didache, 14) already in the early second century, if not before. Sharing in it required baptism and repentance. Even in the modest settings of the first two centuries, a sacred place (by necessity temporal, not permanent) was constituted through and in the ritual performed by the body of believers.

The Eucharist and the Early Church

The earliest description of the Eucharist comes from mid-second-century Rome in the First Apology of St Justin Martyr (d. c. 165), a defence of Christian faith and practice addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius. Justin first gives an account of the post-baptismal Eucharist and later he sketches a typical Sunday Eucharist. The First Apology is written for a presumed pagan readership and therefore only the essential structure of the celebration is given in language intelligible to outsiders; no detailed information is provided about its ritual shape or the contents of prayers. This basic elements of the Sunday Eucharist have remained the same over the centuries: scriptural readings (“memoirs of the apostles”—presumably the Gospels—“or writings of the prophets”), preaching, preparation of bread and wine mixed with water, prayers of praise and thanksgiving offered by him “who presides” and concluded with a congregational “Amen,” communion shared among those present and brought by deacons to those who are absent, and a final collection for those in need.[8]

Notably, Justin emphasizes the unique character of the Eucharist by analogy with the Incarnation: just as Christ “took flesh and blood for our salvation,” so too the bread and wine, which have been “Eucharistized through [a] word of prayer that is from him,” are “the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.” The “word of prayer” I take to refer to the words of institution, which Justin goes on to cite in the form familiar from Matthew (26:26-28) and Mark (14:22-24). The Eucharistic offerings transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ—like Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110), Justin prefers the Johannine terminology of “flesh” (sarx) to “body” (soma)—nourish “our blood and flesh.” Access to the Eucharist is not indiscriminate but dependent on faith, baptism, and moral conduct.[9]

Primary Liturgical Source Text?

There is an ancient Church order, the so-called Apostolic Tradition, which 20th-century scholarship attributed to Hippolytus, a rather colourful figure in the Roman church who accused its Bishop Callistus (d. 222) of laxity in the reconciliation of sinners and set himself up as the first anti-pope in history, but was eventually reconciled and died a martyr in 235. Hippolytus was believed to have been a conservative who compiled important information on (possibly even older) liturgical practice in Rome. However, recent studies have called this theory regarding the document’s origin into question. The extant document, originally written Greek, without a title, comes from the Christian East, and has no connection with Rome. It has no single author, but is a compilation of liturgical texts that were in use and subject to frequent modifications. There is most likely a core that goes back to the early third century, to which other parts were added. There is a Latin translation in a fifth-century manuscript from Verona, as well as versions in oriental Christian languages.

The text also influenced subsequent Church orders in the East (Apostolic Constitutions, book VIII; Canons of Hippolytus; The Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ). None of these works preserve the whole text of the so-called Apostolic Tradition, which includes: ordination rites for bishops, priests and deacons; regulations on various states of life in the Church; the rites of the catechumenate and of baptism; various prayers and blessings. The rite of ordination of a bishop includes the highly developed model of a Eucharistic prayer. In the renewed Missale Romanum of 1970, Eucharistic Prayer II follows the “Hippolytan” model (though with significant modifications). While the Apostolic Tradition does contain ancient material, it cannot be used as a source for Roman liturgy in the early third century. Its influence on the development of Western liturgy was minimal until the reforms after Vatican II.[10]

You can find the first part of this series here: A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass: Introduction: The Last Supper—The First Eucharist.

Part III of this series can be found here: The Third Century between Peaceful Growth and Persecution


  1. Opus Epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami, ed. Percy Scafford Allen, Hellen Mary Allen and Heathcote William Garrod, 12 vol. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906-1958), vol. II, 284.
  2. John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 14th impression (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909), 40.
  3. Joseph Ratzinger, “Form and Content of the Eucharistic Celebration”, in Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence, Joseph Ratzinger Collected Works 11, ed. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 299-318, at 305 (originally published in 1978).
  4. Tertullian, On the Crown, 3-4; Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 63, 1 and 11; Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit, 27, 65-66.
  5. Scott Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises, The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 234.
  6. See Edward Adams, The Earliest Christian Meeting Places: Almost Exclusively Houses? (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), and Stefan Heid, Altar und Kirche: Prinzipien christlicher Liturgie (Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, 2019), esp. 69-85.
  7. See also Didache, 14; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 41; Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, IV.17-18, and many later references in the patristic tradition.
  8. Justin Martyr, First Apology, 65 and 67.
  9. Justin Martyr, 1 Apology, 66.
  10. The ancient text was also used for the revision of the Rite of Ordination of a Bishop and for the restored Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA).
Father Uwe Michael Lang

Father Uwe Michael Lang, a native of Nuremberg, Germany, is a priest of the Oratory of St Philip Neri in London. He holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and teaches Church History at Mater Ecclesiae College, St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and Allen Hall Seminary, London. He is an associate staff member at the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, and on the Visiting Faculty of the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, IL. He is a Corresponding Member of the Neuer Schülerkreis Joseph Ratzinger / Papst Benedikt XVI, a Member of the Council of the Henry Bradshaw Society, a Board Member of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, and the Editor of Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal.