One clear example of this phenomenon appears in Paul's first letter to the "gathering of God" at Corinth (1 Cor 1:2). When they assembled as a group, they enjoyed a regular meal together, which they enjoyed in a way similar to a "potluck" (1 Cor 11:17-19). Paul was less than satisfied with their practice, which to outsiders would have seemed little different from other dining associations in Greco-Roman culture. Paul chided them for not observing what he called the "Lord's Supper" (1 Cor 11:20-22). He gave specific instructions on how they should observe the meal (1Cor 11:23-32), and told them they should eat in this way when they gathered as a group—turning the meal into a mystical experience. Over many years their simple fellowship meal evolved into the mystical community ritual that became the celebration of the Mass.
There may well be another example of a simple act of hospitality evolving into a religious ritual. It is difficult to be certain because most of the aspects of common living in the ancient past are lost in the shadows of history, and hence critical points on a trajectory are usually concealed. In John 13:1-16 at the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples before the Passover Jesus rose from his couch, stripped off his outer garment, girded himself with a towel, and washed the feet of the disciples. Reclining again in his place at the table, he said, "I have given you an example that you should do as I have done to you" (John 13:15).
As most of you are aware, the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples in the synoptic gospels is a Passover meal (Mark 14:12) at which Jesus says the traditional words over the bread and wine: "This is my body"; "this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (Mark 14:22-25). To which Luke adds "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). This Passover meal becomes in time instituted in the Christian community as the celebration of the Lord's Supper/Eucharist/Mass. There is no Eucharist in the Gospel of John; there is no act of ritual foot washing in the synoptic gospels.
The background of the foot washing scene in John likely comes from a common act of hospitality extended to guests in the Middle-eastern home (Gen 18:4-5; 19:2; 1 Sam 25:41; Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-8), and/or from a requirements of personal hygiene (Gen 43:24; Judges 19:21; 2 Sam 11:8; Song 5:2-3). In the latter case apparently one's personal hygiene became associated with ritual cleanness (Ps 24:4; Lev 13:6, 34; 14:8-9; 15:1-33; Num 19:19; Exod 30:17-21; 40:30-32; Gospel Oxyrhynchus, 2:3). But exactly how personal hygiene came to segue into ritual defilement is unclear.
Although the background of the foot washing scene in John is found in Middle Eastern customs of personal hygiene, hospitality, and ritual defilement, the foot washing scene in John 13:1-16 is described as an example of humility. Jesus said it this way:
If I then your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you example, that you should do as I have done to you. (John 13:14-15).
The question is: does Jesus' command (mandatum) in John 13 direct the establishment of a community ritual, or is it, as Jesus said, simply an example of humility (Mark 10:42-44)? That is to say, leaders should think of themselves as servants of those whom they serve. In a sense my question is academic, however, since some early Christian groups began practicing foot washing—widows in the community "washed the feet of the saints" (1 Tim 5:10) as a part of their service to the community (1 Tim 5:3-16). The earliest discussion (400 CE) about ceremonial washing is attested in a letter of Augustine (LV, 33), where it is mentioned that some churches simply rejected the practice of foot washing, while others did not accept it as a custom lest it be confused with the act of baptism; others, on the other hand, observed it in connection with Lent. In the seventh century the earliest trace of the celebration of foot washing was in connection with Maundy Thursday of Holy Week.1 Today many churches continue foot washing in connection with Holy week on Maundy (from the Latin word mandatum) Thursday.2
Which brings me back to my question above: was Jesus consciously establishing a church ordinance? To judge from the character of Jesus' career represented in the gospels that would not appear to be the case. In the gospels Jesus is represented as a peripatetic teacher of wisdom who wanders from village to village without founding communities.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1Shepherd, "Foot Washing," IDB, 2:308; see also Weiss, "Footwashing," ABD 2.828-29.
I think most religious rituals began as mere social custom or a practice believed to have importance for health or success in agriculture or procreation. The Muslim obligation to wash their hands, head, and feet before going to prayer is now a ritual but for a religion that began among herdsmen, this was just polite. Liturgical churches now make a huge procession out of lighting candles when, for most of the history of the church, candles were necessary to be able to read the liturgy. A hundred years ago they generally had no meaning beyond "hey, it's dark in here, someone light a candle"
Do you know of any evidence that the "passing of the peace" was originally a social/secular custom. I'm referring to the practice in many churches of a moment during worship when the parishioners greet one another with "Peace be with you."
Some form of this phenomenon can be found throughout the scriptures:
"Go in peace." (Ex 4:18)
"Peace be to you, and to your house." (1 Sam 25:6, cf. Lk 10:5)
"Do good; seek peace, and pursue it" (Ps 34:14)
"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you" (Jn 14:27)
"Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts" (Col 3:15)
Along those same lines the Muslim greeting "Assalamu alaykum," literally means "Peace be with you" in the plural while the response is "And on you peace" (also plural). During my time in the ME I learned (from very conservative Muslims) that some (especially conservative) sects reserve this saying only for Muslims and will not respond (or offer a different greeting) if tendered by a non-Muslim. I wonder if these religious greetings have a similar foundation...?
Good Morning Gene,
Good question. I cannot be certain without a full study, but here is a little more than a guess. The passing of the peace derives from the early Christian custom of "Greeting one another with a holy kiss" (Rom 16:16; I Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26). The deep background of the Christian custom is found in the middle east custom of greeting relatives and others with a kiss (Gen 33:4; Gen 29:13; Luke 7:45--and even Matt 26:49). In the fourth century Augustine (Sermon 227)referred to the Christian kiss as a "kiss of peace." I am guessing that for obvious reasons the kiss has given way to the handshake in Western religious traditions, but I have no idea how early. Perhaps there are some out there that can tell us.
Good morning Cindi,
I would guess they are related in much the same way. As I recall in the middle east even men still greet one another (if close friends or family) with a kiss. I suppose the greeting of peace has been studies somewhere.
I guess holding a Nag Hammadi papyrus leaf up to inadequate light for color, density, texture, and fibers will never be a practice that makes it into a worship ritual. Great photograph and commentary in the last 4thR regarding work done in the Coptic Museum in the 1970's.
For five or six years I was involved in working with the Nag Hammadi papyrus during annual two week sessions at the Coptic Museum (and also one seven month session of residence in the country for the work). Nothing can compare with the excitement of placing a fragment of papyrus in its proper position on a papyrus leaf--not even an existential participation in some religious ritual.
Charlie- I've never experienced that before, but I would agree wholeheartedly with that assessment! That's a once in a lifetime achievement and dream come true for many scholars and historians.
By the way, how much influence do you think pagan ritual worship had on the insertion of the Eucharist into the gospels? I've read that other god had similar ceremonies to symbolize eating of flesh and drinking of blood... Have you heard of this comparison? Dionysus for example?
Thank you! Elizabeth
I don/t know of anyone arguing a direct influence of the Dionysian mysteries on the Passover meal Jesus is portrayed as celebration with his disciples. I personally think that the parallels are better between John 2 (turning the water into wine) and Jesus' comments about eating my flesh and drinking my blood in John 6:49-54. But even here I think the mystery cult is part of the Hellenistic background.
Charlie, have you heard of this term, lectisternia? I had never heard of it before. The Jews were forbidden from actually drinking any blood whatsoever. Don't you think the Eucharist and Passover Seder have nothing in common with one another except the timing of the ritual? The Eucharist seems to have more in common with lectisternia.
"The Romans' Lectisternia
It wasn't just the mystery religions whose believers ate sacred meals in communion with the God. The notion that worshipers eating together would be joined by their God was widely diffused throughout the ancient world hundreds of years before Jesus. In Rome the rite even had its own name, "lectisternia."
A lectisternia was a sacred meal in which an icon of the God was actually brought to the table with the celebrants. In Rome the whole Senate celebrated a sacred meal, with a statue of Jupiter lying on a cushion, and the two goddesses Juno and Minerva in chairs beside him.
The Roman ritual, copied from the earlier Greek theoxenia, was first described in Rome by the Sibylline Books in B.C. 399.
From the start of the third century B.C. the banquet was regularly given to the three Capitoline divinities, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva on November 13th. During the Empire, the date changed to September13th.
Devotees of Hercules celebrated sacred meals this way, as did those of: Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Volcanus, Apollo
Venus, Vesta, Ceres, Diana, Aesculapius, Hygia, Isis, Mithras, Neptune."
The Passover Seder was not shared with a god of any kind and was not done in remembrance of a shared meal with any particular god. So I don't see what it has in common with the Eucharist.
Many thanks, Elizabeth
I do not recall hearing the word before and did not know this tradition of the Romans. But I see little parallel between it and the early Christian meal tradition. In my view the last meal tradition of Jesus with his disciples in the canonical gospels is already a Christianized ritual superimposed back on a last meal of Jesus with his disciples. Paul knew of such a meal but did not refer to it as a Passover Seder (1 Cor 11:23). Thanks for expanding my vocabulary and awareness of Roman religious traditions.
In a similar way, clothing can take on religious meaning. Roman Cathlic vestments evolved from Graeco-Roman clothing, particularly that of Imperial Rome, and the habits worn by so many orders of nuns until very recent times reflected the clothing worn by upper-class medieval women. Even the "plain clothes" of various protestant sects can be traced to the common era of their founding with bonnets, buttons for closures, etc.
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