The Original Meaning of Eucharist

Red Beet Bread Fresh

In two previous posts—Scripture is Tradition and No Early Evidence for Roman Catholic Doctrine—I laid out the case that Roman Catholic doctrine largely did not exist prior to the late fourth century. Having set the table, so to speak, I discussed how the Didache describes the “Liturgy of the Eucharist and the Lord’s Supper.” This highlighted the mutually exclusive eucharistic liturgies between the early Christian church and the later Roman Catholic Church. In one of the comments that precipitated the series of posts, a commentator said this of the early church eucharistic liturgy described in the Didache:

I’ve never never never heard this Didache teaching in any Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox service, EVER! EVER. Modern Christendom simply does not teach it in the main.

Is the Didache—one of the earliest works of early Christianity—alone in its description of the Eucharist—which means thanksgiving—as the offering of thanksgiving by way of tithes, service, and praise? No, it is not.

Eucharist in Ignatius

Ignatius of Antioch, writing early in the second century, echoes the Didache:

“[The Gnostic Heretics] have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.” — Ignatius of Antioch. “Epistle to the Smyrnaeans.” ¶6-7 (c.110AD).

The Gnostic heretics failed to care for the widow, orphan, oppressed, slave, free, hungry, and thirsty, because they did not participate in offering (or sacrifice) of thanksgiving and prayer.[1] They did not participate because they didn’t “confess the eucharist to be the flesh of Jesus.” What does this mean?

To confess the thanksgiving [eucharist] was the act of consecrating[2] the portion of the tithe offering used in the Lord’s Supper, just as Jesus consecrated the bread and wine after he had given it to his disciples and they had partaken of it.[3] The early church first offered the thanksgiving [eucharist] as a tithe. Then they celebrated the thanksgiving [eucharist] as a supper of consecrated bread and wine taken from the tithe. The thanksgiving [eucharist]—of unconsecrated tithes—was offered[4] and the supper—of consecrated bread and wine—was eaten, not offered[5].

One could restate Ignatius as follows:

The Gnostics cared nothing for the needy: they would not offer tithe offerings for the poor, nor consecrate a portion of the tithe for the Lord’s Supper, because they denied Christ’s flesh: his incarnation, suffering, and bodily resurrection.

The Gnostics showed no regard for the needy by refusing to offer their tithes, because they denied the death and resurrection of Christ, because they denied Christ’s incarnation in the flesh. They would not confess (or consecrate) the tithe offering because it required them to acknowledge Christ’s body[3], and so offered no tithe. The Gnostics could not confess that Jesus had a body, even though the consecrated bread itself was symbolic.[6]

As with the dismissal of the unbelievers and the unrepentant believers in the Didache’s liturgy, the Gnostics did not (and, indeed, could not) participate in the tithe offering or the Lord’s Supper.

Eucharist in Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr, writing ~156AD, writes in First Apology of the eucharistic liturgy of the early church.

What was offered?

§13 describes the offerings of “thanksgiving”, “thanks by word of processions (διά λόγου πομπάς)”, and “hymns”. The processions were the offerings of tithes and firstfruits, as these gifts were brought forward for presentation during the service. It is out of these gifts that the bread and wine were taken for the Lord’s Supper.

In Dialogue with Trypho, §117, he describes the valid sacrifices for Christians to offer, per Malachi’s prophecy in Malachi 1:10-12. He states that “prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God” Thus he provides the absolute basis for the Dismissal and the Eucharist. In §118 he states that proper sacrifices include “true and spiritual praises and giving of thanks.”

So we find that to Justin Martyr only prayers and the giving of thanks (via gifts of tithes and firstfruits or hymns) are valid sacrifice for Christians to make, just as in the Didache.

What was the liturgical order?

Now we return to First Apology, where we find that the liturgical order matches the Didache.

§65 shows that the Lord’s Supper follows the Oblation. The bread and cup are brought out after the prayers of thanksgiving have ended with an “Amen” expressed by everyone in the congregation. The bread and cup are consumed after the “Amen”.

§66 shows that the the Eucharist follows the Dismissal. Only the repentant, baptized believer may participate in the Eucharist that follows. Those who are dismissed may not participate.

§66 shows that the Lord’s Supper follows the Epiclesis, which follows the Eucharist. The Epiclesis consecrates the common food and drink of the Eucharist that is then used in the Lord’s Supper.

§67 shows that the Eucharist is given (the procession of offerings of bread and wine, prayers and thanksgivings), followed by the Oblation (corporate “Amen”), followed by the distribution of the now Eucharisted food (“that over which thanks have been given”).

§65 states that the Consecration (prayer of his Word) is spoken over that already eucharisted food (“that over which thanks have been given”):

“by the prayer of His word (δι’ εὐχῆς λόγου τοῦ παρ’ αὐτοῦ) the eucharisted food (εὐχαριστηθείσαν τροφήν)[7] … is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”

And it is by this consecration—the simple epiclesis of Jesus’ words invoked—that the bread and wine become the flesh and blood of Jesus. Moreover, Justin explicitly states that this is the apostles’ teaching.

Rolled all together, Justin Martyr describes the complete early church liturgy: “Dismissal-Eucharist-Oblation-Consecration-Lord’s Supper”. The Roman Catholic liturgy not present. All of the pieces of the Roman Catholic liturgy have the appearance of being in play, but they are not in the right order and thus cannot be the same pieces at all. In particular, the unconsecrated eucharistic sacrifice concludes with an oblation (“Amen”) before the consecration, so the body and blood of Christ cannot be offered as a sacrifice.

Who was dismissed?

If one reads that lengthy section from the Catholic Encyclopedia on “Name and definition”, a ramble of confusion is evident. While the meaning of the word “Mass” is unambiguous—“dismissal”—there is confusion as to its significance. They identify the missa catechumenorum and the missa fidelium, even noting that for a time the former had ceased to be practiced! Unable to come up with a good reason for the use of the name, they say this:

“It may seem strange that this unessential detail should have given its name to the whole service. But there are many similar cases in liturgical language. Communion, confession, breviary are none of them names that express the essential character of what they denote. “

They are right that the dismissal concluding the Roman liturgy is an unessential detail, even though the name “Mass” is derived from the word for “Dismissal”. They are also correct that the historical Roman Catholic liturgy didn’t find the dismissal of catechumans to be essential. And so they conclude that “Mass” is a quaint synecdoche.

Even more ironic is that when one of their own discovers the truth that those who were dismissed took no part on the sacrament (e.g. the eucharist)…

To stay till the missa catechumenorum is easily modified into: to stay for, or during, the missa catechumenorum. Ivo of Chartres (d. 1116) has forgotten the original meaning, and writes: “Those who heard the missa catechumenorum evaded the missa sacramentorum” (Ep. ccxix, in P.L., CLXII, 224).

…the only response is that he must have forgotten the original meaning! This is quite a bold take from someone writing eight centuries later who is quite sure that he didn’t forget the original meaning.

Of course they are in error. They’ve lost the ancient historical reason for the dismissal, which is that only baptized believers who have no unrepentant sin—Justin Martyr’s ‘worthy men’—may participate in the sacrifice of thanksgiving, praise, tithes, firstfruits offerings, and service, because these are a sacrifice made to God. A person must be pure and holy to make an acceptable sacrifice to God, as Malachi (in Malachi), Jesus (in Matthew), Paul (in 1 Corinthians), the Didachi, and Justin Martyr attest: the dismissal is not only apostolic in origin, it is attested to and derived from both the OT and NT.

Differences from the Roman Catholic Liturgy

Contrary to Justin Martyr, the Roman Catholic liturgy does not include a corporate Amen between the Eucharist and the Consecration. In the Roman Catholic Liturgy, including the Novus Ordo rite, the consecration is combined with the eucharist and performed before the corporate Amen, thus making the consecrated bread a sacrifice. Justin Martyr separates the eucharist and the consecration by the offering of the sacrifice (the oblation, the corporate “Amen”). The Catholic Encyclopedia, under “The origin of the Mass”, acknowledges the discrepancy:

“The origin of the Roman Mass, on the other hand, is a most difficult question, We have here two fixed and certain data: the Liturgy in Greek described by St. Justin Martyr (d. c. 165), which is that of the Church of Rome in the second century, and, at the other end of the development, the Liturgy of the first Roman Sacramentaries in Latin, in about the sixth century. The two are very different. Justin’s account represents a rite of what we should now call an Eastern type … The Leonine and Gelasian Sacramentaries show us what is practically our present Roman Mass. How did the service change from the one to the other? It is one of the chief difficulties in the history of liturgy.”
— Adrian Fortescue, Roman Catholic liturgist

Calling it a “difficult question” and “chief difficulties” is a vast understatement. The Roman rite wasn’t found in its completed form (as defined as a uniform Missal by the Council of Trent) until the 6th century. The novelty started development in the late 4th century and took a centuries to complete its development.

While Justin Martyr mentions wine mixed with water (First Apology, §65), there is no liturgical significance. Justin simply notes that the eucharist offering in his day included prepared food—flour mixed with water (and baked), wine mixed with water—rather than the raw agricultural products. By Ambrose’s day, water was no longer mixed into wine before drinking, so he incorrectly assumed Justin’s reference must have had liturgical significance.

Justin Martyr states that “by transmutation” the consecrated bread and wine are completely converted into bodily sustenance (First Apology, §66). This differs greatly from the Roman Catholic transubstantiation which differentiates between the species and substance of the bread and wine. Transmutation is anathematized by the Council of Trent.

When Justin says “to those who are absent they carry away a portion” (First Apology, §65), this is a reference to the distribution of the tithe to the poor. It is not a reference to consecrated bread and wine, which Justin does not mention.

When Justin Martyr describes rising, he refers to rising from a sitting position. Kneeling was forbidden on the Lord’s Day in the early church.

Eucharist in Cyprian of Carthage

“…neither could we drink the blood of Christ unless Christ had first been trampled upon and pressed, and had first drunk the cup of which He should also give believers to drink.”
— Cyprian of Carthage (c250AD) Epistle 62. ¶7

According to Cyprian, the body and blood of the Lord’s Supper are figurative. Jesus could not have given his literal body and blood to his disciples during the Last Supper because he had not yet gone to the cross (“been trampled upon” and “drunk the cup”).

“for the Lord’s passion is the sacrifice which we offer [..] therefore, as we offer the cup in commemoration of the Lord and of His passion”
— Cyprian of Carthage (c250AD) “Epistle 62”. ¶17

Cyprian does two things here. First, he claims that we sacrifice Christ’s passion, not his body. Second, he claims that we make this sacrificial offering in the Lord’s Supper in the form of a commemoration. These views are plainly incompatible with Roman Catholicism.

And another woman, when she tried with unworthy hands to open her box, in which was the holy (body) of the Lord, was deterred by fire rising from it from daring to touch it.
— Cyprian of Carthage, “Treatise 3.” ¶26

Cyprian notes that a woman was deterred from offering her eucharist, that is, her tithe that she had brought in a box. She was unworthy, and so could not make her offering. Take notice that the translator has added the gloss “body”, putting words into Cyprian’s mouth, as if to say that the gift[4] was the consecrated eucharisted bread, the body of Christ. Cyprian’s point is that the unworthy should be dismissed prior to making their offering, and that to fail in the dismissal is a grave offence.

“But that you may have in mind in your prayers our brethren and sisters who have laboured so promptly and liberally for this needful work, that they may always labour; and that in return for their good work you may present them in your sacrifices and prayers, I have subjoined the names of each one; and moreover also I have added the names of my colleagues and fellow priests, who themselves also, as they were present, contributed some little according to their power, in their own names and the name of their people. And besides our own amount, I have intimated and sent their small sums, all of whom, in conformity with the claims of faith and charity, you ought to remember in your supplications and prayers.”
— Cyprian of Carthage (c250AD) Epistle 59, ¶4

As with the Didache, Cyprian describes the sacrifices in terms of good works, or service, offered to God along with prayers. He explicitly highlights the giving of tithes (e.g. financial gifts) given to help others.

Offer to God the sacrifice of praise, and pay your vows to the Most High. Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver you: and you shall glorify me. [..] The sacrifice of praise shall glorify me: therein is the way in which I will show him the salvation of God. [..] Sacrifice the sacrifice of righteousness, and hope in the Lord. [..] I have no pleasure concerning you, says the Lord, and I will not have an accepted offering from your hands. Because from the rising of the sun, even unto the going down of the same, my name is glorified among the Gentiles; and in every place odours of incense are offered to my name, and a pure sacrifice, because great is my name among the nations, says the Lord.
— Cyprian of Carthage (c250AD) Treatise 12, Book 1, ¶16

With Malachi and the Psalms in mind, Cyprian describes the sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise that Christians make, and it is not Christ’s body and blood. In these he echoes the Didache.

Further Reading

Other writers that describe various aspects of the ancient liturgy found in the Didache, or otherwise expound upon related concepts, include:

  • Clement (150 AD)[8]
  • Irenaeus (189 AD)[9][10]
  • Hippolytus (215 AD)[11][12][13]
  • Tertullian (208 AD)[14][15][16]
  • Origen (248 AD)[17][18]
  • Cornelius (250 AD)[19]
  • Dionysius (256 AD)[20]
  • Gregory Nazianzus the Elder (300 AD)[21]

This historical evidence is overwhelming.[22][23][24][25] The church in the first three centuries of the church did not present[4] Christ’s death, body, and blood to the Father. That is an idolatrous anachronistic heresy.

Be warned that in a number of cases, English or Latin translators have altered the original texts to conform to the Roman Catholic liturgy. This can make research somewhat difficult for those of us unable to work directly with the Greek or Latin. Not all cases will be as obvious as the gloss that the editor added to the translation of Cyprian shown above.

What remains is for someone to answer the uncomfortable question: why is the apostolic eucharist—which is so well attested—virtually unknown in the modern church?


[1] The early church offered sacrifice of thanksgiving (including the tithe offering) and prayers in fulfillment of Isaiah 55:1-3, Malachi 1:10-11, and Psalm 49:14,23 and as echoed in Romans 12:1 and Hebrews 13:15.

[2] Consecration—making a thing holy—makes the thing being consecrated suitable for its task. It does not mean it changes into something else.

[3] The bread and wine are consecrated by invoking (or confessing) the words of Jesus: “This is my body” and “This is my blood”. See: Irenaeus of Lyons. “Against Heresies” Book 4 §17 ¶5. (c.180)

[4] An offering in this context is a sacrifice, also known by the technical term ‘oblation’. The terms are used interchangeably. The offering may also be called a gift or something presented.

[5] Or sacrificed.

[6] “For as the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist before the invocation of the Holy and Adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, while after the invocation the Bread becomes the Body of Christ, and the Wine the Blood of Christ , so in like manner such meats belonging to the pomp of Satan, though in their own nature simple, become profane by the invocation of the evil spirit.” — Cyril of Jerusalem. “Catechetical Lecture 19.” ¶7 (c.350)

“But beware of supposing this to be plain ointment. For as the Bread of the Eucharist, after the invocation of the Holy Ghost, is mere bread no longer, but the Body of Christ, so also this holy ointment is no more simple ointment, nor (so to say) common, after invocation, but it is Christ’s gift of grace, and, by the advent of the Holy Ghost, is made fit to impart His Divine Nature. Which ointment is symbolically applied to your forehead and your other senses ; and while your body is anointed with the visible ointment, your soul is sanctified by the Holy and life-giving Spirit. — Cyril of Jerusalem. “Catechetical Lecture 21.” ¶3 (c.350)

Wherefore with full assurance let us partake as of the Body and Blood of Christ: for in the figure of Bread is given to you His Body, and in the figure of Wine His Blood; that you by partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, may be made of the same body and the same blood with Him. — Cyril of Jerusalem. “Catechetical Lecture 22.” ¶3 (c.350)

[7] See Roman Catholic J. P. Migne’s Patrologia Graeca to verify the Greek translations.

[8] Clement of Rome. Letter to the Corinthians.” §38,44

[9] Irenaeus of Lyons. “Against Heresies.”

[a] Book 1. §13-14
[b] Book 4. §17-18 (§18¶5, Latin ‘invocation’ vs. Greek ‘summons’)
[c] Book 5. §2,21,33

[10] Irenaeus of Lyons. “Fragments

[a] Fragment 7
[b] Fragment 37

[11] Hippolytus of Rome. Refutation of all Heresies.” Book 6, §34,37

[12] Hippolytus of Rome. Anaphora.” Lines 5,6,20,21,30, and 32.

[13] Hippolytus of Rome. Second Fragment on Proverbs 9.”

[14] Tertullian of Carthage. “Against Marcion.”

[a] Book 3. §22
[b] Book 4. §1,9,40

[15] Tertullian of Carthage. On Prayer.” §19

[16] Tertullian of Carthage. De Spectaculis.” §25

[17] Origen of Alexandria. “Against Celcus.” Book 8. §17,33,34,57

[18] Origen of Alexandria. “Fragment [on 1 Corinthians 7:5].”

[19] Eusebius. “Church History.” Book 6. §43¶18-19 (Note: Compare Greek to translation)

[20] Eusebius. “Church History.” Book 7. §9¶4; §11

[21] Gregory Nazianzus the Elder “Oration 18” §10,20,29

[22] Eusebius. “Proof of the Gospel.” Book 1, §10

[23] Athanasius of Alexandria, “Letter 11

[24] Athanasius of Alexandria, “Letter 45

[25] Athanasius of Alexandria, “Sermon to the Newly Baptized”


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  2. Hi Derek,

    Well written. I’m hoping to unpack this topic in the early church myself, when I have time. You introduced me to a few details I didn’t know and I appreciate the discussion of the origin of “mass” and reason for the dismissal. Knowing the history, one can see why the “eucharist” was central to every worship gathering, something that needs to be brought back into many churches. We’ve compartmentalized the sacraments and individualized the faith, too much, in my opinion.

    One minor quibble. You said: “The Gnostics showed no regard for the needy by refusing to offer their tithes, because they denied the resurrection of the flesh.” Rather than the resurrection, I think the Gnostics (a name applied much later in history) primarily took issue with the incarnation. Nuances aside, the general gnostic belief was that matter was evil and Jesus could not have lived in the flesh.

    I think the “…raised up again…” in Ignatius is recaptulating the main contention captured in these words: “they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins” — that is, they don’t offer thanksgiving for the body of Christ because because they don’t believe He lived in the body.

    1. Derek L. Ramsey

      “rather than the resurrection, I think the Gnostics (a name applied much later in history) primarily took issue with the incarnation.”

      This is a good point. I may need to revise this post accordingly. Thank you.

      My only qualm with your explanation is that Ignatius himself says the reason they abstain from eucharist is because they don’t believe the (consecrated) eucharist to be the flesh which suffered, died, and was raised. He says nothing about incarnation, even though that is surely part of it.

      Technically speaking, the denial of the incarnation and the denial of resurrection go hand-in-hand, so in that way you are correct. But it is unnecessary to specify both, since to deny the one is to deny the other, from the Gnostic perspective.

      In any case, I’ve altered it to read as follows:

      “they denied Christ’s flesh: his incarnation, suffering, and bodily resurrection.”

      I think this captures it well.

    2. Derek L. Ramsey

      The Protestant liturgy is very close to the original, with one key exception: the dismissal. While many Protestants emphasize that only believers should take communion, many do not forbid non-believers from participating in the offering. In churches I’ve attended, this is hit-or-miss. I’ve been to churches where the pastor tells guests not to give an offering, but by-and-large everyone is encouraged to give, whether believer or not.

  3. Something else interesting in Ignatius is the mention of orphans and widows. The text says:

    “[The Gnostic Heretics] have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty.”

    I have been involved in orphan care and adoption for about 6 years and help run an orphan hosting organization. We have a daughter adopted as a teenager from Ukraine. It wasn’t a ministry I ever planned to be involved in. In fact, my attitude toward adoption was always “someone else’s child, someone else’s ministry — I’m glad people do it and am happy to support them but it’s not for me.” God had other plans…

    Anyway, in ancient Greco-Roman culture, children weren’t considered human until they could walk and talk. Unwanted children were “exposed,” often leaving them at the trash heaps located outside of city walls. Early Christians, like those of whom Ignatius speaks were pioneers in taking these children in (adoption) and caring for these “orphans.”

    With early Gnostics, one can imagine how their views, especially in their cultural context, made them characteristically different from the genuine believers who were making “sacrifices” well beyond the liturgy. In a single paragraph, Ignatius captures a great deal of early Christian thought. Surely, their “offering” of thanksgiving was more than oblations, etc. and included gratitude to God for having removed their heart of stone, giving them a heart of flesh. Their whole worldview was upended when they believed and they looked very different from the surrounding culture. After 380 AD, as a state religion, being Christian was more of a formality or association…a good Roman citizen participated in the religion of the empire, because it was the religion of the empire. Hence the massive changes.

    Incidentally, I have probably been connected with hundreds of families involved in orphan care and gotten to know dozens of them, quite well. Almost all of them are Christian and almost none of them are Roman Catholic (2-3 that I know for sure and one of them, while committed, has been very problematic and difficult to work with, at times). What does that say about the “sacrifice” they so proudly proclaim?

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