from jesus to christ - the first christians

Story and Ritual in Greece, Rome, and Early Christianty

A Lecture by Helmut Koester
May 30, 1998, Harvard University


[This lecture has been edited. In the first part, Koester dealt with the connections between story and ritual in the Age of Augustus]

Christian Beginnings, Passion Story, and Eucharist

Close connection of story and ritual was fundamental also in Israel. As the covenant was renewed in Israel's major festivals, such as the Day of Atonement and Passover, the story of the exodus from Egypt and of the leader and lawgiver Moses was told again. It is indeed preserved in written form in the Bible of Israel in more than one version, and is commemorated in numerous psalms. It is this story of the exodus through which the various tribes of Israel became one nation. The Greek people found themselves united into one nation in the great story of the war on Troy, to which all tribes, kingdoms, and cities had sent their contingents. The nation of Israel was created by the story which made all of them descendants of Jacob (Israel). All could claim fathers (the sons of Jacob and their offspring) who had been miraculously led out of Egypt and through the sea and the desert into the promised land. This was the covenant that was re-enacted in rituals and offerings of the annual festivals, and of course it's the story that is still celebrated and told, and present in ritual, in every Passover celebration today.

Throughout the centuries, however, the promises of the blessings of that covenant had been a hope rather than a reality. Only for the brief period of the reigns of David and Solomon do these blessings seem to have been tangible. And this time was remembered as the golden age of Israel. The northern kingdom, however, had now been destroyed by the Assyrians, its people deported and lost. The remaining southern kingdom of [Judea] had fallen to the Babylonians with large numbers of population exiled to Babylon. To be sure, the Persians allowed them to return and to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem, and apparently also permitted a reorganization of the remnants of the north under the leadership of the priests of Sumeria. But what was this? Two small diminutive temple states as Persian [vassals], which came under the domination of the Hellenistic kings after the conquest of Alexander, and after less than a century of independence under the [Hasmonaean] rulers, were conquered by Rome and incorporated into the Roman province of Syria.

Yet, prophecy had not died, and hope was alive and was constantly renewed. It took numerous forms, be it the vision of the second book of Isaiah, which envisaged a return of Moses as the servant, but now as the servant who was to suffer and then to be exalted by God; or be it the hope of the creation of a new heaven and earth in which the elect of Israel would ascend to rule the world, as in the apocalyptic literature of Daniel and Enoch and others; or be it the withdrawal of the people of the covenant to Qumran at the Dead Sea, where they celebrated their meals in anticipation of the coming of the messianic meal with the anointed priest and the anointed king. The Jewish historian Josephus tells of numerous messianic prophets appearing in Palestine during the first decades of the first century of the common era, prophets who attempted to re-enact or to prepare for the messianic liberation of Israel.

One of these prophets was remembered in the gospels of the New Testament as John the Baptist. Offering a final opportunity of repentance, he proclaimed the coming judgment of God that would usher in God's reign. A student of this prophet John, baptized by him and evidently continuing his proclamation, the imminent coming of the reign of God, was a certain Jesus. One of the absolute certain facts, as scholars say, of the biography of Jesus, is that he was baptized by John. Nobody doubts that Jesus was a student of John once. But in the year 29 or 30, on the day when the celebration of Passover was to begin at sundown (following the dating of the gospel of John), this Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, as a political criminal. The inscription on his cross proclaimed that he was Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.

What happened then? This is the most difficult and puzzling question. The gospels of the New Testament are no reliable guide, all of them written many decades or even more than half a century after the event. The authors belonged to the second and third generation after Jesus. It's possible, to be sure, to discover in these writings earlier materials and traditions. The value of such traditions and their relationship to Jesus, however, is a very complex question. Historical methodology requires the investigation of the earliest available sources first. And there are such early sources, namely, the letters of the apostle Paul, predating the earliest gospels by roughly 20 years, and on the other hand, written roughly 20 or 25 years after the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Moreover, the author must be considered a contemporary of Jesus. In the letter to Philemon, written probably in the year 54, Paul calls himself an elderly man (a presbytes in Greek), which according to traditional Greek usage designates a man in his fifties. We have a different way of [defining] "elderly man" these days, but then, if somebody said, "I am an elderly man," he was probably 54. This puts Paul squarely into the generation of Jesus. Moreover, according to Paul's own account of the years of his previous ministry in his letter to the Galatians, his calling as an apostle must be dated no later than the year 35, possibly earlier. That is, Paul clearly belongs to the first generation and is our sole contemporary witness to the earliest developments. And so Paul presupposes traditions which Paul quotes. Our traditions, when Paul says he has received them at the beginning, these were traditions about Jesus which were formed within the first half-decade of the formation of Christian community.

Paul's writings preserve a number of traditional formulae, and I want to talk now about the two most important formulae, which were the two that Michael White showed you in the previous lecture, in I Corinthians 11 and I Corinthians 15. In both instances, Paul states that he had received them. The first of these explicitly quoted traditions, in I Corinthians 11, 23-25, concerns the ritual of the community, namely, the celebration of the eucharist. In the quotation formula, Paul says that he received this tradition from the Lord. This is intriguing because it cannot mean that it was Jesus himself who communicated this formula to Paul. Rather, Paul thus designates the Lord as the creator of this tradition. One cannot, however, draw the conclusion that therefore the words of institution, in the form in which Paul quotes them, were created by the historical Jesus. One cannot conclude this because for the early generation of Christians the difference between the historical Jesus and the risen Christ did not exist. This is a modern invention. For the earliest Christian communities and for Paul, the historical Jesus and the risen Christ were one and the same person, and not two different entities. So the historical Jesus-- Jesus could, of course, speak through a prophet after his death, just as well as Jesus could have spoken himself before his death. And Paul and the early Christians would not distinguish between the two. Yet Paul anchors this tradition in the historical situation of the last meal of Jesus, last meal of Jesus with his disciples. He claims a continuity thus between the meal celebrated by the community with the meal celebrated by Jesus in the night in which he was handed over.

Now, is it possible to infer that the Christian community meal has indeed its origin in meals that Jesus celebrated with his disciples? And my answer to this question is yes. There is indeed good evidence that Jesus celebrated common meals with his disciples and friends. What is told in the reports about Jesus' last meal, as well as in other information, indicates that these common meals must have been understood as anticipation of the banquet of God, the banquet in the kingdom of God. The information, however, that we have in our sources comes from two different eucharist traditions. It's usually not made clear that we have two very different eucharist traditions. One is the one that we find in I Corinthians 11, and that is also reflected in the gospels of Mark and subsequently by Matthew and Luke. But we have another eucharist tradition that has similarities and differences with the tradition of I Corinthians 11. (I call this the I Corinthians 11 tradition.) And that is a tradition that comes from a non-canonical writing, the so-called Didache or the teaching of the twelve apostles. It's the oldest Christian church manual that we possess, and it is composed some time at the beginning of the second century, but certainly composed on the basis of materials that are much, much older and go back probably [to] the first half of the first century. And this church manual also includes a tradition about the eucharist, which must be very old. And it's very, very interesting. The Didache is a writing that was only discovered at the end of the last century. It was known that it existed, because later church orders built on it. But the original document itself was only discovered and published about 100 years ago. Now, in the Didache we have eucharistic prayers which express the consciousness of the congregation that formed them. In both traditions, the one of I Corinthians and the one of the Didache, the eschatological orientation is predominant. That is, both [are] oriented towards the meal and the kingdom of God in the future. I think there can be little doubt that this eschatological outlook at the celebration of the meal comes from Jesus himself. It developed in two different ways: one in the tradition that we have in Paul, the other in the Didache.

There are three constituent parts of the ritual tradition which appears in both sources, three parts that are important. One: the eschatological orientation. In the Pauline-Mark tradition, in Mark 14:25, the words of institution conclude with a sentence anticipating Jesus' return in the future: "I shall not drink again from the fruit of the vine until I drink it new in the kingdom of God." A close correspondence can be found in Paul's command in I Corinthians 11: 25: "As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you shall proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes." But also in the Didache tradition we have a similar eschatological orientation, because the Didache liturgy of the eucharist ends with the Aramaic words maro natha, which means "our lord come", which was also known to Paul. He quotes that in I Corinthians. So the eschatological orientation is quite clear, though it's different in each case.

Second: The bread appears as a symbol of the eschatological community. This is expressed in I Corinthians 10, 16-17: "The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?" Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body. Likewise, in I Corinthians 11, the bread as a symbol of the body of Christ designates the community, not the corpse of Jesus. The parallelism between bread and wine as symbolizing Jesus' flesh and blood, is later. It is not found in the Didache. It is not found in Paul. Paul particularly puts side by side not the wine but the cup and the bread. And the cup and the bread each have a different kind of symbolic reference. And the reference of the bread is not to the flesh of Jesus. the reference of the bread is to the body of Christ, which is the church. And therefore in I Corinthians 11, when Paul says, "For all those who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves," the body here is the community, because Paul blames the I Corinthians that they disregard the poor. And disregarding the poor at the common meal means, for Paul, they don't discern that the body of Christ is the whole community. And therefore, not discerning the body, for Paul, means not honoring the poor at the meal. And then, of course, chapter 12 in I Corinthians, Paul goes on to say, "Now, about the body of Christ, which has many functions," and he uses a sociological image for this. So "body of Christ", in Paul's mind, is the Christian community. It's not the flesh of Jesus.

In the Didache prayers and the teaching of the apostles, we have a similar understanding of the bread as the symbol of community, because here it says, "As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth [unto] your kingdom." Also here the term "body" does not occur, but it is clear, the bread symbolizes the gathering together of the entire community.

Third element: the cup. In the oldest form it is not the wine, as I said, but it's the cup. It is understood as the symbol of the new covenant. There is no reason to doubt that all three elements--the eschatological outlook, the understanding of the bread as the symbol of the community, and the cup as symbol of the new covenant--have their origins in meals that Jesus celebrated with his disciples before his death, more often probably than just the last meal, but particularly the last meal before his death. The Didache also refers to the cup as "the holy vine of your servant David, that was made known through your servant Jesus." So it refers to the renewal of the covenant that God made with David in Jesus, though the Didache does not refer to the death of Jesus or the outpouring of his blood, which makes one wonder whether the eucharistic prayers that we have in the Didache (which are modeled on regular Jewish meal prayers) do not go back to Jesus himself. That's a wild speculation. But if so, if anything in here goes back to Jesus himself, I think the eucharistic prayers in the Didache are pretty much the kind of prayers you would speak at a Jewish meal, but interpreted, symbolized. Of course, I Corinthians 11 presupposes the death of Jesus, because the cup speaks of Jesus' death as a sacrifice for the new covenant. And the words, "Do this in remembrance of me," clearly connect this cultic ritual to the death of Jesus.

This cultic meal, however, did not stand alone. It stands not only as an extension of a ritual that had its origin in Jesus, but also must be interpreted together with a story. For example, in I Corinthians 3-5, Paul quotes a short formula that speaks of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection and appearances after his death.

Now, what is quoted is a formula, that is, a kind of shorthand reference to a larger context. It's inconceivable that only such formulae existed at the beginning, while larger narrative contexts were developed at a later time. And Paul didn't appear in the marketplace in Corinth and say, "Now I give you the gospel. Christ died and he was buried and he rose, and he appeared to so and so many people and to me. Goodbye. This is all I have to say. Now please be converted." We have to assume that these formulas are shorthand for a larger context. What was this context? Who this Jesus was, who celebrated a last meal, then died, was buried and raised, must have been spelled out and told in more detail. The formulations quoted by Paul, as a tradition, already presupposed not only an institutionalized ritual; they also presuppose a larger context of narrative and interpretation.

So the earliest tangible presence of Jesus [thus had been therefore] the story of his suffering and death. It utilized the traditional language of the ancient scriptures of Israel in order to narrate an eschatological event in the context of a cultic action that was rooted in a ritual practice instituted by Jesus himself. It was in this ritual and story that the early Christian communities established their relationship to the history of Jesus.

The pattern that we have observed (namely, the close connection of story and ritual) does not belong to the domain just of religious history in the narrow sense. The parallels from Greece (Homer's Iliad), from Rome (Virgil's Aeneid), and from Israel demonstrate that we're dealing here with the establishment of political community, of the formation of its religious foundations. It's a typical pattern of antiquity that the nation is formed by ritual and story. All who participate in the ritual, all who share the story, thus become one nation. In the case of Augustus and Rome, the story and ritual signify the creation of a new era of peace now for all nations under an eschatological perspective. So the founding of early Christian communities, from Jerusalem to Antioch and to the Pauline churches in Asia Minor and Greece, are not simply feeble attempts to establish a new religious sect, however modest the beginnings may have been.

Like the stories of Greece and Rome, also the new Christian story is rooted in a venerable ancient tradition from which it draws its images and its language. But as Virgil's epic developed a story from ancient Troy, and relegates the older story of the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus to a secondary position, so the Christian cult narrative is developed in recourse to Israel's story of the suffering righteous, thus replacing Israel's story of the exodus, and with it also ending the validity of the law of Moses. At the same time, the death of Jesus and his vindication is remembered in the ritual of the eucharist as the founding sacrifice of a new covenant, that is, of a new political order. The cult of the Lord Jesus and the story which legitimizes a new Israel as an eschatological event is anchored in the traditional language of Israel, and at the same time in the actual suffering and death of the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

Since the law of Moses has been set aside because of its demand that Israel separate itself from the gentile world, the founding of the new nation, now consisting of both Jews and gentiles, required a new legislation. As Augustus made recourse to the legislation of Caesar, the new Christian community reaches back to the words of Jesus as part of this legislation, especially the command of love in which all of the [laws of] the prophets are summarized. This recourse to Jesus' sayings, as it is visible, for example, in I Corinthians 7 and in Romans 12, later in the Sermon on the Mount of the gospel of Matthew, is an important element of historical continuity. But it also reveals the same freedom as Augustus' resumption of the legislation of Caesar.

There is a continuity also with the historical Jesus that is present in the report of his miracles, that is present in his sayings. But it is a continuity that has to be assessed with great methodological care. But the new understanding of the significance of Jesus' celebration of meals (and I mean the historical Jesus' celebration of common meals in anticipation of the messianic banquet, or the banquet in the kingdom of God) and the story of his suffering and death, provided the constitutive element for the self-definition of the community as a new nation, and of its claims to eschatological fulfillment for the hopes of all people.

Of course we know the story of Jesus' suffering and death remained fluid for a long time. Evidence for this are the different versions of the passion narrative in the gospel literature, owing to the oral performance of the story in ritual celebrations. That is, as you reread scriptures in ritual celebration, and then told the story of Jesus' death, you would enrich that story by more scriptural information, so to say, more scriptural language. This process of oral performance intended to establish, however, an inclusive statement of truth in the establishment of a new nation. Canonization did not freeze just the latest version of the story. That's very interesting. It did not freeze one version of the story. Rather, the four-gospel canon allowed different versions to stand side by side. On the other hand, gospels that did not include the narrative of Jesus' suffering and death were excluded from the canon of the New Testament. [I'm] always asked why the gospel of Thomas is not in the canon. Well, sayings of Jesus doesn't belong there because the story that founds Christianity as a nation is the story of Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection. The new community could only be nourished by this version of the story, namely the passion narrative, a version that belongs very closely to a ritual that ultimately has its roots in the meal practices of Jesus.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
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published april 1998

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