Nourishing the Body: A Socio-Theological Approach to the Lord’s Supper

Intense curiosity has surrounded the topic of the Lord’s Supper from the beginning of modern scholarship. Questions such as who originated it, what its purpose was, where it fits within the scriptural narrative, when it began, why the early Church adopted it, and how it functions in the Church today have resulted in a vast amount of literature. In his 1982 book on the Lord’s Supper, Hans-Josef Klauck presents a relevant survey of modern literature with published works that represent no fewer than fourteen different approaches and nine distinct types in just one category. Adding to this loose collection of literature is the work done in the last two decades, with twenty or more published articles and books and an unknown number of unpublished articles and dissertations. One could get the impression that no stone has been left unturned, yet a scholarly consensus that sufficiently answers the questions stated above still has not been attained.
With the goal of bringing a fresh approach, this paper was written to propose investigating the Lord’s Supper from a point of view only minimally represented in the works previously mentioned: that of the participants themselves. This perspective requires a social-scientific assessment of the cultures and social groups of the pertinent people and an emic, or insider’s, viewpoint. The methodology helps to avoid ethnocentric and anachronistic readings and stretches beyond mere social description to a comprehensive application that reflects a particular time and place for the particular group of people attending this event. The framework constructed for the examination is designed to engage in a general way with some of the previous work done on this subject while ensuring that the relevant cultures and likely theological ethos of the participants remain the primary determinants of meaning.
The thesis of this paper is that on the night he was betrayed by Judas, Jesus established the Lord’s Supper as a new and unique ritual for his followers to emulate, memorializing his work as the promised Messiah; in doing this, he used the language of commensality to bond his disciples together with him and to explain the theological significance of his actions. The basis for this assertion is grounded in the theological teachings of canonical scripture and the cultural milieu of Jesus and his followers.
The argument supporting the thesis consists of four main points. First, the various properties and functions of commensality are universal and not exclusive to any one group or format. Second, the first century Greco-Roman world included several diverse cultures that were distinctive and largely defined through their commensality practices. Third, the theological teachings in the canonical Old and New Testament Scriptures are consistent with, and have explanatory value for, the described words and actions of Jesus. Fourth, previous approaches/models fall short in one or more of these points and therefore do not adequately explain the Lord’s Supper event.

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