Wineless Eucharists: Ascetic Practices or Breakfast Fare?

by Paul Bradshaw

In his 1999 book, Ascetic Eucharists, Andrew McGowan taught us to take more seriously evidence of early Christian ritual meals that did not conform to standardly accepted patterns of eucharistic practice, and in particular wineless Eucharists, those that mention only bread or bread and water.[1] He argued that these were signs of a tradition of ascetic eating among some early Christians, who rejected not only the consumption of meat offered to idols but also of wine because its association with pagan libations. Even the few instances of otherwise apparently normal orthodox groups practicing bread and water Eucharists he was inclined to attribute to ascetic roots behind them. In the twenty years since the book’s publication, his explanation seems to have become universally accepted.

At the 2019 Oxford Patristic Conference, however, the indefatigable Alistair Stewart presented a paper that drew on a wealth of evidence to show that drinking wine at breakfast time in ancient Greco-Roman society would have been an unusual practice, and that a small amount of bread usually with water constituted the main, and often the only, components of the meal.[2] He then proceeded to suggest that among the accounts of early Christian Eucharists that mention water rather than wine, those that indicate a specific time of day refer to the morning hours, and therefore it is likely to have been the transition from evening to morning celebrations that led to the substitution of water for wine, and not any ascetic tendency, and that the more surprising phenomenon is that morning Eucharists with wine survived at all.

Which of these two explanations comes nearer to the historical truth? It cannot be denied that there were early Christian groups who did practice ascetic lifestyles, refraining from the consumption of meat and also wine—the evidence of Romans 14:21 alone would be sufficient for that—and so this would have applied to their eucharistic practice too. There is also the Jewish precedent in Philo’s description of the ascetic community of the Therapeutae, whose communal meals comprised only bread, salt, and water (De vita contemplativa 66–81). Moreover, McGowan seems to be correct in identifying an ascetic background to at least some of the early Christian documents that refer to the celebration of the Eucharist. All this appears to support his contention that some early Christian groups would not have included wine in their eucharistic meals for ascetic reasons.

On the other hand, there is really no evidence for his view that such was also the case behind the third-century communities to which Cyprian of Carthage referred in his Letter 63, even though McGowan struggled to suggest some connection to earlier Montanism.[3] Commentators have traditionally seen these communities as minor deviants from a widely accepted norm of bread and wine Eucharists; and Cyprian himself plays down their prevalence, describing them as just “some people” acting out of “ignorance or naïveté” (63.1). But it is a common ploy to present one’s opponents in this way: see for instance 1 Clement 1.1, where the trouble is attributed to “a few reckless and arrogant individuals.” Thus, the practice of wineless Eucharists could have been quite widespread in North Africa. Indeed, it must have been so for Cyprian to take the time and trouble to compose such a very lengthy and detailed denunciation in this letter. It is even possible that it was Cyprian himself who was the innovator in this region with his novel insistence on doing everything that Jesus did at the Last Supper, and especially using wine mixed with water—everything, that is,  apart from holding the celebration in the morning rather than the evening, an exception which he defended with only the rather lame response: “It was fitting for Christ to offer in the evening of the day, that the very hour of sacrifice might show the setting and evening of the world … but we celebrate the resurrection of the Lord in the morning” (63.16).

Similarly Cyprian’s allegation that the reason the others do not drink wine in the morning is that they fear that the smell of it on their breath will give them away as Christians in that time of persecution (63.15) is much more likely to have been his own accusation of cowardice than a genuine explanation offered by them. Indeed, according to Cyprian, his opponents apparently make clear that their practice was based on nothing other than the time of day: “although in the morning water alone is seen to be offered, yet when we come to supper we offer the mingled cup” (63.16). Some may object that this example is much too late to provide an explanation of the practice of wineless Eucharists at earlier times. But Cyprian describes them not as a recent innovation but as “the custom of certain persons … in time past” (63.13) and he seeks divine forgiveness for any “among our predecessors” who have erred in this way (63.17). Additionally, it needs to be remembered how long other earlier practices that eventually disappeared also managed to persist, Quartodecimanism providing a good instance of that.

On the other hand, a weakness in Stewart’s theory is the absence of convincing corroborating evidence within other contemporary or earlier sources. We certainly have some examples of Eucharists in the evening where wine was used, but those sources tell us nothing about what might have happened when the communities came together in the mornings instead. And we have other examples where the Eucharist was celebrated in the morning without wine, but again there is no evidence whether such communities would also have refrained from wine at an evening celebration, which would have been an indicator that its morning abstinence was for religious reasons, or alternatively did use wine in the evening and so confirm that the practice was a matter of the time of day. And finally we have other instances where there is no clear indication of a particular time of day for the celebration, which gives us no help one way or another.

To illustrate these difficulties, let us consider the Acts of Thomas.[4] Although this work is thought to date from the third century, it contains traditions that appear to be older than that. It mentions the Apostle celebrating the Eucharist on six occasions. Five of these follow a baptism.

In chapter 27 the baptism takes place at night and the Eucharist in the morning, with bread alone being mentioned; in chapters 49–50 no time of day is given, bread alone is again consumed, but the terms Eucharist and agape are both used to describe it, which might suggest it is intended as an evening meal; in 121 the baptism is apparently in the night because the baptisand Mygdonia wakes her nurse beforehand (ch. 120), but there is a divergence between the Greek and Syriac versions as to whether it is water or wine that is used along with the bread at the Eucharist; in 133 there is no reference to the time of day and bread alone is consumed; and in 158 the baptism took place at night and both bread and a cup, but not its contents, are specified.

The only occasion unrelated to baptism is in Chapter 29: in the Syriac version the Apostle blesses and distributes bread and olive oil, and it is specifically said that “he himself ate because the Sunday was dawning,” while the Greek instead stated that “he remained fasting, because the Lord’s Day was about to begin.” Such divergences both between the two linguistic versions and also between one celebration of the Eucharist and another are not unexpected in this work, as the same discrepancy is true of the forms of the administration of baptism too, and points to the use of varied older traditions as well as redactions in translation. But this lack of consistency does not help us make a reliable determination whether the almost total absence of wine is the result of asceticism or a consequence of the time of day.

Justin Martyr’s well-known accounts of the Eucharist in his First Apology 65, 67, also. present us with problems. In the past the majority of scholars treated both the baptismal Eucharist and the Sunday celebration as taking place in the morning, both because they assumed that by that date the Eucharist had been transferred from evening to morning everywhere, and also because the apparent reference to bread and wine alone did not seem to be a full evening meal. Not only have considerable doubts now been cast on the assumption of a universally early transition from evening to morning, but as McGowan himself has emphasized, bread would have been the main— and sometimes the only— ingredient of a meal for the poor.[5] To complicate matters further, the old proposal by Harnack, that wine was a later interpolation in the text that originally mentioned only bread and water, has received some recent positive attention by McGowan and others.[6] This means that we cannot be sure whether Justin’s account is of an evening meal with wine or a morning assembly with water, or even the other way around.

Stewart himself offers a few early texts in support of his hypothesis, but again these accounts of morning gatherings do not tell us whether the participants consumed wine at their evening meals, or were deliberately abstemious, which would have challenged his hypothesis. On the other hand, perhaps the most telling point that he makes is that a truly ascetic breakfast would not be to dispense with wine but to consume nothing at all. This was the usual custom observed by all Christians on fast days, and gave rise to a problem addressed by Tertullian: would not receiving “the Lord’s body” on those days break their fast? His response was to keep it to consume when the fast was over (De oratione 19). We should note that only bread is mentioned here, not wine.

So, the case remains unproven. It does not refute McGowan’s basic argument that some early Christian communities did not use wine in their eucharistic celebrations because they did not drink wine at all for ascetic reasons. But it does open up an alternative possibility that in at least some cases it was the transition from evening eucharistic meals to morning gatherings that led to the emergence of so-called wineless Eucharists, and only the persistence of people like Cyprian that restored bread and wine as the standard elements of morning celebrations. What is more, as Stewart noted, such a conclusion would also question the common assumption that the transition led to only token rather than substantial amounts of bread then being received. What was consumed would not have been a token but an appropriate breakfast-sized portion.

Paul Bradshaw, priest of the Church of England, is a specialist in the early history of Christian liturgy who has taught at the University of Notre Dame since 1985. He has written or edited over twenty books and has contributed more than one hundred articles or essays. For eighteen years he was chief editor of the international journal, Studia Liturgicaand he is also a former President both of Societas Liturgica and of the North American Academy of Liturgy. His book, The Search for the Origins of Christian Liturgy, has become a standard textbook. It has gone through two editions (New York: Oxford University Press 1992, 2002), and has been translated into French, Italian, Japanese, Polish and Russian.

[1] Andrew B. McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999).
[2] Alistair C. Stewart, “Άριστον μέν ύδωρ: Ancient Breakfasts and the Development of Eucharistic Foods,” forthcoming in the Journal of Theological Studies.
[3] McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists, 209–11.
[4] English translation in Harold W. Attridge, The Acts of Thomas (Salem: Polebridge Press, 2010).
[5] McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists, 79, 93.
[6] McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists, 151–55.

5 comments

  1. This is very interesting, but I wish scholars would refrain from speculative leaps of logic like this passage, which despite being so common a tactic in the literature are really very hard to defend:

    Thus, the practice of wineless Eucharists could have been quite widespread in North Africa. Indeed, it must have been so for Cyprian to take the time and trouble to compose such a very lengthy and detailed denunciation in this letter.

    There is no real reason to think a practice being condemned needed to be widespread in order to annoy an author enough to write about it. The practice being particularly horrific to them, a connection to someone prominent or otherwise disliked, a question from the one place it was happening, and a dozen other reasons could prompt such writings regarding practices which were in truth rare.

    1. I think you’ll find that scholars accept that if someone is fulminating against something — a good example is women presiders at Eucharist in the Early Church — then that is evidence that the excoriated practice was happening, and more than just an isolated incident. Why would they have bothered to write about it otherwise?

      1. What “scholars accept” is sometimes just a bad intellectual habit. I think Scott has a point, and I tried to discuss this a couple of years ago in connection with the undue attention given to certain bad-but-rare liturgical practices. If we were to judge simply by number of mentions, we might think that flying monstrances (or clown masses, or babies being baptized with squirt guns, etc.) were a common phenomenon, when in fact the attention they receive is precisely because of how rare and outside the mainstream they in fact are.

      2. Why would they have bothered to write about it otherwise?

        I gave a number of reasons why they might, and I also agree with the further ones Deacon Fritz provided.

        It is also worth noting it is equally possible such mentions don’t prove a condemned practice was a contemporary problem *at all*. In terms of literary devices, picking on long ceased bad practices in order to make a desired point is hardly unknown, including in relation to the clown mass discourse Deacon Fritz notes.

        Indeed its a rhetorical tool Pope Francis even uses from time to time, using confessional torture chambers and gnostics having a spiritual bath in the cosmos (a practice which must be rare if it even exists at all), as a foil for the real point he wants to make.

  2. Does this exclusion of wine also exclude the basis of the ‘new and eternal covenant’ in the Blood of the Christ?

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