The claim is often made that Christian theology has affirmed the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine of the Eucharist from its very beginnings. I hold a contrary opinion. I think that the doctrine of the “Real Presence” is only one possible development out of a primordial eucharistic doctrine found in Scripture and the absolute earliest sources which does not make such explicit affirmations. I think a form of Zwinglianism or memorialism is also a possible development (and to my mind a preferable one). To my mind, a doctrine of the Eucharist counts as “Zwinglian” or “memorialist” if it denies the real presence in re of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine. By way of support for my opinion, I want to discuss briefly the understanding of the Eucharist present in the Didache, which is one of the earliest documents of Christian history outside of the New Testament. According to Michael W. Holmes, “The Didache may have been put into its present form as late as 150, though a date considerably closer to the end of the first century seems more probable. The relative simplicity of the prayers, the continuing concern to differentiate Christian practice from Jewish rituals (8.1), and in particular the form of church structure … reflect a time closer to that of Paul and James (who died in the 60s) than Ignatius (who died sometime after 110)” (The Apostolic Fathers, pp. 337–338).
The discussion of the Eucharist appears in chapters 9, 10, and 14. I do not think one can find a doctrine of the Real Presence in it. But I think the theology of the Didache is consonant with and suggestive of a sort of Zwinglianism or memorialism.
Chapter 9 proposes prayers to be uttered for “giving thanks” during the Eucharist (9:1). The prayer concerning the cup comes first:
We give you thanks, our Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant; to you be the glory forever (9:2).
And then comes a prayer concerning the bread:
We give you thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge that you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant; to you be the glory forever. Just as this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and then was gathered together and became one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever (9:3–4).
I think that there are a few things worth noting here. In the first place, there is no epiclêsis or invocation of the Holy Spirit to transform the elements into the body and blood of Christ. Indeed, there is no explicit mention of Christ’s body and blood at all. To the contrary, there is simply a thanks for “the holy vine of David your servant, which you have made known to us through Jesus” (9:1) and “the life and knowledge that you have made known to us through Jesus” (9:3). Likewise, there is a prayer that the Church be united in the way that the bread was made one through the union of wheat scattered upon the mountains (9:4). One could perhaps say that the cup and the bread are therefore loaded with symbolic meaning, the cup representing or being symbolically correlated with Christ as the vine of David (cf. John 15), the bread representing or being symbolically correlated with both “the life and knowledge” made known through Jesus and the hoped-for eventual unity of the Church. It would be going beyond the text, however, to affirm a doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine.
Chapter 9 ends with this warning:
But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptized into the name of the Lord, for the Lord has also spoken concerning this: “Do not give what is holy to dogs” (9:5).
This passage affirms the holiness of the Eucharist and forbids the non-baptized from participating in it. But I don’t think this demands an acceptance of the Real Presence, because a memorialist could also maintain that the Eucharist is a special ritual for believing, baptized Christians only, just as the celebration of the Passover was limited to the circumcised (cf. Exod 12:48).
Chapter 10 contains a prayer to be offered “after you have had enough” (10:1). It is as follows:
We give you thanks, Holy Father, for your holy name, which you have caused to dwell in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality that you have made known to us through Jesus your servant; to you be the glory forever.
You, almighty Master, created all things for your name’s sake, and gave food and drink to humans to enjoy, so that they might give you thanks; but to us you have graciously given spiritual food and drink, and eternal life through your servant.
Above all we give thanks to you because you are mighty; to you be the glory forever. Remember your church, Lord, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in your love; and from the four winds gather the church that has been sanctified into your kingdom, which you have prepared for it; for yours is the power and the glory forever.
May grace come, and may this world pass away. Hosanna to the God of David. If anyone is holy, let him come; if anyone is not, let him repent. Maranatha! Amen (10:2–6).
Once more, there is no explicit mention of the body and blood of Christ in the elements. The prayer offers thanks to God for “your holy name, which you have caused to dwell in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality you have made known to us through Jesus your servant” (10:2). Likewise, it notes that God has granted to Christians “spiritual food and drink, and eternal life through your servant” (10:3). The concern of this prayer would therefore seem to lie, not with a kind of “mystical union” with the real body and blood of Christ, since these are not mentioned, but rather with the spiritual realities made possible for Christians: the dwelling of God’s name in their hearts, as well as the knowledge, faith, and immortality which are taught by Christ (10:2), which are described as “spiritual food” (10:3). To the extent that the Eucharist serves to call to mind the teachings, benefits, and eternal life made possible by Christ, without mention of the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine, it therefore seems to me that the eucharistic doctrine of the Didache is closer to a form of Zwinglianism or memorialism.
Finally, chapter 14 makes a passing reference to the Eucharist as a “sacrifice.” It says:
On the Lord’s own day gather together and break bread and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who has a quarrel with a companion join you until they have been reconciled, so that your sacrifice may not be defiled. For this is the sacrifice concerning which the Lord said, “In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is marvelous among the nations” (14:1–3).
This chapter therefore affirms that if a person in the church is in conflict with another or is unreconciled with “a companion,” they should not participate in the Eucharist so as not to defile the “sacrifice.” But nothing of significance regarding the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine can be deduced from this passage.
This is what the Didache says about the Eucharist. In light of the available evidence, it seems to me the following conclusions can be drawn.
First, there is in the text no explicit notion of the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine. But the real presence is absolutely important for those later traditions which do affirm it. If a person who believes in the Real Presence writes about the Eucharist, they would mention it as most important of all. This suggests that there was no such notion among the communities represented by the teaching of the Didache.
Second, what is said about the Eucharist and its evidently spiritual effects in the Didache is suggestive of a broadly memorialist theory. By it, Christians thank God for all that He has done for them, both in the creation and in the revelation of Christ, and especially for the spiritual benefits thereof, such as knowledge, faith, the promise of immortality, and the dwelling of God’s name in the heart. The Eucharist is an occasion to reflect and give thanks.
For this reason, I think the claim that the doctrine of the Real Presence is a “universal” or “unanimous” consensus of the earliest Christian sources is exaggerated. (See also my posts on Ignatius here and here.) The Didache, which is one of the earliest Christian sources outside of the New Testament itself, has no such notion. On the other hand, the theology of the Eucharist which one can find in this admittedly sparse document has Zwinglian or memorialist resonances, the emphasis being laid on the distinctly spiritual benefits of Christ’s revelation with no mention of Christ’s bodily presence in the bread and wine.