Docetism and the Didachistic Eucharist

A correspondence is occurring through academia.edu which may be of wider interest. Obviously my correspondent does not have the learning that I am sure is possessed of my usual readers, but there may be something here which is useful to somebody. It has certainly exposed a hole in my own knowledge.

It started with the question:

Why is there no mention of the death of Christ in the eucharistic passages of the Didache? Is there any gnostic influence here?

I replied:

A lot of people have asked that question over the years. The problem, as I see it, is that we have allowed Paul’s witness to determine what the Eucharist means, namely a concentration on Jesus’ death. This is one strand in the nest of meanings which the Eucharist had in the different early Christian communities, and one which, when the eucharist becomes fixed in meaning and form in the third and fourth centuries, comes to be prominent. But it was not how the Didache people understood the Eucharist. Rather they understood the presence of Jesus in the meal as being a foreshadowing of his presence on earth when he comes again as messiah and judge.

I do not think we can say that it is “Gnostic” influence, though that to an extent depends on when you think the Didache emerged. Most scholars, however, believe that it had been completed by the beginning of the second century (some would put it much earlier, some slightly later) whereas gnosticism does not really emerge until a bit later than that. “Gnostic”, like “Christian” and “Jewish” in the first and second century, is a bit of a vague category, and there were varying gnostic practices with regard to the eucharist, and varying beliefs and evaluations of it. Some, like the community of the Gospel of Judas, rather looked down on it, some, like that of the Gospel of Philip, had a very exalted understanding. But I don’t think any of them saw the eucharist as a “sneak preview” of Christ’s second coming as the Didache people apparently did.

One might have thought that the end of it but the reply came back:

Does not John refer to gnostic denial of Jesus in the flesh. Also gnosticism was strong in Syria where the Didache came from, and also there may be a quote from the Sentences of Sextus, a pythagorean work.

To which I slightly intemperately responded:

1: The passages in the Johannine epistles are capable of a number of interpretations (see Streett, They went out from us). Even if this refers to Cerinthus, there is a whole question of whether Cerinthus was actually gnostic. And what, in any case, is the relevance to the Didache?
2: So what if D and gnosis share geographical space?
3: Not sure that D quotes Sextus, and Sextus is not Pythagorean, though it has some intellectual overlap. And it is certainly not gnostic.

I am not an expert on gnostic systems, but I know enough to know that it is a difficult category to use.

My correspondent was undeterred by this display of petulance and came back twice.

Is it accurate to say that the idea Jesus did not come in the flesh or did not really physically die on the cross, would show up as an omission, especially in the docetic eucharistic liturgy that spotlights the death of Christ. Is that accurate to say?

And:

Is this a reference to docetism?
“I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.” – 2 John 1:7
Does the Didache affirm the physicality of Christ or his sacrifice?

This time I responded at greater length and with greater patience:

The phrase you cite from John:

oἱ μὴ ὁμολογοῦντες Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ἐρχόμενον ἐν σαρκί:

Can be interpreted as not confessing

a) Jesus to be the (same as) the Christ who actually came (Cerinthian separationism).
b) Jesus to be the Messiah, who actually came. (Judaism)
c) Jesus Christ coming in the flesh (i.e. he came some other way) (docetism).
or indeed,
d) That Jesus Christ did not come at all (grammatically possible but historically unlikely!)

The problem with docetism is that it is very hard to define, and in particular the kind of “docetism” that we know from the textbooks does not seem to appear until the third century, if then. Last year I wrote an essay for a collection on docetism in which I struggled to define Ignatius’ “docetists”. It made me realize the complexity of the question, which I had not myself appreciated before I started that project. I think John is anti Cerinthian separationism, and that that is effectively docetic, but not in the “textbook” sense.

So when you ask “Does the Didache affirm the physicality of Christ or his sacrifice?” I have to answer that it makes no reference to this issue, but that does not mean that it denied either tenet, simply that it is not working in the milieux in which such issues are being considered. The fact that is derived from a law-observant setting in, possibly, Syria, and that gnostic schools derive from the same setting is not really pertinent. Thus when you first suggested that the didachistic eucharist, not making reference to the death of Christ, might thereby hide some docetic tendencies, I suggested that we should not make the Pauline eucharist normative for first century eucharistic celebrations, and that the Didache contributes another strand to our understanding of the tangled skein of roots which go to making the later eucharist.

So you ask:

Is it accurate to say that the idea Jesus did not come in the flesh or did not really physically die on the cross, would show up as an omission, especially in the docetic eucharistic liturgy that spotlights the death of Christ. Is that accurate to say?

I am guessing that what you mean is that the eucharistic liturgy spotlights the death of Christ, and so if such a reference is absent that is an indication of docetism. However, at the risk of banging on on the same old drum, the problem is with the premiss. Why should the eucharistic liturgy spotlight the death of Christ? The Didachistic liturgy spotlights the messianic presence of Christ. What it made of the death we cannot tell, but we cannot say that the death was denied, simply that the Didachistic eucharist, unlike the Pauline, did not encode Christ’s death. We may suggest, beyond this, that since the Didache seems to envisage salvation as happening in the world (firstly through realizing eschatology and finally, with Christ’s return in judgement) then this is not salvation from the world, which, giving due acknowledgement to the distinction in gnostic systems, seems to be fundamental to them all.

I don’t know enough about gnostic eucharistic rites to comment on them. I need to read, Einar Thomassen, The spiritual seed and Herbert Schmid, Die Eucharistie ist Jesus at least. Maybe I need salvation from a thousand other responsibilities to do so.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Didache

One response to “Docetism and the Didachistic Eucharist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s