Review – Ascetic Eucharists by Andrew McGowan

Summary: Ascetic Eucharists by Andrew McGowan is a landmark book in early Christian studies both for its methodology and its content. Its successful marrying of anthropological techniques, broad familiarity with the ancient world, and close reading of texts provide a benchmark for future research. Though at times the monograph betrays its origins as a dissertation, the writing is overall quite clear and engaging. McGowan shows how the move from development to diversity in early Christian practice can be pursued responsibly and fruitfully.

Argument: McGowan examines the choice of food and drink in early Christian ritual meals. He contends that such choices cannot be understood apart from the cultural significance of those foods. Thus he begins by surveying food and eating in ancient Greco-Roman culture, drawing attention to associations with class, religion, and power structures. Central to his argument is identifying the “cuisine of sacrifice.” Sacrifice was not merely a matter of religion; its practice both symbolized and constituted a particular social world of gender and power relations. Wine and above all meat were especially implicated in pagan sacrifice. Meat’s production was religiously charged, since the animals would be dedicated to a god upon slaughter, and the temples would host meals; leftover meat was packed off the market, where it may even be preferred (by pagans) to undedicated meat. Wine production was not explicitly religious; rather, it would be dedicated as some of it was poured out as a libation at mealtime. It is easy to see, then, how some groups were comfortable with repurposing wine by dedicating it to their deity, while those with more scrupulous consciences might avoid all association with it. Opposite these, bread would be the common food least tinged with sacrifical overtones. Likewise with water.

McGowan spends most of the book tracing references to wineless Eucharists, those featuring either bread and water or even just bread alone. Many heretical groups practiced such meals in direct contradiction to the elsewhere normative bread and water Eucharist. There are good grounds for believing that Ebionites, Nasareans (whoever they are), Theodotus and some other Valentian Gnostics, and Marcion all shunned wine. They are reports of Montanists doing so, and even Manichees who, according to later texts, learned to avoid wine from some kind of Christian group. Even more provocative are a range of figures and groups who were not clearly heretical but who nevertheless practiced or may have practiced wineless Eucharists. Cyprian’s epistle 63 seems to refer to otherwise orthodox bishops who are forgoing wine in their sacrament. Justin Martyr may have done so, though the literary evidence is inconclusive. Additional weight may be lent by the fact that his successor Tatian was opposed to wine, and his opposition does not appear to have been a position assumed “after” his apostasy. Hegesippus, via Eusebius, recalls James the Just’s refusal to touch wine, though it is not clear that abstinence from the sacrament must be entailed.

One common thread between groups practicing wineless Eucharists, orthodox or not, is asceticism. Here McGowan offers a useful distinction that may prove fruitful in future studies. Drawing on Cynics, some Jewish ascetics, and the Christian texts under consideration, he asserts that this strain of asceticism was concerned more with marking communal boundaries by protesting the dominant social order than with individual self-mastery. In other words, wineless Eucharists could be an indication of particularly hostile feelings toward the dominant society. A strong argument for McGowan’s position is that most of the figures who shunned wine in the Eucharist already held different dietary practices, setting themselves off from and against the society that symbolizes and constitutes itself by sacrifice. Only relatively late do we hear of “Aquarians,” who refuse wine in the Eucharist but who consume it in their daily lives. Quite likely, a ritual act is being remembered shorn of its original social function. It is very important to McGowan to note that the theology of the groups practicing wineless Eucharists differed widely. Thus, the attempt by orthodox apologists to explain the lack of wine as signaling disbelief in the incarnation fails.

A second common thread, closely linked to the first, is a geographical clustering. The majority of these groups fall within a Syriac-Asian crescent, the birthplace of many practices that would seem strange by later Latin standards. McGowan combines these lines of evidence, a variety of ascetic groups with divergent theologies but concentrated geographically, in his explanation. At least in Syria, wineless Eucharists were likely not a deviation from an earlier-instituted practice of bread and wine. Instead, the original form of Christianity to establish itself in the region was already wineless. This is a bold explanation, but quite possibly the most likely one to explain how such a variety of groups shared the same practice by the mid-second century.

Conclusion: McGowan’s book makes several substantive contributions to early Christian studies, but one less tangible benefit is modeling how much one can get from the sources once assumptions of linear development of or individual deviations from orthodox are discarded. His work has already been incorporated, mostly positively, into Paul Bradshaw’s works on the Eucharist, especially Eucharistic Origins.

I recommend this book highly to scholars of the early church, liturgical scholars, or anyone looking for a sterling example of anthropological approaches to historical and religious topics.

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