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Eucharist: Paul’s Teaching in 1st Corinthians

Question: St Paul teaches the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He states that the cup of blessing is the participation in the blood of Christ and the bread we break is the participation in the body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 10:16). What must the cup and the bread be to make possible this participation in the blood and body of Christ? The most obvious and logical answer is that the bread and cup of wine must really be the body and blood of Christ. St Paul also said that whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord; and any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself (See 1 Corinthians 11:27, 29). How can eating mere bread and wine unworthily be so serious? Paul’s comments make sense only if bread and wine become the real body and blood of Christ.

Answer: It is important to read these two passages in their entirety (see Appendix) so that we may understand Paul’s words in their context.

In chapter 10, Paul corrects the behaviour of some Christians in Corinth who had been participating in pagan temple banquets (8:10). He demonstrates that these social gatherings had a profound religious significance. He appeals, first of all, to the Eucharist, reminding them that partaking of the bread and wine signified their communion (or sharing) in Christ’s body and blood. Moreover, their sharing of the one life-source produces a unity among them; they are one bread, one body. He then gives a further illustration from the sacrifices offered by the Israelites. The victim was divided between God (represented by the altar) and the person who offered it (Leviticus 3 and 7); this sharing was understood to create a bond between them. In the same way, taking part in the pagan temple banquets created a “common-union” between the pagans and the demons they unwittingly worshipped. Hence Christians should not take part in those pagan feasts; otherwise they would be “participants with demons”!

The communion between the Israelites and God was true. That does not mean that the victim was transubstantiated, does it? Similarly the communion of the pagans with demons was also real, and yet there is no suggestion there was a “change in substance” of their offerings. Even so, there need not be a change in substance of the bread and wine to the body and blood of Christ for the communion of Christians with their Saviour and with one another to be genuine and real.

During the Lord’s Supper, we “break the bread” and we partake of “one loaf” (10:16, 17) -- and not of a human body, as Catholic theology would have it. Your conclusion that the eucharistic elements must “really” be the body and blood of Christ is neither obvious nor logical; rather you import the idea of transubstantion which is completely foreign to the context.

In 1 Corinthians 11, the apostle deals with a different problem. He rebukes the Corinthians for their selfish and inconsiderate conduct during their church meetings. “When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (11:20, 21).

This sheds light on what Paul means when he says that some were eating and drinking “without recognizing (discerning) the body of the Lord” (10:29). Their problem was not a failure to understand that the bread and wine represented the body and blood of Christ. Rather, they failed to understand and respect the unity of all Christians in the church, the body of Christ. A Catholic commentary concurs: “discerning the body: This is the criterion by which believers must judge themselves. They must evaluate the authenticity of their relationships to other members of the body of Christ, a theme already known to the Corinthians (6:15) and mentioned in 10:17.” So, “not discerning the body” has to do with the unity of the church rather than the nature of the eucharistic elements themselves or transubstantiation. [1]

Some Corinthian Christians were eating in an “unworthy manner” because their selfish behaviour was a contradiction of the unity of the church, the body, brought forth by the bodily sacrifice and the shed blood of Christ represented by the eucharistic bread and cup.

“How can eating mere bread and wine unworthily,” you ask, “be so serious?” Surely you understand why the man who tramples on the nation’s flag is, in fact, dishonouring the country even though the flag is “mere” piece of cloth. Similarly, the profanation of the sacred symbols of Christ’s body and blood is a sin against Christ Himself even though the bread remains “bread” as Paul calls it (v 27).


1 Corinthians 10:14-22

14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? 17 For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. 18 Observe Israel after the flesh: Are not those who eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar? 19 What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? 20 Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons. 22 Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?

1 Corinthians 11:17-34

17 Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. 18 For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. 19 For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you. 20 Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. 21 For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.

23 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, "Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me." 25 In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.

27 Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. 30 For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. 31 For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.

33 Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34 But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come.

[1] (Murphy-O’Connor J. The First Letter to the Corinthians, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Roland E. Murphy (Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 2000), p 810).

Some commentators, both Catholic and Christian, interpret 1 Corinthians 11:29 as a reference to the physical body of Christ. Still, it would be difficult to make this verse a proof of transubstantiation since it can be reasonably understood in a different way (i.e. "the church" -- as we have seen). Moreover, even if it is a reference to the physical body of Christ, it is still not a proof of transubstantiation -- why does it have to be understood in the Aristotelian categories of "accidents" and "substance" rather than the usual biblical symbolic language? In other words, "not discerning the body" could be understood "not discerning the body represented by the bread" rather than "not discerning the body in what appears to be bread but which is in substance the physical body of Christ". [back]

© Dr Joseph Mizzi