The Real Presence of the Eucharist in the Early Church

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One of the core beliefs of the Catholic Church that differs from other Christian denominations is the belief in the Real Presence of the Eucharist— that the bread and wine consecrated at Mass truly become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. The Church believes this based on the Sacred Tradition passed down through the popes and bishops of the Church from the apostles, and the writings of the early Church Fathers confirm that this is what the Church has believed since apostolic times. In the first three centuries alone, Church Fathers like St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Justin Martyr, and St. Irenaeus of Smyrna, who demonstrated through their lives, martyrdom, and close association to the apostles to be trustworthy, wrote definitively of the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ.

The State of the Early Church

The early centuries of the Church were rife with persecution at the hands of the Roman Emperors, and yet many Christians stayed faithful to Christ and His Church even unto death. Because the Christians proclaimed that there was only one God and refused to acknowledge the pagan deities, the Romans (especially the Emperor) saw the Christians as a threat to their religion and thus the unity of the Empire.[1] Also, the emperors often saw Christians as a threat to their authority, since they refused to worship the emperors as gods. But many brave Christians, including Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyon, chose to die rather than sacrifice to the Roman gods.

Furthermore, one of the other reasons that these Christians were persecuted was in fact because some of the pagans thought (or spread the rumor) that the Eucharistic rite was carnal and horrific. Many pagans despised the Christians because of “distorted reports of the Eucharistic rite” that accused them of “killing children, eating their flesh and drinking their blood.”[2] Would the pagans really have come to such misconceptions if the Christians had merely proclaimed that the Eucharist was a symbol? Evidently, such rumors only came about because the Christians believed that they truly received the flesh and blood of Christ. The writings of the early Christian martyrs and Church Fathers proclaim this very belief, and they surely would not have spoken as such if it were not true, since such beliefs contributed to their persecution. If they had meant the Eucharist was merely symbolic, they would have clearly said as such in order to defend themselves against the pagans’ claims. But they did not; rather, they spoke plainly of the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ.

Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius, who lived from around A.D. 50-117, was the Bishop of Antioch and a martyr during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Trajan (A.D. 98-117). It is generally held that he was a student of the apostle John, the disciple “whom Jesus loved,”[3] and he was appointed the third bishop of Antioch by the apostle Peter himself.[4] According to the Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret (a fifth century bishop and theologian[5]), “the illustrious Ignatius … received episcopal grace by the hand of the great Peter, and after ruling the church of Antioch, wore the crown of martyrdom.”[6] He was also very dear friends with Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna,[7] who according to Irenaeus and Eusebius (a fourth century bishop and historian[8]), “was not only instructed by the apostles, and acquainted with many that had seen Christ, but was also appointed by apostles in Asia bishop of the church of Smyrna.”[9] Ignatius wrote a personal letter to Polycarp, advising him as a younger disciple, and Polycarp praised Ignatius’ holy example.[10]

This close association with the apostles indicates Ignatius as a trustworthy source, as does the giving of his life in martyrdom. Sometime between A.D. 107 and 110, he was brought to Rome and died by being torn apart by lions in the amphitheater.[11] It was on his way to Rome that Ignatius wrote his seven epistles to the communities he visited, and was even allowed some visitors.[12] In these letters, there is evidence that the early Christians believed in the True Presence of the Eucharist, and Ignatius draws a beautiful parallel between the sacrifice of the Eucharist and his own martyrdom. Even while the celebration of the Eucharist may have differed slightly in practice during the very early years of the church, through Ignatius’ letters one can see how the essential beliefs have never changed.

Letter to the Smyrnaeans

Along the way to Rome, Ignatius visited Smyrna (whose Bishop Polycarp, as previously mentioned, he also wrote a letter to, and who would later become a martyr as well).[13] Ignatius wrote a letter to the Smyrnaeans which focused on how to address some of the false beliefs of some groups who were challenging the Christians at the time. In particular, Ignatius advised them how to deal with those who said that Christ was not truly human, that he had not risen bodily from the dead. These Docetists, who believed that Christ was not really human but only purely divine,[14] thus also denied that the bread and wine of the Eucharist was truly His body and blood.

What Ignatius says about this group makes it clear that the Christians he was addressing believed in the True Presence: “They [the Docetists] hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services of prayer, because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which, in his goodness, the Father raised.”[15] He even goes on to emphasize that, “Consequently those who wrangle and dispute God’s gift [of the Eucharist] face death.”[16]Thus, Ignatius not only warned against this false belief—his tone implies that the True Presence was already an assumed belief for the Christians at the time, and that acceptance of this belief was imperative. The question was merely how to treat those heretics who did not believe this in union with the Church.

Letter to the Romans

On the other hand, Ignatius wrote his letter to Rome to urge them to not attempt to save him, but to allow him to die as an offering to God and a witness to the Faith.[17] He creates a beautiful metaphor of his martyrdom, mirroring Christ’s sacrifice present in the Eucharist. He describes himself as an offering, saying: “Let me be fodder for wild beasts—that is how I can get to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ.”[18] One can clearly see (knowing from his Letter to the Smyrnaeans that they believed in the True Presence) that he showed his love for the Eucharist by offering his life in union with Christ.

The Eucharist in the Early Church versus Today

Ignatius describes the Eucharist as the “love feast,” or “agape feast,” in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans: “Without the bishop’s supervision,” he says, “no baptisms or love feasts are permitted.”[19] Because he uses this phrase without any explanation, this implies that it was already a common term among the Christians. Evidently, this name of “agape feast” reflects how God, love itself, gives Himself in the form of food for His faithful to receive. However, this celebration of the Eucharistic Feast differed a little in practice from the way Catholics celebrate it today:  

In the early decades it took the form of a meal with eating and drinking and concluded with the blessing of bread and wine. By the end of the first century a ritual meal had begun to be celebrated separately, though at one place Ignatius refers to the ‘love feast,’ by which he apparently meant a meal followed by the blessing of the bread and the cup.[20]

By the second century, though, the Eucharist was celebrated as part of a larger ceremony, which was in all its essential elements the same as the Catholic Mass today, with readings from the Scriptures and psalms, a homily from the Bishop, prayers for the faithful, and the greeting “kiss” between the members of the Church (now the “sign of peace”).[21] Thus, even while certain practices in exactly how we have celebrated the Eucharist have changed throughout history, it has remained essentially the same since the early centuries; and, most importantly, Christ’s Church has always held the fundamental belief of the True Presence of the Eucharist.

Justin Martyr

St. Justin Martyr, born in the early second century, was a well-educated convert to Christianity, who “In his youth … studied all the current systems of philosophy,” though he “found no rest for his soul” until he was introduced to the Christian writings and converted to Christianity.[22] He then became a teacher and apologist, beginning a school of Christian philosophy and writing in defense of Christianity against the Jews (in his Dialogue with Trypho) and the Romans (in his Apologies).[23] Furthermore, though there does not seem to be any particular mention of a close association with the apostles themselves, Justin did consistently reference and rely on the writings of the apostles in his own writings.[24] Irenaeus also quotes Justin in his Against Heresies,[25] and the years of their lives overlap, so it is possible they even knew each other personally (at the very least, Irenaeus references him in a positive light). That they knew and learned from each other is also supported by their very similar use of language in describing the Eucharist (see section on Irenaeus’ Against Heresies). This association with Irenaeus would also indirectly connect Justin with the apostles, since Irenaeus was a student of St. Polycarp, who had been a student of the apostle John (see section on Irenaeus of Smyrna).

Furthermore, Justin demonstrated his faithfulness to Christ by sacrificing his own life. He is named “Martyr” because he was killed, along with six other Christians, by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180[26]) for refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods.[27] There is even an account of his martyrdom (around A.D. 165[28]) still available, which was written by eyewitnesses. In this account, Justin responds confidently and courageously to the Prefect of Rome: “It is our heart’s desire to be martyred for our Lord Jesus Christ and then to be happy forever.”[29] Thus, Justin Martyr’s faithful witness to Christ unto death, his well-educated background, and his (be it indirect) association with the apostles are evidence of his credibility. And he writes in his First Apology quite explicitly about the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ.

First Apology

The Apologies (defenses of the faith) of St. Justin were “addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, the Senate, and the Roman people.”[30] Thus, since he is addressing the roman people hostile to the Christian faith, he would have been careful to avoid any misunderstandings about the celebration of the Eucharist, as previously mentioned. If the Christians had believed that the bread and wine were merely a symbol, he would have surely explained this to the Romans; but what he says in this First Apology is quite the opposite:

This food we call Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Saviour being incarnate by God’s word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.[31]

Justin emphasizing that the Eucharist is not mere bread and wine; rather, when consecrated by the priest through the words given by Christ, they becomethe flesh and bloodof Christ. Furthermore, he refers to the apostles as the source of the Church’s doctrine of the Eucharist, as this Sacrament was instituted at the Last Supper and passed down from them:

Forthe apostles in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, thus handed down what was commanded them: that Jesus, taking bread and having given thanks, said, “Do this for my memorial, this is my body“; and likewise taking the cup and giving thanks he said, “This is my blood“; and gave it to them alone.[32]

Thus, St. Justin Martyr speaks quite plainly that the Eucharist is in fact the “flesh and blood” of Jesus Christ, and that this is what the apostles believed.

Irenaeus of Smyrna

St. Irenaeus, from Smyrna, became bishop of Lyons in 177, and throughout his life wrote several works defending and explaining the beliefs of the Christian Faith.[33] One can especially trust the word of Irenaeus because he had close association with those who knew the apostles. Like Ignatius, Irenaeus had known Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna—in his youth he had been a student of this bishop of his hometown, who had been a student of the apostle John. Irenaeus writes that he remembers “how he [Polycarp] spoke of his conversion with John and with others who had seen the Lord; how he repeated their words from memory.”[34] Theodoret too speaks of “Irenæus, who enjoyed the teaching of Polycarp, and became a light of the western Gauls.”[35] It is also commonly believed that Irenaeus gave his life as a martyr in A.D. 202, during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus.[36]

Against Heresies

Around A.D. 180, Irenaeus wrote his work Against Heresies, also known as “The Refutation and Overthrow of Gnosticism,” which was especially instrumental in defending the faith against this heresy.[37] These Gnostics believed that they had received a special knowledge from God, that God was entirely detached from the world, that all matter was inherently evil, and other such views obviously contrary to the Christian faith.[38] In response, one of the topics Irenaeus writes about is the Eucharist, emphasizing how in this Sacrament the flesh and spirit are not opposed, but come together as the bread and wine become Christ—His spirit and His flesh and blood.

Irenaeus first describes the institution of the Eucharist at the last supper, when Christ “took that created thing, bread, and gave thanks, and said, “This is My body.” And the cup likewise, which is part of that creation to which we belong, He confessed to be His blood, and taught the new oblation of the new covenant; which the Church receiving from the apostles, offers to God throughout all the world.[39] Irenaeus does not write that Christ said that the bread and wine symbolized His body and blood; rather, he says that Christ confessed it as His body and blood, and that this continues to be offered in the same way by the Church across the world. This word confessed certainly has a definite sound to it—that Christ admitted, acknowledged, declared that this was His body, despite how shocking that might seem. But Irenaeus spells this out even more clearly in the following passages:

[O]ur opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.[40]

Here, Irenaeus emphasizes, like Justin Martyr, that the Eucharist is no longer merely bread and wine. (His use of almost the exact same wording also seems to indicate that they may have known and learned from each other). Rather, while it remains to the eyes as earthly bread and wine, it actually becomes Christ, who is both “earthly and heavenly” in His divinity and humanity. And Irenaeus even further continues to stress this Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, as he explains that Christ “has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation)He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies.”[41] Again, Irenaeus uses definitive language such as acknowledged and established—he says that Christ established the Eucharist not as a symbol of His body, but truly as His own body.

Irenaeus continues, denying the Gnostic idea that the flesh is separate from the spirit and explaining how the members of the Church become one with Christ in the Eucharist:

When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they [the Gnostics] affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him?[42]

Here he references the letter of the apostle Paul to the Ephesians, which says that “we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones.”[43] Irenaeus explains that Paul “does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man,” referencing how the Gnostics believed that Christ was not truly man, “for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; but [Paul refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones—that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body.”[44] In other words: Irenaeus is saying that Catholics become members of Christ’s body by receiving this very body and blood in the Eucharist.

Finally, Irenaeus elaborates with an analogy. Just as “a cutting from the vine planted in the ground,” that is, wheat and grapes, grow by the blessing of God and then become bread and wine—similarly, this bread and wine, having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ.[45] Again and again, Irenaeus says that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. And nowhere in this explanation does he clarify that this bread and wine is a mere symbol.

Hence, the writings of these early Church Fathers, whose holy lives, martyrdom, and close association to the apostles validate their credibility, confirm that the Church has believed in the Real Presence of the Eucharist from apostolic times. Ignatius’ letters demonstrate that, though the Eucharist may have been celebrated in a slightly different way, the fundamental belief in the Real Presence has never changed, being faithfully passed down from the apostles. Similarly, Justin Martyr’s First Apology and Irenaeus’ Against the Heresies repeatedly describe the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ. Even despite the persecution they received for the pagans’ misrepresentations of the Eucharistic liturgy, they wrote unambiguously that they who receive the Eucharist truly receive Christ Himself.

[1] Alan Schreck, The Compact History of the Catholic Church (Cincinnati, OH: Servant, 2009). 18.

[2] John Laux, Church History (Charlotte, NC: TAN, 2012). 44.

[3] John 13:23. Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition (Charlotte, NC: St. Benedict Press, 1952).

[4] John Bonaventure O’Connor, “St. Ignatius of Antioch,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 7. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910). 17 Oct. 2020. <;.

[5] Chrysostom Baur, “Theodoret,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 14, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912). 10 Nov. 2020. <;.

[6] Theodoret, The Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret, “Dialogue i: The Immutable,” Bible Hub. <;.

[7] Ludwig G.J. Bieler, “St. Ignatius of Antioch: Ignatius’s personal relationships,”, Encyclopedia Britannica. <;.

[8] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Eusebius of Caesarea,”, Encyclopedia Britannica. <;.

[9] Eusebius of Caesarea, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 187.

[10] Bieler.

[11] Laux 49.

[12] Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2012), 28-29.

[13] Ibid 28.

[14] Laux 49.

[15] Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Smyrnaeans,” trans. Cyril Richardson, in Early Christian Fathers (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996). (Emphasis added).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Wilken 28.

[18] Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Romans,” trans. Cyril Richardson, in Early Christian Fathers (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996).

[19] “Letter to the Smyrnaeans.”

[20] Wilken 33.

[21] Ibid. 34.

[22] Laux 57-58.

[23] Ibid. 58.

[24] Jules Lebreton, “St. Justin Martyr,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 8. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910). 9 Nov. 2020. <;.

[25] Irenaeus of Smyrna, Against Heresies, Part IV, Ch. VI.2., Early Christian Writings. <;.

[26] Laux 57.

[27] Ibid. 58

[28] Lebreton.

[29] Ibid. 58-59

[30] Ibid. 58.

[31] Justin Martyr, First Apology, Ch. LXVI. Trans. Cyril Richardson, in Early Christian Fathers (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996). (Emphasis added).

[32] Ibid. (emphasis added).

[33] Laux 60.

[34] As quoted by Laux, 54.

[35] Theodoret.

[36] Laux 60, 62.

[37] Ibid. 60.

[38] Ibid. 62.

[39] Irenaeus of Smyrna, Against Heresies, Part IV, Ch. XVII.5. (Emphasis added).

[40] Ibid.Part IV, Ch. XVIII.4-5. (Emphasis added).

[41] Ibid.Part V, Ch. II.2. Early Christian Writings. <;. (Emphasis added).

[42] Ibid. (emphasis added).

[43] The Holy Bible (King James Version), Ephesians 5:30.

[44] Ibid. (emphasis added).

[45]Irenaeus of Smyrna, Against Heresies, Part V. Ch. II.3. (Emphasis added).

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