Gospel Disproof #52: Christians and cannibals

One of the early accusations against Christians was that they were cannibals who practiced ritual human sacrifice and then devoured their victims in secret rites hidden away among the catacombs. If you’re familiar with the Christian sacrament of communion and its meaning, it’s easy to see how such a rumor could get started. The cup that Christians drink is a sharing in the blood of Jesus, and those who eat the bread are eating his body as well, at least according to the liturgy. The language and terminology they use is certainly the vocabulary of cannibals and vampires, and Christians attach great importance and reverence to that vocabulary. Small wonder, then, that some people took them for wanna-be cannibals and vampires.

Here’s the thing, though. If we think about it, the rumors aren’t that far off. In modern Catholic theology, a metaphysical switcheroo takes place which causes the bread and wine to become the actual body and blood of Jesus (cleverly “disguised” to maintain the appearance of still being bread and wine). In other words, if we take transubstantiation at its word, Christians are literally committing cannibalism every time they take communion. That’s rather the whole point of the doctrine of transubstantiation—that the bread is literally human flesh and the wine is literally human blood, and believers are eating and drinking the actual body and actual blood.

Nor are Protestants much better off for calling communion a merely spiritual or symbolic cannibalism. Even though the bread and wine aren’t literally human meat and blood, the focus and meaning of the ritual is still centered on perceiving the bread and cup as Jesus’ body and blood. The intent is still there, and the significance is still cannibalistic, and it has to be judged on those terms. Suppose someone handed out bread sticks, and had the congregation suck on them as a kind of ritual, spiritual fellatio. Would Christians be ok with that on the grounds that the bread stick wasn’t literally Jesus’ penis? “That’s completely different—extramarital oral sex is a sin!” Oh, and cannibalism isn’t?

The problem here is that, when men make up a story, it can sound reasonably self-consistent up to a point, but then sooner or later there’s an inconsistency that can’t be resolved. It’s easy to see how ritual, possibly-symbolic cannibalism could inadvertently end up as the centerpiece of Christian worship. After all, Jesus was supposed to be the Lamb of God, and it had long been established that after you sacrifice the Passover lamb, you roasted it and ate its flesh. There’s a certain natural continuity from that to the idea that Jesus is the (human) sacrifice, and therefore ought to be eaten. The only problem is that both human sacrifice and cannibalism are wrong! You start with a story that seems plausible at the beginning, and follow it to its logical conclusion, and end up with something that’s not just absurd, but downright nasty.

That’s the way it goes with stories that men make up. They’re not drawn from the real world, so they’re not consistent with the real world, or even with themselves. That’s why it’s easier to just tell the truth: the inconsistencies aren’t there, and so you don’t wind up having to explain exactly why and how you made cannibalism and human sacrifice the heart and foundation of your religion.


  1. says

    For some reason, at the Sunday service here at an evangelical church, they passed out bite sized pieces of bread and a sip of grape juice to everyone that we waited to all consume together. I almost went back up and showed them my chunk of bread and asked if I could have a different piece because the one I had was missing an arm.

    Discretion was the better part of valor, but it would have been hilarious.

  2. says

    I’m not sure what you mean by inconsistent here. It’s thoroughly consistent. Ritual cannibalism was always the intended, deliberate point. That’s how your god becomes one with you and vice versa. The early Christians didn’t like the rumour because it accused them of ordinary cannibalism of just plain humans which would have been degrading and nasty. But eating the god-man? That was holy.

  3. says

    That’s pretty much the question I put to the priest in my grade 7 religion class at Catholic school. “Christ was a man and through the sacrament of the eucharist the host and wine become his body and blood, right?” He nods. “Doesn’t that make us cannibals?”

    He never answered me and refused to take anymore of my questions the rest of the year. I can trace the beginning of my ascent to hardcore atheism to that moment.

  4. Paul Gnuman says

    Joseph Atwill argues that the Eucharist refers to the cannibalism that occurred during the seige of Jerusalem, and as described by Josephus in the story of Cannibal Mary, who roasts her baby in the manner of a Passover lamb, and makes a speech about him being a bane to the seditious varlots (i.e. rebels against Roman rule). The Jesus character of the gospels of course prophesizes that a Son of Man will come and do all the things that Titus Flavius actually did, pretty much exactly one generation after “Jesus” promised it would happen before the present generation would pass away.

    This is just one small piece of his (completely convincing to me) argument that the Roman Flavians invented Christianity as a propaganda ploy against militant messianic Judaism, which was then costing them a lot. Check out his book (Kindle version available) or see his video. I recommemd the book highly, but I haven’t seen the video, as it is just released today.

      • says

        You have also seen no evidence that the Pauline literature was written prior to the fall of Jerusalem. It can only be dated contextually. This is admitted even on the wikipedia page.

        According to Atwill, it is only fiction set in the 50s CE,a back story added later. And, like the gospels, it has a satirical meaning. Saul is “knocked off his horse” by the realization that rather than fighting the messianic zealots, they should be tricking them with a new religion.

        Atwill’s next book is supposed to be covering this. For a while he had some of it posted on his website. He analyzes the typology of Paul and Revelation, arguing it is added to the mythology by Domitian after the early death of Titus. It ties well into the work of Domitian’s official historian (is that Tacitus?). Domitian had himself written in as the Holy Ghost. (The Father being of course Vespasian, and Titus the true Son of (an officially Deified) God.)

      • says

        You have also seen no evidence that the Pauline literature was written prior to the fall of Jerusalem. It can only be dated contextually.

        The contextual dating is part of the evidence that you assert I do not have. So unless you have something a little bit more technical than ‘it must be later or the whole conspiracy goes to pot’ type of argument, then I can’t take Atwells position that seriously. I will look at the Blackhirst link though, just in case he has something of interest to say.

        As to the rest of your comment, I had a brief look at some of the book reviews. They either suggest this is either the best ever Jesus Myth book, or a case of bad parallelism of the kind that led to the ‘Jesus was really Jesus of Galilee’ theory. I collect these theories, just in case one of them actually makes a good argument. Alas, many of them just seem to be sensationalist in the hope for good book sales.

        With regard to the OP, I must admit that the Eucharist reference in Paul is for me one of the strongest arguments for a mythical Jesus, as the drinking of blood, symbolic as it may be, is most un-Jewish.

      • says

        I’ll grant it’s a kind of evidence, but what’s it’s not is conclusive evidence that they weren’t written anytime after the time in which they were set. What there isn’t (I gather) is any conclusive or compelling evidence such as a datable manuscript or other referencing literature from that early.

        We are not talking about breaking the laws of physics here, or even a far-fetched kind of conspiracy where a lot of people had to keep a secret for a long time, and work together secretly. The emperor merely had to engage his religion-creating bureacracy (the caesarian cult) to create a substitute religion. Is it not accepted that this is the forerunner of the RCC? (I’m really asking, as I don’t claim to be particularly knowledgable about this stuff.)

        Atwill goes through the background and circumstantial case for why it is perfectly plausible, and other people such as Blackhirst apparently have come up with the Flavian hypothesis independently, but Atwill’s main contribution is recognizing that not only did they do it, they wanted posterity and the intelligentsia of the time to get the joke, so they wrote the gospels as a retelling of Titus’s campaign in the Galilee crushing the rebellion. Josephus’ history War of the Jews after all has a dedication by Titus on the cover page, marking it clearly as another piece of official Flavian propaganda. (Atwill argues Josephus is an invented character too.) These parallels seem very deliberate and beyond all possibilty of being accidental or coincidental to me. His “Flavian signature” has about 30 parallels in preserved order, many simple and obvious, others more subltle, but these often have a vicious humor or sanctimonius character that makes them especially convincing at least to me. Atwill gives you the Josephus passages and the NT pasages side-by-side and the case largely makes itself.

        Anyhow, thanks for looking into it CT, and I hope you will continue and report back somewhere on FTB, or you could post on the Iron Chariots thread. For the definitive statement of the thesis, however, you must read the Flavian signature edition of the book. All else is only a plausibility argument.

      • says

        In reply to your comment that if the argument for a later dating of Paul is that otherwise the conspiracy theory falls apart, it would be grounds for you to reject the thesis, it is easy to argue that this is not good grounds for rejecting it, even were it true. It takes conclusive evidence to rule something out, not supposition.

        That said, I can reiterate that Atwill has a case he will present in his forthcoming book, based on a lot of typological parallels in the Pauline literature and Revelation. Atwill says pretty much everybody (bible scholars I mean) accepts the typology for example between the biographies of Moses and Jesus. (I’m not sure how true this is so perhaps you can advise here CT.) It seems to me that if one accepts the typological parallels between Jesus and Moses as real (and they seem real to me), then one must also accept Atwill’s discoveries as real. The forthcoming book is promised to answer directly this question about the seeming contradiction of the prior existence of the Pauline literature.

  5. Peter B says

    Okay, I’m a seriously backslidden Baptist but I always thought the bread and cup were to taken to remember Jesus. I seem to remember a scripture where Jesus said, “do this in remembrance of me.” Silly me, I thought the key word was remember, rather than “this is my body … [and] blood.”

    • brucegee1962 says

      Well yeah. That was one of the main differences that developed between the Catholics and Protestants. Protestants wanted to de-emphasize the whole church hierarchy, and if the Mass was just commemorative of the Last Supper, then you didn’t need all sorts of holy laying on of hands to be able to perform the big magic miracle.

  6. says

    I should have said documentary, not video. There are various Atwill/Caesar’s Messiah interviews and videos on YouTube and so forth, but it is a feature-length documentary that premiered at an LA theater yesterday, and is for sale on DVD.

    Review in the VillageVoice:


    Documentary trailer on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUPoLMW6dNM

    Academic Rod Blackhirst on the plausibilty of a Roman Flavian origin of Christianity:

    There are many reviews of the book on Amazon. Here is a thread I started long ago on the Iron Chariots forum: http://forum.ironchariots.org/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=3495

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