Q — It is reported that a Catholic expert on liturgy, Father Robert Taft, states that there is not a single extant pre-Nicene (325 AD) Eucharistic prayer that one can prove contained the Words of Institution. Is this true, and were the words used those found in the Didache(9)?

A — This is an area of considerable scholarly disagreement, but first a word about Jesuit Father Robert Taft. Father Taft is one of the primary art liturgical scholars in our country, with a superb awareness of Eastern liturgy and liturgical theology. The questioner does not cite the source of the judgment attributed to Father Taft, so it is difficult to check it.

When it comes to the matter of the Eucharistic prayers before the Council of Nicaea (325), we simply do not have a great deal of factually descriptive information. Throughout the period of the New Testament, for example, we lack an account of the rites of Baptism and Eucharist, even though we know these were in place from the beginning of the Christian tradition. It is what the New Testament writings presuppose about the liturgy rather than what they actually describe about it that is important. The Didache, probably to be dated in the last quarter of the first century, seems to describe a celebration of the Eucharist, but that description is incomplete, and it does not contain the Eucharistic words of Jesus, though arguably these are implied. The next clear account of the Eucharist comes from St. Justin in Rome, about 165 A.D., and while it gives us some further detail not found in the Didache, it too lacks the Eucharistic words, although once more it seems to me that these are implied.

Our first Eucharistic prayer comes from Hippolytus of Rome, from his Apostolic Tradition, most often dated to about 215 A.D. This text does include a version of the Eucharistic words of our Lord. The Eucharistic prayer of Addai and Mari — a Eucharistic prayer now recognized by the Catholic Church but which does not have the words of institution — is variously dated.

However, it is my opinion that the Addai in question is very probably the Tatian who was a pupil of St. Justin’s, and if that were so, it would make for a quite early dating of this Eucharistic prayer. More detail on this complex matter may be found in my recent book Eucharist and Ecumenism: The Eucharist Across the Ages and Traditions (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2013), chapters one through five.