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The Institution of Christian Communion




According to the oldest New Testament texts, Jesus called a cup with wine either “my blood of the covenant” (Mark 14:24) or “the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25). Matthew 26:28 features the addition “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” while Luke 22:20 explains that the blood “is poured out for you.” Some of these texts do refer to key cultic texts of the Torah; they allude to sacrifice. The phrase “blood of the covenant” is even a direct quotation from one of these texts; both the disciples of Jesus and the ancient audience would have recognized it as such. This phrase occurs in the famous narrative in Exodus 24 about the covenant between Moses and God at Mt. Sinai. It relates how Moses sacrificed animals, took their blood, and sprinkled it upon the people of Israel. Moses called this blood the “blood of the covenant” (Exodus 24:8).



See Also: What a Difference a Meal Makes: The Last Supper in the Bible and in the Christian Church (translated by Michael Putman, Houston: Lucid Books, 2016).



By Christian A. Eberhart
Professor of Religious Studies
Chair, Department of Comparative Cultural Studies
Director, Religious Studies Program
University of Houston
December 2016


While all Christians today know the ritual with bread and wine, most of them —although not all—celebrate it during their worship service, and some even view it as its point of culmination. Some Christian denominations also consider this ritual a sacrament. There is, however, no general agreement as to what it means or why it is celebrated. Over the course of the past two millennia, the hundreds and thousands of Christian denominations never even agreed on how to call it. Thus the celebration with bread and wine is known by several different designations such as Communion, Last Supper, Lord’s Supper, (Holy) Mass, Breaking of Bread, or Eucharist.

So why is this ritual important to Christians? Who instituted it why and when? Biblical scholars have given different responses to these questions. In this short contribution about the institution of communion, it is impossible to honor the rich variety of diverse scholarly opinions adequately. Instead I shall study key passages of the Bible and critically interrogate them about our topic.

1. Reasons for the Institution of Communion

According to the New Testament Gospels, some of Jesus’ behavior and message had a somewhat provocative dimension. Jesus started to preach about the kingdom of God and the repentance of sins after John the Baptizer had been arrested (Mark 1:14–15). John was imprisoned by King Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee, for publicly criticizing him because of his marriage to “Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife” (Mark 6:17). John was eventually murdered in prison. As Jesus followed in John’s footsteps to some degree, his own message was also confrontational at times, which is manifest early on in his ministry. For example, Jesus healed a paralytic man and forgave his sins (Mark 2:1–12); while the crowd was amazed and glorified God, some of the scribes who witnessed this scene accused him of “blasphemy” (2:7). Jesus was also criticized for eating with tax collectors and folks who others considered to be sinners, but he defended his actions (2:13–17). He had a vision of an open and inclusive society, and that vision set him apart from the status-conscious and hierarchical society of his day. But there was also conflict in the realm of religion. Jesus is portrayed twice as disrespecting the Fourth Commandment (2:23–28; 3:1–6), which prohibits ‘work’ on a Sabbath (Exodus 20:8–11; Deuteronomy 5:12–15). He also questions and reinterprets traditional purity laws (Mark 7:1–23). In the end, his action and message were considered sufficient cause for plots to kill him (3:6). Hence, Jesus is portrayed as clashing with different religious groups of his time, who were Jewish. This makes Jesus himself no less Jewish. However, late Second Temple Judaism was no homogeneous group; it consisted of various parties that could, at times, argue vividly with each other and disagree about social and religious norms and rules. Within a certain spectrum of late Second Temple Judaism, therefore, Jesus was viewed as disturbing and troublesome. According to Adela Y. Collins, Jesus was conscious of this particular predicament, conveying it in the parable of the new wine in old wineskins (Mark 2:22). Collins comments:

Like the new wine, this new phenomenon will go through a process of change, a kind of “fermentation.” This process is desirable but unsettling, even dangerous. If one tries to contain it within old structures, it will burst them, causing damage. Such a metaphorical warning could well have been issued by the historical Jesus. Later on, it expressed the perception that social and religious change was desirable, but also disruptive.[1]

Hence it was predictable that this conflict with the larger society would escalate; Jesus knew that his life was in danger when he approached Jerusalem. This situation was exacerbated when a visit to the Herodian Temple turned out to be what is known today as the ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ (Mark 11:15–19; John 2:13–22). Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and called the temple a ‘den of robbers’ (11:17), referencing a famous prophetic speech against this institution (Jeremiah 7:11). The scene is yet another manifestation of the controversy over religious authority and agency, this time between Jesus and the Sadducees, who were led by the high priest Caiaphas. Once more, this is more than a learned dispute: “And when the chief priests and the scribes heard [sc. the words of Jesus against the temple], they kept looking for a way to kill him” (Mark 11:18).

Why then did Jesus institute the short ritual with bread and wine that we call Communion, Last Supper, etc.? The reason is that he was looking for a way to convey an understanding of his imminent death, in light of the entirety of his mission, which would transcend sheer historical circumstances. To that goal he deployed and alluded to a spectrum of traditional concepts and narratives that I shall analyze one by one.

2. The Context of Passover[2]

The night before his death, Jesus ask his disciples to prepare a Passover meal for which they had to prepare a lamb (Mark 14:12–16). The short ritual with bread and wine then occurred during or at the end of this larger traditional Jewish meal. It was an important component of such a meal to remember and retell the old story of salvation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt as it is known from Exodus 12. In the 1st century C.E., this story of deliverance took on new relevance due to the contemporary political situation, namely the fact that Palestine had been under Roman occupation since 63 B.C.E. Arriving in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover festival, Jewish pilgrims read the old story of the exodus and of salvation of Israel in that present context and would turn it against Rome. Therefore Passover could always spur political unrest or uprisings, leaving the Roman occupiers nervous.

Yet Jesus did not come on a mission for this type of salvation; he did not aspire to become a new political leader of the Jews. He aimed instead at spiritual salvation to establish peace without violent uprisings or the use of weapons. He was to bring salvation that centered on the remembrance of his life and death. Thus according to the oldest early Christian text on the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26, Jesus said, “do this in remembrance of me” when he gave his disciples a loaf of bread and after he shared a cup of wine with them. The short ritual that he instituted was new, but it consisted of old components, and it had to do with himself. Jesus was to become the center of a new type of salvation. This idea was and is the operative core of the Last Supper.

3. The Bread, the “Body of Jesus”

During the Last Supper, Jesus first gave his disciples bread, “and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them and said: Take; this is my body” (Mark 14:22). The Gospel of Luke features the additional words “that is given for you.” What does all of this mean? It is not unlikely that the gesture of breaking the bread effectively exemplifies this death so as to serve as a continuing, reverent memory of the history of salvation in Jesus Christ. Yet at the same time it references multiple distinct events during the life of Jesus that had to do with meals and specifically mention bread. For example, Jesus had multiplied bread to feed hungry masses of people not once but twice (Mark 6:30–44 and Mark 8:1–9). Some passages in these texts are strikingly similar to the Eucharistic passages, like this one: “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples” (Mark 6:41). Passages like these convey that Jesus took the needs of the people around him seriously and dedicated himself to the ‘losers’ of society. This important aspect was to be remembered during the Last Supper/Communion.

But there is a lot more to the breaking of the bread than just feeding people. As a basic staple food, bread symbolizes meals at large. And much of the activity of Jesus occured in the framework of meals and banquets, like the meal with “many tax collectors and sinners” in Levi’s house (Mark 2:15–17) or the wedding at Cana (John 2:1–11). Also some of Jesus’ parables deal with meals such as the parable of the “great dinner” (Luke 14:15–24). Thus the breaking of the bread and the words of Jesus that this is his own body establish a connection to his mission for others. Furthermore, it is important to know that meals and banquets had an important social function in Greco-Roman antiquity as occasions to initiate and maintain social contacts. The Eucharistic bread thus conveys the message that Jesus had a vision against the perennial tendency of humans to exclude others for whatever reasons.

However, the breaking of the bread should not be interpreted as a reference or allusion to sacrifice. During the time of Jesus, the Temple in Jerusalem was still fully functional and sacrificial rituals were carried out there every day. But breaking bread was no component of such sacred rituals, and words like “this is my body (that is given for you)” are not related anywhere in texts about sacrificial rituals.[3] The breaking of the bread and the words of Jesus that accompanied this gesture were not derived from any ‘religious’ or ‘cultic’ background such as the temple and its rituals; they were of ‘secular’ origins.

4. The Cup and the “Blood of the Covenant”

During the Last Supper ritual, Jesus also took a cup of wine “and gave it to them [his disciples] after giving thanks, and they all drank from it. And he said to them: This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:23–24).

Before I start to explore the meaning of the words that Jesus spoke, I would like to point out that, according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus spoke the word of institution not prior to, but after he had given his disciples the cup and they had drunk. This makes the claim impossible that the wine in the cup would have actually been transformed into the blood of Jesus before it was drunk. What then do the words of Jesus imply?

According to the oldest New Testament texts, Jesus called a cup with wine either “my blood of the covenant” (Mark 14:24) or “the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25). Matthew 26:28 features the addition “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” while Luke 22:20 explains that the blood “is poured out for you.” Some of these texts do refer to key cultic texts of the Torah; they allude to sacrifice. The phrase “blood of the covenant” is even a direct quotation from one of these texts; both the disciples of Jesus and the ancient audience would have recognized it as such. This phrase occurs in the famous narrative in Exodus 24 about the covenant between Moses and God at Mt. Sinai. It relates how Moses sacrificed animals, took their blood, and sprinkled it upon the people of Israel. Moses called this blood the “blood of the covenant” (Exodus 24:8). It was an essential component of the covenant. What is so special about the blood? After Moses sprinkled it upon the Israelites, he and seventy of their representatives climbed up the mountain where “they saw God, and they ate and drank” (24:11). Most people today are of the opinion that no human can see God according to the Bible; well, the narrative of the covenant at Mt. Sinai not only states exactly this, it also describes how the Israelites had a party at the same time. It thus relates an incredible moment of intimacy between God and humanity that is not self-evident; earlier the Israelites had been warned to not even touch the mountain on which God resides. The critical change was due to a ritual act; it was the result of the “blood of the covenant” sprinkled upon the Israelites. Why would it have that effect?

It was a commonplace idea in the ancient Near East that the blood of animals represented their life-force or vitality. Many people were nomads who frequently practiced animal slaughter by cutting an animal’s throat to drain its blood. They could, in a way, empirically verify the idea that blood loss causes death (of course, the same would have applied to cases of injury or warfare). For the context of sacrificial rituals, the idea “as life, it is the blood that makes atonement” is stated explicitly in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 17:11). It is important to note that this kind of atonement has nothing to do with punishment; it is rather a process of purification precisely through the life-force contained in blood. Thus we may assume that the “blood of the covenant” at Mt. Sinai likewise purified the Israelites and consecrated them so that they were prepared for the encounter with the holy God.

When Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples and spoke of “my blood of the covenant” (Mark 14:24), he referred exactly to this “effect.” Such a traditional ritual background is, of course, foreign for us today. But we need to remember once more that in the days of Jesus the Temple in Jerusalem was still functional, as mentioned above. Priests offered sacrifices there and sprinkled animal blood to effect “atonement” to eliminate sins and impurity. This was a central concept within Judaism, and as a ‘good Jew’ familiar with such key ideas, Jesus readily deployed them. His words spoken over the cup conveyed that the sins of his disciples—and everybody else who would later drink from it—had been forgiven. The Gospel of Matthew therefore added the words “for the forgiveness of sins” (26:28). In this way Jesus established his own covenant with humanity.

But the words of Jesus over the cup allude to yet another famous Hebrew Bible text. Already the Prophet Jeremiah spoke of a “new covenant,” one that could not be broken by humans because God would engrave it into their hearts (Jeremiah 31:31). For a correct interpretation of this passage, we need to understand that, in antiquity, the heart was not considered to be the seat of human emotions. Rather, people back then thought the heart was the seat of the intellect; the term was equivalent to “mind.” Jeremiah thus envisions a time when humans would not forget God. Also this idea is alluded to in the words Jesus spoke over the Eucharistic cup.

5. Summary: Bread and Wine

These brief reflections show that the ritual with bread and wine as the Last Supper of Jesus is nevertheless a complex event. The framework of Passover contributed the general expectation of salvation and the central aspect of remembrance. The bread that is broken and shared representing the body of Jesus, and the wine that is his blood both convey the expectation of his imminent death. But bread and wine and the words that Jesus spoke over them have different meanings and convey different salvation narratives. While the bread refers to a number of scenes in the New Testament that depict Jesus as feeding others and caring for them across societal boundaries, the cup and the “blood of the covenant” refer primarily to early Jewish concepts of atonement and imply forgiveness of sins. Thus a range of different images is available in the celebration of communion that Christian churches still repeat and even enact regularly to remember the courageous and loving mission of Jesus for others as the central theme of the gospel of God’s love for all of humanity.



Notes

[1] Adela Y. Collins, Mark: A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), p. 200.

[2] The following paragraphs present and summarize sections from my recently published book What a Difference a Meal Makes: The Last Supper in the Bible and in the Christian Church (translated by Michael Putman, Houston: Lucid Books, 2016). Not every reference or correspondence can be indicated in this short article.

[3] Sometimes the sharing of bread is interpreted as a sacrificial action because of the term “thanksgiving;” see, e.g., Scott Hahn, Consuming the Word: The New Testament and the Eucharist in the Early Church (New York: Image, 2913), p. 46. I think that this is a rather random argument; the same term figures in the narrative of Mark 8:1–9 in a clearly non-sacrificial context.





Comments (2)


The Passover context certainly helps but it also raises many problems, including problems about the relationship between Mark and Matthew, with their 'blood of the Covenant', and Luke and Paul, where 'new Covenant' is mentioned. MM might be saying that Jesus' blood is now the apotropaic blood of the original Passover, only 'for many', not just for those who are Jewish, cancelling sin and bringing the Kingdom, the new order, near. There is no suggestion of a ceremony to be repeated: Jesus specifically will not
join his disciples in another loving cup until the Kingdom comes. In LP there is less of a mystical cancellation of sin and more of a gentle and continuing improvement of the soul, presumably through sharing the loving cup amid Anamnesis of Jesus, which does imply a repeated ceremony of some kind for an indefinite time.
The NC passage in Jeremiah is hard in itself to understand: what did the theologians of the Jesus Movement
make of it? It does not overtly need to be sealed in blood: did the Christians impute the need for blood and assert that a single human death would meet the need?
Jeremiah's idea of the law written on the heart, not needing to be imposed upon it by human instruction, and Plato's idea of anamnesis (which must have occurred to many readers of Luke and Paul) are quite similar.
#1 - Martin Hughes - 12/10/2016 - 15:24



The rite of the Eucharist/Last Supper combines several Jewish traditions and concepts. Luke and Paul make the allusion to the "new covenant" more visible while Mark and Matthew focus instead on the 'mechanism' of blood rites in the context of sacrificial rituals. It is interesting that the blood rite of Passover, related in Exodus 12, is not referenced or alluded to in the words of institution over the cup. Perhaps that is a reflection of how Passover was celebrated in the first century C.E. as the apotropaic blood rite was no longer practiced then.
#2 - Christian A. Eberhart - 12/14/2016 - 18:26






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