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Breaking of Bread

Note of the Day – June 23

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This is the last of short series of notes on the miraculous feeding narratives (of the 5000/4000) in the Gospels. In the prior notes, I have discussed a number of critical questions related to these narratives, along with a comparative study of the passages. Today, in the concluding note, I will look at Eucharistic elements in the narrative; this brings us back to notes I posted earlier in the week, following the (traditional) commemoration of Corpus Christi (the “body of Christ” in the Eucharist) this past Sunday. This entailed a study on the expression “breaking (of) bread” as a kind of shorthand reference to the Lord’s Supper in the early Church; in an examination of the relevant passages, I left unaddressed the miraculous feeding narratives, to which I now turn for today’s note.

Let us begin with Mark’s account (Mk 6:30-44); the key verse is v. 41:

“And taking [labw\n] the five bread-loaves and the two fish (and) looking up into the heaven, he spoke well of [i.e. blessed eu)lo/ghsen] (it) and broke down [kate/klasen] the bread-loaves and gave [e)di/dou] (them) to [his] learners [i.e. disciples] to set alongside them [i.e. the people], and the fish he divided (among) them all”

Matthew’s account (Matt 14:13-21, v. 19) is simpler, but shows only minor differences, most notably perhaps the use of kla/w (“break”) instead of the compound verb katakla/w (“break down”). Luke’s version (Lk 9:10-17) of this verse (v. 16) is almost identical with Mark.

On the surface, there might not seem to be much relation to the Eucharist here; after all, there is no mention of a cup, nothing to suggest symbolism of Jesus’ body (or blood), plus the mention of fish—is there actually a connection to the Lord’s supper? The answer is yes, and there are several reasons for this, which I will discuss in turn.

1. The Greek verbs used

Look at the Greek verbs indicated in square brackets in Mk 6:41 above, and you will see that, with just one slight variation, they are the same verbs (and in the same sequence) used to describe Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22 par):

And in their eating, taking [labw\n] bread (and) blessing [eu)logh/sa$] he broke [e&klasen] (it) and gave [e&dwken] (it) to them and said, “Take (it)—this is my body”

The only difference is that there, instead of the verb katakla/w (kataklᜠ“break down”), the simple verb kla/w (klᜠ“break”) is used, as in Matthew’s account of the feeding of the five thousand (cf. above). As I pointed out in a previous note, the same sequence of four verbs also is used in the Emmaus scene, when the disciples finally recognize the presence of Jesus in their midst:

Lk 24:30: And it came to be, in his bending down [i.e. reclining] with them, taking [labw/n] the bread he blessed [eu)lo/ghsen] and, breaking [kla/sa$] (it), he gave [e)pedi/dou] (it) to them…

2. Textual evidence from the Feeding of the Four Thousand

In some ways, the wording in the Markan account of the feeding of the Four thousand (Mk 8:1-9,  v. 6) is even closer to that of Jesus’ acts of institution at the Last Supper:

And taking [labw\n] the seven bread-loaves (and) giving good favor [i.e. giving thanks eu)xaristh/sa$] (over it), he broke [e)kla/sen] (them) and gave [e)di/dou] (them) to [his] learners [i.e. disciples] to set alongside (the people)…

The parallel version in Matthew (Matt 15:32-39, v. 36) differs little. Interestingly, in Mark 8:7, in Jesus’ handling of the fish, there is a textual variant—some manuscripts read eu)xariste/w, others read eu)loge/w. The verb eu)xariste/w (eucharistéœ, “give/grant good favor, give thanks, be thankful/grateful”) also appears in Jesus’ acts of institution as recorded by Luke (Lk 22:17, 19) and Paul (1 Cor 11:24); it is also used in John’s account of miraculous feeding (Jn 6:11).

3. The Context in the Gospel of John

If we compare the wording in Jn 6:11—

Therefore Yeshua took [e&laben] the bread-loaves and giving good favor [i.e. giving thanks, eu)xaristh/sa$] (over it), he gave throughout [die/dwken] to the ones (having) lain back [i.e. lain/sat down]…

it is noteworthy that we do not find nearly so close a parallel to Jesus actions at the Last Supper. Noticeably missing is any mention of breaking the bread (though “broken pieces” [kla/smata] are mentioned in v. 12). This may well be an indication that John has inherited an early form of the tradition which was not yet shaped to fit the eucharistic imagery to the same extent (as we see it preserved in the Synoptics). However, the Johannine form of the narrative would have a considerable influence on Eucharistic formulae and imagery in the early Church, as we shall see below.

The miraculous feeding episode in John serves as the basic setting for the great “Bread of Life” discourse which follows in Jn 6:22-59, a discourse in which most commentators find at least some reference to the Eucharist (especially in vv. 53-58). I must admit that I am not as inclined to see references to the concrete (material) sacrament in these verses as many commentators do—especially if we are to regard these in any meaningful way as authentic words of Jesus. I see the Eucharistic imagery here as of a more general type, referring primarily to the work of the Spirit as conveying the real [but spiritual] presence of Christ and eternal life to the believer (much as the apparent references to baptism in Jn 3)—foreshadowing, perhaps, the true and proper meaning of the sacrament. However, that there is Eucharistic imagery, especially in vv. 53-58, I do not deny.

4. Early Christian tradition

Here I will limit discussion to several points and one or two references which show that early Christians understood a definite Eucharistic aspect or element to the miraculous feeding episode.

a. The Johannine context. As mentioned above, the miraculous feeding is followed by the Bread of Life discourse, which has certain eucharistic elements. While the extent to which the eucharistic aspect applies to the meaning and intent of Jesus’ original words may be debated, there can be no doubt that Christians early on made the association. The Gospel of John is best dated somewhere between 70-90, and may include a late (c. 90-95) redaction.

b. As discussed in an earlier note, the “breaking (of) bread” appears to have served as a kind of shorthand reference to the Eucharist. In virtually every instance in the New Testament where the breaking of bread is mentioned, there appears to be some connection to the Lord’s Supper. By way of “catch-word (or catch-image) bonding”, any occurrence of breaking bread in the narrative would likely have been associated with the Eucharist from a very early time on.

c. The use of the verb eu)xariste/w in John’s account (as in the Synoptic feeding of the four thousand) may have helped to increase the use of the verb in association with the Eucharist (a word which, of course, derives from a transliteration of the related noun eu)xaristi/a [eucharistía]).

d. There are a number of parallels between John’s account of the miraculous feeding and references to the Eucharist in the so-called Didache (or “Teaching” [of the Twelve Apostles]).

  • The Bread is simply called kla/sma (plur. kla/smata), “broken (piece[s])” in Didache 9:3-4 as in the feeding miracle (cf. Jn 6:12)
  • Note especially the prayer in Did 9:4:

“As this broken (bread) was scattered throughout up above (on) the mountains and was brought together (and) became one, thus may your called-out (people) [i.e. church/ekklesia] be brought together from the ends/limits of the earth into your Kingdom…”

With the following details:

  • The bread scattered on the mountains (only in John’s account [v. 3] is a mountain setting mentioned).
  • The verb translated “brought together” (suna/gw) is the same used in Jn 6:12-13 for the gathering up of the fragments (kla/smata). The same verb is also used in a Eucharistic setting in Did 14:1. The image of the (twelve) disciples gathering up the twelve baskets of fragments “so that nothing might be lost” [Jn 6:12b] was a suitable symbol of Church Unity, as the Didache clearly indicates.
  • The mention of the Kingdom (of God/Christ); perhaps coincidentally, John’s account is the only one which makes any reference to a king (v. 14f).
  • Note the three relevant details in succession in Didache 14:1:

“having been brought together [sunaxqe/nte$], break bread [kla/sate a&rton] and give good favor [eu)xaristh/sate—i.e. technically ‘celebrate the thanksgiving/eucharist‘]

Despite the name ascribed to the writing, the Didache is almost certainly not a product of the Apostles. It is typically dated sometime between 125-150 A.D., but may possibly preserve earlier tradition. It is a “church manual” of sorts, and provides at least a partial glimpse of what early Christianity may have been like in the first half of the second century (a generation or two after the later writings of the New Testament).

 

Note of the Day – June 20

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In yesterday’s note, partly in commemoration of the traditional feast of Corpus Christi (first Sunday after Trinity), I examined the New Testament expression of “breaking (of) bread” (as in Acts 2:42, 46; Luke 24:35, etc) in relation to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) in the early Church. There is one other major passage where this image occurs—the miraculous feeding of the multitude by Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. The tradition surrounding this miracle is unique in that: (a) it is one of the only episodes recorded in all four Gospels (the Synoptics and John); (b) it is one of the only instances where something like the same narrative occurs twice in the same Gospel (Matthew/Mark). For this reason (among others), it proves to be an interesting ‘test case’ in terms of how early Gospel traditions may have developed, as well as being illustrative of the key differences between traditional-conservative and critical viewpoints in this regard.

I will divide the discussion into three main sections, each of which will be treated in a daily note:

  • Survey of the passages, with a brief study of the source-critical and historical-critical questions
  • A more detailed comparative study of the narratives
  • An examination of the Eucharistic elements of the traditional narrative—their possible origins and influence in the early Church

Today’s note will is devoted to the first of these—namely, a survey of the passages, study of key source-critical and historical-critical questions. To begin with, a miraculous feeding of five thousand men (plus women and children) is narrated in Mark 6:30-44, Matthew 14:13-21, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-15. As will be seen, all four narratives are quite close, both in outline and much detail as well; typically the the three Synoptic accounts are extremely close, while there are more substantial differences between the Synoptics and John. This brings up two separate, but related, source-critical questions:

  1. What is the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels?
  2. What is the relationship between the Synoptics and John?

The first question is usually addressed in the wider context of the so-called “Synoptic Problem”—how to explain the substantial agreement (including wording, order, other detail) between two and/or all three Synoptic Gospels. Today, there is a rough consensus among many (if not most) critical scholars that corresponds with the so-called “Two-Document” and “Markan priority” hypotheses, according to which:

  • Mark was written first, and both Matthew and Luke made (extensive) use of Mark, including the overall narrative plan and arrangement.
  • Matthew and Luke also made use of a second major (written) source, primarily consisting of blocks of Jesus’ sayings and teachings—this is the so-called “Q” source. Usually this is assumed to be a distinct written document, but it is perhaps safer to refer to it more generally as a collection of shared tradition(s).
  • Matthew and Luke also each made use of other sources—collections of tradition, whether written or oral—not found in the other Gospels, and often labeled “M” and “L” respectively.

While not without difficulties, this does, I believe, represent a reasonably sound working hypothesis. At the very least, if Matthew and Luke did not make use of Mark, then they must have made use of an early Gospel framework very similar in both content and arrangement. In particular, the position of the feeding miracle within the overall Gospel framework is similar between the Synoptics. Assuming, for the moment, the “Markan priority” hypothesis, here is the position of the episode in Mark:

1. Mk 6:1-6: The rejection of Jesus at Nazareth (saying in v. 4)
2. Mk 6:7-13: Jesus’ sending out of the Twelve (saying/commission in vv. 10-11)
3. Mk 6:14-29: Herod and the death of John the Baptist
4. Mk 6:30-44: The feeding of the Five thousand
5. Mk 6:45-52: Episode at sea—Jesus walking on water (reference to the feeding miracle in v. 52)
6. Mk 6:53-56: Summary references to healing miracles by Jesus
7. Mk 7:1-23: Sayings of Jesus in context of disputes with Pharisees and Scribes (at least two blocks of sayings, vv. 6-13 and 14b-23)
8. Mk 7:24-37: Two healing miracles

If we compare the position in the Gospel of Matthew, it is nearly identical; the only structural difference is that Jesus’ commission and sending out the Twelve occurs somewhat earlier (Matt 10:5ff) and serves as the introduction and narrative focus for a lengthy block of sayings vv. 16-42 added to the portion (vv. 5-15) he presumably inherited from Mark. The arrangement in the Gospel of Luke differs even more considerably:

  • The story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth occurs earlier (at the beginning of his ministry), and in different/expanded form, in Lk 4:16-30
  • The material corresponding to Mark 6:45-8:26 for the most part is not found in Luke; as a result the confession of Peter, Jesus’ first Passion prediction (with related sayings), and the Transfiguration (Lk 9:18-36) follow immediately after the miraculous feeding episode in Lk 9:10-17

Notable differences between the Synoptic accounts of the feeding of the Five thousand will be mentioned in the comparative study in the next day’s note.

The second question (see above) has to do with the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels and John. Even though there is relatively little common material between John and the Synoptics, scholars have at times proposed that the author of the fourth Gospel utilized one (or more) of the other three. For example, there are some notable details in common between the Passion/Resurrection narratives of Luke and John, but other (apparent) minor points of agreement as well. However, in my view, most of these similarities are best explained by a shared common tradition rather than literary borrowing. I would concur with a good number of scholars today that there is very little (if any) clear evidence that the author of the fourth Gospel even knew (let alone used) any of the other three Gospels. At least one strand of evidence to this effect will be presented in the comparative study offered in the next day’s note. This means that, if we take Mark as the earliest Synoptic (and partial exemplar for the other two), then, at several key points, the Gospels of Mark and John are both drawing from an early tradition (or block of tradition), such as that involving the feeding of the Five thousand. By all accounts the “common portion” shared by John here is modest, limited to the traditions corresponding to Mark 6:30-52.

There is a far more serious historical-critical issue related to these passages, one which demonstrates a rather clear divide between traditional-conservative and critical approaches to the Gospels. The difficulty can be summarized by the fact that, in the Gospel of Mark (and in Matthew) there are two different miraculous feedings which are largely identical, differing mainly in specific vocabulary and other detail. This second episode is a feeding of Four (instead of Five) thousand men, as narrated in Mark 8:1-10 (par Matthew 15:32-39). The traditional-conservative view would tend to take these at face value as separate historical episodes; however, the number of similarities makes this hard to maintain in the light of objective analysis. The critical view would generally hold that these are separate versions of the same episode which have been preserved in different form; but there are difficulties with this view as well, as we shall see. Critical scholars are most reluctant to harmonize differences and discrepancies in Scriptural narrative by positing separate (similar, or nearly identical) events. For example, because of the different apparent chronology between John and the Synoptics, some traditional-conservative commentators would hold that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice; however, I regard this as highly unlikely—apart from the variant position of the episode (‘early’ vs. ‘late’), there is virtually no evidence to support a tradition of two (largely identical) Temple-cleansings. The situation is more complex with the “Anointing of Jesus” episodes in the Gospels; there it is likely that we are dealing with two traditions—one represented largely by Luke 7:36-50, the other primarily by Mark 14:3-9 and the Matthean parallel. As in the case of the miraculous feeding narratives, the Johannine account shows a mixture of details found in the other versions, which is somewhat hard to explain if we are dealing with different historical events (or traditions). This will be explored in greater detail in the next note.

Note of the Day – June 19

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This past Sunday (the first after Trinity Sunday), in Roman Catholic tradition, represents the feast (celebration) of Corpus Christi—that is, the body of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist). Protestants generally do not recognize this feast day in the Church Year, since it is tied to a belief in the “real presence” of Christ (i.e. his body present miraculously, but materially in the consecrated bread and wine) and the concept of transubstantiation (the substance/essence of the bread and wine is transformed into his body/blood). Ever since the Renaissance and Reformation period, Western Christians—Protestants in particular—have struggled to preserve something of the ancient mystic-symbolic sense of the sacred ritual in light of the more scientific-materialistic age in which they live. The crux of the disputes in the Reformation period was the declaration by Jesus in the Last Supper scene of the Synoptic Gospels—”this is my body / this is my blood” (Mark 14:22, 24 par)—and how precisely it should be understood. However, perhaps even more interesting, from my viewpoint, is the question of exactly how early believers may have applied eucharistic language and symbolism to their communal meals. In this regard, the crucial, seminal passage is found in the book of Acts, in the narrative summary of Acts 2:42-47:

42And they were strong/steadfast toward (each other) in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion, in the breaking of bread and the speaking out toward (God) [i.e. prayers]…
44and all the ones trusting/believing were (together) upon the same (place) [e)pi\ to\ au)to/] and had all things in common…
46and according to (the) day [i.e. daily], being strong/steadfast toward (each other) with one impulse in the sacred place [i.e. Temple], and breaking bread according to (the) house, they took food with (one another) in joy and smoothness/simplicity [lit. without stone/pebble] of heart…
47…and the Lord set toward [i.e. added to] the ones being saved according to (the) day [i.e. daily] e)pi\ to/ au)to/.

Here I would focus on the expression kla/si$ tou= a&rtou (klásis tou ártou), “breaking of bread” in verse 42, which is mentioned again in verse 46 in slightly different form: “breaking bread according to house”. The modifying expression “according to house” (kat’ oi@kon) means that the “breaking of bread” took place in one house, then another—presumably an indication that the larger group/community met in the houses of different believers in turn. But what of this “breaking of bread”?—does it represent: (a) ordinary meals, or (b) a celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist)? On the surface, it would seem that ‘ordinary’ communal meals are meant, as in v. 46 where it says that the believers “took food/nourishment with (one another) [metala/mbanon trofh=$]”. However, most scholars today would, I think, hold that some form of the Lord’s Supper is meant, and in this they are probably correct. One could, perhaps, distinguish between the terminology of the earliest believers (c. 35 A.D.) with that of the author of Acts (c. 70-80) [cf. also references in Acts 20:7, 11; 27:35]; but for the author of Luke-Acts, at least, it is extremely likely that “breaking (of) bread” served as a kind of shorthand reference and image for the Eucharist. This would seem to be confirmed by the narrative of Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35), where Jesus comes to be known/recognized in the breaking of the bread (cf. verse 35, the only other occurrence of the noun kla/si$ [klásis, “breaking, fracture”] in the New Testament). For more on this passage, see below.

The symbolism, of course, originates with that used by Jesus in the Synoptic accounts of the Last Supper:

Mark 14:22: “And in their eating, taking [labw\n] bread (and) blessing [eu)logh/sa$] he broke [e&klasen] (it) and gave [e&dwken] (it) to them and said, ‘Take (it)—this is my body'”

The version in Matthew 26:26 differs very little, the majority text of Luke 22:19 somewhat more so, with the addition in 19b (missing in some key ‘Western’ manuscripts) of: “…th(at is) given over you; do this in my memory/remembrance”. From a period presumably in between that of the earliest believers and the author of Luke-Acts, we have Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, which includes a citation of Jesus words of institution (vv. 24-26) fairly close to the formula in Luke. While the exact context and circumstances are not entirely clear, Paul’s is describing a situation where the significant (or “sacred”, i.e. eucharistic) aspects of the communal meal are effectively being ignored or disregarded in practice. This indicates (clearly enough to me) that the eucharistic elements simply serve as a ritual, symbolic aspect of what is otherwise an (ordinary) communal meal. Paul warns strongly against those who eat and drink without “judging/discerning throroughly” (diakri/nwn) the body (of Christ) (v. 30, and note the warning against eating and drinking unworthily in v. 27). Some commentators have interpreted verse 30 in light of later disputes regarding the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist, but this almost certainly reads too much into the text. I believe Paul’s point in this passage is two-fold:

  1. Those who participate in the meal in an unworthy manner are, whether consciously or not, disregarding the sacred/symbolic aspect of the meal—it is not possible to reconstruct the ancient ritual element with certainty, but originally it probably centered upon a specific act of “breaking bread”, in imitation of Jesus’ own act.
  2. The nature of the problems at Corinth involved a lack of unity among believers, and this was reflected in the way they came together to celebrate the eucharistic meal (see v. 17-19ff). Here divisions in the body of Christ (the congregation) are juxtaposed against the body of Christ (bread and wine) broken/divided in ritual (but serving to promote unity and spiritual life).

Previously, I mentioned the Emmaus scene in Luke 24, where Jesus joins the two disciples for a meal (in their house or a lodging on the way). All throughout the scene (vv. 15-29), the disciples had failed to recognize the resurrected person of Jesus; that is, until the moment of the common meal:

30And it came to be, in his bending down [i.e. reclining] with them, taking [labw/n] the bread he blessed [eu)lo/ghsen] and, breaking [kla/sa$] (it), he gave [e)pedi/dou] (it) to them…

The same set of four verbs, in sequence, appears in Jesus’ words at the Lord’s Supper (see above)—the eucharistic connection could not be clearer! Note, too, that upon the breaking of the bread, “their eyes were thoroughly opened and they recognized [lit. knew upon] him”, an aspect of the scene important enough to be repeated in verse 35, where it is mentioned, in conclusion, “how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread”. This, I believe, is not unrelated conceptually to Paul’s statement regarding the importance of “discerning” (diakri/nw) the body of Christ during the meal. The importance of the breaking of the bread, which, as I pointed out, was probably a single ritual act of breaking (accompanied by simple liturgical wording) is emphasized in the so-called Didache (or “Teaching” of the Twelve Apostles), which likely dates from the early-mid second-century; in the Eucharistic passage in chap. 9-10, the bread is specifically referred to as “broken (piece[s])” (kla/sma) (9:3-4). In the Didache, the associated prayers have already developed considerably beyond anything likely to have been used by the earliest believers (cf. 1 Cor 11:23-26); but note the powerful image of Christian unity expressed in verse 4:

“As this broken (bread) was scattered throughout up above (on) the mountains and was brought together (and) became one, thus may your called-out (people) [i.e. church/ekklesia] be brought together from the ends/limits of the earth into your Kingdom…”

This draws upon the other major passage in the New Testament which specifically refers to the breaking of bread—namely, the miraculous feeding of the multitude—which I will discuss in the next few daily notes.

The feast of Corpus Christi was officially established by Pope Urban IV in 1264 A.D., associated with the so-called miracle of Bolsena in which the eucharistic wafer (host) was said to have bled and imprinted bloody images of the host upon the surplice of the officiating priest—therefore removing any doubts the priest (or others) may have had about the doctrine of transubstantiation and the Real Presence! The scene was commemorated most famously by Raphael in the Stanza (reception room) d’Elidoro in the Vatican palace.