June 14 (2): Acts 2:42-46

This 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 (the) 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

June 14 (1): John 6:51; Luke 22:19f

John 6:51; Luke 22:19f

Today, in commemoration of Corpus Christi (originally for Memorial Day), I wish to return to the declaration by Jesus in John 6:51, part of the great Bread of Life discourse (cf. the previous note and the earlier Saturday Series discussion), especially as it relates to the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist). Here is verse 51, with the main points for comparison given in italics:

“I am the Living Bread th(at) is stepping [i.e. coming] down out of heaven—if any one should eat out of this bread, he will live into the Age; and the bread which I will give is even my flesh, (given) over the life of the world.”

The form of the words of institution (in the Synoptic tradition), closest to the language here, is found in the Gospel of Luke:

“And taking bread (and) giving (thanks to God) for (his) favor, broke (it) and gave (it) to them, saying: ‘This is my body th(at is) being given over you—do this unto my remembrance’.” (Lk 22:19)

The last phrase is unique to the Lukan version, but Paul has similar wording in 1 Cor 11:23-25, except that the phrase “do this unto my remembrance” is applied to both the bread and the cup.

It is interesting to consider the differences in the object of the preposition (u(pe/r, “over”) between the Lukan and parallel Synoptic versions, as well as here in Jn 6:51:

    • “over you [pl.]” [u(pe\r u(mw=n] (Lk 22:19-20, applied to both bread and cup)
    • “over many” [u(pe\r pollw=n] (Mk 14:24, par Matt 26:28, applied only to the cup)
    • “over the life of the world” [u(pe\r th=$ tou= ko/smou zwh=$] (Jn 6:51, applied to bread)

The Lukan version is straightforward—Jesus is referring to his disciples (believers). The references in Mark/Matt and John 6:51 are more difficult. Who are the “many” in Mk 14:24 par? There is a similar expression in Mk 10:45 (par Matt 20:28), in which Jesus says:

“For the Son of Man also did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his soul [i.e. life] in exchange for (the) many [a)nti\ pollw=n], as a means of loosing (them from bondage).”

In both passages, Jesus is almost certainly alluding to Isaiah 53:11-12:

    • “by his knowledge my [righteous] Servant will cause righteousness (to be established) for the many [<yB!r^l*]” (v. 11)
    • “…and he carried/lifted the sin of (the) many [<yB!r^]” (v. 12b)

There is strong sacrificial language used in Isa 53:10-12, including the offering for sin/guilt (<v*a*, v. 10), which relates to the suffering and/or death of the Servant. This made the passage an obvious Scripture to apply to the sacrificial death of Jesus, an association which was recognized already by the earliest Christians (Acts 8:30-35, etc). However, there is some question whether “(the) many” should be understood in the generic sense (i.e. many people), or in a specific religious sense, as the assembly (of God’s people). While Christians typically read the passage in the former sense, an increasing number of commentators feel that it is really the latter which is in view. The same would apply to the use of <yB!r^(h*) in Daniel 11:33; 12:3.

The basis for this specific denotation of the word <yB!r^ is found in the texts associated with the Qumran Community, where the the word is used repeatedly as a title for the Community, especially in the Damascus Document (CD) 13-15 and the “Community Rule” (1QS) 6-8. The members of that Community viewed themselves as the Elect of Israel, the ones remaining faithful to the ancient covenant, who will see (and play a central role in) the coming Messianic Age. The Anointed One(s) will deliver and lead the Community. This involves a decidedly sectarian identity of the people of God—not the entire Israelite/Jewish population, but only a portion, the elect who, when assembled together in the Community, represent “the Many”. There is a clear application and development of the “remnant” image from the Prophets.

It is possible that a similar background of thought applies to the earliest Christians and Jesus’ own use of the expression “(the) many” in Mk 10:45; 14:24 par (cf. also Rom 5:15-19; Heb 9:28). In other words, he is not saying that he gives his body/life for people generally “many people”, but for “the Many” who are his followers. Certainly the fundamental idea of the covenant (diaqh/kh) God established with Israel is present in the Last Supper scene. While it is described as a new covenant (cf. Jer 31:31ff), the basic imagery is derived from the sacrificial ritual by which the covenant between God and Israel was established (Exod 24:4-8). There is thus a dual meaning to the preposition u(pe/r (“over”):

    • the concrete sense of blood being poured (or sprinkled) over the altar and on the people
    • the more abstract meaning “on behalf of”, “for (the sake of)”

If “the many” designates the disciples of Jesus as the new covenant Community within Israel, then it corresponds with the the plural pronoun (“you”) in the Lukan version (22:19-20):

“this is my body th(at is) being given over you
“this cup (is) the new covenant [diaqh/kh] in my blood being poured out over you

What of the expression in Jn 6:51, “over the life of the world”? We are accustomed to seeing this in the more general (universalist) sense—i.e., Jesus died on behalf of all people in the world. This would seem to be supported by 3:16-17 (cf. also 4:42; 12:47), in which the desire is expressed that the world (i.e. the people in it) should not be destroyed, but saved. Yet, elsewhere in the Gospel, there is a strong negative connotation (and denotation) to the word ko/smo$ (“world”), where it more literally signifies the world order—the current order and arrangement of things, dominated and governed by sin and darkness. The imagery is fundamentally dualistic—the “world” is opposed to God and his Spirit, to Jesus and his disciples (believers). The basic Johannine construct may be summarized as follows:

    • The “world” has rejected God’s Word and is dominated by sin and darkness
    • God sends Jesus (the Son and Living Word) into the world, to bring light, truth, etc, and salvation to it—that is, to believers—the elect who are in the world, but do not belong to it
    • Jesus (the Son) returns to God the Father and will bring believers with him—he has called them out of the world

The work of Jesus in the world is centered upon his self-sacrificial act—laying down his life, giving his (human) life for the sake of the world. Yet we must be careful to preserve his distinctive wording in 6:51 (and earlier in v. 33):

    • “for the Bread of Life is th(at which is) stepping [i.e. coming] down out of heaven and giving Life to the world” (v. 33)
    • “and the Bread which I will give is even my flesh (given) over the life of the world” (v. 51)

There is here a parallel to Creation, as expressed in the Prologue: Jesus (the Living Word) brings light and life to the world, but those who belong to the darkness do not receive the light—only those who belong to the light are able to receive it. Thus, we should probably not read the expression “life of the world”, as ‘for the sake of the world’, but, rather, in the more precise theological sense found in the Johannine discourses, etc—of Jesus as “the Life of the world”. This would be almost exactly parallel with the expression “Light of the world” in 8:12, which I will be discussing in an upcoming note. We also find the expression “Light of Life” in that same verse. This Light (and Life) is found in Jesus’ own person (in the world), and believers come to hold this Light/Life (in the world).

I would conclude this note with the one element which is unique to the Lukan (and Pauline) version of the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper. While it is stated that Jesus gives his body and blood “over you”—that is, over believers—who are also “the many” whom God has called out of the world, an additional directive is given to us (who are believers):

“do this [i.e. this same thing] unto my remembrance [ei)$ th\n e)mh\n a)na/mnhsin]”

We are thus called to repeat Jesus’ action as a memorial, in memory of what he has done. This should be understood on two levels. First, in terms of repeating the ritual/symbolic act—i.e. the consecrated “Lord’s Supper”. This is certainly how Paul understands it in 1 Cor 11. However, second, and even more important: we are to follow Jesus’ own example of self-sacrifice, on behalf of others (and esp. our fellow believers)—not as a mere repetition of ritual, but as a way of life and thought. This comes through abundantly clear in the foot-washing scene in the Gospel of John (Jn 13:4-17), which effectively takes the place of the Lord’s Supper institution in the narrative. As expressed by the love command (13:34-35), it also becomes the central theme of the great Last Discourse (chaps. 14-16, and the prayer-discourse of chap. 17).

“The fine (shep)herd sets (down) his soul over the sheep…and I set (down) my soul over the sheep”
(Jn 10:11, 14)

(Peter): “I will set (down) my soul over you”
(Jesus): “Will you (indeed) set (down) your soul over me?”
(Jn 13:37-38)

“No one holds greater love than this—that one should set (down) his soul over his dear (friend)s”
(Jn 15:13)