Is the Lord's Supper a sacrificial meal? ...

Eucharistic Sacrifice in the New Testament
and the Early Fathers

E. M. B. Green: The sacrificial aspect of the Christian Eucharist is receiving so much attention at the present time, that it seems urgently important to examine the origin and significance of the idea in the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers. We shall endeavor, therefore, in the first place to establish the nature and meaning of the Last Supper, and then go on to consider the extent to which the earliest fathers called it a sacrifice, and what they meant when they did so.



If we are to have any success in discovering the significance of the Last Supper and the meaning of the Christian Eucharist, we must first of all seek to determine the nature of this meal. In accordance with the natural interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper was the Passover meal (Mk. 14:14., 16; Lk. 22:7, 8, etc.). This was eaten on the evening of 14 Nisan, which is to say, by Jewish reckoning, in the early hours of Nisan 15, since a Jewish day begins at 6.0 p.m. [sunset]. St. John, on the other hand, is normally thought to deny that this was the Passover meal (13:1, 18:28, 19:14), and to place it twenty-four hours earlier [or to be using a different calendar]. His evidence, and some of the activities attributed to the authorities on the night of the arrest, have led many scholars to adopt the `Johannine date', which has the added symbolic attractiveness of making Jesus, the Lamb of God, die at the same time as the Passover lambs were being killed in the courts of the Temple. However, if this is so, the Last Supper cannot have been the Passover. Two other possibilities have, accordingly been suggested.

The first is that it was a Haburah, a semi-religious meal. This view, popularized by Oesterley,1 is the lynch-pin of Gregory Dix's reconstruction of the early Eucharist and its meaning.2 Dix builds an elaborate superstructure upon this shaky foundation, that our Lord and His disciples formed a Haburah, which he understands to mean `little private groups of friends meeting together for purposes of special devotion and charity ... The corporate meeting of the Haburah regularly took the form of a weekly supper, generally held on the eve of sabbaths or holy days'. But, as has been forcefully pointed out,3 Dix suffers from an imperfect understanding of the Jewish background. The Haburah was actually concerned with the strict maintenance of the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. Jesus and His companions could most certainly not have constituted one. As G. F. Moore4 makes plain, the fact that they did not observe the rabbinic rule about washing hands before meals (Mk. 7:2) rules out the very possibility, since this was the first step to reception as Haberim [members of a Haburah]. Furthermore, there is no real evidence that these associations were in the habit of holding communal meals except on Sabbaths and the greater festivals, when every pious Jewish household would do the same. (Dix is quite wrong in regarding the regulation recorded in the tractate Berakoth as referring to the formal supper of a Haburah.)5

The second suggestion is that the Last Supper was a Kiddush meal, which was supposed to be a communal religious meal held on the eve of every Sabbath or festival. This view, advocated strongly by G. H. Box,6 has found favor in some quarters, partly because it has been thought to be less intractable than the Passover to a sacrificial interpretation. But it has been completely exploded by Jeremias,7 who shows that there was never any such meal as distinct from the normal meal and grace, combined with a special blessing on account of the Sabbath or festival. `When', asks Jeremias, `will that wholly illusory Passover-Kiddush on the eve of the feast, vanish from the discussion?'

If then, neither Haburah nor Kiddush will meet the case, does that mean that we are to regard the Last Supper as a Passover meal after all? This is the firm conclusion of one of the foremost New Testament scholars of the day, Prof. J. Jeremias.8 He brings out no less than eleven pointers in the gospel account which substantiate this conclusion. The Last Supper took place in Jerusalem; it extended into the night; it was a small intimate gathering (ten was the normal company at a Passover) ; they reclined instead of sitting at table; a dish preceded the breaking of bread; wine - red wine - was drunk, and this was essential at Passover; when Judas went out, the disciples thought he was going to distribute money to the poor, a Passover custom; the meal closed with a hymn - the Paschal Hallel; the interpretative words spoken over the bread and wine look like an extension of the Passover Haggadah; [ritual liturgy and procedure] and the fact that,Jesus did not go to Bethany for the night, but stayed within the area of Greater Jerusalem and made His way to Gethsemane - all these points make it beyond doubt that this was indeed the Passover meal. Next, Jeremias disposes of ten objections, based on details of the Passion story, which are often thought incompatible with the Halakah [ritual regulations] of Passover; the walk to Gethsemane, the carrying of arms, the night session of the Sanhedrin and the condemnation, the rending of the High Priest's garments, the participation of the Jews in the Roman trial, the coming of Simon of Cyrene from the country, the execution itself, the purchase of linen, the preparation of spices and the burial. He concludes, convincingly to my mind, that not one of these events from the Last Supper to the burial of Jesus was incompatible with the Passover Halakah.

Two further difficulties might be raised.9 One is the absence of any reference to the lamb in the accounts of the Supper, which is certainly odd if the meal were indeed a Passover. On the other hand, the accounts of what happened are extremely sketchy, and attention is focussed not on the Passover meal, which is taken for granted, but on the revolutionary words and actions of Jesus at the meal. These were the significant things for the churches for which the gospels were written. Furthermore, to the Christian, Jesus Christ was Himself the Paschal Lamb,10 the antitype who fulfilled all that had been prefigured in the ancient rite. This point alone, so strongly stressed by St. John (19:29, 36; cf. Ex. 12:22, 46), would be sufficient to account for the dropping of any reference to the lamb in the story of the Last Supper.11

The other difficulty concerns the problem of how the annual Passover of the Jews changed into the weekly Eucharist [Holy Communion] of the Christians. Here, I think, it is helpful to recall that the Last Supper was the last of many communal meals which the Master and his disciples ate together. This is a fair inference from the way in which Eucharistic language has colored the accounts of the two feedings of the multitude, and also from the fact that three of the Resurrection appearances were to the disciples at meat [food]. In any case, some such hypothesis is necessary to explain the origin of the agape [Early Christian love feast]. This is, in fact, where the regular communal meal presupposed by Kiddush and Haburah fits in. No doubt the twelve and the Master had been in the habit of eating together, probably not less frequently than once weekly. The last of these gatherings was the Passover at which the Communion was instituted. And thus it came about that while the meaning of the Eucharist derived from the Passover, the frequency of its celebration came rather from the communal meals of which that Passover had been the climax.

Whether or not this was an `anticipated Passover', kept by Jesus twenty-four hours before the regular feast, is more difficult to decide. If John is to be interpreted as saying that Jesus died on Nisan 14 this may well be the answer; and there is some evidence of a conflict between the Sadducees and Pharisees in the interpretation of Lev. 23:9-11, which resulted in a day's difference in observing the feast.12 The existence of a rival calendar of festivals has been shown by the discoveries at Qumran and the reconstruction of the Calendar of the Book of Jubilees, so this suggestion is by no means as unlikely as it sounds.13

However, it is far from certain that John is saying that Jesus died on the eve of the Passover. The two texts that are normally taken to prove it are far from conclusive. Jeremias realizes that 19:14, `It was the preparation of the Passover', could equally well be translated, `It was the Friday in Passover week'. And it should be so translated [? see]. There is no evidence [for or against] of a paraskeuee [preparation] which has the same relation to the Passover proper as the prosabbaton [day before the Sabbath] to the Sabbath.

But what of 18:28 where the Jews at the trial before Pilate refuse to enter the Praetorium lest they should incur defilement and so be precluded from eating the Passover? Does not this prove that Jesus died before the feast? Not necessarily, because `the Passover' is used in the Old Testament and in the New Testament to denote the whole seven days' feast and its offerings, and is not restricted merely to the eating of the lamb on the first night of the festival.14 Whereas the passover of Egypt was eaten in one night, the passover of the generations continued for all seven.15 John uses the word in this broad sense himself,16 so it is unlikely that in 18:28 he is deliberately contradicting all his other indications as to the date. What the Jews mean when they make this excuse before Pilate is that if they incur ceremonial defilement they will be unable to join in all the other offerings of Passover week. There was, incidentally, a most important one on second night of the feast, the Chagigah,17 to which they are probably [?] specifically referring in this verse.

We may, then, with some confidence assert that the meal which Jesus and His disciples took part in together was nothing less than the Passover. Certainly the Synoptists regard it as such, and it would be rash to conclude upon the very tenuous evidence at our disposal that John is breaking with this tradition. If the commonly accepted view that he is so doing is correct, then it is more probable that Jesus and the Jewish leaders were following different calendars than that the fourth evangelist is contradicting the synoptic tradition. But there is nothing in the Johannine account that need conflict with the Synoptists' statement that this was the normal Passover meal, eaten in the early hours of Nisan 15, or, as we should say, the night of [after] Nisan 14. And having regard to its paschal background we shall now be able to interpret the meaning of the Holy Communion more intelligently and objectively.



While there is considerable divergence in the accounts of the words of institution in the gospels and I Cor. 12:23ff (a divergence which may reflect the liturgical usages of the various centers for which these documents were written) all four are agreed that Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and spoke interpretative words over it. The blessing would [? could - knowledge of 2nd Temple times is sketchy at best] have been the normal grace [of later times], `Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who bringeth forth bread from the earth',18 and would [? could] have taken place at the beginning of the main meal,19 that is to say after the preliminary dish of bitter herbs had been tasted. The words of institution over the wine could only [?] have been said in connection with the grace at the end of the meal,20 since Mark tells us that it was after the breaking of bread (14:22) and before the Passover Hallel (14:26). The indications in Paul21 agree with this and, therefore, the words over the bread and the wine were not spoken in juxtaposition, but with the main part of the meal in between them.22

What did Jesus say? `This is my body' is agreed in all accounts.23 Mark says `Take'; Matthew, `Take, eat'. Luke's longer text and Paul add `which is (given) for you'. This is not the place for textual technicalities, but after exhaustive discussion Jeremias concludes that `Take, this is my body' are the oldest form of the words of institution that we can recover.24

The words spoken over the cup differ in the four accounts no less than those over the bread. Mark says, `This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many', to which Matthew adds `for the forgiveness of sins'. Paul and Luke's longer text have `This cup is the new covenant in My blood', to which Luke adds `which is poured out for you'. Jeremias again concludes from the Semitisms it contains that the Marcan text is the oldest among the four, `This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many', though he suspects that `of the covenant' is an early gloss, albeit a correct one, because in Aramaic [the language Jesus probably usually spoke, along with all other Jews in Judea] a noun with a personal pronoun (in this case, whatever corresponded to hiama mou [my blood]) cannot be followed by a genitive.

Jeremias25 then makes a most interesting observation. `Body' and `blood' obviously form a word pair, and there is only one such Aramaic pair that will do, bisra udema. Now these are sacrificial words, both of them, and refer to the body and blood of the slaughtered animal. He quotes Hebrews 13:11, 'For the bodies of those beasts whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned without the camp'. Each word, `body' and `blood', even by itself implies slaughtering. Jesus is clearly comparing Himself to the Passover sacrifice by using these cultic terms.

This brings us to a point of cardinal importance. The Passover was not, in its annual celebration, regarded as in itself an atoning sacrifice; it was a memorial of the first Passover which was indeed an atoning sacrifice, and through which the angel of wrath was turned away from the homes of Israel. `By the atoning force of this blood they were redeemed in Egypt, and they will be redeemed in the days of the Messiah'26 said the rabbis. It is to this redemptive Passover sacrifice that Jesus compares Himself: by the atoning force of His sacrifice to be completed on the morrow, He ushers in that final redemption to which the Passover looked forward, and by giving bread and wine to His disciples He gives them a share in the benefits of His sacrifice, just as those Israelites who ate the Passover Lamb shared not in the sacrifice but in its benefits - deliverance from bondage and death in Egypt. Like the Passover, the Holy Communion is the memorial of an atoning sacrifice, but is not itself an expiatory offering.27

The Bread

Let us look more closely at the bread and wine, and their interpretation as Jesus' body and blood. The place of bread in the Passover ritual is of great importance. The head of the family, as he broke the bread, said [it is thought] - as he still says today 'This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt'. Some such phraseology must have been used from the earliest days in the Passover Haggadah as, in obedience to Exodus 12:25, 13:8, the president [of the family gathering] showed forth the meaning of what was done at the paschal meal.

Imagine, then, the electric atmosphere, as Jesus broke bread and said a different formula: `This is - My body which is given for you'.28 What could it mean? What did the normal Halakah mean? Not that the unleavened bread they ate was the identical bread eaten in Egypt. It represented that bread to a later generation. Indeed, as they ate it, they were enabled to enter, symbolically, into the experience to which it referred; so much so that the participants could say `This the Eternal did for me when I went forth from Egypt.'29 And thus it is reasonable to suppose that when Jesus replaced the traditional formula with His never-to-be forgotten words, He meant then to see His death as the deliverance from a worse bondage than that of Egypt. Not only did the broken bread represent to them what would happen on the cross, but as they ate it, they were enabled to enter, symbolically, into the experience to which it referred - for the eating of a sacrifice always meant fellowship with God on the basis of an appropriation of the benefits which the sacrifice exhibited.

Thus when He invited them to partake of the broken bread which was His body given for them, Jesus was speaking of His death as a sacrifice, and inviting them to share in its effects. It is clear that He could not be stressing an identity between His body and the bread, not only because His body was there with them in the room as He spoke, but also because there was no copula [coupling verb] in Aramaic. What He must have said was 'This - my body' (den bisri). Thus the emphasis that is sometimes laid on the is (`This is my body') is linguistically unjustified: it is just as much an interpretation as `This represents my body' would be. The meaning of our Lord's words cannot be determined by sole reference to this `is', but by examination of the whole paschal context of the action.

The Wine

No less significant is Jesus' interpretation of the wine as His blood. The blood of the original paschal victim when applied to the house of the Israelite brought salvation.30 It was the sacrifice that brought redemption from the death and slavery of Egypt, and the imagery was kept alive in the [later] injunction that red wine should be used for Passover.31 The Benediction that preceded participation in this fourth cup [of the later Haggadah], the cup of blessing, praises God for that deliverance from Egypt, and for the covenant He had made with them. The Hallel which followed had as its center Psalm 116 which spoke of `taking the cup of salvation' (v. 13).

There were, then, profound associations as Jesus spoke of the blood, the covenant, the vicariousness and the cup. `The blood of the covenant' is, of course, the blood that ratifies all God's compacts with man.32 Zechariah 9:11 shows how the blood of the covenant is the means of deliverance, and the Targum [Jewish Commentary]33 on that passage connects the blood with the Passover deliverance from Egypt. Jesus told the disciples, in short, that His blood was to seal the new covenant to which the prophets had looked forward,34 a covenant which would inaugurate and seal a greater redemption than that from Egypt.

Here again we must beware of literalism. Drinking blood was anathema for the pious Jew; the Law expressly forbade him to do it, and he35 regarded the very thought of it with horror. Indeed, the unusually complicated form of the words over the cup in Paul's account is probably due to his care to avoid any misapprehension that real blood was consumed at the Eucharist.

Here again Aramaic usage is very important for Eucharistic dogma. The participle in Aramaic has no temporal significance whatever; the sense, be it past, present or future, is always supplied from the context. As Jeremias points out,36 to haima to ekchunnomenon huper polloon [blood shedding for many] must mean the blood which is going to be shed for many. The participle, though present in form, is future in meaning; and this is a salutary warning against too rigid an exegesis [interpretation] of the words of institution.

It cannot be too clearly recognized that it was the Cross which was the harsh historic reality to which the symbolism of the last Supper looked forward, and the Christian Eucharist looks back.

A Memorial

We are now in a position to make some assessment of the meaning of the Eucharistic rite. Both historically and theologically it must be interpreted against the background of the Passover. The first Passover was a sacrifice; it had expiatory37 effect. But succeeding Passovers were not sacrifices (though they might loosely be called such)38 and had no expiatory effect. They were the memorials of that deliverance from Egypt.39 They had a backward look. It is the same with the Eucharist. It is not a sacrifice, though it is the memorial of one.

A Fellowship

Moreover the Passover had a present significance. The original Passover was a meal intended to strengthen the Israelites for their march from the land of slavery towards the land of promise. And this element was present in the annual Passover feast. The theme of God's constant care in nourishing and sustaining them is a prominent feature of the Passover Haggadah. Furthermore, the joint eating and drinking forged a close bond between the participants; the resultant table fellowship was something sacred - its violation was a particularly heinous crime (Ps. 41:9).

It is the same with the Eucharist. It too has the effect of binding together into one body all the participants (`for we, being many, are one loaf and one body; for we are all partakers of that one loaf' - I Cor. 10:17). Its fellowship, too, cannot be violated without the most heinous sin and disastrous consequences (I Cor. 11:19, 20, 27-29). It, too, is a feeding on the body of Christ (I Cor. 10:16), for He is the nourishment and the sustainer of the life of the Christian (Jn. 6:51ff.). At the Holy Communion we do indeed feed on the sacrificial Lamb of God, but that is not making a sacrifice; we share in the benefits flowing from that sacrifice, not in the offering of it.

An Expectation

There was also a forward look in the Passover, at least as understood by the rabbis. It was a prefigurement of the eschatological feast of salvation as well as the memorial of the deliverance from Egypt.40 This is the night when Messiah would come. `On this night they were saved, and on this night they will be saved', said the rabbis.41 This element in the theology of the Passover is an integral part of the meaning of the Eucharist. While this is particularly prominent in St. Luke's account, where the eschatological significance of the Supper is stressed almost to the exclusion of everything else, it is also present in the accounts of Matthew and Mark, and notably also of Paul. At the Communion we shew the Lord's death till He come (I Cor. 11:26). Just as the Passover was the guarantee of the coming of the Messiah, so the Eucharist is the pledge of His return. Indeed, we learn from the Didache42 that Maranatha, the old Aramaic word meaning 'O Lord, come' (I Cor. 16:22) was used at the Holy Communion, which shows how, late in the first century,43 this forward look of the Eucharist had not yet been forgotten.

If then we are to look for our interpretation of the Eucharist to the Passover, we shall see in it a memorial of Christ's death, a means of feeding on Him, and a pledge of His return and the heavenly banquet. Indeed, the paschal background for the Last Supper will, I think, prove suggestive as we seek to examine the significance of several phrases in connection with the Eucharist which have been taken in various ways.

Do This

First, the command to repeat, `Do this in remembrance of Me', is added to the words of institution by Paul and the longer text of Luke.44 Whether or not the words were actually spoken or merely implied by Jesus is disputed. They have been regarded as an early rubric by some scholars; however, as Benoit acidly pointed out, 'On ne recite pas une rubrique, on l'execute'. [One doesn't repeat a rubric, one performs it.]45 Quite apart from this consideration, if the Passover is as much the background for the Eucharist as we have seen reason to suppose, a command to repeat would be natural. For in Exod. 12:14, `This day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a. feast to the Lord ... for ever', there is a perfect parallel.

Assuming, therefore, the authenticity of these words, although they were unknown to Mark and Matthew, we must consider whether or not they imply some sacrificial activity. `Do this' has been regarded as equivalent to `make this sacrifice'. The case for this translation has been made by F. W. Mozley,46 and the case against it has been made by T. K. Abbott47 - at great length. In view of Septuagintal usage48 it is a possible, though rare, meaning of the word. But when we notice that a normal way of saying `celebrate the Passover' in the LXX is poiein to pascha [do the Passover]49 it becomes more than likely that the word `do' means the same in Jesus' command to repeat the feast which succeeded the Passover.

This, incidentally, is the way in which the writers of the early Church and the compilers of the Liturgies understood the term - 'perform this action'.50, 51

In Remembrance of Me

Next, we must consider the controversial phrase eis teen emeen anamnesia [in remembrance of me]. There are three ways of taking it. It could conceivably mean, 'to recall me', in the sense of bringing back Christ's presence. The Holy Communion is supremely the place where the Lord makes Himself known to His people. Paul's very phrases, the Lord's Supper and the Lord's Table, imply the presence of the unseen Lord as host,52 The difficulty with this view is that it assumes the absence of the Lord at other times and seems to give an almost impossible meaning to anamnesis [remembrance].

A second possibility is that it means `that God may remember Me'. This is argued by Jeremias, on somewhat shaky grounds.53 Even if he is right, there is no suggestion of sacrifice. He points out that when God remembers, He acts; viz., 'He hath holpen Israel his servant, that he might remember mercy ...' (Lk. 1:54, R.V.). And thus when the Messianic community gathers together and prays that God will remember His Messiah, what is desired is the Parousia, [the second coming] the eschatological fulfillment of the Eucharist. It is this remembrance of which the Didache54 speaks: `Remember, Lord, Thy Church ... and gather it from the four winds'. Despite the fact that in the only other place in the New Testament where anamnesis is used, it means man remembering rather than God remembering, this view of Jeremias' is a possible one, and accords well with the eschatological content of both Passover and Eucharist. But it is very curiously expressed if it does mean that.

By far the most natural interpretation of these words is that of the A.V., 'in remembrance of Me'. It is significant that Arndt-Gingrich, the best modern lexicon of New Testament Greek, gives no other meaning than this. And the Passover background makes it almost certain. In verse after verse of the Old Testament the Israelites are told to keep the Passover as a memorial of their deliverance from Egypt (Exod. 12:14, 13:9, Deut. 16:3, Ps. 111:4, etc.). Remembrance, calling to mind the mighty works of God in salvation, has a key place both in the commands of Deuteronomy and the prayers of later Judaism.55

How appropriate that Jesus should inaugurate the Passover of Messianic expectation,56 and bid His redeemed recall the deliverance, far greater than from Egypt, which His death would achieve. The memorial feast kept to commemorate the deliverance of Israel from Egypt through the death of a lamb gives way to the memorial feast which commemorates the deliverance of mankind from spiritual bondage and death through the death of Christ. That this, the traditional interpretation, is the right one, is made highly probable in view of all the other parallels with the Passover which we have had occasion to notice. It is interesting to note that this is how the able Roman Catholic liturgiologist J. A. Jungmann takes it; he suspects no sacrificial significance in the words.57

Shew Forth

This leads naturally to another controversial phrase which is illuminated by the Passover. In I Cor. 11:26 Christians at the Holy Communion are said to shew forth the Lord's death till He come. The suggestion is not infrequently made that this means `shew forth before God', almost `present as a sacrifice to God'. This again appears to be interpreting a text in a strained way in order to fit a theory. In every other instance where this verb is used in the New Testament it refers to proclaiming to man, not God; it is most frequently used of proclaiming `the word', or `the gospel', or `Christ'. And so it would be natural to suppose that here it meant proclaiming the death of Christ not by word, but by the actions of eating the broken bread and drinking the poured-out wine. But the clue which makes this interpretation almost certain is found, once more, in the Passover regulations.

The Israelite is bidden, in Exodus 13:7, 8, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, to `shew' his son, saying: `This is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt'. The very term for the Passover liturgy, Haggadah (`shewing forth') was derived from this verse, and it is this technical term that is in Paul's mind when he speaks of `shewing forth' the death, not of the Passover lamb at the paschal repast, as he had been used to doing as a Jew; but of the Lamb of God at the Eucharist, as he told the Haggadah of the new Exodus. The Jew was free to explain ex tempore the mighty deeds of God in connection with the Passover meal: and in the early church the president at the Eucharist was free likewise, as is clear from the Didache and Justin. That the one practice derives from the other is hardly open to doubt, and it would seem that the Pauline `showing forth' - the Christian Haggadah - is the connecting link.

Go to The Eucharistic Language of The Early Fathers

Address given at the Oxford Conference of Evangelical Churchmen, September, 1961, by E. M. B. Green, Tutor, London College of Divinity

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