dianoigo blog

Monday, 24 June 2019

Gender Attraction and the Meaning of 'This Is My Body'

Having celebrated the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) yesterday, it seems appropriate to reflect on the words of institution found in four New Testament passages (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24), the last of which was part of yesterday's Mass Readings. There is perhaps no biblical instance of the verb 'to be' that is more debated in meaning than the phrase, 'This is my body.' In the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, since antiquity, 'is' has been understood literally. He who had previously miraculously transformed water into wine and multiplied loaves now miraculously transforms bread into his flesh and wine into his blood. Since the Reformation, however, most Protestants have understood 'is' metaphorically: the bread only symbolises or evokes the body of Christ. This article is not going to end this long-running debate; it seeks only to draw attention to a subtle feature in the Greek text of these passages that may have some bearing on the meaning.

In all four above-mentioned texts, the words of institution are (in some order) τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου, a 'copular clause' consisting of subject (τοῦτό, 'this'), copula (ἐστιν, 'is') and predicate nominative (τὸ σῶμά μου, 'my body'). Nothing remarkable here. What is remarkable is the gender of the word τοῦτό, a feature that is impossible to convey in an English translation. The word τοῦτό is neuter in gender, whereas its apparent referent, ἄρτος ('bread') is masculine. Ordinarily, the gender of a pronoun agrees with the noun for which it stands, and so we would expect the pronoun to be masculine, οὗτος.1

Before pondering what this little grammatical anomaly might mean, let us look more closely at the key Greek clause (following the NA28 critical text) in all four passages (with my translations of the immediate context):
While they were eating, Jesus, taking bread and giving thanks, broke it. And giving it to his disciples, he said, 'Take, eat; this is my body' (Λάβετε, φάγετε, τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου). (Matthew 26:26)
And while they were eating, taking bread and giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them and said, 'Take; this is my body' (Λάβετε, τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου). (Mark 14:22)
And taking bread, giving thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body which for you is given (τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν διδόμενον). This do in my remembrance.' (Luke 22:19)
That the Lord Jesus, on the night on which he was betrayed, taking bread and giving thanks, broke it and said, 'This my body is for you (τοῦτό μού ἐστιν τὸ σῶμα τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν). This do in my remembrance.' (1 Corinthians 11:23-24)
Again, the gender of the word τοῦτό ('this') does not agree with the gender of ἄρτος ('bread'), as it ought to do if, as generally assumed, 'this' does refer to the bread that Jesus has just broken. How do we explain this? Some scholars have argued that 'this' does not refer to 'bread,' or to any other noun, but rather to an action, such as Jesus' action of breaking the bread. A recent blog post by Steve Black defends this interpretation, which can also be found in print, for instance in a book by Bruce W. Winter.2 'This,' Jesus says as he tears the bread, 'is my body.' It is a visual metaphor: as the bread has been torn; so will his body be torn.

There are, however, two contextual problems with this interpretation. The first is that, in all four passages above, the words of institution are accompanied by a command, and in at least three of the four, the command appears to entail eating 'this,' which must therefore be a physical substance and not an action.3 The second contextual problem is that, in all four passages, 'This is my body' is paralleled by words of institution for the cup, which also commence in all four cases with τοῦτό. And, in all four cases, this τοῦτό unmistakably denotes 'the cup' (or, more specifically, its contents)4 and not an action.5 Given the obvious parallel structure between the two sayings ('This is my body'; 'This [cup] is my blood/the new covenant in my blood'), which is surely deliberate (for liturgical symmetry), it is far more likely that 'this' refers to the physical substance at hand than that it refers to an action.

If 'this' denotes the physical substance at hand, and not an action, then why the neuter gender? What we have here is a syntactical feature of ancient Greek that Daniel B. Wallace refers to as 'gender attraction.'6 This occurs in a copular clause (subject + copula + predicate nominative) when the subject is a pronoun but, instead of taking the gender of the noun to which it refers, it takes the gender of the predicate nominative. Hence, although 'this' is a pronoun referring back to 'bread,' it does not take the gender of 'bread' but attracts the gender of the predicative, 'body.' According to Wallace, gender attraction 'occurs when the focus of the discourse is on the predicate nominative: the dominant gender reveals the dominant idea of the passage' (my emphasis).

NT examples of gender attraction cited by Wallace, along with others identified by myself, are summarised in the table below.7 It appears that, in like manner, the four NT passages containing the words of institution 'This is my body' use gender attraction, using the neuter τοῦτό instead of the masculine οὗτος to stress that 'my body,' not 'bread,' is the dominant idea.

Pronoun Subject
Noun Referred to
Predicate Nominative
Matt. 13:38
οὗτοι, ‘these’ (masc. plural dem. pronoun)
τό...καλόν σπέρμα, ‘the good seed’(neut. singular)
οἱ υἱοί τῆς βασιλείας, ‘the sons of the kingdom’ (masc. plural)
Stresses masculine allegorical referent of good seed in parable of the wheat and weeds8
Mark 15:16
, ‘which’ (neut. rel. pronoun)
τῆς αὐλῆς, ‘the palace’ (fem.)
πραιτώριον, ‘praetorium’ (neut.)
Fairly mundane example; emphasis falls on praetorium as more specific descriptor; cf. similar instance in Mark 15:42 (/παρασκευὴ/προσάββατον)  
Acts 16:12
ἥτις, ‘which’ (fem. rel. pronoun)
Φιλίππους, ‘Philippi’ (masc.)
πόλις, ‘city’ (fem.)
Another mundane example; emphasis falls on Philippi’s status as a city rather than the name itself
Gal. 3:16
ὅς, ‘who’ (masc. rel. pronoun)
τῷ σπέρματί σου, ‘your seed’ (neut.)
Χριστός, ‘Christ’ (masc.)
Places emphasis on Christ as ultimate identity of ‘seed’ promised to Abraham in Genesis.
Eph. 6:17
, ‘which’ (neut. rel. pronoun)
τὴν μάχαιραν τοῦ πνεύματος, ‘the sword of the Spirit’ (fem.)
ῥῆμα θεοῦ, ‘the word of God’ (neut.)
Stresses neuter allegorical referent of sword in ‘armour of God’ metaphor
1 Tim. 3:15
ἥτις, ‘which’ (fem. rel. pronoun)
οἴκῳ θεοῦ, ‘the household of God’ (masc.)
ἐκκλησία θεοῦ ζῶντος, ‘the church of the living God’ (fem.)
Stresses ‘church’ as more formal, precise descriptor than ‘household’
Phlm 12
τοῦτ’, ‘this’ (neut. dem. pronoun)
αὐτόν, ‘him’ (masc.), referring to Onesimus
τὰ ἐμὰ σπλάγχνα, ‘my beloved,’ ‘my very heart’
Stresses emphatic, emotive description of Onesimus’ closeness to Paul
Rev. 4:5
, ‘which’ (neut. plur. rel. pronoun)
ἑπτὰ λαμπάδες πυρὸς, ‘seven flaming torches’ (fem. plur.)
ἑπτὰ πνεύματα τοῦ θεοῦ, ‘seven spirits of God’ (neut. plur.)
Emphasises reality denoted by torches seen in vision
Rev. 20:14
οὗτος, ‘this’ (masc. dem. pronoun)
λίμνη τοῦ πυρός, ‘the lake of fire’ (fem.)
θάνατος δεύτερός, ‘the second death’ (masc.)
Emphasises reality denoted by lake seen in vision

Now, this insight does not unambiguously resolve the sacramental vs. metaphorical, Catholic vs. Protestant debate over the meaning of the words of institution. One could associate 'This is my body' with allegorical cases of gender attraction such as Matt. 13:38 and Eph. 6:17 (see table above), in order to classify it as a fundamentally metaphorical statement. Or, one could associate 'This is my body' with mystical cases of gender attraction such as Rev. 4:5 and 20:14 (see table above), in which a visible thing is some transcendent reality, and so assert that the bread really is Christ's body. Unquestionably, 'This is my body,' with 'this' denoting something visible and about to be eaten, is far more vivid than elements of a fictitious parable. However, all that we can say for certain is that the text is constructed so as to make 'my body' the dominant idea, the point of emphasis, in Jesus' words as he describes the food he is distributing to his disciples. The syntax alone cannot definitively resolve the issue.

There is, however, one last point to which I would like to draw attention. In Eph. 1:22-23 we have a statement that is remarkably similar to the words of institution: God gave Christ as 'head over all things in the church, which is his body.' In this instance, Catholics and Protestants should be able to agree that this is not a literal statement. It describes a mystical reality deeper than a metaphor (a reality very much linked to the Eucharist), but no one asserts that the Church literally is the flesh-and-blood body of Christ. In view of this, it is fascinating to note the syntactic difference between Eph. 1:22-23 and the words of institution. Here, we have τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ ('the church,' fem.), ἥτις ('which', fem.) ἐστὶν τὸ σῶμα αὐτοῦ ('is his body,' neut.). Gender attraction is not used here; the pronoun remains feminine, so 'the church' remains the dominant idea in view.9 Given that this statement falls within the Pauline corpus,10 as do the words of institution in 1 Cor. 11:24, it marks a significant syntactic contrast. Why is it that when describing the Eucharistic food as 'my body,' gender attraction is used (so heightening the emphasis on 'my body' as opposed to the visible specimen of bread), but when describing the Church as 'his body,' gender attraction is not used? One possible explanation is that the Eucharistic food 'is' Christ's body in a more fundamental way than the Church is. The Church is Christ's body indirectly, as a result of her partaking of the Eucharistic food that is directly, actually Christ's body.


  • 1 The word 'this' is a proximal demonstrative pronoun: pronoun because it stands in for a noun, demonstrative because it points something out (in the speaker's/writer's physical or conceptual setting), proximal because it points out something nearby, drawing attention toward the speaker (as opposed to the distal demonstrative pronoun 'that,' which points out something distant, away from the speaker). Notice that in English, the form of a demonstrative pronoun changes if it stands in for a plural noun: 'these' rather than 'this'; 'those' rather than 'that.' The number of the pronoun must agree with the number of the noun for which it stands. The same is true in ancient Greek, but because—unlike English but like many modern languages such as French and German—all nouns are also gendered, the demonstrative pronoun ordinarily agrees with the noun for which it stands not only in number (singular or plural) but also in gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter, in Greek).
  • 2 Bruce W. Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 153-54.
  • 3 In Matthew and Mark, the accompanying command immediately precedes the word 'this' and clearly concerns a physical substance: 'Take, eat' (Matthew); 'Take' (Mark). Contextually, 'this' surely refers to that which they are to take and eat. In 1 Corinthians and Luke, the accompanying command is 'this do' (τοῦτο ποιεῖτε) and immediately follows the words of institution. Here, τοῦτο does refer to an action, but not exclusively the action of breaking the bread. The Pauline context shows that Paul interprets 'this do' primarily in terms of eating.In Paul's discussion of the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 10-11, while he does refer once to 'the bread we break' (10:16), his emphasis is on eating the bread (10:17; 11:20, 26, 27, 28, 29, 33). Indeed, the same command 'this do' accompanies the words of institution for the cup, where no obvious action is in view. In 11:26, Paul directly explains the two 'this do' commands thus: 'For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.' The command in Luke is admittedly ambiguous: the Lucan context offers few clues as to what 'this do' entails, and does not repeat the command for the cup (presumably Luke assumes his audience is familiar with the liturgical implications). Luke does elsewhere show special interest in the 'breaking of bread' (Luke 24:35; Acts 20:7), but nevertheless 'this do' for Luke probably refers to the entire procedure of taking bread, giving thanks over it, breaking, distributing, and eating.
  • 4 'The cup' in Luke and 1 Corinthians is an instance of synecdoche, referring to the liquid in the cup rather than the container. This is particularly clear in Paul, where the repeated phrase 'drink the cup' (1 Cor. 10:21; 11:26-28) makes no sense if 'cup' (the direct object) refers only to the container. Matthew 26:27 and Mark 14:23, by contrast, refer to drinking from the cup (ἐξ αὐτοῦ); but in these instances, τοῦτό in the words of institution probably refers specifically to the liquid and not to the cup: in the phrase 'this is my blood,' 'this' can hardly denote a container. Matthew and Mark do use the idiom 'drink the cup' elsewhere (Matt. 20:22-23; 26:42; Mark 9:41; 10:38-39).
  • 5 'This is my blood of the covenant that for many is poured out... (τοῦτο γάρ ἐστιν τὸ αἷμά μου τῆς διαθήκης πολλῶν ἐκχυννόμενον...', Matthew 26:28); 'This is my blood of the covenant that is poured out for many. (τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ αἷμά μου τῆς διαθήκης τὸ ἐκχυμμόμενον ὑπὲρ πολλῶν', Mark 14:24); 'This cup [is] the new covenant in my blood, which for many is poured out.' (τοῦτο τὸ ποτήριον ἡ καινὴ διαθήκη ἐν τῷ αἷματί μου τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν ἐκχυμμόμενον, Luke 22:20); 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood' (τοῦτο τὸ ποτήριον ἡ καινὴ διαθήκη ἐστιν ἐν τῷ ἐμῷ αἷματι, 1 Corinthians 11:25). In Matthew and Mark, 'this' is the object of the pouring-out action, and so can only be the cup. In Luke and 1 Corinthians the word 'cup' (ποτήριον) is explicitly supplied: 'this cup'.
  • 6 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 338.
  • 7 There are several other instances that are text-critically uncertain: Eph. 1:13-14 (ὅς/τῷ πνεύματι τῷ ἁγίῳ/ἀρραβὼν, where however NA28 reads ὅ rather than ὅς; Col. 1:27 (ὅς/τὸ πλοῦτος or τοῦ μυστηρίου/Χριστὸς, where however NA28 reads ὅ rather than ὅς); Rev. 5:6 (ἅ/ὀφθαλμοὺς/τὰ [ἑπτὰ] πνεύματα τοῦ θεοῦ, where however NA28 reads οἵ rather than ἅ, and κέρατα could also be the referent noun in addition to ὀφθαλμοὺς)
  • 8 Similar gender attraction occurs in the Parable of the Sower in Luke 8:14-15, where τὸ (neuter) implicitly denotes seed, for which the masculine plural pronoun οὗτοι is then used. Cf. Matt. 13:19-22; Mark 4:15-20.
  • 9 A reverse case can be seen in Col. 1:24, which speaks of 'his body, which is the church' (τοῦ σώματος αὐτοῦ, ὅ ἐστιν ἡ ἐκκλησία), where gender attraction likewise does not occur: the relative pronoun ὅ is neuter, agreeing with the referent noun τοῦ σώματος ('his body') rather than the feminine predicate nominative ἡ ἐκκλησία ('the church').
  • 10 Granting that the authorship of Ephesians is a subject of considerable scholarly debate, with Pauline authorship being a minority position.

No comments: