dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label Eucharist. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Eucharist. Show all posts

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.

Monday, 29 April 2019

The Spiritual Side of Donating Blood

I am approaching my 36th birthday, and for the first 35 years of my life I never donated blood. Why not? I cannot name a specific reason. In my years as an eligible adult in Canada, I heard appeals on the radio from time to time from Canadian Blood Services that included the punchy double entendre, "Blood: it's in you to give." I was aware from these appeals that the public health system had a need for blood donors. It probably crossed my mind more than once that I ought to donate blood, but it never reached the point of a deliberate intention, much less an action.

Now, some people have legitimate medical or lifestyle reasons why they are ineligible to donate blood. However, of those who are eligible, only a minority actually donate. For instance, one NGO reports that "Although an estimated 38 percent of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood at any given time, less than 10 percent do so annually." Meanwhile, a 2015 NHS report in the U.K. indicates that only 3% of England residents in the eligible age range (but including both eligible and ineligible persons) had donated blood in the past year. What is it that prevents most eligible people—like me, from ages 17 to 35—from donating blood? Perhaps it is a fear of needles or the sight of blood; perhaps a general apathy or sense of being  too busy; perhaps a belief that other people are doing it, so I don't need to.

Probably no one actually relishes having a needle stuck in their arm, but some people subject themselves to this relatively mild discomfort willingly. Perhaps, then, the better question is not what prevents people from donating blood but what motivates them to do so? Psychologists offer all sorts of explanations for human altruism, and of course many people donate blood and engage in other altruistic acts toward complete strangers for non-religious, humanitarian reasons. However, other donors may be motivated at least partly by their religious convictions; I am one of the latter.

Although the practice of blood donation and blood transfusions is a marvel of modern medicine (the science being about 350 years old), it has fascinating symbolism in relation to the ancient Christian faith. Think about it: one person willingly gives—sheds, in fact—his or her blood to preserve the health or even save the life of another. This is precisely what Jesus did for all of us on the cross. As he said to his disciples at the Last Supper, "This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many" (Mark 14:24). The good shepherd laid down his life for the sheep (John 10:15-17). In a sense, then, we imitate in a small way Jesus' sacrifice and show solidarity with him when we willingly surrender some of our blood, and thus some of our life (since "the life of the flesh is in the blood," Lev. 17:11) in order to save another from death.

The symbolism can be taken further. The miracle of the Eucharist, in which the blood of Jesus truly becomes present to us and enters our bodies (cf. John 6:53-57), is paralleled in a small way by the medical marvel of the blood transfusion, in which one person's blood enters the body of another to preserve life and restore vitality. In this twofold sense, then, Jesus at the Last Supper and in his Passion is the archetypal blood donor.

Reflecting on such rich spiritual symbolism, the idea of donating blood becomes compelling to me almost to the point of a moral imperative. For, as Jesus said, "Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life" (John 12:25). How can I love my life so much that I cannot face a little fear and bear a little discomfort, when by hating it only that much I could save the life of another? Of course, I am not advocating a practice of mandatory blood donation for Christians or anyone else; the practice would then lose all the beauty of a self-sacrificial gift. However, I do think every Christian ought to examine his or her conscience if he or she is medically eligible to donate blood but has never seriously considered doing so.

Faced with the above, it seems incredible that there is at least one professedly Christian religious group, the Jehovah's Witnesses, that not only neglects to advocate for blood donations and blood transfusions but actually forbids its members either to donate blood or to receive a blood transfusion. The FAQ page on JW.org explains the reason:
This is a religious issue rather than a medical one. Both the Old and New Testaments clearly command us to abstain from blood. (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:10; Deuteronomy 12:23; Acts 15:28, 29) Also, God views blood as representing life. (Leviticus 17:14) So we avoid taking blood not only in obedience to God but also out of respect for him as the Giver of life.
Now, the above texts, insofar as they are explicit (Acts 15:28-29 is more ambiguous) forbid eating or drinking blood. It is by no means an obvious hermeneutical inference that these texts also forbid donating or transfusing blood—practices that did not exist at the time, at least with any appreciable medical efficacy. There is obviously a stark difference between the practice of eating or drinking blood—which may convey some nutritional value but is quite unnecessary—and that of donating and transfusing blood, which under proper medical supervision can improve and save many lives without inflicting any lasting harm on the donors.

For me, the fundamental moral principle of proportionality ought to govern our judgment on this issue. This principle was famously invoked by Jesus in his disagreement with certain scribes and Pharisees over Sabbath observance. The scribes and Pharisees were enraged with Jesus for curing a man on the Sabbath, when no work should be done. Jesus gave examples of life-preserving actions that might justify violating (by the letter) the prohibition against work on the Sabbath, such as untying an ox or an ass and leading it out for watering (Luke 13:15) or rescuing a son or an ox that had fallen into a cistern (Luke 14:5). His rhetorical question brings home the underlying issue: "I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?" (Luke 6:9) So also, with the issue of blood donation and transfusion, the primary question must be, how can we save life rather than destroying it? Blood donation and transfusion saves lives. Forbidding these practices can, in effect, destroy them.

Through the advances of modern medicine, the God-given fluid that brings life to our organs and tissues can also bring life to our fellow humans. It took me 35 years to recognise the precious gift that courses through my veins. I hope no longer to let this gift go to waste.

Friday, 22 June 2018

We Have an Altar: The Call to Eucharistic Worship in Hebrews 13:9-16

Hebrews 13:10 reads, "We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat" (NABRE). The purpose of this article is to argue that this verse, understood in context, functions as a call to Eucharistic worship, i.e. to partake of the Lord's Supper. Here is the statement within its immediate context:
9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching. It is good to have our hearts strengthened by grace and not by foods, which do not benefit those who live by them. 10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. 11 The bodies of the animals whose blood the high priest brings into the sanctuary as a sin offering are burned outside the camp. 12 Therefore, Jesus also suffered outside the gate, to consecrate the people by his own blood. 13 Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the reproach that he bore. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come. 15 Through him [then] let us continually offer God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have; God is pleased by sacrifices of that kind. (Hebrews 13:9-16 NABRE)
One leading New Testament scholar, Helmut Koester, began his study of Hebrews 13:9-14 by calling it "among the most difficult passages of the entire New Testament."1 Another scholar, James W. Thompson, described this as "one of the most complex passages in Hebrews, if not in the entire New Testament," one containing "many exegetical enigmas".2 We should therefore adopt a measure of humility as we attempt to understand the significance of the Christian "altar," which as Thompson noted is one of the areas of scholarly debate.

The central contention of this article is that the "altar" mentioned in Heb. 13:10 refers to the Eucharistic table. In fact, it is my belief that Hebrews 13:9-16 is a call to Eucharistic worship. I would paraphrase the broad sweep of this call as follows:
We would not be strengthened by mere "foods" but by "grace"—heavenly, life-giving grace. How can we access this grace? "We have an altar" that gives us the "right to eat" the "body" of our sin-offering, Jesus, whose blood was brought into the heavenly sanctuary (to which we have access through him). "Let us go to him," in liturgical procession. Where? "Outside the camp," where he suffered—to Golgotha, to the foot of the cross, to our altar; "let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God" in the liturgy. Then, let us go forth and "do good and share what we have," bringing the life and goodness we have received to the world.
Now, I would not suggest that this Eucharistic reading of the passage is obvious, or uncontroversial. While "many commentators" have concluded that the "altar" of Heb. 13:10 is the Eucharistic table,3 many others have opposed this interpretation. The New American Bible (Revised Edition), a Catholic translation, states in a footnote on Heb. 13:10 that the altar "does not refer to the Eucharist, which is never mentioned in Hebrews, but to the sacrifice of Christ." Making the same point in greater detail is Baptist theologian Thomas R. Schreiner:
Clearly the author isn’t thinking of a literal altar. The altar where sacrifices were offered points to a better altar where Christ was sacrificed to atone for sins. The author doesn’t think of a literal altar in heaven, for the imagery shouldn’t be pressed to suggest that there is a literal altar in the heavenly sanctuary. Hebrews never mentions a heavenly altar…Those who attend to the earthly tabernacle have no ‘right to eat’ from the altar of Christ, for they are ‘behind the times’ and are still attending to the old altar. Believers, on the other hand, ‘eat’ from this better altar. He refers to Christ’s sacrifice here, the nature of which was explicated previously in the letter. The ‘eating’ again isn’t literal. It is a colorful way of describing the grace believers enjoy through the sacrifice of Christ.4
Norman H. Young calls it "misleading to relate the altar [of Heb. 13:10] to the heavenly sanctuary" and "equally perverse to attempt to find the Eucharist in this reference to an altar".5 In the face of such stringent opposition, we have our work cut out for us in attempting to show that there is an allusion to the Eucharist here.

Before considering arguments for a Eucharistic interpretation of Heb. 13:10, let us consider some arguments against. One argument is that the Eucharist plays no other role in the Letter to the Hebrews. This is a valid point, but it is not decisive. It can be reasonably inferred, on the evidence of the Gospels' Last Supper narratives, as well as John 6, 1 Corinthians 10-11, and the Didache (a first-century church manual that is not in the biblical canon) that the Eucharist was a central part of the spiritual life of early Christian communities, so that an early Christian writer could allude to it abruptly and without explanation.6 Moreover, the last chapter of Hebrews touches on a number of complex theological issues in somewhat rapid-fire fashion, so a passing but rich allusion to the Eucharist would not be out of place.7

A second argument against a Eucharistic interpretation is Schreiner's observation that "Hebrews never mentions a heavenly altar." This is an argument from silence, but it is conceivable that the writer of Hebrews envisions the heavenly "holy places...the true tent" (Heb. 8:1-2) as restricted to the tabernacle proper and not the courtyard that contained the altar.8 The altar on which Jesus offered himself could be understood as the cross of Calvary, whereupon Jesus entered with his blood into the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 9:11-12). However, an identification of the "true" altar with the cross in no way conflicts with a Eucharistic interpretation, particularly if the Eucharist is understood as a memorial and an extension of the sacrifice of Jesus.

A third argument against a Eucharistic interpretation is Schreiner's claim that the altar of Hebrews 13:10, as well as the "eating" mentioned there, are "not literal" but are colourful ways of describing the sacrifice of Christ and the grace it conveys to believers. This insistence on a "non-literal" interpretation seems to cloud an important distinction between the transcendent and the symbolic. For the author of Hebrews, the various features of the Levitical cult are but shadows of a greater, transcendent reality. The heavenly tabernacle is not non-literal but super-literal, more real than its earthly counterpart. The same goes for the transcendent high priest, Jesus. That talk of a transcendent "tabernacle" and "altar" is in some sense analogical does not mean they are mere abstractions. As for non-literal "eating," if the altar symbolises Christ's sacrifice then it seems needlessly oblique to describe the associated grace in terms of eating from the altar. Surely a more natural extension of the metaphor would express the right to approach the altar: compare Hebrews 4:15-16, which emphasises that Christians have the right to "draw near to the throne of grace," and 10:19, which emphasises "confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus". The specific emphasis on the right to "eat" from the altar requires us to seek a connection to a Christian form of religious "eating"—of which the Eucharist is the obvious example.9

From a reader-response perspective, a Catholic or Orthodox Christian today who encounters the words "We have an altar" is likely to picture the Eucharistic altar in the sanctuary at their local church. If such an altar was a typical feature in the house churches known to the author and recipients of Hebrews—admittedly a big "if"—then the declaration "We have an altar" might intentionally draw the readers' attention to these physical altars as the locus of their access to Christ's sacrifice via the Eucharist.

From a historical point of view this argument remains somewhat speculative in that we have no archaeological evidence of what first-century Christian house churches looked like. However, one of the two earliest house churches that has been excavated, from Megiddo and generally dated to the third century A.D., had a worship room described thus:
In the centre of the floor stand two raised stones, which probably served as the base for the podium of the Eucharistic table referred to in one of the inscriptions.10
The floor of the Megiddo house church with Eucharistic table base and inscription

The inscription mentioned is on a floor mosaic in the same room, and reads, "The God-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial." Granted, this church dates from long after Hebrews was written, but it is, after the Dura-Europos house church in Syria, the oldest church that has been excavated. We should thus at least allow the possibility that the earliest readers of Hebrews worshipped in a house church in which an altar-like Eucharistic table featured prominently.

Koester remarks that the Greek formulation of the words translated "We have an altar" is stylistically formal and "reflects the style of credal statements."11 In his view, this is more likely a literary device than a quotation from a creed.12 Nevertheless, the stylistic formality suggests that this declaration is intended to bear great significance and thus merits close study. Since Hebrews nowhere else refers to a Christian altar of sacrifice,13 we may look to other early Christian literature for evidence that the Eucharistic table was understood as an altar.

1 Corinthians

In 1 Corinthians 10:21, Paul refers to the Eucharist as partaking of "the table of the Lord" (trapeza kyriou). This phrase trapeza kyriou occurs in only one passage in the Greek Scriptures known to Paul, the Septuagint, where it refers to the altar of the Levitical cult (Mal. 1:7-12).14 Moreover, Paul has just drawn a parallel between participation in the "altar" by eating the sacrifices in "Israel according to the flesh" (1 Cor. 10:18) and Christian participation in the body and blood of Christ by partaking of "the table of the Lord."15


The Didache  describes the Eucharist as an "offering" and a "sacrifice" (14.1-2). This makes it plausible that, in keeping with such cultic language, the unmentioned place where this "sacrifice" was offered took place was regarded as an altar.

1 Clement

The first-century letter 1 Clement is particularly relevant to this study due to its conceptual similarity to Hebrews. These are the only two first-century Christian documents that describe Jesus as a "high priest" (1 Clem. 36.1; 61.3; 64.1). 1 Clement 36.2-5 contains numerous striking parallels to Hebrews 1, implying either the author's direct knowledge of Hebrews or the use of common traditional material by both authors. Both authors' theologies are deeply influenced by Hellenistic Judaism and the Septuagint and both authors quote from or paraphrase the Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish text that was received into the Christian biblical canon (as is evident already in the late-second-century Muratorian Fragment). Undoubtedly, Hebrews and 1 Clement represent a similar early Christian theological milieu.

Edmund W. Fisher concludes in a detailed study of 1 Clement 7.4 ("We should gaze intently on the blood of Christ") that "The church united in its liturgy sees the blood-of-Christ poured out in the eucharist."16 The letter uses similar cultic language for both Levitical and Christian worship in close proximity. In chapters 40-41, the author stresses the importance of keeping the Master's commandments "in an orderly way and at appointed times," "keeping to our special assignments with a good conscience, not violating the established rule of his ministry" (1 Clem. 40.1; 41.1). These instructions are interspersed with references to the Levitical cult, where the writer emphasises that "the sacrificial offerings and liturgical rites" were performed "according to set times and hours," with God having "set forth both where and through whom he wished them to be performed" (1 Clem. 40.2-3). The writer subsequently goes into greater detail on the "where" aspect, observing that the Levitical sacrifices "are not offered everywhere...but in Jerusalem alone," and even there not "in just any place, but before the sanctuary on the altar" (1 Clem. 41.2). The author does not elaborate on the Christian analogue to this "where" aspect (he is more concerned with the "whom"), but he does refer to the bishops as "offering the gifts," which elsewhere in 1 Clement—as well as in Hebrews—is equivalent to offering sacrifices.17 This "offering" of "the gifts" most likely refers to the Eucharist.18 That it matters to the author "where" the offerings take place (otherwise there was no need to emphasise the altar as the necessary locus of Levitical offerings) suggests that there is a place analogous to the Levitical altar where the Eucharist should be offered—in other words, a Christian altar. This can reasonably be inferred even though the author does not mention such a place explicitly, due to his focus being on the "whom" aspect of Christian worship (which was contested in the Corinthian church, giving rise to his letter).

The Letters of Ignatius

The most striking references to a Eucharistic altar in the Apostolic Fathers are in the letters of Ignatius (early second century). In his Letter to the Philadelphians, the bishop of Antioch writes:
And so be eager to celebrate just one eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup that brings the unity of his blood, and one altar, as there is one bishop together with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow slaves. Thus, whatever you do, do according to God. (Ign. Phld. 4.4)
Here, Ignatius unmistakably identifies the Eucharist with a Christian altar. That is not all: another passage where Ignatius mentions the Eucharistic altar contains striking parallels to Hebrews 13:9-10:
9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching. It is good to have our hearts strengthened by grace and not by foods, which do not benefit those who live by them. 10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.  (Heb. 13:9-10)
7.2 Let all of you run together as to one temple of God, as to one altar, to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father and remained with the One and returned to the One. 8.1 Do not be deceived by strange doctrines or antiquated myths, since they are worthless. For if we continue to live in accordance with Judaism, we admit that we have not received grace. (Magnesians 7.2-8.1)19
In both passages, a Christian "altar" associated with "grace" is contrasted with a warning against strange doctrines associated with continued observance of the Jewish law. This parallel seems too striking to be coincidental. However, since there is little evidence that Ignatius knew or used Hebrews,20  it seems likely that Hebrews and Ignatius drew on common traditional material. Ceteris paribus, that Ignatius understood the grace-conveying Christian "altar" in Eucharistic terms makes it likely that the writer of Hebrews did too.

There appear to be several nuanced ways in this passage by which the author of Hebrews compares the Levitical altar and the Christian altar. We should bear in mind that already under the Levitical cult, the altar is a sacred place: "There, at the altar, I will meet the Israelites; hence it will be made sacred by my glory" (Ex. 29:43). The immediate purpose of the altar was of course to have animal sacrifices offered upon it. However, the main interest of the author of Hebrews here is in what happens to the sacrificed animal after it is offered. The Torah mentions numerous ordinances concerning consumption of the meat of animal sacrifices (or bread made from grain offerings), which was "holy" food (Lev. 6:17-18; 10:12-13; 21:6; 22:1-12). Depending on the type of offering, there are stipulations as to who can and cannot eat the meat, what parts of the animal they can and cannot eat, when they can and cannot eat it, and where they can and cannot eat it. There were certain persons who were forbidden from eating such holy food (e.g., foreigners, or priests in a state of uncleanness—see Lev. 22).

In Hebrews 13:11, the writer observes that the meat of Levitical sin offerings could not be eaten by anyone but had to be burned outside the camp (Lev. 4:12, 4:21, 6:11, 8:17, 9:11, 16:27-28). Scholars regard this stipulation concerning the Day of Atonement sin offering (Leviticus 16) as particularly relevant,21 given the prior comparison of Christ's sacrifice with this ritual in Hebrews (9:7-12; 9:25-28). However, whereas Leviticus refers to the animals themselves or their "hide" and "flesh" being burned,22 Hebrews refers to "the bodies (Greek: sōmata) of the animals." What is remarkable about this is that Leviticus LXX never uses the word "body" (sōma) for the flesh or carcass of a sacrificed animal. Leviticus uses sōma only for human bodies, and in the Day of Atonement regulations the word is used for body of the high priest as well as the body of the person who goes outside the camp to burn (or release, in the case of the "scapegoat") the animal (Lev. 16:24-28). In Hebrews, Jesus is the high priest, the person who goes outside the camp, and the one whose "body" was specially prepared by God as the once-for-all sin offering (Heb. 10:5, 10). Thus, by stating that the "bodies" of the Levitical sin offerings could not be eaten, the writer is drawing our attention to the "body" of Jesus, our definitive sin offering, which can be eaten from the Christian altar in the Eucharist. The word "body" has powerful Eucharistic connotations, playing a central role in the early Eucharistic liturgy as preserved by Paul (1 Cor. 10:16, 11:24-29) and the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 14:22 par.). Thus, the writer's decision to use this word in his discussion of Levitical sin offerings signals his Eucharistic understanding of the Christian "altar." The other key word in the Eucharistic liturgy is, of course, "blood," and this aspect of the sin offering (both Levitical and Christ's) is also emphasised in Heb. 13:11-12.

Against this background, the following comparisons seem to be implicit in Heb. 13:9-13. (1) Under Levitical worship, the bodies of the sin offerings offered on the altar could not be eaten, but had to be burned outside the camp. Christ, our sin offering, also suffered outside the camp, but his body can be eaten, in the Eucharist. Thus Christians—all Christians ("we")—have a "right to eat" from their altar that not even the priests ("those who serve the tabernacle," cf. Heb. 7:13; 8:5) had under the Levitical religion. (2) In cases where the holy food from the Levitical altars could be eaten, it was still only natural food and thus of no eternal benefit. By contrast, the food from the Christian altar conveys "grace," i.e. brings eternal benefit. (3) The Jewish Christians addressed in Hebrews may be "outside the camp," marginalised from mainstream Jewish worship and suffering persecution, but this brings solidarity with Jesus, who likewise suffered "outside the gate" (of Jerusalem). Collectively, this is a powerful argument for sticking with Christianity and not reverting to non-Christian, mainstream Jewish religion, which seems to be a primary thrust of Hebrews.

The reading suggested above finds further support in other early Christian literature that make points similar to those in Hebrews 13:9-10 while discussing the Eucharist. We have already noted the striking parallel between Hebrews 13:9-10 and Ignatius, Magnesians 7.2-8.1. We now note some texts that highlight (a) the exclusivity of Christian access to the Eucharist (just as Hebrews states that those serving the tabernacle "have no right to eat" of the Christian altar), and (b) the contrast between ordinary food and Eucharistic food (just as Hebrews contrasts "foods" that "do not benefit" with the "grace" of the Christian "altar").

The exclusivity of access to holy food features in the Didache, a first-century church manual (roughly contemporaneous with Hebrews), which stipulates, "But let no one eat or drink from your thanksgiving meal [Greek: eucharistias] unless they have been baptized in the name of the Lord. For also the Lord has said about this, 'Do not give what is holy to the dogs.'" (Did. 9.5). Paul warns Christians against eating Eucharistic food in an unworthy manner (1 Cor. 11:27), just as the Torah warns against eating flesh from sacrifices while unclean (Lev. 7:20-21; 22:3-7).

The contrast between holy, grace-bearing Eucharistic food (which brings eternal life) and ordinary food (which has no eternal benefit) also features in multiple other texts. At the close of the Didache's Eucharistic liturgy, the following thanksgiving is offered: "You, O Master Almighty, created all things for the sake of your name, and gave both food and drink to humans for their refreshment, that they might give you thanks. And you graciously provided us with spiritual food and drink, and eternal life through your child" (Did. 10.3). More famously, in John chapter 6 Jesus repeatedly contrasts the manna in the wilderness (itself angelic food: Ps. 78:25; Wis. 16:10), whose eaters still die (John 6:49) with the "true bread from heaven," namely his flesh, of which "Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever" (John 6:58).

My own conviction is that Hebrews 13:9-16 functions as a call to Eucharistic worship in the face of temptations that the readers faced to return (or turn) to non-Christian Jewish forms of worship. Probably few Christians today yearn for Levitical religion, but there are other temptations that can draw us away from the Eucharist: apathy, or forms of Christian worship that neglect the Eucharist. Thus, the writer of Hebrews' emphatic statement, "We have an altar" is as important today as it was to his original readers.

My prayer is that the reader may be moved by the beautiful words of Hebrews 13:9-16 to heed this call, or at least to reflect on whether there might be more significance to the table of the Lord than previously supposed.


  • 1 Helmut Koester, "'Outside the Camp': Hebrews 13:9-14," The Harvard Theological Review, 55 (1962): 299.
  • 2 James W. Thompson, "Outside the Camp: A study of Heb 13:9-14," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 40 (1978): 53.
  • 3 L. Paul Trudinger, "The Gospel Meaning of the Secular: Reflections on Hebrews 13:10-13," Evangelical Quarterly, 54 (1982): 236. Trudinger himself rejects this position.
  • 4 Thomas R. Schreiner, Commentary on Hebrews (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2015), 420.
  • 5 Norman H. Young, "‘Bearing his reproach’ (Heb 13.9–14)," New Testament Studies, 48 (2002): 248-49.
  • 6 This can be seen in other instances in early Christian literature. "Your love feasts" in Jude 12 undoubtedly alludes to the Eucharist, despite the lack of explanation or prior reference to the Eucharist in this short letter. The letters of Ignatius of Antioch (early second century) contain several oblique references to the Eucharist as "the altar." Consider Magnesians 7.2 ("You should all run together, as into one temple of God, as upon one altar, upon one Jesus Christ") and Romans 2.2 ("But grant me nothing more than to be poured out as a libation to God while there is still an altar at hand"). Indeed, these references are so oblique that it might be doubted whether they refer to the Eucharist, were it not for Philadelphians 4.4 (discussed below), which makes clear Ignatius's Eucharistic understanding of the "altar." Note: translations from the Apostolic Fathers, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).
  • 7 Thompson notes that Hebrews 13:9-14 in particular contains "an extraordinary number of references that seem to stand alone in Hebrews, and are thus difficult to interpret in the context of the rest of the epistle" (Thompson, "Outside the Camp," 53).
  • 8 The Book of Revelation envisions a heavenly altar but this corresponds to the golden altar of incense within the tabernacle, not the altar of sacrifice in the courtyard.
  • 9 In both places where Paul mentions the Levitical practice of eating the sacrificial meat, he has a specific reason for stressing the "eating". In 1 Cor. 9:13 he uses it as an argument for the right of Christian ministers to earn a living through their service (since the Levitical priests literally earned their bread and meat through their offerings), and in 1 Cor. 10:18 he mentions the practice specifically to draw a parallel with the Eucharist—precisely as I argue the writer of Hebrews is doing in Heb. 13:10.
  • 10 Edward Adams, "The Ancient Church at Megiddo: The Discovery and an Assessment of its Significance," The Expository Times, 120 (2008): 64-65.
  • 11 Koester, "Outside the Camp," 312.
  • 12 Compare the similar formulation in Hebrews 8:1: "We have such a high priest..."
  • 13 There is a passing reference to the Levitical altar of sacrifice in Hebrews 7:13. The golden altar of incense, which is distinct from the altar of sacrifice, is mentioned in Hebrews 9:4.
  • 14 Similarly, Ezekiel 41:22 LXX refers to the altar in the temple vision as "the table which is before the face of the Lord," while Ezekiel 44:16 foretells that in the future temple the Levitical priests "shall enter into my sanctuary, and these shall approach my table, to minister to me" (i.e., "to offer sacrifice to me, the fat and the blood," v. 15). Elsewhere in the OT, the "table" associated with the Levitical cult is always the table of the showbread, but this is never called the "table of the Lord."
  • 15 The reference to "Israel according to the flesh" in 1 Cor. 10:18 implies that Paul understands the Church as "Israel according to the Spirit" (cf. Gal. 6:16). The kata sarka/pneuma (according to flesh/spirit) contrast is prominent in Paul's letters—especially relevant to 1 Cor. 10:18 is Gal. 4:29, which allegorically identifies unbelieving Israel, enslaved by the law, with Ishmael ("he who was born according to the flesh") and the Church, freed from slavery, with Isaac ("he who was born according to the spirit"). This flesh/Spirit Israelological parallel strengthens the implicit parallel between eating the sacrifices of the Levitical altar and eating the Eucharistic food from the table of the Lord.
  • 16 Edmund W. Fisher, "'Let us look upon the Blood-of-Christ' (1 Clement 7:4)," Vigiliae Christianae, 34 (1980): 234.
  • 17 In 1 Clem. 4.1-2, Abel is said to have offered "a sacrifice from the firstborn of the sheep and from their fat," which is then referred to as "his gifts," showing that "gifts" and "sacrifices" are synonymous terms for this author. 1 Clement also calls Jesus "the high priest of our offerings" (36.1). The same is true in Hebrews, which refers thrice to "gifts and sacrifices" (5:1; 8:3; 9:9).
  • 18 R. P. C. Hanson states, "it is obvious that τά δῶρα refers to the bread and wine in the eucharist, and that the presbyters are thought of as presenting them to God in the eucharist for him to bless them" ("Eucharistic Offering in the Pre-Nicene Fathers," Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, 76 (1976): 79.).
  • 19 Trans. Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 155.
  • 20 The classic work The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers places the relationship between Hebrews and Ignatius in its "D" category, meaning that the book "may possibly be referred to, but...the evidence appeared too uncertain to allow any reliance to be placed upon it" (A Committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology, The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905], iii.)
  • 21 Trudinger argues that the author of Hebrews "is making as much a comparison as a contrast between the Christian and Jewish altars," by specifying "the particular kind of sacrificial altar" he is speaking of to be an "'Atonement Day' sacrifice," which under the Torah the priest had no right to eat. ("Gospel Meaning of the Secular," 236).
  • 22 "The calf," Lev. 4:12, 21; "the offering," 6:11; "the calf, and his hide, and his flesh, and his dung," 8:17; "the flesh and the hide," 9:11; "the calf...and the goat...even their skins and their flesh and their dung," 16:27.