Jesus' Eucharistic Words
Matthew 26,20.26-28 reads as folows:
"When it was evening, he sat at table with his twelve disciples . . ."
"Now as they were eating Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it and said: 'Take, eat; this is my body.'
And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying: 'Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins'."
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1. How many distinct formulations do you observe?
We find two formulations.
MATTHEW AND MARK share one formulation
- "Drink from this all of you, forthis is my blood of the covenant that will be shed for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26,28).
- "This is my blood of the covenant shed for many" (Mark 14,23).
Both Matthew and Mark follow a formulation that must have belonged to the chain of oral traditions that was written down in s document scholars call 'Urmark'.
LUKE AND PAUL share another formulation
- "This cup is the new covenant in my blood which was shed for you" (Luke 22,20).
- "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (Paul in 1 Corinthians 11,25).
Paul and his disciple Luke also draw from a common source, probably a version used among new Hellenistic converts - the audience both worked for.
Words of consecration in the Greek liturgy of St Chrysostom:
"Take, drink it all of you, this is my blood; which is shed for you and for the many, given for the remission of sins and for everlasting life."
In the Copt rite of St Gregory:
"Drink ye all of this, this is my blood of the new covenant that is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins."
Are the differences significant? What is the meaning of each formulation?
Yes, the differences are significant.
1. "This is my blood of the covenant shed for many for the forgiveness of sins."
Matthew's and Mark's version focuses on the sacrificial nature of Jesus' outpouring of blood. The formulation recalls three important Old Testament realities.
- The blood of the paschal lamb that saved the people of Israel (Exodus 12,1 - 13).
- The sacrificial blood that sealed the covenant on Sinai (Exodus 24,3 - 8).
- The sacrifice of the Servant of Jahweh who gave his life for 'the many' [= all ordinary people] (Isaiah 52,13 - 53,12).
Evidence from other sayings of Jesus and from contemporary writings make it very likely that this formulation, with all the sacrificial overtones it implies, goes back to Jesus himself.
The evidence has been well presented by the German scholar Joachim Jeremias in his classic work: The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, SCM Press, London 1966 and many reprints.
2. "This cup is the new covenant in my blood which was shed for you."
Without losing the sacrificial implications mentioned above, Paul's and Luke's version presents another focus: the NEW COVENANT.
The notion of the new covenant had been expressed most eloquently by the prophet Jeremiah.
"See, the days are coming - it is Yahweh who speaks - when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel, but not a covenant like the one I made with their ancestors on the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant of mine and I had to show them who was master. It is Yahweh who speaks.
No, this is the covenant I will make with the House of Israel when those days arrive - it is Yahweh who speaks. Deep within them I will plant my Law, writing it on their hearts . . ." (Jeremiah 31,13-34).
Non-Jewish Christians found it hard to follow Mosaic Law which required circumcision and observing the Sabbath. Paul and other missionaries in the Greek-speaking world realised that after Jesus' death the old Law had been abolished. Jesus had established a New Covenant based on love, written by the Holy Spirit on people's hearts (2 Corinthians 3,3). Paul explained this extensively in his letters to the Galatians and the Romans.
The Early Church confirmed this approach. At the Council of Jerusalem in 50 AD Mosaic Law was declared to be no longer binding, except for some practical obligations (Acts 15,5-29).
It is against this background that the phrase NEW COVENANT in the Eucharistic context becomes clear. In Hellenistic communities Jesus' words now included the word 'new' to make clear that by his death Jesus did not confirm the old covenant, but made a new covenant, the covenant of inner law announced by Jeremiah.
Do you think the scriptural authors were interested in handing on what Jesus said?
The answer is: yes, absolutely!
Matthew and Mark have preserved the formulation that is closest to the Aramaic words of Jesus.
When Paul and Luke added 'new' to the word 'covenant' they were explicitating the full meaning of Jesus' statement. For throughout his ministry Jesus had stressed that he was bringing the new Kingdom of God, a new approach to law (see the sermon of the mount, Matthew 5-7) and the new salvation by the 'Servant of Yahweh'.
Did they, willingly or unwillingly, distort what Jesus said?
No, they didn't. Even though the wordings may have been slightly different from those used by Jesus, they conveyed the substance of what Jesus wanted to say.
© John Wijngaards
The texts in our course Interpreting Scripture Correctly were written by John Wijngaards in 2009. Part of the contents is based on his earlier publications, in particular:
- Background to the Gospels (New Delhi 1970),
- God's Word to Israel (Ranchi 1971),
- Handbook to the Gospels (Ann Arbor 1980),
- Historicity in the Old Testament (Bangalore 1983)
- and Together in My Name (London 1991).
Illustrations in the video clip by Jackie Clackson.