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Paul's account of the institution of the Lord's supper mentions the cup, but not the contents of the cup:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.—1st Corinthians 11:23-26 (ESV)

Parallel accounts in Mark, Matthew, and Luke also mention the vessel, but don't specify what might be in it. There's little doubt in my mind, that the cup contained wine and that the early Christians naturally used wine as part of their celebration. But the text doesn't mention the contents at all except that it symbolizes Jesus' blood.

On the other hand, maybe the passage does emphasize the drink, only the drink is blood. That would explain why none of the accounts mention the literal contents of the cup as being wine. My gut reaction to that idea is that it creates more interpretation problems than it solves.

Does the text focus on the vessel and not the drink because they were synonymous or because the contents of the cup were to be downplayed for some reason?

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By the way, there's a germ of an answer in the comments to my answer to a related question over at C.SE. –  Jon Ericson Jul 18 '12 at 17:15

3 Answers 3

Isaiah 51:17 (ESV):

Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering

See also Jer 49:12 (ESV):

For thus says the LORD: “If those who did not deserve to drink the cup must drink it, will you go unpunished? You shall not go unpunished, but you must drink.

And in Psalms 116:13 (ESV) we see:

I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord

So the Hebrew idiom does not always distinguish between cup and contents. For an example from a time closer to Paul, Rabbi Ilayi said:

בשלושה דברים אדם ניכר: בכוסו, בכיסו ובכעסו

Transliterated: "B'shlosha d'varim adam nicar: b'coso, b'ciso uv'caaso"

Translated: "By three things a man is known: his cup, his wallet and his temper"

Meaning: You can judge a man by how he manages his drink, his money and his temper. "His cup" is sometimes interpreted to mean his hospitality, his wallet to mean his generosity.

Wine ("yayin") and grape juice ("tirosh") are often referred to as the blood of the grapes ("dam anavim").

In the Passover seder a (fifth) cup of wine is left full on the table for Eliyahu the Tishbi, in anticipation of his return. While this custom is not adhered to by all, it was common at the time as attested to by the opinion of Rabbi Tarfon in the "Gaonic" version of the Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim 118, side A (although this version of the text is usually not included in our current Vilna Rom based editions so don't try this at home kids).

So - that there was a cup of wine left, that it's contents is a metaphor for blood, and that it has a symbolic meaning sounds natural for the setting - assuming that you read against John and hold that the last supper was the Passover Seder and that is the Lord's Supper referenced in Corinthians 11.

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Good point about "cup" referring also to contents. The cup of Eliyahu is never drunk (until he shows up :-) ), so how do you reconcile that with the text that talks about drinking it? (That's why I assumed it was the cup for grace, but that's just speculation.) –  Gone Quiet Jul 22 '12 at 2:45
Because Jesus says that he is making a new covenant, so he is giving new meaning to the fifth cup and can do what he wants with it. It's a custom (minhag) anyway, not law (halacha). –  Eli Rosencruft Jul 22 '12 at 7:20
Oh, interesting. I had thought he was assigning new meaning to a cup that was already being drunk, not taking a cup that wasn't drunk and saying to drink it (with new meaning). Thanks. –  Gone Quiet Jul 22 '12 at 14:55
Could be as you say. Hard to tell from I Cor 11. –  Eli Rosencruft Jul 22 '12 at 15:15
@Eli Rosencruft: Per 1 Cor. 10:16, I always thought it was the כוס של ברכה. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Feb 20 '13 at 19:37

Eli and Gone Quiet's answers already contain much helpful information, but I want to further legitimize their answers by putting a term to what they (and especially Eli) have said.

Paul is using the common literary device of metonymy. This is no uncommon or arcane linguistic phenomenon. By the way, did I mention that I just bought a new set of wheels two days ago? Yep, as in, I've got a new ride now.—We use this literary device in English all the time, especially in slang and poetry. In fact, there is an intensified form called metalepsis which is one metonym piled on top of the other.

It is a serious exegetical mistake to distinguish between that which is signified by the metonym and the metonym itself. The purporse of the metonym is to refer to the other thing. In short, Paul is not here intending any distinction between cup and wine.

It may also be good to note that there is quite a theology of the cup developed in the Scripture, which Paul may be alluding to (though the theology of the cup has everything to do with its contents).

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(I'm answering just from the text. I do not have deep background with gospels.)

A festive meal (holiday, Shabbat, others) would have included (and still includes) wine; we know this from discussions in the mishna, which spans the time Jesus lived. In addition to beginning the meal by sanctifying a cup of wine, there are prayers after the meal that are said over a cup of wine (which is then drunk). The text seems to be talking about this latter cup.

We also know that blood is not kosher per explicit mention in the torah; if we assume that Jesus and his dinner companions saw themselves as faithful Jews, the cup wouldn't have had blood in it. The simplest explanation is that the cup had the wine that would be called for by the prayers after the meal.

I speculate that the text says he took the cup because that's what he actually picked up. It could have said he took the cup of wine, but wine would have been understood. If it had just said he took the wine, there could be some ambiguity: did he take the cup, or was it talking about the bottle/jug/cask and this wasn't in the context of those prayers?

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Thanks for tackling this! I agree that the idea that it was actual blood would cause many other problems with our historical understanding of Jesus. In particular, his brother wrote a letter warning the early church outside of Jerusalem against consuming blood. –  Jon Ericson Jul 18 '12 at 19:21
In fact, blood was, to my recollection, the only dietary restriction that was required of non-Jewish Christians. –  Ray Jul 19 '12 at 10:21
@Ray, and presumably not eating a limb from a living animal, one of the laws given to Noah. I've never particularly understood that dietary practice, but the commandment is there so I guess somebody does (or did) that. –  Gone Quiet Jul 19 '12 at 13:03
Ah, I was wrong, actually--"But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled." (Acts 15:29) –  Ray Jul 19 '12 at 16:38
@Monica - even today in Japan they serve living lobsters which they carve hunks of flesh from at the table to serve the diners. The cannibals of New Guinea would take bites from the freshly removed heart of their enemy and certainly of animals from the hunt. –  Bob Jones Nov 17 '12 at 19:24

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