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I have always been puzzled by the disciples' lack of response to Jesus' request that they drink wine as his blood (Mt. 26:26-29 // Mk. 14:22-25 // Lk. 22:14-23). Everyone in the room was Jewish, and Judaism specifically forbids the consumption of blood. How are we to make sense of the fact that the disciples have no response to the suggestion that they violate God's law?

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    In case anyone is curious about the unusual number of views/votes for BH.SE later, this question made the "hot network questions" list. – ThaddeusB Aug 18 '15 at 15:10
  • This is a great question. – user26078 Jul 31 '18 at 9:41
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This answer draws on Michael J. Cahill, "Drinking Blood at a Kosher Eucharist? The Sound of Scholarly Silence", Biblical Theology Bulletin 32/4 (2002): 168-181. It should be consulted directly for full discussion and copious further references.

OP: Wouldn't Jews be taken aback by the suggestion that they should drink blood?

Yes, they would.

OP: How are we to make sense of the fact that the disciples have no response to the suggestion that they violate God's law?

That is a difficult question. As Michael Cahill argues, while this is clearly the case, the conundrum has largely been ignored by scholarship on the origins of the "Eucharist".1 A quick check of commentaries that are handy (Hagner and Hauerwas on Matthew; Cranfield and Gould on Mark; Marshall and Nolland on Luke) confirms that not one tackles this issue -- at least in the context of the "words of institution".

So -- how indeed to make sense of the synoptic reports that convey no resistance to the idea of "drinking blood"? I don't think there is a widely agreed answer to this question, and thus Cahill writes:

The survey of opinion, old and new, reveals wide disagreement with a fundamental divide between those who can accept that the notion of drinking blood could have a Jewish origin and those who insist that this is a later development to be located in the Hellenistic world. What both sides share is an inability to proffer a rationally convincing argument that can provide a historical explanation for the presence of this particular component of the Eucharistic rite. (p. 179)

But there are factors that should be taken into account in getting to grips with the problem.

Blood -- from Hebrew Bible to New Testament

It is abundantly clear that blood "plays a pervasive role in the cult" of the Hebrew Bible.2. It can be thrown/sprinkled on Aaron, the altar, the veil in the Tent of Meeting, the ark, and even the people (e.g. Exod 24:8; Exod 29:21; Lev 4:6; Lev 17:6; Num 19:4). In addition to the kosher laws (Lev 17:10–14; Deut 12:15–16, 20–24), other texts express horror at ingesting blood (Psalm 16:4; 50:13).

Likewise the "cup" (used in the Synoptic Gospel passages in association with the blood) features as a "cup of wrath" (e.g. Jer 25:15) and "cup of saving" (e.g. Psalm 116:13), so "drinking the cup" is familiar enough in the Hebrew Bible.

But this sensibility carries over into the New Testament. Famously, in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, instructions are given to the nascent church to

abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication.... (Acts 15:29)

Further, the implicit reference to the eucharist in John's gospel depicts "drinking blood" as an obstacle to followers of Jesus (John 6:53-64):

53 "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves," ... 63 But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, “Does this cause you to stumble?" ...

So clearly "drinking blood" has the potential to offend and arouse resistance.

+ See the Postscript, below, for a brief reflection on the "symbolic" value of the blood in the texts under consideration.

Synoptic Accounts

It is also worth noting that the synoptics themselves differ in subtle but significant ways at just this point.

  • Matthew (it seems to me) is the most stark, giving the instruction in the form of a command:

    Mt 26:27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant,...”

  • Mark, on the other hand, simply reports it:

    Mk 14:23 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.

  • Luke doesn't do either, simply recording the symbolic value of the the cup:

    Lk 22:20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

The question of "origins"

Does this variation reflect some uneasiness over the status of the blood in the "last supper"?

It does, at least, open the door to those who find later historical developments embedded in the synoptic accounts. Such variants (and taking 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 into account as well) suggest to some a scenario whereby a ritual that developed in pagan Greco-Roman culture (the Gentile mission of Paul) where "drinking the blood of gods" met with readier acceptance found its way back into the institution of the meal in the gospel narratives: it had to be accounted for somehow!3

Those who think that these words of institution go back to Jesus himself (rather than being the later elaboration of an established Christian tradition) find some precedent and cogency in Jesus' practice of saying and doing things that had "shock" value in the culture of the day. His whole ministry seemed offensive to many.

One might also point to associated issues: e.g., the notion that these same disciples -- pious Jews, committed monotheists -- would so quickly offer worship to a man (cf. Matthew 28:17), although on that occasion there was some hesitation.4

(Instead of a) Conclusion

As Cahill notes in his conclusion:

The state of the question is one of uncertainty. We need to seek a more precise determination of what was possible in regard to the drinking of blood in the first century of our era. (p. 179)

I'm not sure that many have taken up the enquiry after him, though his article appeared well over a decade ago -- all the more surprising given the vast quantities of scholarly attention given to the nature of the origins of the Eucharist, and its setting in the "last supper" with its associations with the passover meal.


Postscript: Blood symbolism

A conversation in "chat" has raised the possibility that since Jesus' reference to "blood" in the institution of the Last Supper is "symbolic" (he is not draining his veins into a cup for the Twelve to sip from at that moment), the "shock" value of the demand to drink a cup "for this is my blood" (Matt 26:28) is reduced or even overcome.

Three considerations incline me to think that symbolism per se is insufficient to do away with the "shock value" of the ritual:

1. In one incident in the Hebrew Bible, blood symbolism is taken very seriously. In 2 Samuel 23:16-17 David is depicted as pouring out the water obtained by The Three since it represented their "blood" (but it wasn't their blood: it was water).
2. The Jews of Jerusalem in Pilate's day regarded Roman symbols as worthy of resisting with their own lives. (See Josephus, Jewish War, Bk II paras 169-174, and articles by Kraeling and Maier, among others.) That these were merely Roman "symbols" did not reduce the offence for Jerusalem's Jews.
3. Paul's sprawling argument about food offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8-10) overturns just such considerations. In 1 Cor 8:3 the notion that idols are "nothing" is insufficient to avoid the conclusion in 1 Cor 10:20 that there is real power behind the "nothing".

I am aware that these are not equally strong factors, but their cumulative effect suggests to me that symbols are important, and the "symbolic" value of some thing does not impair its real significance. So in the case under consideration here with Jesus' "blood".


Notes

  1. Although the "Eucharist" is potentially anachronistic in this context, I use it (as most do) as convenient shorthand for the ritual in question.
  2. Jacob Milgrom, "Blood", Encyclopaedia Judaica (2008).
  3. This notion or one like it is most associated with Hayim Maccoby, "Paul and the Eucharist", New Testament Studies 37/2 (1991): 247-267.
  4. The nature of which has been previously discussed on BH.SE, and that question might form a worthwhile companion to this one.
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  • You inspired me to ask Dr. Bart D. Ehrman about the issue of scholarly silence on the blood question. I'll let you know if he responds. – Wad Cheber stands with Monica Aug 18 '15 at 0:47
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The other two answers do a good job of answering the question, but I thought it was worth pointing out the actual ban and its explanation:

Leviticus 17:10 Explicitly makes your point for you; those who consume the blood of animals are cut off from the Jews, but then verse 11 explains the reason for the ban on blood of animals; drinking blood takes upon yourself the life of that being. In Judeo-Christian culture, humans are seen as greater than animals, and God is greater than humans. So to drink the blood of animals is to lower oneself. In the New Testament, it then makes sense to become greater by taking on the life of Jesus, who is God.

So to directly answer your question, yes, the Jews were shocked. This is shown in John 6 when many people who had followed Jesus quarrel with Jesus' followers and leave. Jesus then goes on to ask the Twelve if they are going to leave as well. But Peter says, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” By the time that your references in the synoptic Gospels occur, the Twelve have already come to terms with this teaching.

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    I don't think it makes sense to explain something from the Synoptics by reference to John. They have nothing in common with each other. – Wad Cheber stands with Monica Aug 18 '15 at 0:51
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    @WadCheber Except that they're all Gospel accounts... I agree with this answer. It shows that many of Jesus' disciples (who were Jews) were put off by the command to drink of His blood and left Him, except the Apostles, who had come to believe He is the Messiah and trusted His teaching. So the answer to the OP's title "Wouldn't Jews be taken aback by the suggestion that they should drink blood?", is "Yes". – Jacob Aug 18 '15 at 13:33
  • @divinecomedian - John is worse than useless for reliable information about Jesus. – Wad Cheber stands with Monica Aug 18 '15 at 17:09
  • @WadCheber It still seems imminently useful to show your point, however. John very clearly shows that the Jews were scandalized, argued about it, and many left. Then by the time of the events of the Last Supper, they aren't going to act shocked because that's "old news." – Drigan Aug 19 '15 at 11:48
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Jesus had aleady shocked his followers with references to drinking blood in John Chapter 6.

"For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink"

When leads to..

As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.

I think we can infer that by the time of the Last Supper, any disciples who had a problem with drinking Jesus' blood would no longer be around.

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This is a good question, and touches on a number of hermeneutical nuances. In order to bring out some of the subtleties which will underlie our answer, I'd like to begin by reviewing a number of key assumptions inherent in the question itself.

Assumption 1: The disciples were Jews

It is true that the disciples were of Israelite descent and had grown up under the Jewish system (with varying levels of practical involvement no doubt.) Yet, we must also keep in mind that for three years prior to the Last Supper episode, the disciples had been following Jesus around -- a man who was clearly intent on sparking a major paradigm shift in their thinking.

As we learn from a careful study of New Testament theology, Jesus and His disciples were convinced that a New Covenant was being instituted -- a Covenant which replaced the "Old Covenant" that was (and is today) so often associated with "Judaism". And this New Covenant had a particular relationship to the Old Covenant: not only did it replace it, it also fulfilled it. We see this often in statements about the various aspects of the Old Covenant merely serving as foreshadows and types for those New Covenant realities which would ultimately replace them.

Thus, it is common to find in New Testament theology that the "Jews" are set over and against the "Christians" in some respect -- even though early Christians clearly considered themselves the true Jews. So were Jesus' disciples "Jews"? Yes and no. "Yes", in the sense of natural descent and self-identification, but "no" in the sense of strict adherence to the Old Covenant legal code.

Assumption 2: Jesus was instructing them to drink His blood

The Levitical Law (and preceding command in Gen. 9:4) prohibited men from eating meat with the blood still in it. Interpreting Jesus' words as an instruction to violate the Levitical Law would require first showing that He actually intended for them to drink His literal blood. If He did not intend for them to drink His literal blood, then He was not actually asking them to violate the Law. (For example, if He simply meant it as a picture of taking Divine life into themselves thanks to His blood being shed on the cross, this would not be a violation of the Law -- at least not this particular law.)

While there are some Christian traditions which hold that Jesus meant His words to be taken literally, this is clearly not the most straightforward way of interpreting the event; what is clear is that Jesus and His disciples had cups full of wine in front of them when He said this. The most natural way of taking this -- particularly in light of Jesus' affinity for visuals and metaphors -- would be that Jesus was not in fact asking for them to consume His literal blood, but was simply using this as a teaching tool as He so often did.

Assumption 3: This would have been shocking for them to hear

If there is any truth to the exchange in John 6, we have strong reason to believe that the disciples had already grappled with Jesus' statements about drinking His blood. Thus, all else aside, we would not expect them to be shocked and appalled at hearing Him say the same thing yet again. If anything, we might imagine them being relieved to see cups of wine in front of them as He said it this time! (Even if we do not take John 6 into account, Jesus ministry was characterized by the use of shocking word pictures. After three years of this stuff, you would expect that they would be used to it by this time.)

Assumption 4: They had no reaction

It is taken as a given that the synoptics record no reaction from the disciples. However, this does not mean they had no reaction. There are many things that happened in Jesus' lifetime and interactions with His disciples which were not recorded in the synoptics.

Conclusion

So, were the disciples "Jews"? Yes and no. Was Jesus asking them to actually drink His blood? Probably not. Would the disciples have been shocked to hear this sort of thing from Jesus at this point in His ministry? Probably not. Did the disciples have a reaction? We don't know.

What do know is that the authors of the synoptics do not record a reaction, suggesting that they did not intend for their readers to focus on the reaction of the disciples. Why? (Wouldn't this have been shocking to their readers?) It would seem that the authors took for granted that their readers would understand the scene -- that the disciples had wine in front of them when Jesus said this, and that Jesus meant for them to see a correlation between the poured wine and the bloody death He was about to suffer for them.

So, all things considered, it's not really that shocking to find the disciples' reaction (if any) "missing" from the synoptics -- or for commentators to forgo mention of this "problem" in their writings.

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May I suggest Occam's Razor? Perhaps the cup's contents were merely a symbol of the value of Christ's blood. Many translations say "this means my blood", and there seems to be a basis for this rendering in the Greek text. Further, as noted above, Mark doesn't record the exact phrase, and Luke's account emphasizes the covenant as being what the wine symbolizes.

So it is evident that both wine and bread were merely symbols. The fact that the apostles later upheld the law against drinking blood would harmonize with this. Besides that, symbols were used extensively in concluding agreements and covenants in accounts throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

Jesus was a master of simplicity of teaching. He would not risk confusing millions of disciples through the ages by complicating such a simple ceremony, nor would he set a precedent that could cause his followers to break his Father's law on drinking blood.

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    What translations say “this means my blood”? Mark 14:23: τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ αἷμά μου | Matt 26:27: τοῦτο γάρ ἐστιν τὸ αἷμά μου. In Luke it’s implicit, but to translate Matt/Mark that way seems pretty interpretive. – Susan Aug 18 '15 at 7:11
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    See the answers referencing the Gospel according to John. Many of Jesus' disciples left Him because of His requirement to drink His blood. If it was just symbolic, as you say, they would certainly not abandon Him because of it. – Jacob Aug 18 '15 at 13:37
  • @Susan It may be interpretive but what's the matter with being interpretive if you accurately represent the dynamic? There is way too much literalness to go around in how this passage is normally treated. Note that he actually says this cup is the new covenant in my blood which, if taken literally, attributes significance to the cup! It is not the cup nor the wine it that is anything even though it says τουτο το ποτηριον η καινη διαθηκη εστιν εν τω εμω αιματι. So Jesus says the cup is (εστιν) the new covenant in his blood. So cup or blood? εστιν here just means "represents". – Ruminator Jul 31 '18 at 10:11
  • @JacobAlvarez The teaching of John 6 is not about physical eating but of faith in Jesus' death and resurrection. To believe is to partake. Tons of people eat wafers and drink grape juice and are not saved as a result. The Seder doesn't magically change into canibalism. They drink symbols of Jesus' blood to express their embrace of God's new covenant. Neither the cup nor the blood is physically miraculously changed into "God-flesh" and "God-blood" that "nourishes spirits". The whole Catholic paradigm of "Eucharist" is utter nonsense. The "last supper" was a Passover with enhancements. – Ruminator Jul 31 '18 at 10:17
  • The "feast" that Paul says to "keep" is Passover enhanced to celebrate the new covenant between God and the houses of Israel and Judah. It included the 7 days of unleavened bread: 1Co 5:8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Gentiles did not observe Passover. They still don't. – Ruminator Jul 31 '18 at 10:20
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Mark 4:34 - Berean Literal Bible "and He would not speak to them without parables; but privately He would explain all things to His own disciples."

Some other versions use the word expound instead of the word explain.

Strong - G1956 - Epiluō - From G1909 and G3089; to solve further, that is, (figuratively) to explain, decide: determine, expound.

G3089 - Luō - A primary verb; to “loosen” (literally or figuratively): break (up), destroy, dissolve, (un-) loose, melt, put off. Compare G4486.

This word Luō is quite fascinating. It means that Jesus was breaking the seed of the Word open for them. He was unbinding his disciples by destroying the Dead Letter. In the manner of real first-born Great High Priest, he opened their minds to plant His seed.

Exodus 13:12 - King James Bible "That thou shalt set apart unto the LORD all that openeth the matrix (the womb or the mind), and every firstling that cometh of a beast which thou hast; the males shall be the LORD'S."

I would comfortably say that this is the main reason the disciples did not object. Jesus was removing the husk or chaff of the Dead Letter and reinterpreting the Mosaic Law for his disciples in private. The disciples knew that they did not have to literally drink his blood. They already understood that drinking his blood meant to take the Mosaic Law to the spiritual and prophetic dimension and to partake of his DNA through the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.

The Jews and other listeners who did not have spiritual eyes to see and ears to hear thought that Jesus was breaking the law.

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The reason that Jews were not supposed to drink blood was not that it was dirty but that it was sacred:

Gen_9:6  Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

The blood, though, of animals was given as an atonement (an expression of remorse for sin):

Lev 17:10  And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people.  Lev 17:11  For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.  Lev 17:12  Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood.  Lev 17:13  And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, which hunteth and catcheth any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust.  Lev 17:14  For it is the life of all flesh; the blood of it is for the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off.  Lev 17:15  And every soul that eateth that which died of itself, or that which was torn with beasts, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger, he shall both wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even: then shall he be clean.  Lev 17:16  But if he wash them not, nor bathe his flesh; then he shall bear his iniquity.

Rather than treating blood as common when Jesus told the Jews that they must drink it he was pointing out his blood's redemptive value in that it is the ratification of the new covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah AND of the means to participate in it.

Notice that "blood" is used as a metonym for the death of Jesus:

Eph_1:7  In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace;

Eph_2:13  But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.

Apparently the Jewish believers of Corinth were attending pagan festivals and thought it was not a problem because "idols are nothings" (Isaiah?). Paul points out that while they are correct that idols are nothings it is inconsiderate of those who may see and stumble. They would even eat the free meat from the altar. To address this he shows how the Seder (recognizing Christ's body) associates the partaker with the new covenant and in the same way by partaking of the idol feast they are associating themselves with idol worship.

When the Sinai covenant was ratified the People and the covenant were splattered with blood:

Exo 24:8  And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words.

So the disciples would not be shocked that the new covenant would be ratified with blood (albeit in the symbol of drinking of the wine of the cup).

Jesus' blood was shed to ratify the new covenant

KJV unless otherwise noted

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