There has been a bit of a to-do in the Church of England about the use of multiple, individual cups for the distribution of the wine at Communion. Some have claimed that ‘it is not Anglican’, being a free-church practice, whilst others have claimed that it contradicts the dominical command, enshrined in Anglican practice, to share ‘one cup’. The House of Bishops have leant on legal advice, but the alternative of receiving Communion in ‘one kind’ (that is, bread only) is a worse alternative (explored in detail here) and the legal advice is neither coherent nor well-founded (explored in detail here).
But behind all this is a more basic, historical and biblical, question. Did Jesus at the Last Supper share one cup with the disciples, or did the disciples each have their own individual cups into which the shared wine was poured from one central cup? The evidence to be considered is in four parts: the details of the accounts of the Last Supper in Matthew, Mark, Luke and 1 Corinthians; the practice of the Passover and the subsequent development of the Jewish Seder meal; the development of one-cup and multi-cup practices in Communion; and insights from archaeology into the nature of the stone vessels that would have been used.
|Matt 26.26–29||Mark 14.22–25||Luke 22.15–20||1 Cor 11.23–25|
|While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”|
Then he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
|While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”|
Then he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
|When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”|
After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!”
|The Lord Jesus, on the night 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, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.|
There are numerous questions to be debated in relation to these texts, including whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal, how to reconcile the timing set out in the Synoptics with the apparent timing in the Fourth Gospel, and how the slightly different accounts might be related to one another. The classic account of these issues can be found in the late Howard Marshall’s Last Supper and Lord’s Supper, which includes useful diagrams on the possible directions of development of the text, and the earlier The Eucharistic Words of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias.
But in relation to the cup, there are a few things to note. If this is a Passover celebration, and if the shape of it followed the same pattern that we now have in Jewish Seder meals (which have clearly developed in some ways from the first century Passover), then there were four cups during the meal, and it is commonly understood that the cup over which Jesus speaks the words about the covenant was the third cup, which corresponded to God’s promise in Exodus ‘I will redeem you’.
The use of multiple cups would be assumed by Jewish readers of these texts, but presumably remained unknown to Gentile readers who were not familiar with Passover traditions, since three of these four accounts give no hint that there is more than one ‘shared’ cup. However, Luke’s account has a significant difference, though there are different traditions in the manuscript evidence. He records Jesus ‘eschatological’ saying about not drinking again until the kingdom as being associated with an earlier cup, and this striking difference might well have led to later scribes ‘correcting’ his account, thus giving rise to the different manuscript traditions.
But it is also striking that Luke uses the language about the cup of ‘dividing it amongst you’, rather than the more direct ‘drink from it’ in Matthew or ‘they drank from it’ in Mark. Is Luke here also trying to explain for his non-Jewish readers what actions actually took place at a Passover celebration? If not, how do we explain this quite different language?
All three Synoptic accounts talk of the wine symbolising Jesus ‘blood of the new covenant which is poured out for you/many’. The verb here, ἐκχύννω, is used where we might say ‘blood is shed’, for example in Matt 23.35 and Acts 22.20—but the symbolism would be all the more potent were Jesus actually pouring wine from his larger cup into individual cups for each of the disciples around the table.
This then leads to the question of what was the actual practice at Passovers in relation to shared or individual cups—and it seems very hard to find anything out. I asked on social media a range of academic friends, and none knew of any information, and even Howard Marshall’s detailed NIGTC commentary on Luke doesn’t explore this.
The contemporary Jewish Seder meal might not take us right back to first century practice, but the use of the four cups is striking—in that there are no actual four cups! Each person has his or her own ‘cup’ or wine glass; the mention of four ‘cups’ actually means four times each person’s cup or glass is refilled; this video on contemporary practice mentions that there might just be individual cups, or there might be one large cup from which the wine is poured into the individual cups; but there does not seem to be any sense in which there is either one cup that all drink from, or four different cups each of which is physically shared.
What is striking here is not just the practice, but the use of language. All through the Seder liturgy there is reference to ‘the cup’ or ‘the four cups’. But no-one thinks that this refers to one or a set of physical objects. If you had the text, but were unaware of actual practice, then you might try and recreate the event using one or several large shared cups—and of course this is exactly the situation that any Gentile reader or hearer of the Last Supper accounts would be in. It turns out that the language of ‘common cup’ here refers not to a single vessel, but to a shared experience and a shared understanding of the symbolic meaning of what it happening in the ritual.
The only discussion I have come across about the origin of individual cups and their relation to Passover or Seder celebrations came through this blog discussion:
It’s actually not known with a ton of certainty which congregation was the first to use individual communion cups—there are at least seven congregations making the claim—but it is known that the idea is barely over 100 years old, it’s uniquely Protestant, and it was invented somewhere in the American northeast. In any case, it’s clear that it didn’t take long at all to go from gold-and-silver, to cheap glass, to über-cheap plastic. Soon, we were all slurping the newly invented grape juice out of tiny little shot glasses, and then flicking the empty cups at that cute girl from youth group. It’s a practice that’s commonplace and unremarkable now, but after nearly 2,000 years of sharing a single cup among everyone in the congregation, it was a radical change.
What made it seem like such a good idea? Part of it was just a side-effect of industrialization. More people had been moving into the urban centers for a new life of 12-hour sweatshop shifts and never seeing the sun again, and because the sewer hadn’t been invented yet, the era was seeing outbreaks of infectious diseases like diphtheria and tuberculosis. Fortunately, germ theory was revolutionizing medicine, and Americans have never met a problem we didn’t think we couldn’t solve with whatever scientific discoveries were grabbing headlines at the time.
But the author then links to a fascinating Lutheran paper from 1906 discussing whether or not individual cups can faithfully represent what Jesus and the disciples did at the Last Supper. The author, J D Krout, first tackles the absurdity of relying on the language of the cup to insist that there must be only one in Communion:
Only three of the gospels give an account of the institution Supper–Mathew, Mark, and Luke–all of whom of record kai labon poterion, “and taking a cup.” True, Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians makes use of the article—to poterion. Those who have been the ardent defenders of the common cup have held that the use of the article by Paul necessarily limits us to the use of but one cup. But this shall be treated later. It has also been claimed that Christ, when he said, “This is my blood of the New Testament which is for many,” pointed to that one cup which he had used, and thereby designated the use of one and only one cup. We shall for a moment concede them the point, however, we shall ask, Where is that cup to which Christ is claimed to have pointed? If that particular cup was “the blood of the New Testament,” then wherein are we justified in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, since we have not that cup? Again, were it possible to produce the identical cup which Christ used, how were it possible for all Christians to drink from that one cup? The absurdity of this argument against the individual cup lies in carrying it to its logical end; namely, producing that cup to which Christ is claimed to have pointed, and then use no other in administering the Sacrament.
But he then goes on to note that is it ‘well known’ that individual cups were used at Passover, and that this reality is preserved in the history of art:
We shall proceed one step further and assert that not only are individual cups permissible, according to Scripture, but that at the initial Supper individual cups were used. As proof for our assertion we cite the fact that at the Paschal feast there were four wine drinking periods, each one of which was known as a cup; Christ took one of these cups, or wine-drinking periods, when he instituted the sacrament which commemorates his death. Thus it is that the Synoptics say that he took “a cup,” meaning that he set apart one of the drinking periods which they should celebrate in remembrance of him; so also Paul says that he took “the cup,” wishing to designate the particular cup or drinking period which was set apart. It is also a well-known fact that at the passover table each person was provided with his cup for individual use. Since this is true, is it not likely that the same custom was observed when Christ transformed the passover into the Lord’s Supper, and also that individual cups were used? Again, religious art tells us that each one of the apostles had his own individual cup at the initial Supper. In the celebrated painting of Leonardo da Vinci, Christ and the apostles are represented as each having his own individual cup.
The final piece of our jigsaw relates to stone vessels that were used in Jewish meals and rituals. This is a fascinating subject in its own right, and is both important background for some passages in the New Testament as well as being an area of recent significant archaeological interest. (There is a useful 2002 overview of the stone vessel industry here.) Stone vessels were of significant interest in the first century, since the purity laws in Leviticus were interpreted to mean that pottery vessels made by a human production process could become ritually unclean, and would then have to be smashed. But stone vessels were deemed to be from the earth, and so could not themselves become unclean, and were therefore highly valued. But they could only be made on a large scale under Roman occupation, since the Romans brought with them the technology for fashioning stone vessels, since they themselves were interested in making columns and other stone parts of buildings.
The archaeological record shows an explosion of production of stone vessels, starting in the mid-first century BC, reaching its height in the first century AD, but coming to an abrupt end in AD 70 when the temple was destroyed by the Romans at the end of the first Jewish War. This demonstrates, for example, that the mention of large stone water vessels in John 2 proves that the account depends on someone who was familiar with life in Galilee prior to AD 70, and Richard Bauckham has demonstrated (from inscriptional evidence) that Cana was home to one of the 24 priestly families who took turns to perform their duties in the temple for two weeks each year—so that the wedding might well have taken place in a house connected with the temple where there was a particular concern for purity.
The internal shape of a cup would have been created by a lathe or turning tool, but the outside was cut with chisels, allowing the formation of handles and spouts that were an integral part of the vessel. The cores produced by the lathe action were usually discarded, but could themselves be made into cheaper, smaller cups. The author of this page, Steve Rudd, believes that it is possible that Jesus had a large cup at the Last Supper, and poured the wine into smaller, cheaper ‘core cups’ that each disciple had. It is an intriguing theory without direct evidence as such, but is supported both by the language in Luke 22.17 and by apparently ‘well known’ Passover practice. (The material on archaeology on this site is good, though some other parts of the website are, I think, rather eccentric.)
As background, here is a short video from the official Israeli archaeology department on stone vessels, including the connection with the wedding at Cana in John 2.
Where does all this leave us?
The debate about whether one shared cup or multiple individual cups, into which wine is poured from one vessel, cannot be determined solely by theological considerations nor, with confidence, by the actual practice of Jesus at the Last Supper (though I think I have offered here some significant clues which correlate with one another). The reason is that something much bigger has changed: Jesus was sharing a ritual, Passover meal with friends in a private room. There will have been more than just the thirteen of them participating (since either women or servants must have been waiting on table), but the ritual structure of the actions was set in the context of an actual meal, and the unity of the group was inseparable from their relationships and shared experience. The early practice of the Jesus communities in the first century appear to have continued this smaller, home-based, real meal context.
Once you move from that context to a much more rarefied religious rite, detached from actual social practices, in a context of larger meetings where those participating might not even know one another well, then asking the question about single shared or multiple individual cups is really shutting the ritual door after the contextual horse has bolted.
The only satisfactory way to answer this question is to recover the practice of Jesus and the early Jesus communities of the first century, and relocate the practice into household groups who remember Jesus in the context of an actual meal. This will of course mean letting go of concerns about regulation and control, and in particular of the exact ritual forms and the question of presidency—who is authorised to preside over the proceedings. But that might well be a price worth paying to recover and deepen our practice—and the restrictions of the pandemic appear to provide the perfect context for doing so.