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In the various accounts in the New Testament, both in the gospels and in Paul, what did Jesus do with bread? How is his action described? At the feeding of the 5,000, did he (along with the fish) ‘bless it’ (Mark 8.7, ESV) or ‘give thanks for it’ (TNIV)? This is a worthwhile question to ask, both in terms of what the text says, and because of the way the language of the gospels and Paul found its way into the language of Christian worship in services of Holy Communion.
To explore this, we need to do several things. First, we need to look carefully at the actual texts where this action is mentioned. Then we need to understand the Jewish context in which Jesus is acting, and see how this action has been received in Paul’s writings. Some insight will also be offered by looking at some early Christian texts, and it will also be worth considering the language used in contemporary worship, which for me means the current Church of England texts.
Jesus does things with bread on four occasions in the gospels: the feeding of the 5,000 (four gospels); the feeding of the 4,000 (Matthew and Mark); the Last Supper (the Synoptic gospels and Paul); and breaking bread on the road to Emmaus. Here are the texts:
|Verb and its object
|Feeding of 5000
|ἀναβλέψας εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εὐλόγησεν
|ἀναβλέψας εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εὐλόγησεν καὶ κατέκλασεν τοὺς ἄρτους
|eulogeo, God (or loaves?)
|ἀναβλέψας εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εὐλόγησεν αὐτοὺς
|eulogeo, loaves and fish
|ἔλαβεν οὖν τοὺς ἄρτους ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ εὐχαριστήσας διέδωκεν
|Feeding of 4000
|ἔλαβεν τοὺς ἑπτὰ ἄρτους καὶ τοὺς ἰχθύας καὶ εὐχαριστήσας ἔκλασεν
|λαβὼν τοὺς ἑπτὰ ἄρτους εὐχαριστήσας ἔκλασεν
|λαβὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἄρτον καὶ εὐλογήσας ἔκλασεν
|λαβὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἄρτον καὶ εὐλογήσας ἔκλασεν
|λαβὼν ἄρτον εὐχαριστήσας ἔκλασεν
|1 Cor 11.23f
|ἔλαβεν ἄρτον καὶ εὐχαριστήσας ἔκλασεν
|λαβὼν τὸν ἄρτον εὐλόγησεν καὶ κλάσας
We can see that the terms eucharisteo (to give thanks) and eulogeo (to bless) appear to be used interchangeably—and this is most obvious from the parallels in Luke 22.19 and Luke 24.30 (even though there are some grammatical differences). But from the pattern of usages, two further things immediately stand out in this list.
First, it is striking that each gospel writer uses both terms. So Matthew uses ‘bless’ in the feeding of the 5,000 and in the last supper, but ‘give thanks’ in the feeding of the 4,000. Mark exhibits the same pattern, but Luke is different, along with Paul using ‘give thanks’ in the Last Supper account, then reverting again to ‘bless’ at Emmaus. It is therefore impossible to claim that different gospel writers are using two different terms to suggest a difference of theological perspective.
Secondly, it is equally striking both terms are on the different occasions, except for the feeding of the 4,000, where Matthew and Mark both use ‘give thanks’. Yet it would be odd to suggest that something different was going on here, compared with at the feeding of the 5,000. In other words, both words are used by all writers and occur in relation to both the feeding miracles and the Last Supper.
All this is a long way round to observe that the two terms ‘give thanks’ and ‘bless’ are used completely interchangeably for what it is Jesus is doing with the bread, before he breaks it and gives it out.
At this point, we also need to observe who or what is the object of what Jesus does. In the Synoptic accounts of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus ‘looks up to [the] heaven’, that is, to God, setting the context of what then takes place. Despite the object of ‘blessing’ in Mark 6.41 appearing to be the loaves and the fish grammatically, the parallels in Matthew and Luke make it clear that God is the focus of the action. And of course, God must be the object of ‘thanksgiving’! This is the justification for the TNIV translating Mark 6.41 and Luke 9.16 ‘he gave thanks’ for them (ESV says ‘he said a blessing’ over them in both cases), in contrast to the AV ‘he blessed them’.
Who or what is ‘blessed’?
Consulting a lexicon on the meaning of the verb eulogeo is of limited help (since lexicons simply collate instances of words and their translation) unless it is referring to extra-biblical examples. True to its etymology, eu-logeo, ‘to speak well’, BDAG offers the main meanings as ‘to say something commendatory, speak well of, praise, extol; to ask for bestowal of special favor, esp. of calling down God’s gracious power; to bestow a favour, provide with benefits.’ But in amongst that, it cites the biblical verses above in support of the idea that an object can be ‘blessed’—when the very question we are asking is whether that is a possible meaning here.
In their first century Jewish context, there can be no doubt that what Jesus is saying in each instance is a Jewish prayer of thanks to God, which uses the b-r-k root that is translated ‘bless’.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה, אֱלֹהֵינוּּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ.
Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה, אֱלֹהֵינוּּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הַגֶּפֶן.
Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.
If you look through the whole list of these prayers, you will see that there is a lot of ‘blessing’ going on! But of course there is no sense in which the thing for which the prayer is expressing gratitude is being ‘blessed’ in the sense of it being changed; the sense is what we would normally call ‘thanking’ or ‘praising’ God for. Though these exact forms are from a time after the first century, there is almost certainly continuity with practice in Jesus’ day.
Thus R T France comments on Matt 14.19:
Jesus takes on the role of the head of the family at a Jewish meal (as he will also do in Luke 24.30) when he takes the food and utters the formal blessing before it is shared. His looking up to heaven indicates that the “blessing” is an act of praise to God the provider (as was usual at Jewish meals) rather than a “consecration” of the food itself (p 562).
And he adds in a footnote:
There is no stated object for the verb eulogeo, “bless” and the syntax does not make it clear whether we should understand the loaves and fish as the object or whether we should understand a blessing of God’s name. In view of the traditional form of blessing used over both food and wine at Jewish meals, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe…” (m. Ber. 6.1–3; 7.3, etc) the latter seems the more likely sense here, and the preceding mention of “looking up to heaven” supports this. To understand such a blessing as directly “consecrating” the food itself is probably to import too much [later] Christian Eucharistic theology into a pious Jewish convention.
And he cites the comment of Ulrich Luz: ‘in a Jewish milieu, God is praised, the food is not blessed.’
In fact, we can see the roots of this language of ‘blessing’ all through the Old Testament, for example in Ps 103 ‘Bless the Lord, o my soul…’ which we understand to mean: we are thanking and praising him. It has found its way happily into songs drawing on this biblical language, such as ‘Blessed be your name’ by Matt Redman. But it has also found its way, rather unhappily, into the Church of England’s liturgy for Daily Prayer, where each service ends with an optional call and response:
Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
The call should be understood, in this biblical and Jewish context of b-r-k prayer, as an invitation to praise God (‘let us bless…’), to which the response is the praise that is called for (‘Thanks be to…’). But no-one really understands this, because we do not regularly use the term ‘bless’ to mean ‘give thanks’ in that way. (For most people, I suspect the meaning is ‘The service is over/Thank goodness for that’!)
It seems to me that Paul is drawing on this Jewish tradition of blessing God when he writes to Timothy:
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving (with eucharistia), for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer (1 Tim 4.4–5).
The ‘blessing’ has a kind of sanctifying power—but only because it shows the attitude in which it is being received, as a good gift from a generous God.
All this points to a clear answer to our opening question: what was Jesus doing with bread? If we take seriously the coherence of the New Testament accounts, and if we take seriously the Jewish context of what Jesus is doing, then there is no doubt: he is ‘blessing’ God, meaning, giving thanks to God for the bread (and fish or wine), using a Jewish prayer of berachah, and is clearly not ‘blessing’ the bread.
I think it is interesting to note that, whilst the Synoptics use both terms, Luke (in his account of the Last Supper), John (in the feeding of the 5,000) and Paul all use eucharisteo rather than eulogeo. I wonder if there is an act of linguistic and cultural interpretation going on here, for those gentile readers who are not familiar with Jewish patterns of prayer, and might misinterpret ‘blessing’ when not familiar with Jewish b-r-k. It is only when the church lost connection with its Jewish roots that it began to misunderstand this.
Additional note: Jeremy Duff has added a small challenge in conversation online: ‘When I read it I keep wanting to know whether in the Greek culture of the time the word eulogeo was used about objects in a way similar to what you are arguing against of ‘consecration’. I fully take your point about definitions within dictionaries which focus on the NT being worthless because they are circular. But hey there is a whole world of Greek out there! I very much appreciate the reference to the particular and very important Jewish prayer you engage with. But I want to know how people like Josephus used eulogeo.
So I checked in Liddell Scott online, and it says this:
In other words, it is entirely about praising someone, a human or a god. It would seem that the confusion about ‘blessing things’ arises from a misunderstanding of the Jewish b-r-k prayer.
An interesting window into Jesus’ actions is provided by the language of the Didache, an early Christian teaching document, now dated to the late first or early second century. Here, in what appears to be a non-or even anti-Jewish context, the language of ‘blessing’ has disappeared, now replaced completely with ‘thanksgiving’:
Concerning the thanksgiving, give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup: We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever.
Next, concerning the broken bread: We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever (section 9).
The focus here is the ‘spiritual food’ which has been received, and giving thanks for it, and there is not the slightest hint of ‘blessing’ anything. There is continuity here with the focus of the Book of Common Prayer (1662), expressed in the words of administration:
The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life: Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.
The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life: Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.
The referents of the words ‘body’ and ‘blood’ here are not the bread and wine, but the actual body of Jesus crucified on the cross, and blood of Jesus shed for us. The bread and wine are referred to as ‘this’ which the recipient eats and drinks. The ‘feeding’ that needs to take place is ‘in thy heart by faith and with thanksgiving.’
The rubrics of the BCP make clear (pp 261–262) that Communion does not involve using special bread and wine, but ordinary bread ‘such as is usual to be eaten’ and wine, used for a special purpose—to remember what God has done for us in Christ, and as an aid to our feeding spiritually on him. (Whatever is left over, ‘the Curate shall have it for his own use’.) It is possible to ‘carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; yet in no wise [be] partakers of Christ’ (Article XXIX).
And this focus on the importance of reception has continued into contemporary C of E liturgy, where the invocation of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharistic Prayers (the ‘Great Prayer of Thanksgiving’) is on the people, as they rightly receive the bread and wine as signs of receiving Christ in their hearts:
‘Send the Holy Spirit on your people…’ (Prayer B)
‘Hear us, merciful Father, we humbly pray, and grant that, by the power of your Holy Spirit, we receiving these gifts of your creation, this bread and this wine, according to your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed body and blood…’ (Prayer C)
‘Send your Spirit on us now that by these gifts we may feed on Christ with opened eyes and hearts on fire…’ (Prayer D)
But what about the ‘cup of blessing which we bless’?
In Paul’s first brief mention of the Lord’s supper, in 1 Cor 10, he uses language which might suggest a ‘blessing’ of the elements involved in the meal.
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10.16, AV, from which of course we get the term ‘Holy Communion’ meaning sacred participation or sharing).
It is interesting that Paul mentions the cup first; I wonder if this is because his argument here is not actually about the meal, but about the issue of participation (through idolatry, which is to be avoided). The action of drinking from a cup has a more natural sense of participating in something as an existing metaphor (‘Can you drink the cup I am about to drink?’ Jesus asks in Matt 20.22, referring to sharing in his suffering.) And he uses the ‘blessing’ language only in relation to the cup; the closely parallel phrase in relation to the bread simply mentions ‘breaking’, suggestion something other than ‘consecrating’ the cup and its contents.
Though the ESV follows the AV in translating the phrase Τὸ ποτήριον τῆς εὐλογίας ὃ εὐλογοῦμεν (using the eulogeo language) as ‘cup of blessing which we bless’, the TNIV takes the view (presumably following the argument above about Jewish context) as referring to the blessing we receive through the cup for which we have blessed God: ‘the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks.’
And when we turn on to the tradition handed to Paul which he in turn hands on, there is no reference to blessing, but only to giving thanks.
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 (ἔλαβεν ἄρτον καὶ εὐχαριστήσας ἔκλασεν)… (1 Cor 11.23–24, an almost exact parallel with Luke 22.19).
In relation to the cup, he gives less detail, simply saying ‘In the same way also he took the cup…’ which we must understand as: he took it, gave thanks to God (the ‘blessing’) and gave it to them.
Anthony Thiselton, in his magisterial NIGTC commentary (pp 750ff) translates 1 Cor 10.16 as ‘The cup of blessing over which we offer a blessing, is it not a communal participation in the blood [metonym for ‘death’] of Christ?’. He comments, the light of the Berakoth prayers mentioned above by France:
In Greek speaking Judaism, therefore, at grace people did not “bless the cup” but blessed God (i.e. with thanksgiving) for what God had provided…The phrase ὃ εὐλογοῦμεν underlines the Godward direction of the blessing. Thus Meyer’s translation approximates ours when he proposes: ‘the cup over which the blessing is spoken’.
After further discussion, he cites the evidence of Justin Martyr’s description of what happens from his Apology 1.65:
There is then brought to the president of the brethren [τῷ προεστῶτι τῶν ἀδελφῶν; compare Phoebe as προστάτις in Rom 16.2] bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
‘The blessing is addressed to God; the cup clearly denotes participation in Christ redemptive act of giving himself for the blessing of others’ (p 761).
There is clearly much more to be debated about the relation of what Jesus did with what we now do, or think we are doing (about 2,000 years’ worth!). But whatever debate we have, it seems to me that that needs to be on the basis of clarity about what Jesus does in each of these New Testament accounts: he takes the bread, and blesses God, giving thanks to him for what he has provided to sustain our lives, before sharing it with others.
I think I would be quite happy doing the same.
Note: in looking at these texts, I am mostly deploying two of the four essential questions needed to read the Bible well: What does the text actually say (Content)? and What is the Context in which it says it? The other two essential questions are to ask the Canonical context, that is, where does it come in Scripture, and what Kind of writing we are reading. You can find an exploration of all these questions in my Grove booklet How to Interpret the Bible.