Drinking blood at a kosher Eucharist?
The sound of scholarly silence.
Michael J. Cahill

The element of drinking blood in the Eucharistic rite is at once a religious and a theological problem. How does one account for the practice, particularly given the alleged institution by a Jew in a Jewish setting? The lack of adequate attention to this specific issue is extraordinary. Those who insist on the historicity of the institution narratives need to be able to offer a reasonable explanation of a glaring incongruity--simplistic dogmatic assertion does not suffice; those who reject the historicity on the grounds of the incongruity have not provided a satisfactory history of this fascinating religious phenomenon. The state of the question is characterized by a deafening silence, or a tip-toeing side-step, the extent of which needs to be established, and this is done here by means of a comprehensive trawling expedition amidst the shoals of scholarly treatment of the Eucharist. The veritable litany of neglect is revealing. Some shifts in current New Testament scholarship are identified as possible avenues where advances can be hoped for in regard to a sensitive issue.


The fact of the Jewish blood prohibition presents a problem for those who insist on the historicity of the New Testament texts that relate the institution of the Eucharist. This fact has not been given sufficient weight in past and present-day discussion. The problem, which is simply not being addressed, represents a challenge to exegetes, theologians, and historians of religion. Modern developments in New Testament studies allow the influence of the religions of the Greco-Roman world to be assessed afresh to find a solution to what is at once a religious and a theological problem. The Fourth Evangelist has Jesus speaking to "the Jews" of drinking his blood. The notion of drinking blood is expressed four times in as many verses (Jn 6:53-56, RSV). The Evangelist has "the Jews" reply, "This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?" Jesus retorts, "Does this offend you?" This incident is bewildering in terms of dramatic verisimilitude if the passage is taken as an account of an incident in the historical life of Jesus. At any period in the history of the Jewish people the notion of Jews drinking blood would be inconceivable even to those with only the barest acquaintance with Jewish dietary requirements and with the Jewish blood taboo. Can one imagine a Jew (such as Jesus) insisting with other Jews that they drink blood and then acting surprised at their reaction? In what circumstances could such a passage have been written? To explain how the element of blood-drinking entered the Eucharistic rite would be to explain how a context for this passage emerged, and to restore narrative sense to this passage in John's Gospel.

The Jewish attitude to the drinking of blood is illustrated in the story of Samuel's strong reaction to the exhausted soldiers eating the meat with the blood in it (1Sam 14:32). His reaction is clear testimony to the seriousness of the law. Ezekiel 39:17-20 presents a vivid image of the horror evoked by the thought of drinking blood. The oracle presents the overthrow of the enemy in the image of a pagan sacrificial feast to which the vultures and wild animals are invited to "eat the flesh of the mighty and drink the blood" (v 18). Closer to New Testament times, the Book of Jubilees contains expansions on the prohibition of drinking blood that reflect the seriousness of the matter (6:7, 12; 7:28). In the Jewish tradition the disposal of blood was carefully ordered. Physical contact with blood was severely restricted. Its use in the treatment of leprosy (Lev 14:14) and in the consecration of priests was connected with its perceived life-giving properties (Lev 8:23-24).

Modern Jewish practice goes to great lengths to remove all blood, even after the animal has been properly slaughtered; then, the carcass must be "porged" to remove all residual blood, and the meat must be either salted or broiled (Klein: 350). I recognize that some might object to my use of the term taboo as being too strong. It can be conceded that it was not a taboo in an absolute sense. The article Blood in the ENCYCLOPAEDIA JUDAICA maintains that we do not have here "a vestige of a primitive taboo but the result of a deliberate reasoned enactment" (4:1115). It continues: "The prohibition of blood is confined to its consumption; it is, however, permitted for other uses, and the Mishnah (Yoma 5:6) states that the sacrificial blood that flowed into the brook of Kidron was collected and sold to gardeners as fertilizer" (4:1116). On the other hand, the meticulous and even scrupulous character of the Niddah legislation gives every impression of dealing with taboo.

The Israelite/Jewish prohibition against blood stands out because in other respects the sacrificial meal as a communion-meal of God and people is a phenomenon found among both Jews and Gentiles. The precise connotation of the shedding of blood has been the subject of debate. W. R. Smith, for example, argued that the basic sacrifice was not a holocaust, and indeed that the sacrificial essence was not to be located in the death of the animal, but rather in the application of the blood that the slaughtering made available (338). Useful studies on the connotation of blood and its shedding can be found in Leon Morris; his views were challenged by Dewar. Dennis J. McCarthy, who studied the subject in the broader context of the "ancient Semitic and Aegean areas," concludes: "As far as we know, the reservation of blood to God because it was life and so divine is specifically Israelite" (176). The Jews differed from their neighbors in the degree of care they took to ensure that the blood was completely devoted to God, while the rest of the meat was theirs, to be eaten. The notion of drinking blood at the Eucharist, therefore, conflicts with an essential distinctive feature of Jewish sacrificial meals.

For convenience, I use the term Eucharist to designate the ritual attributed to Jesus even though I understand that it is anachronistic. I am simply identifying an object that had a trajectory and evolution. Construals of the death of Jesus along the lines of the Paschal Lamb or Yom Kippur do not provide meaningful analogies because neither involved the drinking of blood. That the blood taboo was a prominent issue in the first century of our era is illustrated in the account given by Luke of the Council of Jerusalem. In the formula of the compromise there is no mention of the necessity of circumcision, but the Gentiles have to agree to keep the Jewish dietary rule in regard to kosher meat (Acts 15:20, 29). They must abstain from blood and thus from meat of animals that have not been slaughtered in the Jewish manner. Lake and Cadbury point out that the Jewish objection to blood

was based on Leviticus vii.26, which in Leviticus xvii.10 was specially

extended to cover the "stranger living in Israel": "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. For the life of

the flesh is in the blood" [206].

The early Christian churches were made up of persons of "the house of Israel" and of "strangers." One implication of the conciliar decree deserves to be noted especially. The requirement of avoiding blood was a key element in ensuring the unity of the early Christian communities made up of Jews and Gentiles: it established the conditions that made commensality possible. The blood issue appears to have been more critical than circumcision, in regard to fellowship at meals, pace Bruce Chilton's argument in A FEAST OF MEANINGS (103). It allowed the mixed community to break bread together, to share the Eucharistic meal. It ensured a kosher Eucharist. Can one imagine the drinking of blood at such a meal? Can one imagine Jews being comfortable with what was regarded as a cup of blood on the table?

While there is no extant explicit expression of Jewish reaction in the early centuries to the Christian Eucharistic practice involving blood, yet it is not difficult to imagine what it was. It is likely that an allusion is to be discerned in a work of Justin. Justin accuses Trypho and other Jews of spreading slanders about Christian practices, allegedly involving cannibalism and sexual promiscuity. Trypho denies the charge (Justin, Dialogue: 17, p. 203; 10, p. 199). The admonition "Do not eat blood" is found in the Sybilline Oracles (2:96; Collins). It is, however, found in an extract taken from The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocyclides (cf. 1.31). The editor annotates: "This line is missing in all the important MSS. It is probably a Christian interpolation on the basis of Acts 15:29" (Van der Horst: 575, note d). As regards the date, the editor argues: "[the] cumulative evidence seems to favor a date between about 50 BC and AD 100" (Van der Horst: 567). If it is to be taken as Christian it indicates that the admonition was not understood as applicable to the Eucharist, if indeed the writer knew the rite with a blood component. The same evaluation is to be made of a parallel in the CLEMENTINE HOMILIES, where we read in the exhortation of Peter: "to abstain from the table of devils, not to taste dead flesh, not to touch blood" (7:4). These lines probably witness to the survival of Jewish Christian beliefs but do little more than echo Acts 15:29. That such an observance endured in some circles is reflected in the story of the Martyrs of Lyons: "How could such people devour children when they are not even allowed to drink the blood of brute beasts?" ([section] 5, p. 71). Vermes' observation is an entirely reasonable one:

... the imagery of eating a man's body and drinking his blood ... even

after allowance is made for metaphorical language, strikes a totally

foreign note in Palestinian Jewish cultural setting (cf. John 6.51). With

their profoundly rooted blood taboo, Jesus' listeners would have been

overcome with nausea at hearing such words [Vermes: 16].

The Approach of the History of Religions

Consideration of narrative realism leads to a consideration of the historical development that took place to permit such narratives to be composed. How did the element of blood-drinking ever get into Eucharistic practice? Could it possibly have been initiated by Jesus the Jew or by the first disciples, who were Jews? The History of Religions practitioners in New Testament studies suggested a solution years ago by pointing to similar usage among the mystery religions. Bultmann's proposals, for example, about the format and content of the Eucharist being influenced by Hellenic religious cult meals were formulated in an attempt to explain the texts as they are (144-52). To dismiss his answer is not to settle the question. The accurate description, analysis, and diagnosis of his treatment contrast mightily with the alternative answers that have been and are proposed. David Wenham, for example, writes: "We do believe that the extreme skepticism of some scholars (notably in the Bultmann school) has rightly been rejected by many recent scholars" (21). I would insist, however, that the real and concrete nature of the questions raised by such as Bultmann contrasts sharply with the extremely hypothetical and tentative nature of the offerings of "many recent scholars" (cf. Cahill: 1992; 1998)

Frequently, rebuttal of such as Bultmann consists in establishing that the phenomenon in question can be satisfactorily explained from within the resources of Judaism David Wenham, for example, comments in regard to Paul's idea of Baptism: "Some have suggested that Paul was influenced by the Greek mystery religions in his concept of dying and rising with Christ. But this hypothesis is unnecessary and unlikely: Baptism is a very Jewish phenomenon" (155). The phenomenon of blood-drinking, however, is one that simply cannot be similarly addressed from within Judaism.

Charles Guignebert provides a handy summary of the History of Religions viewpoint A synthesis such as Guigenebert's is derived from and representative of the classic treatments of the subject:

In several of these Mysteries of salvation, particularly the Mysteries of

Attis, the symbolism of blood played a very important part. It was an

extremely common belief in the ancient world that by drinking the blood,

or, later on, by immersion in or sprinkling with the blood, it was possible

to absorb the qualities of the god whose blood was so used.... It is the

symbolic significance of the blood which pervades the whole of the Pauline

eucharistic system, giving it its wealth of doctrinal meaning, and throwing

the significance of the bread into the shade.... We may say that it is

inevitable that he should, in all good faith, attribute to Jesus the

institution and the meaning of the eucharist; but he was unconsciously

influenced in this, as in his whole conception of Christ, by the ideas

current in his environment concerning salvation and the means of obtaining

it [446-47].

Such views have been perpetuated in authoritative sources, such as TDNT (Behm: 176).

Today, of course, one could dispute the attribution to "Paulinism" of the usage of drinking blood. This raises the same problem as in the case of Jesus. That any cradle Jew could conceive of, or invent such a practice is difficult to understand. Loisy's blunt assertion is eloquent: "Let it be said in passing that this idea of communion with God by drinking the blood of a sacrificed victim was never born in the brain of a Jew" (247). That any Jew could come to accept the practice is of course almost equally problematic. The account in 1 Corinthians of Paul's handing on of the institution of the Eucharist has met with a variety of critical responses Loisy, for example, refused to accept the authenticity of the institution report in 1 Corinthians 11:23-33, regarding it as an interpolation, as an element in a process of transformation. "The account of the mystic Supper, in First Corinthians, belongs to the evolution of the Christian Mystery at a stage in the development of that mystery earlier than Justin, earlier even than the canonical edition of the first three Gospels but notably later than Paul and the apostolic age" (245). Others, such as Guignebert, assert that Paul accepted the church's tradition as of the Lord (443, 447). It is interesting to find the following concession by David Wenham, who consistently articulates the conservative point of view in this area: "... when it comes to the idea of participation in the death of Jesus, Paul does go well beyond the hints in the Jesus-tradition, though those hints are there (e.g., the `take up your cross' saying)" (155; cf. 185-86, 185, n. 57; cf. "the almost mystical language" [190]). Guignebert draws attention to the fact that Paul could, quite comfortably, associate the Eucharistic meal with "the table of demons" (1Cor 10:20-21) for the purpose of Christian instruction (442). Guignebert notes that this close association or paralleling of Eucharist and cult-meal is also found in Justin's First Apology (446, n. 5; cf. Justin, First Apology, [section] 66, p. 185). Interestingly, nowhere does Guignebert discuss the problem of the Jewish blood taboo. In this regard it is intriguing to find Justin accusing the Mithraists of imitating Christian ritual in their use of bread and water (ibid.).

Hans Lietzman'n in MASS AND LORD'S SUPPER presents the case for "a Hellenistic-Oriental cult-mysticism" being influential in the development of the Eucharist from its simple beginnings as a Jewish fraternal meal with the sharing of bread being the essential element (185, 200). Yet I find it noteworthy that, in his wide ranging study, he never considers the particular problem of the blood taboo. Likewise, I find no attention given to this issue in the well-known study of Richard Reitzenstein, HELLENIC MYSTERY-RELIGIONS: THEIR BASIC IDEAS AND SIGNIFICANCE. In the context of seeking mystical parallels to Paul's eucharistic teaching, he draws attention to a magical text from about the time of Paul, "in which Osiris gives to Isis and to Horus his blood to drink in a cup of wine, so that after his death they will not forget him" (77-78). I find it extraordinary that the inhibiting factor of the blood taboo for Jewish Christians such as Paul does not merit any comment.

The History of Religions School was not a monolith, and the views of Rudolf Otto exemplify a nuance. He considers the origins of the Lord's Supper in Book Three of THE KINGDOM OF GOD AND THE SON OF MAN. Book Three is entitled "Christ's Last Supper as the Consecration of the Disciples for Entrance into the Kingdom of God." He argues for a simple original rite going back to Jesus as distinct from "such as the fantasy of the disciples subsequently fabricated" (330). His view is that the Last Supper belongs to the category "of the religious festive meal, a `cheber' or a `chaburah' with sacramental character and with ritualistic peculiarities" (278). He views the taking of the cup by Christ as involving a simple blessing or consecration with no reference to covenant blood (286-87). What I find fascinating is the way he accounts for this: "After the wine had been explained as the covenant blood, Jesus could not possibly have gone on to speak of it as a mere festive drink at the future meal" (287). The utterly more fundamental problem of the blood taboo is simply ignored. In an earlier essay, first printed in 1917, The Lord's Supper as a Numinous Fact, he had already argued for the "Qiddush" type Jewish meal as the source of the original Eucharistic rite, and here he explicitly rejected the "theory which has been advanced that the account of the Last Supper is an `aetiological myth' for a rite which originated in Hellenic mystery cults" (46). It is important to note, however, that here he is rejecting the suggestion that Jesus himself saw the rite in relation to the cults. Otto writes: "And in spite of all `religio-historical parallels,' it is almost inconceivable psychologically that such far-fetched ideas should have suggested themselves to Jesus at that moment" (48). Certainly, no one today holds the opinion that Otto rejects. What is argued now is that such cults influenced the evolution of the rite after Jesus. Otto concedes that such influence is possible: "It may be true, as has been so often asserted, that St. Paul's conception of the Supper was already coloured by Hellenistic influence" (50).

The crude nature of these rites has not disposed many to accepting them as necessarily helpful in the search for an explanation of the Eucharistic development. Those who have rejected such influences have been unfair in their characterizations, in an attempt, apparently, to demonstrate that such borrowing or influence would have been unseemly. Jeremias, for example, writes:

The words "this is my blood" were susceptible to the misunderstanding that

they spoke of the drinking of blood, which particularly for born Jews, was

a dark animistic abomination. It is a likely assumption that the strangely

complicated formulation of the word over the wine in Paul/Luke ("this cup

is the new covenant") was occasioned by the intention of warding off the

misunderstanding that the Lord's Supper was a Thyestian meal where blood

was drunk [170].

This allusion is a straw man. The story of the unfortunate Thyestes, the unwitting cannibal, was as horrifying to the ancients as it is to us. Jeremias' characterization would have been unintelligible to members of a mystery cult participating willingly and knowingly in a sacred meal where the blood of a god was drunk in mystic awe. In any case, Jeremiah's understanding of the Eucharist has the disciples simply drinking wine ("and drink the wine over which he spoke the word referring to his outpoured blood"--261), and does not address the forceful assertion of John 6:52-58.

Developments and Opportunities Today

There have been some significant shifts and developments in New Testament Studies, which bear particularly on the present problem and invite us to look again at the religions of the Greco-Roman world as a likely influence on Eucharistic practice. In the field of confessional theology there have been developments that allow greater receptivity to new ideas. For example, even among theologians of more conservative confessional hue, what has been termed "differentiation" is now accepted in regard to the sources of developed Eucharistic ritual.

There are signs of biblical scholars returning to review material originally tabled by the pioneers of the History of Religions' "Golden Age." In a recent survey article, Hans G. Kippenberg welcomes the fresh interest among biblical scholars of "a religio-historical perspective" (90). Religion "in this perspective," he remarks, "is competence of interpretation, not a faith in doctrines" (94). Much of the current resurgence is found in the guise of "sociological criticism," a discipline that has made itself felt.

It is difficult for us today to give due weight to taboo factors. It is easy for us to regard such things as the blood-prohibition along the lines of a dietary fad or a piece of legislation such as Roman Catholics not being allowed to eat meat on Fridays in days gone by. Something much deeper is involved. Huston Smith reminds us of the fundamental importance of the realm of the sacred in ancient times. He quotes Mircea Eliade to good effect: "The man of the archaic societies tends to live as much as possible in the sacred because for primitives ... the sacred is equivalent to a power, and in the last analysis, to reality" (Smith: 3). Such awareness underpins Jerome Neyrey's treatment of "Purity and Order in Israel" in his analysis of "the maps which first century Jews made to give shape and clarity to their daily world" (278). In his study, A FEAST OF MEANINGS: EUCHARISTIC THEOLOGIES FROM JESUS THROUGH JOHANNINE CIRCLES, Bruce Chilton pays much attention to the topics of purity and blood. His thesis is based on the systemic centrality of the notion of purity in the Jewish-Christian tradition, and he tracks the various meanings of the Eucharist in relation to various grids of purity. Equally representative of the modern awareness of purity and taboo is Marcus Borg's demonstration of the importance of "the notion of the social world" for the study of the historical Jesus. He stresses the fundamental role of the "polarity of pure and impure" in the first-century Jewish world. He writes: "Disagreements about purity were potentially world-shattering and world-transforming" (11; cf. 108-11). Such recent studies have demonstrated the centrality of this category in the world of the New Testament writings, a world that involves Jewish and pagan arenas. What still needs to be explained is how the abolition or transcending of a blood taboo came to pass in such a world.

It has become clear, and it is now generally accepted, that the evolution of the Eucharist was a "complex and differentiated situation" (Klauck 1992: 367). See, for example, Jean-Marie van Cangh, O.P., who writes, "Il est clair, en effet que dans une communaute d'origine juive l'identification du vin avec le sang devait representer un obstacle important" (216). "Si l'on propose raisonnablement un milieu d'origine juif hellenistique ou marne pagano-chretien pour l'identification du vin avec le sang de Jesus ..." (217). John Michael Perry furnishes a popular presentation of the modern understanding of the evolution of the Eucharist in stages. Because he aims at a more general (and Roman Catholic) audience his study is an indication of the extent to which such thinking has become more acceptable. He is inclined to argue for the "probable genuineness of the words of institution" (30). Hans-Josef Klauck calls attention to the "sociocultural context in which the development of the Christian Lord's Supper took place"; yet he makes no mention of the blood problem (369). He proposes the relevance of the Wisdom meal (cf. Proverbs 9:1-6) for understanding the Eucharist (370), but the fact is that no Wisdom text envisages the drinking of blood.

The variety of first-century Jewish cult meals is better known today. The evidence of the Qumran scrolls led to a reappraisal of Philo's account of the sacred meals of the Therapeutae. Unfortunately the items of knowledge are more tantalizing than determinative. Karl Georg Kuhn's analysis, for example, demonstrates at least the presence of elements of diversity in the matter of the cult meal, though how these elements can be related to the development of the Eucharist is not clear (65-93). Likewise, the helpful summary provided by the editor C. Burchard of the range of meals that the text of "Joseph and Aseneth" (8:5-7) has been related to, illustrates both the lack of firm evidence in this area and, paradoxically, the variety of possible analogous practices (211-12, n. i) Recently, a proposal reminiscent of Otto's view has been made by J. C. O'Neill, based on new material such as "Joseph and Aseneth" and some Qumran texts. But as Burchard's note indicates, the significance of the references to eating and drinking in the text of "Joseph and Aseneth" (8:5) is highly controversial.

John Dominic Crossan's proposal involves denying that the "Supper and Eucharist" derive from the historical Jesus. Stressing the "liturgical creativity of the early communities, he suggests that there were five major preliminary stages, with John 6:51-58 as a sixth stage (360-67). This is a good example of the modern acceptance of differentiation, though it is curious that Crossan speaks only of the influence of "the Greco-Roman formal meal." One wonders if this is sufficiently religious to offer a helpful analogy. Crossan never mentions the mystery religions; neither does he address the problem of the blood taboo. The title of Bruce Chilton's study is thoroughly representative of the modern tendency to see differentiation of sources: A FEAST OF MEANINGS: EUCHARISTIC THEOLOGIES FROM JESUS THROUGH JOHANNINE CIRCLES. He posits six stages of development in that "the six types of practice interacted sequentially to produce the texts that we can read today" (146). In his first chapter, entitled "The Systemic Importance of Purity within Early Judaism," he emphasizes the central place of meals in this system. In Chapter Five he considers the place of blood in the Eucharist, but not in depth, surprisingly, given the crucial role of blood as purity marker. Correctly, I believe, Chilton sees the Johannine presentation as the flowering of the Hellenistic development of the Eucharist. As Chilton puts it:

There was no possibility of preventing at least some Christians who

followed the eucharistic practice of Paul and the Synoptics from conceiving

of Jesus himself as consumed in the bread and wine. Jesus' last supper was

naturally compared to initiation into Mystery within Hellenistic

Christianity [141].

Yet, curiously, he appears to view this comparing as a mistake. He writes:

The early form of the Petrine tradition (which was closely related to

Jesus' practice) simply had it that the wine was blood, a surrogate of

covenantal sacrifice. In the Hellenistic environment of Antioch, such a

meaning could easily be confused with the notion of drinking a deity's

blood in one of the Mysteries [115-16].

Furthermore, Chilton's suggestion in regard to the influence of "Mysteries" in the evolution of understanding of Jesus' last supper is linked with a gratuitous and misleading mention of Dionysus: "Jesus' last supper was naturally compared to initiation into Mystery within Hellenistic Christianity. He was a new Dionysus, historical rather than mythical, who gave himself, flesh and blood, in the meals which were held in his name" (141). Could the development that Chilton posits as taking place under Hellenistic influence have occurred without the influence of the "Mysteries"? If not, how does one explain the development?

The historical question needs further determination. For example, how early does this development begin? Are we justified in seeing this development as early as the date of 1 Corinthians? If so, how can we explain the extent of the hellenization of the author and of his readers? Loisy's opinion has met with little acceptance. A recent commentator, Otfried Hofius, argues for the authenticity of the passage, writing: "A convincing proof that the Apostle has himself encroached on the wording of the tradition delivered to him has not thus far been adduced" (76). His analysis, however, is limited to the level of text, of literary seams, and he ignores the substantive issue of incongruity of content. Hyam Maccoby is nothing if not definite in his answers. He proposes that "Paul, not Jesus, was the originator of the eucharist, and that the eucharist itself is not a Jewish, but an essentially Hellenistic rite, showing principal affinities not with the Jewish qiddush, but with the ritual meal of the mystery religions." But the strength of his detailed argument will inevitably be weakened by his more general controversial position on the career of Paul, and more particularly by assertions lacking in nuance such as the following:

The historical conclusion to which this argument leads is that Jesus did

not institute the eucharist, the fundamental concepts of which were alien

to him as a Jew. The creator of the eucharist was Paul, whose immediate

source was a vision in which Jesus gave him eucharistic information about

the Last Supper [115].

Perhaps the hellenization of some Jews of the Diaspora was profound enough to allow someone like Paul to overcome the traditional awe. The basic question of comprehending Hellenistic Judaism is at present, of course, a work in progress. Equally problematic is the attempt to locate Paul on the spectrum. John M. G. Barclay's survey is most helpful in illustrating the very complexity of the task of categorizing Paul, and he rightly stresses the anomalous nature of Paul. If Paul's status were to be determined on the single issue of the drinking of blood, it would have to be conceded that Paul simply moves off the scale in terms of Barclay's useful categories of assimilation, acculturation, and accommodation. But the question of blood is not considered by Barclay. A. N. Wilson, whose work synthesizes scholarly trends, distinguishes between the Jewishness of Jesus and Paul: "... the idea that a pious Jew such as Jesus would have spent his last evening on earth asking his disciples to drink a cup of blood, even symbolically, is unthinkable" (165). He sees no problem, however, in proposing "the genius of Paul," "Paul's fertile brain," as the source of the Christian Eucharist incorporating the blood-drinking element (165).

The Baffling Silence

It is baffling to the present writer to find a certain air of unreality in regard to the issue of blood-drinking evidenced in the writings of scholars, past and present, whose understanding of the Eucharist is widely different in other respects. Some accept easily that a Jewish Jesus could have spoken about drinking blood to his Jewish disciples at a farewell supper, while other ignore this key problem and focus on relatively minor issues. David Wenham, in replying to Vermes, writes as follows:

But Jesus typically, uses vivid, almost shocking metaphors (e.g., Matt

18:8, 9/Mark 9:43-48). Furthermore, that the shocking eucharistic words

came to be accepted by Jewish Christians (including Matthew) may suggest

that they were not quite as unacceptable as Vermes supposes or that they

had a strong claim to authenticity, since they would not easily have been

accepted if they were not in the Jewish Christian tradition [156, n. 39].

Wenham downplays the problem and leaves unexplained how such acceptance came about. This applies a fortiori to those who would see more than a "shocking metaphor" in the words of Jesus in the institution narrative. Those who insist on historicity must recognize that this Jesus not only must be credited with an extraordinary original vision, but has to be seen as someone who is deliberately eschewing a very important Jewish prescription and deliberately attempting to shock and not just through metaphors.

That Jesus in his words and actions was given to counter-cultural or reversal prophetic positions seems to be a fact. John Meier insists on Jesus' propensity to use "shocking symbols," in reference to the words of the institution narrative (2001: 64) and in his "deliberate flouting of certain social conventions" (2001: 90, n. 2). He gives particular attention to "a subversive aphorism of Jesus," referring to "Let the dead bury their dead" (2001: 50, 93, n. 29). But in the case of drinking blood we are dealing with a case apart, one involving such radical discontinuity with Judaism that it does not fit with the rest of the story of the Jew from Nazareth. It is instructive that despite his directive, the disciples took care to bury their dead master, while the directive of the eucharistic words appears to have been implemented, at least on the level of narrative. John Meier, in a summary though wide-ranging survey of the debate over the history of the institution narratives, never faces up to the crucial issue of the blood-drinking. For example he proposes that the blessing Jesus invokes over the cup is unique in that it is accompanied by an injunction that all drink and share from a single cup--his cup (1995: 349). This may be of interest, but the equally unique and more problematic element in the narrative is the injunction to drink blood, and this is simply ignored.

In a contribution to a Festschrift whose title (NOURRITURE ET REPAS) would seem to promise much in the present enquiry, Jean Delorme acknowledges the importance of avoiding a "realisme insoutenable" in the interpretation of the institution narrative because of "la revulsion juive" in regard to the blood (118 & n. 2). Delorme's solution, however, is to suggest that Jesus instituted a new ritual meal as a "hinge" event situated between the Last Supper meal and the heavenly banquet; Jesus does not participate himself in this meal, and this distancing allows him to speak of his body and blood as food. This would seem to be a too Cartesian conceptualization of what, after all, was a real meal at one sitting. One finds a similarly over-refined analysis in the study of Nodet and Taylor, who seek to locate the origins on the rites of baptism and Eucharist among the Essenes; the bluntly assert: "The words over the bread and wine, which Jesus identifies with his body and blood, are parallel and pronounced in both cases with a delay, after the distribution, when the body has already been eaten and the blood drunk" (117). They note Jean-Marie van Cangh's view that the mention of blood is "inconceivable in a Jewish milieu" and rebut it as follows: "... it appears strange the scandalous word on the blood should not be of Jewish origin, since it recalls the Covenant at Sinai" (116, n. 142). They do not give due weight to the element of drinking blood, something that is not found in the account of the covenant at Sinai. Neither is it evident how such a scenario can be envisaged in an Essene setting.

The use of the qualifying "simply" in the following statement from Leon-Dufour betrays a similar lack of awareness of the due weight to be given to the blood-drinking component of the rite: "The disciples are not being invited to use the cup in order to sprinkle themselves with the blood of Jesus; they are being invited simply to drink it" (143). Leon-Dufour seems to suggest that we should be able to imagine one option as more likely and reasonable, when in fact both are fantastic suggestions even if one has a biblical precedent! It is not that Leon-Dufour is unaware of the problem. He counters the argument of those who insist on the historicity of the words of institution for the reason that the invitation to drink was "so shocking to Jewish religious sensibilities" that the disciples could not have invented it (171). He writes: "I find the argument puzzling, even if the invitation to drink be historical" (171). But in the ensuing argument he invokes a subtle distinction that is closely related to the unrealistic perspective that we have pointed to; he proposes that the Antiochene formulation in referring to the cup rather than to its contents, avoids being offensive The distinction proposed by Leon-Dufour ignores the power and function of symbolism and unavoidable emotional associations

We have here an obvious metonymy. So, sensibly, Otfried Hofius writes: "The subject of the word on the cup ... stands by metonymy, for the content, i.e., for the wine in the cup (vessel-content metonymy?)" (97). It is puzzling to find Chilton, though acknowledging the metonymy (115), stating that the Antiochene wording makes the cup the point of comparison, thus eliminating any confusion with "the notion of drinking a deity's blood in one of the Mysteries" (116). In their very useful survey of opinions, Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz write:

The Pauline saying over the cup is often understood as a secondary

simplification of the Markan version. Drinking blood was offensive to any

Jew. Such offence is not caused by the Pauline version: "This cup is the

new covenant in my blood." ... The notion of drinking blood is quite

remote" [421].

This view ignores the fact that the cup is not the focus of attention but its contents; one takes a cup to drink from it. Willi Marxsen also posits a distinction: "With Mark ... it is not the cup, but the contents of the cup which is meant. ... In Paul, then, we have a cup-covenant-(blood) word, while in Mark, on the other hand, it is a contents-of-the-cup-(covenant) word" (94). The absurdity of forcing such a distinction becomes evident in his construal of 1 Corinthians 11:16: "Verse 16 says simply: `The cup of blessing which we bless [observe that it does not say, `whose contents we drink'] ..." (98). Is Marxsen suggesting that it is the physical material of the cup that is being blessed? J.-M. van Cangh quotes W. D. Davies in support of his view that "[l]a formule paraphrastique de Lc 22,20 et 1 Co 11,25 ... etait plus facile a tolerer par les judeo-chretiens" (216). Davies' point, however, was that the "Pauline formulation" has more to do with this rabbi's "delicate sensibilities" than with a Jewish-Christian tolerance; it is important to note that Davies insists that "the essential meaning remains the same while it is the formulation that differs" (250).

A recent study by Andrew McGowan is entitled ASCETIC EUCHARISTS: FOOD AND DRINK IN EARLY CHRISTIAN RITUAL MEALS. McGowan's analysis and hypotheses address the subsequent history (post first century) of the Eucharist and, strictly speaking, do not operate within our present problematic. Yet insofar as the work is concerned with a trajectory whose origins are in the first century, such a work would seem to have much to offer in the present context. Here again, however, we find an amazing by-passing of the blood problem. McGowan argues for a bread and water Eucharistic ritual, thus eliminating the wine/blood problematic element In fact, he suggests that this usage may have had Jewish roots precisely to ensure "a kosher meal" (257). He writes:

It is arguable that under certain circumstances, Jews might have adopted

forms of diet more ascetic than otherwise required, specially in terms of

removal of meat and wine, in order to keep kosher under circumstances where

the provision of appropriate food was problematic.... Jews living in

Gentile cities could perhaps have resorted to bread, water, and other

vegetable foods as a diet less difficult to maintain in purity than one

involving meat and wine, both not only tainted by association with

sacrifice but prepared in ways not in keeping with the dietary laws


A Way Forward

The problem of the blood-taboo--or rather, the issue of the overcoming or transcending of the blood-taboo--deserves more attention and debate It is a key problem; if this can be solved, then much of the problem of the origins and growth of the Christian Eucharist will be resolved Giving due weight to the blood problem forces us to take more seriously the claims of the non-Jewish religions as a source in the evolution of the Eucharist. Hans-Josef Klauck's suggestive analysis of the Eucharist in terms of the genre of "cultic aetiology" would have more persuasive force had he linked it with the blood issue; curiously he omits any mention of this (1993: 63-64). The present-day investigation will be very different from that of our predecessors simply because the state of the question has changed. Advances in the study of the religions have made reassessment possible. Klauck provides a critique of the "research of an earlier generation, the circle of the History-of-Religions School" and suggests how the agenda has been adjusted and broadened (1993:57-59). The reconstructions proposed by earlier scholars have been questioned and modified Wedderborn exaggerates: "advances have fatally undermined ... the religio-historical foundation upon which the religionsgeschichtliche Schule built up its reconstruction" (6). Later in the same work, his conclusions are more restrained (162-63; 393-94).

Previous proposals in regard to the blood problem were intertwined with other controversial positions on related topics that have been resolved or modified. For example, the very fact of the differentiated origins of the Eucharist is now widely accepted, as I have noted. This allows for a more single -minded tackling of the question of the blood. It is an excellent thread to pull on as we attempt to unravel the problem of the origins of the Eucharist. I have surveyed representative literature of past and present to demonstrate that not enough weight has been given to the problem of the blood taboo. It is remarkable that Bultmann does not address the precise issue of the blood taboo in his analysis of the development of the sacrament of the Eucharist in his THEOLOGY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT. Similarly, the implications of the blood taboo are not addressed by Conzelmann in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, though he provides parallels to the mystery cults in regard to some other elements of the eucharistic rite.

I submit that the issue has not been adequately grasped in all its problematic force. After all, one could reasonably argue that the moment when Christians in their Eucharist saw themselves as drinking the blood of Jesus was the moment when the decisive break with Judaism took place. Like it or not, to give full weight to the significance of the Jewish blood taboo is to turn to somewhere else besides Judaism for a solution. The influence of other religions would appear to be an obvious way to account for the eventual appearance of the blood-drinking in the Christian Eucharist. Attention to such influence marks a reappropriation of the fullness of the socio-cultural reality of the world of the eastern Mediterranean as the matrix of Christian religion.

The total source-history of the Eucharistic ritual is a complex, syncretistic one, the product of a combination and coincidence of factors of time, place, symbols, religious needs, and ritual, particularly ritual involving meals at which wine was drunk for blood. Some of these components may well go back to Jesus, but not the directive to drink his blood. The challenge is to determine what caused the elements to jell--what precise set of circumstances allowed the injunction of blood-drinking to be acceptable and even desirable. The answer is most likely to be sought in a setting where the following factors were operative:

* a location in the Hellenistic gentile world;

* a setting in the area of religious ritual;

* the symbolism of wine as blood;

* a religious meal understood as a communion with the divine;

* a community of gentile Christians who already held meals in memory of Jesus, in a ritual that can be traced back to Jesus himself.

What follows is intended only to sketch out inviting possibilities with the help of some illustrations. That certain religious meals took place with the sense of being in the presence of a deity in this culture is an established fact. The racy story recounted by Josephus of the seduction of the virtuous Roman matron who thought she was supping and enjoying sexual intimacy with the god Anubis in the temple of Isis is an illustration that is noteworthy because Josephus dates it explicitly to the period of Pilate and of Jesus; actually, it is found in the same chapter as the much disputed mention of Jesus (Antiquities 18.3.4).

Libations are especially interesting. The practice of the libation (usually of wine) at meals is to be distinguished from libations at grave sites. All libations denote a sacrifice to the deity, but the one in the meal-context denotes a sharing with the god as all partake of the same drinking of wine. In the Christian tradition we have the added elements of a growing understanding of Jesus as a god who had shed his blood for his followers. James G. Frazer regards the linkage of the elements of wine. blood, deity, and desire for communion in universal terms as he writes:

The soul or life is in the blood, and wine is the blood of the vine. Hence

whoever drinks the blood of an animal is inspired with the soul of the

animal or of the god, who, as we have seen, is often supposed to enter into

the animal before it is slain; and whoever drinks wine drinks the blood,

and so receives into himself the soul or spirit, of the god of the vine


While the association of blood and wine is common in both Jewish and pagan cultures, the step to associating drinking wine and drinking blood is an entirely different matter. Within the Jewish Scriptures, the image of wine as the blood of the grape is found, but Jews would have seen drinking wine as drinking blood only as a poetical fancy--they were well aware that wine was not really blood. It is conceivable that Jesus could have spoken metaphorically of his blood as wine, but this does not extend to the injunction to take and drink. Judaism and paganism both practiced the pouring of sacrificial libations of both blood and wine. The understanding of the blood of Jesus as sacrificial blood is entirely intelligible in Jewish terms, but the drinking of it can be accounted for only by the influence of religious rites in which the drinking of "divine blood" was done. Walter Burkert links the practice with the close association of blood and wine:

The association of wine and blood, especially around the Mediterranean

where red wine predominates, is natural and is attested outside of Greece,

in the Semitic realm.... The Greeks tended to equate Dionysus and wine

already in Classical times. Consequently, the drinker of the wine would be

drinking the god himself ... [224-25]

Other references to similar practices, including that of wine being substituted for sacrificial blood, are cited by Arthur Darby Nock (74, n. 1).

That a high degree of syncretism was a feature of the first centuries of our era has been more than adequately illustrated by the labors of Edwin R. Goodenough. In his classic study of Jewish interaction with the Greco-Roman world, chapter 4 of volume 5 is of particular value as it treats of the religious symbolism of wine. The essays of Arthur Darby Nock in EARLY GENTILE CHRISTIANITY AND ITS HELLENISTIC BACKGROUND can be described only as tantalizing; we are provided with a host of possible contacts and influences of pagan religion on early Christian development, but ultimately any meaningful influence is deemed inadmissable on the principle that analogy is not genealogy. Yet it needs to be stressed that in the present enquiry there is no question of Jewish genealogy; so we are left with the only alternative.

There was a massive amount of mutual influence and borrowing among religions at this time, and the Eucharistic rite can hardly be posited as an immune exception. In some Christian scholarly circles there is an evident fear (if not horror) evinced at the very mention of comparative religious analysis in New Testament studies. Yet, the theologian must be prepared to address and solve the problem of blood at a kosher Eucharist, and the historian of religion must attempt to provide an answer. This is an area that concerns both disciplines. At least we can say that the history of religions argument has not been made so compellingly as to convince many theologians. The pressure of religious inculturation must be recognized. Was it not legitimate for the early Christians to inculturate their beliefs and so contribute to the development of Eucharistic ritual?

Andrew Brian McGowan is correct, I believe, in his assertion that "conservative" and "radical" opinion share the assumption that the institution narratives are liturgical in character (Is there a liturgical text?--73). He disputes this assumption and argues that the narratives functioned as "interpretive etiologies of a catechetical nature" (86); he sees the narratives as having this function "in (and prior to) the canonical NT" (74). McGowan suggests that his proposed characterization of the institution narratives is neutral in relation to historicity, and capable of "being integrated into the conservative or radical accounts" (86). In my view, however, the perspective he offers is far from neutral and actually fits in well only with the "radical" view, identifying as it does one factor in the process of inculturation referred to. Catechesis will obviously proceed more prevalently in terms of what is known and familiar.

Dieter Giorgi's attempts to identify points of contact between Jewish meals and mystery are to be noted:

Any doubts about the existence of a fairly massive syncretism in the

synagogues should have been dispelled at the very latest with the work of

Goodenough. In my opinion it is also beyond doubt that this syncretism

betrays the closeness of the Jewish synagogues to the Hellenistic mysteries

and to the philosophical schools which had come to behave more and more in

accordance with the mysteries [115].

What I find of merit here is that Giorgi attempts to identify the bridge that linked the different cultures. Some such contact is a prerequisite for any possible influence of the mystery meals on Eucharist development within Hellenistic-Jewish-Christian circles. It is likewise possible that Christians of Gentile background with personal experience of the mysteries provided the link when the joined such circles. Similar influence could equally have been exercised in totally Gentile-Christian churches. There is more involved than blood at a kosher Eucharist in the sense that the drinking of blood by non-Jews is itself an issue that needs to be accounted for, but this is a good place to start.

It is instructive to recall the context in which the drinking of blood was acceptable. First-century folk who participated in mystery cult rituals were no more tolerant of cannibalism than we are. There is no evidence that, in itself, drinking of blood was not revolting for them, generally speaking. Yet, we find it in religious ritual. The reason is that they were drinking the blood of an animal that had been numinized in some way and had come to be identified with the god. Drinking the blood of a god was acceptable. It would seem, then, that the divinization of Jesus is to be studied in tandem with the emergence of the blood drinking component of the Eucharist. Both notions, divinization and blood drinking, are more readily intelligible in a Gentile setting. P. M. Casey, in his study of the emergence of belief in Jesus' divinity, refers to the "natural antipathy to drinking blood" as underlying some of the differences in eucharistic formulae, but his explanation does not explicitly refer to the specifically Jewish blood taboo (111). In regard to the divinization issue, I am appreciative of Margaret Barker's attempt to root this in a Jewish Palestinian setting, but it seems to me that the Hellenistic world was more open to such a development. In any case, it is not necessary to see this as "relatively late" (xiii); Christianity moved very quickly into a gentile world.

The very nature of the mysteries (i.e., secret) frustrates us; even in regard to what might be termed mainstream public Greco-Roman rites, very often the obvious is not stated, and we lack positive data. Goodenough provides a citation from Sallust, the Roman historian who died in 34 BCE, that incorporates some of the elements listed above. The central element is a drink termed "assaratum," which Festus, a late second century (CE) grammarian, explained as a mixture of wine and human blood. Sallust, who does not use the term, makes a clear reference to it when, in giving an account of the Catiline conspiracy, he describes how there was passed around a drink comprising wine mixed with human blood ("humani corporis sanguinem vino permixtum"), a ceremony commonly performed, he says, in solemn religious rites ("sicuti in sollemnibus sacris fieri consuevit"--Sallust, Bellum Catilinae, [section] 22; Goodenough, vol. 6, 145). The skepticism of Sallust, it might be noted, extends to the actuality of the conspirators' usage, and not to the practice in general. The existence of a technical term for the potion is also significant. Goodenough suggests that this is linked with the custom found among blood-brotherhoods. He further suggests that our custom of toasting involving a ritualistic touching of glasses is possibly to be traced back to this. We have here an assembly in the form of a solemn meal where blood and wine are consumed with a serious purpose as distinct from an idle drinking-party. Furthermore, we are informed that the ritual in this case was borrowed from a common practice in religious rites. As we have noted, the association of red wine and blood was common in both the Jewish and the Gentile cultures. That Jesus could have mentioned his blood as symbolized by wine is entirely possible, but the drinking of the wine as his blood is possible only in a Hellenistic Christian community that took the Eucharistic rite a step further under the influence of the surrounding religious customs.


Apart from John 6, there is little evidence in the New Testament of a sense of discomfiture in regard to the drinking of blood, and this is the very puzzle! Johannes Betz suggests that Hebrews 10:29 reflects a sense of the problem arising from the Jewish reverence for blood; he uses the term "furchtbaren" (156). I note that Bossuet wrote that Hebrews 10:29 "refers directly to the element of the eucharist" (305, n. 231). Yet he does not refer to the blood taboo in this work; he appears simply to take it for granted that we are dealing with a Hellenistic phenomenon. The author of the Fourth Gospel addressed the problematic issue in narrative form. But does the narrative work in terms of solving the problem? I do not believe it does, and I do not believe that there was ever any attempt to solve the problem; the author, or final editor, knew that the problem was insoluble. What we do have is a repeated emphasis on a ritual that would never be tolerated by Jews; one must not forget that, in the narrative, Jesus is addressing "the Jews." Some commentators suggest that he really does not mean this literally; Schnackenburg, for example, sees "the Jews" as a code for "heretical group within the Church." He writes: "Probably the evangelist is attacking a gnostic or docetic group within his community which rejected the reception of the Eucharist" (61). But the narrative makes perfect sense in the context of an awareness that Jews are not going to accept the drinking of anyone's blood. Raymond E. Brown, who like Schnackenburg and many others recognizes the peculiar character of John 6:52-58, suggests that "it is made up of material from the Johannine narrative of the institution of the Eucharist which was originally located in the Last Supper scene" (287). He further suggests that the gospel narrative reflects "a dispute of the evangelist's own time, for the Jewish apologists against Christianity attacked the Eucharist" (292). While Brown would argue that this suggestion helps to account for the absence of a Eucharistic institution narrative in John, he sees this in terms of a displacement. An alternative interpretation would be to see the absence of an institution narrative as logically consistent with the presence of the polemic passage of John 6:52-58. The Jesus who emphatically insists that Jews drink his blood could scarcely be presented initiating a rite that required his Jewish disciples to do so without a like reaction! On the level of narrative good sense, the passage must be understood as reflecting a development of the Eucharistic rite in non-Jewish Hellenistic circles where the drinking of blood could be explicable. Chilton, reading the narrative as a confirmation of a non-Jewish Christian source, writes: "The extent of the Johannine revision in the direction of Hellenistic Christianity is most apparent in the commandment that Jesus' followers eat his flesh and drink his blood. The difficulty of such a notion within Judaism ... is explicitly recognized" (141). As noted earlier, his position is ambivalent in regard to the actuality of Hellenistic influence. In a recent commentary on John's Gospel done from the perspective of social science, the pericope is not differentiated in terms of source analysis; the words of Jesus are seen as an example of "antilanguage" (insider language) emerging from an "antisociety" comprising the insiders of the Johannine group. "To those outside the antisociety, Jesus urges cannibalism" (Malina & Rohrbaugh: 134-35). One would wish for a more extensive discussion here.

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. Those who hold for the literal institution by Jesus have not been able to explain plausibly how the drinking of blood could have arisen in a Jewish setting. In fact, this difficulty has been turned into an argument for authenticity. For example, Jeremiah quotes Dalman: "Exactly that which seems scandalous will be historical" (170-71). W. D. Davies draws attention to the fact that Dalman also argued that the Pauline version of the institution arose in a gentile environment to eliminate the difficulties presented by the more direct Markan form (246). It would appear to be obvious that the difficulties would have been greater in a Jewish environment. Davies' conclusion is apt: "When such divergent conclusons have been based upon the same evidence any dogmatism would be foolish" (246). On the other hand, I have earlier argued that previous suggestions supporting the non-Jewish source have been vitiated by vague generalities or by association with inappropriate pagan rituals.

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. I have made a case for reopening the file, and have proposed the more likely avenues towards a solution of the problem. The blood issue in the Eucharistic rite is an excellent stalking horse for tracking some key trajectories in the origins of Christianity.

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Michael Cahill, D.Th. (Institut Catholique, Paris) is Professor of Biblical Studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA 15282. E-mail: cahill@duq.edu. His major research interest is the history of exegesis. His most recent publications are The History of Exegesis and Our Theological Future, THEOLOGICAL STUDIES 61/2 (2000): 332-47; and THE FIRST COMMENTARY ON MARK: AN ANNOTATED TRANSLATION (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998). He is currently working on an edition of an early medieval heavily glossed Latin text of Matthew's Gospel.

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