Eat my flesh and drink my blood: A crucial Gospel passage, the Catholic Eucharist, and bad Protestant commentary

Fra Angelio, Institution of the Eucharist (1442)

Institution of the Eucharist (1442), by Fra Angelio. (WikiPaintings.org)

Often when it comes to the Scripture readings at Mass — especially in early morning Masses — I must confess, my eyes sometimes tend to glaze over a little and I don’t absorb them as well as I should. This is why it’s important for me to have read them beforehand, something I often don’t do in my hurry. But yesterday, in my recent commitment to greater spiritual study, I decided to take the time to thoroughly study today’s Mass readings, knowing that I wouldn’t have time in the morning. And it made an incredible difference. When it came to the Liturgy of the Word, the words of Scripture rang glowingly into my ear, like dear, familiar friends. Even in my undercaffeinated state, my mind grasped them and made connections, especially when Father Joe illuminated them in the homily.

The past few Sundays the Mass readings have focused on John Chapter 6, which culminates in Jesus’s proclamation, “I am the Bread of Life.” This is one of the most crucial passages in all the Gospels, not only for the good news of salvation, but even more particularly for the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:54-55). Catholics read this, together with the narratives of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-23), as an explicit statement of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, and of the Eucharist itself as the source and summit of our faith, the Sacrament through which we intimately encounter Christ and receive his graces.

Holy Communion

As a Protestant, of course, I didn’t read it that way. Much as I do at early morning Masses, my eyes glazed over and I saw only what I had always been taught. I could not see, despite Jesus’s best attempt to be frank and make Himself clear. Jesus saying that He is the Bread of Life is of course a metaphor. “Eating” and “drinking” Jesus just means, metaphorically, that we should consume and inbibe the Word of God. Of course He didn’t mean that we should really eat Him. The thought never even occurred to me; it would have startled me if it had — as it did the moment I first read it in the light of the Catholic explanation, at age thirty-something.

Once I saw that, there was no going back. I could never again read the passage and see anything but the obvious. I have a difficult time now even grasping at alternate, symbolic interpretations for the sake of argument. So I was taken aback to read the Protestant commentary on this passage in the study notes of my heretofore favorite Bible, the evangelical ESV Study Bible. This is by far the glibbest, most sectarian analysis I have yet found here. It exhibits either willful ignorance of the historical Christian (and Catholic) understanding, or wanton dishonesty.

Poussin, Institution of the Eucharist (1640)

Institution of the Eucharist (1640), by Nicolas Poussin. (WikiPaintings.org)

I am hesitant to name names, but this is a matter of some import — the very underpinning of historic Christianity and of the Catholic faith. I am thankful that my ESV Study Bible at least gives ample credit to the contributors of each book’s study notes. The notes to the Gospel of John are by Dr. Andreas J. Köstenberger [1, 2], Senior Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary — someone who should know better. I do not here aim to slam Dr. Köstenberger — I cannot fault the man, or the editors of the ESV Study Bible, or the executives at Crossway, for stating an evangelical interpretation in an evangelical publication for an evangelical audience. But I am here calling him out for some flagrantly bad commentary, that doesn’t even consider — even to reject it — a prominent theological view held not only by the majority of the world’s Christians, but by the entirety of the Christian Church until the Protestant Reformation (as we have seen). It seems rather to reflect a desire to sweep the historical view under the rug, to pretend it doesn’t exist, has not been historically significant, and is not widely held to this day. This is not an uncommon evangelical tactic, but I expected higher of the ESV Study Bible and of Dr. Köstenberger.

The Bread of Life

Alvazovsky, Jesus Walks on Water (1888)

Jesus Walks on Water (1888), by Ivan Alvazovsky. (WikiPaintings.org)

This is a lengthy passage of Scripture — encompassing in its full context John 6:22-71, some fifty verses and 1,000 words. I encourage you to read the whole thing. The ESV translation of the text itself is solid, as I have found it to be elsewhere almost without exception. For the sake of brevity, I will summarize and paraphrase a bit.

This speech takes place very soon after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, when Jesus fed the multitude (earlier in the chapter in John’s Gospel, John 6:1-15). The Apostles got in the boat to cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus walked on water to meet them (John 6:16-21). When the crowd — the Jesus groupies — realized where He’d gone, they flocked to Him and resumed asking Him questions (John 6:22-25). Jesus answered:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” (John 6:26-27)

Rembrandt, The Supper at Emmaus (1648)

The Supper at Emmaus (1648), by Rembrandt. (WikiPaintings.org)

The crowd still had food on the brain; their own stomachs, or what they could get out of Jesus materially or temporally: how Jesus could help them in their day-to-day lives and make them prosperous and healthy (not unlike many Christians today). Jesus urged them not to work for temporal, perishable food, but the food that He will give to them, the food of salvation. The crowd asked how they were supposed to work for this food (John 6:28). Jesus answered:

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29)

The crowd expected Jesus to perform a sign for them, as a prophet would, that they might believe in Him. Moses made manna, bread from heaven, fall to feed our fathers in the wilderness (John 6:30-31). Jesus answered:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:32-33)

Okay, yes, Jesus is building a metaphor here — a beautifully rhetorical one. Manna came down from heaven from God, and it gave nourishment to the Israelites. The Son of Man came down from heaven, and will give life to the whole world. And…

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

Christ (1585), by El Greco. (WikiPaintings.org)

In reading this passage and other similar passages, one should understand that in Greek, the person (i.e. first person, second person, third person) is contained in the verb. Writing only εἰμι contains the full sense of “I am.” So when the personal pronoun is added in addition (ἐγώ εἰμι, or egō eimi), it makes a strong, emphatic declaration. “Just to be clear, y’all: This bread from heaven I’m talking about? It’s me. I am the bread of life. Come to me and believe in me, and you’ll never hunger or thirst again.”

Verses 36 through 40 — containing the statements that God the Father gives Christ those who will be saved, and it is God’s will that Christ should lose none of them, and that all who believe in Christ should be saved and have eternal life — have a lot of bearing on soteriology, especially in discussion of divine election. I don’t gloss over them here to avoid that discussion, but because it’s not my point at the moment.

The Jews grumbled among themselves. “Who does this guy think he is, saying he is the bread of life and that he came down from heaven? We know his parents; he came from right down the road” (John 6:41-42).

And we come to the point of contention:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus (1602)

Supper at Emmaus (1602), by Caravaggio. (WikiPaintings.org)

And Jesus’s beautiful metaphor hit the floor with a sickening splat. What!? All this talk about being the bread of life; “believe in me and you shall never be hungry again” — and then He brought it back to the stomach, with a stomach-turning suggestion. He had so far been drawing the metaphor between the Israelites eating manna in the desert for their daily, temporary sustenance, and Himself being the true bread, with which they would never hunger or thirst again; that the work of receiving this bread is only to believe in Him. And then Jesus blew the metaphor away. “If you eat this bread, you will live forever. And oh, this bread is my flesh. That’s right. I want you to eat my flesh” (John 6:47-51). And the Jews understood His words exactly like that: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52)

Here is where I will begin addressing Dr. Köstenberger's commentary. For the above verses, he writes:

living bread. The “bread” Jesus gives is his flesh (a reference to Jesus’ death on the cross). Jesus’ statement intermingles physical and spiritual truth. Jesus is not talking about literal “bread,” but he is the true “living bread” in the sense that those who believe in him have their spiritual hunger satisfied. He becomes this spiritually satisfying “bread” by sacrificing his own physical body in his death on the cross, and in that sense he can say that this spiritual bread is my flesh.

Now, that is actually helpful. I had not thought of His “flesh” here referring to the Crucifixion; to giving of His flesh for the whole world, by which we are able to consume it. It is an important and valid point. In this sense the metaphor continues. But Köstenberger’s note does not address the more immediate point: Jesus just disgusted His listeners with perhaps the most repugnant notion possible in the Jewish world, one so unthinkable that the Torah doesn’t even address it: cannibalism; the eating of human flesh. So, presuming Jesus was speaking metaphorically, He is now going to clarify the misunderstanding, right?

No; in fact, He just made it worse:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:53-55)

Tintoretto, The Last Supper (1594)

The Last Supper (1594), by Tintoretto. (WikiPaintings.org)

“Not only do I want you to eat my flesh, but I want you to drink my blood.” The Jews have one of the most hemophobic cultures on this planet; there is little that is more disgusting and offensive to a Jew than being expected to touch blood, let alone consume it. And Jesus did not use the standard Greek verb “to eat” here when he emphasized this eating and drinking: φᾰγεῖν (phagein) is the standard, classical Greek verb “to eat,” the way humans eat a meal. The verb here instead is τρώγειν (trōgein), used especially of animals eating or feeding, most literally translated as “to bite, chew, gnaw.” The ESV translates this word above and in the following verses as “whoever feeds on my flesh.” Jesus, in explaining his proposition, was possibly being vulgar. “You must feed (as a horse feeds) — you must munch — on my body.” At the very least, His use of this word removed any doubt that He was referring to a physical eating, not a spiritual or metaphorical one. If Jesus was aiming to turn off his followers, He was doing a fine job.

Now, this verse — verse 55 — actually conceals what appears to be a significant question in textual criticism. I haven’t studied it in depth; I have a feeling a lot has been written on it, which I’d be interested to read. But where Jesus said that His flesh is “true food” and His blood is “true drink,” there are variant readings for the word translated “true.” The variation is minor, only a single letter; but it significantly shapes how the verse is understood. Is the word here ἀληθς (alēthōs), an adverb, or ἀληθής (alēthēs), an adjective? The words are of course related; but the variation means the difference between “My flesh is true food” — as modern textual critics and translators have concluded — or “My flesh is truly food” — as the texts available to the King James translators (i.e. William Tyndale) read.

"aletho" in Codex Sinaiticus

The disputed word in Codex Sinaiticus. The original text reads ΑΛΗΘѠϹ (αληθως), but note the correction: an eta (Η) written in superscript over the omega (Ѡ) — and then erased.
(Source: CodexSinaiticus.com)

(N.B. You can skip this paragraph unless you want the fine, nerdy details of the textual variant. I for one love a textual mystery!) And the disagreement is meaty. While generally the oldest and most reliable manuscripts — Codex Vaticanus (4th century) and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (5th century) being the best witnesses — give the adjectival reading, there is evidence of early confusion. Codex Sinaiticus (4th century) originally read with the adverb, but was corrected to the adjective — and then re-corrected back to the adverb. The only two papyri extant for the passage — Papyrus 66 (ca. A.D. 200, one of the oldest of all manuscripts) and Papyrus 75 (3rd century) — also show the disagreement. Papyrus 66 originally read with the adverb, but was corrected to agree with Papyrus 75, which contains the adjective. Among the oldest manuscripts, the adjectival reading appears to have won the debate. But in the longer term, the Majority (Byzantine) Text, which came to dominate and is represented by the majority of later extant manuscripts, and formed the so-called Textus Receptus used in the King James translation — received the adverbial reading. In sum: I tend to think, as an educated amateur, that the question is significant enough to at least warrant a footnote in modern translations of the alternate reading. I think there’s a possibility that the adverb — “truly” instead of “true” — was the original reading. But NA27, on which most recent Bible translations are based, selects the adjectival reading; and they know a lot more than I do.

Whether ἀληθής or ἀληθῶς — the adverb is derived from the adjective — the meaning is clear and explicit. Both the BDAG and the LSJ agree: the adjective means “true, real, genuine.” I personally think the adverb makes for a funner translation: “truly, really, actually, in reality” — because I would love to translate this word “for real.”

Jesus said, “My body is real food and my blood is real drink” — or “My body is really food and my blood is really drink.” In response to the Jews’ question, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus not only didn’t correct them, but restated his original statement even more explicitly. “If you want eternal life, you must actually eat my body and drink my blood.”

But of these verses, despite Jesus’s insistence and clarity, Dr. Köstenberger comments:

Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood cannot be intended literally, for no one ever did that.

Dürer, Last Supper (1510)

Last Supper (1510), by Albrecht Dürer. (WikiPaintings.org)

What? Really? No one ever did what? Of course no one ever fed on Jesus’s flesh while attached to His frame, literally gnawed it from His bone; but Christians have been literally eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking His blood for 2,000 years. Or does Köstenberger mean, “No one ever intended (that reading)”? In either case, this statement, quite ridiculously, skirts over the many centuries of history when all Christians — every great Church Father and theologian — in fact did interpret this statement literally. In disputed passages of other books of the ESV Study Bible, the commentators give their evangelical interpretation, and then politely explain why they believe the Roman Catholic understanding is false. To comment on such a passage as this, and not even note that the majority of Christians in the world, Catholic and Orthodox, have a very different understanding of it, is misleading and a disservice to even evangelical readers, who should be aware of such an important disagreement.

Köstenberger continues:

As Jesus has done frequently in this Gospel, he is speaking in terms of physical items in this world to teach about spiritual realities. Here, to “eat” Jesus’ flesh has the spiritual meaning of trusting or believing in him, especially in his death for the sins of mankind. (See also v. 35, where Jesus speaks of coming to him as satisfying “hunger” and believing in him as satisfying “thirst.”) Similarly, to “drink his blood” means to trust in his atoning death, which is represented by the shedding of his blood.

Yes, this is the way Jesus teaches. But in this speech, He made clear that the act of “eating” and “drinking” encompasses both physical and spiritual realities. To “eat” Jesus’s flesh and “drink” His blood does indeed have the spiritual meaning of trusting and believing in Him. But if the spiritual meaning were the only one Jesus intended, why His emphasis, to the point of revulsion, on physically “eating” and “drinking”?

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

Baptism of Christ (c. 1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. (WikiPaintings.org)

One of the keys to understanding Catholic theology — and one of the beauties, in its simplicity and complexity at the same time — is that just as this passage conveys both a physical and a spiritual sense, each of the Sacraments conveys both a physical and a spiritual effect. The Sacraments consist outwardly in simple, physical actions: washing with water, anointing with oil, the laying on of hands. And these actions not only symbolize a spiritual reality — the washing away of sins, the passing of authority and commissioning of duty — but they actually accomplish spiritually what they represent physically. It does what it says on the tin. Baptism not only symbolizes and outwardly represents the washing away of sins; but the physical washing with water, by the power of the Holy Spirit, actually accomplishes the spiritual washing away of sins. The consecration of Holy Orders by the laying on of hands not only symbolizes the passing of authority and binding to service; but it actually accomplishes the infusion of spiritual authority by apostolic succession.

And likewise the Eucharist, by the simple act of eating and drinking the consecrated Hosts, that have truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, not only symbolizes and represents Communion in Christ’s Body, but actually infuses us with His grace. We literally, physically, spiritually share in Christ’s Body and Blood, in His humanity and divinity, in His eternal life, as He here made plain in this Scripture.

Köstenberger again:

Although Jesus is not speaking specifically about the Lord’s Supper here, there is a parallel theme, because the receiving of eternal life through being united with “the Son of Man” is represented in the Lord’s Supper (where Jesus’ followers symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood; cf. 1 Cor. 11:23–32). This is anticipated in OT feasts (see 1 Cor. 5:7) and consummated in the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9).

Giotto, The Last Supper

The Last Supper (1306), by Giotto. Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua. (WikiPaintings.org)

No way! You think? What an incredible coincidence, that Jesus would speak of eating his body and drinking his blood here, and then again at the Lord’s Supper! And both here and there, this eating and drinking is how one receives eternal life! Jesus said that one must eat his body and drink his blood to receive eternal life — and then at the Lord’s Supper, he offered the Bread as His body and the Cup as His Blood. Even when I was an evangelical, I understood the John 6 passage to be not only parallel to the Lord’s Supper, but an explicit reference, a foreshadowing.

After Jesus was done speaking, his disciples said to Him, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60) “Jesus, that’s disgusting. Who wants to hear about eating your body and drinking your blood?”

But Köstenberger takes just the opposite interpretation:

It was a hard saying because they wrongly interpreted Jesus’ statements literally.

Yes, that’s the way they interpreted it; but if they wrongly interpreted His statements literally, Jesus had yet another opportunity here to correct them, when they directly challenged what He said. But instead He answered:

“Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.”

The words are not just spirit, they are also life. This reads as a continuing insistence that what He said before is what He meant. “But some of you still don’t get it.”

“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). Because they are disgusted and disillusioned by what Jesus had just said. And still Jesus made no attempt to correct them, if there were some misunderstanding.

But Köstenberger seems to suggest that this statement is not even connected to His prior speech:

Many of these early disciples were not genuine disciples of Christ, for they turned back. Their initial “faith” was not genuine and they were perhaps following Jesus only because of the physical benefits he gave, such as healing and multiplying food.

This just happens to be where John notes their departure. But emphasizing that these departures are in fact connected to his previous words:

So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)

The context of this all is still Jesus’s “words of eternal life.”

Curiously, after all these explicit statements about eating Jesus’s body and drinking His blood, the Gospel of John contains no narrative of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. All three of the Synoptic Gospels have it; why doesn’t John?

Veronese, Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples (1580s)

Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples (1580s), by Paolo Veronese. (WikiPaintings.org)

I recently read a very compelling book review that deals with just this problem. In Eucharist and Covenant in John’s Last Supper Account, Msgr. Anthony La Femina proposes that Christ’s washing of the Apostles’ feet (John 13:1-20) — the central action of John’s narrative of the Last Supper, but something none of the Synoptics mention — is in fact an analogy for the institution of the Eucharist. According to La Femina, the footwashing narrative contains all of the elements of the institution of the Eucharist — the command to repeat the action, a foreshadowing of Jesus’s death, a reference to his betrayer Judas Iscariot, and covenantal language which La Femina says echoes the language of Near Eastern treaties. It seems a compelling thesis that I would like to read more about.

But as for Jesus’s speech in John 6:22-71, there seems little question about what Jesus meant: If He did not intend for His words to suggest an actual eating and drinking of His body and blood, He would not have emphasized this statement more explicitly when questioned about it, and He would have made some effort to clarify the misunderstanding when His disciples protested, if it was in fact a misunderstanding. Dr. Köstenberger’s notes in the ESV Study Bible seem not only to present a sectarian interpretation — which is expected — but to consciously ignore and dismiss the historical understanding of the passage. At best, they present unhelpful commentary, missing and dismissing obvious connections and leading away from a thorough understanding of the text rather than toward it.

Work out your own salvation: The Apostle Paul, William Tyndale, and the leaven of a phrase

El Greco, Apostle St. Paul

Apostle St. Paul (c. 1612), by El Greco.

One of the most iconic phrases of the English New Testament, one of the Apostle Paul’s great quotes that has always echoed in my ears growing up, is to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). But what does that even mean?

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Codex Sinaiticus

A leaf from Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest known Greek uncial manuscript of the entire Bible (c. A.D. 330–360).

As a Protestant, I admit I never thought much about it. I guess I had a vague sense of “working something out” with God, the way one negotiates an agreement or a solution — through a process of trial and error, learning and growing as a Christian, to reach a situation that “worked.” If the verse meant anything to me, it was as an encouraging exhortation: Keep on obeying God, and you and God will “work it out.”

As I’ve been growing as a Catholic, this verse has been an indication that there might be some “work” involved in salvation in Paul’s view, as opposed to the sola fide (by faith alone) interpretation that the Protestant Reformers so ardently expressed. It’s been a handy crutch in presenting the Catholic position. “But, Paul said ‘work out your own salvation’!”

But what did Paul really mean? Recently I decided to delve into the Greek in order to explore this. What I found was a little startling.

Here is the Greek (only the bolded portion from above; Greek text from NA27):

. . . μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου τὴν ἑαυτῶν σωτηρίαν κατεργάζεσθε· θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν καὶ τὸ θέλειν καὶ τὸ ἐνεργεῖν ὑπὲρ τῆς εὐδοκίας.

Transliterated into Roman characters, for your benefit:

. . . meta phobou kai tromou tēn heautōn sōtērian katergazesthe, theos gar estin ho energōn en humin kai to thelein kai to energein huper tēs eudokias.

And now broken down:

. . . μετὰ [preposition, with, in the midst of] φόβου [fear] καὶ [and] τρόμου [trembling] τὴν [definite article, accusative singular: goes with σωτηρίαν] ἑαυτῶν [3rd person reflexive pronoun, genitive plural: your own] σωτηρίαν [accusative singular (the direct object, being acted upon): salvation] κατεργάζεσθε [present middle deponent, 2nd person plural imperative: (you) “work out”] · θεὸς [God] γάρ [postpositive particle, for] ἐστιν [3rd person active indicative, impersonal, (it) is] ὁ ἐνεργῶν [present active participle, nominative singular: acting, operating, working, being efficacious] ἐν [preposition, in] ὑμῖν [second person plural personal pronoun, you] καὶ [and (together with other καὶ, both . . . and)] τὸ θέλειν [present active infinitive: to be willing, wish] καὶ [and] τὸ ἐνεργεῖν [present active infinitive, same verb as above: to act, operate, work, be efficacious, effect, execute] ὑπὲρ [preposition, for] τῆς εὐδοκίας [genitive singular, (his) good will].

What startled me is that to “work out” is all contained in the verb κατεργάζομαι. “Work out” is a single action, and “salvation” is the direct object — the object on which the action is performed. But salvation isn’t supposed to be something we act on at all, is it?

The BDAG, the most authoritative lexicon of New Testament Greek, gives four definitions for κατεργάζομαι:

  1. to bring about a result by doing something, achieve, accomplish, do.
    • Romans 7:15-20: For what I do, I do not understand; for I do not practice what I prefer, but I do that thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not prefer, I agree with the Law, that it is good.
    • 1 Corinthians 5:3: . . .  I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.
  2. to cause a state or condition, bring about, produce, create.
    • Romans 4:15: For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
    • Romans 5:3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance  . . .
  3. to cause to be well prepared, prepare someone.
  4. to be successful in the face of obstacles, overpower, subdue, conquer.
    • Ephesians 6:13: Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done [proving victorious over] all, to stand firm.

Of these definitions, the BDAG suggests that the second one, to bring about, produce, create, is the appropriate one for our verse, Philippians 2:12.

The Friberg Analytical Lexicon agrees with the definitions of the BDAG. Similarly, the Louw-Nida Lexicon Based on Semantic Domains suggests that the use of κατεργάζομαι in Philippians 2:12 implies a change of state: “to cause to be, to make to be, to make, to result in, to bring upon, to bring about.” Joseph Henry Thayer's Lexicon (1886; revised 1889), which I still rather like, obsolete though it may be, suggests the Latin efficere for the usage of the word in this verse: “to work out, i.e. to do that from which something results.” St. Jerome's Vulgate translates the word operor, which Lewis and Short defines “To work, produce by working, cause.”

So what does all this mean? It means that “work out” in Philippians 2:12 has a much more active meaning than I formerly supposed. There is agreement between all the lexica I consulted: κατεργάζομαι implies a very strong sense of bringing about, producing a state or condition. The result is that the correct understanding of this verse is that with fear and trembling, we are to bring about, produce, effect our own salvation. This seems startlingly un-Pauline, at least according to the Protestant understanding of Paul’s theology.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale, first translator of the Bible from its original languages into English.

But I should remind my Protestant readers that despite how Luther wanted to read Paul, Paul never once says by faith alone. Paul stresses justification by faith in opposition to the Judaizers, who stressed their works and denied that faith had any role, insisting that salvation in Christ came only by the works of the Jewish Law — that being circumcized would in itself bring salvation. Paul denies that works bring salvation; it is faith, the gift of God, that saves us, not the result of our own works. But Paul never denies that works are also important. He in fact writes of the importance of good works: we are “created for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). God “will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7). The people of God are to devote themselves to good works (Titus 3:8,14).

And now, by obeying Christ, we are to bring about our own salvation — a command, a strong imperative statement in the Greek. And through our working, it is not our own doing or merits that brings this about, but God who works in us by His grace, both to will (wish, want, prefer) to do good, and to work (to be active, effectual, able to bring about). Though at first it appears unlike Paul for him to say that we produce our own salvation, he is here consistent in reminding us that it is not our works that bring about our salvation, but God working in us. This interpretation is consistent in every way with Roman Catholic doctrine.

But in the English — to work out our own salvation — where does this come from? Given this clear, active meaning of κατεργάζομαι, with so strong a sense of working, producing, effecting, why has nearly every major English Bible translation since the sixteenth century — including Catholic ones — translated this phrase “work out your own salvation”?

Tyndale New Testament title page

The title page to Tyndale’s 1534 edition of the New Testament.

I suspected immediately that this was a Tyndalism — a translation first promulgated by William Tyndale in his 1534 English New Testament, that has such a sonorous ring to it, and that, by way of being assumed into the 1611 King James Version (of which Tyndale’s work makes up about 80%), has become so ubiquitous in the English language that no translator dare change it. Examples of the many other Tyndalisms include “Let there be light,” “gave up the ghost,” “my brother’s keeper,” “it came to pass,” and the nearly universal translation of the Our Father or Lord’s Prayer, which even Roman Catholics pronounce according to the King James translation (“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”). Tyndale also coined many words that have enriched the English language, including “scapegoat,” “Passover,” and “Jehovah.”

A little bit of research confirmed that I was correct. Stepping through the history of English Bible translation:

Wycliffe Bible (1380s): worche ye with drede and trembling youre heelthe
Tyndale Bible (1534): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblynge
Coverdale Bible (1535): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblynge
Matthew Bible (1537): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and trembling
Great Bible (1539): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblyng
Geneva Bible (1560): make an end of youre owne saluation with feare and trembling
Bishop’s Bible (1568): worke out your owne saluation with feare and tremblyng
King James Version (1611): worke out your owne saluation with feare and trembling
KJV Cambridge Edition (1769): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
Young’s Literal Trans. (1862): with fear and trembling your own salvation work out
Revised Version (1885): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
American Std. Version (1901): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
Revised Standard Version (1946): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
New American Standard (1963): work out your salvation with fear and trembling
New Intl. Version (1978): continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling
New Revised Standard (1989): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
Holman Christian Std. (1999): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
English Standard Version (2001): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling

Now that’s staying power. With only one slight exception — the overly Calvinistic Geneva Bible, which changed “work out” to “make an end of” — every English Bible translation since Tyndale’s own has left Tyndale’s wording and phrasing of this verse intact.

I have intentionally not included Roman Catholic translations in the list above, to demonstrate Tyndale’s overpowering influence:

Rheims New Testament (1582): with feare and trembling worke your saluation
Challoner Revision (1752): with fear and trembling work out your salvation
New Jerusalem Bible (1985): work out your salvation in fear and trembling
New American Bible (1970–2011): work out your salvation with fear and trembling

Even into the Catholic mind, Tyndale’s leaven worked through the whole batch. Despite the Rheims translators’ initial attempt to escape Tyndale’s shadow — self-consciously avoiding translations that would appear to support Reformation theology, and replacing work out with work, though retaining Tyndale’s feare and trembling — Bishop Challoner reverted the whole thing to Tyndale’s wording. It has stuck ever since.

So why “work out” — a phrase with such an ambiguous meaning? Was Tyndale trying to obscure a phrase that seemed to cast doubt on Protestant theological suppositions? No, apparently not. Rather, “work out” has an archaic usage that is no longer current in today’s English. According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

work out. II. 6. To bring about, effect, produce, or procure (a result) by labour or effort; to carry out, accomplish (a plan or purpose).

In fact, this is the very meaning of the Greek word. And according to the OED citations, Tyndale’s is the first use of the phrase in this sense on record:

1534 Bible (Tyndale rev. Joye) Phil. ii. 12 Worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblynge.
1600 Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 2 i. i. 181 We..Knew that we ventured on such dangerous seas, That if we wrought out life, twas ten to one.
1805 Wordsworth Waggoner iv. 118 When the malicious Fates are bent On working out an ill intent.
1847 Tennyson Princess ii. 75 O lift your natures up:..work out your freedom.

The last noted use of the phrase by this usage is 1874.

Why did Tyndale choose “work out”? There’s no clear answer. Since κατεργάζομαι is a compound of the prefix κατά and the verb ἐργάζομαι (to work, labor), Tyndale may have added the “out” to reflect the prefix; though he did not translate κατεργάζομαι that way anywhere else. He may have been thinking in Latin: recognizing the meaning of the Greek to approximate the action “to effect,” he may have rendered it first efficere (ex + ficere, to work out) and followed accordingly with the English. Or, he may have just liked the way it sounded. He seems to have had a knack for that.

The Tyndalian wording of this verse, as beautiful and iconic as it is, is now archaic, and tends to obscure the meaning of Paul’s words. Paul clearly was saying that through working — though the praise for our works belongs to God alone, by His grace — we effect our salvation.

I have always admired William Tyndale, first when I was a Protestant and still now that I am a Catholic. Not only was he bold and fearless in his determination to bring the Scriptures into the English language — he ultimately gave his life for that cause — but he was brilliant both as a translator and as a wordsmith. As the first translator of the Bible into English from its original languages, Tyndale has no doubt had more impact on the English Bible than any other single person, and has had an impact on the English language itself to rival that of Shakespeare.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

Sacred Heart

Pompeo Batoni. Il Sacro Cuore (The Sacred Heart) (1740).

I feel like I’ve been on the offensive a lot lately. I apologize for that. I’ve made three posts in the past two weeks against sola scriptura — and I have to confess, it’s been partly out of annoyance at the closed-mindedness the doctrine engenders. Forgive me for that. My deeper aim, in this blog and even in those posts, is to extend to my Protestant brethren the fullness and beauty that the Apostolic Tradition of the Church has to offer.

(For what it’s worth, that last sola scriptura post had been on the back burner half-formed since I posted the first two, so I decided I needed to finish it. I also have another rather critical post I began writing last year sometime, before I even entered the Church, about church membership, that I put down because I decided it wasn’t the tone I wanted my blog to take. I may look at it again sometime to see if there’s anything to salvage.)

Today is the Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and June is the Month of the Sacred Heart. The Sacred Heart is a devotion to the wounded physical heart of Jesus as a representation of His all-surpassing divine and human love for all humanity. This devotion — really the idea of devotions to things other than God Himself — is a new, rather strange concept to my evangelical brain. Isn’t devotion to or worship of an object idolatry? Well, no. Idolatry is worship of something as a god that isn’t God. Veneration of the saints is not idolatry because it’s not worship. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is not idolatry because the Blessed Sacrament really is Jesus. Likewise devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is not idolatry because it is an aspect of Jesus: it’s the love of Christ for all humanity, the love of God for all the world; and God is love (1 John 4:16).

Devotion to the Sacred Heart has a long tradition, with roots in Scripture and in the Church Fathers. I have an excellent book (picked up on one my thrifting quests) about the history and theology of the Sacred Heart, Heart of the Redeemer by Timothy T. O’Donnell, S.T.D. The earliest Christians associated the water flowing from the side of Christ at his Crucifixion with the “rivers of living water” flowing “from his heart” (John 7:37-38). . . .

[And a sidenote: I’m thrilled that the ESV and some other newer Bible translations, even Protestant ones, have translated this verse as “out of his heart.” Traditionally, that Greek word, κοιλία (koilia — in the phrase, ἐκ τῆς κοιλίας), has been rendered “belly” or “bosom”: according to the LSJ, it is a common Greek noun that refers to a cavity of the body, especially the belly or abdomen, but also any body cavity, ventricle, chamber, such as in heart, lungs, liver, brain: figuratively, the innermost center of being and consciousness of a person. It is the same word used for Mary’s womb in Luke 1:42. The Hebrew word used in Proverbs 4:23, the essence of which John 7:38 seems to follow, is לב (lêb), and most certainly refers to the heart (translated καρδία [kardia] in the Septuagint). In short, I think it’s pretty fantastic that the ESV translators, in translating a verse that refers to Old Testament prophecy, considered the Hebrew context of the words in their translation decisions from Greek. Jesus more than likely would have been speaking Aramaic, and may have quoted the passage in Aramaic rather than Hebrew; though especially the Evangelists Matthew and John would have been familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. Both the Evangelists and our modern translators had to consider all these things in translating to and from Greek.]

St. Bernard

St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

. . . And the Church Fathers saw this wound, this flow of blood and water from the side of Christ, from His heart, as a symbol that the Heart of Jesus is the source and fountain of the living water that gives us grace, salvation, and the Sacraments (O’Donnell 49). Jesus’s wounds, his suffering for our sake, became a visible symbol of His love for us. Over the centuries of tradition, increasing devotion to the Heart of Jesus developed. There are so many wonderful passages I could quote (this book is really amazing), but here are some of my favorites. From St. Bernard (1090–1153):

The secret of His Heart is laid bare in the wounds of his body. One can easily read in them the mystery of God’s infinite goodness and merciful tenderness which came down to us like a dawning from on wounds. How could you indeed, Lord, show us more clearly than by your wounds that You are indeed ‘full of goodness and mercy abounding in love.’

From David of Augsburg (d. 1272) (O’Donnell 101):

From the burning Heart of Jesus flows his blood, hot with love. Jesus showed us from the Cross his faithful heart, glowing with love, since the death of our souls touched him more nearly than the death of his body. Ah, dearest Lord Jesus Christ, what great love and faithfulness wilt thou show when thou displayest thy riches and openest thy Heart to thy beloved friends!

The devotions grow longer, more elaborate, more flowery, until in the late seventeenth century, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French nun and mystic, experienced a series of visions of the suffering Christ, in which He revealed his Sacred Heart to her, and set her own heart aflame with the fire of His. It is from her revelations and her writings that our modern conception of the Sacred Heart has proceeded. Devotion to the Sacred Heart spread throughout France, and gradually beyond its borders. Pope Pius IX first extended the Feast of the Sacred Heart to the entire Church in 1856. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII consecrated the entire human race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, following the visions of Blessed Mary of the Divine Heart, in whose visions Christ Himself requested the consecration.

So in short: The Sacred Heart is, to put it simply, an ancient, God-inspired Christian meme. So much in tradition works this way: a writer has a revelation, and then another writer picks it up and elaborates upon it, until over time, a whole tradition of devotion and literature develops around it. No matter how you might feel about the personal revelations of these nuns, it is the symbol of the Sacred Heart that is important: the symbol of Christ’s divine and human love for the whole world, that has been a longstanding Christian tradition and object of devotion. To dedicate oneself to the Sacred Heart is to dedicate oneself to live in and for the love of Christ.

Christmas

Adoration of the Shepherds

Gerard van Honthorst. Anbetung der Hirten (Adoration of the Shepherds). Oil on canvas, 1622.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6 ESV

Merry Christmas!

It’s been a busy season, though thankfully not as frantic as it has been in recent years. We are mostly staying put for once. I am home with my family, and we are having most of the family Christmas gatherings at our house. Friday night we had the extended family Christmas party, which brought the most people this house has seen in twenty years. Last night, Christmas Eve, was a quiet evening with the immediate family. I attended a vigil Mass at the local parish. This morning I opened gifts with the immediate family (way too much stuff for my liking, but I can’t complain), and my aunt and uncle and cousins are coming over for Christmas dinner and festivities with my mother’s side of the family. Tomorrow we will travel to have Christmas with my father’s side of the family.

My family is apparently still uncomfortable buying Catholic gifts for me. My dad did, however, give me an ESV Bible with Apocrypha, which I discovered only a week or two ago. The English Standard Version is my favorite Bible translation; my good (Protestant) study bible is ESV. One of these days I’m going to write about Bible translations here. The ESV wasn’t originally translated with the Apocrypha (including the Catholic Deuterocanon), and its absence was one of the main things that gave me pause about keeping the ESV my primary translation. Now (well, 2009) Oxford University Press has organized and published an ESV translation of the Apocrypha, and my translation is complete.

Thrifting Harvest, Christmas Eve 2011

My Christmas Eve thrifting harvest (zoomable)!

I also had a glorious thrifting harvest yesterday! One of the local Catholic parishes, I’ve discovered, clears out their “dated” books fairly often and brings them to one particular store. And apparently there is a paucity of Catholic nerds who frequent that store: I always rack up. Among my acquisitions this time: a four-volume set of The Liturgy of the Mass by Fr. Pius Parsch, a leading figure of the Liturgical Movement; a cool illustrated catechism; a Challoner-Rheims New Testament; a pretty picture book about Fatima; a scholarly examination of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; a collection of St. Paulinus of Nola‘s poems; and books by St. Augustine, St. Alphonsus Liguori, Cardinal Newman, Fr. Merton, and more. Also, some pretty great Protestant books: a synopsis of the Gospels by Kurt Aland; a survey of Protestant thought and writings by Alister McGrath; and a defense of the Resurrection by Norman Geisler. Whew!

This parish, in my hometown, is only the second one I’ve been to as a nascent Catholic; I visited here once before a few months ago. I am not here to be critical, but I much prefer my spiritual home at school. The music here was a mess. But the Mass is still the Mass. The words of the liturgy are powerful, no matter who intones them; Christ visits us in the Eucharist, no matter what priest celebrates it and no matter where we ourselves may be visiting. This is one of the things I love about Catholicism most of all: it is not about the man at the front of the church; it’s about the Man at the Head of the Church. I go to Mass not to hear a likable preacher or enjoyable music; I go to partake in Holy Communion with Jesus Christ.

May you all have a blessed Christmas.

Bishops and Priests

William Tyndale

William Tyndale

Some years ago, for an English history course as an undergrad, I wrote a paper on the Protestant Reformer and early translator of the Bible into English, William Tyndale. Now, I’ve always had a tendency to become absorbed with the subjects of my papers, and to find in them great heroes. Tyndale was no exception. I still admire the man for his erudition as a scholar, his creativity as a wordsmith, and his zeal for the Word of God. According to his most recent biographer David Daniell, at the time he translated the Bible in the early sixteenth century, he was perhaps one of the only men in all of England who knew the Hebrew language (Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994, 287). I was convinced at the time I wrote the paper that the Catholic Church had become corrupted, and my paper reflects an anti-Catholic sentiment (my word, I didn’t realize how anti-Catholic until re-reading it just now). In retrospect, I realize I had absorbed a lot of that bias from Daniell, and from the indignation of Tyndale himself. Certainly, elements of the Church then were corrupt; the Church, without a doubt, needed to be reformed. I maintain that the Church was wrong to oppose the translation of the Bible, and wrong to persecute Tyndale, who first sought the Church’s permission to translate, for the sake of humanistic learning and ecclesiastical reform, and only violently opposed the Church after his work was rejected and condemned.

Already, in the five years since I wrote this paper, I can see how much my historical consciousness has deepened; how simplistic and one-sided my interpretations were. There was so much intricacy of ecclesiastical and state politics, personal zeal and personal fears, involved in the Reformation, and a lot of decisions handled very badly by a lot of people. I am so tempted to pursue more research into this. (::sigh:: I have far too many interests.) But all of this reminiscence is meant to preface the topic I really wanted to talk about: the Greek New Testament, and specifically the words ἐπίσκοπος, πρεσβύτερος, and διάκονος (bishop, elder, and deacon).

I was recently struck by a Mass reading of 1 Timothy 3, which gives requirements for church offices, in which ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) was translated “bishop”: “A bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money” (1 Tim 3:2-3, New American Bible). I don’t know why I should have been surprised. Most recent evangelical Bible translations — the ones with which I’m most familiar in my personal study, the New International Version and recently the English Standard Version — translate ἐπίσκοπος “overseer”; but now I realize, in studying for this post, that the ubiquitous King James Version, John Wycliffe’s translation, and even Tyndale himself all translated the word “bishop.” Literally the Greek word is ἐπι + σκοπος — epi (upon, over) + skopos (looker, watcher; see the cognate “scope”) — one who watches over the church; an overseer — which is exactly what the bishop did, and does. By way of the Latin episcopus, it is the origin of our word bishop (still visible in our word episcopal). Anyway, if I were more literate in the tradition of early Protestant translation, I shouldn’t have been taken aback by the Catholic rendering. The ESV still gives “bishop” as an alternate reading in a footnote. The word “bishop” is so closely tied to the concept of “overseeing” that even Tyndale had no problem with it.

Where Tyndale got himself into hotter water was in the translation of πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) as “senior.” Here, too, I needed to do more studying, for I’ve learned some things tonight. Traditionally, I argued in my Tyndale paper, the Catholic Church translated the word “priest.” At the time, I considered this quite scandalous, for I knew very well that the Greek word conveys nothing resembling priesthood, but merely an “elder” or “senior”; an older person. But I was perplexed to find, when I checked tonight, that the Douay-Rheims Bible, the first English translation of the Bible authorized by the Catholic Church (the New Testament was published 1582), also translates several instances of πρεσβύτερος in Greek as “ancient” (see 1 Pet 5:1, 2 John 1); so did Wycliffe. Both the Douay-Rheims translators and Wycliffe translated from the Latin Vulgate. So I went back to it. It seems the New Testament of the Vulgate is inconsistent in its translation of πρεσβύτερος into Latin — sometimes, such as the instances I just mentioned, it’s rendered senior (hence “elder” or “ancient”); other times, such as Titus 1:5 and James 5:14, it’s rendered presbyter. Perhaps this is evidence of the seams in St. Jerome’s translation. I’ve read that he didn’t actually spend much time in translating the New Testament, but simply revised an Old Latin translation. I would guess that senior is Jerome’s rendering, being the erudite Greek scholar that he was. Anyway, it’s in translating πρεσβύτερος as “elder” in all of these places (among other translation choices that seemed to call the sacraments into doubt) that Tyndale earned the disapprobation of the Church.

It bothered me that the Church translated πρεσβύτερος or presbyter as “priest” without any seeming reason. In fact, I always wondered — where does the office of priest in the Catholic Church even come from? It’s never mentioned in the New Testament, as far as I understood the Greek. It wasn’t until that Mass reading a few weeks ago that it hit me with a start. Presbyter and priest are cognate. The word priest in English in fact has its origin in the Latin presbyter. The OED confirmed this for me. Priest entered the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) language as early as the earliest extant documents in the eighth or ninth century (the Code of King Alfred is cited). The elders of the New Testament Church became what we know in the modern Church as priests.

This is already getting too long — but I’ll just say, in brief, that διάκονος (diakonos) literally means “agent, assistant, servant” — and nobody seems to have ever had any problem translating it “deacon.”

Bishops' CroziersThere’s considerable historical debate, however — and admittedly, this is not a historiography I’ve pursued, though I’d like to — over at what point the office of “overseer” in the early Church became the traditional, familiar, Catholic bishop; the single, chief ruler of a local church. The doctrine is referred to as the monarchical episcopacy or the monoepiscopacy. Liberal scholars (e.g. Bart Ehrman) have argued that it didn’t firmly develop until well into the second century. It appears that in the New Testament, the words ἐπίσκοπος (bishop/overseer) and πρεσβύτερος (elder/priest) are used interchangeably. For example, referring back to 1 Timothy 3, St. Paul gives the requirements for bishops and deacons, but makes no mention of elders. St. Peter, in 1 Peter 5:1, refers to himself as one among the elders of the Church, a “fellow elder.” But the Catholic Church holds that St. Peter was the first bishop of the Church in Rome, and by virtue of that, the first pope. What does it mean for that claim, if “bishops” and “elders” in the New Testament Church seem to be the same thing? Personally, I say not a thing. Even if the Church was slow to develop that there only needed to be one “bishop” in a local church, one “overseer” who was in charge — even if there was more than “overseer” in the beginning — and it’s not at all clear that this was the case — then certainly Peter, being the foremost Apostle (and the only Apostle, evidently, active in that office in Rome, since St. Paul never refers to himself as an “elder” or “overseer”), to whom Christ had entrusted the keys to the kingdom and on whom he said he would build his Church, was the foremost bishop, the one to whom everyone deferred, by virtue of his authority. The primacy and supremacy of Peter stands.

In any case, though Bart Ehrman notes that at the time of 1 Clement (the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, among the writings of the Apostolic Fathers), dated ca. A.D. 95-96, the monoepiscopacy wasn’t in place yet, and the terms “bishop” and “elder” continued to be used synonymously (Ehrman, ed., The Apostolic Fathers Vol. 1, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003, 22, noting 1 Clement 44), the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, written just a few years later, between A.D. 98 and 117, firmly argue to the churches that received them that they should submit to their one bishop. By the beginning of the second century, if not before, the monoepiscopacy was coming into being. Presbyters were becoming what we know as priests. And the Church we know has descended from these men.