My Liturgical Bête Noire

I’m a man of strong liturgical positions, as you may have noticed, but the first among them, the thing that really chars my toast, that makes my blood boil, involves a modern [mis]representation of the eucharistic words of institution (the words that Jesus is reported to have said at the Last Supper, which the church repeats at communion services).

Many recent liturgical texts report that Jesus said over the cup of wine, “This is my blood which is shed for you and for all, for the forgiveness of sins.” That vexes me because no ancient source at our disposal reports that Jesus said that. The Greek texts of the relevant gospel passages say “poured out for many” (Matthew 26:28 and Mark 14:24), “poured out for you” (Luke 22:20), “this cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor 11:25); nowhere does a New Testament text ascribe the words “for all” to Jesus at this occasion. Nor, for that matter, did the traditional Latin Mass (“pro multis,” not “pro omnibus”), nor the Anglican Prayerbook tradition (“for many”). The Greek-speaking Orthodox tradition has always used the word that the Gospels scribe to Jesus, pollôn, “many.”

Now, if the liturgical prayer formulators would punctuate that differently, so as not to ascribe their “for all” to Jesus, that would be one story (and it would fit what I knock myself out trying to teach my students about proper use of sources). I’m not arguing that Christ’s death was not “for all” (though the simple claim is worth some carefully nuanced articulation), just that if you claim to be quoting him (“Again he gave thanks to you, gave it to them, and said:” — pretty tough to avoid the conclusion that this ascribes subsequent words, or their ancient equivalent*, to the speaker). No, the fact that this appears in a prayer does not render the rhetoric and punctuation of direct quotation somehow ambiguous. If he didn’t say it, don’t say he did. This, by the way, seems to be the reasoning of Cardinal Arinze, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; the Congregation recently instructed Roman Catholics to adhere to the “for many” formulation, correcting the modern misrepresentation of these words.

Cardinal Arinze points out that “ ‘For many’ is a faithful translation of pro multis, whereas ‘for all’ is rather an explanation of the sort that belongs properly to catechesis,” and “The expression ‘for many’, while remaining open to the inclusion of each human person, is reflective also of the fact that this salvation is not brought about in some mechanistic way, without one’s willing or participation; rather, the believer is invited to accept in faith the gift that is being offered and to receive the supernatural life that is given to those who participate in this mystery, living it out in their lives as well so as to be numbered among the ‘many’ to whom the text refers.”

I would not, ordinarily, have cut loose with this point on a random day, save that I happened to notice that the proposed Anglican Covenant refers to “the two sacraments ordained by Christ himself – Baptism and the Supper of the Lord – ministered with the unfailing use of Christ’s words of institution” [my emphasis, but a direct quotation from the proposed Covenant; that is, a direct quotation in the non-liturgical sense].


* Sometimes smart people point out that it can’t be Jesus’ own words anyway, since we’re saying them in English. Well, yes, but if translation permits us deliberately to ascribe to others words for which there’s weighty evidence that they did not say, then the whole business no longer pertains. And if you want to argue that it’s a more appropriate translation, let’s see the evidence — evidence that had better outweigh the fact that the gospel writers chose a Greek word which corresponds to “many” rather than the word (that they knew perfectly well and used often in other contexts) that means “all.”

The Young Fogey says:
Dear Dr Adam,

As you probably know this is a well-known issue among Roman Catholic traditionalists and here you and I agree entirely. It’s ‘for many’!

That said there’s the interesting case of the Assyrian (Nestorian) Church whose anaphora is unique because as handed down today it doesn’t repeat the words of institution!

Which of course is not the same as mistranslating or wrongly attributing something.


John Beeler (The young fogey)

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