Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Eucharist and Sacrifice (III): The Septuagint, and the Didache


The Didache or 'Teaching of the Twelve Apostles' is the next surviving document after Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians directly to address the communal sacral meal of the Christians. This late first or early second century 'Church Order' document also gives a variety of prescriptions for ethics and liturgical life. It also uses the language of sacrifice to refer to the Christian meal.

If Paul’s appropriation and reconstruction of cultic logic for the meal is largely structural, the evidence of the Didache is more linguistic; but it assumes an earlier re-casting of sacrificial language, that of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Bible (i.e., Old Testament) that was read and used by most early Christians.

The Hebrew Bible does not have a single or simple term for 'sacrifice'. English translations are all confounded by this, and attempt to supply extended and tendentious phrases, including common elements like 'offering' and 'sacrifice' which are not there in the Hebrew, to translate the different forms of ritual prescribed (e.g.) in Leviticus.

The ancient translators of the Bible into Greek had a slightly different problem. The Septuagint’s use of Greek vocabulary to translate the sacrificial system of Israel was a more radical step than it might seem at first glance. To use words that were associated with idolatrous offerings involved a willingness to draw correspondences between the practices depicted in the OT narratives and still carried out in the Jerusalem Temple and those involved with Greco-Roman cults.

Among the choices made, the Septuagint uses the Greek word θυσία (thusia)--which refers in Greek religion to animal offerings slaughtered and shared as a feast among participants (with a portion burnt for the god)--as preferred translation for both Levitical zebaḥ and minḥāh. The first of these seems a close fit, since it is the word used referring to the peace or communion offerings of slaughtered animals prescribed in Leviticus, typically involving a shared meal. The second however refers to offerings of grain, made into cakes, not to animal sacrifice.

This step in translation draws grain or meal offerings into a closer relationship with other alimentary sacrifices
than might otherwise have been assumed, as well as making a clear statement of a cross-cultural nature about the parallel between the cultic practices of Judaism and those of the gentiles.

The extension of the meaning of θυσία in both these directions is significant; for present purposes, it paves the way for an extension of Greek cultic language to the meatless but bread-centred Eucharistic meal setting, simply as a direct and descriptive (and biblical) means of speaking about a sacral meal, even a meatless one.


The Didache uses the Greek term θυσία twice in ch. 14, both times in reference to the Eucharistic gathering, as well as in quoting Malachi 1:11 and 14, all within a brief prescription for Sunday meetings. Confession of sins is urged that the “sacrifice may be pure (καθαρὰ)” (14.1) or “may not be profaned (κοινωθῇ)” (14.2).


It is important that the Didache can use this language of "sacrifice" for the Eucharistic meal, despite the lack of knowledge of, or at least explicit interest in, the death of Jesus or themes of atonement and blood sacrifice in the document, because in this context θυσία does not need to entail these things.

The Septuagintal re-imagining of the Temple cereal offerings and of θυσία in terms of each other has opened a somewhat different path for the meaning of "sacrifice", and the Didache pursues it.


[I have used a different font for this post because it contained the required unicode extended characters to show my Hebrew transliteration and my Greek!]

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