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A New Look at an Old Tradition

05.13.17 | Theology | by Guest Post

    “At a camp renowned for its tough discipline, my job before the annual inspection was to paint the curbstones white. To my horror, I accidentally knocked over the paint pot, spilling in the road a large white puddle which I couldn’t obliterate. In desperation, I painted the puddle into a neat square – and thankfully my sergeant made no comment. Four years later I returned to the same camp. Not only was my square still there; it had been freshly repainted for the annual inspection.”
    —Reader’s Digest, Jan. 1977, p. 83

    Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” 

    Here’s one that needs to be re-examined:

    “When He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 1 Cor 11:24, NKJV 

    A long-standing evangelical tradition, often perpetuated in communion services, alludes to the bread as representing the “broken body” of Jesus at his crucifixion. This tradition is based almost exclusively on the KJV and a few other sources.

    That interpretation conflicts with (1) the Greek text of the pertinent passage, (2) the cultural significance of breaking bread, and (3) the wider context  prophecy related to the Passover.

    1. The Text

    The vast majority of current English translations reflect the fourth edition of the United Bible Societies’ Greek NT, which does not include a word for “broken” in 1 Cor. 11:24. A footnote indicates that the Greek text without the word “broken” is considered to be virtually certain. Translators of the KJV had access to relatively few biblical manuscripts compared to what is available today. The (UBS) Greek says, “This is my body that is for you.” The KJV translators relied on poor manuscript evidence to include the word “broken,” assuming that breaking the bread was intended to represent what happened to Jesus’ body.

    2. Jewish Culture

    The Arndt & Gingrich Greek Lexicon, p. 434, under klaō, and various Bible commentaries say that at a typical Jewish meal the host would offer a prayer of thanks. Then he would break bread and distribute it, signaling the beginning of the meal. Breaking bread was only for the purpose of distributing it. Nothing more should be read into the custom. That pattern is followed when Jesus, the host, initiates the feeding of the 5000 and the 4000. Roots of this custom can be observed in the OT, but only in versions that reflect the nitty gritty of the underlying Hebrew text:

    No one shall break bread for the mourner, to comfort him for the dead... Jeremiah 16:7, RSV
    little children beg for bread, but no one gives them even a morsel.14 Lamentations 4:4
    Footnote: 14 “there is not a divider to them.” The term
    פָּרַשׂ (paras …“to divide”) refers to breaking bread in two before giving it to a person to eat (Isa 58:7) – NET Bible.

    So, to break bread is to provide it.

    3. Biblical Prophecy

    The Jewish Passover foreshadowed Christian communion. The Last Supper was a Passover meal. Jesus became the Passover Lamb. Instructions for eating the lamb are very clear in Exodus 12:46 “It shall be eaten in one house… you shall not break any of its bones.” Regarding the crucifixion John 19:31-37 says that the legs of two criminals were broken to hasten their deaths, but when the soldiers saw that Jesus was already dead, “they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side... These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’” Furthermore, if breaking the bread represents the “breaking” of Jesus’ body, why would Jesus break himself? He surrendered himself, but did not kill himself — was tortured but not broken.

    Why did God prohibit breaking the bones of the Passover lamb and of Jesus? I speculate: (1) God was limiting abuse against his Son. (2) He emphasizes the unity of the Church, the body of Christ. (3) Compare John 10:16-18: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold … there will be one flock, one shepherd … the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me,” [as would have been the case if the soldiers had broken his legs].

    What about the two disciples who walked to Emmaus? “They told … how he had been made known to them in the breaking of bread.” Did they recognize him as their host and provider, even though he had come to Emmaus as their guest?


    The evangelical tradition which assumes that breaking bread alludes to Jesus’ body being “broken” needs to be abandoned. Jesus’ body was not “broken.” It remains intact. We are one.

    This post was written by Neil Wiebe of Central Community Church. Neil & Ruth Wiebe and their two daughters lived among the Chachi people of northwest Ecuador. They worked under Wycliffe Bible Translators in linguistic analysis, bilingual education and Bible translation — "Old Bible translators never die; they just go back to the Original".