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Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: A Book Excerpt
Another reason for disagreement is somewhat more subtle. Even if Jesus was speaking literally about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, what could such a command even mean? Was he talking about cannibalism—eating the flesh of a human corpse? While there is no explicit commandment against cannibalism in the Jewish Bible, it was certainly considered taboo. Again, the Gospels bear witness to this reaction. "The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat?'" (John 6:52). This is a good question, and it deserves a good answer.
Perhaps the strongest objection to Jesus' words comes from Jewish Scripture itself. As any ancient Jew would have known, the Bible absolutely forbids a Jewish person to drink the blood of an animal. Although many Gentile religions considered drinking blood to be a perfectly acceptable part of pagan worship, the Law of Moses specifically prohibited it. God had made this very clear on several different occasions. Take, for example, the following Scriptures:
Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. . . . Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. (Genesis 9:3-4)
If any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers that sojourns among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of its life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood. (Leviticus 17:10-12)
You may slaughter and eat flesh within any of your towns, as much as you desire. . . . Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it out upon the earth like water. (Deuteronomy 12:16)
Clearly, the commandment against drinking animal blood was serious. To break it would mean being "cut off" from God and from his people. Notice also that it was a universal law. God expected not only the chosen people of Israel to keep it, but any Gentile "strangers" living among them. Finally, note the reason for the prohibition. People were not to consume blood because "the life" or "the soul" (Hebrew nephesh) of the animal is in the blood. As Leviticus states, "It is the blood that makes atonement, by the power of its life." While scholars continue to debate exactly what this means, one thing is clear: in the ancient world, the Jewish people were known for their refusal to consume blood. Jesus' words at the Last Supper become even more mysterious with this biblical background in mind. As a Jew, how could he ever have commanded his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood? Wouldn't this mean explicitly breaking the biblical law against consuming blood? Indeed, even if Jesus meant his words only symbolically, how could he say such things? Wouldn't his command mean transgressing the spirit of the Law, if not the letter? As the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes points out,
[T]he imagery of eating a man's body and especially drinking his blood . . . , even after allowance is made for metaphorical language, strikes a totally foreign note in a Palestinian Jewish cultural setting (cf. John 6.52). With their profoundly rooted blood taboo, Jesus' listeners would have been overcome with nausea at hearing such words.