Barry Newman's Blog

July 8, 2011

The Cup of the Lord?

Filed under: Eucharist,Holy Communion,Lord's Supper,The cup of the Lord — barrynewman @ 12:15 am

The Cup of the Lord? (Part 1)

Traditionally, in protestant circles, the phrase translated “the cup of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 10: 21 has been understood to refer simply to “the cup” used in what is translated, “The Lord’s Supper” in 1 Corinthians 11: 20.  Unfortunately this is a mistaken notion and in two important respects.  However in this mini-series I will refer to only one of these and focus on the phrase, “the cup of the Lord”.

Firstly, the Greek for this phrase knows of no definite articles and unless there is a strong reason to the contrary, the definite article should not appear in the translation.  There is a case for “the” appearing in connection with “Lord” since “Lord” is a proper noun.  However, unless it can be established that “cup” in association with “the Lord” forms a phrase which takes on the character of a formal designation, then the translation should refer to, “a cup”.

An examination was carried out on forty five (45) Greek texts, dating from the 4th century BC until the 3rd century AD, referring to a cup, of one sort or another, in association the mention of a god, gods, “the heroes” or the name of a human being. The points of interest were (i) the grammatical case assigned to the god, gods, “the heroes” or the named person, (ii) the context, and (iii) where relevant, any verb used in close association with the cup or the beings to which reference is made.

Most of the examples were related to a god, and the vast majority came from an early 3rd century AD work by Athenaeus, entitled Deipnosophistai (The Deipnosophists).  The lengthy work, originally consisting of fifteen books, feigns to be a record by Athenaeus of a series of banquet conversations.  In his account he cites numerous (over 700) Greek authors of prior times and a very large number of Greek writings (around 2, 500).  All of the texts examined came from books xi and xv.  Some are closely related.  They are related in terms of their proximity to each other in the text or in terms of the same text being cited more than once but in a different form.

When reading Athenaeus one is reminded of the considerable part played by the drinking of wine in Greaco-Roman formal dinner gatherings.  Such occasions were common amongst various groups of people, particularly the “middle” and “upper” classes and for a variety of reasons. One of the many interests of Athenaeus was to describe various types of cups (he names about 100 in book xi) and their use.



  1. Hi Barry,

    An interesting suggestion, but I think there are some difficulties which you would also need to address to make your case stronger:

    1. 1Cor 10:16–17 appear to point to the Lord’s Supper as the context against which verse 20 should be read (“cup of blessing” is widely recognised as related to the celebration of the Passover meal, and the references to blood and body of Christ in verse 16–17 both point in this direction).

    2. When I first read the expression ποτήριον κυρίου it made me think of Hebrew syntax in which the fact that κύριος is definite means that the entire expression is effectively definite (compare “the cup of pharaoh” in Gen 40:11). If there is semitic influence here it would be reasonable to read it “the cup of the Lord.”

    3. A search for similar constructions (“x of [the] Lord”) reveals quite a few parallels wherein the noun x is anarthrous but definite. See, for example Luke 1:66; 2:9; 4:18; 5:17; Acts 2:20; 11:21; 13:11; Rom 11:34; 1Cor 2:16; etc.).

    4. Your assertion that “the Greek for this phrase knows of no definite articles and unless there is a strong reason to the contrary, the definite article should not appear in the translation” is too simplistic.

    I point you to “Apollonius’ Canon” which states that either both the head noun and the genitive noun either have the article or lack the article (known as Apollonius’ Canon). According to Dan Wallace, it makes little semantic difference whether the construction is articular or anarthrous. For example, ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ≣ λόγος θεοῦ. Furthermore, Apollonius’ Corollary is that “when both nouns are anarthrous, both will usually have the same semantic force. That is, both will be, for example, definite (D-D), the most commonly shared semantic force. Somewhat less common is qualitative-qualitative (Q-Q). The least likely semantic force is indefinite-indefinite (I-I). Further, although not infrequently was there a one-step difference between the two substantives (e.g., D-Q), only rarely did the two nouns differ by two steps (either I-D or D-I).” (See Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics, p. 250).

    In light of this, “the cup of the Lord” would appear to be a legitimate reading which stands without a need for special justification.

    Comment by Martin Shields — July 15, 2011 @ 7:23 am | Reply

    • Hi Martin,

      Thanks for the comments.

      You mention there are some difficulties with the position. The main difficulty is that exegetes write into the text what they assume is already there. I concentrated on the phrase “ou dunasthe poterion kuriou pinein” to indicate what the statement means in its own right without bringing to bear upon it various presuppositions commonly held. The evidence for understanding it as a reference to a toast is exceedingly strong. All of the references to cups of various sorts in association with a deity, deities, “the heroes” and a couple of human beings, that I found, refer in way or another to the drinking of a toast and where the genitive is involved it often, if not almost always, appears to be related directly to the giving of a toast. Why should the 1 Corinthian text be any different? However I take it that your points 1 to 4 are meant to indicate why it should be understood differently. I will now address them.

      1. Though it is almost universal assumed, it is odd to suggest that 1 Cor 10: 21 should be understood, in the way that you suggest, in the light of 1 Cor 10: 16, 17. Of course what cements together verses 14 to 22 are ideas such as “partnership” and the “gods” in the context of meals. However, over 40 Greek words intervene between verses 17 and 21. Understandably, verse 21 is more tightly tied to verse 20. Verse 20 is concerned with not being in partnership with the deities and verse 21 gives a concrete example of what that means. Verses 16, 17 refer to the first person plural, verses 19, 20 to the first person singular and verse 21 to the second person plural. Verses 16, 17 on the one hand and verse 21 probably refer to different though overlapping situations. I think it is a reasonable guess that verses 16, 17 refer to the believers’ community meal while verse 21 refers to any meal but private meals could be more in mind. This would mean that in Chs 8 to 10, Paul has covered all bases: meals in temple precincts especially temple dining rooms, buying meat, eating meals as a guest, eating believer community meals and eating private meals or meals of any type.

      I know that it is assumed that 1 Cor 10: 16, 17 relate to a ceremony called “the Lord’s Supper”. I think this is reading into the text. However, I will not further elaborate upon the use of this phrase in this context at this time. Yet certainly there could be overtones of the Last Passover Meal in the text. I suspect that it could be paraphrased as follows:

      “When together we drink our wine with thanks it is not offered as a shared toast to the gods. Is not our thanksgiving cup drunk with thanks by us who share in the Christ who shed his blood for us? When we share our meal it is not because we share an allegiance to the gods. Is not our breaking of bread, our sharing, a oneness in Christ? Though many, we are one because we share in the one who is our bread, our sustenance.”

      One of the problems that people have had in understanding these verses is the assumption that “the cup of blessing which we bless” is liturgical in nature. Upon my request a search was carried out as to the expression “cup of blessing” appearing in Mishnaic Hebrew before Paul’s time. There is no evidence to that effect, though of course it may have been used as a casual expression. As far as we can tell, the phrase first appears in the Pauline letter. Furthermore, the longer phrase is not found until the 4th century and I could find only three examples of “cup of blessing” or similar before that time. This is odd if indeed an established liturgical phrase is involved. Even Jeremias, who had the title of the world’s expert in Aramaic had to refer to a 1928 work by someone else to back up his notion that a liturgical expression was involved. I suspect he couldn’t find it himself!

      2. I think it is dangerous to suggest that the entire expression is effectively definite on the basis of a comparison with Hebrew syntax or on any other ground but see below.

      3. Yes a search for similar constructions “x of the Lord” reveal many instances where the definite article should be involved with both terms. How could it be otherwise with nouns such as, “name”, “glory”, Spirit”, “power”, “day”, “hand”, “mind”? When such terms are related to “the Lord” there is only one of them and of course “the” has to appear in the English language. However note when such is not the case: Acts 5: 19, 8: 26, 12: 7, 23 where the reference is to “an angel” (though some translations may decide upon “the angel” unnecessarily pre-judging the issue) and 2 Cor 12: 1 where reference is to “revelations”. There can be more than one angel of the Lord and there can be more than one set of revelations of the Lord (just as there can be more than one cup used as a toast to the Lord).

      4. You may judge my statement to be simplistic but I should point out the following. Wallace in his detailed analysis of grammatical situations where the definite article is absent in Greek maintains that 1 Corinthians 10: 21 is a “clear example” of a case of a genitive construction where a translation using the definite article is required. In explaining the particulars of the genitive construction and the absence of the definite article in Greek he makes explicit reference to 4 texts where it is clear that a “one only” is involved – “the Spirit of God” (Matt 3:16) being one phrase cited. He then includes 5 other texts, among them being1 Corinthians 10: 21, as further examples of those situations where the definite article should appear in a translation. His position is undoubtedly that these examples also refer to “one only” entities, “the house of Israel” (Acts 2:36) being one of them. It is questionable however, whether one of the genitive constructions in 1 Thessalonians 2: 13, cited as another example, refers to a “one only” entity and 1 Corinthians 10: 21 only refers to such if it is assumed that a rite is involved! If no such assumption is made then an English translation using the indefinite article cannot be judged to be inappropriate. The rule, as it is apparently understood, to which appeal is being made, seems to me to be too simplistic in that it lacks the obvious explanation as to why it sometimes holds. Of course, whenever only one of something is considered possible, the definite article should appear in English. Wallace makes the case for 1 Cor 10: 21 because he assumes that there is a Christian ceremony involved where a special, one only, cup is involved. The assumption of a special, one only, cup means that the definite article has to be employed which then means that we are looking at a special cup! This is not actually being simplistic, it is worse. It is circular, misleading, pre-judges the issue and writes into the text what is already assumed!

      On this matter I sought advice from an ancient historian with expertise in Classical Greek and a true believer. He firmly maintained that in this instance the definite article should not appear in an English translation. This was not upon any suggestion of mine being offered or upon my giving him any evidence that it should be so.

      In the work by Athenaeus, there appear phrases where Gulick translates the reference to a cup of one sort or another without using the definite article and where no definite articles occur in the Greek. E.g. “a poterion to Zeus Saviour”, “a large akatos to Zeus Saviour” “a metaniptris to Hygieia.” However, in these cases, there is no definite article provided for the deity either. In fact it would be quite odd if it were so – “the Zeus Saviour” “the Hygieia”!! However when the English word, “Lord” appears we need to distinguish “the Lord” from any lord and so we use the definite article. Interestingly in a text by Antiphanes, where again there is no definite articles in the Greek, the translation becomes, “a metaniptris to the Good Deity”. The use of the definite article in association with the deity becomes a necessity because of the deity’s particular name but not a necessity with respect to the cup to which reference is made.



      Comment by barrynewman — July 16, 2011 @ 2:53 am | Reply

  2. Hi Barry,

    Thanks for your response which has helpfully filled out the detail behind your original blog post, and which certainly provides a stronger foundation for your reading (although it’d be even nicer to see precise references and examples from the Greek material). I think you’re probably right about Appolonius’ Canon, although there would really be nothing wrong with “the Zeus Saviour” in Greek (it is quite common to use the article with proper nouns in Greek, of course you wouldn’t translate the article in English because proper nouns are implicitly treated as definite).

    I do still have some reservations. For starters, I’d be interested in knowing how many of your examples predate the NT. It would also be interesting to know of any examples from Jewish sources rather than Greek, since it isn’t clear to me that Paul would be comfortable condoning pagan practices.

    I’m also not persuaded that there is a significant shift in focus through verses 16–21. A few more than 40 words is, all things considered, not a large distance (the beatitudes, for comparison, are 96 words; the Lord’s prayer about 60; and those together fall within a larger unit). The shift in grammatical person through the verses actually serves to tie them together: Paul refers to shared practice, explains his understanding, then applies it to his audience.

    I also get the impression that you understand the “Lord’s Supper” to be a formal ceremonial meal, but I think the impression given in the NT (e.g. Acts 2) is that this is not the case, rather it is a memorial which can be enacted as part of any meal. Hence, when you say that “I think it is a reasonable guess that verses 16, 17 refer to the believers’ community meal…,” I think that would have been recognised as a celebration of the Lord’s Supper since, as Paul makes clear, the cup is a sharing in the blood of Christ and the broken bread is a sharing in the body of Christ.

    Finally, there are other contextual clues which do seem to point to the Lord’s Supper beyond a reference to the “cup of blessing” (for which 1QS 6:5 might be of interest; later might be Ber. 6:5; 8:8; BabaM 4:11): the cup is a sharing in the blood of Christ; the breaking of bread is a sharing in the body of Christ; and, of course, the juxtaposition of the cup with the bread. Such colocations only elsewhere occur in the NT in the accounts of the Last Supper and in Paul’s discussion in 1Cor 11.

    Comment by Martin Shields — July 24, 2011 @ 10:37 am | Reply

  3. Hi Martin,

    I think many if not most of the examples quoted by Athenaeus predate the N.T. It is the nature of his work to have the supposed banqueters quote from antiquity. However, he writes early 3rd century AD and his handling of the Greek texts is probably a reflection of his own Greek. As far as I understand it in most cases we don’t have the original to make any comparisons between his Greek and the original Greek.

    I think it is a mistake to assume that “toasting” in itself was simply a practice that would have to be condemned by Paul as “pagan”. It wasn’t only god’s who were toasted, human beings were as well. It was a way, among other things of wishing the other person well. I am however unaware of Jewish practices involving toasting. I might look into that at a future date. However there are Jewish writings which refer to a table of the Lord, being a reference to an ordinary meal but where somehow or other the Lord was honoured (e.g. by the recital of some words from the Torah at some point in the meal) with the implication that all meals should be so honouring.

    The shift from 1 Cor 10: 16, 17 to 1 Cor 10: 21 is not profound; 10: 14 and 10: 22 make it clear that the background framework is idols/demons. However consider that in between these verses the reference in 10: 18 is to Israel, however that verse is to be understood. Any connection between 10: 21, 22 and 10: 21 is not tight. In reality, the commentators, simply see in 10: 16, 17 and 10: 21 references to what they call the “Lord’s Supper”. I have examined numerous commentaries on these texts and I cannot remember any writer attempting to show a tight textual connection. Of course they do the same with 1 Cor 11: 20. It is the only mention of what is termed the “Lord’s Supper” and yet that term is freely applied to the 1 Cor 10 passages. 1 Cor 11: 2-16 which lies between the passages under consideration, deals with head coverings, a reasonably separate matter!

    An alternative to your way of seeing the shift in grammatical person is to understand Paul referring to their communal meals in which he had previously been a participant, then shifting to his commentary on the quote regarding Israel, then to a practice with which he has had no association and with which he will not associate.

    No, I do not see the “Lord’s Supper” as referring to a formal ceremonial meal. Using the TLG there is no clear indication that anyone saw the text in 1 Cor 11: 20 as referring to what is now considered to be the Lord’s Supper until the 4th century (one important exception receives no warrant in TLG) though Clement of Alexandria quotes the passage. However I have refrained from dealing with that specific matter, at this point in time. Suffice it to say, that again there are no relevant definite articles in that text, the text is a negative statement about what is not, and the adjective “kuriakos” is used and not the noun “kurios”. Taking cues from Greek usage of the adjective, the text reads, “When you come together to eat it is not a meal owned by the Lord” (that is “that has his stamp on it” – to use a colloquial expression). A literal translation would probably simply refer to “a Lordly meal”. There is much more that could be said on this verse but I do not want to enter a debate on it at the moment. I am only making a comment on it because it is common to refer to it when discussing 1 Cor 10: 21, as you yourself have done. I have been simply trying to understand 1 Cor 10: 21 in its own right.

    I have already made my comments about how 1 Cor 10: 16, 17 should be understood and the lack of textual evidence for what is commonly assumed. The phrase, “the cup of blessing” has no precedent, as far as we can tell, in either any Jewish or any Christian liturgy before Paul’s letter. Furthermore I think your impression about Acts 2 etc is unwarranted. There are a large number of references to bread and its being broken outside of the references to the Last Passover meal and outside of the feeding of the 4,000 and 5,000, in the New Testament. An examination of the grammatical constructions used provide no evidence that the references go beyond ordinary meals, even if they were banquet meals. There is no evidence for any language connecting bread and its being broken being used technically – the grammatical constructions vary so much. However, I realise that it has been common to see the “Lord’s Supper” in numerous references throughout Acts – in my view, clear examples of writing into the text later practices and understandings. It is very difficult to shake oneself free of such prejudgements.

    Finally, it is not clear that Paul discusses the Last Passover meal in 1 Cor 11, so much as uses it. However I will not further elaborate upon this matter at this time.

    Thanks for the ongoing chat.


    Comment by barrynewman — July 25, 2011 @ 12:29 am | Reply

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