Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Friday, February 23, 2018

MsgrLiptak_TNThe Church these days continues to be especially blessed in our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, who, like his predecessor, Blessed Pope John Paul II, ranks as a world-class theologian. John Paul’s expertise was in moral theology; he is still referred to as the Ethician of Lublin (a reference to his professional status). Benedict’s academic stature stands out in doctrinal fundamentals, Biblical exegesis, sacramental theology, ecclesiology and Christology.

His most recent book (March 2011), Jesus of Nazareth, Volume II, is a spectacular course in Christology. As an internationally revered theologian and as Pope, he helps us to understand, more accurately and intensely than ever before, the signal events of Holy Week, from the Entrance into Jerusalem and the Last Supper through to Jesus’ death and Resurrection. While these events are all mysteries of faith, which we embrace wholeheartedly as Catholics, they become more and more comprehensible through Pope Benedict’s pen.

Again, what an advantage most of us now have over the generations which preceded us – as recently as a half century ago. Take the complex problem of dating and characterizing the Last Supper. Isn’t it clear from the Biblical data that an apparent contradiction occurs between St. John’s Gospel account and that of the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke)?

Countless books and papers have been written over the centuries in an attempt to reconcile these chronologies. Benedict has certainly read all the scholarly interventions; he specifies the very latest efforts at exegesis. His conclusion, authored again by Pope as well as theologian, is so easy to accept and appreciate; namely that (in Benedict’s words) "this farewell meal was not the old Passover, but the new one… It was Jesus’ Passover. And, in this sense. he both did and did not celebrate the Passover…" Thus, Jesus’ words at the Last Supper include "a real anticipation of the Cross and Resurrection…" (Benedict acknowledges that this solution, with a few reservations, can be attributed to American scholar Father John P. Meier, in his A Marginal Jew, 4 vols., New York 2009).

It is, however, Benedict’s discussion of the topic of the verba Domini (the words of the Lord over the bread and wine) that attracted my interest most of all.

For one thing, all four narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul) about the institution of the Eucharist commence by citing two actions by Jesus: (1) taking and blessing the bread; and (2) breaking and distributing the bread. Both these gestures have special significance. Distribution by the head of the family, who breaks the bread for those who are gathered, signifies not only sharing but also uniting.

In the words said over the chalice of wine, three Old Testament passages are linked: Exodus 24:8 (the Covenant is sealed on Mt. Sinai); Jeremiah 31:31 (the pledge of a new Covenant is made); and Isaiah 53:12 (the Suffering Servant of God, who ransoms humanity by shedding his Precious Blood, is projected).

Pope Benedict has something to say about the phrase "for many," which is a far more accurate translation than "for all" – in the context of the Precious Blood’s being shed for mankind.

Here the Pope cites the Biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias’s caution that "for many" should be understood not in terms of Greek usage but rather as a Semitism, in the light of the apposite Old Testament texts. Benedict’s conclusion:

"…The prevailing opinion today is that ‘many’ in Isaiah 53 and similar passages does indeed indicate a totality, but it cannot be equated with ‘all’…"

Indeed, the correct interpretation of the Greek "for many" opens up a profound debate from an exegetical viewpoint alone. Pope Benedict points out that whereas in the recent past it was usual to argue exegetically that "for many" actually means "for all" (i.e., for all persons of all nations of all centuries), this is not the case today. Today, the Pope notes, the "prevailing opinion" is that the word "many" in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah "and on the lips of Jesus means the ‘totality’ of Israel…" It was only when the Gospel "was brought to the Gentiles that the universal horizon of Jesus’ death and atonement came to the fore, embracing Jews and Gentiles equally."

There is even more to this whole issue, much more; Biblical exegesis often leads to grey corridors that seem to end in mystery. (Pope Benedict even takes note of a recent theory generated by a Viennese Jesuit.) The bottom line of most theories, of course, is that if Isaiah (whom Jesus is quoting by the phrase "for many") employed the word "many" to describe "the totality of Israel," then as the Church responds in faith to Jesus’ new use of the word, it becomes increasingly clear that he died, indeed "for all."

Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of

The Catholic Transcript

and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.