“If we seek to understand the vocabulary of our faith as the early Christians understood it, we must be willing to be surprised. What the basic terms mean today in common parlance they did not necessarily mean in the Church’s first generation,” Scott Hahn writes in his new book Consuming the Word: The New Testament and The Eucharist in the Early Church (Image, $23).
Roots of New Testament
Is it possible that terms such as the “New Testament” and the “sacrifice of the altar” don’t mean what we think they mean? Certainly the New Testament is the second half of the Bible beginning with St. Matthew’s Gospel and ending with the Book of Revelation. The Mass is the representation of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
But get ready to be surprised.
Hahn explains that we don’t have any evidence from the first century that Christians used the term “New Testament” to describe the second part of the Bible. “In fact, we don’t find ‘New Testament’ applied to Christian Scriptures until the very end of the second century; and only in the middle of the third century does the term appear with some frequency. We do find the term New Testament early on, but it does not refer to a written word,” he writes.
For early Christians, the New Testament was a message — the good news of Jesus. The message existed before it could be written down and organized into the books that we now call collectively the New Testament.
What makes it tricky is the translation of the Greek word diatheke. In English, it is translated as “testament” or “covenant.” At the time of Jesus, the Jews used the word diatheke to describe a new family relationship such as marriage or adoption. The ritual included an oath, a sacrifice and a meal.
Jesus only uses the term we translate as New Testament once. “In the same way [Jesus] also [took] the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (1 Cor 11:25).
Jesus uses the term to describe the Mass — not a book.
The other important point Hahn makes is in regard to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Christ’s dying on the cross is not what made it a sacrifice — it was his offering of himself at the Last Supper.
“If the Eucharist that Jesus instituted was just a meal, then Calvary was just a Roman execution. But if Jesus instituted the Eucharist to be the Passover of the New Covenant, then it had to involve both sacrifice and communion, as did the Old Covenant Passover,” he writes.
“The words of institution show that Jesus established the Eucharist as the sacrifice of the New Covenant,” he continues. “As such, the Eucharist transformed Calvary from a Roman execution to a holy sacrifice — the consummation of his self-offering that was initiated in the Upper Room. Thus, he didn’t lose his life on Good Friday, since he had already given it — in loving sacrifice — on Holy Thursday. Jesus was not the hapless victim of Roman injustice and violence, but rather the willing victim of divine love and mercy.”
Essential for dialogue
If this sounds challenging, it is. As Hahn says in the introduction, “it is not an academic book, though I hope scholars will find it satisfying and useful. Yet it is not quite a book for beach reading either. Some of the material is demanding, though I hope I have placed it well within the reach of motivated lay readers.”
But this book is essential reading for anyone engaged in dialogue with other non-Catholic Christians. A common question evangelicals ask Catholics is “where does the New Testament talk about the Mass?” We can answer that the Mass precedes the New Testament. In fact, the Mass is the New Testament. It is the proper place for the book of the New Testament to be proclaimed.
The New Testament book did not appear intact the way it shows up in a drawer in every hotel room. It gets its authority from the Church.
“Consuming the Word” is also a reminder to Catholics on the importance of studying Scripture. The Mass and Scripture are intimately linked.
Mark Sullivan is the co-author of St. Monica and the Power of Persistent Prayer (OSV, $12.95) with Mike Aquilina.