Written by Vladimir Moss



     When the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches anathematized each other in 1054, the main subject of their quarrel was neither the Filioque nor the universal jurisdiction of the Papacy, although these major dogmatic questions did enter into the correspondence. The main subject of their quarrel was something which had not been a major bone of contention before, and did not become so again afterwards: the question whether the bread of the Eucharist should be leavened, as was the practice in the East, or unleavened, as in the West.

     The fact that this issue was tacitly dropped in almost all subsequent ecumenical discussions is understandable; it was thought unnecessary and harmful to the common goal of the unity of the Churches to concentrate on a liturgical or ritual issue when major dogmatic questions remained unresolved; differences in rite were considered to be tolerable so long as dogmatic agreement could be attained.[1] Nevertheless, there is one major figure in Orthodox-Catholic relations who disagreed with this line of thinking: St. Mark of Ephesus. At the council of Florence in 1439 “he insisted in calling upon Latins to return to the standards of Orthodoxy by eliminating, among other things, their ‘dead sacrifice’ in unleavened bread.”[2] In view of Mark’s irreproachable Orthodoxy and holiness in the eyes of the Orthodox, and the impossibility of accusing him of pettiness or legalism, it may be useful now, on the verge of a possible new and final “push for unity” between Orthodoxy and Papism, to examine once again the arguments on this issue.


     Let us begin by asking: what kind of bread did the Lord use at the Last Supper?

     Our earliest witness, St. Paul, witnesses that the Lord “took bread”, that is, leavened bread, αρτος(I Corinthians 11.23, 26, 27). As for the three Synoptic Evangelists (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25 and Luke 22:19-20), Archbishop Averky (Taushev) of Jordanville writes: “All three describe this event in approximately the same way. The Lord ‘took’ the bread, blessed it, broke it and distributed it among the disciples, saying: Take, eat; this is My Body.’  The word bread’ here is ‘artos [αρτος] in Greek, which means ‘raised bread’, bread that has been leavened on yeast, as opposed to ‘azymon [αζυμων], as the unleavened bread used by the Jews at Pascha was called. It must be assumed that such bread had been specially prepared on the Lord’s instructions, in order to establish the new Mystery. The significance of this bread lies in that it is as it were alive, symbolizing life, as opposed to unleavened bread, which is dead.”[3]

     Peter, Patriarch of Antioch, explained the significance of the use of leavened bread in his correspondence with the Venetian Archbishop Dominic of Grado in 1052. Unleavened bread (αζυμα), he said, was prescribed for the Jews in remembrance of their hasty flight from Egypt, “so that, remembering the wonders that God had done among them, they would abide by His commandments and never forget His deeds. But the perfectly leavened loaf (αρτος) - which through the ritual is made into the undefiled Body of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ – is given in remembrance of His dispensation in the flesh. ‘For whenever you eat this loaf (αρτος) and drink this cup,’ he says, ‘you proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes’ (I Corinthians 11.26). Now notice, most holy brother-in-spirit, that in all these places a loaf (αρτος), and not matzo [unleavened bread, αζυμα], is proclaimed to be the Body of the Lord, because it is complete and full (αρτιον). But matzo is dead and lifeless and in all ways incomplete. But when the leaven is introduced into the wheaten dough, it becomes, as it were, living and substantial.”[4]

     Therefore “the Latins were in error, Peter claimed, if they thought that the sacrament sealing the new covenant had been instituted in unleavened bread. For the azyme had been divinely designated under the old covenant to commemorate the Exodus, while the Evangelists expressly state that Jesus designated bread  (αρτος) as his body. This was not an arbitrary choice, since the physical properties of the loaf (αρτος) made it a fitting symbol of life, and fulfillment, while matzos (αζυμα) bespoke deprivation. For, in lacking salt and leaven, they could not properly serve as man’s daily ‘food of life’, which was what the Logos offered men in the flesh.”[5] 

     The symbolism of the leavened bread is explained as follows: “Those who present matzos offer dead, and not living flesh. For the leaven in the dough is for the soul and the salt for the mind. How (then) is matzo, which does not have such things, not lifeless and dead and, in essence, death-dealing? For our Lord Jesus Christ – Who is perfect God and perfect man, twofold by nature – Who assumed a besouled and also a beminded Body from the Ever-Virgin, handed over as an image (of this) the mystery of the New Covenant through a perfect loaf, when He blessed and broke it and said: ‘Take, eat! This is the Bread of heaven, both living and life-giving for those who eat it. He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood remains in Me and I in him’ (John 6.56).”[6] 

     The Lord told us to pray for our “daily” bread. The very rare Greek word normally translated as “daily”, επιουσιος, is better translated as “vital”, “substantial”, or, more literally, as “for-the-being-of” us men. This is the bread of the Eucharist, which becomes, as a result of the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Body and Blood of Christ, which is vital for our eternal well being. But if, says Patriarch Peter, “we still partake of matzos, it is evident that we are still under the shadow of the Law of Moses and we eat a Jewish meal rather than the Logos-filled (λογικην) and living flesh of God, which is at once ‘for-the-being-of’ (επιουσιον) and ‘of-one-being-of’ (ομοουσιον) us who have believed.”[7] 

     But this return to the Old Covenant has very serious consequences. For St. Paul says that “you who are justified by the Law are cut off from Christ” (Galatians 5.25). And so in line with this, says Patriarch Peter, “I might perhaps say: If you eat matzos, Christ will be of no avail to you. For these were commanded in memory of the flight from Egypt, and not (in memory) of His saving Passion.”[8] Again, as the Monk Nicetas Stethatos pointed out to the Latins, the use of unleavened bread signified a return to the Old Testament: “Those who still participate in the feast of unleavened bread are under the shadow of the law and consume the feast of the Jews, not the spiritual and living food of God… How can you enter into communion with Christ, the living God, while eating the dead unleavened dough of the shadow of the law and not the yeast of the new covenant…?” [9]

     Using unleavened rather than leavened bread not only takes us away from the completeness and joy of the New Covenant Pascha and back to the incompleteness and affliction of the Old Covenant Pascha. It also threatens to draw us into the heresy of Apollinarius, who denied that the incarnate Lord had a human soul and mind: “Whoever partakes of matzos unwittingly runs the risk of falling into the heresy of Apollinarius. For the latter dared to say that the Son and Word of God received only a soul-less and mindless Body from the Holy Virgin, saying that the Godhead took the place of the mind and soul.”[10]


     The Latins, led in 1054 by Cardinal Humbert of Candida Silva, had two major arguments in defence of their own practice. The first was that the word “leaven” in the New Testament had bad rather than good connotations, as when the Lord spoke about “the leaven of the Pharisees”, meaning hypocrisy (Matthew 16.6). Again St. Paul exhorted the Corinthians to “cast out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you are truly unleavened. For indeed Christ our Pascha was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (I Corinthians 5.6-7). If unleavened bread signified sincerity and truth, reasoned Humbert, was it not more appropriate for the Body of the Truth Himself to be made from unleavened bread?

     However, leaven has a quite different symbolical meaning in the following parable of the Lord: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until it was all leavened” (Matthew 13.33). Here leaven indicates the Kingdom of heaven, that is, grace, which, when mixed with the dough of human nature in three measures, corresponding to the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, raises it on high. And this is precisely what the Bread of the Eucharist does, uniting the Divine Fire of the Holy Trinity and the perfect and complete Manhood of the God-Man to our human nature, thereby raising it to the Kingdom on high. As Archbishop Averky writes: “In the soul of every individual member of Christ’s Kingdom the power of grace invisibly, but gradually and actively starts to possess all the powers of his spirit, and sanctifies and transfigures them. Some interpret the three measures as being the three powers of the soul: the mind, feeling and will.”[11]

     Faced with the fact of the dual symbolism of leaven in the New Testament, the Latin argument proves to be indecisive. We must therefore return to the fact that leaven was used in the Last Supper according to the Evangelists and St. Paul. And we must assume that its symbolism there was positive...

     However, at this point the second, and weightier Latin argument comes into play. According to the Latins, “αρτος” in the Gospels must have meant unleavened bread because, according to the same Evangelists, the Lord as a faithful keeper of the Law and perfectly sinless man would not have transgressed the prescription of the Law concerning the celebration of the Jewish feast of Pascha on unleavened bread. Moreover, the Synoptic Gospel-writers (although not John) call these days precisely “the Feast of Unleavened Bread”.

     For a clarification of this conundrum, let us turn again to Archbishop Averky: “All four Evangelists describe the Lord’s Mystical Supper with His disciples on the eve of His sufferings on the Cross, but not all report the circumstances of this supper with equal fullness. Besides, the expressions used by the first three Evangelists about the day when the Mystical Supper took place appear to contradict in a certain way the expressions used by the fourth Evangelist, St. John. The only thing we can say with complete certainty is that the Mystical Supper took place on the fifth day of the week, i.e. according to our calendar, Thursday. Likewise it is clear that the Lord was condemned and crucified on the sixth day of the week — Friday, remained in the tomb on the seventh day of the week — Saturday, and was resurrected from the dead on the first day of the week. However, perplexity and differences in opinion are elicited with regard to the relationship of the day of the Mystical Supper to the Jewish feast of Pascha that was being celebrated at that time, that is: did the Mystical Supper take place on the 14th of Nisan, on the evening of which the Jewish Pascha began, or on the 13th of Nisan, i.e. on the day preceding the evening when the festival of Pascha began? These perplexities are generated by the following indications of the Evangelists regarding the Mystical Supper:

Matthew 26:17 Now on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread…

Mark 14:12 Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they killed the Passover lamb…

Luke 22:7 Then came the Day of Unleavened Bread…’

John 13:1 Now before the Feast of the Passover…’

     “Pascha began on the evening of the 14th of Nisan and consequently, if we adhere to the strictly biblical word-usage, ‘the first Day of Unleavened Bread’ can only be the day after it, i.e. the 15th of Nisan. Evidently the first three Evangelists did not adhere to the strictly biblical word-usage, but to the everyday, conversational one. In accordance with this word-usage it was possible to call ‘the first Day of Unleavened Bread,’ not the 15th of Nisan, which falls on the day after the partaking of the Pascha, nor even the 14th, when the Pascha is eaten, but the 13th — the day before Pascha — as is clearly indicated by the Evangelist John, who affirms that the Mystical Supper was ‘before the Feast of Pascha’. Moreover, Saint John has other testimonies that the Jewish Pascha began only on Friday evening, when the Lord was crucified: John 18:28, — those leading Jesus to Pilate didn’t enter the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they may eat the Passover,’ and John 19:31 — the Jews hurried to break the knees of those crucified, so as not to leave the bodies on the crosses on Saturday, for that Sabbath was a great day, i.e. Saturday coincided with the first day of Pascha and consequently, the Pascha was eaten on the eve, on Friday, after Christ had been crucified.”[12]

     In accordance with this interpretation, and  contrary to the Latins, the Jews did not eat unleavened bread on Holy Thursday. This interpretation is supported by Patriarch Peter: “Even Luke says that Christ took a loaf [αρτος] and not matzo. For there was none [no unleavened bread, αζυμα] as yet, it being Thursday when this happened. For that Thursday was still the thirteenth and there were no matzos yet, since the removal of the loaf had not yet occurred. For according to the Torah, matzos began on the fifteenth day, and on the fourteenth the lamb was slain, and nothing more…”[13]

     “The question arises,” continues Archbishop Averky, “why did Christ perform the Jewish Pascha, which He undoubtedly performed on the day at the Mystical Supper (even though the Apostles do not describe it in detail, because their main attention was focused on establishing the New Testament Pascha, the Holy Communion of Christ’s Flesh and Blood) one day earlier than was required. The basic assumption is that because the evening of the 14th of Nisan that year was the beginning of the Sabbath rest (Saturday was approaching), so the Passover lamb was slain on the evening of the 13th. This coincides with Saint Mark’s remark: When they killed the Paschal lamb and with Saint Luke’s: When the Pascha must be killed’. Besides, it was known that after the Babylonian bondage, the Jews — especially the Galileans — began to be zealous to celebrate even the days preceding the feast day. This was particularly so for the Galileans who had come to Jerusalem: for them the lamb was always slain one day earlier - on the 13th instead of the 14th. This was a great relief for those serving in the temple, for whom slaughtering 256,000 lambs on the one day of the 14th of Nisan would have been too burdensome. Finally, it is supposed that the Lord performed the Pascha one day earlier because He knew that on the following day He would be betrayed into the hands of the Jews and be crucified, and in order that His Sacrifice on the Cross, the forefigure of which were the Paschal lambs, should be offered on the same day and hour when the Paschal lambs were slain. In any case, we know that the aim of Saint John was to complete the narratives of the first three Evangelists. Therefore, we must accept as indisputable his indication that the Mystical Supper was performed by the Lord before the Paschal feast came, that is, not on the 14th but on the 13th of Nisan.”[14]


     Archbishop Averky also teaches that on Holy Thursday, the Lord first celebrated the Old Testament Pascha for the last time, before instituting the Eucharist of the New Testament. As Blessed Theophylact writes, “Having first kept the Pascha in type, He then kept it in truth.”[15] St. Luke describes the scene as follows. The Lord first said: “With desire have I desired to eat this Pascha with you before I suffer; for I say unto you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.” Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22.15-18) Averky understands this fruit of the vine in the Kingdom to signify the Divine joy of the Kingdom of Christ that the disciples will experience after the Resurrection.[16]

     While they were still eating, the Lord indicated in a hidden manner that Judas would betray him. Only to John was the identity of the traitor revealed, as he recounts: “Jesus answered, ‘He it is to whom I shall give a sop [ψωμιον], when I have dipped it.’ And when He had dipped the sop, He gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then Jesus said unto him, ‘That thou doest, do quickly.’” (John 13.26-27).

     Archbishop Averky explains that at the Old Testament Pascha “the bread was soaked in a special sauce made of dates and figs. The head of the family sometimes gave out such morsels as a sign of his special favour. And in this way, of course, the Lord wanted once more to elicit the feeling of repentance in Judas. This was clear only for John. But to the other Apostles the Lord spoke about the traitor, as the first three Evangelists relate, in general terms: ‘He that dippeth his hand with Me in the dish, the same shall betray Me’, ‘Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed’… He then having received the sop went out immediately out; and it was night.”[17]

     The Holy Fathers differ as to whether Judas partook of the New Testament Eucharist that was now instituted or not. Archbishop Averky believes that he did not. The Divine services of Holy Week, as we read in the Triodion, say that he did. Blessed Theophylact adopts a neutral stance: “Worse than a beast, Judas did not become more meek when he partook of the common meal. Not even when reproved did he listen, but he went so far as to taste of the Lord’s Body, and still did not repent. But some say that Christ did not give the Mysteries to the other disciples until Judas had left. So we too should do the same and withhold the Mysteries from those who are evil…”[18 

     In any case, one thing is certain: after Christ had blessed the bread, which was certainly leavened and not unleavened bread, it thereupon immediately ceased to be bread but became His Flesh. This is indicated even by the grammar of the Greek of the Synoptic Evangelists. For, as Archbishop Averky explains, when the Lord said, ‘This is My Body’, the word for this was not the masculine form of the pronoun, “ουτος», which would have been the correct form if it had qualified the masculine word “αρτος», meaning “bread”, but “τουτο», which was the neuter form of the pronoun and therefore appropriate for the neuter word “σωμα», meaning “body”. In other words, “at this moment the bread had already ceased to be bread, and had become the true Body of Christ, only retaining the form of bread.”[19] The bread of earth had become the Bread of Heaven…


June 19 / July 2, 2015.

Holy Apostle Jude.

St. John Maximovich.

[1] For example, Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes: “Almost all the Byzantine arguments against the Latin rites have long since become unimportant, and only the genuine dogmatic deviations of Rome have remained” (The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961, p. 248).

[10] Peter, cited (with some alterations) in Smith, op. cit., p. 58, note 80. Over five centuries later, Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople said that the Old Rome had fallen away from Christ because of “Apollinarianism”.

[11] Averky, op. cit., p. 135.

[12] Averky, op. cit., p. 268.

[13]Peter, cited (with some alterations) in Smith, op. cit., p. 57, note 75.

[14] Averky, op. cit., p. 269.

[15]The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, House Springs, Mo.: Chrysostom Press, 1992, p. 227. As the footnote to the translation indicates, however, other Orthodox fathers and writers are not in agreement with Theophylact as to when, or indeed whether, the Lord ate the old Pascha, that is, the Passover meal, that year.

[16]Averky, op. cit., p. 270.

[17] Averky, op. cit., p. 273.

[18] Blessed Theophylact, op. cit., p. 228.

[19] Averky, op. cit., p. 275.

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