Just for Catholics

The Eucharist: Memorial or Sacrifice?

Question: The Apostles and early believers recognized the sacrificial character of Jesus' instruction, "Do this in remembrance (Gr. anamnasin) of me" is better translated "Offer this as my memorial sacrifice."

Anamnesis ("remembrance") has sacrificial overtones. It occurs only eight times in the NT and the Greek OT. All but once (Wisdom 16:6) it is in a sacrificial context (Hebrews 10:3, Leviticus 24:7, Numbers 10:10 and Psalm 38 [39] and 70 [70]). In these cases the term anamnesis can be translated as "memorial portion," "memorial offering," or "memorial sacrifice." Thus in the remaining two occurrences of anamnesis (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24), Christ’s words "Do this in remembrance of Me," can be translated as "Offer this for my memorial sacrifice." Given the sacrificial character of the Eucharist, there is little doubt this translation is appropriate.

Answer: We owe a great debt to the scholars of the original biblical languages for the translations and explanations of the sacred text. However, it is not uncommon in popular apologetics that reference is made to the Hebrew and Greek merely as a show off. We who do not know the Hebrew and Greek languages feel rather intimidated by this kind of arguments. Yet, I have learned to maintain an attitude of healthy skepticism in these circumstances. After all, linguistic experts are fallible human beings like the rest of us, and they may also be hopelessly biased and plainly deceptive. Equipped with basic tools, a Greek lexicon, a concordance and common sense, it is not difficult to detect flaws in the argument presented above.

The suggested translation it is not appropriate at all. Jesus did not say, “Offer this for my memorial sacrifice.” Rather, He said: “Do this in remembrance (anamnesis) of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24,25). The Greek words used in the New Testament for sacrifice is thusia and thuo. The Greek word anamnesis does not mean sacrifice. According to The Old/New Testament Greek lexicon based on Thayer's and Smith's Bible Dictionary, anamnesis simply means “a remembering, recollection.”

In the New Testament, the same word is used in Hebrews 10:3. It is also used in the Septuagint to translate several Hebrew words (azkarah in Leviticus 24:7 meaning “a reminder; specifically remembrance-offering; memorial”; zikrown in Numbers 10:10 meaning “a memento or memorable thing, day or writing, memorial, record”; zakar, found in the titles of Psalms 38 and 70, meaning “to mark so as to be recognized, i.e. to remember).

We should note the following:

1. The Catholic apologist does not claim that anamnesis means sacrifice. He only says that it has “sacrificial overtones” and that “Do this in remembrance of me” can be appropriately translated “Offer this for my memorial sacrifice” - even though there is no respectable translation, not even a Catholic translation, that actually does so! For example, the Douay-Rheims Bible translates "for a commemoration of me" and the Catholic New American Bible: "do this in memory of me" and "in remembrance of me". The Catholic translators would have been more than willing to write down "memorial sacrifice" instead of "remembrance" if only they could!

2. It is not true that its occurrence in Psalm 38 and 70 is in a sacrificial context. One only has to read the two psalms to verify that the subject in not sacrificial.

3. Anamnesis is sometimes used in sacrificial contexts. Among other purposes, Old Testament sacrifices served as a remembrance. The Levitical sacrifices served to bring to mind the sins of the people. “But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year” (Hebrews 10:3). Similarly the frankincense, the blowing of the trumpets and the various sacrifices were memorials (Leviticus 24:7 and Numbers 10:10).

However, it must be stressed that other things also served as a remembrance (such as psalms in Psalms 38 and 70; stones in Joshua 4:7; crowns in Zechariah 6:14 and a book in Exodus 17:14). Clearly, a sacrifice can serve as a memorial, but it does not follow that whatever serves as a memorial must be a sacrifice! A rose may be red, but not every red object must be a rose. Therefore the word anamnesis used by Jesus in the Lord’s Supper does not necessarily imply that the Supper is a sacrifice.

The Catholic apologist argues, “Given the sacrificial character of the Eucharist, there is little doubt this translation (“memorial sacrifice”) is appropriate.” The apologist is supposed to prove that the Eucharist is a sacrifice from the word anamnesis; instead he assumes that the Eucharist is a sacrifice to prove that the word anamnesis means a memorial sacrifice! That is begging the question.

The Supper is a remembrance of Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice on the cross. It is not the sacrifice itself.

Copyright Dr Joe Mizzi. Permission to copy and distribute this article without textual changes. < BACK TO Q&A