The Eastern Orthodox, Assyrian Orthodox, and many Oriental Orthodox use leavened bread for the Eucharist. The practice of using unleavened bread in Armenia and Syria is at least as old as the sixth century AD. While the Armenian practice on not mixing water with wine elicited condemnation during the Council of Trullo, interestingly this aberrant practice did not get directly mentioned even though the universal Church used leavened bread everywhere. Archaeologists and Roman Catholic scholars agree that the West originally used leavened bread in the Eucharist like the East.
So, using leavened bread for the Eucharist was once the majority practice and seemingly the universal practice of the Catholic Church, as the preceding exceptions were amongst believers in schism. Nevertheless, it did not seem to become explicitly a point of contention until the Norman conquest of Italy, where Byzantine Christians were being forced to change their liturgical customs to match those practiced in Western Europe, which at that point in time included using unleavened bread for the Eucharist.
The Scriptures themselves and etymology lend support to the Orthodox position, but as we shall see it certainly does not definitely solve the dispute.
The Words at Issue. Let’s begin by pointing out the words at issue. The Greek word ἄρτον (arton) simply means “bread.” Bread’s most common meaning is that of a leavened loaf of bread, though it also can have other meanings. For example, all food in general may be called “bread” and sometimes specific food stuffs such a meat and manna. An analogue to this may be my wife’s language, Khmer, calls all food “bai” (i.e. rice).
The Greek word ἀζύμων (azymon) means unleavened and it is generally used as an adjective with the word bread in order to specify that matza is being spoken of. In Hebrew, leavened bread (לֶ֔חֶם, lechem) and unleavened bread (וּמַצּ֥וֹת, matza) are two different words, but the word bread itself like the Greek has a wide range of meanings and can likewise be a general term for foodstuffs.
The Eucharist in the New Testament and the Connection to Judaism. In the Gospels, there are a handful of mentions of unleavened bread, particularly the day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread:
Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread [ἀζύμων azymon] drew near, which is called Passover (Luke 22:1). (See also Matt 26:17, Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7, Acts 12:3, and Acts 20:6).
In the Last Supper chapters, Jesus Christ then says the following:
And He took bread [ἄρτον arton], gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19).
Many Roman Catholics and Protestants reason that if it was the day of Unleavened Bread, nothing but matza would have been available and Jesus would have used matza in their Passover seder as Jesus told the disciples to prepare the Passover. However, scholars (including a Roman Catholic Pope) conclude that John 18:28 is to be taken literally and that the actual Passover meal was not eaten until Friday evening. Perhaps the only way to solve this is to posit that the meal on Thursday night (Luke 22:15) was the Passover according to a different liturgical calendar, likely that of the Essenes which was one day off.
Nevertheless, simply solving the chronological issue does not address that the Last Supper is not a standard Passover seder. As the before-linked to Roman Catholic source points out:
Therefore, Jesus celebrated a Passover, but His own, new Passover, on Holy Thursday evening, not the Passover of the old covenant celebrated on Friday evening. In the Passover of the old covenant, a one-year-old, unblemished, male lamb was sacrificed, roasted and eaten with unleavened bread. Note the Gospels made no mention of procuring or sharing a Passover lamb (which would not have been available until Friday afternoon when He is crucified). However, Jesus, sinless, is the new Passover Lamb.
Just because it was the night of Passover on one calendar’s accounting, this does not mean that regular bread would have been totally unavailable anywhere in the city of Jerusalem during the day. Further, there would have been no ritual slaughters of lambs, so the link’s assertion that Jesus “is the new Passover Lamb” in the Eucharist is the most sensible solution.
Curiously, if Jesus was for whatever reason employing the Essene practice that Thursday, this lends credibility to the idea that leavened bread may have been used:
The Essene community also had a communion meal of leavened bread every Sabbath. The Dead Sea Scrolls declare, “When they gather at the communal table, having set out bread and wine so the communal table is set for eating and the wine poured for drinking, none may reach for the first portion of the bread or the wine before the priest. For he shall bless the first portion of the bread and the wine, reaching for the bread first. Afterward the Messiah of Israel shall reach for the bread. Finally, each member of the whole congregation of the Yahad (united community) shall give a blessing, in descending order of rank” (Wise, Abegg, and Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, p.147).
We also know that the Essenes according to Philo held a feast every 49 days in which leavened bread was eaten, and if we take his statement literally, this day landed on the Essene Passover amongst other days. Why is this relevant? We went 19 centuries of Christian history without the “smoking gun” of what the Last Supper was modeled after, but thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls we have found it. The preceding appears to show what it was. Christ, by doing this, would have been clearly presenting Himself as the Messiah of Israel in a way those familiar with Essene Judaism would have recognized.
How about the issue of the Essene sabbath meal (as we are positing here was the Last Supper) should have only occurred on a Sabbath and not on a Thursday? There are two possible solutions to this. For one, Maundy Thursday was a sabbath day by the accounting of some Jews. Some Jews even to this day treat the “day of preparation” for the Passover on Nisan 14 (Thursday evening into Friday during Passion week) as a Sabbath, but not the actual beginning of the Passover itself (as per Lev 23:5, Friday evening during Passion week). Hence, it makes sense that Christ would have used leavened bread on Thursday night because it would have been allowable by the most popular Jewish calendar, but yet, as a nod to Essene practice, treated it as a Sabbath by employing their Sabbath meal as the Passover of Christians.
Another possible solution is, as we referred to before, the Essenes held a feast with leavened bread 49 days before Pentecost (the most literal rendering of Philo’s observation of the Essenes in the above link would lend credibility to this). This not so coincidentally would have fell on the day of Passover, as Pentecost gets its name for being the 50th day after Passover.
Why would Jesus celebrate an Essene feast according to their own custom on a Thursday, but offer Himself as the true Passover Lamb on a Friday for the rest of the Jews? By doing this, He was acting as the savior for all Jews–the messiah for the Essenes who did not conduct animal sacrifices nor follow the Temple observance. Their meatless Passover on Thursday had no blood sacrifice but only bread (probably leavened) and wine. Even if the Essenes used unleavened bread, the fact Christ used leavened bread would not have been “wrong” because He was not an Essene specifically and He was recapitulating several Jewish traditions in His own life, making them one.
As we speculated before, if the Essenes did not use leavened bread for Passover (which the evidence I cited from Philo seems to indicate the contrary), this would not be a red herring as other Jewish traditions allowed for leavened bread on that day. Jesus was also the messiah for the Pharisees/Sadducees who ate leavened bread on Thursday and offered blood sacrifice on Friday. He was also Messiah for the Samaritans, to whom “the feasts of Passover and of Unleavened Bread are still regarded as separate” even today. It should be noted that by the modern Samaritan accounting, the Passover itself begins after midnight and so leavened bread would still be eaten before this point in time.
While far more research needs to be done into this topic, it seems to me that the Gospel writers were not chronologically confused in retelling the details of the Last Supper and crucifixion, but rather that Jesus Christ Himself was knowingly combining Jewish elements from different sects so as to act as a fulfillment for all of them.
How Did the Practice of Using Unleavened Bread Come About? As space does not allow me to definitively “solve” the issue Biblically in this article, I want to address one last topic: If the Eucharist was simply “bread” in the Greek, why did the Armenians and Syrians, before the West adopted the practice, use unleavened bread for the Eucharist?
While it is possible the Apostles went to these lands and introduced the practice, I do not believe this to be the case. The answer to this may all originate in Syria. The Diatessaron, a harmony of the four Gospels written by Taitian (a disciple of Justin Martyr turned Gnostic), was used in place of the Gospels in Syria for centuries.
The Diatessaron dated Passover as per the Synoptic Gospels, asserting it occurred on Maundy Thursday:
And on the first day of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, and said unto him, Where wilt thou that we go and make ready for thee that thou mayest eat the passover…And the first day came, the feast of unleavened bread, on which the Jews were wont to sacrifice the passover. And Jesus sent two of his disciples, Cephas and John, and said unto them, Go and make ready for us the passover, that we may eat. (Diatessaron, 44:10, 34-35)?
As per Luke 22:7, Thursday was “the Day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed.” Without the context of the Gospel of John nor knowledge of the Essene calendar, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the lambs were being slaughtered on Thursday and a Passover seder, with unleavened bread, was conducted that night. One reading the Diatessaron, if cut off from Christian practice elsewhere, may make the same logical extrapolations referred to above and presume the Eucharist was part of a Passover seder and had to be unleavened.
Yet, in the Diatessaron John 18:28 is referenced, mentioning that the Passover was observed the evening of the crucifixion:
…but they entered not into the praetorium, that they might not be defiled when they should eat the passover (Diatessaron, 49:44).
This anachronism is puzzling as the passover is eaten at night after the slaughter of the lamb (Ex 12:8) and so it would contradict the chronology we see in chapter 44. On one hand, it may appear that Taitian was preserving the chronologies of both the Synoptics and John and not trying to harmonize them. However, Taitian adds his own interpretive gloss of John 19:14, probably in an attempt to correct the anachronism:
And that day was the Friday of the passover: and it had reached about the sixth hour (Diatessaron, 51:2).
The gloss replaced what John originally wrote, that is it was “now it was the preparation day.” It seems that Taitian, unaware of first century Jewish practices, simply posited that “preparation day,” a term only found in the Gospels, simply referred to the day before Saturday as per Mark 15:42. Hence, he merely saw this as a reference to the Passover being an ongoing celebration. This is not unjustified, as the feast of Unleavened Bread which coincides with the Passover by the accounting of most Jews, lasts seven days.
So, Taitian’s way of harmonizing the Synoptics and John was to make it that the Passover’s festivities extended past the day of the sacrifice. Taking this chronology for granted, Syrians would have presumed on both Thursday and Friday, as well as the next five days, all the bread eaten by the Apostles would have been unleavened.
So, if the preceding is the origin of the Syrian practice of using unleavened bread, how did this spread to Armenia? The connection between Syria and Armenia is stronger than simply sharing miaphysite Christology. Scholars have recognized that Armenia likely was evangelized by Syrians (at least in part) and this would explain them adopting their customs. One scholar notes:
One might also question whether continued missionary activity from Syria accounted for the presence of some Christians in Armenia, particularly in the southern sections that bordered Mesopotamia. Such origins were not typically mentioned by later Armenian historians, because their works reflected a later time in which Syrian Christianity was associated with the Persians and, therefore, viewed with suspicion. The scholars Garsoïan and Thomson both recognized the Syrian heritage within Armenian Christianity. Thomson saw evidence for Syrian influence in the amount of terms in Armenian Christianity that he identified as ‘loan words’ from the Syrian language. He also linked the story of the virgin martyrs, supposedly killed just prior to Trdat’s conversion, to an older Syrian tradition.
Conclusion. It appears the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist was not the original custom of the Church. If we believe “we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all,” it would seem that the universal custom of using leavened bread within the Catholic Church, not including miaphysites in schism, would have been the Apostolic custom. Thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls we now know the Last Supper itself was a co-opting of a specific Essene religious ceremony that used leavened bread. We also know now that the chronological difficulties in the Gospels are easily explainable given the different liturgical calendars of the Essenes and other Jews.
Sadly, with the destruction of Temple Judaism, the Pharisees became the only surviving sect and so knowledge of earlier Jewish customs was on the most part lost. Christians, simply holding to their universal custom were no longer aware of their custom’s specific origins or rationale. Hence, it appears that it was those who ignored universal customs in favor of their own speculations, such as the Gnostic philosopher Taitian, introduced new doctrines and customs of their own. Luckily for the Syrians, Taitian’s cosmology was not adopted–but his Gospel harmony was. In so doing, it appears a misunderstanding of what Maundy Thursday was had arisen and with that a change in the Eucharistic custom was introduced.
And so, this article ends with a warning. If we always seek to answer religious questions not by simply maintaining the faith. but by “research” and “rediscovery,” the result is we may come up with well reasoned doctrines and practices, but they will deviate from the faith handed to us once and for all (Jude 1:3). In so doing, the Baptists have replaced wine with grape juice, the Roman Catholics have replaced immersion with sprinkling, and too many have replaced leavened bread with the unleavened.