Many Orthodox Christians argue that the Biblical reason why the Eucharist is made of leavened bread, as opposed to unleavened bread, is because the New Testament in the original Greek makes this exceedingly clear.

In our previous discussion we covered that 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 are ἄρτον. Nevertheless, if one were to talk about leavened bread, no other word in the Greek would be used. The actual word “leaven” is universally used as a noun or verb and not an adjective describing the kind of bread.

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, just like the Greek, has a wide range of meanings and can likewise be a general term for foodstuffs.

For example, in the Old Testament, manna in Ex 16:32 is identified as ἄρτον in LXX and likewise לֶ֔חֶם is used in the MT. Any reader would be able to naturally interpret the passage and know that because manna is being referred to–a literal “leavened bread” interpretation would be unnecessary.

So, while Orthodoxy popularly asserts the Greek in of itself definitively proves the Orthodox practice, this is not entirely true. As we shall see, there would be no other way to communicate in the Greek that the Eucharist was leavened other than using the term ἄρτον. Nevertheless, even when the predominant meaning of the term lends credibility to the Orthodox doctrine, the Greek alone (apart from the historicity of the usage of a leavened Eucharist) cannot definitively prove the Orthodox case, even if it almost does. The term ἄρτον simply has too broad a range of meaning.

The Greek Etymology of Leavened and Unleavened Bread. The Greek word ἄρτον in all of its 97 uses in the New Testament refers to leavened bread or as a general reference to food such as the Lord’s prayer. The only possible exceptions are the Last Supper passages under dispute. 

The term for unleavened bread (ἀζύμων) in Greek is preserved for us almost entirely in ancient Judeo Christian texts, with only two pagan mentions of the word. In both of its extra-biblical references, the word did not refer to “bread” (ἄρτον). Hence, when studying the etymology of the term, we rely entirely on the Biblical text in Greek.

In the LXX, it is clear in a few verses that in order for ἄρτον to mean something than regular, leavened wheat bread something in the context of the sentence has to absolutely demand it. For example:

You will not eat yeast [ζύμην] over it for seven days, you will eat upon it unleavened [ἄζυμα] bread [ἄρτον] of affliction because in haste you came out of Egypt, in order that you remember the day of your exodus out of the land of Egypt, all the days of your lives (Deut 16:3, LXX).

They chose new Gods like barley bread [ἄρτον κρίθινον] (Judges 5:8, LXX).

It is because of the near exclusivity of ἄρτον meaning leavened wheat bread, so much so that it needs an adjective to mean anything else, Greek speakers may take its meaning for granted.

We see the same idea at work in the LXX when it pertains to passages speaking of unleavened bread. In Deut 16:3, the author makes clear the bread has no yeast and, on top of that, also puts the word “unleavened” in front of the word “bread,” just so that there is no confusion. Ex 29:2, Lev 8:26 and Num 6:19 are also similarly worded in the LXX so as to make the word “unleavened” ἀζύμων an adjective for the word bread ἄρτον.

Every single Old Testament usage of the term ἄρτον may be found here and here.

Examples of Unleavened Bread Being Referred to as ἄρτον. While the vast majority of the usages of ἄρτον are unequivocally referencing leavened bread unless an adjective modifies the term, this is not categorically the case. In this section, we will cover the “exceptions.” As we shall find, there is only one exception in whole of ancient Greek in which we are certain that ἄρτον refers to unleavened bread without there being something explicit within the same sentence allowing for a different understanding of the term.

For example, Deut 16:3 refers to unleavened breads (plural in the original languages) as “the bread [singular, ἄρτον] of affliction.” While this shows that ἄρτον can mean unleavened bread, it is obvious that ἄρτον is being used figuratively and not being literally equated with the matzas. Otherwise, it would be the “breads of affliction.” (See p. 240 of this link.)

Another “exception” is Ex 29:23. This is a passage which will take us some time to go over. It states: “one loaf of bread [ἄρτον], one cake made with oil, and one wafer from the basket of the unleavened bread [ἀζύμων] that is before the Lord” (Ex 29:23 in Orthodox Study Bible). The passage is a literal translation from the Hebrew, see here and here. 

The ironic thing about the English translation in the Orthodox Study Bible is that it is wrong! In light of Ex 29:2, it explicitly in the Greek states that the bread referred to in verse 23 is “unleavened bread” [ἄρτους ἀζύμους]. The translator made a mistake because he would have had to rely upon the context in the chapter, that being verse 2 and verse 25 where the bread is offered to God as a burned offering. No burned offering was allowed to be leavened (Lev 2:11).

However, the issue is further complicated by manuscript differences. It appears the Masoretic text is a corruption, positing three different breads. Let’s compare Ex 29:1-2 between all relevant text types:

You shall do to them to make them holy, to minister to Me in the priest’s office: take [a] young bull and two rams without defect, unleavened bread cakes and unleavened wafers. You shall make them of fine wheat flour (Ex 29:1-2, DSS)

…and unleavened loaves kneaded with oil and unleavened cakes anointed with oil. You shall make them of wheat flour (Ex 29:2 LXX).

…unleavened bread, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers (make them of wheat flour) (Ex 29:1-2 Samaratin Pentateuch).

…and unleavened bread, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers anointed with oil (you shall make them of wheat flour) (Ex 29:1-2 MT).

As we can see in the preceding, the Dead Sea Scrolls match closest with the LXX, while the Samaritan text closely matches the Masoretic Text. The Samaritans lack a mention of one of the cakes being mixed with oil, matching the DSS and thereby differing with the LXX where both cakes are mixed with oil. Ironically, the Samaritans (as well as the MT) include a third item of bread, an apparent redundancy not found in the DSS and LXX.

The parallel passage, Ex 29:23 appears to be rendered along the same lines between the text types:

…and bread [ἄρτου]: one [cake] out of olive oil and one unleavened thin bread wafer with oil [λάγανον] from the unleavened bread [ἀζύμων] basket set before the Lord (LXX derived from here).

…and one loaf [of bread]…and one wafer out of [the basket of unleavened bread that is before Yahweh] (Fragments, DSS). 

…loaf of bread [לֶ֜חֶם, same as leavened bread], one bread [לֶ֜חֶם] bun [with] oil, and one wafer, one [from the] basket of the unleavened bread [הַמַּצּ֔וֹת] which faces God (SP).

piece of bread [לֶ֜חֶם], one cake of bread [לֶ֜חֶם] [made with] oil, and one wafer [from the] basket of the unleavened bread [הַמַּצּ֔וֹת] that is before the Lord (MT).

In the preceding, a lot in our translation depends how we choose our punctuation. Being that the Hebrew and Greek has no punctuation, we depend upon context. Being that Ex 29:2 in the SP and MT has three different bread items, the comma before piece/loaf of bread makes the most sense.

The word bread being the same as “leavened bread” gives ammo to those who argue that the term for leavened bread may also mean unleavened bread. This would make Ex 29:23 as an example of this. Due to it being found in the MT, ST, and also the Vulgate, we know such a rendering has ancient instead of medieval origins.

However, if the DSS and LXX preserve for us the better rendering, then we avoid such a reading. The LXX shows us that the term ἄρτον is used as a general term for “bread” and the use of a colon, instead of a comma, is justified due to the verse two having only two bread items.

So, what is being said is that bread is part of the burned offering, specifically one (unleavened) bread made of oil in the form of a cake and the other a wafer, as we see in verse two. In the Greek, as well as the SP and MT, the word “one” is in front of the following bread items: cake/bun and wafer. However, the word “one” is not in front of the word “bread” itself which begins the verse. Hence, even in the Hebrew (which posits three bread items), the text itself appears to preserve that there are only actually two unleavened breads being referred to. The catch all for “bread” (ἄρτον) is not a third type of unleavened bread, but rather a general term referring to bread items.

Nevertheless, if we dig deeper, we finally find some exceptions which do not have adjectives modifying what type of bread is being referred to in the same sentence. Ex 29:32 simply refers to the unleavened bread in the basket as ἄρτους τοὺς ἐν τῷ κανῷ (literally “the bread in the basket.”) Granted, this basket has been discussed at length in the chapter where there would be no doubt that its contents were unleavened, but the basket is not called an “unleavened bread basket” (perhaps an idiom that would sound strange in Greek and Hebrew). Rather, it is simply a “bread basket.”

We have similar idioms today which may not be literally true. Ukraine is called the “bread basket of Europe,” due to their land being so fertile and exporting so many different kinds of crops. However, Ukraine is not literally a basket nor do they only produce bread. Also, we may say that, “The gigantic farmer’s market has a cornucopia of fresh foods.” That does not literally mean that there is a literal cornucopia (a horn) full of fresh foods. So, the Septuagint translator (as well as the original Hebrew author) would have been unlikely to call the basket an “unleavened bread basket,” even if it only held unleavened bread, for a similar reason.

Perhaps the best “exception” that those looking for etymological grounds for justifying an unleavened Eucharist is Lev 8:31-32. The passage simply states one eats “bread” that is “in the basket” and refers to it as “bread” again in the next sentence. However, Lev 8:26 makes clear that this bread is unleavened. It is also worth pointing out that Lev 8:26 seems to follow the Samaritan and MT for Ex 29:23, indicating that there are three separate bread items in the said basket.

This may give some confidence that the MT preserves for us in that instance the better rendering of Ex 29, but this is contradicted by the DSS rendering of Ex 29:2. However, whatever manuscript tradition that Saint Jerome, the Samaritans, and the Jews who developed the MT used may have been purposely corrected to remove an apparent inconsistency between Lev 8 and Ex 29. Even though a discrepancy in these chapters would not be an outright contradiction (as missing a third bread item is not the same as having a different item in the basket), it would leave questions as to why Moses would not write identically in both chapters.

So, textual criticism aside, why is the preceding our best exception? Simply because the term ἄρτον is not being used as part of an idiom, metaphor, or with words in the same sentence making it clear that unleavened bread is being referred to. Rather, the term ἄρτον is simply being used, perhaps loosely, to refer to unleavened bread because bread is still bread after all. Of course, the immediate context of the sentence would make it clear to the reader that unleavened bread is being spoken of, but nevertheless Lev 8:31-32 stands alone in all of ancient Greek, with the possible exception of the Last Supper, of the term ἄρτον being used to mean unleavened bread without anything modifying its meaning within the same sentence.

Conclusion. Some interpreters may take the two usages of the term ἄρτου from Lev 8:31-32 as grounds that ἄρτου can be used as a term interchangeable with “unleavened bread.” However, this would be misleading. Based upon its approximately 211 other usages of the ἄρτου in the Greek Scriptures, we would certainly expect the term “unleavened” to be used as an adjective or to be referred in the immediate context, if not literally the same sentence. Even in the one exception, Lev 8:31-32, to interpret the word ἄρτον contextually requires the reader to remember that unleavened bread is being spoken of only a few sentences away in Lev 8:26.

This is not the case with the Last Supper as unleavened bread is not mentioned within the context of the meal itself in any of the Gospels. For ἄρτον to mean “unleavened bread” in those passages, the term ἄρτου would have its meaning change not by the explicit context or by the usage of an adjective as it did in its every historical usage. Rather, its meaning would have to be inferred to be “unleavened bread” by the reader making a historical inference drawn by what bread was used on the “day of unleavened bread.”

At first glance, to presume unleavened bread was ἄρτον on “the day of unleavened bread” is perfectly sensible. However, requiring the reader to make such an inference, instead of understanding the meaning of ἄρτον from an explicit reference to unleavened bread itself within the immediate context, is unfounded in the entirety of ancient Greek writings.

Further, this inference requires that the Gospels chronologically contradict each other, that Jesus was conducting the Passover on the wrong day–or that Jesus was following the Essene practice with unleavened bread (when this historical evidence points to the Essenes using leavened bread.) For all of these reasons, using the term ἄρτου, relying upon the reader understanding what is being communicated from inferring from the text only unleavened bread was used on that day, would be clumsy at best by the Gospel writers. It would be akin to saying that because we left cookies out for Santa on the evening before Christmas, they have to be Christmas cookies specifically.

In conclusion, while those who interpret ἄρτου as unleavened bread are not completely unjustified etymologically, as we can see they are nearly so.