The New Testament contains two traditions of the words that Jesus spoke when he instituted the Eucharist. The older tradition is found in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Writing within one generation of the Last Supper itself, Paul clearly states in 1 Cor 11:23-26 that he is passing on to others what he himself has received. Already by the time that Paul wrote this letter, the words of institution had become placed into a formula that made it easy to pass them on from one generation to the next. The second tradition is found in Mark’s gospel. Matthew is clearly dependent on Mark when he records the words of institution in his gospel. Luke depends on the same tradition that Paul cites in 1 Corinthians.
In both Mark 14:24 and Matthew 26:24, Jesus says that his blood is being poured out for many. But, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus addresses those present at the Last Supper and says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you” (Lk 20:22). The difference between the two expressions is significant and will help us understand what Jesus is saying.
Linguistically, the expression for many can mean for all. The word ‘many’ is a Semitic expression that means ‘the totality’ or ‘all.’ But, in the context of the Last Supper, the rendering of many as all is not a strict translation. It is already an interpretation of the words that Jesus is speaking at the Last Supper. In fact, this translation actually misses the nuances of Jesus’ words in the context of his giving the Eucharist.
In instituting the Eucharist, Jesus brings together three themes or ideas from the Old Testament. First, he recalls Isaiah. In Isaiah, there are four Suffering Servant Songs (42:1-7; 49:3-7; 50:4-10; 52:13 –53:12). Historically, these songs speak of the mission of Israel, God’s chosen servant. However, on a deeper level, they speak of Jesus and are fulfilled in him. The early Church understood Isaiah’s words in this way.
Jesus himself saw his life as fulfilling the Suffering Servant Songs of the Old Testament. He once told his disciples that he “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). Jesus “poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors…and bore the sins of many” (Is 53:12). Therefore, when Jesus institutes the Eucharist and says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many” (Mk 14: 24). His words are not primarily aimed at telling whether he died for all or just for a few. That is not the question. Rather, with these words, Jesus is identifying himself as the Suffering Servant.
The second theme that Jesus echoes in his words over the chalice at the Last Supper is the covenant. When God entered into the covenant with Israel at Sinai, blood was poured out on the altar and on the people (Ex 24). This blood symbolized the joining of God and his people as one. Jesus sees his own death as fulfilling the covenant. He says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:24).
The third theme is from Jeremiah. At the time of the Babylonian Exile, God’s people saw their suffering as a result of their disobedience to the covenant on Sinai. Therefore, the prophet Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant (Jer 31). This new covenant was written not on stone but in the heart (Jer 31:33). It brings a new obedience. At the Last Supper when Jesus says over the wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Lk 22:20), he is telling us that he is ushering in this new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah.
Once we realize the rich Old Testament background of Jesus’ words and also recognize the context in which he speaks these words, we are in a good position to understand what he is saying. At the Last Supper, Jesus is instituting the Eucharist for his Church. This great Sacrament is the New Covenant in which those who accept Jesus and believe in him now take part. He speaks of the many and not the all, because he is speaking realistically about the many who do enter the Church. Luke clearly understands Jesus words’ in this sense. That is why, in his gospel, Jesus does not speak of his blood poured out for many, but “for you,” that is, for the disciples around the table with Jesus then and now.
In the new translation, by returning to a more accurate rendering of Jesus’ words and no longer saying “for all,” but “for many,” we return to the constant way that the Church over the centuries has translated Jesus’ words over the chalice. Except for the present Missal now in use for just two generations, the canon of the Latin rite and all the anaphoras of the various Oriental Rites, whether in Greek, Syriac, Armenian or in the Slavic languages, have used the verbal equivalent of for many and not for all in their respective languages.
By faithfully keeping for many in the words of consecration, the new missal is not denying the universal salvific will of Jesus who died for all. Rather, the new missal is returning us to the Last Supper and helping us to recapture the inner dynamism of Jesus’ own words. In giving the Eucharist, Jesus is identifying himself as the Suffering Servant. He is calling us as individuals to the obedience of faith that joins us to the New Covenant. Thus, the expression for many reminds us of the personal choice that we make to be one with Jesus and truly be his Church each time we celebrate the Eucharist.