Cup or Chalice? the Large Implications of a Small Change

By Donahue, John R. | Commonweal, June 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Cup or Chalice? the Large Implications of a Small Change


Donahue, John R., Commonweal


Six months after the imposition of the new English edition of the Roman Missal, the volume of dissatisfaction has moderated. People seem resigned to the wooden and literal translations ("people of good will," "enter under my roof"), archaic vocabulary ("dewfall," "consubstantial," "oblation"), and inflated language of prayer ("holy and unblemished," "graciously grant," "paying their homage"). Such language, so different from the plainspoken words of Jesus in prayer and parable, is in contrast to the directive of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II: "In this restoration [of the liturgy], both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community." We have also become accustomed to hearing presiders stumble over the convoluted syntax of the prayers and watching them hurriedly turning pages as they wend their way through the labyrinthine new missals. Yet, there is one new expression that involves a significant translation error with serious implications for a proper understanding of the Last Supper as a Passover meal, along with implications for continued Jewish-Christian understanding. In the final analysis, it enshrines poor pastoral theology in the Sunday liturgy.

"Traduttore, Traditore"

All translators are familiar with the caution that translations often distort or even betray the nuances of the original language. This is dramatically true in the substitution of the term "chalice" for "cup" in the words of institution in the Eucharistic prayer from the 1970 missal approved by Pope Paul VI:

  When supper was ended he took the cup [chalice]. Again he gave you
  thanks and praise, Gave the cup [chalice] to his disciples, and said:
  Take this, all of you and drink from it; This is the cup [chalice]
  of my blood, The blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will
  be shed for you and for all So that sins may be forgiven. Do this
  in memory of me.

In the Greek original of all the New Testament accounts of the Last Supper, after the blessing of the bread, Jesus takes a cup (poterion) and says that this is the blood of the new covenant (Mark and Matthew), or "this cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" (Luke) and "this cup is the new covenant in my blood" (1 Cor 11:25). Though Hellenistic Greek had a word--kylix (the basis of the Latin calix)--that suggests a larger ceremonial vessel often used in religious rites, the New Testament authors chose poterion, the normal term for an ordinary drinking cup in daily life.

When St. Jerome translated the New Testament from Greek to Latin he chose the Latin term calix (from which "chalice" derives) to translate poterion, but he did not intend it to mean a liturgical vessel. In both the secular Latin of the time and in Jerome's translation of the Scriptures, the term calix meant primarily an ordinary drinking cup. In Matt 10:42 Jesus says, "And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple--amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward." While the original Greek has poterion for "cup" of cold water, the Latin translation reads "calicem aquae frigidae." Given the context it would be absurd to translate this "a chalice of cold water." Similarly, to translate "my cup overflows" in Psalm 23:5 (Vulgate 22:5) as "my chalice overflows" would be ludicrous.

Although there were early translations of the Bible into English beginning with Venerable Bede, John Wycliffe (1328-84) is credited with the first complete translation of the Latin Vulgate, and here the translation of Jesus' action over the wine (Matt 27:26) reads "And he took the cuppe," while the earliest English translation of Mark 14:23 from the Greek, by William Tyndale (1494-1536), reads, "And he toke the cup gave thankes and gave it to them. …

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