Listening to the Speaking Bible

by J. Jayakiran Sebastian

The Rev. Dr. J. Jayakiran Sebastian is a Presbyter of the Church of South India and Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Ethics at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India.

"Listening to the Speaking Bible: Interpreting the Use of the Bible in a Letter of Cyprian of Carthage," in Daniel Jones Muthunayagom, ed., Bible Speaks Today: Essays in Honour of Gnana Robinson (Delhi: ISPCK, 2000), pp. 71 – 81.


In order to contest received interpretations, one ought to analyze both the interpretative processes and the context of the interpreter; in order to rid something of ideological trappings, one has to know the theories and societies through which the ideologies emerged.



Introduction: Affirming the context:


Cultural identities are good everyday instances of our deepest social biases; even when they are openly espoused, they are often based on submerged feelings and values, reflecting areas of both sensibility and judgement. They are neither to be dismissed as mere social constructions, and hence spurious, nor celebrated as our real unchanging essences in a heartless and unchanging world. We have the capacity to examine our social identities, considering them in the light of our best understanding of other social facts and social relationships. Indeed this is what we do whenever we seek to transform ourselves in times of social and cultural change.[2]


This quotation, coming from the field of literary studies and theory has something to say to those of us who are concerned about the rediscovery of the relevance of the Bible in a rapidly changing world. On the one hand, we are faced with the reality of a changing Christian identity in contemporary India.[3] On the other, we have to take seriously the question regarding the use and abuse of the Bible in India today. The call for a re-examination of our attitudes, prejudices, practises, and customs is an urgent necessity. Gnana Robinson has been an influential voice, willing to pose uncomfortable questions and hold up for discussion things which others would have preferred to have left undisturbed. Since his many writings addressing the church in India are well documented, I would like to draw attention to an article written in German, which caused a commotion in the ecumenical circles, and was finally published along with two "responses" which sought to "explain" some of the issues raised.[4] In this article, Gnana Robinson posed a series of challenges from an ecumenical standpoint to the churches in Germany, drawing attention to the reality of the congregations in the country. Some of the issues, in the form of queries, were questions regarding

- worship without a congregation

- spirituality without the Spirit

- prayer without expectation

- lecture, not a sermon

- donations, not sacrificial giving

- the pastoral office as a profession and not a calling

- belief without experience

- guaranteed continued existence, but lost relevance.


One issue which could have been raised is that regarding the place of the Bible in such a context, where one is not surprised to occasionally find copies of the Bible kept with old newspapers on the kerbside, to be picked up by the paper recycling service!


At the same time, Robinson has been an advocate of the role and importance of the marginalised in the theological task. Reflecting on the hullabaloo caused by the speech-event of Professor Chung Hyung Kyung at the seventh assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra, where certain people sneeringly dismissed her contribution as a marginal theology at the fringes of the world ecumenical movement, Robinson writes:


To be sure, it is not necessary that theology from the margin must, as a matter of course, be false theology. The central theology should keep itself open, in order to listen to theology from the margins and to critically interact with this, in order to reflect on the contemporary relevance of such theology.[5]


While concepts like "central" and "margin" cannot be loosely used,[6] nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that Robinson has raised an important issue regarding the self-sufficiency of certain forms of theologising, which perpetuate themselves without even a side-glance at the vibrant theologies emerging and present in different contexts.[7]


In this contribution to the Festschrift I would like to examine an issue regarding the use of the Bible in a particular instance in the middle of the third century, hoping thereby to raise the issue regarding the centrality of the Bible and biblical interpretation in the ongoing ecumenical discussions, especially in the Indian context.


Cyprian's Letter 63: Responses to questions regarding the Eucharist:


The life and writings of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in Roman North Africa, who was executed, through beheading, by the Roman authorities in September 258, offer us a vivid and intense glimpse into the realities facing the emerging congregations in the Mediterranean world in the middle of the third century.[8] In looking back and examining such documents, one does so not out of some kind of antiquarian curiosity, but because the issues and themes with which the writers and theologians of the early church wrestled with are of enduring significance even for the self-understanding of the church today.[9] Thus, those of us who venture back to such writings do so in order to "reinscribe the past, reactivate it, relocate it, resignify it."[10]


Letter 63[11] "is a remarkable document - our first extant extended study on the nature of the Eucharist."[12] This being so, then an examination of the use of the Bible and biblical citations would enable us to cast light on how scriptural testimony was being used to interpret and understand the nature and significance of the Eucharist.[13] Though the letter is addressed by name to Caecilius, who is most probably an episcopal colleague of Cyprian in North Africa, an examination of the letter indicates that "it is more in the nature of a circular pastoral letter directed to Cyprian's fellow bishops generally."[14] At the same time, Cyprian indicates right at the beginning that this letter is not written to convey his personal understanding of the Eucharist or his own interpretation of eucharistic practises, but has been "commanded by God's inspiration and instruction" (1.2).[15] Focusing on the cup, Cyprian writes that he has been constrained to address this issue because of the "ignorance or naïveté" of some people, who in consecrating the Lord's cup and in its administration "do not follow the precepts and practices of Jesus Christ our Lord and God, the Author and Teacher of this sacrifice" (1.1).


Rather than giving a summary of the arguments in this letter, it would be worthwhile to focus on the scriptural passages quoted and engage in an analysis as to how and why these passages have been used to construct the argument.


The fundamental issue at stake is the question as to whether wine ought to be present in the cup, along with water. This manner of celebrating the Eucharist seems to have been practised in several places so as to merit attention and cause Cyprian to exclaim that he is "truly astonished how this practice can have arisen whereby, contrary to the prescriptions of the gospel and of the apostles, in some places water, which by itself is incapable of signifying the blood of Christ, is offered in the Lord's cup." (11.1).[16] Cyprian affirms that one has to "do exactly as the Lord first did Himself for us -- the cup which is offered up in remembrance of Him is to be offered mixed with wine." (2.1). This point is emphasised by quoting John 15: 1 ”I am the true vine ...," and arguing that

- one cannot equate Christ's blood with water (2.1)

- Christ's blood, which is the medium of our renewal and redemption, cannot be "present in the cup when in the cup there is no wine." (2.2)

- wine must be equated with blood, in this case the blood of Christ, since all through the Scriptures this "is foretold by sacred type and testimony." (2.2).


Thus, what we see from this first example is that in reaction to an existing situation or practice or query, in this case the advisability of using wine to celebrate the Lord's supper, Cyprian reverts to scriptural testimony - dominical words - and uses it to build up a case. The case is constructed through the patient logic of showing how any contrary construction would be absurd and impossible: blood is not, and cannot be, water;  hence, if there is no wine in the cup and only water is present, then the vital salvific symbol is absent; since wine "signifies the blood of Christ," it follows that wine, which is testified to throughout Scripture, has to be present.


Following this argument, Cyprian realises that one link in this chain has to strengthened: the typological argument. He goes on to provide examples to argue and build up the case. He takes the story of Noah from Genesis 9, and argues that Noah got inebriated by drinking not water but wine, and lay down with his nakedness exposed, leaving it to two of his sons to cover him. Now comes an interesting move: Cyprian says that "in drinking not water but wine Noah exhibited a symbol of the truth to come and thus prefigured the Lord's passion." (3). However, exactly how this happens is not made clear, and Cyprian says that there is no need for to do this and "pursue the rest of the story." As Clarke writes, "such opaque 'logic' is characteristic of much typological argument."[17]


In analysing such arguments, one must also note that in writers such as Cyprian, the access to the Hebrew scriptures were not only through the canonical text as such, but also, practically, through anthological collections of texts from these writings, which circulated in various forms, being used for diverse purposes in different communities.[18] Such selective usage is not peculiar to those within the various Christian communities, but is also a characteristic of those who wrote to attack Christianity. For example, Celsus in his work The True Doctrine, written during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161 - 180 C. E.), criticised Christians and Christian practices by "tailoring out" certain statements of Scriptural material available to him and also by making "some adjustments so as to fit in with his purpose of criticising Christianity."[19]


Returning to Cyprian, he then goes on to pick up the figure of Melchizedek of Salem from Genesis 14: 18 - 19a: "And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine, for he was a priest of God Most High and he blessed Abraham." (4.1). This is immediately related to Melchizedek being a "type" of Christ and is underlined by quoting the reference in Psalm 109 to Melchizedek. The arguments deriving from the Melchizedek texts are:

- the identical offering of Jesus, bread and wine, indicates that in the Hebrew scriptures we have "foreshadowed in mystery a type of the Lord's sacrifice," the Lord, who is "more truly a priest of the most high God ... ." (4.1)

- the Lord brings to "fulfillment and completion" the symbolic action of Melchizedek. (4.3)


Thus, promise and fulfillment, quite predictably, serve to buttress the argument, which, in this section, is further reinforced (with quotations from Galatians 3: 6 - 9, Matthew 3: 9 and Luke) through the claim that the blessing bestowed on Abraham "extended to our people likewise." The link is rather tenuous as the quotation from Luke comes from the Zacchaeus story where in 19:9, Jesus, in announcing salvation, proclaims that "this man, too, is a son of Abraham." (4.2). What  is happening here is a mashing together of texts to make the point about continuity between the then and now - the now, of course, related to those Christians who are in agreement with the arguments of Cyprian.


This mashing of a text to extract a paste continues in further typological examples. Cyprian, picks up what he considers to be "forecast" in the words of Solomon regarding wisdom in Proverbs 9: 1 - 5, making much of the words "she has mixed her wine," and eating the bread and drinking the wine which has been mixed, the element involved in this mixing, for Cyprian, being self-evidently water. Hence, "bread and wine" references conveniently serve to further the argument that wine ought to be mixed. However, is there a theological point being made in all this or is this merely a matter of stringing proof-texts together to make a particular point? For the theology to emerge, we must wait till Cyprian meanders his way through two more examples - that of Judah and that of Isaiah. Seeing Jesus as the "lion of the tribe of Judah," Cyprian quotes Genesis 49: 11, "He shall wash his raiment in wine and his robe in the blood of the grape," and comments that whenever reference is made to the blood of the grape, then "this can signify only that in the Lord's cup the blood is wine." (6.2). Here, it is not simply a matter of prophecy - fulfilment, but the claim that there is a direct equivalence between certain words or phrases in different parts of scripture. We must also note that Cyprian is using such argumentation techniques to reiterate that water alone is not enough to symbolise the blood of the Lord, but that wine is absolutely indispensable. This point is made in the following quotation from Isaiah 63:2 concerning clothing being made "ruddy" through the process of treading grapes in the wine vat. Cyprian makes the obvious point that clothing cannot become ruddy if water alone is present in the wine vat, and goes on to emphasise the link between the grapes being trampled upon and the blood of Christ, which could not have been produced unless Christ "had first been trodden upon and pressed." (7.2). We have still not come to the theological point which will form the basis for Cyprian's understanding of and interpretation of Scripture. This comes in the next section, where Cyprian, quoting sections of Isaiah 43: 18 - 21, which talks about giving "water to my chosen people," emphatically states that "you must realise that every time that water is named by itself in the Holy Scriptures, there is a prophetic allusion to baptism." (8.1)[20] In what way can this "bald claim"[21] be called theological? For me, it is clear that Cyprian's interpretations of scripture can be understood when we ascribe to him a technique of Scriptural interpretation which can be characterised as attributed implicit theological disclosure.[22]


Attributed Implicit Theological Disclosure and Letter 63:


The link between power and knowledge, and the role of discourse has been brilliantly and provocatively analysed by Michel Foucault, who wrote:


basically in any society, there are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterise and constitute the social body, and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated nor implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of discourse. There can be no possible exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth which operates through and on the basis of this association. We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth.[23]


Taking this insight seriously, we return to Cyprian's letter to find that he is engaged in the process of discourse, which, for him, is also an activity of disclosure, disclosure of that which on the one hand is implicit, and, on the other, involves the theological task of making clear and explaining the matter through a process of attribution, attributing and exposing meaning and disclosing links and connections in the service of truth.


Cyprian, having made the point about water and baptism, goes on to look at further scriptural examples, including merging Isaiah 48:21 with John 19:34, to make the point that water from the split rock indicates Christ, "who is the rock, is split open during His passion by a blow from a lance." (8.2). Further, he makes explicit the link between baptism and the receiving of the Eucharist by interpreting the words of Jesus regarding the thirsty coming to him and the gift of the Spirit (John 7: 37 - 39) to indicate that "it is only after we have been baptised and have obtained the Spirit that we proceed to drink the cup of the Lord." (8.3). Thus, Cyprian links his theological interpretation with his role as a pastoral maintainer of church order, instructing the congregations and stressing appropriate worship patterns.


The rest of the letter continues this line of deliberation, offering further examples a series of comments on various Biblical passages to reinforce the arguments. Although Cyprian writes that there is no need to "offer a long list of proofs," (9.1), he feels obliged to draw from various books of the Bible, including the Gospels, Psalms and the recording of the institution of the Eucharist in First Corinthians, to bolster his case and reaffirm and reiterate that although


someone among our predecessors, whether through ignorance or naïveté, may have failed to observe this and to keep to what the Lord has taught us to do by His example and instruction ... there can  be no excusing us, for we have been warned and counselled by the Lord to offer His cup mixed with wine just as He Himself offered, and we have been instructed as well to direct letters upon this matter to our colleagues. We are thus to unsure that the Gospel rule and the Lord's instructions are everywhere to be observed and that there is to be no departure from the teaching and example that Christ has given us. (17.2).


Is all this just a matter of quibbling? Can we say that Cyprian is engaging in such textual analysis merely to underline a point regarding the practical methodology of the modalities of the Eucharistic celebration? No, for Cyprian, all this is inextricably interlinked to the issue of salvation, a point to which all attributed implicit theological disclosure ought to lead.[24] Cyprian makes this explicit by arguing that


by water is meant God's people, whereas Scripture reveals that by wine is signified the blood of Christ. When, therefore, water is mixed with wine in the cup, the people are made one with Christ and the multitude of believers are bonded and united with Him in whom they have come to believe. And this bonding and union between water and wine in the Lord's cup is achieved in such a way that nothing can thereafter separate their intermingling. Thus there is nothing that can separate the union between Christ and the Church, that is the people who are established within the Church and who steadfastly and faithfully persevere in their beliefs: Christ and His Church must remain ever attached and joined to each other by indissoluble love. (13. 1 - 2).


This argument is based on the interpretation of three scriptural passages:

- the changing of water into wine at Cana of Galilee (John 2: 1 - 11) is used to argue that it is "perversity and wrongheadedness if we should turn wine into water ... ." (12.1)

- the statement is Isaiah 5:7 that "the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel," provides the background for a convoluted discussion that the Jews[25] are "succeeded by the multitude of Gentiles." (12.2).

- this is underscored by the passage in Revelation 17:15, where one of the angels speaks about the waters as being the peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. (12.2)


Hence, for Cyprian it is clear that all this can only lead to the unmistakable conclusion that


just as the Lord's cup consists neither of water alone nor of wine alone but requires both to be intermingled together, so, too, the Lord's body can neither be flour alone nor water alone but requires that both be united and fused together so as to form the structure of one loaf of bread. And under this same sacred image our people are represented as having been made one ... . (13. 3 - 4).


Having responded to related queries, including the question as to whether it is appropriate to receive communion in the morning and go around with the smell of wine on one's lips (15. 2 - 3), and whether it is apt to celebrate communion in the morning when Jesus instituted the Eucharist after supper (16.1 - 17.1), the pastor in Cyprian returns at the end of the letter to assure forgiveness to those who may have erred in good faith in the past (18.4), and requesting his people to recognise that since Christ's "second coming is now drawing near to us," (18.4), it is incumbent upon them to act so that "He may find us upholding what He has counselled, observing what He has taught and doing what He Himself has done." (19).


Conclusion: Today's Context, Attributed Implicit Theological Disclosure and Listening to the Speaking Bible


In concluding this analysis I would like to raise some points for our ongoing discussion: In attempting to listen to the speaking Bible today, it is obvious that one does not enter into, or engage in, this process  from some kind of detached, value-free, ungrounded vantage point. If one is rooted in a particular context, committed to specific options,  engaged in definite forms of action, and sensitive to historical injustice and contemporary dilemmas, and, at the same time, alive to the possibility that the Bible continues to speak, then one has to recognise one's situatedness in the long histories and traditions of the Biblical interpretation. R. S. Sugirtharajah, imaginatively and creatively using the metaphor of "chutney,"  says


"Chutnification" acts as an apt metaphor for rewriting and retranslating, and, in effect, for spicing-up the text. To the chutnification of language and history, I would like to add biblical narratives, and in doing so it will not only rid them of their ideological trappings and contest received interpretations, but also inject them with new flavour and taste.[26]


In order to contest received interpretations, one ought to analyse both the interpretative processes and the context of the interpreter; in order to rid something of ideological trappings, one has to know the theories and societies through which the ideologies emerged; in order to prepare chutney, one has to know how to select the ingredients in appropriate proportions and engage in the act of grinding, so that a new flavour and taste may emerge.


In this act of interrogation, lessons that one learns from a writer-bishop-martyr like Cyprian are indispensable, not only in demonstrating the hermeneutical principle that one must reach back in order to move forward,[27] but also to indicate that the ongoing task of attributed implicit theological disclosure is an essential, fundamental, and crucial activity of the theologians of the church.




[1]  Jayakiran Sebastian is professor of theology, United Theological College, Bangalore, India..


[2] Satya P. Mohanty, Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism, Objectivity, Multicultural Politics (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 201.


[3] See my article: "Pressure on the Hyphen: Aspects of the Search for Identity Today in Indian-Christian Theology," in Religion and Society, Vol. 44, No. 4 (December 1997), pp. 27 - 41.


[4] Gnana Robinson, "Ökumenische Anfrage an die Gemeindewirklichkeit in Deutschland," Ökumenische Rundschau, 41. Jhrg., Heft 4 (1992), pp. 487 - 494. The two responses are by Henje Becker and Klaus v. Steglitz (pp. 495 - 500).

[5] Gnana Robinson, "Theologische Traditionen und gesellschaftliche Hintergründe des Beitrages von Frau Prof. Dr. Chung Hyung Kyung auf der 7. ÖRK-Vollversammlung," Berliner Theologische Zeitschrift, 10. Jhrg., Heft 1 (1993), pp. 103 - 104 (my translation).


[6] See  Issac Julien and Kobena Mercer, "De Margin and De Centre," in David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, eds., Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Culture Studies (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 450 - 464.


[7] One notable attempt to bridge such gaps was the dialogue between representatives of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) and the "first world," documented in Virginia Fabella and Sergio Torres, eds., Doing  Theology in a Divided World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985). Also see the critical questions raised by Franklyn J. Balasundaram, EATWOT in Asia: Towards a Relevant Theology (Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation, 1993).


[8] See J. Jayakiran Sebastian, "... baptisma unum in sancta ecclesia ...": A Theological Appraisal of the Baptismal Controversy in the Work and Writings of Cyprian of Carthage (Delhi: ISPCK, 1997), for a detailed discussion regarding one aspect of this reality.


[9] In a recent article on Cyprian, "They Speak to Us Across Centuries: 2. Cyprian," The Expository Times, Vol. 108, No. 12 (September 1997), p. 356, Iain Torrance rightly notes that theological issues need to be "readdressed, in their own form, in each generation." Torrance goes on: "This is an attempt to think together the ancient and modern approaches to problems which, if they are not the same (and they are not), at least cross over in interesting ways."


[10] Homi K. Bhabha, "Culture's In-Between," in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, eds., Questions of Cultural Identity (London: Sage Publications, 1996), p. 59.


[11] The translation of the letter in English is found in G. W. Clarke, trans. and annotated, The Letters of St. Cyprian of Carthage, Volume III, Letters 55 - 66 (Ancient Christian Writers, No. 46) (New York: Newman Press, 1986), pp. 98 - 109, with annotations and notes on pp. 286 - 301.


[12] Clarke, p. 288.


[13] For an elaborate and extended study on how Cyprian used the Bible, see Michael Andrew Fahey, Cyprian and the Bible: A Study in Third-Century Exegesis (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1971).


[14] Clarke, p. 288. See also n. 1 (p. 291) for comments on the "encyclical" character of the letter.


[15] All references are to the sections and sub-sections indicated in Clarke's translation.

[16] In 14.1 Cyprian admonishes the recipient of the letter, calling him his "dearly beloved brother," and says that there are "no grounds for anyone to suppose that he ought to follow the custom practised by some people who may in the past have imagined that water alone should be offered in the Lord's cup."


[17] Clarke, p. 292, n. 8.


[18] Manlio Simonetti,  Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church: An Historical Introduction to Patristic Exegesis, trans. John A. Hughes (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994), p. 10.


[19] Leonardo Fernando, Christian Faith Meets Other Faiths: Origen's Contra Celsum and Its Relevance for India Today (Delhi: Vidyajyothi Education and Welfare Society and ISPCK, 1998), p. 89.

The writings of Celsus are available to us through Origen's Contra Celsum written between 244 - 249 CE (Fernando, p. 85.)

[20] For Cyprian's experience and understanding of baptism, see Sebastian, op. cit., pp. 40 - 54. On other aspects of Cyprian's understanding of baptism see Maurice Bévenot, "Cyprian's Platform in the Rebaptism Controversy," The Heythrop Journal, Vol. XIX, No. 2 (1978), pp. 123 - 142, and J. Patout Burns, "On Rebaptism: Social Organisation in the Third Century Church," Journal of Early Christian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 1993, pp. 367 - 403.


[21] Clarke, p. 294, n. 18.


[22] Note Jacques Derrida's densely-packed understanding of the term "theological": "The 'theological' is a determined moment in the total movement of the trace. The field of the entity, before being determined as the field of presence, is structured according to the diverse possibilities - genetic and structural - of the trace. The presentation of the other as such, that is to say the dissimulation of its 'as such,' has always already begun and no structure of the entity escapes it." In Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 47.


[23] In "Lecture Two: 14 January 1976," from "Two Lectures," in Michel Foucault, Power / Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972 - 1977, ed., Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), p. 93.

[24] On Cyprian's understanding of salvation, see B. Studer, "Die Soteriologie Cyprians von Karthago," Augustinianum 16 (1976), pp. 427 - 456.

[25] For a discussion on Cyprian and the Jews, see Charles Bobertz, " 'For the Vineyard of the Lord of Hosts was the House of Israel': Cyprian of Carthage and the Jews," Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. LXXXII, Nos.  1 - 2 (1991), pp. 1 - 15.


[26] R. S. Sugirtharajah, "Textual Cleansing: From a Colonial to a Postcolonial Version," Asian Biblical Hermeneutics and Postcolonialism (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), p. 96.


[27] See Chapter Five, "Reaching Back in Order to Move Forward - Concluding Theological Reflections," in Sebastian, op. cit., pp. 163 - 179.