The Odes of Solomon and early orthodox Christianity
compared a believer's reception of the body and blood
of Christ in the eucharist to a child suckling at
its mother's breast. This appears to have been connected
with the wide-spread use of a cup of milk and honey
in the baptismal eucharist, a visual aid to explain
the Lord's nurturing presence in the sacrament. The
milk analogy did not stem from symbolic uses of milk
in pre-Christian religions or Gnosticism but from
general beliefs about physiology coupled with Christian
sacramental theology. The feminine characteristics
of the milk analogy had no significant effect on orthodox
beliefs about the Godhead nor did they cause the analogy
to fall out of favor at a later date. Instead, as
liturgical use of the cup of milk began to disappear,
so did the milk analogy.
cup of milk was offered to me,
I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord's kindness
Son is the cup,
the Father is he who was milked;
the Holy Spirit is she who milked him;
his breasts were full,
it was undesirable that his milk should be released
Holy Spirit opened her bosom,
mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.
she gave the mixture to the generation without their
those who have received (it) are in the perfection
of the right hand.
womb of the Virgin took (it),
she received conception and gave birth. 1 [End Page
surprising depiction of the Holy Trinity and the incarnation
dates from the earliest years of the church. Yet even
more surprising may be the assertion that the Odes
of Solomon represent emerging "orthodox"
Christianity. While some scholars have proposed a
Gnostic origin, 2 luminaries the likes of James H.
Charlesworth and Henry Chadwick have suggested that
the Odes conflict fundamentally with a Gnostic Weltanschauung.
question with the Odes is whether the poetic flights
and images move in a direction incompatible with "orthodoxy."
If we are putting the question to a Syriac writer
of the second century, it is necessary to remember
that his ideas about "orthodoxy" may have
been expressed far more in terms of loyal adhesion
to a community than in the language of dogmatic affirmations.
. . . It would probably be less misleading to describe
the theology of the Odes as archaic rather than Gnostic,
but the epithet matters very little and is not worth
disputing, provided that it is understood and accepted
that the Odes were not written to be the vehicle of
any overt or hidden deviation from the apostolic tradition
this "grotesquerie," as a number of writers
have described it? 4 The heavenly Father is portrayed
as a mother, breasts gorged with milk, manipulated
by the Spirit into a cup which is said to be the Son.
This cup is then poured out into the womb of the virgin.
She promptly conceives and gives birth like a "strong
thesis of this paper is that the Odist used milk as
an analogy for the nurturing presence of Christ in
the baptismal eucharist. This analogy and contemporaneous
physiology worked together to form a remarkable confession
of the emerging "orthodox" faith. [End Page
God's Milk and the Odes of Solomon
Rome round to Egypt, milk held a special place in
the religions of the ancient Mediterranean. However,
the milk offerings in pre-Christian, pagan religion
cannot explain the type of devotion described in Ode
19. 5 Old Testament and rabbinic writings are likewise
unhelpful, since milk seems to have had no cultic
significance in Judaism. 6 However, Mishnaic tractate
Machshirin 7 approaches the imagery of Ode 19 with
a remarkable comment attributed to R. Simon ben Elazar:
"The milk of a male is clean." Genesis Rabbah
expounded this saying further:
R. Judan: On one occasion he [i.e., Mordecai] went
round to all the wet nurses but could not find one
for Esther, whereupon he himself suckled her. R. Berekiah
and R. Abbahu in R. Eleazar's name said: Milk came
to him and he suckled her. When R. Abbahu taught this
publicly, the congregation laughed. Said he to them:
Yet is it not a Mishnah? R. Simean b. Eleazar said:
The milk of a male is clean. 7
Judaism could apply this imagery of nursing to a hero
such as Mordecai. But the Odes go much further by
applying it to God himself.
mid-second-century Gnostic treatise, the Gospel of
Truth, provides an incarnational reference to the
"bosom" of the Father:
this way the Word of the Father goes forth in the
totality, as the fruit [of] his heart and an impression
of his will. But it supports the totality; it chooses
them and also receives the impression of the totality,
purifying [End Page 511] them, bringing them back
into the Father, into the Mother, Jesus of the infinite
sweetness. The Father reveals his bosom. -- Now his
bosom is the Holy Spirit. -- He reveals what is hidden
of him -- what is hidden of him is his Son -- so that
through the mercies of the Father the aeons may know
him and cease laboring in search of the Father, resting
there in him, knowing that this is the rest. 8
reference is clearly to Jesus being in the "bosom"
of the Father as in John 1.18, but is not applied
in a eucharistic context.
view of the above examples, one may conclude that
classical religious literature, as well as rabbinic
and Gnostic treatises, offer no firm explanation for
the milk analogy of Ode 19. Therefore, it seems likely
that earliest Christianity created this analogy.
God's Milk and Physiology
of Alexandria's The Instructor provides the first
real help for explaining the Odist's references to
milk. J. Armitage Robinson noted this in his comments
on Ode 8.14, 9 "I fashioned their members, and
my own breasts I prepared for them, that they might
drink my holy milk and live by it." Clement's
extended analogy about milk as the Logos echoes the
Odes in remarkable fashion.
food--that is, the Lord Jesus--is, the Word of God,
the Spirit made flesh, the heavenly flesh sanctified.
The nutriment is the milk of the Father, by which
alone we infants are nourished. 10
rightly observed that Clement did not draw his analogies
from Gnosticism but against the Gnostics who apparently
argued that they received the "meat" of
the Word while believers such as Clement only had
the "milk." 11 [End Page 512]
employed numerous analogies to make his point about
the Logos and the Christian life, including several
that describe functions of the human body. 12 In particular,
Clement wanted his hearers to understand that an infant's
milk is derived from the mother's blood. He argued
that, while in the womb, a child is nourished by blood.
Once the child is born, the agitation of pregnancy
causes the blood to flow upward in the body and foam.
Just as water turns foamy white on the crest of a
wave, so blood turns white in the breast and is secreted
as milk. Clement then stated his analogy: as a mother
feeds her child on her own milk/blood, Christ feeds
his blood to communicants in the eucharist and calls
this "true drink." 13 He concluded by arguing
that blood is the original substance in man from which
all others derive, therefore, flesh is merely solidified
blood. In this way Clement formed a circle of thought
running from the immature infants who drink milk,
which is derived from blood, which is really only
liquid flesh, which is what the mature eat: the meat
of the Word. 14
also employed a second body analogy: conception. He
explained that when a male deposits his seed in the
womb of a female, it mixes with the blood of menstruation.
Just as rennet causes milk to curdle into cheese,
semen and menstrual blood congeal to form the embryo.
Clement concluded that semen itself is a product of
the blood, being agitated in the man's body until
it turns white like foam, as was argued by Diogenes
Apollionates. His passing reference to Diogenes provides
a clue into Clement's basis for the milk analogy.
What to modern ears is simply bizarre, was in fact
current physiology for Clement. [End Page 513]
argued in On the Generation of Animals,
milk has the same nature as the secretion from which
each animal is formed is plain, and has been stated
previously. . . . Now this is the sanguineous liquid
in the sanguinea, and milk is blood concocted . .
. . While women are suckling children the catamenia
[menstrual fluids] do not occur according to Nature,
nor do they conceive; if they do conceive, the milk
dries up. This is because the nature of the milk and
of the catamenia is the same, and Nature cannot be
so productive as to supply both at once . . . . 15
reasoned the same way: milk is formed from blood.
Flesh, which is nourished by the blood, is related
since the material that nourishes is also the material
from which generation takes place. Aristotle stated
earlier in his treatise,
have previously stated that the final nutriment is
the blood in the sanguinea and the analogous fluid
in the other animals. Since the semen is also a secretion
of the nutriment, and this in its final stage, it
follows that it will be either blood or that which
is analogous to blood, or something formed from this.
from Greek, Latin, and rabbinic literature could be
multiplied to substantiate these views in one form
or another. 17 Together they show [End Page 514] that,
for Clement's hearers blood, menstrual blood, semen,
and milk were related and even interchangeable substances.
Clement's arguments and the imagery of the Odes may
seem strange to modern ears, they are far easier to
comprehend than the practices attributed to some Gnostics.
Epiphanius of Salamis reported the following in his
Panarion regarding the Phibionites (elsewhere called
Borborians, Stratiotics, Zacchaeans, or Barbelites):
. . to extend their blasphemy to heaven after making
love in a state of fornication, the woman and man
receive the male emission on their own hands. And
they stand with their eyes raised heavenward but the
filth on their hands, and pray, if you please--the
ones called Stratiotics and Gnostics--and offer that
stuff on their hands to the actual Father of all,
and say, "We offer thee this gift, the body of
Christ." And then they eat it and partake of
their own dirt, and they say, "This is the body
of Christ; and this is the Pascha, because of which
our bodies suffer and are made to acknowledge the
passion of Christ." And so with the woman's emission
when she happens to be having her period--they likewise
take the unclean menstrual blood they gather from
her, and eat it in common. And "This," they
say, "is the blood of Christ." 19
Gnostics reasoned that believers, being the "body
of Christ," produced within themselves the body
and blood of Christ. Not all Gnostics practiced this
ritual, only a certain segment called the "Koddians."
The other Gnostics would not eat with them because
of the extreme nature of their devotion. 20 Clearly
the same physiology is behind this practice which
is behind the analogies in Clement and the Odes.
Drijvers described another possible connection with
ancient physiology. He noted an ambiguity in the first
chapter of the gospel of John. 21 [End Page 515] As
the Only Begotten, who is in the bosom of the Father
Jesus has made the Father known [1.18]. The word here
translated "bosom" (with reference to the
breast) can also be translated "lap" or
"womb" in both Greek and Syriac. 22 This
invites speculation. The Odist is writing about the
conception and birth of Jesus. But how is he begotten
of the Father? Does he come from the Father's breast
as milk [Ode 19.2] or from the womb of the Spirit
[19.4]? From the standpoint of ancient physiology,
it may make little difference. The product of the
womb is not unlike the product of the breast.
physiology and its application help us to understand
the imagery of Ode 19. The cup is both nutrifying,
as mother's milk, and seminal, causing the conception
of the Father's only begotten Son. The Odist could
reason in this way because he believed that both milk
and semen derive from blood. In this way, he explored
the mystery of the incarnation. But did he also explore
the mystery of the sacramental presence of Christ?
Is the cup of milk also the cup of the eucharist?
God's Milk and the Eucharist in the Odes of Solomon
Odes refer to milk in several other places, illustrating
the importance of this element as an analogy for the
writer. Ode 40.1 states,
honey drips from the honeycomb of bees,
milk flows from the woman who loves her children,
also is my hope upon you, O my God.
passage is ambiguous. It may mean that the hope of
the Odist flows toward God like honey and milk. However,
the Odist could be hoping that God's sweetness and
love would flow toward him (such a reading would have
to be taken as a contrast to verse two, which describes
the Odist's praise flowing toward God). Either way,
the content is not clearly eucharistic.
other passages invite further consideration. Ode 4.10
upon us your sprinklings,
open your bountiful springs
abundantly supply us with milk and honey.
the Odist appeals to God in language that is reminiscent
of baptism. God's gifts of milk and honey follow a
"sprinkling." This sequence of reception
occurs again in Ode 8.13-14, [End Page 516]
before they [the elect] had existed,
[Christ] recognized them;
imprinted a seal on their face.
fashioned their members,
my own breasts I prepared for them,
they might drink my holy milk and live by it.
"seals" his people and then proceeds to
offer them his own breasts and holy milk. Again baptismal
language is followed by God's milk. In Ode 35.1-5
sprinkling of the Lord overshadowed me with serenity,
it caused a cloud of peace to stand over my head;
it might guard me at all times.
it became salvation to me.
was disturbed and afraid,
there flowed from them smoke and judgment.
I was tranquil in the Lord's legion;
than shade was he to me, and more than foundation.
I was carried like a child by its mother;
he gave me milk, the dew of the Lord.
"sprinkling," "cloud," and "shade"
point back to Israel's passage under the pillar of
cloud in the book of Exodus--a type of baptism in
Paul (I Cor 10.1-4) and some early Christian literature.
23 This baptismal image is followed by milk which
is the "dew of the Lord," perhaps pointing
toward Israel's destination in the Promised Land.
the Odist's uses of the milk analogy are read in isolation
from one another, there is no obvious reference to
the eucharist. But when read together, a pattern emerges.
Baptismal language is followed by the milk analogy.
This suggests the author's familiarity with the cup
of milk and honey in the baptismal eucharist. 24 The
passages may be eucharistic after all.
God's Milk and the Early Fathers
is well established that in many places the newly
baptized drank from a cup of milk and honey when they
ate the bread and drank the wine of the eucharist.
Such imagery had roots already in the New Testament,
as [End Page 517] seen in I Peter, "Like newborn
babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you
may grow up in your salvation now that you have tasted
that the Lord is good [NIV]." 25 Clement employs
this passage in his argument with the Gnostics. While
he does not mention the eucharistic milk specifically,
he seems to be acquainted with the custom. The following
passages from the early Fathers employ milk in an
analogical way, describing God's relationship to the
believer and ancient liturgical practice. 26 They
demonstrate the broad acceptance of the milk analogy
by ancient orthodoxy. They also suggest that the disappearance
of the milk analogy for Christ's body and blood may
be connected to the disappearance of the cup of milk
from the baptismal eucharist.
Earliest Uses of the Milk Analogy: Second Century
earliest reference to milk and honey and the flesh
of Christ appears at the beginning of the second century
in The Epistle of Barnabas 6. 27 While describing
the Lord's suffering and his endurance (in view of
Old Testament prophecies that speak of Christ as a
rock), the writer introduces Exodus 33 about the Promised
Land flowing with milk and honey:
then, says Knowledge? Learn: "Trust," she
says, "in Him who is to be manifested to you
in the flesh -- that is, Jesus." For man is earth
in a suffering state, for the formation of Adam was
from the face of the earth . What, then, meaneth this:
"into the good land, a land flowing with milk
and honey?" . . . Since, therefore having renewed
us by the remission of our sins, He hath made us after
another pattern, [it is His purpose] that we should
possess the soul of children, inasmuch as he has created
us anew by His Spirit. . . . We, then, are they whom
He has led into the good land . What, then, mean the
milk and honey? This, that as the infant is kept alive
first by honey, and then by milk, so also we being
quickened and kept alive by the faith of the promise
and by the word, shall live ruling over the earth
on the Greek word ("land" or "earth")
occurs throughout the passage. Christ, the "rock,"
is earth. His flesh is earth for man was made from
earth. He gives believers earth flowing with milk
and honey where he feeds those who are created anew,
quickened, and kept alive. While [End Page 518] this
passage may not allude to the baptismal eucharist,
it does link the flesh of Christ with milk and honey
for those "created anew."
the end of the second century Irenaeus uses the milk
analogy in connection with the flesh of Christ in
Against Heresies 4.38.1.
. . and therefore it was that He, who was the perfect
bread of the Father, offered Himself to us as milk,
[because we were] as infants. He did this when He
appeared as a man, that we being nourished, as it
were, from the breast of His flesh, and having by
such a course of milk-nourishment, become accustomed
to eat and drink the Word of God, may be able also
to contain in ourselves the Bread of immortality,
which is the Spirit of the Father. 29
there is no description of the liturgical practice
of dispensing milk and honey with the body and blood
of Christ at the baptismal eucharist. However, the
language of both sacraments is present. As in Ode
19 Christ's incarnation is described as milk for the
initiates who are "infants." The purpose
of Christ's coming in both passages is their perfection.
God starts them off with the milk (his Logos) so that
he may complete them with the "Bread of Immortality
30 which is the Spirit of the Father."
The Epistle of Barnabas nor Irenaeus explicitly mentions
the liturgical use of a cup of milk at the baptismal
eucharist. However, the practice may have already
existed, encouraging them to use the milk analogy.
This is certainly the case with later writers.
The Cup of Milk and the Milk Analogy: The Third and
Tertullian's De corona 3, one finds the earliest description
of the liturgical use of the cup of milk and honey.
While arguing that it was the church's custom to abstain
from military service, he began a description of the
customs used on the night of baptism:
upon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler
pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel.
Then when we are taken up (as new-born children),
we taste first of all a mixture of milk and honey,
and from that day we refrain from the daily bath for
a whole week. We take also, in congregations before
day break, and from the hand of none but the presidents,
the sacrament of the Eucharist, which the Lord both
commanded to be eaten at meal-times, and enjoined
to be taken by all alike. 31 [End Page 519]
in the treatise Against Marcion 1.14 he wrote,
up to the present time, he [Marcion's god] has not
disdained the water which the Creator made wherewith
he washes his people; nor the oil with which he anoints
them; nor that union of honey and milk wherewithal
he gives them the nourishment of children; nor the
bread by which he represents 32 his own body, thus
requiring in his very sacraments the "beggarly
elements" of the Creator. 33
second passage argues from the incarnation against
Marcion's disdain for creation. Tertullian noted that
Marcion's god has not rejected the elements of baptism
or the eucharist nor oil, milk, and honey. The implication
is that not just the orthodox and Montanists (with
whom Tertullian had taken an interest at this point,
ca. 207-12) were using these items in their worship
but also the Marcionites. The cup of milk and honey
was obviously wide spread by the beginning of the
third century and could be invoked to support orthodox
views of the incarnation.
Apostolic Tradition 23 (early third century) provides
a detailed description of the baptismal eucharist
and the place of milk and honey:
then let the oblations <at once> be brought
. . . and milk and honey mingled together in fulfillment
of the promise which was <made> to the Fathers,
wherein He said I will give you a land flowing with
milk and honey; which Christ indeed gave, <even>
His Flesh, whereby they who believe are nourished
like little children, making the bitterness of the
<human> heart sweet by the sweetness of His
word; . . . And the presbyters . . . shall hold the
cups . . . first he that holdeth the water, second
he who holds the milk, third he who holds the wine.
And they who partake shall taste of each <cup>
. . . . 34
in The Epistle of Barnabas, milk and honey are connected
with the Promised Land and the flesh of Christ. The
cup of milk's position in the service is after baptism
as noted by Tertullian who did not distinguish between
a "normal" eucharist and the baptismal eucharist.
In The [End Page 520] Apostolic Tradition, the cup
is clearly specific to the baptismal eucharist as
is still practiced today in the Ethiopic rite. 35
was the earliest Syrian writer to take up the milk
analogy after the Odist. In the Hymns of the Nativity
was lofty but he sucked Mary's milk, and from his
blessings all creation sucks. He is the Living Breast
of living breath; by His life the dead were suckled,
and they revived. . . . As indeed He sucked Mary's
milk, He has given suck--life to the universe. As
again He dwelt in His mother's womb, in His womb dwells
all creation. 36
than connecting this imagery to the land of milk and
honey, Ephrem used the analogy of nursing. Here Christ
does not suckle the faithful in the Lord's Supper,
but the universe as the Creator. In fact, Ephrem was
possibly the earliest to question the propriety of
using milk or honey during the eucharist. He noted
that some heretics were replacing the elements proper
to the sacrament with other kinds of food. 37 For
Ephrem, abuse of the milk analogy could threaten the
true nature of the sacrament itself.
work called The Apocriticus, attributed to Macarius
Magnes, explicitly used milk as an analogy for the
doctrine of the physical presence of the body and
blood of Christ in the Eucharist. This document has
been associated with the fifth-century bishop of Magnesia
who stood against the Origenists at the Synod of the
Oak in 403. 38 However, based on internal evidence,
there is reason to date the work earlier and it is
possible that the author is contending with questions
raised by Porphyry in his now lost Against the Christians.
In Book 3.28, Macarius responds to objections against
Christ's words "Except you eat my flesh and drink
my blood you have no life in you" (Jn 6.53),
I pray you, and let us speak of the new-born child,
and the babe that is brought forth on leaving its
dark and humid abode. Except it eats the flesh and
drinks the blood of its mother, it has no life, nor
takes its [End Page 521] place among men . . . . It
is true that the nourishment comes in the form of
milk, but milk is really the same as blood; it is
only its proximity to the air that gives it its lighter
colour [sic]. Even so frost will make water white,
without changing its nature. Just as the Creator makes
the foul waters of the abyss trickle out in a clear
fountain, so do a woman's breasts, by an elaborate
mechanism, gather blood from the veins, and send it
forth in a palatable form. If then even boys tell
us these things with persuasion as coming from physiologists,
and learn the real truth about such matters (and you
value these things highly as well as we), what is
there that seems to you disturbing if the Gospel saying
of Christ may be set beside them? 39
assumed that his opponent would recognize the universality
of the medical information he cites. Even boys could
talk about it. He reasoned that if infants drink the
blood of their mothers and gain life, why then should
the words of Christ be doubted? Without mentioning
the baptismal eucharist, he affirmed that Christ can
give communicants his very body and blood in the sacrament.
For Macarius, the milk analogy made the orthodox teaching
about the sacrament comprehensible.
the third and fourth centuries, the cup of milk was
used among both "orthodox" and "heretical"
Christians. It had strong association with the milk
analogy and became a powerful apology for orthodox
views of the eucharist. However, the presence of milk
at the eucharist also introduced practices that troubled
The Decline of the Cup of Milk and the Milk Analogy:
The Late Fourth Century
the late fourth century, the author of The Apostolic
Canons no. 3 forbade the use of the cup of milk and
honey in the eucharist as well as other food items:
any bishop or presbyter offer any other things at
the altar, besides that which the Lord ordained for
the sacrifice, as honey, or milk, or strong-made drink
instead of wine, or birds, or any living things, or
vegetables, besides that which is ordained, let him
be deposed. 40
is difficult to determine how representative these
canons were at the time. However, in 692 c.e. they
became binding for eastern bishops at the synod of
Trullo. 41 No doubt, these canons discouraged the
use of the [End Page 522] cup of milk after 692. But
evidence from other writers shows that the cup of
milk had already begun to disappear. Like Ephrem,
the writer of the canons seems to have been concerned
that the elements ordained by the Lord were being
lost in the list of other items that might be present.
The original context of the Lord's Supper (as a part
of the Passover meal) had already been lost and, therefore,
these other food items seemed out of place.
revealed his acquaintance with the milk analogy and
its connection with the eucharist in the fourth book
of The Confessions:
you, what am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?
When all is well with me, what am I but an infant
sucking your milk and feeding on you, "the food
that is incorruptible"? 42
rightly notes in his translation that this last line
is a reference to John 6.27 in which Christ speaks
of the food that he will give to his people. Later
in the Gospel, this food is his flesh and blood through
which the eater receives eternal life. Augustine associated
John 6 and its themes with the eucharist. 43
Homily 21 Narsai compared the Eucharist to milk and
nursing. In place of breasts the church has the body
and blood of Christ.
milk he sucks the divine mysteries, and by degrees
they lead him, as a child, to the things to come.
A spiritual mother prepares spiritual milk for his
life; and instead of the breasts she puts into his
mouth the Body and Blood. With the Body and Blood
the Church keeps alive the sons of her womb; and she
reminds them of the great love of her betrothal. Her
betrothed gave her His Body and Blood as a pledge
of life, that she might have power to give life from
her life. 44
the womb also belongs to the church. Narsai connected
them to God only through the marriage of Christ and
the end of the fifth century, Pope John I, called
John the Deacon, composed a letter to a certain Senarius
on the history of the baptismal liturgy. In paragraph
12 he answered Senarius' question about the cup of
milk and honey in the baptismal eucharist, "This
is the reason, because it is written in the Old Testament
and figuratively promised to the new people, 'I will
lead you into the land of promise, the land flowing
with [End Page 523] milk and honey (Lev 20.24).'"
45 This land, he explains, is the land of the resurrection.
Participants in baptism receive new birth and, therefore,
also receive the body and blood of the Lord, which
is the land of promise. Here again appears the Promised
Land imagery of The Epistle of Barnabas. This time
the imagery is explicitly eucharistic.
expounding the opening words of Isaiah 55, Procopius
of Gaza (d. ca. 538) reminisced about the baptismal
eucharist. He noticed that Aquila and Symmachus had
"milk" in their translations rather than
the Septuagint's "fat"
and milk are the mystic symbols of the new birth.
For they are born again from water and the Spirit,
as new born babes in reason they are reared on milk,
and they drink wine, concerning which they say, "This
is my blood which is poured out for you." And
long ago [milk] was carried to the enlightened with
the body and blood. And in certain churches they say
that the custom is still observed. This also Moses
spoke about in a riddle saying, "Glad are his
eyes from wine. And white are his teeth from milk."
seems that at least in this region of the church,
the cup of milk was only a memory, an ancient custom
in distant lands. Its home in the liturgy was being
image of God's milk, even God nursing, was not foreign
to early orthodoxy as these many examples show. In
view of the broad acceptance of this imagery by orthodox
writers, ascription of such language to Gnosticism
seems unwarranted. Inspired by ancient physiology
and applied to the eucharist, the milk analogy provided
useful rhetoric in defense of orthodox doctrine. But
as the cup of milk appeared less frequently in the
liturgy, the milk analogy also appeared less frequently.
Eventually, orthodox writers associated the cup of
milk with heretical practices and argued that it obscured
the genuine elements instituted by Christ for the
eucharist. When the cup of milk ceased to be used,
a key encouragement to use the milk analogy disappeared
from view. [End Page 524]
gospel according to Matthew tells us that Jesus stood
overlooking Jerusalem from the temple precincts before
his crucifixion. Filled with anguish at the inhabitants'
hardness of heart, Jesus cried out, "I have longed
to gather your children together, as a hen gathers
her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing
[23.37]." The image of a hen gathering her chicks
under her wings, commonly applied to God in the OT
[Psalm 17.8, 36.7, 91.4], is decidedly feminine. A
rooster does not behave in this manner. Roosters attack,
hens huddle. So what can be made of this? To say that
God shelters his people under his wings like a hen
is not to say that God is female anymore than it is
to say he is a chicken.
lauding God's milk and breasts, the writer of the
Odes of Solomon was not attempting to change the heavenly
Father into a heavenly mother. Nor did he borrow this
imagery from Gnosticism. His goal was never grotesquerie
or androgyny but an analogy that explained God's character.
the Odist explicitly and continually wrote of God
as "Father"--consistent with the biblical
tradition he inherited 47 --the milk analogy cannot
be read as an ontological description of the Almighty.
Yet, the imagery here is so starkly feminine, so downright
sexual, modern scholars have had difficulty imagining
that it flowed from the pen of ancient orthodoxy--why
choose this language and imagery?
the second century, as emerging "orthodoxy"
separated itself from what was "heretical,"
the Odist sat down to write about the mystery of God's
grace in Christ. In Ode 19 he explored the incarnation.
In the back of his mind appears to have been his knowledge
of ancient physiology as well as the sacraments of
baptism and the eucharist. The Odist saw God's milk
as God's nurturing love, poured forth on behalf of
his children. This was none other than God's Son,
"The Cup," who gave his blood for the world's
redemption and nurtures believers in his Holy Supper.
But this "Cup"--God's milk--was also seminal
in character. God gave this cup to the world in a
way that the world could not understand--the virgin
cup of milk and honey in the baptismal eucharist reminded
initiates of more than the Promised Land. It proclaimed
them to be babes [End Page 525] in Christ, recipients
of God's richest blessings. It also evoked the crassly
physical character of the incarnation (in opposition
to heretical spiritualism) and the presence of the
incarnate Christ's nurturing blood in the sacrament.
Whether the milk analogy inspired the use of the cup
of milk or vice versa cannot be determined from the
sources. However, both functioned to illustrate the
Engelbrecht is Managing Editor of Good News Journal
and lives in Washington, Missouri
Some scholars date the Odes of Solomon to the end
of the first century. A second-century date may be
more likely. See "Odes of Solomon 19," in
The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. and trans. J.
H. Charlesworth (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 2:752.
All quotations of the Odes are from Charlesworth's
"It is true that some of these forty-two hymns
give expression to Gnostic ideas (cf. Odes 19 and
35) . . . ." Johannes Quasten, Patrology (Allen
Texas: Christian Classics, 1996), 1:160. Annewies
van de Bunt states regarding Clement's use of this
imagery, "its origin must perhaps be sought in
Gnostic circles" ("Milk and Honey in the
Theology of Clement of Alexandria," Fides Sacramenti,
Sacramentum Fidei: Studies in Honor of Pieter Smulders,
ed. Hans Jorg Auf der Maur, Leo Bakker, Annewies van
de Bunt and Joop Waldram [Van Gorcum Assen, The Netherlands,
1981], 33). The Odes are quoted approvingly by the
Gnostic treatise Pistis Sophia, the deistic Lactantius,
pseudo-Athanasius, and Nicephorus: Quasten, Patrology,
"Some Reflections on the Character and Theology
of the Odes of Solomon," Kyriakon: Festschrift
Johannes Quasten, ed. Patrick Granfield and Josef
A. Jungmann (Munster: Aschendorff, 1970), 1:266-70
at 270. Charlesworth, "The Odes of Solomon--Not
Gnostic," CBQ 31 (1969): 357-69.
J. R. Harris and A. Mingana, The Odes and Psalms of
Solomon (Manchester, 1916 & 1920), 2:304; Chadwick,
"Some Reflections," 269; and Han J. W. Drijvers,
"The 19th Ode of Solomon," JTS n.s. 31 (1980):
For background on the religious use of milk in Classical
culture, see H. Usener, "Milch und Honig,"
Rheinisches Museum fur Philologie n.f. 57 (1902),
Karl Wy?, Die Milch im Kultus der Griechen und Romer
(Gie?en: Alfred Topelmann, 1914), and T. H. Price,
Kourotrophos: Cults and Representations of Greek Nursing
Deities (Leiden: Brill, 1978), 70-72, 201-2. For Egypt
and the Isis cult see Gail Paterson Corrington, "The
Milk of Salvation: Redemption by the Mother in Late
Antiquity and Early Christianity," HTR (1989):
393-420, and John Baines, Fecundity Figures: Egyptian
Personification and the Iconology of a Genre (Chicago:
Bolchazy-Carducci Pub., 1985), 118-21.
The common expression "a land flowing with milk
and honey" shows up in several biblical books
and some intertestamental texts but disappears in
the first century, as J. Duncan Derrett writes in
"Whatever Happened to the Land Flowing with Milk
and Honey?" VC 38 (1984): 178-84. He further
notes that the expression is used only a few times
in rabbinic literature and is interpreted as descriptive
of the fruit of the Promised Land in the Targums rather
than the land itself. He surmises that the lack of
the expression is due to its association with pagan
religious beliefs and activities. The other notable
reference to milk in the Hebrew Bible is Ex 23.19
and its counterparts. This receives extensive comment
in rabbinic purity halacha.
Midrash Rabbah, trans. Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman and Maurice
Simon (London: The Socino Press, 1939), 1:237.
The Nag Hammadi Library in English, trans. Harold
W. Attridge and George W. MacRae, ed. by James M.
Robinson, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Harper, 1988), 43.
"The Odes of Solomon," in Texts and Studies:
Contributions to Biblical and Patristic Literature
8.3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912),
67. The above translation is from Charlesworth, Old
Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2:742.
Robinson, "Odes of Solomon," 67. See Clement,
ANF, 218-22. Annewies van de Bunt writes, "In
the same way that the Church is often referred to
as the mother who suckles her children, this function
in Clement is also attributed to the Father; repeatedly
he mentions the feeding breast of the father or also
the breasts of goodness of the father. This image
seems unusual to us: its origin must perhaps be sought
in Gnostic circles. That this image does not come
from Clement himself is apparent in the fact that
we also find it in the Odes of Solomon" ("Milk
and Honey," 33). See also Andrew L. Pratt, "Clement
of Alexandria: Eucharist as Gnosis," GOTR 32
(1987): 163-78 for further elucidation of Clement.
A reading of the Nag Hammadi literature yielded no
significant parallels. This makes improbable the idea
that the imagery is Gnostic.
This study will only describe Clement's analogies
involving the human body since these relate most directly
to the Odes and the use of milk.
Clement, ANF, 218.
In case his hearers had missed the point, Clement
began again by noting the incarnational basis of his
argument. The flesh represents the Holy Spirit who
created flesh. The blood represents the Word. Their
union makes up the incarnate Lord who is the food
of babes, the milk of the Father. Clement further
noted that when food is consumed and digested it turns
into blood which in nurses turns into milk. Thus blood
is a preparation for milk upon which believers will
feed eternally in heaven, the land of milk and honey.
Milk is then the superior food and all the child of
God needs, eliminating the Gnostic claim that they
had the superior "food" of knowledge. Clement,
6.9 (trans. Arthur Platt, eds. J. A. Smith and W.
D. Ross [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912], sec. 777a).
This is simply based on observation of the changes
in the female body. Normally a woman has a flow of
menstrual blood. When she becomes pregnant, it ceases
to flow, therefore, the blood must be nurturing the
child. When she gives birth the menstrual blood does
not return. Instead she produces milk, therefore,
the blood has changed into milk. When she stops nursing,
the milk dries up and the menstrual flow begins again.
An interesting passage is found in The Acts of Paul
11.5, "But when the executioner struck off his
[Paul's] head, milk spurted upon the soldier's clothing"
(New Testament Apocrypha, eds. Edgar Hennecke and
Wilhelm Schneemelcher [Cambridge: James Clarke &
Co. Ltd., 1992], 2:262). This is also found in the
story of St. Catherine of Alexandria: David Hugh Farmer,
The Oxford Dictionary of Saints 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1987), 77.
1.19, sec. 726b. Perhaps this is what is behind the
King James translation of Acts 17.26 and Tertullian's
proverb, "The blood of the martyrs is seed."
One also thinks of Lev 14.10-14: "A sacrificial
gift sodden in sour milk would evidently be of the
nature of fermented food; but I do not feel sure that
this goes to the root of the matter. Many primitive
peoples regard milk as a kind of equivalent for blood,
and thus to eat a kid seethed in its mother's milk
might be taken as equivalent to eating 'with blood,'
and be forbidden to the Hebrews along with the bloody
sacraments of the heathen, of which more hereafter"
(W. R. Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites
[London: Adam and Charles Black, 1894], 221 n. 7).
See Hippocrates, On Glands 15-16, Galen, On the Usefulness
of the Parts 16.10, Galen, On the Natural Faculties
2.3.83, Macrobius, Saturnalia 5.11.15-17, the words
of R. Meir in the Talmud tractate Niddah 9a, and Julius
Preuss, Biblical and Talmudic Medicine, trans. Fred
Rosner (New York: Sanhedrin Press, 1978), 387, 404-5.
See also Richard Smith, "Sex Education in Gnostic
Schools," Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism,
ed. Karen L. King (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988),
2.4.5-8 trans. Frank Williams, Panarion (Leiden: E.
J. Brill, 1987), 86.
Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley has written, "Their sacramental
theology emphasizes the female blood and the male
semen, the two components of Christ's body, to be
naturally produced in the Phibionites' own bodies.
No baking of bread, no tending of vineyards! Here
is what one might call a 'nature vs. culture' dichotomy,
for the Phibionites, it seems to me, would consider
bread and wine to be wrongly, unnecessarily mediated,
substances of Christ. Direct products of the human
body, semen and blood express and recreate the believers'
affinity with Christ" ("Libertines or Not:
Fruit, Bread, Semen and Other Body Fluids in Gnosticism,"
JECS 2 : 18).
Drijvers, "19th Ode," 342ff.
Drijvers, "19th Ode," 341. TDNT 3:824.
See The Acts of Paul in New Testament Apocrypha, ed.
W. Schneemelcher, trans. R. McL. Wilson (Lousiville:
Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 245, and the Hymns
of Ephrem in NPNF 13:261, 265, 279, and 286.
Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study
in Early Syriac Tradition (London: Cambridge University
Press, 1975), 316.
I Pt 2.2. The use of this passage as the opening words
of the introit gave Quasi Modo Geniti its name, being
the first Sunday after the Eucharist of those baptized
on Easter. See also Ps 131.2, Isa 49.15, Isa 66.12-13,
I Cor 3.1-2 and Heb 5.12-14.
The order is roughly chronological.
This, of course, depends on how one dates the Odes.
See Norman Nagel, "Medicine of Immortality and
Antidote against Death," Logia 4 (1995): 31-36.
"For the ancients, 'figure' or 'symbol' is not
a mere sign, but a sign filled with reality. Thus,
the African Fathers can use also traditional ecclesiastical
terminology. For Tertullian the bread, as the figura
corporis, is at the same time the body" (Hermann
Sasse, This is My Body [Adelaide: Lutheran Publishing
House, 1977], 22-23). Also see Quasten, Patrology,
Ed. Gregory Dix and Henry Chadwick (London: The Alban
Press, 1991), 40-42. See also Les Canons D'Hippolyte
in PO 31.2 (Paris: Firmin-Didot et Cie., 1966), 382-85.
See Georg Kretshmar's comments in "Die Geschichte
des Taufgottesdienstes in der alten Kirche,"
in Leiturgia: Handbuch des evangelischen Gottesdienstes,
ed. K. F. Muller and W. Blankenburg (Kassel: Johannes
Stauda, 1970), 287.
Hymn 4 in Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, trans. Kathleen
McVey (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 100. See also
Hymn 5.24 and Sogita 1.27 in Des Heiligen Ephraem
des Syrers: Hymnen de Nativitate, trans. Edmund Beck
in CSCO 186 (Louvain: Secretariat du CorpusSCO, 1959).
Pierre Yousif, L'eucharistie chez Saint Ephrem de
Nisibe. Orientalia Christiana Analecta 224 (Rome:
Pontificium Institutum Orientale, 1984), 164-65.
See the introductory material in The Apocriticus of
Macarius Magnes, trans. T. W. Crafer (London: SPCK,
Crafer, Apocriticus, 80-81.
6.1.1 trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1991), 52.
On the Gospel of John tractate 26, NPNF1 7:172-73.
The Liturgical Homilies of Narsai, trans. R. H. Connolly,
Texts and Studies, ed. J. Armitage Robinson, 8.1 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1909), 52.
"Illud in causa est, quia scriptum est in Veteri
Testamento et novo populo figuraliter repromissum":
Introducam vos in terram repromissionis, terram fluentem
lac et mel (Lev. 20.24) (PL 59:406).
The Odist's use of the feminine gender when referring
to the Holy Spirit is not surprising. The word for
"spirit" in Syriac is feminine just as it
is in the Hebrew of the OT. He is simply being consistent
in his grammar.