God's Milk: An Orthodox Confession of the Eucharist
Edward Engelbrecht
Journal of Early Christian Studies 7.4 (1999) 509-526

Abstract: 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.

A cup of milk was offered to me,

and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord's kindness

The Son is the cup,

and the Father is he who was milked;

and the Holy Spirit is she who milked him;

Because his breasts were full,

and it was undesirable that his milk should be released without purpose.

The Holy Spirit opened her bosom,

and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.

Then she gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing,

and those who have received (it) are in the perfection of the right hand.

The womb of the Virgin took (it),

and she received conception and gave birth. 1 [End Page 509]

This 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. 3

The 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 of faith.

Whence 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 man" [19.10].

The 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 510]

I. God's Milk and the Odes of Solomon

From 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:

Said 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

Rabbinic 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.

A mid-second-century Gnostic treatise, the Gospel of Truth, provides an incarnational reference to the "bosom" of the Father:

In 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

The 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.

In 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.

A. God's Milk and Physiology

Clement 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.

The 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

Robinson 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]

Clement 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

Clement 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]

Aristotle argued in On the Generation of Animals,

That 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

Clement 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,

We 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. 16

Examples 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. 18

While 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

These 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.

Han 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.

Ancient 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?

B. God's Milk and the Eucharist in the Odes of Solomon

The Odes refer to milk in several other places, illustrating the importance of this element as an analogy for the writer. Ode 40.1 states,

As honey drips from the honeycomb of bees,

and milk flows from the woman who loves her children,

so also is my hope upon you, O my God.

This 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.

But other passages invite further consideration. Ode 4.10 says,

Sprinkle upon us your sprinklings,

and open your bountiful springs

which abundantly supply us with milk and honey.

Here 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]

And before they [the elect] had existed,

I [Christ] recognized them;

and imprinted a seal on their face.

I fashioned their members,

and my own breasts I prepared for them,

that they might drink my holy milk and live by it.

Christ "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 one finds,

The sprinkling of the Lord overshadowed me with serenity,

and it caused a cloud of peace to stand over my head;

That it might guard me at all times.

And it became salvation to me.

Everyone was disturbed and afraid,

and there flowed from them smoke and judgment.

But I was tranquil in the Lord's legion;

more than shade was he to me, and more than foundation.

And I was carried like a child by its mother;

and he gave me milk, the dew of the Lord.

The "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.

If 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.

II. God's Milk and the Early Fathers

It 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.

A. Earliest Uses of the Milk Analogy: Second Century

The 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:

What, 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 . 28

Play 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."

Toward 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

Again 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."

Neither 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.

B. The Cup of Milk and the Milk Analogy: The Third and Fourth Centuries

In 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:

Here 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]

Also in the treatise Against Marcion 1.14 he wrote,

Indeed, 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

This 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.

The Apostolic Tradition 23 (early third century) provides a detailed description of the baptismal eucharist and the place of milk and honey:

And 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

As 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

Ephrem was the earliest Syrian writer to take up the milk analogy after the Odist. In the Hymns of the Nativity he wrote:

He 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

Rather 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.

A 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),

Consider, 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

Macarius 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.

During 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 orthodox theologians.

C. The Decline of the Cup of Milk and the Milk Analogy: The Late Fourth Century

In 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:

If 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

It 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.

Augustine revealed his acquaintance with the milk analogy and its connection with the eucharist in the fourth book of The Confessions:

Without 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

Chadwick 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

In Homily 21 Narsai compared the Eucharist to milk and nursing. In place of breasts the church has the body and blood of Christ.

As 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

Here the womb also belongs to the church. Narsai connected them to God only through the marriage of Christ and the church.

At 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.

While 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"

Wine 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." 46

It 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 lost.

The 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]


The 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.

By 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.

Since 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?

During 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 birth.

The 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 "orthodox" faith.

Edward Engelbrecht is Managing Editor of Good News Journal and lives in Washington, Missouri


1. 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 translation.

2. "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, 1:161-62.

3. "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.

4. 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): 339.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Midrash Rabbah, trans. Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman and Maurice Simon (London: The Socino Press, 1939), 1:237.

8. 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.

9. "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.

10. ANF 2:220.

11. 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.

12. 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.

13. Clement, ANF, 218.

14. 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, ANF, 218-20.

15. 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.

16. 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).

17. 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.

18. See also Richard Smith, "Sex Education in Gnostic Schools," Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism, ed. Karen L. King (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 345-60.

19. 2.4.5-8 trans. Frank Williams, Panarion (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1987), 86.

20. 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 [1994]: 18).

21. Drijvers, "19th Ode," 342ff.

22. Drijvers, "19th Ode," 341. TDNT 3:824.

23. 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.

24. Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 316.

25. 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.

26. The order is roughly chronological.

27. This, of course, depends on how one dates the Odes.

28. ANF 1:140.

29. ANF 1:521.

30. See Norman Nagel, "Medicine of Immortality and Antidote against Death," Logia 4 (1995): 31-36.

31. ANF 3:94.

32. "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, 2:337.

33. ANF 3:281.

34. 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.

35. 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.

36. 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).

37. Pierre Yousif, L'eucharistie chez Saint Ephrem de Nisibe. Orientalia Christiana Analecta 224 (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Orientale, 1984), 164-65.

38. See the introductory material in The Apocriticus of Macarius Magnes, trans. T. W. Crafer (London: SPCK, 1919), xix-xxiii.

39. Crafer, Apocriticus, 80-81.

40. NPNF 14:594.

41. NPNF 14:591.

42. 6.1.1 trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 52.

43. On the Gospel of John tractate 26, NPNF1 7:172-73.

44. The Liturgical Homilies of Narsai, trans. R. H. Connolly, Texts and Studies, ed. J. Armitage Robinson, 8.1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), 52.

45. "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).


47. 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.

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