… and gave it to his friends …?

New job, new daily Mass, and the reappearance of an old pet peeve of mine. The priest who most often says the morning Mass substitutes “friends” for “disciples” in the institution narrative. This substitution was not uncommonly heard in my 1980’s childhood — one of the priests of my neighborhood parish would always choose this swap. I would not be surprised if others have experienced a similar phenomenon in the years since the liturgical reform.

I am still quite baffled as to why priests would choose the word “friends” over “disciples”. The word “disciple”, unlike “consubstantial” or “incarnate”, is not an obscure word. “Disciple” is not a gender-exclusive word. Perhaps “friends” offers a more accessible tone to the consecration? “Friends” might impress some persons with the opposite sentiment. When I hear “friends”, I think of an informal gathering such as casual dining. I do not think of an event with the gravity commonly associated with the institution of the Eucharist or its celebration. Given that it is quite possible that the Last Supper did not take place within a seder, it is not impossible that the Last Supper took place within a non-formal meal context. However, the resignification of this scriptural event within liturgical solemnity suggests that “friends” is incongruous.

It is important to consider the specific and deliberate parallelism between the roles of Jesus as teacher and his followers as students in the Greek New Testament as well as the Vulgate Latin translation. The synoptic institution narratives consistently refer to Jesus’s followers as μαθηταὶ, mathētai, “students” (singular nominative μαθητής, mathētēs). The noun forms are derived from the verb μανθάνω, manthanō, “learn”. Throughout the Gospels Jesus, in the role of religious teacher, is addressed simply by the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew, ῥαββί (“rabbi”, the title for a Torah scholar). Jesus is also addressed more generally as διδάσκαλε, didaskale, “teacher”. The relationship between Jesus and his followers within the context of the synoptic institution narratives demonstrates implicit teacher and student interaction and not a collaboration between equals in authority. The institution narratives’ reference to Jesus’ gathered followers as μαθηταὶ necessarily follows from the repeated references to Jesus as ῥαββί and διδάσκαλε throughout the Gospels.

While Jerome similarly transliterated ῥαββί into the Latin alphabet as rabbi and translated διδάσκαλε as magister or “teacher”, he translated μαθηταὶ as discipuli or “students”. The English etymology of “disciple” is quite clear in light of Jerome’s translation. “Friends”, then, is a vague substitute for the very specific English word “disciple”. Furthermore, “friends” destroys the teacher and student dimension integral to the institution narratives.

While one would rightly presume that Jesus’ disciples were his friends, it is probable that Jesus had friends that were not his disciples. What, then, is the profit in the substitution of “friends” for “disciples” in eucharistic prayers? Perhaps philology alone cannot explain this phenomenon.

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41 comments

  1. I think you have to look to the translation of the Eucharistic Prayers for Children, which translated “disciples” for “friends” in the institution narrative.

    1. μαθηταὶ There are two meanings to this word: First, a student in a real teacher-student relationship. Second, an adherent or believer of a philosophy or religion.

      In the Acts of the Apostles, alternative words for Christian are “saints, brethren, disciples, i.e. adherents.”

      In the Synoptic Gospels, almost always the word is reserved for the smaller group of people who accompany Jesus day to day in a personal student teacher relationship. It is not used for the people of the crowd even when they are described as following Jesus. It is not used for the very committed people who hosted Jesus in their homes. They did not have the precise student teacher relationship that involved surrounding Jesus, being his crowd control, supporting his role as teacher, etc. If you substitute “assistant” or “aides” for disciples in the Synoptic Gospels everything makes sense.

      The word is never used by Saint Paul even though like Acts he uses “saint” and “brethren” as alternatives for Christian. Why? Obviously Paul was not one of the “synoptic disciples” and he has to explain his direct relationship to Christ which obviously was not one of a student to a teacher.

      Much of what is wrong in the organization of contemporary Christian churches, Protestant and Catholic, is the “synoptic discipleship” model. Most parishes and congregations see the pastor as Jesus, assisted by an inner circle of more committed people called to “discipleship” and a crowd of potential followers at weekend worship.

      Far less attention is paid to the “Saints” :Brethren” and the wide presence of charismatic gifts in Paul and Acts. The Synoptic Gospels describe a pre-Church, a pre-Pentecostal period not the ideal Churches of Paul and Acts.

      As saints, brethren and adherents we are far more than pupils of Rabbi Jesus, we are his Body, have his Spirit. Our communion with Him and one another is far deeper than fellow students.

      I have called you friends. (Joh 15:15 NIV)

      1. re: Jack Rakosky on April 12, 2012 – 7:19 am

        Thank you Jack for your points. This is a convincing counterargument to what I have written. From what I gather, your point emphasizes that Christian “discipleship” (that is, beyond the teacher-student model) is not and should not be trapped within a thematic subset of the New Testament. narrative.

        After what you have written, I’m not sure if there’s a “plain meaning” to the institution narrative as it is used in the eucharistic prayers. The Eucharist is given for the salvation of all persons and all people. This certainly includes all those who are assembled for a particular Mass, as well as all throughout time. The institution narrative, then, does not apply to just those who accompanied Jesus at the Last Supper within the Gospel narrative. In this way, “friends” might be an appropriate translation as it does not refer strictly to the historical aspect of the institution narrative. (Jeffrey Pinyan’s point that “friends” better illustrates Christ’s reconciliation of humanity to himself is a better explanation than mine.) Even so, Jesus Christ as the Son of God is our Instructor so far as he is the Truth that we must “learn from” for everlasting life.

        “Disciples” might not necessarily reflect the polyvalent meaning of μαθηταὶ/discipuli well. This must be considered regardless of personal prejudices.

      2. Thank you Jack for your points. This is a convincing counterargument to what I have written. From what I gather, your point emphasizes that Christian “discipleship” (that is, beyond the teacher-student model) is not and should not be trapped within a thematic subset of the New Testament. narrative.

        After what you have written, I’m not sure if there’s a “plain meaning” to the institution narrative as it is used in the eucharistic prayers. The Eucharist is given for the salvation of all persons and all people. This certainly includes all those who are assembled for a particular Mass, as well as all throughout time. The institution narrative, then, does not apply to just those who accompanied Jesus at the Last Supper within the Gospel narrative. In this way, “friends” might be an appropriate translation as it does not refer strictly to the historical aspect of the institution narrative. (Jeffrey Pinyan’s point that “friends” better illustrates Christ’s reconciliation of humanity to himself is a better explanation than mine.) Even so, Jesus Christ as the Son of God is our Instructor so far as he is the Truth that we must “learn from” for everlasting life.

        “Disciples” might not necessarily reflect the polyvalent meaning of μαθηταὶ/discipuli well. This must be considered regardless of personal prejudices.

  2. Thankfully, I’ve never come across this particular substitution.

    I have a feeling that the substitution stems from John 15, where Jesus refers to His disciples as His friends (e.g. vv. 14-15). He does also in the same chapter refer to them as His disciples, though (v. 8).

    To me, it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense to transplant an element of the Johannine discourse material (which can’t be atomised if it is to really shape us) into what, in the Mass, is an institution narrative taken directly from the synoptics (and Paul). Moreover, if the intention is to offer a more “accessible” tone, then I think it’s exceptionally patronising, misguided, and idiotic, but that’s only my opinion, for what it’s worth.

    1. Patronising: unintended to be sure, but quite. Misguided: agreed, and for sound reasons. Idiotic: simply inflammatory. “It doesn’t make an awful lot of sense to transplant an” inflammatory term into an otherwise well-reasoned argument. We really cannot determine whether or not these priests are in fact idiots. Just a matter of charity, for what it’s worth.

      1. I said that the intention was idiotic, not the person whose intention it may be. I also said it was only my opinion!

        Of course, if priests just said the texts as written, as they are supposed to do, the whole problem disappears. Priests, please, give an interesting homily about the relationship between disciples/friends: don’t change the texts on your own initiative!

      2. The intention comes from the man, so if the intention is to be judged and/or termed idiotic, then the man to some degree would be culpable for such accused idiocy. But even when referring to the intention, the term idiotic is still an inflammatory one. All that being said, I would also opine that the integrity of the texts should be respected in good conscience.

  3. I plead “Occasionally Guilty” to making the substitution when the congregation is small, like a retreat Eucharist or with children. Each time I substitute it, I feel like I shouldn’t have done that…maybe that is the second best reason to go back, which is the first reason: disciples is in the text. Mea culpa….

  4. A perspicacious observation on your part. Unless it is actually an accidental ‘slip of the tongue’ or pure carelessness, such substitutions are inevitably a form of editing, by which the ‘editor’ is, for his or her subjective reasons, making a presumptuous ‘correction’ in the sacred script. In this case, it is obvious that something is lost (and is meant to be?) in substituting ‘friends’ for ‘disciples’. You have illustrated this very well.

  5. Virtually every priest I know makes small editorial changes to the text when presiding. It has been thus since the arrival in our midst in 1969/1970 of rubrics such as “in these or similar words” and “where pastoral reasons dictate”. As Jeffery and Matthew point out, both EPs for Masses with Children and scripture have made this particular change much easier. Jordan’s point, I think, is that some changes are more significant than others.

    My experience of the new translation of the Order of Mass since September last year, which is when we started in this country, is that virtually every priest, even the most scrupulous, is making slight editorial changes to the text. The changes they are making are additions or modifications which principally help the flow, and a lot of the time they are unaware that they are doing it, since when I speak to them post factum they express surprise and say that they thought they were sticking to what is printed.

    Sometimes the changes are deliberate. A proportion of priests in my diocese tell me that their copies of the Missal are full of pencilled emendations of “these horribly contorted texts” (rather a different view from MJO’s “sacred script”). I think the texts of Holy Week provided a rich field for this kind of activity.

    Whether they are doing it consciously or not, these men are not rebellious hotheads, but modest, intelligent and good pastors. The fact that they are consistently editing the text, whether in the order of slight editorial changes or larger-scale rewrites, should give us pause for thought rather than incurring instant condemnation.

    1. Virtually every priest I know makes small editorial changes to the text when presiding.

      Reading aloud from any text is a difficult task; reading aloud and giving proper emphasis even more so. It is a rare person indeed, who can always read aloud without ever making inadvertent changes n the wording.

  6. Well, I shant alter my remarks above because I believe them to be expressive of an evidential and inelluctable reality. That said, PI’s assessment might, could, cause one to be less (but not much less) antipathetic to those who ‘presume’ to make ‘edits’ not only where they rubrically just squeak by, but where they, without rubrics, do not squeak by at all. The underlying mind-set at work here is ‘my judgment is superior to the Church’s, therefore I will act as a free editing agent, responsible to no one, and make whatever ‘editorial correction’ I deem necessary. And, I have carte blanche because it says ‘in these or similar words’, so I may apply this permission at will wherever I wish’.

    (And, I do think that Ann Olivier hit the nail on the head!)

    I think that hosts of priests really do enjoy ad libitum shows to the limit they can make them play. It must be very satisfying to the ego; and they probably think they are making a big impression: they are – but its not the one they have in mind.

    1. I don’t believe any of those I have encountered who are making changes, and certainly not those who are doing it unawares, would have the sort of “I know better than the Church” mindset that MJO is putting out there. I don’t believe such a concept would have entered their heads, and I am sure that their motives are pastoral. The most that they might be thinking is “the Vox Clara/Sacred Congregation translators are useless — how on earth am I expected to lead my people into prayer with this stuff?”

      Yes, we all know one or two priests who enjoy being the centre of attention at Mass. (One or two American prelates spring to mind immediately!) But I think the vast majority are not like that at all, and are doing their best to serve their people with what they consider to be inadequate tools.

      1. I am more inclined to find chronic “pastoral” adjustments credible when priests actually find out from their congregation (not just from what tends to become something of an echo chamber in pastoral councils and liturgical commissions, as volunteers will fade from priests they don’t like working with and flock to those they do like working with) what congregants think about these things.

      2. Thanks, Paul. In my training, one of the key liturgical principles was for the presider with others to “use good judgement in these and similar words” rather than black and white, rote.

        Wonder if someone with the ICEL experience could weigh in on why “friends” were used in the children’s EPs?

    2. I sure wish I could read minds and hearts like some of the folks who comment here. Then I would be able to recognize idiots and egoists, right on sight.

  7. I prefer friends. Disciple isn’t as unusual a word as consubstantial etc but it is still not every day currency. Jesus called his disciples friends, so why shouldn’t we? I’m struggling to remember Jesus referring to them as disciples. I don’t like Ann Oliver’s somewhat barbed remark. I don’t refer to Jesus as my buddy but that’s not a word I use about anybody. I do regard him as my friend and an intimate friend. Disciple inserts a distance between us. The liturgy may be seen as a formal occasion but what is more intimate than Jesus becoming one with me when I receive him in Communion. Did any of us speak lovingly to our teachers?

    1. I’m struggling to remember Jesus referring to them as disciples.

      That’s a good point: while the Gospels refer to them as disciples, they are doing so in narration most of the time. The first place I see “disciples” spoke by is (gasp!) by the Pharisees in Mt 9:14. In response, Jesus speaks of them as “wedding guests”. Later He speaks to them and likens them to “laborers”.

      However, Jesus does use the word, at least generally, in Mt 10:24 and 10:42.

      This is a matter that deserves a bit more study than I have the heart for at 7:40 in the morning. I’ll return to this later, Maria. Thank you for this little project!

  8. I have just re read the last comment by M Jackson Osborn and have to say I find it very judgemental. When I hear priests eg using friends instead of disciples, I feel they are truly praying and entering into the events we are celebrating rather than reciting a formula. Because a person’s approach is different from mine does not mean that person is wrong, still less badly intententioned.

  9. Re: “friends” vs. “disciples” in the EP… it was there in the 1975/6 English translation of EP I for Reconciliation. Assuming the Latin wasn’t changed, the word “discipulis” is used exclusively. I would have expected, though, that “friends” was used regarding the bread rather than the wine since the Latin says “fregit et dedit illis, dicens”, literally “broke it and gave it to them, saying.” Why not employ “friends” for the pronoun rather than replace “disciples” with “friends” in the Latin text for the wine, which is “discipulis suis tradidit, dicens”?

    But then I realize “friends” was used in the context of the wine because “sciens se omnia in seipso reconciliaturum per sanguinem suum in cruce fundendum” – Jesus knew He would reconcile all things in himself by His blood to be shed on the cross. Thus, in anticipation of that reconciliation (mystically (p)re-presented in the Eucharist), the word “friends” is used.

    I would not be surprised if the use of “friends” in the official translation of EPR I led to the swap being made unofficially ad altare.

    But I would caution against attributing intent and speculating. I’ve seen too much evidence of loss/lack of charity where that happens. I would suppose an innocent motive first, such as above: “Oh, EPR I uses it, so perhaps it would be appropriate here too.”

    We are (pace Luther) simul discipuli et amica. I would hope a priest would not seek to downplay one of those at the expense of the other. I think it is easy to misunderstand what it means to be a “friend” of someone (especially Christ), and what our “friendship” with Christ entails. Being a “disciple”, and the costs of “discipleship”, I think, are harder to misunderstand (but perhaps also harder to understand?).

    Of course, it’s not either/or, it’s both and. A friend of Jesus “must needs be” a disciple, and vice versa.

  10. The “Jefferson Bible” is a compilation of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite sayings or teaching of Jesus. Basically what Jefferson did was to go through the NT and excise any references to Jesus’ divinity, his miracles, and any ‘hard sayings’. It’s a presentation of a Nice Guy Jesus. (Or, as Bush once called Jesus, ‘my favorite philosopher’.)
    Presiders and homilists (not to mention some theologians and authors) tend to do the same– turning the Word-Made-Flesh into the Whimper-Asking-Permission-To-Speak. This Jesus doesn’t ask you to take up your cross and follow him, rather it’s “put on your sunblock and hit the beach”. Unfortunately, it all too often turns into Son-block.
    Don’t be surprised if some presider, somewhere, sometime changes ‘friends’ to ‘pals’ or ‘buds’.

    1. Actually saw the Jefferson Bible yesterday and the original from which he cut out his choices.

      Your interpretation doesn’t exactly match the actual facts and what historians believe about what Jefferson did.

      As they say – you are entitled to your opinions but not the facts.

      Thus, your A + B = C makes no sense as does your opinionated comments and conclusions. We learned a hundred years ago what happens when we cocoon ourselves into an anti-modernist perspective. Again, secular has many meanings; not just your negative one.

  11. Karl, yes. I believe eachnof us should speak to God in a way that is reue to who we are and to what helps us get closer to God.

  12. John, the fact that Jesus is God and yet wants an intimate relarionship with us makes the latter fact yet more amazing and mysterious. It is a gross distortion to conclude that because some of us prefer to use the language of intimacy we forget or downplay the divinity. For me, the.Incarnation is something which fills me with awe. Why should it mot?

  13. Maria, I agree with your sentiments. Perhaps I expressed myself badly. We can (and must) be intimate with God but never casual. As one writer put it, we cannot approach God with our hands in our pockets, whistling.
    I’ve heard presiders use “friends”and yet their style of liturgy and of preaching showed great reverence for the “Otherness” of God. But there are other presiders/homilists who give the impression they regularly meet with Divinity over a couple of beers at the local pub where they freely offer their expectations of Him. The Divine Will is crystal clear to them. (Perhaps because it happens to coincide with their own will…)
    “You are my friends,” He said but added, “if you do what I command.”
    Narnia’s Aslan was said to be “good, not nice”. God is “Father” not doting Grandfather. And Jesus– Redeemer, Brother and Friend– is still 1st and foremost Lord.
    How to keep the balance?

    1. God is “Father” not doting Grandfather.

      This is a perfect illustration of the weakness of analogy; depending on one’s relationship with one’s own parent, God the Father may be Pater or Abba!

      1. Brigid, you devotion to your patron is encouraging.

        I wish I had a great lake of ale for the King of kings, and the family of heaven to drink it through time eternal. I wish I had the meats of belief and genuine piety, the flails of penance, and the men of heaven in my house. I would like keeves of peace to be at their disposal, vessels of charity for distribution, caves of mercy for their company, and cheerfulness to be in their drinking. I would want Jesus also to be in their midst, together with the three Marys of illustrious renown, and the people of heaven from all parts. I would like to be a tenant to the Lord, so if I should suffer distress, he would confer on me a blessing. Amen.

        Saint Brigid of Kildare

    2. I do not favor a casual appraoch to the sacramental liturgy. But being casual with the Lord himself is not always the same as being disrespectful. In some cases, it demonstrates a great faith and trust. We will never fully “be” towards the Lord what we ought truly “be” until we see him as he is, in heaven. Meanwhile, we have two complimentary realities: the fact that the Lord is God, the Lord alone, and the fact that he came “down here” as it were and lived in poverty, told true stories, shared common meals with all sorts of riff-raff, and even washed his disciples’ feet! Let us, then, embrace both realities as prudence and circumstance dictate, being careful never to boast, “Lord, you shall never wash my feet” because in fact he already has, and does so still. The ceremonies, like the sabbath, were made for man, not man for the ceremonies.

  14. John, how to keep the balance, indeed. Persoally, I think the “first and foremost” can shift according to the context. I am in full agreement about the need for reverence although I think I have to be careful not to judge on this because reverence is an attitude of the heart and I can’t see into hearts. I am comsoled that God knows of what we are made and doesn’t expect us to get it right all the time. I also need to remember that the impression people make on me might be a wrong impression. Sometimes it’s simply that their approach isn’t mine. An example would be that I can make a list of reasons why I find charismatic prayer – I don’t know what adjective to use but maybe I can say unecessary. However, I can’t say that those who pray in this way are unaccpetable. As
    Iong as they don’t expect me to follow suit…….

  15. φίλος friend, lover, a person who is devoted to something or someone, an intimate associate. This word was much valued in the ancient world, e.g. philosophy, philanthropy.

    In many ways saying “friends” is deeper than “disciples”, i.e. Jesus gives himself to his intimate associates, those who are devoted to him, not just to those who believe in him or are his students.

    In both the ancient world and today, friendship has a connotation of freedom to it which makes for a certain equality even when people are not social equals.

    One can much more easily image that “friends” can also be “holy ones” and “brethren.” Whereas it is a little more difficult to image “disciples” as also “holy ones” and “brethren”

    “Holy ones” tells me a lot about early Christians their vertical relationship to God, i.e. love of God, as does “brethren” about their horizontal relationship to one another, i.e. love of one another. To also call them “friends” i.e. lovers fits in with this. It also fits in with my favorite Byzantine divine name, Lover of Mankind.

    To call Christians students or adherents tells us very little about Christianity, its just another philosophy or religion.

    1. Jesus didn’t juxtapose “friends” with “disciples” but with “slaves” or “servants”. And while “friends” and “friendship” can still have the great value they had in the ancient world, they are also bandied about rather casually today: “friend”ing people on Facebook (as opposed to befriending them), friends with benefits, fair-weather friends, etc. We like to be considered someone’s friend, but are we actually there for them when they need us the most, like a true friend would be?

      Then again, being a disciple of Jesus didn’t prevent you from betraying, denying, or straight-up leaving Him.

      In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of His followers/friends as true disciples if “continue in my word” (8:31), if they have love for one another (13:35), and by bearing much fruit to the glory of God (15:8).

      Interesting tensions between John’s Gospel and Paul’s letter to the Romans… “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13) and “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” (Rom 5:10) So simultaneously enemies of God the Father (insofar as we are sinners?) and friends of God the Son (insofar as we are disciples?).

  16. Jordan (and other interlocutors),

    My views are very strongly influenced by Meeks classic work, The First Urban Christians . (Note how I dismiss attempts to model Christianity and the Church on the Synoptics rather than Paul and Acts).

    In Chapter 3 “On the formation of the Ecclesia”, Meeks asks the question of where did Christians get their social structure. His answers are 1) from the Household (household churches and the “fictive family” relationship of “brethren” and 2 from the Synagogue (Christians are a world wide network of “saints” set apart by God).

    Other sources of social structure which Meeks rejects or sees only limited usage are: the voluntary association and the philosophical or rhetorical school. Meeks grants that there is something like a Pauline school among his immediate collaborators (just as Jesus had a “school” for his apostles) however this is not how the whole church was organized.

    Application to today: we must be wary of the remaking of Western Christianity since the Reformation into something like a school where the interpretation of Scripture (Protestants) and the transmission of doctrine (The Trent Seminary) are the key things. Especially in the USA, the two things found in almost every congregation are Sunday Worship and Religious Education.

    What the Vibrant Parish Life study tells us is that the people know that religion is about 1) worship, the love of God, and 2 community (love of neighbor) and that parishes are not doing well on these two matters while parishes are doing well on religious education. Religious education for children ranked 5th in importance and 7th in being well done.

    What American Grace’s research tells us is that people get none of the measureable benefits of worship (health, happiness, giving time, talent and treasure to others) unless they have family, close friends or participate in small groups (again love of God and love of neighbor go together).

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