“Bread and Wine”

Brant Gardner

Culture: Apparently the people’s fatigue is no longer an issue, and Jesus institutes the sacrament, thus perpetuating his establishment of the same practice with his apostles in Jerusalem:

And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body.
And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it.
And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. (Mark 14:22–24)

Both bread and wine had symbolic associations with the Israelite tree of life. The tree produced not only an edible fruit but also a liquid—sometimes the fruit’s juice and sometimes a river that flowed from the tree’s base. (See commentary accompanying 1 Nephi 8:2–3 for more information on tree of life symbolism.) Wine was associated with this liquid, not only in Palestine but in the larger Middle East. Historian Erwin B. Goodenough notes: “Whether in masculine or feminine terms, the palm tree was from early times a symbol and literal source of sacrament, in that the earliest wine was made from the dates, and was in Babylonia known as the ‘drink of life.’”

According to Louis Ginzberg, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, “The oldest and most prevalent [legend]… identifies the forbidden fruit with the grape, which goes back to an old mythological idea that the wine is the beverage of the gods.” He also explains the apparent anomaly of the drink which “caused” the Fall being used in the Last Supper: “The fruit which brought sin into the world will become a ‘healing’ in the world to come.” In pleasing symmetry, it is thus associated with both the fall and the atonement.

Bread had an equally powerful symbolism, and Jesus made the connection explicit in the Last Supper:

I am that bread of life.
Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead.
This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die.
I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. (John 6:48–51)

This symbol is one step removed from the tree of life, so it is a little more difficult to understand than the symbolic connection that ties it to the wine, (the liquid of the tree of life). The immediate referent of “bread” in John is manna, which is certainly not the fruit of the tree of life. However, the context indicates that manna became a substitute for the fruit of the tree of life. The Exodus experience with manna was so powerful that it became the quintessential “bread” of life; thus, this passage simply slips the newer symbol into the position structurally occupied by the fruit, or solid substance of the tree of life.

In addition to symbolic associations, bread and wine have two other features important in the Old World. They were readily available. However, we cannot be certain how easily the sacrament symbols transferred to the New World. Mesoamericans did not have bread. They prepared corn meal in various ways to form their dietary staple parallel to the Old World’s bread. Archaeologist Susan Toby Evans describes the advances made in maize preparation that date to about 500–300 B.C.:

Maize had been the most important staple crop for many centuries, and its value in part depended on how readily it could be dried and stored. To prepare for eating, the dried maize kernels were soaked in water to which ground limestone was added. This process, called “nixtamalization” (after the Nahuatl word for lime-soaked maize, nixtamal), softened the maize kernels. An added benefit was that it fortified the maize with protein, niacin, and calcium, a mineral scarce in the Mesoamerican diet, which lacked not only large herd animals like cattle, but cattle byproducts like milk and cheese.
Once soaked, the maize kernels could be ground into a dough, and then prepared in various ways. Probably the most “instant” ground maize dish was gruel (atole); more elaborate to prepare were tamales, which are made by adding other ingredients—bits of meat, beans, seasonings—to the maize dough, wrapping the concoction in corn husks or leaves, and steaming the bundles. The form of cooked maize dough that people today find most familiar is the tortilla, a flat pancake cooked on a griddle and then used as a wrapper for other foods (like beans), or as a dipper for sauces like guacamole (which is a Nahuatl-derived word meaning “avocado sauce”), or they are simply eaten plain, even when old and stale. Tortillas last for days; they become lighter as they dry out and yet are still edible.
Tortillas were apparently first prepared in this period [500–300 B.C.] judging form the initial appearance of comals, flat griddles of a type still in use to cook them.

Even though they had nothing that would have resembled bread as we know it, it didn’t have to have the same ingredients to fulfill the symbolic function of bread in the sacrament. Whatever the Nephites provided, it would only have needed to be a solid food that could be separated into pieces.

In later Aztec times, amaranth dough was shaped into loaves and other shapes (such as images of deities) and offered to the gods. Amaranth provided another nutritious grain that allowed a dough product that might therefore have been an option for the Nephite sacrament. However, maize occupied such an important role in other Mesoamerican religions that it would be the most symbolic offering.

Even though there is some archaeological evidence of grapes, there is no evidence that they were used to make wine. Whatever liquid the Nephites brought to Jesus for the sacrament must have been a local adaptation. A wine called pulque or octli was made from the fermented juices of the maguey. The Maya made a fermented drink called chicha from fermented maize gruel. (See commentary accompanying Mosiah 11:15, 22:6.) Again, the connection to sacred maize would recommend chicha,but whatever liquid was used for this sacred rite would have lasting symbolic significance conferred on it. It needed no prior associations.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5