The Leaven – Biblical theory in a Molecular era


So here at last – fresh off the press – the completed book.


Is vinegar considered leavened?

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

The Jewish word for leaven is chametz. This is not normally thought to be yeast but naturally fermenting grain, particularly wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oats. In this respect, wine being fermented from grapes would not be considered leavened but beer probably would, as it is likely to contain barley. Sour wine or vinegar was also likely to be considered leavened. The Hebrew for vinegar is chometz meaning sour. This is almost the same as the word chametz which is probably derived from a similar meaning. Vinegar is made by fermenting an alcoholic substance, such as wine, a second time with acetic acid bacteria to convert ethanol  into acetic acid. Turning wine into vinegar can be avoided by excluding air from the process as these bacteria are predominately aerobic. It is likely that wine frequently turned to vinegar in the Biblical era as a consequence of contamination and therefore it was thought to simulate corruption in a similar way to  leaven. It has been suggested that when the term chometz is used in the Bible it refers to both leaven and vinegar as they are both considered to be sour. The Hebrew word for wine was yayin derived from the word yaneh meaning to squeeze or press. Sour wine was usually referred to as chometz yayin or chometz yin.

It is believed that vinegar or sour wine was offered to Jesus before and after the crucifixion:

And when they were come unto a place called Golgotha, that is to say, the place of the skull, they gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink. They crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, they parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots. And sitting down they watched him there; And set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
Mt 27:33-37

Golgotha was thought to be called the place of the skull because it was a hill that resembled a skull although it may have also been called this because it served as a place for executions. It was located at the entrance of Jerusalem.  Some translations say that Jesus was offered  vinegar while bearing the cross to Golgotha whereas others say it was wine containing gall. Gall was often referred to as anything that was bitter so it was more likely to be sour wine or vinegar.  In his gospel, Matthew states that this was done to fulfil a prophecy. The particular prophecy that Matthew refers to is in the Old Testament. It describes the demeaning  manner by which vinegar is offered to quench a thirst. The guards further demean Jesus by removing his clothing in order to share them between themselves. This is also predicted in a prophecy:

When I was hungry they gave me poison. When I was thirsty they offered me vinegar.
Ps 69:21

The gamble for my clothes and divide them among themselves.
Ps 22:18

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus drank vinegar just before he died whilst on the cross in order to fulfill the prophecy.

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Jn 19:28-30

The disrobing Of Christ, Cattura di Cristo. Guercino 1621.

It would seem that vinegar could be more likely to be viewed as a leavened drink than either wine or grape juice as it was synonymous with a corruptive influence in the same way as leaven.

the Leaven lives

Pharmaceuticals: a science-based industry influenced by profit. Image:bio+ve

I’ve now posted most of the initial stages of a  book that I’ve been working on. It’s about how leaven in the Bible is interpreted through the mind of a slightly deluded, molecular biologist specialising in yeast research.  In many ways, the scientific community is similar to  religion. Many people who work in it are doing so to benefit others in a collaborative effort that is occasionally overidden by other influences.  In fact leaven is used in the Bible to metaphorically represent how influence permeates through society. It has as much relevance in science as it does in religion. Money seems to fuel the same kind of corruption in science  as in religion, leading to conflict and controversy. Also both science and religion seem to discriminate against women. This all seems to have been affirmed by Paul the Apostle.. who seems to be, hypocritically, under a leaven-like influence. Paul wrote a few of the books in the New Testament but seems to have never witnessed the teachings of Jesus first hand. I believe it’s time that a pop science book addressed equality. If you’d like to read my efforts so far and leave any comments (good or bad) please visit the Leaven.

Is wine considered leavened?

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

As leaven was seen as an impurity that symbolised corruption only unleavened bread is used to celebrate the Passover and to symbolise the body of Christ. The symbolic use of wine in the present Eucharist originated from the words of Jesus at the last supper, which occurred during the feast of unleavened bread:

As the disciples were eating, Christ took bread and blessed it, he broke it and shared it amongst the disciples saying “Take and eat it,” he said; “ this is my body.” He then took the cup, gave thanks to God and passed it to them. “Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
[Mt. 26.26-29; Mk. 14.22-26; Lk. 22.14-20; 1 Cor. 11.23-25]

At this stage Jesus was committed to his fate, he would be condemned to death. He persistently associated with people that were unclean; he did not observe strict ritual procedures such as hand washing; he disrupted the traditions of the Temple; and was constantly defamatory towards the policies of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He was a negative influence that had to be eliminated. It was the role of the High Priest to sanction and condemn those that had not obeyed the Torah. Jesus already knew that one of his disciples had betrayed him to the high priest so took it upon himself to play the role of Passover sacrificial lamb. It is evident from Biblical accounts that Jesus was condemned before the Passover as it was against Jewish tradition to execute during a religious festival or on the Sabbath:

Then the chief priests and the elders met together in the palace of Caiaphas, the High Priest, and made plans to arrest Jesus secretly and put him to death. “We must not do it during the festival,” they said, “or the people will riot.”
[Mt. 26.3-5; Mk. 14.1-2; Lk. 22.1-2; Jn. 11.45-53]

Ironically, this meal is far more poignant as it takes place just before a festival that commemorates the Jews freedom from persecution. Jesus refers to himself as the sacrificial animal used in the traditional ceremony and to the wine as the sacrificial blood but in this instance the destroyer did not pass over (see previous post). Following the meal, Jesus and his disciples retired to the Mount of Olives . Here, the High Priest’s servants apprehended Jesus  after being  led to him by the disloyal disciple Judas Iscariot. He was brought before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court that tries those who disobey the Torah, and charged with threatening to destroy the Temple and with blasphemy

Behold the man. Bosch c1475

The Sanhedrin delivered Jesus to the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, on the grounds that he was claiming to be the King of the Jews and a potential rebel. Roman and Jewish religions would probably have had a very contrasting outlook and therefore Pilate was reluctant to condemn Jesus. Perhaps Pilate shared many viewpoints with Jesus in regard to the Jewish religion and therefore asked the crowd if he should be set free. The crowd responded unfavourably. He was condemned to death by crucifixion, a Roman method of execution. Fearing  retribution the disciples denied their beliefs when interrogated by the Pharisees, but following the death of Jesus continued to preach his teachings in exile.

The modern Eucharist was established to serve as a reminder of how Jesus gave his life in return for his convictions. In many aspects this religious ceremony seems to go against the philosophies of Jesus by its ritual connotations and sectarian exclusiveness. Perhaps serving  more as a means of retaining ceremonial sacrifices and symbolic worship favoured by the Pharisees that were originally rejected in the teachings of Jesus. In the Eucharist, wine is used to symbolise the blood of Christ but grape juice is sometimes substituted on moral grounds. Many disagree with this principle and regard grape juice as a leavened drink because it has the potential to ferment. Some believe it  is  impure and it gives rise to objections when it is used symbolically to represent the blood of Christ. Their argument is that wine that has fermented is physically separated from the yeast containing sediment. It is seen as having had the leaven removed and no longer has the potential to ferment, it is predominately thought of as unleavened. Those that follow the doctrines of a Christian religion but strongly object to the moral use of alcohol put forward the argument that the wine used by Christ to represent his blood is a non-alcoholic grape juice.

In the New Testament messages are communicated so that they are accessible to those that they are expected to influence. If there were a spiritual objection to drinking alcoholic wine than surely these ideals would be put forward in Biblical teachings? Additionally, if this were the case,  why not  use water as the pure and sinless drink in the last supper? The Hebrews seemed to have an innate sense of disease prevention. In sacrifices they used animals that had no blemishes, they ostracised those individuals that were viewed as unclean, they removed potential microbial contaminants, such as leaven, from food. Water in that era would have been the source of many contaminants and likely to contain as many microbes as leaven, therefore wine would be less likely to cause disease. Water could therefore be interpreted, as a disease-causing agent in contrast wine would have been  associated with disease prevention. As the processes behind diseases were unknown they were attributed to acts of retribution by angry deities. In the disease-ridden Biblical era,  a gift of wine to the Lord would perhaps have been perceived as more suitable than a gift of murky water.

The Blood of Christ

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

In the molecular era, it is now known that fermentation is not only responsible for the leavening of bread but it is also the principle process in brewing and wine making. It ‘s worthwhile taking time to consider how wine was perceived in the biblical era and how its use is viewed in current religious ceremony. Present society now understands that the intoxicating agent of wine is alcohol, a by-product of the yeast fermentation process. It is also understood that unfermented fresh grape juice, or must, is relatively free from alcohol. These principles were not understood by ancient societies, as the knowledge behind the biology of fermentation did not exist. When leaven is used in making bread it is viewed as an impurity and therefore omitted from many sacrificial ceremonies. In contrast wine, which is also produced by a similar fermentation process involving yeast, was not only permitted in sacrifices but was sometimes a principal component.

Monk drinking wine. Grod c1800.

Wine production occurs naturally in the environment. Grape skins are covered with yeasts and bacteria, mainly members of  the yeast family Saccharomyces. When grapes are crushed they ferment, especially in warm climates as yeast fermentation occurs between 20 and 40°C with an optimum growth temperature of around 30°C. The main fermentation is aerobic and takes a few days. It then  continues anaerobically at a slower rate for some time. When fermentation is complete the resulting wine is racked from the sediment, a substance containing precipitated organic matter and yeast. In the biblical era wine is produced in animal skins or in jars designed specifically for the fermentation process. In the New Testament the fermentative characteristics of wine were well recognised as is evident in some of the passages. The following parable uses the properties of fermentation to describe how a flexible way of thinking was needed to accept new and fresh ideas:

Nor does anyone pour new wine into used wineskins, for the skins will burst, the wine will pour out, and the skins will be ruined. Instead, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins, and both will keep in good condition
[Matt. 9.17; Mk. 2.22; Lk. 5.37]

Wine is not referred to in the Bible as leaven or unleavened although it does feature in sacrifices and rituals. In the Old Testament it is used in large quantities as part of a daily sacrificial offering that also included animals and unleavened bread [Ex.29.38-46; Num. 28.1-8]. Wine is also offered on the Sabbath and on the first day of the month, where the quantity varies depending on the type of animal used in the sacrifice . Most notably, wine was offered in the daily sacrifice during the festival of the unleavened bread:

The proper wine-offering is two measures of wine with each bull, one and a half measures with the ram, and one measure with each lamb.
[Num. 28.9-15]

It does seem, in respect to sacrifices, that leaven was not associated with wine in the same way as it is associated with bread. Perhaps this is because the process of wine production was not as accessible to the overall population as bread making, therefore it is less likely to be used in domestic ceremonies due to lack of availability. Also as wine is intoxicating and bread is not,  perhaps fermentation in bread was simply thought of as a different process. In addition wine is rarely associated with food poisoning although it is possible for some microbial toxins to be found in wine. Generally if wine becomes contaminated during fermentation it is undrinkable and becomes cloudy, perhaps at this stage it might have been viewed as impure and corrupt. Pathogenic microbes usually require an optimal pH similar to that found in animals, this is why ethanol with a high pH is normally used in sterilisation. In fact this could be the reason why alcohol, similarly to salt, is used in these sacrifices, for its ability to sterilise and remove contamination.

Three is the magi number

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

In many translations there are three measures of meal in the leaven parable (see previous post), these are thought by many to represent the human race amongst which the Gospel is working. The number three is mentioned over 500 times in the bible: There are three Magi, Noah had three sons, Lot had three daugters and then, of course, there is the father, son and holy spirit where God is represented in three forms.  The three measures of meal in the leaven parable are thought by some to represent faith, hope and love:

Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love. 
[I Cor. 13,13]

They have also been thought to represent the three elements of human-life; body, soul and spirit as  the meal has been compared to the human race. When Jesus specified three measures, he was trying to portray a figurative meaning that could be interpreted by the people in that space of time. Therefore it’s difficult to know exactly what he was referring too as those influences no longer exist.

Adoration of the Magi. Rubens 1619

In  Laws about Sacrifices, in the Old Testament,  three measures of meal should be used as part of a sacrifice when a Bull is being offered:

When a bull is offered to the Lords as a burnt offering or as a sacrifice in fulfilment of how or as the fellowship offering, a great offspring of three measures of flour mixed with two measures of olive oil is to be presented, together with two measures of wine. The smell of the sacrifice is pleasing to the Lord.
[Num. 15.8-10]

There maybe an association between the measures of meal and the ceremony of sacrifice. The meal may represent something that is normally sacred and without leaven. The woman may have hidden the leaven into the meal because the teachings of Jesus were in direct conflict to those of the Torah. The Bible always states that no leaven should be offered as a sacrifice to the Lord.

None of the grain offerings which you present to the Lord shall be made with leaven.
[Lev. 2,11]

When the woman hid the leaven in the meal she was doing something that was prohibited by God. Therefore this parable could be deduced to mean the doctrines of Christ are the Bread of Life and must remain pure and uncorrupted. Some propose that the Parable of the Leaven represents degeneracy in power, a breaking in upon divinely ordered fellowship, the corrupting influences of apostasy. The other interpretation is that leaven is in fact being used on occasion as a positive element that permeates through the meal as teachings would permeate through society.

When Jesus compares his leaven with that of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, although there leaven symbolises corruption his leaven is symbolic of truth.

…heavenly bread making

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Leaven when used figuratively in the bible is most often used to denote something that is corrupt. The initial conception of it in the leaven parable (see previous post) is of a favourable component in the dough, this implies that Jesus is contradicting its symbolic use in the Bible.

The Leaven Parable. Illustration by Jan Luyken from the Bowyer Bible.

This parable could be interpreted in many ways. The leaven is taken by the woman and hidden in the meal or flour. The leaven may represent the subtle way that evil can permeate through the dough. In this manner leaven still represents something that corrupts, disintegrates and breaks up. The woman is impregnating the pure symbol of heaven symbolised by the meal with evil symbolised by the leaven. The first indication that leaven was associated with corruption in the Bible was when Lot baked unleavened bread for the angels:

But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without leaven, and they ate.
[Gen. 19.3].

Lot did not give leavened bread to the angels because he did not want to offer them anything containing impurities. The next reference to leaven is in the book of Exodus when the Hebrews left Egypt. They received a command from the Lord, through Moses, not to eat leavened bread for seven days. Similar sentiments occur in later sections of the Bible when the Lord demands that leaven should not be offered in sacrifices to him.

Do not offer bread made with leaven when you sacrifice an animal to me. Do not keep until morning any part of an animal killed at the Passover festival.
[Ex. 34.25].

Leaven was excluded from any sacrifice because it was thought of as a contaminant that did not reflect sinlessness. Leaven  during the Biblical era would have contained many undesirable elements in addition to microbes that fermented bread dough. It’s unlikely that the primitive baking processes used at that time would have destroyed all pathogenic microbes and therefore there was the potential for leaven in bread to transmit diseases. This is perhaps why it earned such a bad reputation and why people tended not to offer it to guests during festivals or at other times. Perhaps one person’s leaven was another person’s poison. Interestingly, animal sacrifices were disposed of before they started to decompose or they could become contaminated also. Perhaps there was the additional fear that Egyptians would look unfavourably upon this practice and there would be consequences for  the Hebrews if they were caught with animal remains:

If we use these animals and offend the Egyptians by sacrificing them where they can see us, we will be stoned  to death. We must travel three days into the desert to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, just as he commanded us.
[Ex. 8.26-27]

The words leaven and unleavened occur over sixty times in the Old Testament and nearly twenty times in the New Testament. In every instance, except for in the leaven parable, it is used to denote something corrupt or sinful. Mostly, Jesus  uses leaven  figuratively in the same way as it is used in the Old Testament to denote corruption. For instance, Jesus compares the doctrines of the Pharisees with leaven:

Be on guard against the leaven of the Pharisees, I mean their hypocrisy.
[Lk. 12.1]

In Mark’s gospel  “and the leaven of Herod” is added to the above quote [Mk 8.14-15].  According to Lockyer the leaven of the Pharisees can be interpreted to represent the hypocritical formality and ritual of their beliefs. The leaven of the Sadducees was rationalism and the denial of supernatural events. The leaven of Herod was the consequence of these two doctrines, a departure from God and his teachings to a devotion of secularism and indulgence.

Throughout history the nature of leaven has led it to be seen with similar connotations. A rabbi reportedly said “Trust not a proselyte till twenty-four generations, for he holds his leaven.” Here leaven is used as a symbol of hostile infidelity. It was also used by the Talmund to signify “Evil affections and the naughtiness of the heart.” The ancient interpretation of leaven by the Greek historian, Plutarch, presented a figurative meaning that had similar connotations:

Leaven is both generated by corruption, and also corrupts the mass with which it is mingled.

Paul‘s also uses leaven to illustrate corruption[1 Cor. 5.6].  Paul encouraged the purging of a sinful man because if his sins remained unpunished they would spread amongst the group. This statement by Paul cements the traditional meaning associated with leaven of being  a corruptive persuasive and a permeating influence.

Of the leaven parable Martin Luther states that:

Our Lord wishes to comfort us with this similitude, and gives us to understand that, when the Gospel, as a piece of new leaven, has once mixed itself with the human race, which is the dough, it will never cease till the end of the world, but will make its way through the whole mass of those who are to be saved, despite of all the gates of Hell. Just as it is impossible for the sourness, which it has once mingled itself with the dough, ever again to be separated from it, because it has changed the nature of the dough, so it is also impossible for Christians to be ever torn from Christ. For Christ, as a piece of leaven, is so incorporated with them that they form with Him one body, one mass… leaven is also the Word which renews men.

Martin Luther assumes that leaven is used merely for its permeating quality and not in relation to corruption. He has interpreted leaven in this parable as depicting faith rather than corruption. Christ is the piece of leaven that is incorporated into the dough, which is portrayed as the human race. Once the leaven has mingled into the dough it can never be separated.