Leavened versus Unleavened Bread

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By: George R. A. Aquaro
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Leavened versus Unleavened Bread

What’s the difference?


The purpose of this paper is to briefly discuss the use of leavened bread in the Eucharist of the Orthodox Church.  This is not necessarily a polemical work, and I have no intention of discussing other practices and their merits or shortcomings.  I will say, from the very beginning, that those who become fixated with ritual at the expense of the content of the Gospel have condemned themselves.  Any rite that distorts the Gospel is plainly evil, but so too is the obsession with a correct rite, since such a compulsion is a manifestation of deep spiritual rot.  While ritual should bring joy, since it speaks of the Gospel, our greatest joy should be in acting out the Gospel towards those around us.  We have not been called to just attend services, but to repent, convert and serve others.

First, let’s discuss the nature of leaven.  It is another word for yeast, a naturally occurring plant.  In ancient times, they didn’t know that.  What they did know is that if you took flour and water, kneaded it well and left it in a cool place for a long time, the dough would rise.   They also knew that this process would speed up if you saved a little dough each time you baked to add to your next batch.  This reserve is now called a ‘starter.’  It was a good way to preserve yeast that made good bread, versus leaving the dough out every night in hope that it would catch a good wild yeast versus a bad one.  Once the yeast gets into the lump, it spreads throughout the lump without noticeably changing its color.  Yeast is both invisible and yet visible, since it does change the shape and texture of the dough.


If you keep adding flour and water to the same small lump of dough, the dough will become sour with the waste products of the yeast.  This is how we get ‘sourdough’ bread.  The sourness comes with the yeast staying in the bread a long time.

So, we can see that yeast bread involves a lot of work and reliance on our past bread making.  Making unleavened bread is much easier: once the flour and water are mixed, the bread is ready to bake in a short time.  There is no ‘starter’ from yesterday, so unleavened bread has no past.

We can see the different symbolism that an ancient writer might use from bread baking to represent certain concepts: leavening represents a connection with the past, a flavoring when it becomes old, a force that invisibly spreads, a change that is also unseen, complexity, activity/festivity and involves labor.  Dough without leaven represents haste, a break with the past, an absence of extra flavor, simplicity, inactivity, powerlessness and a lack of labor.

Now that we have briefly discussed the possible symbols that one can get from leavened and unleavened bread, let’s see if the Scriptures use any of them.  The first mentioning of leaven appears in Exodus 12-13.  It is in commemoration of Israel’s Exodus that the ‘feast’ of Unleavened Bread is instituted.  I have put ‘feast’ in quotations because this word does not mean ‘merrymaking.’  It is not a feast in the sense that there is celebration, but rather commemoration of the Work of the Lord:

And Moses said unto the people, Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the LORD brought you out from this place: there shall no leavened bread be eaten. Ex 13:3
Unleavened bread shall be eaten seven days; and there shall no leavened bread be seen with thee, neither shall there be leaven seen with thee in all thy quarters.  8 And thou shalt shew thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the LORD did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt. – Ex 13: 7

It is the Lord who brought Israel out of Egypt, not a work of the people.  To remember this they eat unleavened bread as a symbol of their powerlessness.  They also ate the unleavened bread because they left Egypt in a rush:

 And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual. – Ex 12:39

The Passover, which is eaten with bitter herbs, is not in any sense a feast or celebration, but rather a ceremonial recollection of the power of God.  Unleavened bread is even referred to as the ‘bread of affliction’ in De 16:3, recalling the haste in which Israel fled Egypt.  This haste of the flight was important: it revealed that the people had not plotted it but that God did it all on His own.  They also remember the affliction they suffered in the land of the Egyptians.

It is also important to remember that unleavened bread was also mandated only for the seven days of the Passover (Ex 12:15).  It is not an indefinite commandment, but one limited to just this particular commemoration.

It was also specified that leavened bread was almost never to be involved with sacrifices (c.f. Ex 29:23, Le 8, Nu 6:15-19).  There is only one time when leavened bread was offered, to represent the thanksgiving of the people:

Besides the cakes, he shall offer for his offering leavened bread with the sacrifice of thanksgiving of his peace offerings. – Le 7: 13

Ye shall bring out of your habitations two wave loaves of two tenth deals: they shall be of fine flour; they shall be baken with leaven; they are the firstfruits unto the LORD. – Le 23:17

Leaven thus represents the works of the people, which they offer to God with thanksgiving. While the Septuagint Greek text does not use the word eucharist to characterize this thanksgiving, there is clearly a thematic connection between this sacrifical thanksgiving and the one we make each Sunday.

On the other hand, the connection of unleavened bread to sacrifice shows the penitential attitude the people are expected to have towards the sacrifice and the remembrance that forgiveness is the Lord’s, rather than a work of their own.

In the Gospels, the word ‘unleavened’ is only used in reference to the ‘days of unleavened bread’ (Mt 26:18, Mk 14:1 & 14:12, Lk 22:1 & 22:7, Ac 12:3 & 20:6).  Never does the New Testament admonish people to eat unleavened bread, nor does it specify that Christ or anyone else did so other than what was Lawful according to the season.

As for leaven and leavened bread, it is used two ways in the Gospels.  The first is to denote the power of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened. – Mt 13:33

And again he said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God?  It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened. -Lk 13:20-21

The Kingdom spreads like yeast!  Think of it: there is no outside change when one repents and becomes a Christian, yet it somehow changes not just individuals but the entire world.  We can now look back on history to see how Christianity changed so many people and see the truth here.

The second way that the Gospels use leaven is symbolic of the doctrines of the Pharisees.  These doctrines lead to false works and eventually condemnation.  The likening to leaven reveals the strength of attraction in the outwards acts of piety by the Pharisees, something St. Paul will struggle against later.

Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.   And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have taken no bread.   Which when Jesus perceived, he said unto them, O ye of little faith, why reason ye among yourselves, because ye have brought no bread?   Do ye not yet understand, neither remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets ye took up?  Neither the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets ye took up?  How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees?   Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. – Mt 16:6-12

Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, neither had they in the ship with them more than one loaf.   And he charged them, saying, Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod.   And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have no bread.   And when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? perceive ye not yet, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened?   Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember?   When I brake the five loaves among five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? They say unto him, Twelve.   And when the seven among four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? And they said, Seven.   And he said unto them, How is it that ye do not understand? – Mk 8:14-21

In the mean time, when there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people, insomuch that they trode one upon another, he began to say unto his disciples first of all, Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. – Lk 12:1

The quote from Matthew 16:6-12 is the most strident in warning people not to take this symbolism of leaven too literally.  When speaking of leaven, he is not trying to make a point about bread.  If we think back to what leavening could mean, it brings up a whole spectrum of word pictures: the leaven of the Pharisees is old and therefore ‘sourdough,’ it has spread throughout the Jewish community, it is complex, it is ‘puffed up,’ it is a great deal of work, etc.

This symbolism of leaven as the Pharisees’ works fits with what St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife.   And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.   For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed,   In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ,   To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.    Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?   Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:   Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.    I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators:   Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.   But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.   For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within?   But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person. – 1 Co 5:1-13

Here, St. Paul urges them to put away the leaven that was their old ways.  They have become ‘puffed up’ with ungodly pride, and have even allowed members to carry on as they were before conversion in terrible sins.  Like Israel, they are being called to put aside the old ‘sour’ leaven of Egypt and start over.  Notice that St. Paul is speaking in the negative, which is why he is invoking the unleavened image.  He is asking them to fast from wickedness and remember the oppression of their sinful past, just as Israel is called to do in the Passover.

St. Paul uses the same leaven image Christ used in his parables against the Pharisees when addressing problems in Galatia:

 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.   Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.   For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.   Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.   For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.   For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.   Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?   This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you.   A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.   I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be. – Galatians 5:1-10

It should be obvious that leaven is a powerful image, and its positive or negative connotations are completely dependent on context.  Many of the Holy Fathers made good use of leaven in the Scriptures to explain the teachings of the Church.

As Christians, we do not need to eat unleavened bread as a form of piety:

The new law requires you to keep perpetual sabbath, and you, because you are idle for one day, suppose you are pious, not discerning why this has been commanded you: and if you eat unleavened bread, you say the will of God has been fulfilled. The Lord our God does not take pleasure in such observances.
-St. Justin, Dialog with Trypho 12

While our Lord commands us to pray, fast and give alms, St. Justin condemns the Jews for thinking that such actions alone please God.  Here, the saint is requiring people to remember the reason for the observances and live them daily rather than as just part of a schedule.  Christians are not to fall into the deception that certain practices, if done perfectly, are somehow meritorious:

The apostles ordained, that ‘we should not judge any one in respect to meat or drink, or in regard to a feast day, or the new moons, or the sabbaths.’ Whence then these contentions? whence these schisms? We keep the feast, but in the leaven of malice and wickedness, cutting in pieces the Church of God; and we preserve what belongs to its exterior, that we may cast away these better things, faith and love. We have heard from the prophetic words that these feasts and fasts are displeasing to the Lord.
-St. Irenaeus, Fragment 38

Instead, the saints are constantly calling us to lay aside our old ways as with old leaven and start anew.  But we are not called to remain unleavened (i.e., weak, inactive) but to take up new and godly activities:

Lay aside, therefore, the evil, the old, the sour leaven, and be ye changed into the new leaven, which is Jesus Christ.
-St. Ignatius, Magnesians 10

For this is the symbolic significance of unleavened bread, that you do not commit the old deeds of wicked leaven. But you have understood all things in a carnal sense, and you suppose it to be piety if you do such things, while your souls are filled with deceit, and, in short, with every wickedness. Accordingly, also, after the seven days of eating unleavened bread, God commanded them to mingle new leaven, that is, the performance of other works, and not the imitation of the old and evil works.
-St. Justin Martyr, Dialog with Trypho, ch. 14

“Hear at least what Christ saith to his disciples, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is like unto a woman who took leaven and hid it in three measures of meal.’ So that the righteous have the power of leaven, in order that they may transfer the wicked to their own manner of conduct. But the righteous are few, for the leaven is small. But the smallness in no way injures the lump, but that little quantity converts the whole of the meal to itself by means of the power inherent in it. So accordingly the power also of the righteous has its force not in the magnitude of their number, but in the grace of the Spirit. There were twelve Apostles. Dost thou see how little is the leaven?  The whole world was in unbelief. Dost thou see how great is the lump? But those twelve turned the whole world to themselves. The leaven and the lump had the same nature but not the same manner of conduct. On this account he left the wicked in the midst of the good, that since they are of the same nature as the righteous they may also become of the same purpose..”
-St. John Chrysostom, Homily 3 On Demons , sect. 2

“And this is the reason why He called you leaven: for leaven also does not leaven itself, but, little though it is, it affects the whole lump however big it may be. So also do ye: although ye are few in number, yet be ye many and powerful in faith, and in zeal towards God. As then the leaven is not weak on account of its littleness, but prevails owing to its inherent heat, and the force of its natural quality so ye also will be able to bring back a far larger number than yourselves, if you will, to the same degree of zeal as your own.”
-St. John Chrysostom, To Those Who Had Not Attended the Assembly , sect. 2

So, we see that the Holy Fathers saw both positive and negative meaning in leaven.  We must then ask ourselves: when we celebrate the Eucharist, shouldn’t we use leavened bread?  Seeing that the Fathers see nothing evil in leavened bread itself, our first task ought to be to examine the Eucharistic service itself.

In the service of Proskomide, the priest blesses it and says, “In remembrance of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”  We must then ask, was Christ not full of the Kingdom of Heaven?  Was He not full of the Spirit and good works to which the Fathers liken leaven?  It does not appear entirely inappropriate that we should commemorate the Body of Christ with leavened bread, so long as it is not sourdough or made of coarse and cheap flour.

And that the Savior received first-fruits of those whom He was to save, Paul declared when he said, ‘And if the first-fruits be holy, the lump is also holy,’ teaching that the expression ‘first-fruits’ denoted that which is spiritual, but that ‘the lump’ meant us, that is, the animal Church, the lump of which they say He assumed, and blended it with Himself, inasmuch as He is ‘the leaven.’
-St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies , Book 1, ch. 8, para. 3

If the bread and wine we offer are a sacrifice, then they can only be likened to the first-fruit sacrifice of the Old Testament, since Christ’s death replaced all other atonement for sin.  And, as we recall, the first-fruit sacrifice was made with leavened bread.  This is what St. Irenaeus is implying by his mentioning of the first-fruits.  We offer ourselves with the bread (i.e. the lump as the Church), but we are filled with Christ (i.e. as leaven).  We cannot offer ourselves apart from Christ as an unleavened loaf, and so we use a leavened loaf to symbolize Christ within us as we offer the spiritual first-fruits of our lives.

Unleavened bread is connected with mourning, something totally inappropriate in connection with the Lord’s Day.  The Eucharist is about the Resurrection as much as the Crucifixion, which is why fasting is forbidden on Sundays and liturgies are festive.

Keep your nights of watching in the middle of the days of unleavened bread. And when the Jews are feasting, do you fast and wail over them, because on the day of their feast they crucified Christ; and while they are lamenting and eating unleavened bread in bitterness, do you feast.
Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, Book 5, Section 3, para. xvii

We do not eat the unleavened bread of bitterness on Sundays.  The strong memory of unleavened bread’s association with fasting and putting off old ways is not compatible with the Lord who had no ‘old ways’ to put off and no sins to repent of.

The Anaphora prayers of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom speak of the bread in terms of  “the night on which He was betrayed.”  While the combined witness of the Scriptures draws a close connection between the Passover and the Last Supper, there is no unity between accounts as to exact chronology.  Christ’s final meal with His disciples may have been in advance of the Passover because He knew that His death would fall on the exact day or before it.  We do not know for sure what kind of bread Christ broke when He said, “This is My Body.”

We can therefore conclude that unleavened bread is not specifically connected with the Eucharist, while there appears to be a strong affinity between leavened bread and the symbolism of the Kingdom of Heaven.  None of the Fathers seem to have any dread of leavened bread.  Nor does Christ, since He never Himself condemned one or the other.  And so, we can conclude that between leavened and unleavened bread there is a difference of symbolism, and that leavened bread has a more favorable meaning when we speak of Christ’s Body.


© 2001 – George R. A. Aquaro
reproduction with proper attribution permitted – for non-commerical purposes only