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The Lord of Substance


How precisely might someone go about showing that he had authority, mastery, and power over substances? Bear with me: this is an important question.

StPeterWaterSt. Peter Walking on the Water by Alessandro Allori, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It's a curious fact about the human imagination that we are slow to extend miraculous power indefinitely. Someone who, for instance, had the power to cure a leper instantaneously, logically also has the power to restore sight to the blind, instantaneously. The reason is that any miracle involves causing something to begin to exist from nothing, which implies infinite power. And infinite power can be applied for any effect whatsoever.

But demonstrably those who first followed Jesus, after he had cured a leper, needed to be shown that he could give sight to the blind—and make the lame walk, the dumb to speak, and the deaf to hear. After he had raised Jairus's daughter, the raising of Lazarus should have been obviously implied, but apparently it was not.

Hence my question about substances. Suppose someone with infinite power wanted to demonstrate to us poor human beings, with such limited imaginations, that he had power too over substances: how would he do it?

By "power over substances," I do not mean the power to change (grant: instantaneously) the position or quality or arrangement of substances. There are lots of X-rays in Lourdes of pilgrims who arrived with a misshapen hip or other structure that was restored instantaneously after a bath in the waters there. That's not the kind of thing I mean but rather the power to change one substance into another substance. A philosopher would say: a power over substances qua substances. Like the power that the alchemists sought to change lead into gold.

Let's complicate the question and ask: Suppose someone with infinite power wanted to demonstrate to us that he had the power to change a substance, while preserving the appearance of the original substance—say, change lead into gold, while it continues to look like lead. How could he do so?

I've always wondered why walking on water impressed the disciples so much, as it clearly did. Isn't it simply a form of suspension? Imagine someone hanging from invisible cords and held up so that he doesn't sink. But that's not actually the impression that walking on water makes. It's rather that something which, of its nature, is supposed to be unstable and liquid, behaves as a solid, while still looking for all that like a liquid.

That is the power displayed: turning liquid stuff into, somehow, for this person in his circumstances, a solid. Not all of it, but surely some of it. And yet not in its appearance, since it still looks like water. The only thing that changes is its "substance."

A substance is literally what underlies, what "stands under." What stood under Our Lord, I think, when he walked on water, was not water, although it looked like water.

What stood under Our Lord, I think, when he walked on water, was not water, although it looked like water.

The Gospels that recount the walking on water (Matthew 14:22-33, Mark 6:45-52, John 6:16-21) all take pains to say that this happened immediately after the feeding of the five thousand. "Immediately afterward He compelled the disciples to get into the boat and to go ahead of Him to the other side," Matthew says. Mark echoes the same, and John.

The walking on water, surely, is a deliberately crafted miracle; there was no other reason why the Lord did not get into the boat with them, except to display this power. But why did he do it just then? He himself linked the feeding with the walking. Why?

He walked "upon the sea" and "upon the water," Matthew says. There were four main substances according to the thought of the ancient world: earth, water, air, and fire. It's not possible to walk miraculously on air or fire, only water. To demonstrate power over substance, through walking upon a substance, would be possible only for water.

The old translations render the Lord's prayer as "give us this day our supersubstantial bread," that is, bread which is "upon the substance." St. Jerome's Vulgate renders it thus in Latin, and also the original Douay-Rheims in English (1610). The King James Bible (1611) with its "daily bread" in contrast seems to have influenced English speakers at least.

The underlying Greek word, epiousios, attested by all the authoritative manuscripts, is found in only two places in all extant Greek texts: in Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer, and in Luke's. It is found nowhere else. Not in the Septuagint; not in any philosopher; not in orators; not in literature. Origen (circa 185—253 A.D.) knew nothing of the word in ordinary Greek and speculated that it was coined by the Evangelists. If so, surely, they did so in consultation with the Lord. The word's most obvious etymology is epi-, "upon", ousia, "substance." No other proposed etymology quite makes sense.

Most importantly, there are several ways of saying "daily" in Greek. Why would the Evangelists concoct a new word, if all they wanted to say about the bread was something mundane, that it was given or provided "daily"? Why use a novel word for this idea—a word which, in its most natural meaning, says something rather different, "upon the substance"?

On the other hand, suppose that the Lord wanted to convey that the feeding of the five thousand was only a type. Suppose he wanted to convey, in a mystical way, and as a foreshadowing, the idea of what we call "transubstantiation"—namely, that in the Eucharist, the bread changes in its substance, while its appearance stays the same. Wouldn't it make sense that he would deliberately link together, with that feeding, some kind of display—the best display, maybe the only possible display—that he had the power to change a substance into another while keeping its appearance the same?

The disciples when they see him shout, "It is a phantasm!," an appearance (Matthew 14:26). He replies: "I am." He might just as well have said: "This is my body."

This is Meaghen Gonzalez, Editor of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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MichaelPakalukMichael Pakaluk. "The Lord of Substance." The Catholic Thing (June 7, 2023).

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing.

The Author


Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St. Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.

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