Leaven [T] [E] [S]

In the New Testament the noun for "leaven" is zume [zuvmh] and the verb for "to leaven" is zumoo [zumovw]. The noun occurs eleven times, and the verb four times. There are, however, really only three distinct uses of "leaven" in the New Testament.

The first occurrence is in the parable of the leaven ( Matt 13:33 ; Luke 13:20-21 ). This parable teaches that the reign of God is like what happens when leaven permeates a batch of dough. Jesus' point is that the small, insignificant beginnings of God's reign in himself will one day be great. Although the parable does not describe how this will happen, it alludes to Jesus' future reign as the Son of Man.

The second occurrence of "leaven" is Jesus' warning to his disciples ( Matt 16:5-12 ; Mark 8:15 ; Luke 12:1-12 ). Mark ( 8:11-15 ) presents Jesus' warning following the Pharisees' questioning of Jesus about a sign from heaven. After Jesus' curt statement that no sign will be given to this generation, he and his disciples sail across the Sea of Galilee. In the boat Jesus warns them about leaven, really meaning the attitude or perspective of the Pharisees and Herod. In the ensuing discussion ( 8:16-21 ) it is apparent that the attitude that Jesus is warning about is that of blindness toward his identity as the Messiah. He repeatedly asks them, "Do you still not understand?" ( 8:21 ). And significantly, after Jesus performs a second remarkable process miracle of Jesus' healing the blind man (vv. 22-26 — the first was 7:31-37 ), Peter "finally" confesses that Jesus is the Messiah ( 8:27-30 ). For Mark, then, leaven stands for the obdurate refusal to perceive that Jesus is the Messiah.

Matthew ( 16:1-6 ) presents Jesus' warning in the same context as Mark, but brings out some distinctive nuances. Matthew records that Jesus' response to the questioning of the Pharisees and Sadducees included some symbolic discussion about weather and a reference to "the sign of Jonah" (v. 4). Then, in the following discussion with his disciples after they have reached the other side, Jesus warns against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Matthew clarifies with Jesus' statement (v. 12) that the disciples finally understood that Jesus was referring to the teaching (didache [didachv]) of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Matthew does not record either process miracle, but immediately narrates the confession of Peter that Jesus is the Messiah. The way Matthew presents the whole scene, with the explicit use of teaching in verse 12, seems to focus the meaning of leaven in his Gospel on the attitude of the rejection of Jesus by the Pharisees and Sadducees. The meaning is essentially the same as in Mark, but Mark's sensitivity to the struggle of the disciples to perceive Jesus' identity as symbolized in the two process miracles is not present in Matthew.

Luke ( 12:1-12 ) presents Jesus' warning about leaven in the context of his large central section on Jesus' teaching journey to Jerusalem (9:51-19:44). He has just narrated Jesus' woes on the Pharisees and Scribes ( 11:37-53 ) and now describes the gathering of a large crowd. Jesus warns his disciples against the leaven of the Pharisees, which Luke notes is hypocrisy (v. 1). Thus, Luke brings out that Pharisaical hypocrisy is the point of Jesus' warning. Luke then illustrates this with Jesus' words about everything being finally revealed (vv. 2-3). And, significantly, he continues with Jesus' further discussion about the proper fear of God, rather than fearing human persecutors (vv. 4-5). Following this Luke includes Jesus' words about acknowledging him before men (vv. 8-10) and his encouragement that the Holy Spirit will assist them in times of persecution (vv. 11-12). Thus, Jesus' warning about the leaven of the Pharisees in Luke seems to stress preparation for times of persecution.

The third occurrence of "leaven" in the New Testament is found in Paul's letters. In what is probably his earliest letter, Paul cites the proverbial statement, "A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough" ( Gal 5:9 ). This proverb is intended by Paul to cause the Galatians to expel the dangerous Judaizers from their churches. Leaven here symbolizes wrong teaching that destroys true Christianity.

The same proverbial citation and symbolism occur in 1 Corinthians 5. Here Paul is strongly urging the Corinthians to expel the incestuous offender from the church. In the development of his argument Paul includes the statement, "Don't you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?" (v. 6). He then explains that "Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed" (v. 7). He refers to "the old yeast of malice and wickedness" (v. 8). Paul makes his point that just as at the Passover ancient Israel was instructed to remove any leaven from their homes, so now the church, believing Israel, must remove all sin and evil in order to worship God in the observance of the new Passover of the Lord's Supper. Here, leaven symbolizes sin that defiles the believer and disrupts the church's worship of God. First Corinthians 5:1-8 also reminds us that the Old Testament background (leaven or leavened is used twenty-two times in the Old Testament) and foundational meaning of leaven goes back to the Passover of Exodus 12-13 and the instruction given in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Throughout the Old Testament, and into the first century a.d., leaven symbolized corruption, defilement, and sin. Hobert K. Farrell

Bibliography. R. A. Cole, Galatians; F. E. Gaebelein, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8; L. Morris, 1 Corinthians; R. Young, Analytical Concordance to the Bible.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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[T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Leaven'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.
Leaven [T] [B] [S]

  • Heb. seor ( Exodus 12:15 Exodus 12:19 ; 13:7 ; Leviticus 2:11 ), the remnant of dough from the preceding baking which had fermented and become acid.

  • Heb. hamets, properly "ferment." In Numbers 6:3 , "vinegar of wine" is more correctly "fermented wine." In Exodus 13:7 , the proper rendering would be, "Unfermented things [Heb. matstsoth] shall be consumed during the seven days; and there shall not be seen with thee fermented things [hamets], and there shall not be seen with thee leavened mass [seor] in all thy borders." The chemical definition of ferment or yeast is "a substance in a state of putrefaction, the atoms of which are in a continual motion."

    The use of leaven was strictly forbidden in all offerings made to the Lord by fire ( Leviticus 2:11 ; 7:12 ; 8:2 ; Numbers 6:15 ). Its secretly penetrating and diffusive power is referred to in 1 Corinthians 5:6 . In this respect it is used to illustrate the growth of the kingdom of heaven both in the individual heart and in the world ( Matthew 13:33 ). It is a figure also of corruptness and of perverseness of heart and life ( Matthew 16:6 Matthew 16:11 ; Mark 8:15 ; 1 Corinthians 5:7 1 Corinthians 5:8 ).

    These dictionary topics are from
    M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition,
    published by Thomas Nelson, 1897. Public Domain, copy freely.

    [T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
    [B] indicates this entry was also found in Baker's Evangelical Dictionary
    [S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary

    Bibliography Information

    Easton, Matthew George. "Entry for Leaven". "Easton's Bible Dictionary". .
  • Leaven. [T] [B] [E]

    Various substances were known to have fermenting qualities; but the ordinary leaven consisted of a lump of old dough in a high state of fermentation, which was mixed into the mass of dough prepared for baking. The use of leaven was strictly forbidden in all offerings made to the Lord by fire. During the passover the Jews were commanded to put every particle of leaven from the house. The most prominent idea associated with leaven in connection with the corruption which it had undergone,a nd which it communicated to bread in the process of fermentation. It is to this property of leaven that our Saviour points when he speaks of the "leaven (i.e. the corrupt doctrine) of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees," ( Matthew 16:6 ) and St. Paul, when he speaks of the "old leaven." ( 1 Corinthians 5:7 ) (Another quality in leaven is noticed in the Bible, namely, its secretly penetrating and diffusive power. In this respect it was emblematic of moral influence generally, whether good or bad; and hence our Saviour adopts it as illustrating the growth of the kingdom of heaven in the individual heart and in the world at large: because (1) its source is from without; (2) it is secret in its operation; (3) it spreads by contact of particle with particle; (4) it is widely diffusive, one particle of leaven being able to change any number of particles of flour; and because (5) it does not act like water, moistening a certain amount of flour, but is like a plant, changing the particles it comes in contact with into its own nature, with like propagating power. --ED.)

    [T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
    [B] indicates this entry was also found in Baker's Evangelical Dictionary
    [E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary

    Bibliography Information

    Smith, William, Dr. "Entry for 'Leaven'". "Smith's Bible Dictionary". . 1901.


    lev'-n (se'or, chamets; zume; Latin fermentum):

    The nomadic ancestors of the Hebrews, like the Bedouin of today, probably made their bread without leaven; but leaven came to play a great part in their bread-making, their law and ritual, and their religious teaching (see Exodus 12:15,19; 13:7; Leviticus 2:11; Deuteronomy 16:4; Matthew 13:33; 16:6-12; Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1; 13:21).

    (1) In Bread-Making.

    The form of leaven used in bread-making and the method of using it were simple and definite. The "leaven" consisted always, so far as the evidence goes, of a piece of fermented dough kept over from a former baking. There is no trace of the use of other sorts of leaven, such as the lees of wine or those mentioned by Pliny (NH, xviii.26). The lump of dough thus preserved was either dissolved in water in the kneading-trough before the flour was added, or was "hid" in the flour (the King James Version "meal") and kneaded along with it, as was the case mentioned in the parable (Matthew 13:33). The bread thus made was known as "leavened," as distinguished from "unleavened" bread (Exodus 12:15, etc.).

    See BREAD.

    (2) In Law and Ritual.

    The ritual prohibition of leaven during "the feast of unleavened bread" including the Passover (Exodus 23:15, etc.) is a matter inviting restudy. For the historical explanation given in the Scriptures, see especially Exodus 12:34-39; 13:3; Deuteronomy 16:3. The antiquity of the prohibition is witnessed by its occurrence in the earliest legislation (Exodus 23:18; 34:25). A natural reason for the prohibition, like that of the similar exclusion of honey, is sought on the ground that fermentation implied a process of corruption. Plutarch voices this ancient view of the matter when he speaks of it as "itself the offspring of corruption, and corrupting the mass of dough with which it is mixed." Fermentatum is used in Persius (Sat., i.24) for "corruption." For this reason doubtless it was excluded also from the offerings placed upon the altar of Yahweh, cakes made from flour without leaven, and these only, being allowed. The regulation name for these "unleavened cakes" was matstsoth (Leviticus 10:12). Two exceptions to this rule should be noted (Leviticus 7:13; compare Amos 4:5):

    "leavened bread" was an accompaniment of the thank offering as leavened loaves were used also in the wave offering of Leviticus 23:17. Rabbinical writers regularly use leaven as a symbol of evil (Lightfoot).

    (3) In Teaching.

    The figurative uses of leaven in the New Testament, no less than with the rabbins, reflect the ancient view of it as "corrupt and corrupting," in parts at least, e.g. Matthew 16:6 parallel, and especially the proverbial saying twice quoted by Paul, "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (1 Corinthians 5:6; Galatians 5:9). But as Jesus used it in Matthew 13:33, "The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven," it is clearly the hidden, silent, mysterious but all-pervading and transforming action of the leaven in the measures of flour that is the point of the comparison.


    Nowack, Hebrew Arch., II, 145; Talmud, Berakhoth, 17a; Lightfoot, Hor. Hebrew. on Matthew 16:6.

    George B. Eager

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    Bibliography Information
    Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'LEAVEN'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.