The Last Supper - Tintoretto (1594)

When I used to be Roman Catholic, there was no ceremony or subject I would love more than the Eucharist, only followed by the devotion to Our Lady. It became the center of my religious life.

After I became a Religious Naturalist, my spirituality has changed considerably, although, some of my views are touched by drops of Eucharistic metaphors. While researching on Paul the Apostle for the publication of my book’s third edition, I found a perspective that apparently is becoming very popular in some Spanish scholarly circles. Unfortunately, due to the fact of language, many other Bible scholars around the world usually don’t engage very much with Spanish-speaking scholars or read works written in Spanish.

Antonio Piñero de Sáenz

Antonio Piñero de Sáenz

This perspective whose most visible representative figure in Spain is Antonio Piñero de Sáenz, I consider to be the most complete, sound, and thorough view on the Eucharist I have ever seen thus far. In these series on the Eucharist, I’m going to make an exposition of his views. I will also add a bit more information that might confirm them (I will note them so that people do not confuse his opinion with mine). The reason I’m doing this is because I detect a certain discomfort about this subject among scholars regarding the big elephant in the room, that the traditional story of the Eucharist has its actual roots in Paul, and not the Apostles, nor the Last Supper itself. I hope that I represent Piñero’s opinion accurately.

NOTE: I want to make clear that with these series I do NOT intend to present my position as being de facto superior to the opinions of the vast majority of scholars in the world. I think that I’m right, but another thing is if I am right. This is my opinion for the moment and an exposition of a respected scholar’s view that I think should get more attention in the English-speaking world. Yet, at the very end of the day, the consensus of Bible scholars is more authoritative than anything I write. I respect it! I am an outsider looking at what is going on in Bible scholarship. Do NOT take these blog series as being as authoritative as Biblical scholarship in general. On the contrary, be critical of everything I say. THAT said, let’s continue …

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The Stories of the Last Supper

In this first blog, I would like to make an exposition of the stories of the Last Supper as they appear in the New Testament in chronological order.

Let’s start with the earliest one we have, which appears in one of Paul’s genuine letters (all quotes are from the NRSV):

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat and drink from this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:23-26).

1 Corinthians is treated by scholars as being one whole letter written by Paul, while others think that they are two letters edited into one. Whichever the position, the content of 1 Corinthians seems to have been written around the years 52-54 C.E. This constitutes the earliest story we have regarding the Last Supper.

Let’s explore the next one, which appears in the Gospel of Mark, written around 65-70 C.E.

While they were eating, [Jesus] took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after  giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:22-25).

In the Gospel of Matthew, written around 80-90 C.E., we find a similar story.

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never gain drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:26-29).

For now, these three versions look very similar to each other in form, structure, and words. There are slight differences, but it is one basic story.

Finally, we have the Gospel of Luke, also written around 80-90 C.E. Here we notice that the story changes in very strange ways:

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took the loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined but woe to the one by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:14-23).

What makes this passage particularly interesting is the fact that Jesus blesses and offers the cup twice. What is going on in this case?

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Earliest Sources on the Celebration of the Eucharist

What makes this issue a bit more interesting is the fact that we have some scarce news about the way the Eucharist was being celebrated at the time. Among them we find two (besides 1 Corinthians). One comes from the Acts of the Apostles, which expresses a very early tradition of the Jewish character of the Eucharist:

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their good with glad generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:43-47)

This passage talks about the “breaking of the bread” activity as a way to gather and share in community. Most scholars are careful with this passage, since it presents an excessively idealized situation that is later contradicted in that same book (e.g. Acts 6:1). Yet, in its story of the Eucharist, there is no allusion to any offering of  vicarian blood for others or atonement for the forgiveness of sins, and it also shows early Christians as being devoted Jews who celebrated in the Temple of Jerusalem.

The other more important source regarding the Eucharist comes from a text called the Didaché, also known as the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, which many scholars date to the early or late second century C.E. The Lord’s Prayer appears there in its full version (Matthew’s) as well as several other important teachings and ceremonies. In it, we find the following, regarding the celebration of the Eucharist (from the New Advent, Catholic translation):

Now concerning the Thanksgiving (Eucharist), thus give thanks. First, concerning the cup: “We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David Your servant, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever.” And concerning the broken bread: “We thank You, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom; for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.” But let no one eat or drink of your Thanksgiving (Eucharist), but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs” (Didaché IX).

This is mostly odd, given that it is the cup that is blessed and offered first, before the bread. And in none of the words of thanksgiving do we find any reference at all to Jesus’ vicarian sacrifice or forgiveness of sins.

Again, what is going on here?
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Next Step: Beginning the Qualification of the Evidence

Maybe someone is asking: “What about John‘s version of events?” What is interesting regarding the Gospel of John is that it has a Last Supper, but has no blessing of the bread and wine, just a very long speech by Jesus (John 13-17). There may be a reason for this.  If you look at the passages in the Synoptic Gospels, we notice that they present the Last Supper as a Seder, that is, as a Passover meal. A Lamb is sacrificed the day before the Passover feasts begin, and then it is eaten afterwards. According to the Synoptics, this last part happened before the crucifixion. Yet, for John, the Lamb (i.e. Jesus Christ) would not be sacrificed until his crucifixion … the day before the Passover feasts begin. So there was no Eucharistic offering during the Last Supper. According to that Gospel, the moment of crucifixion would be the moment of glorification for “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world”. So, the main reason, why the thanksgiving does not appear in its version of events is for theological reasons.

Besides this very special case, we find ourselves with a bunch of problems with the data provided by Paul and the Synoptic Gospels. Let’s look at them carefully.

  • First, one of the most notorious things that we notice of Paul’s version of events is that he does not tell us at all if the Last Supper was a Seder or another sort of ceremonial meal. He only limits himself to say that it occurred the night when “he was betrayed”. Although this is the current and popular translation, the word usually translated as “betrayed” could also mean “delivered {to other hands}” or “handed over” (“παρεδίδετο” from the term “παραδίδωμι”), which could mean the night when God delivered Jesus to be sacrificed. Yet, we are not clear when exactly did this happen in relation to Passover.
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  • The words attributed to Jesus in Paul’s version of events most probably were not pronounced by him. On the contrary, at best, this could be a later tradition elaborated after Jesus’ death, which was reinterpreted in light of the Suffering Servant’s expiatory act prophecy (Isaiah 53) by the Judeo-Christians in Palestine, which was later reinterpreted once again as a vicarian sacrifice in Judeo-Hellenistic circles. In here, I follow the conviction of many scholars, that it is plausible that Jesus did not know that he was going to be crucified as a way to sacrifice himself, and “spill blood” for everyone’s salvation (a vicarian notion of his death). The problem with this vicarian notion of Jesus’ death  is that not only did the Jews (including Jesus) NOT expect a Messiah who would be sacrificed, but that the notion of vicarian death was most probably regarded as Pagan, and foreign to Palestinian Jews in general.
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  • This leads us to the next problem. Not only the words, but also the very steps with which Jesus blesses and offers the bread and the cup, seems to break with ceremonial Jewish meals in a very radical manner.  In a Seder meal or in a kiddush, you find that the wine is blessed first and then the bread. Note that the Didaché version of the celebration of the Eucharist respects the kiddush order of events, even when the traditional story of the Last Supper reverses both. The words of prayer in the Didaché are also remarkably close to the ones pronounced as a Birkat ha-Mazon (a Grace after Meals as was practiced in Judaism).  The Synoptics’ main story also have a strange Passover meal, because there is no reference at all to the sacrificed lamb being consumed, nor is there any reference at all to the bitter herbs.
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  • The fact that early Christians celebrated the Eucharist on a daily or weekly basis may be a sign that it was not originally celebrated as a Passover meal (which would have been celebrated yearly). The fact that nothing in the Didaché version makes any allusion to Passover reinforces this conviction.
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  • The Gospels in general give different days for when the Last Supper occurred. For Mark, it happened in the day of the first day of Unleavened Bread, which he describes as the day when the Passover lamb was sacrificed (Mark 14:12). Actually, the lamb was sacrificed the day before. Yet, Matthew and Luke agree with MarkJohn disagrees for theological reasons … but ironically he might be closer to the truth. This is highly problematic, because later all of the Synoptic Gospels argue that Jesus was processed during a Passover feast day, which is highly improbable. The Jewish leadership would have been busy with Temple rituals and ceremonies, and would not have much time to address Jesus’ prosecution. If the Synoptics present the Last Supper as a Passover meal, it is most probably (also) for theological or a apologetical reasons: perhaps a memory of the nearness of Passover when Jesus was crucified, and the fact that gentile Christians began to not celebrate the Passover, and needed to justify it. After all, according to Luke, Jesus told his disciples that he wouldn’t celebrate the “Passover meal” again until the Kingdom of God is realized. Speaking of which …
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  • When we go to MarkMatthew, and Luke, we notice something that Paul’s version lacks, the following words of Jesus: “I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” This might be a hint of history, given that Jesus always compared God’s Kingdom with a collective meal (Q [Luke] 13:29; 14:15-21,23; Luke 22:29-30). It would indicate that the Last Supper may have been a sort of “farewell” meal.

What do we do with all of this? This is what these series are all about. But for now, let’s make some several statements:

  • Jesus’ crucifixion was a historical fact, there is no dispute among scholars about this. Yet, if there was a process by the Jewish authorities and by Pontius Pilate leading to his death, most probably it took much more than one evening and day, and the Gospels seem to have shrunk the whole story to one evening and day. Most possibly the crucifixion happened near the feast of Passover, perhaps the day before.
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  • There are huge problems interpreting Jesus’ activity as being a “Passover meal”. It is better understood at a historical level as a kiddush celebrated as a farewell meal. This is the basic tradition preserved by the Didaché, and (as I will argue in my next blog), the Gospel of Luke.
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  • There are also huge problems with the assumption that Jesus blessed the bread first and the cup second, while claiming that the former was his body and that the latter contained his blood (understood in expiatory or vicarian terms). Simply speaking, it is highly improbable that Jesus would have said these words.

Where did Jesus’ words come from? Our earliest source seems to mention exactly where it comes from:  from Paul’s own revelatory experiences. Jesus as he experienced him in his vision, revealed this story. Not every scholar accepts this interpretation. For example, we must take into account the criteria of multiple attestation that we find in the New Testament:  that multiple sources confirm the story. The word that Paul uses for receiving the information (“παρέλαβον” from the term “παραλαμβάνω”), seems to imply that it was transmitted as a result of an oral tradition whose source he believed was the Lord. Can these reasoning be contested? Piñero and others think so.

Then what really happened during the Last Supper? This will be examined in the next blog posts of these series. For now, let’s convene that apparently most scholars agree that the Last Supper was no Seder.
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Bibliography

Boff, Leonardo. Pasión de Cristo, pasión del mundo. Hechos, interpretaciones y significados. Ayer y hoy. Santander: Ediciones Sal Terrae, 1987.

Ehrman, Bart. “Does Paul Know about Judas Iscariot?” The Bart Ehrman Blog. December 9, 2015. http://ehrmanblog.org/does-paul-know-about-judas-iscariot/.

Klawans, Jonathan. “Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?” in Biblical Archaeology. July 01, 2014. http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/was-jesus-last-supper-a-seder/.

Mazza, Enrico. The Celebration of the Eucharist: The Origin of the Rite and the Development of Its Interpretation. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999.

Piñero, Antonio. Guía para entender a Pablo de Tarso. Una interpretación del pensamiento paulino. Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 2015.

Piñero, Antonio y Eugenio Gómez Segura, editores. La verdadera historia de la Pasión. Según la investigación y el estudio histórico. Madrid: EDAF, 2011.

Riddle, M.B. and Kevin Knight, translators. Didaché. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0714.htm.

Vidal, Senén. Hechos de los Apóstoles y orígenes cristianos. Santander: Editorial Sal Terrae, 2015.

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