Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
The Last Supper

A possible problem for many may be their familiarity with the accounts in the four gospels of the events which led up to the crucifixion of Jesus. That familiarity can tend to blind us to difficulties which present themselves when trying to sort out history from tradition.

I'm concerned here primarily with "what really happened" - insofar as we can discover that with reference to the Last Supper. It seems to me that it is important to observe that the intensity of discussion tends to increase in proportion to the importance attached to the Eucharist by Christians today.

Those who regard the Eucharist as a sine qua non in the Christian life will no doubt be upset with anyone who maintains that accounts of the Last Supper don't meet the usual requirements of good history. 

The accounts of events leading up to the suffering and death of Jesus do contain much which appears intrinsically likely. Scholars who point out the many contradictions of detail between the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) often don't take the trouble to emphasise the considerable likenesses between them.

At the same time, in searching for "what really happened", one has to be hard-headed and apply good standards of history as far as possible - even to a "sacred" tradition as central as this.

In this instance, there are some preliminaries to be got out of the way:

  • The preparations for the meal are tinged with an atmosphere of mystery, as though the author was trying to increase his readers' expectations of something out of the ordinary. We must therefore be alert for possible modifications of original sources. We know from elsewhere in the gospels that their authors did not think as we do about historical "truth". Their method of writing was entirely different. "Dressing up" or substantially editing the information they had would not have been dishonest in their eyes. They were writing theology, not history.

  • Scholars point out that the gospel authors may well be relating the preparations for the Last Supper back to 1 Samuel 10. They and their fellow Christians, we must remember, thought that the Old Testament pre-figured and predicted Jesus. If the word-of-mouth information they knew of suggested that preparations were made for a meal, they would naturally turn to the Jewish Bible for parallels. They would then do what we couldn't honestly do today - rewrite their data in terms which echoed the Old Testament.

  • Supernatural foresight on the part of Jesus (Mark 14.20) would have been put forward as proof to the author's readers of his importance. Such powers were commonly thought throughout the Middle East of the time to be possessed by those specially close to God (or the gods). Many scholars today recognise how easily and quickly unhistorical elements may have been inserted into the original word-of-mouth tradition from which Paul (who didn't know Jesus personally) and the Gospel authors would have drawn their information.

  • There are convincing textual indications that Mark 14.12-21, for example, contains later additions to the main strand of the original material. (I have to take scholarly assurances for this, my skills not being up to such an analysis.) It's therefore unlikely to be good history because later additions tend to confuse and obscure the original material too much.

  • It's unlikely that Judas is an historical figure - or if he is, the evidence amounts to little more than a name. Even then, we should be aware of the play people of the times tended to make on names. "Judas" is a Greek form of "Judah" - which is a synonym for "Jewish". We know that some early Christians had a polemical interest in denigrating the Jews. Luke's Gospel, for example, has been widely noted to attempt to place the blame for Jesus' crucifixion on the Jews, whereas it is almost certain that the Roman authorities were responsible. 

A majority of scholars seem to agree on two most important points:

  1. Jesus and some of his followers shared a last meal at some point very shortly before he was arrested.
  2. A meal was regarded by the earliest Christians as an extremely important part of their community life and connection with Jesus, regardless of "what really happened."

We're fortunate to have a source earlier than all the gospels in Paul's first letter to the Christians of Corinth (11.23-26) - a letter almost certainly written hardly more than 20-25 years after the death of Jesus (Mark's Gospel is usually dated at least 30 years after this, and the others even later).

We can place some extra weight on Paul's version because he was setting out to instruct the Corinthians, who had shown themselves ignorant of the meaning and seriousness of the Christian meal. At the same time I note that Paul had little or no interest in looking back to Jesus in terms of making good history. His main purpose is to stress the authority of his account and therefore its significance and meaning .

Some have supposed that the entire mention in Paul's letter to the Corinthians is a later addition. If so, the interpolation is so cunningly done that there is no way of knowing whether or not this accusation is true. On the contrary, the section fits perfectly with Paul's context and style.

I suppose each of us finally has to make what he or she chooses of the so-called "Last Supper". Whatever the choice, I think it important to note how much the Church over the ages has inflated a simple meal into an often elaborate liturgical ritual backed by voluminous and complex theology. Ecclesiastical authorities therefore have extremely powerful institutional reasons to perpetuate and enforce claims for the historicity of the last meal.

The historical details of the last meal present considerable problems:

  • Our other sources don't reinforce the earlier Markan account. John's Gospel gives a completely different story. Matthew's Gospel seems to have been copied from Mark, with some elaborations. Luke's version includes
      - two cups being passed around;
      - one cup being passed around before the loaf;
      - the addition of a memorial (as in Paul's version);
      - textual variations galore, indicating considerable interference  
        by scribes who later copied out the Gospel texts.
    One commentator remarks, with some justice, that Luke seems confused about what usually happened at Jewish meals. This is perhaps not surprising, as the author of Luke's Gospel seems to have been of Greek origin.

  • Our earliest source (known as "Q") leaves the meal out altogether.

  • The Gospel of Thomas also leaves it out.

  • There are two independent lead-in phrases in Mark's Gospel (14.18 & 14.22). This is strong evidence that the author of Mark welded the two parts together, and that they were originally unrelated. Perhaps the first part was originally associated with a different meal.

  • The gospels tell it as though the meal was a Passover meal.  But, as one commentator remarks, "... there is nothing in [the account], taken by itself, even to suggest that the meal took place in Jerusalem." This point is relevant because we know that all four gospel authors took their material and fitted it together in very different ways. Material found at the beginning of one gospel may appear towards the end of another in an entirely different context. So the core of the Last Supper material may have been artificially fitted together with the assertion that it took place during a Passover Festival. If so, there is an obvious theological connection with later theology which saw Jesus' death as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. The point is that this theology almost certainly - given the sacrifice theology of Paul's writings - preceded the gospels, rather than the other way around.

  • Few people notice that John's Gospel presents the washing by Jesus of his followers' feet at the last meal, but makes no mention of a blessing of wine and bread. This is the latest of the four gospels. It seems significant that at least one arm of tradition seems to have placed little or no emphasis on the Eucharist even at a relatively late date (John's Gospel is usually dated after the year 100).

  • The Didache, a book of liturgical instruction dated around 100 and our earliest source about the Eucharist apart from the New Testament, doesn't link the Eucharist (about which it gives instructions) with a last meal. Its wording and approach are totally different from what we find in the Synoptic Gospels and more in accordance with the tenor of John's Gospel.

  • Whatever the Church may teach about the ritual known as the Eucharist, Mass or Communion, there is nothing in the gospels which unambiguously demonstrates that Jesus intended to create or perpetuate the Last Supper either as a memorial or as a ritual with mystical significance.

To sum up:

  1. By strict criteria for an historical account of "what really happened" the accounts in the gospels of  the Last Supper do not qualify as good history.

  2. Despite that, we can be certain that the Eucharist dates back at least to the Christian congregation in Corinth to whom Paul wrote in around the year 55, only 20-25 years after Jesus died. This puts it in the very earliest strata of Christian tradition.

  3. Even though, strictly speaking, the Last Supper isn't "what really happened", it's distinctly possible that a meal (whether "last" or not) was an important, if not vital, element of Jesus' relationship to his immediate followers. We know from elsewhere in the gospels that meals seem to have been important to Jesus as a way of relating to others.

It seems to me that too much can be made of the probability that, as a matter of history, we don't know that there was a Last Supper. Few Christians might ask, for example, "So what if there was no last supper? What difference does that make to the importance of the Eucharist?" 

Only if it is elevated in importance beyond a meal, as it so often is, does the Last Supper as something which did or didn't "really happen" become a critical matter. 

If you or I think that the Eucharist is more than a meal, if we give it supernatural dimensions and magical efficacy, then its link back to Jesus (as a supernatural God/Man) becomes important. If one thinks that Jesus instituted the Last Supper as the first of a long line of Eucharists, that he intended it to be an ongoing ritual "in memory of me", then to find out that the accounts we have in the New Testament are not good history may be disturbing.

This latter point involves a much larger discussion. Suffice it to say here that even if the Last Supper is good history, there is no necessary link between the meal and the kind of theology which has surrounded the Eucharist for centuries. If it's not good history, as seems to be the case, then the connection between the Last Supper and the Eucharist is a matter of Christian practice, not a matter of history.

If the Last Supper happened - which we don't know for sure - it was a meal at which Jesus said and did certain things. It is up to us to interpret the event as best we can. And whatever our conclusion, there is no reason to discount the deep meaning usually attached by most Christians - in all its stunning variety and difference of celebration. Rather, it may add meaning for many who consciously affirm through it their place in the Christian body.

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