Thursday, 24 March 2016

Maundy Thursday: What was the Last Supper?

Maundy Thursday: What was the Last Supper?

Traditionally, the last supper is seen as a Passover meal, but was it? G.R. Balleine, in a piece cited below, comes down strongly in favour of John’s gospel being correct in setting it before the Passover.

The discrepancy is between the Synoptic chronology in which the Last Supper is a Passover banquet (see Mark 14:12-16 etc), and John's Gospel which has Jesus' death take place on the day before, when preparation for the feast was taking place. Here Jesus is arrested, and already before Pilate, before the banquet could have happened (John 19:14).

Different scholars weigh in on different sides, and there is no cast iron resolution to the problem. The earliest account, the epistle of Paul to the Corinthians gives no indication of whether it is a Passover meal or not.

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Colin Humphreys notes that although tradition places the last supper on the Thursday, this is nowhere to be found in the Bible and he argues that it is far likelier that it happened on the Wednesday.

Along this line, Michael Cook argues that Mark’s gospel has had a paragraph inserted between Mark 14: 1-2 and Mark 14:17-20. He suggests that Mark tried to transform an ordinary meal into a Passover observance by fashioning and inserting a single paragraph between (what we identify as) 14:11 and 17. He notes that:

“All indications that Passover has arrived before Jesus’ arrest seem unnaturally compressed into the Second Paragraph (14:12-16), rather than naturally surfacing randomly also in the surrounding narrative (i.e., outside the Second Paragraph).”

And he suggests that the narrative flows quite smoothly if we excise that paragraph, without any indication that anything is missing. He argues that Mark himself crafted and inserted his Second Paragraph, 14:12-16, into an originally inherited but quite different time-line. Matthew and Luke then simply copied Mark.

This would also explain the apparent contradiction when Mark asserts that the chief priest and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him. for they said. “not during the feast lest there be a tumult of the people"  which runs counter to Mark's narrative in which Jesus is arrested during the feast.

The denial of Peter which comes with the trial narrative afterwards also has its own chronological discrepancies. Peter's denials in Mark (14:66-72) take place after the trial by the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:53-65). Matthew agrees with Mark on this. But Luke places the denials by Peter (Luke 22:54-62) before the trial by the Sanhedrin (Luke 22:66-71). And then John’s narrative weaves his account of the denials by Peter in and out of the night-time interrogation by Annas.

Moreover when we look at what happens, there are other discrepancies. The words differ, as Goodacre points out – “Matthew alone has 'for the forgiveness of sins'. Luke and Paul alone have 'new covenant' and Paul alone here has 'in my memory'.”

And the order of actions takes place differently. Luke follows Paul with the breaking of the bread within the meal, and "after the meal" Jesus taking the cup; by omitting this, Matthew and Mark give the impression the wine immediately follows the bread (as of course it does in liturgical actions). The time gap - "after the meal" is missing from Matthew and Mark.

So we cannot be absolutely certain of what was history, and what is history overlaid by later liturgy. As Goodacre comments:

“Luke, in spite of the fact that we know him to have been literarily dependent on Mark, is nevertheless apparently influenced by something resembling the very early tradition also known to Paul. Luke, in other words, seems to be rewriting Mark in interaction with a version of the same story known to him from his oral tradition. It is possible that Matthew too is reworking Mark in line with a version of the Eucharistic words more familiar to him. While the words unique to Matthew, 'for the forgiveness of sins', may simply be the evangelist's own creative addition, it is equally possible that these are words Matthew has added from his own oral tradition”

For those who prefer to believe that John’s chronology is wrong, and that the Synoptics are correct in placing the Last Supper as a Passover meal, one argument from John Byron is that that “John has purposely altered the details in his gospel for theological rather than historical reasons. By having Jesus' execution take place on the "day of preparation" John is able to more fully portray him as the Lamb of God”.

Byron also suggests that this is why the more formal “Last Supper” is missing from John:

“In John, Jesus is the ultimate expression of what it means to be the slaughtered Lamb of God. This is probably also the reason why John does not have an institution of the "Lord's Supper" at the last supper. Jesus is not eating Passover with them, he is about to become Passover for them.”

What to me is more significant is that if it was a Passover - whenever dated - Jesus would have been left with the wine of Elijah and the bread of affliction put to one side, and fashioned his actions from those items left over at the end, within Jewish tradition, rather than if it was an ordinary meal, in which case it seems he is creating something with no roots in Judaism.

Attempting to harmonise the discrepancies, which fundamentalists like to do, actually does not favours in hiding the complexity of the traditions and the interplay with the liturgy. It is interesting that in a liturgical context, Maundy Thursday manages to combine features of all the gospels, with the foot washing from John’s gospel, and the close proximity of bread and wine in mark and Matthew, and all the words we have.

Have we seen this pattern before? Yes – the Christmas narratives also combine disparate elements and traditions together, so that the story brings in shepherds and magi into one narrative. Of course, we are more aware of how those traditions are combined and overlaid with later material, because there are only two birth narratives, and they are actually quite different. But as Tony Jordan showed in “The Nativity”, they can easily make a seamless whole that works as a narrative, removing those parts which highlight discrepancies.

Our historical antenna is not quite so attuned to the discrepancies in the New Testament accounts of the last supper, but that is not to say these problems have not been noticed. Balleine (as below) comes down heavily in favour of one dominant narrative.

However, another approach was taken by Origen of Alexandria, who noted and commented on the different chronology between John and the Synoptics:

“The student, staggered at the consideration of these things, will either renounce the attempt to find all the Gospels true, and not venturing to conclude that all our information about our Lord is untrustworthy, will choose at random one of them to be their guide; or will accept the four, and will consider that their truth is not to be sought for in the outward and material letter.”

Truth is found as much in story as in history, and by taking different elements and weaving them into a Maundy Thursday liturgy, we keep open the possibility that any narrative might touch on the events of that evening, rather than closing off the differences.

Was the Last Supper the Paschal Meal?
By G.R. Balleine

Jesus was crucified on a Friday; so the Last Supper was on a Thursday evening. But Passover, being fixed by the full moon, could fall on any day of the week. In the year in which Jesus died, did it fall on a Friday or a Saturday? If on a Friday, since Jewish days began at sunset on the previous night, a Thursday evening supper would be the Paschal meal.

The Synoptists say explicitly it was. The disciples ask, `Where do You want us to make ready the Passover?' He told Peter and John: `Go and prepare the Passover.' `They made ready the Passover.'

But the Fourth Gospel is just as positive that Jesus was in His grave before the Feast began. The Supper took place `before the Feast of the Passover'. The disciples thought Judas left the room to buy what was needed for the Feast. The Priests would not enter Pilate's Palace, `lest they should be unable to eat the Passover'. `It was the Day of Preparation for the Passover.' Christ's body was buried hurriedly `because of the Jews' Preparation Day'.

`John' is almost certainly right. Mark's date, which `Matthew' and Luke copied, raises many difficulties. He says nothing of the lamb, the chief feature of the Paschal Feast, the bitter herbs, the four cups, or the unleavened bread. 

- The Passover law said, `None shall go out of his house till morning'; yet first Judas, then the disciples, then `a great multitude with torches' were walking about that night. 

- The bearing of arms was forbidden; yet Peter and the Temple Police carried swords. 

- Passover was kept as a Sabbath. Travel was forbidden; yet Simon the Cyrenian was `coming in from the country'. 

- Selling was forbidden; yet Joseph bought linen for a shroud. 

- Burden-bearing was forbidden; yet three crosses were carried to Calvary and three corpses to their tombs. 

- On the Feast Day `all the Chief Priests' would have been too busy in the Temple to attend a Sanhedrin meeting; and public executions on so holy a day would have seemed a shocking desecration.

Marcus [i.e., St Mark] was probably misled by the fact that he had so often heard the Lord's Supper compared to the Passover-'Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us'-that he had come to believe that the Last Supper was the Paschal meal. `John', who knew Marcus's Gospel and sometimes quotes it verbatim, deliberately corrects his mistake. Passover fell that year on a Saturday. The Talmud agrees: `Yeshu' (i.e. Jesus) `was hanged on the eve of Passover.'

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