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The Historical Jesus and the Lord’s Supper

Did the historical Jesus reinterpret certain elements of the Passover meal in reference to his upcoming death? That is, just as the lamb’s blood on the doorposts of the Israelites’ homes protected them from the plague of death and lead to their exodus from slavery, so Jesus’ death protects followers from God’s wrath in the tribulation before the arrival of the kingdom. Alternatively, Jesus’ blood seals a renewed or new covenant relationship between God and the people. Or was the “Eucharist” (from the Greek word eucharisteō or “I give thanks”) a memorial meal repeatedly practiced by Christ followers in commemoration of Jesus’ death and later narrated as a historical event in Jesus’ lifetime in Mark’s Gospel? Further, there are slight differences in the wording of the tradition in Mark/Matthew or Paul/Luke (e.g. “new” covenant; “do this in remembrance of me”). The Didache presents an alternative version of the tradition that does not focus on the symbolism of Jesus’ body and blood, which is interesting in light of other indications of the Didache‘s dependence on Matthew’s Gospel.

While they were eating, he 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; cf. Matthew 26:17-30)

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 a 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.  (Luke 22:16-20, bold words absent in some manuscripts)

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.’ (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)

And concerning the Eucharist, hold Eucharist thus: First concerning the Cup, “We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy child, which, thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy child; to thee be glory for ever.” And concerning the broken Bread: “We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever. (Didache 9:1-3)

Different Scholarly Views

“On the grounds of multiple attestation (Paul as well as Synoptic tradition) Jesus’ words about the cup, the bread, his body and blood are among the most secure elements of our traditions about Jesus.” – Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, p. 299

“[J]esus probably did not use the term covenant to explain his death at the last supper… Jesus probably said only ‘ this is my blood’ – a tidy parallel to ‘this is my body’” – Scott McKnight, Jesus and His Death, pp.  308, 310

“But the Didache, a late first century document, shows no awareness of a ritual deriving from the Last Supper, no connection with the Passover meal, and no commemoration of the death of Jesus… What Jesus left behind was the tradition of open eating as a sign of the inclusiveness and equality of life in the kingdom of God. Later, certain Christian groups created the Last Supper ritual…” – John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus?, p. 56

“Christian scholarship has traditionally seen here the institution of the Eucharist. We found instead a dramatic story of Jesus celebrating his final Passover with his disciples… Jesus death was seen in this light. As God had redeemed Israel at the Exodus, so he would redeem Israel by establishing his kingdom.” – Maurice Casey, Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel, p. 25

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