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Scribes Who Injected the Idea of Atonement into Luke’s Gospel

One of the most striking theological features of the Gospel of Luke and its accompanying volume the book of Acts is that they do not portray Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sins.  That seems very strange indeed to people who get their theology from other parts of the New Testament (e.g., Paul, and the other Gospels).  But when read on their own, Luke-Acts have a different understanding of the significance of Jesus death.

And that may be why scribes altered the words Jesus spoke at his last supper in Luke 22 – the textual variant I began discussing yesterday.   I have a very long discussion of the issue in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and a much shortened and simplified version in Misquoting Jesus.  Here is what I say in the latter.


For proto-orthodox Christians, it was important to emphasize that Christ was a real man of flesh and blood because it was precisely the sacrifice of his flesh and the shedding of his blood that brought salvation – not in appearance but in reality.  One textual variant in Luke’s account of Jesus’ passion emphasizes precisely this reality.  It occurs during the account of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.  In one of our oldest Greek manuscripts, along with several Latin witnesses, we are told the following:

And taking a cup, giving thanks, he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves, for I say to you that I will not drink from the fruit of the vine from now on, until the kingdom of God comes.”  And taking bread, giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body.  But behold, the hand of the one who betrays me is with me at the table” (Luke 22:17-19).

In most of our manuscripts, however…

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What Happened at the Last Supper? A Textual Problem in Luke



  1. Avatar
    SkepticsRUs  March 16, 2018

    Likewise, Stephen’s defense in Acts 7 portrays Jesus death as simply the latest example of the Israelites consistently rejecting and persecuting God’s prophets. There is no suggestion here of atonement through Jesus death, but rather condemnation those who killed him.

    Acts 7:51-53 NASB –
    “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.”

    FWIW, Stephen also never suggests that Jesus rose from the dead anymore than did any of the prophets who came before him.

  2. Avatar
    fishician  March 16, 2018

    How does Acts 4:12 fit into this: “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” So, it’s not just repentance and turning to God, but it must be done in Jesus’ name, according to Luke?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2018

      Yes, it’s hard to know how that fits in with the other speeches in Acts. I’m assuming it fits *somehow*. (Notice, it says nothing about his death being an atonement)

  3. Avatar
    clongbine  March 16, 2018

    I have heard James Tabor say something similar with regard to Peter’s speech in the opening chapters of Acts. But, honestly, it seems strange that Luke would lack the very thing Paul is known for (that Christ died for our sins) after dedicating so much of Acts to Paul.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2018

      Very strange indeed! Strange but apparently true! (I should point out that all sorts of people over the centuries have revered JEsus but changed his teachings into their own theology!)

  4. Telling
    Telling  March 16, 2018

    A fundamental metaphysical view of the nature of reality, which I believe includes Eastern religions and both ancient and modern Western mysticism, is: we are not the separate individual physical beings that it so appears. We are energy, personalized awareness, the world being of the same stuff as dreams. To say the world is my body, or to say my physical surroundings are my body, or precisely some element of my surroundings such as food and wine, when comprehended holding the above beliefs, the significant Last Supper phrases make perfect sense. My body extends beyond my physical flesh. This would be true of anyone, anyone could logically say this.

    I think wrong interpretations were given because, without having the metaphysical understanding, none of it makes sense. Something more earthy and physical is made up and added. But even this might well resonate with the average person who might sense there is something more behind the phrases, and this would drive the movement along so that it becomes a world religion.

    • Telling
      Telling  March 17, 2018


      I suggest that you mull over the idea that Gnostic phrases were not added to the Gospel of Thomas, but rather the four canonical Gospels have the added proto-orthodox phrases. No need to modify Thomas so that it too conforms, because it was entirely rejected.

      The Master is not crucified (as per Seth/Jane Roberts & Koran also), the proto-orthodoxy members spinning a tale of a Son of Man intentionally crucified, (unintentionally) demonstrating to the proto-orthodoxy faithful that mankind suffers through his own hand, martyrdom, righteous, the good fighting the evil, being of his own design. Then, demonstrating the continued existence beyond physical death, the sacrificed man is raised on the third day, much as happens to every one of us. In Gnosticism, (as you mentioned before) Abraxas, the one true god — who is greater than the Christian “god” who is only good — is both good and evil, the wildcat attacking the deer, both at the same time, this is God. the crucifier and the crucified, both the same, their very thoughts creating their reality through “mingling” (Gospel of Mary). And the hope of mankind comes through the words of the Master: Love your enemies, give service to all, avoid entanglement.

  5. Avatar
    doug  March 16, 2018

    It’s not surprising that the Gospel authors should have disagreed on some things, just as Christian leaders ever since then have disagreed about what Christians should believe. And no voice of God clearly tells us all “This is what you should believe”.

  6. Avatar
    JoshuaJ  March 17, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I watched your recent debate with Licona, and there was one exchange in particular that really caught my attention. When you asked him about the discrepancy in post-resurrection appearance geography between Matthew and Luke, he cited the compositional device of compression multiple times as the explanation (Luke has compressed his gospel account to place all post-resurrection events in Jerusalem, including all appearances). I have read the relevant chapter in his book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, where he addresses this discrepancy specifically. He goes on to conclude on page 184: “In the pericopes with notable differences we assessed, only a handful of instances cannot be plausibly understood in light of the specific compositional devices we are considering: [other examples listed first, then], and whether Jesus first appeared to a group of his mail disciples in Jerusalem or Galilee.”

    This appears to be the very discrepancy you asked him about in the debate, and again he explicitly cited compression as the resolution to the problem. Yet, in his own book he seems to actually agree with you when he asserts that such an understanding (compression) of the discrepancy in question is not plausible. What do you think is going on here? Is he backtracking?

  7. Avatar
    mannix  March 17, 2018

    As usual, a fascinating discussion of the “Last Supper”. However, the significance of this event to Roman Catholics is not so much the order of the cup and the bread , but the eventual doctrine of the Transubstantiation. It is not clear to me that Jesus implied, in any of the accounts, the bread and wine would actually be his human flesh and blood when the ritual was performed “in memory of me” or that his apostles, the Evangelists or Paul thought this. My question to Bart: have you explored the historical development of the Transubstantiation in any of your books or blogs? I must confess I have not read all of them (yet).
    I personally doubt most, if not all, Catholics really believe the bread and wine, if microscopically examined after the Transubstantiation, would reveal human tissue and red and white blood cells. If they did, communion lines would be much shorter!

  8. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  March 17, 2018

    Hello Bart, it is has been a while since I have posted something on your blog. I have been busy with my studies. I would like to ask a question. What is Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting? Did Da Vinci paint John the Baptist as Bacchus or Bacchus as John the Baptist? From my understanding, Da Vinci painted John as Bacchus. Dr. Ehrman, my question is, why did Leonardo change John to Bacchus as if Bacchus was truth?

  9. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  March 17, 2018

    Something I found myself wondering yesterday: When Cullen Story made his “Maybe Mark just made a mistake” comment, what color was the ink?

    Just wondering.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2018

      Ha! Good question. I don’t remember. I’m imagining red, but I don’t really know.

  10. Avatar
    caesar  March 18, 2018

    When the gospel writers referred to the death of Christ bringing salvation or forgiveness…what do those terms actually mean? What happens to you if you are not forgiven, or saved…according to the gospel writers? (assuming that they all have the same opinion.)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2018

      They don’t say, other than, as in John, that you are “condemned.” But what does that mean? Hell? Annihilation? Something else?

  11. Avatar
    mjoniak  March 18, 2018

    I’ve read that Marcionites also used a version of Luke, and that they were accused of cutting parts of the gospel to fit their theology.

    But is it possible that the Marcionite version was actually closer to the original because it lacked the proto-orthodox additions?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2018

      Yes, I’ve long thought that the first edition of Luke may have lacked chapters 1-2, and that that’s the version Marcion knew.

  12. Avatar
    forthfading  March 18, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Since we are on the topic of Luke, there is something that has me perplexed. The census seems to me to be unhistorical (at least in the sense of everyone returning to their ancestral home), but how would have readers of Luke’s Gospel taken that narrative? It seems to me that an author would not write something his audience would no is not correct.

    Best, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2018

      Unfortunately, it happens *all* the time. Even in our day there are authors and leading figures who state blatantly false things but are avidly believed, contrary to all good sense and evidence.

  13. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  March 18, 2018

    Would you say Luke’s message, that the crucifixion was to bring people to repentance, is more consistent with Jesus’ overall teachings in the other gospels? Much of atonement theology seems very inconsistent with much of Jesus teachings.

  14. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 20, 2018

    More than a little complicated, but certainly not boring.

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