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

A couple of days ago a reader asked me a question in connection with something I had said about the early second-century Christian text, the Didache, and its instructions about how the Lord’s supper was supposed to be celebrated.  Here is what I said:

“When they celebrate the Eucharist they are first to bless the cup with a prayer that the author provides and then to bless the broken bread, with another set prayer (9:1–4). This way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper by starting with the cup and ending with the bread has long puzzled scholars, since the typical practice of the early Christians appears to be reflected in the New Testament accounts of the Last Supper, where Jesus distributes first the bread and then the cup”

This led a reader to ask:

 

QUESTION:

Does this relate to Luke 22:17-20 where the author has Jesus take the cup, then take the bread, then take the cup again?

 

RESPONSE:

Ah, it is a good question.   Many readers will not know that there is a major textual variant in Luke 22:19-20, Luke’s account of the Lord’s Supper.  By way of background, there are four accounts of Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper: it can be found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (11:22-24).   Of these four accounts, Matthew and Mark are very similar to each other; so too Luke and Paul are similar to each other (and are different from the accounts of Matthew and Mark).

You can read the accounts for yourself to get a sense of them.  None of them is …

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Early Christology: How I Changed My Mind

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Eric  March 15, 2018

    A second thing wrong with the idea of cutting the second cup and retaining the first is that the first cup is ISN’T the blood. It’s a sidebar about how short Jesus’ earthly time was/imminent the Kingdom. No connection to sacrifice.

    An additional argument against the longer version being original to “Luke” is that it is self contradictory. Jesus announces the sip (gulp? chug?) in verse 17 as his last, but seems to contradict himself by taking another drink in verse 20. I suppose you could find a crack to push through since it says “he gave it to them”, but stylistically it seems if the writer wanted to include the concepts of blood sacrifice AND imminent Kingdom, he would have appended the latter pronouncement to the “blood” verse.

  2. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  March 15, 2018

    I have been semi-reading a book on the Didache’s meal ritual by Jonathan Schwiebert, though so far I am not very far into it.

  3. Avatar
    vienna1791  March 15, 2018

    Regarding possible early ideas of The Last Supper, some scholars argue, using the Didache as a source, that many very early Christians did not practice the idea of eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood. One scholar in particular (Dr. Tabor) argues that this was probably an invention of Paul that later made its way into the Gospels written after his writings, and that it is quite possible that Jesus was too Jewish to give such a directive as eating a body and drinking blood. What is your opinion?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2018

      I don’t think the very earliest Christians thought they were eating Christ’s body and blood. And see today’s post!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 16, 2018

      The evolution of the Eucharist ceremony seems almost all-too-obvious to me. I could be wrong, but if I were a betting man, I would bet it went something like this.
      ~ Year 30: Jesus has the Passover meal with his followers in Jerusalem, in which, in his role as the paterfamilias of his movement, he performs the ceremonial blessing of the wine, and the blessing and breaking of the bread.
      ~ Year 31: When Jesus’ remaining followers, now an inchoate church, have their first post-Jesus Passover meal in Jerusalem, the new father figure (James? Peter?) blesses the wine, and blesses and breaks the bread “in remembrance” of Jesus. (I myself had a family member die on Passover night, and till today we still celebrate the Passover במזכר — b’mizcor — i.e. “In remembrance” of her. Performing rituals in remembrance of someone is actually a common practice in Judaism today, and I imagine it was the same in the 1st century.)
      ~ As the years went by, and the practice of blessing the wine and bread “in remembrance” of Jesus spread outside the Jerusalem church, it was taken out of its specific Passover context, so that Christians were performing the ritual of remembrance during all communal meals, such as Sabbath meals and other Feast meals like Sukkot and Shavuot (Pentecost).
      ~ The ritual started taking on symbolic meaning, as the wine came to represent Jesus’ spilled blood. (Traditionally, the blessed cup of wine is filled until it starts to overflow the rim, representing God’s overflowing blessings for Israel. That overflow may have been used by Christians to symbolize Jesus’ spilled blood.) And the broken bread came to represent Jesus’ “broken” body, which is divided amongst those at the table.
      ~ As pagan coverts started adopting the ritual, being so culturally divorced from the original Passover context, they started emphasizing the sacrificial aspect of the ritual, since animal sacrifices were something even pagans were used to doing. And since pagan converts to Christianity were no longer permitted to eat meat sacrificed to idols, the only ritual sacrifice they were permitted to engage in was now the Eucharist. In other words, instead of making a familiar sacrifice of a goat to Zeus or whatnot, the converts could perform a quasi-sacrifice via the Eucharist ritual, thus satisfying their cultural impulse to appease a diety via a sacrifice.

      • Avatar
        David91  January 10, 2019

        This makes a lot of sense to me.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  March 15, 2018

    In 1 Cor. 11 Paul, our earliest NT writer, says “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you…” and then describes the Lord’s Supper. Sounds like he is claiming direct revelation, not passing along established tradition. So, is it possible Paul actually originated the Lord’s Supper scenario, and all other sources are derived directly or indirectly from his original idea?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2018

      Yes, it’s a much debated issue: what does he mean that he received it from the Lord? That it was a direct revelation? That it was confirmed by a personal conviction God gave him but that he had heard from someone else? That it was spoken by a prophet at a Christian communion meal? Something else? Hard to say!

  5. Telling
    Telling  March 15, 2018

    Do you believe there was such a “last supper”, and if not, where do you think the idea came from? Is there any kind of such a ritual in other cultures?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2018

      I certainly think Jesus had a last meal with his disciples. But I don’t think we know what happened at it.

      • Telling
        Telling  March 16, 2018

        Any idea where the “this is my blood/body” ritual came from or what it was supposed to mean?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 18, 2018

          It came from the Christian practice to commemorate Jesus’ death at a weekly meal modeled on the last one he had with his disciples.

          • Telling
            Telling  March 19, 2018

            But if you’re right that Jesus didn’t expect he would be crucified then Jesus and the disciples would not have known their last supper together would be their last supper, isn’t that right? Thus, if true, then the bread/wine ritual had to have been entirely made up, And if that’s true, why would Christians have made up such a questionable story about eating the flesh of their Master? Wouldn’t a simple “eat this bread in remembrance of me” made the better sense?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 21, 2018

            That’s right. They didn’t talk about eating the flesh, they talked about eating the bread (originally).

          • Telling
            Telling  March 21, 2018

            If “eating the flesh” came later, is there an historical explanation why that would be? Seems undesirable.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 22, 2018

            The bread came to be thought of as symbolic of the flesh; then it came to be thought of as literally the flesh.

          • Telling
            Telling  March 22, 2018

            When the bread comes to be thought literally to be the flesh, I would suggest that right there staring us in the face is your first century Gnostic influence.

          • Avatar
            j1hinkle  May 1, 2018

            @Telling “When the bread comes to be thought literally to be the flesh, I would suggest that right there staring us in the face is your first century Gnostic influence.”

            Ignatius wrote that some Gnostics were denying that the bread and wine were really Jesus’ body and blood. So the kind of Gnostics he dealt with would produce the opposite effect you hope for. Is there a particular Gnostic group that you believe would spur the development of a primitive “real presence” idea?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 1, 2018

            I’m not sure this question is for me; Ignatius never refers to the Gnostics, and I’m not sure which passage in his writings your’re referring to. Sorry!

          • Avatar
            j1hinkle  May 2, 2018

            @Bart thanks for the reply. I was mixing up Gnosticism with Docetism. I just began studying early Christianity this last semester, so I’m still making simple mistakes.

          • Avatar
            j1hinkle  May 2, 2018

            By the way, I was referring to Ignatius’ epistle to the Smyrnaeans.

  6. Avatar
    Hormiga  March 15, 2018

    If I might ask another question about Luke 22:17-21, it’s about 21: “But behold, the hand of the one who betrays me is with me at the table.”

    It doesn’t, to my eye, fit in with the flow of the previous verses. Jesus says to do cup and bread and then veers off topic to point out the betrayer. Could it be a matter of translation? Could the “But behold” be rendered “For behold”? That would at least suggest continuity of 21 with the previous ones. I.e., the betrayal would be an integral part of the story.

    That goes back to the idea that the whole Passion episode was set up by God in advance, and that the actors — Judas, the Sanhedrin, Pilate etc. — were fulfilling the divinely preordained purpose.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2018

      Maybe I’ll post on this. I think in fact the shorter text fits better with the flow of the *following* verse. But it’s a bit complicated. Still, notice the terms “betrayed” and “But” in verses 21-22. They help organize the two verses into a sensible unit.

  7. Avatar
    J.J.  March 15, 2018

    This textual problem has always intrigued me more than most others. For several reasons.

    One, Luke doesn’t follow Mark as closely as Matthew does in the passion narratives, and I wonder if Luke was also somewhat following other sources besides Mark, after all, Luke states “*many* had undertaken to write” before him. That “many” has long intrigued me. Yet Mark is the only tangible source to which we can compare Luke (unless you hold to Lukan dependence on Matthew, but that doesn’t really help much with this pericope).

    And two, 1 Cor 11 is more similar to Luke for this pericope, rather than Mark, when Luke seems to be based on Mark, and 1 Cor is earlier than both of them.

    Thoughts? Just curious what you think of Luke’s “many” in 1:1, and how 1 Cor 11 ends up so similar to Luke more so than Mark. Maybe that’s what you plan to address in your next post.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2018

      Yes, those are key points. Luke either has another source for much of his passion or he is editing it himself based on the stories he’s heard. And the form of the Lord’s Supper he’s familiar with is the one known in Paul’s churches (not surprising, since he saw Paul as his hero in the faith)

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  March 15, 2018

    Not for nothing, but the proper order in Judaism is to bless the wine first, and then bless the bread (or matzah). It’s probably done in this order because one has to ritually wash ones hands before breaking the bread, which is what Jesus appears to do when he “dips” his hand in the same bowl as “he who will betray” him. The bowl may have been the basin in which the men were ritually washing their hands before the meal.

    Incidentally, this dipping bowl may, in fact, be the origin of Judas Iscariot’s epithet. (I’ve weighed so many theories over the years, why not another one?) The Hebrew word for a bowl is q’ir. The plural is q’irot. The plural for small bowls is q’iryot — קעיריות. If this theory is true, then Judas might have been called Judas Man of Bowls — איש קעיריות.

    Anyway, the wine first, bread second order should be the proper order.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  March 16, 2018

      The man with his hand in the bowl? Maybe that spawned the rumor that his hand was in the till also! Thanks for sharing that – I’ve always wondered what Iscariot signified and didn’t find any of the common explanations satisfying.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  March 18, 2018

        Yeah, there’s any number of hypotheses for Judas’ epithet. Funny enough, the hypothesis that seems most accepted by scholars, I consider it the least likely — namely, that Judas’ epithet is a reference to him coming from the town of Qerioth. I think that’s a lame hypothesis. Why? For two reasons.

        1) All the disciples with epithets refer to a person’s traits or family. For example, Peter is a “rock”. Simon is a “zealot”. James and John are the Boanerges brothers, whatever that means (it doesn’t mean “sons of thunder” in either Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew). Bartholomew literally means “son of Tholomew,” whatever that means (Ptolemy? Tolmai?). James and Levi, sons of Alphaeus. Thomas literally means “twin” in Aramaic and Hebrew, suggesting he was a twin. Etc. And Judas is the only one who’s identified by the town he comes from? I don’t think so.

        (For the record, I also don’t think “Nazorean” refers to Jesus coming from a village called Nazareth, mainly because, in Aramaic or Hebrew, someone from “Nazareth” would not be called a Nazorean, but a Nazrethi. Rather, I think Jesus was called a Nazorean because he was baptized by John the Baptist, and those baptized by John were called Nazoreans, because in Hebrew a “na’azor” is someone who is “girded,” meaning “ready” or “prepared”. That is, since they were baptized, their sins were expiated, making them prepared — “girded,” Na’azor — for the coming Kingdom of Heaven. John’s baptized followers, therefore, were called Na’azorin, the “Prepared Ones,” using the Aramaic plural suffix -in rather than the Hebrew -im. Hence ישוע הנאזורין. Jesus of the Na’azorin. Jesus of the Girded/Prepared Ones.)

        2) The name Qerioth literally means, in both Aramaic and Hebrew, “walled towns” (qir = a wall; qiryah = a walled town; qiryot = walled towns), which means that such a nickname would have sounded very weird to someone who was unfamiliar with the town of Qerioth. It would be like introducing someone as Lester Towns Guy. It sounds just as weird in Aramaic and Hebrew as it does in English.

        If I were a betting man, I would bet Judas’ epithet is actually a reference to one of the following:
        ~ קריאות — qri’yut = “reader” or “literate”
        ~ קריאת — qri’yat = Torah reader in a synagogue (what would today be called a Gabbai)
        ~ קעריות — q’ariyot = “little bowls”
        ~ קרעיות — qri’yot = “little tears” i.e. rags (maybe a reference to his dilapidated attire? An ascetic?)

        That is: “reading man,” “Torah reader man,” “bowls man,” “rags man”.

        In fact, in my Jesus novel, which consists of four different retellings of Jesus’ story, I use three of these possible etymologies for three separate versions of Judas in three separate stories.

        • Avatar
          Kirktrumb59  March 19, 2018

          I continue to heart your responses, Talmoore. Keep ’em coming. Whether correct or not: learned.

  9. Avatar
    godspell  March 15, 2018

    I’ve always assumed Mel Brooks had the straight scoop on that.

    I’m guessing we’re more interested in what Luke originally wrote not so much from the standpoint of what really happened at the Last Supper, but more from the standpoint of symbolism. How he rearranged and elaborated on earlier accounts to say something a bit different.

  10. Avatar
    MauriceGarrett  March 15, 2018

    Was there a tradition among the Jews of the time during Passover that was similar to the Last Supper, at least in a ritualistic sense? Is it possible that a traditional Jewish meal at Passover was transformed over time and that the discrepancies didn’t need to jive until later churchmen or scribes determined they needed to parallel each other?

    David

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2018

      Are you asking whether there was a fixed ritual for the Passover meal, like the Seder of later times? I’d assume there were some standard elements in place, but we don’t have good documentation for what it all involved.

  11. Avatar
    4Erudite  March 15, 2018

    Back in my undergraduate days in the early 70s when writing research papers…which were first written by hand and then, when ready, typed on a typewriter (long before computers, spell check, and cut-n-paste)…realizing that you had omitted a word, or two, or sentence, or even a paragrph from your handwritten version (at 2am with a deadline for completion just hours away and limited supply of typing paper on hand), required creative corrections and changes to keep from re-typing the whole page again. I certainly believe scribs in antiquity made mistakes too and to save the page, got creative. This must explain “some” of the variances…other than those who wanted to change the story line, for whatever reason…and then, to use your words, copies thereafter were made and you had copies of copies of copies. It is probably unrealistic to think we have originals of anything in the NT…or even the OT, I would assume…the question of why the changes will probably always remain a mystery.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2018

      What I’m waiting for is an ancient manuscript to appear that is covered with white-out!!

      • Rick
        Rick  March 16, 2018

        Lol, but seriously – why not? Roman cement/concrete contained ash (usually volcanic but could be wood) and lime (calcium oxide of hydroxide) for stickiness – mixed with very clear water. Leave out the rubble and you could have a very fine paste! So, to make scribal matters worse, how would you know if ancient white out were used but it dried and fell off later?

  12. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  March 16, 2018

    My father used to fume every time, in our rare Southern Baptist Lord’s Supper, the preacher would say of the tiny juice-filled cups, “Drink ye, ALL of it.” Dad’s contention was that Jesus was saying for all to drink of it, not to drain the last drop. Which account of the last supper does that imperative come from and does it mean a) all are to drink; or, b) all the wine should be drunk?

  13. Avatar
    Jana  March 16, 2018

    This is a personal comment Dr. Ehrman, reading spun me back in memory to my early days living in a remote California Trappist monastery where these verses were spoken by my Godfather and priest. It’s a pleasant reverie. Now back to reading.

  14. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  March 18, 2018

    In Corinthians, Paul quotes Jesus as saying their participation in the Last Supper was for remembrance of him. In Mark, it’s because his blood was shed for many.

    Back in August, you were writing about how the deceased mother in Homer drank blood so her memories would return.

    What’s even weirder is in Corinthians, Paul talks about glory, (doxa) in the preceding verses of the Last Supper. I just finished reading an essay about ritualistic meals in Homer where eating/drinking causes both memory loss and remembrance. It was all for glory (kleos).

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  March 18, 2018

      Follow up:
      All of these accounts for the Last Supper has me thinking that Jesus was performing a supper ritual for the Coming Kingdom. After he died, they kept the ritual up in remembrance of him, but as time went on they pulled in more symbolic meanings for it.

      Maybe when Paul says he received something from the Lord, he means someone who personally knew Jesus and relayed information to him.

  15. Telling
    Telling  March 18, 2018

    Bart,

    That would be the proto-orthodox idea, wouldn’t it? If Jesus didn’t expect that he would be crucified then it would seem that there could have been no planned “last supper”. And thus we must presume the whole last supper thing was fabricated by the proto-orthodoxy leadership.

    So I’m interested in where you believe the “this is my body/blood” phrases came from if not from a biblical “last supper”? What could it possibly mean, if the “last supper” was just an ordinary supper prior to the surprise arrest of a very ordinary man preaching of a doomsday?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2018

      Yes, once believers began to think that Jesus death is what brought salvation, then they read that meaning back into his last meal.

  16. Avatar
    ftbond  May 5, 2018

    The Passover meal involved roasted lamb, unleavened bread and wine. And, there may have been other elements added, even by the time of Jesus (ie, the “sop” – haroseth. But, that’s just a possibility).

    One of the loaves of bread was called the Bread of Aflliction, and one of the cups of wine was the Cup of Redemption.

    The Bread of Affliction was broken, then “hidden” away. And the leader of the supper would drop out 12 drops of wine from the cup of Redemption, to signify the plagues that came against Egypt. The Cup of Redemption was wine mixed with water, and served warm.

    When Jesus said (paraphrase) “this bread – which is broken – is my body” and “this cup – which is poured out – is my blood”, the indication there is that those things – the bread and wine – were *symbols* point to *him*, and to what was going to happen to him the following morning. In this respect, the Passover served as an “ongoing prophesy” to the people of Israel, pointing to that night.

    OF COURSE – what I’m talking about seems far more theological than historical, and, it is. But, if one understands the Jewish tradition of Passover, then one can readily see what Jesus was talking about. And, it had nothing to do with bread *literally* becoming “his body”, nor wine *literally* becoming “his blood”. That’s a bunch of some kind of Greco-Roman nonsense that worked it’s way into the church.

    Regarding the textual issues of Luke: Yeh, somebody added something or subtracted something. I’m not sure it makes one bit of difference, though. There were several cups of wine used in a Passover celebration, and, most likely, there was no strongly set order of things in a Passover meal at the time of Jesus.

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