For theologically-minded readers the question is largely closed: breaking bread and pouring wine, Jesus gave his impending execution sacrificial meaning. Here at this final meal the Eucharist was born—Christ’s body broken and blood spilled for the forgiveness of sins. In a word, at the Last Supper, Jesus taught the doctrine of atonement.
Critical readings, however, cast some doubt upon this assessment. While the Eucharistic institution enjoys a strong claim to historicity— attested by three independent traditions, the earliest being Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23-25, cf. Mark 14:22-24, John 6:53-56)—certain lines of reasoning suggest that the words of the liturgy come not from Jesus’ life, but from later revelation and consideration.
- The Jesus of Synoptic tradition rarely attributes a saving significance to his impending death. In earliest sayings and parables, Jesus comes and dies not as savior, but as prophet of the kingdom, a witness to the approaching day of the Lord.
- The Johannine tradition places the words identifying Jesus’ body and blood with bread and wine outside the bounds of the Last Supper. The Eucharistic teaching may have therefore lacked a definitive context at first.
- Paul makes the curious claim that he received the words of the institution “from the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:23). Paul may mean that the words come from the historical Jesus and have been passed down by his disciples (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:25); but he may mean, on the other hand, that this information originates in a private vision, whether to him or to someone else (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, Acts 16:9-10).
- The Eucharistic tradition is absent from early Christian literature in notable ways. This is suggestive in three instances.
- The Lukan textual tradition of the institution is confused. The notice concerning the cup of the “new covenant in my blood” (22:20) along with the command to “do this in my memory” (22:19b) are absent from Codex Bezae and some Latin manuscripts. Luke may have therefore declined to appropriate his Markan source at this point. A later scribe, uncomfortable with Luke’s seemingly-deficient text, may have interpolated Paul’s version of the liturgy.
- Lending further credibility to this interpolation theory, Luke fails to record any Eucharistic meals among the first believers in his second volume. The disciples “break bread” together (cf. Acts 2:42; 46, 20:7), but they do not participate in or make reference to any ritual meals.
- The Jesus of Johannine tradition says virtually nothing concerning sacrifice, atonement, or propitiation at the final meal. In his most explicit statement, Jesus expects to “die for his friends” (cf. John 15:14).
- The Eucharistic traditions contained in the Didache are not only entirely distinct from what is found in Paul and Mark, they also betray no concern for the sacrificial death of Jesus. Instead, and in keeping with earliest traditions about Jesus the prophet, the eschatological deliverance of the God’s people by the arrival of the kingdom looms large.
- According to Didache 9, the ritual cup represents the vine of David that produced Jesus, God’s final servant and king. The broken bread symbolizes the churches scattered across the face of the earth. Like crumbs swept off a table, the churches await the day when they will be “gathered together” into God’s kingdom, into one loaf.
- The Eucharistic prayer preserved in Didache 10 praises God as the giver of “spiritual food and drink and life eternal through [Christ],” extolling Christ as the one who will deliver the church into the kingdom as the world passes away.
Taken together, these observations weaken the Eucharistic institution’s claim to historicity in the life of Jesus. It is probable that the first Christians, enlightened by Christ’s resurrection and spirit, worked backwards, giving the Last Supper its propitiatory connotations after the fact. Only after these post-mortem experiences of Jesus did they come to understand the true nature of their master’s death. Jesus had died not merely for the sake of his prophetic integrity, as did John; he had died, in some sense, for them.
Ironically then, the Johannine and Lukan traditions may have the stronger grip on history here: in all likelihood, Jesus delivered no sacrificial interpretation of his death at his final meal.
Last Supper or Penultimate Supper?
This negative result for the Eucharist is not the final word on the Last Supper, however. There are other traditions associated with that fateful night. Perhaps these are more reliable?
To identify these more reliable traditions one must first understand the nature of the Last Supper; in the first place, as the last meal in a long line of meals and, in the second place, as the penultimate meal before the final meal.
To begin then, What meaning did Jesus give those first meals which led to the last?
To that, we have a more or less conclusive answer. Jesus ate and drank with repentant and righteous Israelites as a way of celebrating the arrival and inauguration of God’s kingdom over the earth. Jesus believed that in the very near future his own small feasts in Israel would give way to a great banquet in the kingdom of God (cf. Mark 2:18-20, Matthew 22:1-10). There, enjoying the company of the Patriarchs, God’s children would finally and definitively be blessed according to the ancient promises. At this sumptuous table, in this new religious-political order, even righteous gentiles would humbly come for instruction and provision (cf. Matthew 8:11, Mark 7:28).
But returning to the point, Jesus’ feasting with disciples and friends appears to have functioned as a sign of the coming kingdom. These meals, the Last Supper included, anticipated the happy banquet soon to be savored by noble Jews. At its core, the Last Supper was the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, it was the final party before the party at the end of the world.
I will not drink again
Among the traditions associated with the Last Supper only one saying fits decisively into the context established by Jesus’ feasting in Israel.
Jesus concludes his final supper (and his entire ministry) with these words: “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25, cf. Luke 22:18). Only this single saying recapitulates the symbolic logic of Jesus’ gluttonous prophetic tour, drawing a straight line between wine drunk in Israel and wine drunk in God’s kingdom.¹
Other factors suggest historicity here as well.
For one, the saying is unadorned by later Christocentric sentiment. Jesus reserves for himself no special place in the kingdom banquet (cf. Matthew 26:29). As in his table-ministry generally, the focus is upon the kingdom, not upon Jesus and/or the redemption wrought through his death.
Secondly, Paul’s concluding interpretation of the Lord’s Supper liturgy strikes a distinctly eschatological note. He writes: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). While these are certainly Paul’s own words, they resonate with Mark 14:25. As in that text, to eat and drink at the Lord’s table is to await the Lord’s coming, the great banquet in tow. Though Paul has made Christ and his sacrifice the center of the Lord’s teaching on the night he was betrayed, the symbolic and eschatological logic exhibited in Mark 14:25 and, more generally, in Jesus’ table-ministry, remains. By eating and drinking in this age, one not only receives Christ’s atoning mercy (cf. 11:25-26), he also signals and awaits the eating and drinking yet to come.
Such an understanding of Jesus’ final meal, while at home in the Synoptic Gospels, is otherwise foreign to the writings of Paul. It may be, therefore, that Paul has transmitted something of Jesus’ original farewell-teaching.
We thus come to what I think is the most plausible reconstruction of Jesus’ final dinner. On the night he was handed over, perceiving that he was about to be captured and executed, Jesus assured his disciples that God’s kingdom would prevail over Israel, even if it tarried a little longer, even if he had to die before it came. While the parties were over for the time being, the great banquet was coming, and Jesus was going to enjoy it.
1—Other Last Supper traditions such as the call to service (Luke 22:24-27, John 13:1-17), the outing of the traitor (cf. Mark 14:18-21, John 13:18-19; 21-30), and the prediction of Peter’s denial (cf. Mark 14:29-31, Luke 22:31-34, John 13:36-28), while perhaps historical on grounds of multiple independent attestation, do not cohere with what we know about Jesus’ table-fellowship program.