The Words of Jesus—Institution of the Lord’s Supper
The last two notes have examined the Passover meal episode in the Passion Narrative. An important component of this scene is the institution of the “Lord’s Supper”—the words of Jesus over the bread and the cup. Most commentators recognize that this tradition in the Gospels is related in some way to the early Christian practice of observing the “Supper of the Lord” (1 Cor 10:16-22; 11:17-34, v. 20). It would hardly be surprising if early ritual and liturgical practice shaped, to varying degrees, the Gospel narrative at this point. But the direction and extent of the influence remains a matter of considerable debate.
It is clear that the “Last Supper” was identified as a Passover meal in the early Gospel tradition; this is certainly the case in the Synoptics (Mk 14:1, 12-16 par), though less definite in John’s Gospel (to be discussed in the next note). Luke brings out most prominently the Passover connection (cf. the prior note), all the more so, it would seem, if one adopts the longer, majority text of vv. 17-20 (which includes vv. 19b-20). It has been argued that here, in the longer text, Luke preserved more of the original setting of the Passover meal, such as it would have been practiced in the 1st century A.D. These details are explored by J. Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (Fortress Press: 1977), esp. pp. 41-88, and summarized by Fitzmyer, Luke, pp. 1389-91. According to this reconstruction, the outline of the meal in Lk 22:17-20 (longer text) would be:
- The Cup (vv. 17-18)—a single cup, to be shared, it would seem, among all the disciples together. It is it perhaps to be identified with the initial cup of blessing (qiddûš), drunk prior to the serving of the meal. Possibly it may also represent the second cup of wine following the Passover liturgy (hagg¹d¹h).
- The Bread (v. 19)—the “unleavened bread” (maƒƒôt) served and eaten together with the Passover lamb.
- The Cup (v. 20)—the second cup of blessing (trad. kôš šel b§r¹k¹h), following the meal.
If Luke thus preserves more of the original historical setting, then the Synoptic version in Mark-Matthew (Mk 14:22-25/Matt 26:26-29) would have to be viewed as a simplification or abridgment of the scene. While this might be appealing from a historical-critical standpoint, the situation is not quite so straightforward, at least when considering the words of institution by Jesus. There are two basic forms preserved—(1) that in Mark/Matthew, and (2) that in Luke and 1 Corinthians. In addition to the Synoptic Gospels, the tradition is preserved by Paul in 1 Cor 11:22-26, part of his instruction regarding the “Supper of the Lord” (vv. 17-34, cf. also 10:16-21). Paul introduces the tradition in v. 23:
“For I took/received along from the Lord th(at) which I also gave along to you—that the Lord Yeshua, on the night in which he was given along [i.e. betrayed], took bread…”
The first phrase does not necessarily mean that Paul received this information as a special revelation by Jesus; it may simply indicate that the tradition goes back to the words and actions of Jesus himself. As in the Gospels, Paul recorded words spoken by Jesus over the bread and the cup/wine, in turn. Let us examine the tradition regarding each of these.
1. The Bread—Mk 14:22; Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19 [MT]; 1 Cor 11:24
First, the action of Jesus as described:
- Mark 14:22: “taking [labw\n] bread (and) giving a good account [eu)logh/sa$, i.e. blessing] (to God), he broke [e&klasen] (it) and gave [e&dwken] (it) to them and said…”
- Matt 26:26: “taking bread and giving a good account [i.e. blessing] (to God), Yeshua broke it and, giving [dou\$] it to the learners [i.e. disciples], said…”
[Note how close Mark and Matthew are, the differences in the latter’s version are indicated by the words in italics]
- Luke 22:19: “taking bread (and) giving (thanks for God’s) favor [eu)xaristh/sa$], he broke (it) and gave (it) to them, saying…”
[Luke is even closer to Mark, except for the verb eu)xariste/w instead of eu)loge/w]
- 1 Cor 11:24: “Yeshua…took bread and, giving (thanks for God’s) favor [eu)xaristh/sa$], broke (it) and said…”
Paul agrees with Luke in use of the word eu)xariste/w (“give [thanks] for [God’s] favor”) instead of eu)loge/w (“give a good account [i.e. words of blessing] [to God]”). His version is simpler in that it omits mention of Jesus giving the broken bread to the disciples.
Now the words of Jesus:
- Mark 14:22: “Take (it)—this is my body [tou=to/ e)stin to\ sw=ma/ mou]”
- Matt 26:26: “Take (it and) eat—this is my body”
[Matthew is identical to Mark, except for the addition of the command fa/gete (“eat/consume [it]”)]
- Luke 22:19: “This is my body (be)ing given over you—do this unto my remembrance [i.e. in memory of me]”
[The italicized portion is not in Mark/Matthew]
- 1 Cor 11:24: “This is my body th(at is given) over you—do this unto my remembrance [i.e. in memory of me]”
Again, we see how close Paul is to Luke—nearly identical except for the participle dido/menon (“being given”), which is to be inferred. The only portion common to all four versions are the words “this is my body“—in Greek, tou=to/ e)stin to\ sw=ma/ mou, though Paul has a slightly different word order (tou=to/ mou/ e)stin to\ sw=ma).
2. The Cup—Mk 14:23-25; Matt 26:27-29; Luke 22:20 [MT]; 1 Cor 11:25
Jesus’ action and words associated with the cup are clearly parallel to those associated with the bread. First, the action:
- Mark 14:23-24: “and taking [labw\n] (the) drinking-cup (and) giving (thanks for God’s) favor [eu)xaristh/sa$], he gave [e&dwken] (it) to them and they all drank out of it. And he said to them…”
- Matt 26:27: “and taking (the) drinking-cup and giving (thanks for God’s) favor, he gave (it) to them saying, ‘Drink out of it all (of) you’“
[Matthew is identical to Mark, except that the reference to drinking has been made part of Jesus’ directive]
- Luke 22:20: “and so the same (way) also (he took) the drinking-cup after th(eir) dining, saying…”
- 1 Cor 11:25: “and so the same (way) also (he took) the drinking-cup after th(eir) dining, saying…”
[Luke and Paul have virtually the same version, with slightly different word order]
And the words of Jesus:
- Mark 14:24: “This is my blood of the agreement [i.e. covenant] set through [diaqh/kh] (by God), th(at) is poured out over many”
- Matt 26:27: “This is my blood of the agreement set through (by God), th(at) is poured out around many unto [i.e. for] the release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins“
[Differences between Matthew and Mark are indicated by italics]
- Luke 22:20: “This drinking-cup is the new agreement set through (by God) in my blood, th(at is) being poured out over you”
- 1 Cor 11:25: “This drinking-cup is the new agreement set through (by God) in my blood—do this, as often as you should drink it, unto my remembrance”
Again, the common tradition inherited by Luke and Paul is clear. Their version differs significantly from that of Mark/Matthew in one respect:
- In Luke/Paul, the cup is identified as the “new covenant”
- In Mark/Matthew, the blood (wine) itself is identified with the “covenant”
The reference in Mark/Matthew is more obviously to the original covenant ceremony in Exodus 24:8; in the Greek LXX the declaration reads:
“See, the blood of the agreement which the Lord set through toward you around/about all these words”
“See, the blood of the agreement which YHWH cut with you upon all these words”
In ancient Near Eastern thought and religious/cultural practice, an agreement between two parties was often established through the ritual slaughter (sacrifice) of an animal. It may involve the sprinkling or application of blood, as in the Exodus scene, where Moses throws blood upon the people (or their representatives). This action followed the reading of all the words which God had spoken to Moses, referred to collectively (in written form) as the “Book of the Agreement [i.e. Covenant]” (v. 7).
This symbolism is less direct in the Lukan/Pauline version; indeed, the emphasis has switched to the symbolic act of giving the cup, rather than the wine (i.e. blood) in it. Also the reference is now to the “New Covenant” of Jer 31:31, a passage of tremendous importance for early Christian identity, much as it also had been for the Qumran community (CD 6:19; 1QpHab 2:4ff, etc). Along with the other Synoptics, Luke has retained the expression (and image) of the blood being “poured out” (the verb e)kxe/w) “over” (u(per) people. In addition to Exod 24:8, we find this ritual/sacrificial imagery elsewhere in the Old Testament, such as Lev 17:11, where the idea of expiation and atonement for sin is present. Paul omits this aspect in 1 Cor 11:22-26. Instead, he gives emphasis to the rite of the Supper as a memorial of Jesus’ death. Luke includes this in the words over the bread (22:19), but not the cup.
If we consider all four versions, it would seem that, while 1 Corinthians may have been the earliest written (in the form we have it), it is also the version which most reflects early Christian ritual. This can be seen in the way that the Passover and sacrificial elements are missing, and by the emphasis of the Supper as a memorial. In addition, the Pauline form has a more consistent shape. The rougher contours of the Synoptic version would, I think, suggest a closer approximation to the original (Aramaic?) words of Jesus. Here, as often is the case, Mark may record the earliest form of the tradition; note the common elements highlighted in bold:
- “Take (it)—this is my body [tou=to/ e)stin to\ sw=ma/ mou]”
- “This is my blood [tou=to/ e)stin to\ ai!ma/ mou] of the agreement/covenant, th(at) is poured out over many”
It would seem that Matthew and Luke have both adapted this core tradition in various ways (cf. above). The real problem lies with the text-critical question in Luke. The similarity between Luke and Paul here has been used as an argument in favor of the shorter text, with vv. 19b-20 (so close to 1 Cor 11:24-25), being viewed as a harmonization or interpolation. However, if vv. 19b-20 are original, then there can be no doubt that Luke and Paul have inherited a common historical tradition, however it may differ from the version in Mark/Matthew. I would argue that all four versions—that is, both primary lines of tradition (Mark/Matthew and Luke/Paul)—have adapted the original words and setting into a framework that reflects, to some degree, early Christian practice regarding the Supper. In Mark/Matthew, this is done primarily through the narrative description of Jesus’ action, and the sequence of verbs used (cf. above), especially with the key pairing of eu)loge/w and eu)xariste/w (the latter giving rise to the term “Eucharist”). In the case of Luke and Paul, it may be that Jesus’ words (in Greek translation) have been shaped to reflect the ritual context. Even so, as I noted in the prior note, Luke has clearly retained (and carefully preserved) a connection with the Passover setting of the original tradition.
References above marked “Fitzmyer, Luke” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28A (1985).