Friday, March 29, 2013

Body and Blood

It was time for the last meal that Jesus would share with His Disciples before His death. According to John, during the meal, Jesus humbly washed the Disciples' feet. Then, according to Matthew, Mark, and John, Jesus revealed that one of the Disciples would betray Him. According to Luke, that revelation came after the subject of the following study. According to John, there is no record of the subject of the following study, and Judas left the group right after Jesus identified his treachery. So then in John, Jesus explained to the remaining Disciples that seeing Jesus was the same as seeing God, and that people were now guilty because they had heard Him and had seen His miracles.

Is that clear? Well, do not worry. All will be revealed.

Body and Blood
The Eucharist, "The Lord's Supper", Communion or "Holy Communion", "Divine Liturgy", "Blessed Sacrament" or Sacrament; that little wafer of bread and sip of (possibly) wine you can get from your local church. Given the wide variety of names for the same activity, it seems only natural that different churches hold different understandings of this rite; everything from a simple symbolic mnemonic to a transubstantiation where the bread literally becomes Jesus' body, and the wine literally becomes Jesus' blood. In turn, this results in a wide degree of the rules and restrictions governing the ceremony, as I discovered in an awkward way. Let us take a closer look at this divine snack.

Matthew 26:26-30, Mark 14:22-26, and Luke 22:14-20 each cover this sacred meal. Mark was obviously the draft for the other two, so we will start with his account.

Jesus gave thanks for bread, and then shared it with the Disciples, saying that it was His body (Mark 14:22). He then gave thanks for the "fruit of the vine", and then shared it with them, saying that it was His "blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (Mark 14:23-24). He explained that He would not drink that again until doing so "in the Kingdom of God" (Mark 14:25). Then they all sang a song and went to the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:26).

As opposed to our standards, where bread is something we may have with dinner, this scene depicts the bread as an actual meal itself. Bread was a common meal by itself in those times, particularly among the poorer classes, which is why The Lord's Prayer speaks of "daily bread," not daily steak with a side of mashed potatoes. So getting a little wafer from the pulpit is a far cry from the actual intention of eating a meal together.

"Fruit of the vine" is a bit ambiguous, given that many different fruits which grow on vines. Plus, there is no reference here about it being either fruit juice or a fermented fruit wine instead. However, tradition suggests that it was grape wine, and when you read Paul's chastisement of some members of the church performing this rite all wrong in 1 Corinthians 11:20-22, it is obvious that it is wine that is to be shared, just not in excess.

Matthew's account is nearly identical with Mark's, so much so that it is obvious that he was copying from some version of Mark, but there are a couple of notable changes.

In Matthew 26:28, explicitly claims that Jesus' blood is poured out "for the forgiveness of sins." This makes Jesus' blood multipurpose; both forming a covenant and cleansing sins. That is not at all foreshadowed by the Old Testament, where there were separate acts for confirming a covenant and for cleansing sins.

In Matthew 26:29, Jesus said that He would not drink wine again until He did so with the Disciples "in My Father's Kingdom." Much to the Baptist's dismay, there will be alcohol in God's Kingdom. Of course, that softly implies a very physical existence in the afterlife; having both fermented beverages and presumably feeling their intoxicating effects.

Luke edited things a bit more. As you may remember, according to Matthew and Mark, before this meal Jesus revealed that He would be betrayed, and, in Matthew, Judas is identified as the betrayer. They make this meal awkward, because they never mention Judas leaving before the meal. Luke moved Jesus' announcement to after the meal, presumably to make it less awkward. There are a few other, more minor changes in Luke.

In Luke 22:15-16, Jesus stated that He would not eat the Passover feast again "until it finds fulfillment in the Kingdom of God." This particular sentiment is unique to Luke, and it appears to have been used to emphasize the fulfillment of the "prophesy" of the Passover, even though there is no noted future prophetic significance given to it in the original text. It is instead explicitly a remembrance of God of God's slaughter of firstborn children and the subsequent hasty exodus from Egypt.

In Luke 22:18, Jesus said that He would not drink wine again until "the Kingdom of God comes." While Matthew and Mark versions left it a little open as to whether or not the Kingdom of God existed at that time, Luke's version suggests that it had not yet been established.

In Luke 22:19-20, the personal relationship aspect is emphasized with the addition of "given for you" regarding Jesus' bread-body, and the change from "poured out for many" to "poured out for you" regarding Jesus' wine-blood. This was a wise revision by Luke, as pointing at "you" evokes a much greater emotional response than a generic gesture at "many." That is just good marketing. ;-)

As mentioned above, this was an actual meal. Bread and wine were as common as potatoes and soda in the American diet, and that was the point. Each time this staple meal was eaten, they would now be thinking of Jesus. Yet this particular meal was more than common; it was communal. Everyone shared in it. There was no magic transubstantiation going on here, nor was it implied for the future. This rite was simply a call to get together with fellow believers, to share a meal while remembering Jesus. That is why Luke 22:19 adds "do this in remembrance of Me."

Now, you may be asking: Did John have anything to say about this memorable meal? No, but yes. John does not record this particular meal. Yet as we discussed in a previous study, John's Jesus did tell people that they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to gain eternal life (John 6:53-58). It was a necessity for Salvation, not a communal meal held in remembrance. Not only that, but in John's version, Jesus was clearly speaking figuratively; implying that a reliance on Jesus' ways and commands to lead to Salvation.

For John to not have the same Last Supper communion, and yet to contain a reference of eating Jesus' flesh and drinking His blood, suggests that some form of the saying of eating Jesus' flesh and drinking His blood was part of the early, oral doctrine of early Christianity. John's sect was likely split off, or perhaps geographically isolated, from the sect that followed traditions we find in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke early in the development of the church. So the difference we see between the Synoptics and John indicates and records the evolution of the original message. Which version is closer to the original? God only knows.


  1. It's interesting that such an iconic situation has those really huge contradictions. The situation surrounding Judas in particular is incredible as that would be a detail almost impossible to mix up in the way described. Given the difference in awkwardness, I can't imagine anyone confusing the order of events.

    I also find it very interesting that John doesn't even have the last supper.

  2. Wise Fool -- Just a heads-up, but it looks like some spam has made it into the comments section.

  3. Huh, I never noticed that John didn't have a last supper story.

  4. Hausdorff, it is interesting, is it not? I would think that if it really happened, it would be really easy to get the story straight, because it was such a memorable event. But, that is not what we see.

    Thanks Ahab. Those spammers have been relentless today!

    Kind of weird, huh prarienymph? There is so much meaning packed into that final meal, that for John to leave it out is incredibly strange... if it had really happened! ;-)