Why the Huffington Post gets the Eucharist wrong

This week, Huffington Post writer James D. Tabor put out an article arguing that

It is inconceivable that Jesus would have had his followers drink a cup of wine, even symbolically, as a representation of his blood, or break bread to represent his body, sacrificed for their sins.

Since this touches a bit on a lot of my own research into the history of sacramental theology, and intertextuality within the New Testament I thought I would give the article a read and see what he had to say. It turns out his argument rests on a couple of assumptions.

1. He first interprets Paul’s transmission of the words of institution in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 as an admission that he did not receive the words of institution from a historical source but through some kind of esoteric revelation. To which I ask, really? How do you know that? Is that really what the text says? Paul says he received the formulation “from the Lord,” is it not possible that this revelation was from the Lord through the transmission of oral tradition? Is it not also possible that he received a confirmation from the Lord of the historical transmission of the account from the apostles?

2. He them makes the formula which was received “from the Lord” was actually invented by Paul himself. It is, as he states, a revelation from “Paul alone.” To which I have to point out that it assumes that Paul did not have any historically relevant encounter with Jesus. As a Catholic I happen to believe that Jesus is risen, and I also happen to believe that it’s possible that Jesus made real living contact with the person of Paul. Even if Paul was basing the formulation only on an esoteric revelation (which I DO NOT accept) wouldn’t it still be possible that the esoteric revelation transmitted a historically accurate account?

3. The third assumption that is made is that Mark got his information from Paul. The words in Mark’s Gospel are strikingly similar to those in I Corinthians, but since Mark was written years after Paul had written his own letters Tabor assumes that Paul was the source for this tradition. To this point I have to ask, “how do you know?” Is it not possible that Mark knew these words because they were part of the life of his own community, or that he had access to an oral tradition that went back to Jesus’ life? Mark incorporates a great deal of material about Jesus’ life that is found nowhere in Paul’s letters, and is seen by most historians to be the most reliable source we have that records the life and saying of Jesus. You are willing to call that into question all because an earlier document corroborates it? This seems like a highly unstable foundation to build your argument upon.

4. A fourth assumption that is made is that Matthew and Luke all got their information from Mark. This is not a terrible assumption, most (but not all) scholars believe that Mark was used by both Matthew and Luke in the composition of their Gospels. I would highlight, however, that these were also accounts that were written within the context of a worshiping community that probably would have had their own traditions surrounding the gathering together and the breaking of bread that would have gone back to the earliest years of the Church. The way I see it is the use of this tradition is evidence that the Gospel writers and their communities had a similar tradition about this event and found that Mark corroborates closely with them.

5. The fifth assumption is made that since John didn’t include the Words of institution he didn’t believe the event actually happened. John had his own project that, in my opinion, was much less about preserving an accurate historical timeline and much more about presenting a theological framework within the structures of the Jewish festive cycle and a reimagining of God’s work of creation in light of the advent and resurrection of the Lord. There is a great deal that John does not include from the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Are we to allow this much later, and less historically focused project to govern our earlier sources? I hope not.

6. The sixth assumption that is made is that the Didache’s failure to include the Institution narrative in its anaphora means that the institution narrative never happened. There are liturgical formulations, even today, which do not contain the words of institution (Addai and Mari) but these communities affirm 100% that Jesus said the words as recoded in the gospels. This is another example of taking a later source, which in no way makes any claims about transmitting the life of Jesus, and using it to call into doubt earlier sources that explicitly claim to be transmissions of Jesus’ life.

7. He also assumes that Luke’s Cup-Bread-Cup pattern (rather than the Bread-Cup Pattern in Mark, Matthew, and 1 Corinthians) comes from 2 sources merged together. This is an odd assumption to make given that the ceremony that Jesus is said to be celebrating (the Passover) also has a Cup-Bread-Cup pattern. Might Luke have been adapting, or adding additional details? It’s certainly possible.

8. He assumes that the Cup-Bread-Cup pattern came from another source. This may or may not be true. It’s possible that Luke added this pattern on his own, or even changed things to fit the pattern that had emerged in his own community. There is no reason to be certain that this anomaly is from another source, or that if there was another source involved that it has any more historical reliability than what has actually been transmitted in the Gospels.

9. He assumes that Luke is being influenced by Q and that Q is a source with no influence by Paul, and it is a more accurate transmission of the saying of Jesus. That seems to assume a great deal given that Q is a purely hypothetical construction that is still highly controversial in the world of Biblical scholars.

10. He assumes that Luke’s hypothetical other source understood the last supper as a “Messianic Banquet” as described in the Dead sea Scrolls. The evidence for this is weak weak weak, and I don’t see a single citation. There are at least a dozen theories about what Jesus was doing here. The fact that Tabor picks this highly controversial source to describe a hypothetical document’s theological framework is such a stretch it boggles my mind. It demonstrates a sensationalist hermeneutic which undercuts the rest of the argument completely. Sloppy!

11. He assumes that Paul reimagined the Last supper through a Hellenistic cosmology. Seeing it modeled after the ritual participation with Osiris in a magical consecration of his blood to transmit the power of his love for Isis into the participant, turning the last supper into a new pagan mystery feast disconnected from the historical events of Jesus life. At this point in the article has officially jumped the shark. This is unadulterated speculation to the highest degree. There is little evidence for this that I am aware of.

12. He assumes that because the Israelites were forbidden in Torah to eat the blood of the animal that Jesus’ would not have had his followers drink his blood. The reason they were not to drink the blood was a belief that the life of the creature was in the blood (Leviticus 17:11). Is it possible that Jesus was actually using that tradition to help him communicate with His disciples the reality of his sacramental participation with them in the Eucharist? Perhaps not, but I like to think of it that way.

A final reflection:
The New Testament is a tricky document. It’s about a person who lived decades before most of the books themselves were written. It represents the perspectives from a number of various traditions and voices. Any close reflection on what the text is doing has to peel back layers of social context, cultural motifs, inherited assumptions, vague grammar, ambiguous redactional decisions, textual variances, structural frameworks, narrative constructions, theological principles, and their own social and cultural location. Scholars have sought repeatedly to peel back the layers of the text to get at the historical Jesus and I have found these quests to be fascinating and very useful personally. However, one must always be aware that these quests have always been tainted with an inescapable subjectivity. George Tyrell, put it well when he noted that each scholar who has sought to find the historical Jesus looked down the long well of history and saw his own face reflected at the bottom. In other words trying to get at the man behind the text seems to always reveal a man who looks and thinks a great deal like the one who seeks to uncover him. What we are left with is scripture and the Tradition of the Church. Both of these sources seem to testify that Jesus commanded his disciples to eat and drink his body and blood when they gathered and broke bread and drank wine. Perhaps I am just a man of simple faith, but I believe them.

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