I want to flesh out here an argument that I heard very briefly mentioned the other day in a recorded discussion. It seems to me, while not a “slam dunk,” to be quite an interesting line of reasoning. All biblical citations are from the English Standard Version or ESV.
According to John 6:53-58, Jesus said something very jarring while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum:
53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
John 6 goes on to record that these words, which almost seem to speak of cannibalism, so shocked their hearers that they caused a crisis among them:
60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them,“Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
Afterwards, though, many came to see the fulfillment of Jesus’ words in what he said at the Last Supper, when he initiated what mainstream Christians typically call communion and Latter-day Saints call the sacrament:
26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28)
It seems that the followers of Jesus did indeed carry on the practice of eating and drinking in remembrance of his brutal death. Acts 2:42 and 2:46 may refer to the practice already within a year or so of Jesus’ crucifixion:
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. . . . 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.
Acts 20:7 probably refers to an early Christian practice of partaking of “the Lord’s supper,” and it clearly seems to indicate that Paul — and the narrator of the passage, very likely Luke the evangelist — participated in the practice:
7 On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.
Paul seems to have taught his converts to continue such ritual eating and drinking. We have evidence for that in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, which is commonly dated to between AD 53 and AD 57:
23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said,“This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Corinthians 11:23-29)
16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)
Note that, in 1 Corinthians 11:23, Paul says that he taught the idea of the commemorative partaking of bread and wine to the Corinthians when he was personally present among them. His founding of the church there — in his day, Corinth was the capital of the Roman colony of Achaea, in Greece — is commonly dated around AD 50, which puts it within twenty years or less of Christ’s crucifixion. And he says that he was passing on to them something that had previously been taught to him.
Thus, it seems undeniably clear that the brutal execution of Jesus was being memorialized among Christians by a ritual meal in the very earliest years of the Christian movement.
Isn’t this rather strange?
Wouldn’t the execution of Jesus as a criminal, hanging on a cross between two thieves, have been a matter of shame? Would it have appealed to audiences of potential converts in the Roman-dominated Mediterranean Basin to know that Jesus had been put to death by Roman authority? (One of the names commonly used by Romans for the Mediterranean — a name that plainly demonstrates their confident dominance of it — was Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea.”)
And what would potential Jewish converts make of it?
Paul knew very well how they would regard it, since he himself writes in Galatians 3:13 that
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”
He is citing Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which is obviously relevant to the story of Christ and the cross:
22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.
So why would the earliest Christians, far from seeking to hide the shameful, horrific, brutal death of the founder of their movement, have actually gloried in it? Why would they commemorate it in regular communal eating and drinking?
Obviously, it seems clear to me, because something had transformed the meaning of that shameful death. And Christ’s resurrection seems to me by far the best explanation of that change.