In the closing stages of writing my latest book, The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK] (please grab yourself a copy!), I had a few test readers. One was David Austin, down in Australia, who has provided a few guest articles for your delectation. Here is another one – thanks muchly to him:
Is the Eucharist historical?
I realise this may be a very controversial issue, and the views expressed here are entirely my own, and not necessarily endorsed by this blog’s normal writer (Jonathan MS Pearce). I know the Eucharist is a sensitive issue and foundational to Christian worship, and I have no desire to offend, but I need to look at the situation rationally, and use critical thinking to assess its veracity.
The first thing to consider is the context of Jesus’s mission amongst the Jews. It is generally agreed that Jesus was an observant Jew, and lived by the laws and tenets of the Hebrew Bible (The Christian “Old Testament”), and he apparently stated:-
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,[a] not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks[b] one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” Matthew 5:17-19
It is also generally accepted that Jesus was an “apocalyptic prophet” who expected God to intervene in the world order and set up a “New Kingdom” with himself installed as “King” to rule over this kingdom. He seemed to expect this event to happen very soon, as evidenced by his statement:-
“Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Matthew 16:28
So, evidently, he expected the intervention to happen in his and/or his disciples’ lifetime.
The first mention of the “Last Supper” scenario, chronologically, is by Paul :-
“ or I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for[a] you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, 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”. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Examining this scenario, in light of the context I laid out, I see two big problems in the “Last Supper” scenario.
- The drinking of blood (even symbolically) would be antithetical to Jesus’s religious beliefs as an observant Jew, and eating human flesh, likewise unthinkable for an observant Jew.
- If Jesus expected to be “King” in this “New Kingdom”, one would assume he had an expectation of living to see that happen. The last thing he would be expecting would be to be arrested and summarily executed by the Romans for sedition. So, it seems illogical he would be talking about his imminent demise (eg his blood being shed, and his body given up). I suspect this was retroactively inserted into the text, by the Gospel writers who already knew Jesus’s fate.
It is interesting that Paul states that he received his information thus:-
12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:12
So, this information could not have come the disciples, but from some “revelation”, supposedly, from Jesus. He does not give any more information (ie was it a dream, vision, or hallucination), but one is left to wonder where he could have derived this scenario (which probably never happened in reality). We know that Tarsus (where Paul once lived) was a thriving seaport, and was a “melting pot” for all sorts of religions and beliefs. Some say that Paul may have been, subconsciously, influenced by pagan beliefs whose rituals may have included, symbolically, “drinking blood and eating flesh”. Then Paul may have linked Jesus with this ritual in a vivid dream, and interpreted it as a “Revelation”. Certainly, pagans would not have found the concept obnoxious, and Paul was trying to get converts from amongst the Gentiles who would be more familiar with pagan rituals.
Both Mark and Matthew’s gospels include the “Last Supper”, presumably influenced by Paul’s writings, and it was probably an established Christian ritual by the time the gospels were written (circa 70 CE and later).
Interestingly, early copies of Luke’s gospel have reference to bread and wine at the “Last Supper”, but they do not link it, specifically, with the sacrificial death of Jesus. Now Luke claims:-
“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,[a] to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (my emphasis) Luke 1.
We cannot know if Luke, actually, interviewed “eyewitnesses”, but it could be that, if he had, actually, interviewed eyewitnesses they could have told him that this “Last Supper” scenario never happened in the way described by Paul, Mark and Matthew. Later copiers of Luke were, presumably, unhappy with his omission, and added an extra verse to make Luke’s “Last Supper” match other gospels.
John makes no mention of the “Bread and Wine” in his “Last Supper” narrative but earlier he makes mention of Jesus talking to the Jews and stating:-
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. John 6:52-53
So, in this case he was not addressing his remarks to the disciples. It should be remembered that, John’s gospel has Jesus crucified on the “Day of Preparation for Passover”, whereas the other gospels have Jesus crucified on the “Day of Passover”. So, John’s “Last Supper” is not a Passover seder.
Jesus’s death on the cross is supposed to be a sacrifice to take the punishment all humans deserve for their sins. This, somehow, brings about an “atonement”, making us right with God, (providing we accept Jesus’s sacrifice).
The whole concept of “Vicarious Atonement” (ie an innocent person taking the punishment of a guilty person) is an alien concept in Judaism, and even the idea of a human sacrifice would be an abomination to Jews.
Christians also assert that Jesus was a “one-time” sacrifice which did away with any further sacrifices that were a feature of Temple rituals. This is, actually, not true, since Jewish scripture asserts that, when the Messianic age comes, and the Temple is rebuilt, animal sacrifices will be restored as guilt offerings for “unintentional sins”.
Given all this confusion about this event, I am inclined to think that the Eucharist, as observed by Christians, has no foundation in history.