Different Accounts of the Last Supper

The apostle Paul emphasized the Baptismal and Eucharistic traditions and showed their implications for the Christian community. “I received from the Lord that which I also handed down to you” (1 Cor. 11:23). Traditions can become too rigid and stifle a community’s vitality, or sometimes they can become too local and one sided. But they also can be great blessings, defining and facilitating the flow of a community’s life and energy. Traditions preserved the handing down of the apostle’s teaching and practice, and facilitated the organic development of the Christian Church.

The Eucharistic tradition of Christ’s Last Supper has come down to us in the New Testament in four different forms. Two of the traditional formulas, 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 and Luke 22:29-20, were developments of the Eucharistic tradition of Antioch. The other two, Mark 14:22-25 and Matthew 26:26-29 are developments of a Palestinian tradition.

Paul

The oldest form is that quoted by Paul in 1 Cor. 11. It presupposes that the Lord’s Supper was being celebrated as a full meal in Corinth, and it consisted of two parts, the formula of the Supper itself, and that of the cup, which Paul brings together in one statement. The circumstances surrounding the church in Corinth were such that most of its members were of Gentile background and many had turned away from idol worship but still had to deal with the ambiguities of living in pagan urban environment. What did the Eucharist demand of them in their context? Could they eat meat offered to idols?

Paul turned to the events in the Old Testament that paralleled Baptism and the Supper as historical precedents to help answer the question. The Israelites had been baptized into Moses and in the cloud and in the sea, and they ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink, but none of this kept God from striking down those who turned to idolatry and indulged in immorality.

Another problem in Corinth was the issue of distinction of persons – Jews and Greeks, men and women, and those different social classes. This created problems when they assembled for the Eucharist, and some were drunk whereas others did not have enough to eat and drink. Paul reminds them that even though not all distinctions are abolished in the eschatological age that had broken in through Christ, all people of all ethnicities, of both sexes, and all social classes, were all one in Christ.

Most importantly, the Lord’s Supper was the gathering of His people into one, the body of Christ. Therefore they were to give their lives to one another just as Jesus did, and proclaim the death of the Lord until his coming. They were to remember Christ’s passion and resurrection and thus also to witness his presence, gathering them into His unity. Failure to do this was the reason Paul told them that their supper was no longer the Lord’s Supper. Appealing for unity, Paul exhorted everyone to respect the body of Christ of which they were members.

Mark

Not longer after Paul’s death Mark wrote “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ’ (Mk. 1:1), and Baptism and the Eucharist played very important roles in his story. Well before Mark wrote his Gospel, the story of Jesus nourishing a vast crowd with very little bread was told as a Eucharistic story, appearing six times in the New Testament. Mark was the first Christian writer to include the story of Eucharist in the greater story of Jesus, writing in a time of crisis after Nero’s persecution of Christians and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. To many, it seemed that the world was coming to an end; Mark shows them that what seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning. For him, the Christians were reliving Jesus’ passion and resurrection, they were taking up their crosses and following him, and their suffering was the “beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” – of which the Eucharist was a vital part, celebrating and proclaiming the call of Christ to follow him.

The body of the Gospel of Mark can be divided into two main sections: the first (1:14-8:28) raises the question, “Who is Jesus,” and by implication, “What does it mean to be Jesus’ disciples?” The second part (8:22-16:8) raises a further question, “What does it mean for Jesus to be the Christ,” and by implication, “What does it mean to be a follower of Christ?” In both parts, the Eucharist plays an important role. In the first part, Mark focuses on the nature and scope of the Church, constituted on the Twelve of Christ fulfilling the Twelve of Israel, and sent on a mission to Gentiles as well as Jews.

In setting out the universal mission of the Church, mark uses the Eucharistic imagery of the feedings of the five thousand (6:34-44) and the four thousand (8:1-9). Both sections include parallel language concerning the crowd, Jesus’ pity, the people’s hunger, the asking of “how many loaves,” the taking, giving thanks, and giving of the loaves to the disciples and from them to the people, the satiated crowd, the remaining baskets, and the great number of people fed.

These two stories, the first in the Galilean side of the Sea of Galilee where the crowd was mostly Jewish, and the second in the region of Decapolis, where the crowd was mostly Gentile, emphasize the universal mission Church and Christ’s self giving in the Eucharist for all peoples. The stories also reflect two stages in the development of the Eucharist. In the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus took the five loaves and also the fish, paralleling the earlier Jewish setting of the Eucharist as part of a full meal, whereas in the feeding of the four thousand, the loaves are not mentioned in the liturgical formula, reflecting the later stage in which Christians of Gentile origin celebrated the Eucharist no longer as a full meal.

Even after the breaking of bread with the five thousand and the four thousand, the disciples did not understand. The second major section of the Gospel serves to teach Mark’s readers to see the Eucharist as a sharing in the Messiah’s passion, death, and resurrection. As the first part emphasized the breaking of bread and eating, and the universal breadth of the Church, the second part emphasizes the symbol and theme of the cup and drinking it, and the depth of commitment needed to fulfill the Church’s universal mission. Jesus begins to announce the passion-resurrection of the Son of Man; “can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the Baptism with which I am baptized?” Mark emphasizes Baptism as Baptism into death, and also into Christ’s resurrection.

The Last Supper, drawing from the ancient formula of Palestinian origin, is given in the context of a Passover meal at which Jesus and the betrayer are together; the passion is a tragedy, as in a Greek drama, and Jesus is the knowing and accepting, but passive and helpless victim of a plot to destroy him; but eventually Jesus triumphs through his passion, and the formula for the Lord’s Supper was introduced to transform the Last Supper from a betrayal meal into a self-sacrificing meal. He gave his life, and his followers, like him, while praying that the cup might be taken away from them, are also to submit to the will of the Father, take up their crosses, and follow Christ to his passion-resurrection.

Matthew

Matthew’s Gospel was written some fifteen years after Mark’s Gospel, and it retold the story to a community rich in Jewish background and tradition, but now cut off from the synagogue and newly committed to the Gentile mission. For Matthew, forgiveness of sins was a primary purpose of the Eucharist. Drawing from Mark’s formula “This is my blood of the covenant which will be shed for many” Matthew adds the words “for the forgiveness of sins (Mat. 26:28). Accordingly, Christ’s death was “on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.” In the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew inserts the comment, “if you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (6:14-15).

Like Mark, Matthew included the theme of the Eucharist at various points in his Gospel. Many of the Eucharistic stories are very similar in both Gospels (the feeding of the multitudes, the exchange with the sons of Zebedee concerning the cup he was about to drink, the Last Supper, the reference to the cup in the Garden of Gethsemane), but Matthew also makes several changes, some small and others more significant. One of Matthew’s central concerns underlying his changes is the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in his community. The majority in the Matthean community were Christians of Jewish background, who had remained close to the synagogue traditions for many years. By the 70s and 80s, however, they were attracting a number of Gentiles.

With the destruction of Jerusalem, the community more than ever had to choose between the synagogue and being Christian. Families were divided, and friends alienated. The community had to fully embrace the Gentile mission. Accordingly, for Matthew, the breaking of bread was a healing as well as a nourishing event. Healing and forgiving were two aspects of the same reality. In his account of the Last Supper, Matthew emphasizes that the disciples – all of them – were to drink from the cup because this was Jesus’ “blood of the covenant on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins;” this was especially important for his community, where sin and the forgiveness of sins were a major issue. Jesus’ sacrifice was an act of mercy on behalf of many, and Matthew quotes from the words of Hosea, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

Luke

Luke also wrote some fifteen years after Mark, and his audience was composed mostly of Christians of Gentile origin. Luke emphasizes that while the Last Supper was a Jewish meal with Jesus of Nazareth, the Eucharist is a formal Christian meal with the Lord Jesus. The Last Supper was a pre-passion meal whereas the Eucharist, the passion and the resurrection are in the past but are also made present. Without the resurrection, there would be no Eucharist. The Last Supper was unique and unrepeatable, whereas the Lord’s Supper is a repeatable, liturgical event after the passion-resurrection. The Last Supper is fulfilled in the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Supper gives meaning to Jesus’ Last Supper.

Whereas Mark included two stories of the breaking of bread, to Jewish and Gentile crowds, Luke only includes the former, for the mission to the Jews is told in his Gospel, and the mission to the Gentiles is told in Acts. In his Gospel, Luke tells the story of the origins of the Eucharist in a series of ten means with Jesus; each meal is related to a basic aspect of Christian life and ministry. They are, (1) the great feast at the home of Levi, emphasizing repentance; (2) a dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee, emphasizing reconciliation; (3) the breaking of bread in Bethsaida, which was the mission to the five thousand; (4) the hospitality at the home of Martha, teaching true discipleship; (5) a noon meal at the home of a Pharisee, showing the need of inner purification; (6) a Sabbath dinner at the home of a leading Pharisee, showing the call to the poor and the lame; (7) hospitality at the home of Zacchaeus, emphasizing salvation; (8) the Passover meal, the Last Supper; (9) the breaking of the bread on the road to Emmaus, and finally, (10) a community meal in Jerusalem.

Luke’s communities, as those of Matthew, were in transition, as the center of Christianity was shifting not only from Jerusalem to Antioch but also from Antioch to Rome, where there was some measure of persecution. There were also internal difficulties, especially in relations between members of different social status. Luke addressed these complex situations in two volumes, Luke-Acts. In the Gospel, he told the story of the origin of the Eucharist in the life and ministry of Jesus, and in Acts, the origin of the Eucharist in the life and ministry of the apostolic Church. The story of Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus provided an important link between the two: Jesus remained a stranger to them until ‘he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them;” for those who accept the gospel of the passion-resurrection, the living one can be recognized in the breaking of the bread, and as he meets with them later in Jerusalem, the community becomes the springboard for the Christian mission.

In Acts, as the ideal Church gathered “they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (2:42). The breaking of the bread was done with the apostles with whom Jesus the risen Lord and “eaten salt” over forty days and who were closely united with him. All were invited to share at the table of the one who is Lord of all – and Luke makes that clear as the Gospel goes out to the Gentiles.

From a Christological point of view, the key to the universal mission of the Church and the nature of its Eucharistic assembly is the Lordship of Jesus. Meals are prominent in the work of the deacons, in the conversion of Cornelius and his household, in Paul’s missions (e.g., the meal in the home of the jailer) and in Paul’s journey to Rome (the meal at Troas, and in the storm-tossed ship). Christians needed to join the Eucharistic meal if they wished to be saved, and, like Paul, they would then be able to pursue their mission to the ends of the earth.

John

In John’s Gospel Jesus was the Word made flesh, the “bread of life,” the “living bread that came down from heaven” to give his “flesh for the life of the world.” In Paul and the Synoptic Gospels, the Eucharist is related primarily to Christ passion and resurrection; in John, it is related primarily to Jesus’ incarnation. In John’s Gospel the Eucharist can be summed up as the Word of God made flesh and made sacramental nourishment for all who believe.

In this Gospel there are three basic passages with reference to the Eucharist: the multiplication of the loaves, the Last Supper, and the epilogue, when the disciples have breakfast with Jesus on the seashore. The Last Supper appears in a form different than that of the Synoptic Gospels: “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 yourselves;” John 6 is the highest point in the Eucharistic theology of the New Testament. The story of the seashore relates the Eucharist to the mission of the apostolic Church and to Simon Peter’s special role in the life of the Church.

The Word was made flesh and Jesus gave his flesh for the life of the world; we must eat his flesh to have eternal life. But to understand and accept Jesus’ message about the Word made flesh and his Eucharistic flesh, the flesh itself was of no avail. For this they had to be open to the Spirit. Since the words Jesus spoke were Spirit and life, the disciples needed the Spirit which gives life to receive them. His Eucharistic message is the very “words of eternal life.”

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