“Did Jesus institute the Eucharist at the Last Supper?”
That’s the title of a fairly recent essay by the prolific and astute liturgical scholar Paul Bradshaw. As it happens, you can read a great deal of it, or maybe the whole thing if you’re lucky, through Google Books’ preview function. Bradshaw summarizes a great deal of recent work–his own, and that of others like Andrew McGowan–which suggests that the origins of the Eucharist are much broader than a single Last Supper event but lie in the overall meal practice of Jesus throughout his ministry.
In itself, that’s not an altogether new thesis. It goes back through the work of NT scholar Norman Perrin and even in some ways to Hans Lietzmann’s 1920s work (Messe und Herrenmahl). But one of the most important pieces Bradshaw has added is his analysis of the Synoptic Gospels’ institution narratives. He has shown–to my mind, pretty convincingly–that each of the three gospels probably had a source for the Last Supper which did not include Jesus’ words identifying the bread and cup with his body and blood, but which focused on eschatological sayings: “I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until I drink it anew in the kingdom of God,” and similar. The author of Mark had the institution narrative as a separate tradition and added it as a discrete chunk to the Last Supper scene. The authors of Matthew and Luke later followed suit.
Where did the institution-at-the-Last-Supper tradition come from, then? The most obvious candidate would seem to be Paul, who includes it in 1 Corinthians 11. If Mark got it from Pauline church sources, that might leave Paul as the single point-source for this particular story: although it ends up appearing in four different places in the NT, it’s quite possible that each of those four accounts can be traced to Paul’s version. So where did Paul get this tradition? Bradshaw outlines the two possibilities: “either from a Christian source that he believes to have preserved a trustworthy version of what Jesus actually said and did, or alternatively by some sort of direct revelation.”
photo by Steve Gray/TheRevSteve
Now there are always theological implications to history. Good historians try to be aware of their own theological preconceptions and to question them, but our theological outlooks still inevitably constrain what historical possibilities seem likely to us; and, conversely, our historical reconstructions will tend to have an impact on our theology. In the case of eucharistic origins, the work of Bradshaw, McGowan, and others over the past few decades has rightly emphasized the diversity of early Christian meal practices and undermined the oversimplifications that liturgists have sometimes tended to create. Theologically, these results tend to suggest that we might do well to emphasize the celebratory, common-meal dimension of the eucharist more and to move away from a narrowly paschal emphasis that sees it only as a commemoration of Christ’s death.
With that shift in emphasis I’d tend to agree. And yet, of course, it is always possible to overstate a case. This is what Gordon Lathrop cautions us against in his essay “The Reforming Gospels: A Liturgical Theologian Looks again at Eucharistic Origins.” Noting his own location as a Lutheran for whom the “theology of the cross” is always critically important, he accepts most of Bradshaw’s historical reconstruction but suggests that the more Pauline emphasis on the cross, even if it was not originally a part of some meal practices, functioned as a reforming word to the proto-Christian-meal-assemblies, insisting that it was the Crucified and Risen one who was being celebrated and that this meal must never be celebrated to the exclusion of the poor and those who suffer. As a liturgical theologian, Lathrop accepts the importance of careful historical reconstruction but reserves the right to make value judgments about what has happened in history: liturgical theology is always normative as well as descriptive. And so for Lathrop Paul’s emphasis on the connection between the Lord’s Supper and the cross is important and worth maintaining even if the historicity of an institution narrative taking place at the Last Supper is questionable.
What I wonder is this: does Lathrop actually go farther than necessary in discounting the possibility of that historicity?
He opts pretty strongly for the second of Bradshaw’s two possibilities as to where Paul received the story of the institution narrative: not as oral tradition from Christians before him, but “directly in a vision or revelation from the Risen One or . . . from a prophet or prophets who have spoken in the name of the Risen One.” Lathrop’s basis for this is that Paul “does this kind of quoting [of oral tradition] nowhere else,” and that Paul usually uses the word kyrios (Lord) “to mean the Crucified-Risen One,” that is, the one he has met in his own visionary experience of the risen Christ.
I think what Lathrop has in mind here is passages like Galatians 1:11-12, where Paul argues that his gospel didn’t come to him through human beings but as a direct revelation from his encounter with Christ. But in this case Paul is talking about his “gospel”–his conviction that Christ is risen Lord and that he, Paul, has been appointed by Christ as primary missionary to the Gentiles, who can be fully included in God’s covenant–a conviction that did indeed surely come to him through direct visionary encounter, and that created significant conflict between him and more conservative members of the Jewish Christian movement.
Yet there are other places where Paul does seem to cite tradition that he has received from those who were “in Christ before [he] was” (Rom. 16:7). The best-known is 1 Cor. 15, where he cites the tradition of Christ’s death and resurrection appearances (and goes out of his way rhetorically to “reach across the aisle,” emphasizing that this is tradition he shares with Peter and James). Paul uses formal, language of “receiving” and “handing on”; these terms would later be used by rabbis to describe a technical process of transmitting tradition from one generation to another. Notably, these are the exact same verbs in 1 Cor. 11 to describe the institution narrative.
Lathrop is right to point out that Paul’s inclusion of the phrase “from the Lord” in 1 Cor. 11 may seem to change the meaning somewhat. After all, if he is really citing tradition here it would be more natural for him to say “I received from Cephas and James” or “from those who were apostles before me.” So the wording here might weigh in favor of a “direct revelation” interpretation. But before making that call, I think it’s worth considering the partial parallel of another passage: 1 Cor. 7. Here Paul is giving counsel about marriage: and throughout the entire chapter he makes a clear distinction between commands “of the Lord” and his own judgment. What’s noteworthy is that it seems highly likely that the commands “of the Lord” he is referring to here are, indeed, pieces of oral tradition: because here Paul’s careful distinction actually matches up quite well with traditions in the Synoptic Gospels that are at least not verbally dependent on Paul. Moreover, Paul seems to privilege this oral tradition that he has from Jesus over his own judgment, although he still believes his judgment is in accordance with “the Spirit of God.”
Does it really matter whether Paul received the institution narrative as oral tradition or through a visionary experience? Yes, and no. No, because if Christians believe that Paul really did have an encounter with the risen Christ (and we’d better!–or else half our New Testament is of highly dubious value), and really did at times have mystical experiences inspired by the Spirit of God, then there’s no reason not to consider this revelation of a profound connection between the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s death to be theologically meaningful for us as well, even if it was idiosyncratic in the earliest church. But yes, because as 21st-century people we also simply value historic factuality more highly than mystical experience. And that’s not a bad thing. Even Paul, after all, seems to have made a similar evaluation in 1 Cor. 7.
From my own reading of Paul so far–and I should say upfront that New Testament is a secondary field for me, that I’m early on in my Ph.D. program, and that this reading may well change at any time!–my sense is that he believed he had had a single, unique encounter with the risen Jesus. He considered this encounter to be on the same level as the resurrection appearances to Peter and the other apostles: a historical face-to-face “seeing,” even if hard to describe. Then, throughout his life, he had other visionary experiences in the Spirit. It’s not clear to me, though, that he would describe these as “seeing the Lord” or that he would elevate the content of these to an equal status as that of oral tradition he had received.
There’s a methodological question at work here as well. One often hears in New Testament studies that Paul was “not interested in the historical Jesus”: that his theology is based completely on his experience of the crucified and risen Christ, and that since he never knew Jesus in the flesh, he had little interest in details about Jesus’ earthly ministry. There is considerable truth to this–but like any meme, it can be oversimplified and underquestioned. Paul doesn’t often refer to tradition about Jesus’ ministry, even in places where it might support his theological arguments, and so it seems likely that he didn’t have encyclopedic knowledge of the kinds of traditions that show up later in the gospels. But that doesn’t mean that he had none at all, and it doesn’t mean that he had no interest in the historical Jesus whatsoever.
From a different point of view, we might even see Paul as our most reliable source about the historical Jesus. We know that he had firsthand personal acquaintance with Peter, James, and likely others who had known the historical Jesus. And we have several letters that are certainly by Paul. We have nowhere near that level of clear authorial identity, nor clear connection at just one remove with the historical Jesus, in any of the gospels.
Paul may have been more than six degrees from Kevin Bacon, but he was one degree of separation away from Jesus.
Paul is silent about the historical Jesus most of the time. But there are a few places where he is not. It seem to me that–making allowances for all his theological presuppositions, his apparent ignorance of a great deal of tradition, his agenda to defend his own apostolic status, and so forth–there is still a good argument to be made for taking Paul seriously when he does seem to be making historical claims about a Jesus whose actions were less than 25 years in the past at the time of his writing.
What does all this mean? I’m not completely sure. Perhaps that even if the Last Supper institution story has a point-source with Paul, we ought not to write off the possibility of some historicity for it. Now, this wouldn’t explain why the synoptic authors ended up in possession of a different Last Supper tradition focused around eschatology and impending betrayal, nor why John ended up in possession of a footwashing-and-discourse Last Supper tradition, neither of which mention anything eucharistic.
This semester I’ll be participating in the foundational New Testament area doctoral seminar, which is focusing on–you guessed it–1 Corinthians. At first when I learned this I was disappointed, because I’ve already done coursework on Paul and would have liked to spend some time focusing on the gospels or on the non-Pauline epistles or Revelation. But with these questions rolling around for me, maybe spending some more time with 1 Corinthians will end up being providential after all. As far as NT books are concerned, it’s certainly one of a liturgist’s best friends.