how to read the Last Supper narratives
It’s Holy Thursday, and the nostalgia of Easter weekend has started to set in. Not the eggs and candy that my brother and I would hunt for as kids, but the memories of long Catholic masses, the solemnity of candles and crosses that mark this time as special. Holy Thursday is one of my favorite masses of the season, in part because the church in which I grew up chose to pay special attention to John’s Last Supper washing of the feet, recognized as act of ritual in which members of the congregation would gather at stone basins and carefully wash each other’s bare feet, drying them with clean white cotton towels while the choir sang “Behold the lamb of God”. There’s such humility in the simplicity of this act. A lesson that transcends most religions. No person is greater or lesser, and the good we do for others is an offering to be passed on and learned from.
The historical accuracy of The Last Supper is a widely disputed topic among biblical scholars. All four Synoptic gospels reference the fact that Jesus shared a final meal with his disciples, yet while the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John provide us with a central historical basis around which to construct a plausible reason for the meal’s inclusion, the differing accounts also leave us with a number of lingering questions as to why exactly Jesus and his disciples gathered on Holy Thursday to share such a significant meal.
Many scholars maintain that the Last Supper was eaten in the tradition of an institutionalized holiday. A Passover meal, in which the idea of sacrifice is the central tenet. This is the case made by German theologian Harmut Gese who argues that the meal was intended as a todah, or sacrificial supper, eaten in anticipation of Jesus’ own imminent sacrificial death. It’s an interesting argument, particularly if you start paying attention to the various “lamb” references that appear throughout the texts. In the Jewish tradition, the sacrificial lamb was offered to mark the beginning of Passover. James Sanders tells us that as part of the ritual meal, “every party took a lamb to the Temple where it was sacrificed, flayed and partially eviscerated.” Every family needs a lamb. Following the threads of this narrative, Jesus’ as the “Lamb of God,” could be interpreted as his responsibility to sacrifice himself for mankind.
Other passages support this theory. As New Testament scholar Paul Bradshaw points out, the meal did seem to take place in a Passover atmosphere. Mark 14.12 indicates that Jesus prepared for the Last Supper on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb would have been slaughtered. On the other hand, in the Gospel of John, Jesus dies on preparation day, as the Passover slaughtering is taking place. This may be a theological adjustment, but for the sake of simple chronology, John’s gospel does make more sense if the lamb references are to be used as a metaphor for a population who would have understood the significance of the “slaughter” in the context of Passover. Jesus is the lamb for the collective family that would ultimately become the Christian faith.
That said, an equally strong case can be made for argument that Jesus actually brought his disciples together for the very purpose of reconciling his impending crucifixion and passing on his ministry in the form of a few symbolic acts- namely the sharing of the covenant and John’s divergent washing of the feet narrative, both of which imply a sentiment of, “I, Jesus, have taught you as best I can. And now it is your responsibility to follow my example and carry these lessons of compassion and ministry out into the world.” In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus takes a cup, gives thanks and tells his disciples to, “drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 17.28-29) which differs from Mark, only in reference to the forgiveness of sin. Similarly, Luke writes that after the meal Jesus tells to his disciples “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 20.21). In reference to these particular passages, Old Testament scholar James Sanders explains that, “we can see that he regarded the meal as symbolic and as pointing to the future kingdom” or in modern terms, the church. Additionally, in the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his disciples ‘I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes’. This passage is often referred to as the ‘farewell discourse.’ The sharing of the cup was Jesus’ last symbolic gesture and, according to Sanders, makes it highly likely that Jesus knew he was going to die. Jesus recognized that his time had come and that this was the last meal he would share with his disciples. In analyzing these particular passages some argue that Jesus’ command to ‘do this in my remembrance of me’ (Luke 22.19) indicates his intention that the last supper be performed as a liturgical rite, yet it is more likely that he was referring to the broader sense of ministry. Jesus could arguably be asking his disciples to take what they have learned and spread his teachings. Passing along his ministry from which others might “drink.” Jesus is also saying, with characteristic duality, that he will no longer bear the responsibility of spreading the ministry.
There is one further passage that must be considered in all of this, namely, John’s divergent washing of the feet narrative. Though frequently overlook in the analysis of scripture, the washing of the feet carries similar connotations to the distribution of the covenant. The root of this practice is a hospitality custom of many ancient civilizations, yet in the context of the Last Supper, when Jesus says, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Luke 13.14), the reciprocal nature of the rite also becomes Jesus’ last lesson to his disciples. The uniqueness of this passage lies in the fact that Jesus is not only imbuing his disciples to continue his work, he is teaching them a greater lesson in compassion.
We know that Jesus inspired the people of Galilee as an itinerant teacher and healer, and that he visited Jerusalem around the time of Passover. And we know that soon after visiting the Temple, he was betrayed and crucified on a wooden cross. Yet we also know that prior to his death, with an uncanny awareness of what was to come, Jesus shared a final meal with his disciples in which he broke bread and imbued his disciples to carry on his mission. The Last Supper narratives consummately portray Jesus as he was among his disciples- a quiet introspective man who tried to teach by example and shared great hopes for the future of his ministry. “Last” almost certainly implies a final meal with a few close followers, but reading the Synoptic gospels with a contextual understanding of what was about to occur - last could also be seen as an equivocal statement, suggesting a newly emerging religious tradition. The Christian faith. Born on an evening when a man broke bread, shared what he could offer and built a foundation for the future of his church.
From a purely historical perspective, that’s a powerful message to carry. And it still makes for a very pretty mass.