Chapter 15: The Last Supper

Jesus in the First Three Gospels
by Millar Burrows

Chapter 15: The Last Supper

The shadows deepen as the end draws near. It was now two days before the Passover and the feast of "Unleavened Bread," says Mark (14:1-2; cf. Lk 22:1-2). Matthew (26:1-5) puts this in the form of a statement by Jesus with another prediction of his betrayal and death. Mark continues, "And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth, and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult of the people.’" According to Matthew, the plotting was done at the palace of the high priest Caiaphas.

Mark and Matthew relate here the anointing at Bethany (Mk 14:3-9; Mt 26:6-13). Luke omits it, having recounted an incident like it much earlier (7:36-50). Though the stories are similar, there are noteworthy differences. According to Luke, during Jesus’ ministry in Galilee he was invited to eat at the house of a Pharisee. The KJV says that he "sat down to meat," and the RSV "sat at table," but what follows shows that he was reclining in Roman fashion on a couch beside the table, and that is what the Greek verb means. During the meal, "a woman of the city, who was a sinner, . . . brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment."

The host thought that if Jesus had been a prophet he would have known what the woman was and would have forbidden her. Seeing what he was thinking, Jesus said. "Simon, I have something to say to you," and said it with a parable (vv 4 1-42):

"A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?" The host condemned himself by his answer: "The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more."

Saying "You have judged rightly." Jesus went on to contrast what the woman had done with Simon’s failure to extend to him even the customary courtesies. "Therefore I tell you," he concluded, "her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." To the woman he said, "Your sins are forgiven"; and while the people at the table were saying to one another, "Who is this, who even forgives sins?" Jesus added, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." The parable does not exactly fit the situation: the woman does not love much because she is forgiven much, but is forgiven because she loves much. There is a similar difficulty in the parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:29-37). Precise logical consistency, however, is not always to be expected in ancient Oriental literature.

Instead of a Pharisee’s house in Galilee, the scene of the incident in Mark and Matthew is the house of a leper at Bethany (Mk 14:3; Mt 26:6). Is it a mere coincidence that the host’s name in both instances is Simon? Or do the accounts reflect varying memories of the same event? This is at best a matter of uncertain inference. We still have to account for other differences between the two accounts. As a matter of fact, we have not two but three versions of the story if they are all based on the same event. The Fourth Gospel also tells of an anointing at Bethany (in 12:1-8), with echoes of both of the other stories. Lazarus was apparently one of the guests; Martha served them; and it was Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. Of all the details of these accounts, the association with Jesus’ friends at Bethany seems most likely to be a legendary development.

Only Luke says that the woman was a sinner and that the host disapproved Jesus’ failure to rebuke her. Neither in Mark’s and Matthew’s story nor in John’s is any criticism by or of the host indicated. The only objection expressed is based not on the woman’s character but on her extravagance. It is voiced by "some" in Mark, by the disciples in Matthew, and by Judas in John. In John as in Luke the woman anoints Jesus’ feet; in Mark and Matthew she pours the ointment on his head, implying that he was seated at the table instead of reclining. Mark alone says that she broke the costly alabaster flask.

In both Mark and John the self-righteous critics say that the ointment could have been sold for three hundred denarii or more to give to the poor. That the criticism was not prompted by genuine concern for the poor is shown by Jesus’ reply (Mk 14:7; Mt 26:11; Jn 12:8): "For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me." Incredible as it may seem, this has been quoted to discourage any effort to abolish poverty. It echoes a verse in Deuteronomy, "For the poor will never cease out of the land" (15:11); but that is stated as a reason for generosity. A little earlier in the same chapter (vv 4-5) Moses says, "But there will be no poor among you . . . if only you will obey the voice of the Lord your God." Jesus’ statement is a rebuke of the critics’ hypocrisy.

After the episode at Bethany, Mark and Matthew proceed to the betrayal of Jesus, which in Luke comes directly after the plotting of the chief priests and scribes (Mk 14:10-11; Mt 26:14-16; Lk 22:3-6). Only Matthew specifies thirty pieces of silver (cf. Zech 11:12) as the price paid to Judas. Some connection between the anointing and the betrayal is suggested by Mark’s statement: "Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them," as though Judas, angered by what had happened, went directly to the priests from the house of Simon. Luke says, "Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot." Perhaps it is idle to speculate on the motive that prompted Judas. That he was moved only by greed is hard to believe of a man chosen by Jesus to be one of his chief witnesses and to share his glory. Misguided patriotism and disappointment growing out of false expectations may have been involved.

Preparations for observing the Passover now follow (Mk 14:12-16; Mt 26:17-19; Lk 22:7-13). The disciples asked Jesus where they should prepare for the supper, and he sent two of them (Peter and John, according to Luke) into the city with instructions for finding the place. A man carrying a jar of water would meet them. They were to follow him, enter the house after him, and say to the householder, "The Teacher says, ‘Where is my guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?’" He would then show them "a large upper room furnished and ready." They obeyed and found all as Jesus had said.

Presumably the householder, perhaps a secret disciple, had previously invited Jesus to use his house for the meal and had made the arrangements for him to find the house. As in the case of fetching the colt before the entry into Jerusalem, an unnamed man is given what seems to be a password and provides assistance apparently agreed upon in advance. The hostility of the authorities no doubt made a certain amount of secrecy advisable, in spite of Jesus’ bold activity in public during the daytime, or perhaps because of it. Caution was all the more imperative if Judas had already gone to the priests (Mt 26:25) and Jesus knew it.

"And when it was evening, he came with the twelve" (Mk 14:17; Mt 26:20; Lk 22:14). It is impossible to straighten out the sequence of events at the supper. There are not only three but four accounts of it. The Gospel of John (chapter 13) tells of a supper "before the feast of the Passover," but the breaking of bread and the passing of the cup are not even mentioned. In addition to the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels, however, we have the report of Paul (1 Cor 11:23-25), who says that he received his account from the Lord. This sounds like a claim to a special revelation, but more probably it refers to the tradition handed down from Jesus himself through the apostles. Irregular and scandalous ways of celebrating the Lord’s supper have developed in the church at Corinth, and Paul feels it necessary to appeal to the tradition to correct them.

Luke differs in important details from the other Gospels and from Paul. In Mark and Matthew the story of the supper begins with the words of Jesus, "Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me" (Mk 14:18-21; Mt 26:21-24, cf. Ps 41:9). Mark adds, "one who is eating with me." The disciples began to ask, "Is it I?" Jesus answered, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me." Matthew adds (26:25; cf. v 64 and 27:11) that Judas asked, "Is it I, Master?" and Jesus replied, "You have said so," an idiomatic way of saying "Yes." In Luke all this is placed later (22:21-23) and much condensed.

While they were eating, Mark tells us (14:22-25), Jesus took bread and, after pronouncing the customary blessing, broke it and gave it to the disciples, saying, "Take; this is my body." He also took a cup, gave thanks, and passed it to the disciples. As they drank it, he said, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God" (cf. Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28). Matthew’s account (26:26-29) is almost identical.

Luke begins (22:15-18) with Jesus saying to the twelve, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’" Then, Luke says (v 19), Jesus gave thanks and broke and distributed the bread, saying, "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me" (cf. 1 Cor 11:24). In putting the cup before the bread Luke differs from Paul as well as from Mark and Matthew. In what seems to be the best text of this passage, however, the giving of the cup is divided into two acts. The saying about not drinking wine until the kingdom of God comes accompanies the first cup; but after the distribution of the bread Luke continues (22:20), "And likewise the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’" This agrees closely with Paul’s version of the story, except that Paul adds (1 Cor 11:25), "Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." What historical basis, if any, Luke had for his variations cannot be determined.

With all these differences it is hardly surprising that ministers in the nonliturgical churches, when conducting communion services, often confuse and combine the different accounts and even insert sentences or phrases not found in any of them. We should not necessarily be any nearer to the real Jesus if we knew exactly what was done and said. Several more or less important questions, however, are raised by the variations in the story.

One is the question whether the supper was a Passover meal. The Synoptic Gospels so regard it. The two disciples were sent into the city (Mk 14:12 and parallels) for the express purpose of preparing to eat the Passover. The meal took place that evening (v 17 and parallels), which by Jewish reckoning was the beginning of the next day. But why is there no mention of the lamb or the bitter herbs? John puts the supper on the night before the Passover (In 13:1; 19:31, 36, 42), so that the crucifixion takes place at the time when the lamb was killed, making Jesus himself the true Passover sacrifice (cf. I Cor 5:7).

Several explanations have been offered for the absence of any reference to the Lamb, but there is nothing in the records to support them. To be sure, if Jesus broke the bread "as they were eating" (Mk 14:22), they must have had something to eat that is not named. Dipping the bread in the dish implies this (Mk 14:20; cf. Mt 26:23; Lk 22:21). It still seems strange that there is no specific mention of the distinctive elements of the Passover meal. Perhaps the evangelists took them for granted.

Involved with these considerations is the question of the year in which the last supper and the trial and crucifixion of Jesus took place. This is a complicated problem, apparently insoluble at present, not because there is not enough evidence but because there is so much of it and it is not consistent. According to all the Gospels the resurrection took place early Sunday morning, the day after the Sabbath and the third day after the crucifixion according to the ancient custom of counting both the first and the last days. The crucifixion must therefore have been on Friday, and the last supper was eaten Thursday evening. If it was the Passover, this would be the beginning of the fifteenth day of the month of Nisan; if it was the night before the Passover, it would be the beginning of the fourteenth. Unfortunately, since the Jewish calendar was not based on the solar year, we cannot tell in what year the fourteenth or the fifteenth of Nisan began on a Thursday evening.

Nearer to the heart of the matter, but not so unanswerable, is a third question: Did Jesus himself partake of the bread and wine? He had asked for a room where he might eat the Passover with his disciples (Mk 14:14; Mt 26:18; Lk 22:11), but everything in the accounts of the supper itself can be taken to mean that only the disciples ate and Jesus talked to them. According to Luke, who actually says nothing of the meal itself, Jesus said before giving the disciples either wine or bread (22:15-16), "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." Many manuscripts and versions read here, "I shall never eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom cf God." It is impossible to determine whether this means that this is the last time Jesus will eat the Passover, or that in spite of his wish he will not eat it now.

Even if he ate the meal, however, it is unlikely that he partook of the bread and wine. When he gave the first cup to the disciples, Luke continues (vv 17-18), he said, "Take this, and divide it among yourselves, for I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." Mark and Matthew do not have the saying about eating the Passover. They put the saying about the wine after the distribution of both bread and wine, reading, "I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God" (Mk 14:25; Mt 26:29). Both Mark’s and Matthew’s "again" and Luke’s "from now on" may mean either that Jesus would drink the wine this time but not again, or that he would not now partake of it. The latter seems more natural in view of the meaning he ascribed to the bread and wine: "This is my body," and "This is my blood" (Mk 14:22, 24 and parallels).

With these and other complications and problems, no wonder some have concluded that the whole story of the supper is not the record of an event that was remembered and celebrated, but the cult myth of a rite that it served to explain. The rites and myths of the contemporary pagan cults afford impressive materials for comparison, and they undoubtedly had an influence on the later development of the Christian sacrament. Their deities, however, were mythical beings shrouded in he mists of antiquity. The Christian story and observance had to do with a real person, who had been personally known and was remembered by people still living when the story was being told and put on record.

The problems remain, but there is a solid core of reliable tradition. That Jesus not only distributed bread and wine to the disciples but also accompanied the acts with words giving them a new, special meaning cannot be reasonably questioned. All the accounts agree on this much at least. The significance of the event, however, as Jesus intended it to be understood, depends on the authenticity and meaning of the words attributed to him.

All the accounts include the idea of the covenant. Its Old Testament background makes clear what it means. The statement "This is my blood of the covenant" echoes the words of Moses at Sinai (Ex 24:8: cf. Zech 9:11), "Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words." This was said as a part of the ceremony ratifying the covenant between God and the people of Israel, when oxen were sacrificed, and Moses, following the ancient custom of the blood covenant, threw half of the blood against the altar and the other half on the people.

What covenant did Jesus refer to when he said, "This is my blood of the covenant"? Paul and Luke call it "the new covenant" (1 Cor 11:25; Lk 22:20, cf. Mk 14:25; Mt 26:28), and the word "new" has crept into many later manuscripts and versions of Mark and Matthew (cf. KJV, "my blood of the new testament"). The idea of a new covenant comes from the Old Testament. Jeremiah, contemplating the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the deportation of king and people, promised a new covenant to replace the old one, which Israel had broken by disobeying God’s laws (Jer 31:31-34).

The community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls made much of the covenant idea. To the Christian church the promise of the new covenant seemed to be fulfilled. Jesus, by his death and his intercession in heaven, had become "the surety of a better covenant" (Heb 7:22). Whether or not Jesus himself used the word "new," he was probably thinking of Jeremiah’s promise when he spoke of the covenant. He was convinced that only through his death could God’s kingdom be established. His own blood would seal the new covenant as the sacrificial "blood of the covenant" had sealed the old one at Sinai.

Was it Jesus’ intention to establish a new rite to be observed by his followers, or was he, like the Old Testament prophets, trying to say by symbolic acts what he had been telling the disciples and they had been unable to comprehend? The only suggestion of an observance to be repeated is in the words reported by Paul and Luke, "Do this in remembrance of me" (1 Cor 11:24-25; Lk 22:19). If Jesus said this, however, he need not have meant that what he did was to be repeated as a ritual observance. He may have meant only, "Remember me whenever you eat your bread and drink your wine."

This is apparently what happened in the apostolic church. The breaking of bread mentioned in Acts (2:42, 46) does not seem to have been a formal rite. What evoked Paul’s account of the last supper was the fact that the "love feasts" of the church at Corinth were all too informal (1 Cor 11:20-21). Paul’s indignant declaration (v 34) that those who were hungry should eat at home before coming to the Lord’s table probably influenced the separation of the sacrament from a common meal. That Jesus had any intention of initiating a rite to be repeated is thus improbable. If the church, however, wished to express and nourish its sense of what his life and death meant to them by an act of worship commemorating a particular event, it could not have chosen one more appropriate than the last supper.

At the end of Paul’s narrative (v 26). he adds a comment of his own, giving the supper both a backward and a forward look: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes." In the Gospels the forward look is seen in the references to the fulfillment of the Passover and drinking the wine new in the kingdom of God. For Paul, Jesus’ coming again had taken the place of the coming of the kingdom.

Luke reports here briefly Jesus’ prediction of his betrayal, which Mark and Matthew have given at the beginning of the supper (Lk 22:21-23; cf. Mk 14:18-21; Mt 26:21-25). He then introduces rather abruptly (vv 24-26: cf. Mk 10:42-45: Mt 20:25-28) the disciples’ dispute as to which of them was the greatest, with Jesus’ rebuke, and adds a saying not found in the other Gospels: "For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves" (v 27: cf. in 13:3-Il).

After this Luke gives another saying. no part of which appears in Mark and only the last clause in Matthew (Lk 22:28-29; cf. Mt 19:28): "You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel." The word here translated "assign" is related to the Greek word for covenant. The meaning of this saying becomes clearer when we remember that the word translated "kingdom" often means "kingship." The NEB reads, "and now I vest in you the kingship which my Father vested in me"; the NAB reads, "I for my part assign to you the dominion my Father has assigned to me." These renderings may suggest that Jesus abdicates in favor of the disciples. The TEV avoids that misunderstanding by a rather free paraphrase: "and just as my Father has given me the right to rule, so will I make the same agreement with you." The essential meaning is that Jesus will share his royal authority and power with the twelve.

What is the relation of this promise to the idea of the blood of the covenant? The covenant sealed by Jesus’ blood is for many, whereas here he speaks of a special covenant with the twelve. If this is an authentic utterance of Jesus, it was probably not spoken at the last supper but, as in Matthew, at some earlier time before Jesus knew that one of the twelve would betray him. The clause "that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom" is lacking in Matthew. It may have suggested Luke’s putting the saying here. The idea of a covenant does not imply a formal transaction, as though Jesus said officially, "By virtue of the kingship vested in me, I hereby confer kingship upon you.

Another statement not reported by the other evangelists follows in Luke (22:31-34). Turning to Peter, Jesus says, "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren." Peter replies, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death." Jesus, however, predicts that before morning Peter will deny him. Mark and Matthew report this after Jesus and the disciples have gone back to the Mount of Olives.

Now Jesus asks the disciples (Lk 22:35-38) whether they lacked anything when he sent them without purse, bag, or sandals on their mission of preaching and healing (Mk 6:8-9; Mt 10:9-10: Lk 9:3; 10:4). They reply, "Nothing." Jesus says that if one of them has a purse or bag now he must take it; and anyone who has no sword must buy one, even if he has to sell his mantle to do it. "For I tell you," Jesus continues, "that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfilment" (Is 53:12; cf. Mk 15:28). The disciples tell him that they have two swords, and he says, "It is enough." What bearing this has on Jesus’ attitude to the use of force, if any, is uncertain. Apparently Jesus, discouraged at the disciples’ failure to understand, said, "Never mind; let it go." For us too it is hard to see what he meant. The sequel shows that it was not a call to armed resistance.

The story of the last supper ends with the singing of a hymn, after which "they went out to the Mount of Olives" (Mk 14:26-27; Mt 26:30-3 I; Lk 22:39). On the way, or after they got there, Jesus declared that all the disciples would forsake him, and quoted Zechariah 13:7: "I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered." The quotation was appropriate and might well occur to him under such circumstances.

With all reasonable caution against trying to imagine Jesus’ thoughts and feelings, one is surely justified in pausing to consider how profoundly discouraging the situation must have been for him, and to be grateful that there are such clear reflections of his disappointment and disillusionment. Here is no Docetic Christ, moving undisturbed through the frustrations and sorrows of human existence. Here is a real man, subject to the hopes and disappointments of our common lot, "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Is 53:3).

In Mark and Matthew the quotation of Zechariah is followed by a promise: "But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee" (Mk 14:28; Mt 26:32, cf. Mk 16:7; Mt 28:7; Lk 24:6). This points forward to the Galilean appearance of the risen Christ narrated at the end of Matthew (28:16). It implies also that Jesus knew the defection of the disciples would not be permanent.

Peter was still unwilling to admit that they would all desert Jesus (Mk 14:29-30; Mt 26:33-34; cf. Lk 22:33-34). "Even though they all fall away, I will not," he declared; but Jesus said to him, "Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times." (Matthew, Luke, and some manuscripts of Mark omit "twice.") Still Peter protested. "If I must die with you, I will not deny you"; and the rest echoed his words. Were they trying to reassure themselves? Vehemence of assertion is often in direct proportion to lack of conviction.