Do The Gospels Contradict Each Other Concerning the Last Supper?

DaVinci's Last Supper

DaVinci's Last Supper

If correctly understood in its historical context, Jesus’ last supper becomes one of the most poignant events of his life. All of the Synoptic gospels agree that Jesus’ last meal was a Seder (Matt 26:17; Mark 14:12-17; Luke 22:1-8);[1] the traditional Passover (Heb. pesach) feast celebrated every year on the 15th of Nisan. The meal is intended to recount the enslavement and redemption of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt (Ex 13:6-10).

What can be a stumbling block to reading the gospel accounts are the differing orders of bread and wine that occur. Mark and Matthew agree that Jesus first broke the bread and then presented the cup (Matt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25), while the order in Luke is wine then bread (Lk 22:14-18).[2] Luke’s account preserves an order of the Passover that nicely parallels the Mishnah (Pes. 10:2-3), the 2nd century C.E. codification of the oral law.

Two reasons seem to suggest that Mark and Matthew reversed the order. In Jewish tradition the first cup of wine is accompanied by a blessing, which always occurs before the breaking of bread (matzot; cf. Pes. 10:2). Luke follows this tradition (22:17), while the other evangelists have placed the cup and blessing after the bread (Matt 26:27; Mk 14:23). Secondly, Matthew and Mark preserve an edited version of Jesus’ statement about the kingdom of God that we find in Luke, “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes” (Lk 22:18; cf. Matt 26:29, Mk 14:25). In each gospel this statement occurs after the cup.

So what stream of Judaism is influencing the reversal? Judaism during the Second Temple Period was not monolithic. Concerning the order of meals, the Dead Sea Sect believed that the priestly Messiah, Melchizedek, would initiate the eschatological banquet in the exact way he presented the meal to Abraham in Genesis 14:18 (cf. 11Q13) “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High.” Bread then wine was also the order of the Dead Sea Sect’s meals (1QS 6:5-9, esp. 6).

Dali's Last Supper

Dali's Last Supper

One can quickly see that if the scrolls are ignored we are left to wonder if the gospels are contradicting themselves. Instead, by interacting with this material the gospels are clearly reflecting Jewish customs and beliefs of the day. By reversing the order, Matthew and Mark reflect a tradition that does not become normative in Judaism and yet at some point is the norm within the early Christian church. Moreover, the apparent differences between Luke and the other evangelists indicates that Luke may have been working with an independent source.

When the Jewish background of Jesus’ Last Supper is brought to the forefront, viz., that it was a Passover seder, God’s redemption becomes the central theme. Reclining as the scriptures are read, they recount of the “outstretched arm” and “hand” of God that redeemed them from Egypt. Friends and family, as well as the disciples sit with Jesus as the Passover lamb is set before him on the table. He lifts the first cup of wine and blesses God for it. Breaking the unleavened bread, all who recline at the table, filling the house, are reminded of God’s outstretched redemptive hand, and the hope that His redemption is once again at hand.

[1] The Gospel of John will not be considered in this blog, due to the complexities involved with its date of the Last Supper. As a quick note, John places Jesus’ last meal the day before the lamb is to be sacrificed, that is, on the 14th of Nisan (see 13:1). Jesus is crucified on the same day as it is required for the lamb to be sacrificed. Therefore, according to John’s gospel, he could not have participated in a seder.

[2] Steven Notley has most recently suggested that the order reflected in Matthew and Mark represents the eschatological thinking of the Dead Sea Community (“Eschatological Thinking of the Dead Sea Sect and the Order of the Christian Eucharist” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, Brill: 2006 , 121-138). Manuscript evidence (Codex Bezae) attests to a shorter version of the Lukan passage, eliminating the second cup and Jesus’ statement concerning the “new covenant” (19b-20).

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