Mark’s attack on the eucharist?

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by Neil Godfrey

I have been rethinking Mark’s Last Passover scene in the light of:

  1. the obligations guests have towards their host at a meal
  2. the two earlier feedings of the 5000 and the 4000
  3. other themes found in common between Mark’s gospel and the Gospel of Judas
  4. and the inclusio structure in which the eucharist is narrated
  5. the original meaning of the (Pauline) eucharist underlying 1 Corinthians 10-11

#3 — my recent reading of DeConick’s The Thirteenth Apostle — kicked me into bringing together other perspectives on the eucharist I had been playing with for some time. It was as if the Gospel of Judas as translated by DeConick is the final licence to run with my suspicions that Mark, too, was attacking the eucharist ritual as savagely as he was the Twelve themselves.

To take the last of these first — inclusio

It has become a commonplace to interpret a scene in Mark’s gospel through the parallel framing narratives (inclusio) in which he embeds the scene.

The classic case of this is his bracketing the “cleansing of the temple” in between the 2 parts of the “cursing of the fig tree”:

  • The fig tree is cursed
    • Jesus “cleanses” the temple so the leaders plot to destroy him
  • The fig tree has withered

This structure is generally taken to inform the reader that the temple episode is to be understood similarly to the way we understand the fate of the fig-tree. The temple — and Jesus — is doomed as much as the fig tree. Jesus’ act of expelling the merchants and the rebounding plot to destroy Jesus is a reflection of his cursing of the fig tree.

Another classic illustration of inclusio is the raising of Jairus’s daughter and the healing of the hemorrhaging woman.:

  • Jairus asks Jesus to heal his daughter before she dies
    • A woman unwell for 12 years touches Jesus and is healed
  • Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter who is 12 years old

Here the author strengthens the need to interpret the healing of the hemorrhaging woman through the frames of the healing of Jairus’ daughter by the number 12.

From Mark 14:17-31

And in the evening he came with the twelve. And as they sat and ate, Jesus said, Surely I tell you, One of you who eats with me shall deliver me up. And they began to be sorrowful, and to say unto him one by one, Is it I? and another said, Is it I? But he answered and said unto them, It is one of the twelve, who dips with me in the dish. The Son of man indeed goes, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is delivered up! It would be good if that man had never been born.

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new covenant being shed for many. Truly I tell you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God.

And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives. And Jesus said unto them, All of you shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered. But after I am risen, I will go before you into Galilee. But Peter said unto him, Although all shall be offended, I will never be. And Jesus saith unto him, Truly I tell thee, That this day, even in this night, before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me three times. But he spake the more vehemently, If I should die with thee, I will not deny thee in any way. They all said likewise.

I think Mark is nesting the Passover meal within Jesus addressing all the Twelve and specifically the last and first listed of those Twelve (Mark 3:16-19), Judas and Peter. (In this particular instance the last has become the first.)

In the first bracket we have the Twelve addressed, and one of those Twelve is to betray or deliver Jesus up. Such an evil thing is this that it would be better had that man never been born.

In the last bracket we have the Twelve addressed again, with one of those Twelve, Peter, being “singled out” as not being any different from the rest of the Twelve in that he too, as they all would, would deny Jesus. Such an evil thing is this that Peter cannot believe it. Yet Jesus has already taught him, indeed all of the Twelve, at the moment of Peter’s “confession” when he recognized who Jesus was, that

whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father and with the holy angels (Mark 8:38)

The first and the last names of the Twelve, I suspect, are meant to be typical of all the Twelve. They are both couched in the Passover narrative in close association with the Twelve. These two, acting in one sense as representatives of the Twelve, are about to commit the worst crimes against Jesus: delivering him up for execution and in public being so ashamed of him that they deny him.

So the eating of the Passover is framed by Jesus’ pronouncements that one of the Twelve, Judas, is to betray him, and that all of the Twelve, even Peter, are to deny him.

Should we therefore see the eating of the Passover as a scene of doom. Is Mark’s writing something like an “anti-Passover”. If his gospel is a sustained attack on the Twelve, is this eucharist moment the moment of them eating damnation upon themselves. Is Mark not only attacking apostolic Christianity (that branch of Christianity tracing its genealogy back to the Twelve Apostles) but also attacking the central ritual that came with that branch of Christianity — their eucharist?

Is there anything in the sandwiched section, the eating of the eucharist itself, that attaches it to the passages either side? I suspect so: that central portion portrays Jesus “delivering up” his body and blood in symbol to be eaten by the Twelve. The blood is being shed. Jesus is to die. Jesus’ death is to be seen through through the acts of betrayal and denial.

I am reminded of Rene Girard‘s theories Sacred Violence. Also of Dennis MacDonald’s wondering if the passover in Mark was partly inspired by scenes of cannibalism in Homer. Even if so, Mark has certainly additionally used 1 Samuel 9:19-26 as one of his sources, which again has tragic associations given that there the guest, Saul, we know by eating with Samuel, is setting out on a path that will lead him to defy Samuel and lead to his own destruction.

Is it going too far to wonder if Mark’s thought was shaded by recollections of Ezekiel 39:17-20? (In that passage God offers as a sacrifice and feast of all his mortal enemies.) Is the Mark’s initiated reader expected to see this eating scene as one of depravity — of the betrayers and deniers symbolically eating the flesh of their victim?

If Mark can be soundly interpreted as an attack on the Twelve, why not also an attack on the institution of their eucharist?

I think other terms of reference in reading this scene lead to the same conclusion.

The Gospel of Judas

Although the Gospel of Judas is generally thought to be written long after the Gospel of Mark, it nevertheless addresses the same central question Mark confronted head on. That was the status of that form of Christianity that declared for its foundation the Twelve Apostles.

This, according to April DeConick, is the same issue at the heart of the Gospel of Judas. In Mark, it is the demons who recognize who Jesus is. The twelve close disciples do not. Even the demons have more spiritual discernment than Mark’s Twelve. At least until Peter reveals his identity in at Caesarea Philippi.

Yet as soon as he does Jesus calls him Satan. DeConick suggests Peter’s understanding may have been associated with something akin to demon possession. Just as Jesus had to tell the demons to be quiet, so he immediately commands Peter to silence when he comes to the same understanding as the demons. Not Peter, but Judas is accused of being the principal demon in the Gospel of Judas.

Yet the disciples are associated with those who sacrifice their own children and wives, and through Judas, Jesus himself.

The Sethian branch of Christianity (as opposed to the “proto-orthodox” apostolic branch attacked by Mark’s gospel) that produced the Gospel of Judas parodied the apostolic version of Christ’s sacrifice as a form of infanticide. To Sethian Christians the idea that God would offer his own son as a sacrifice was barbaric.

If the Sethian gospel still had reason to take up the attack on apostolic Christianity as had apparently been done earlier in Mark, is it not likely that the ritual most centrally associated with apostolic Christianity was also the subject of attack in Mark?

Comparing the feedings of the 5000 and 4000

Mark gives reasons to believe that he wanted readers to associate his miraculous feedings of the 5000 and 4000 with the final feeding of the apostles. And in making that comparison, readers are also surely meant to see some radical differences.

In Mark 6:30-52

  • Jesus takes his disciples with him away from the crowds, and to eat with him;
  • Jesus views his followers like sheep without a shepherd;
  • He began to teach them many things;
  • And at the time of the evening . . . .
  • He sat them down, blessed the bread, and fed them all
  • Immediately after the meal Jesus left with his disciples
  • He went alone to a mountain to pray
  • The disciples failed in the rough sea, and were terrified when they saw Jesus, not understanding who he was
  • The reason for their failure was their ignorance of the meaning of the miraculous feeding.

Each of the above — in the context of a miraculous or sacred meal — carry resonances in Mark’s narrative of the Last Supper. The similar miracle of the feeding of the 4000 (Mark 8:1-8) is obviously bound to this earlier feeding narrative with many cords.

Markan scholars such as Werner Kelber believe that what Mark is doing with these two miraculous mass feedings is demonstrating the unity of Jew and gentile, in Christ, in the church. The similar experiences of the Jewish crowd (the 5000) and those in the gentile territory (the 4000) strongly points to this. The sharing of the bread unites them all, in a miraculous way, through Christ their shepherd and host.

But where these feeding miracles stand in stark contrast with the Final Supper or eucharist is that there is no hint in them of sacrificial atonement. The theme is unity, and Christ being sufficient to fill and feed and unite all in him. The bread symbolized Christ, but the act of eating the bread is an act of being one with Christ. There is no hint that these miracles involve eating a sacrificial meal.

The author of Mark’s gospel seems to stress this point by the scene in the boat after the second feeding miracle. Only one loaf, obviously depicting only one body, in the boat is sufficient for all their needs. But the twelve disciples simply fail to understand its significance completely.

(Is it significant that in those miraculous feedings the Twelve are not said to eat at all but only to pass on the bread from Jesus to the Jews and gentiles? They do not become part of the one body of Mark’s church?)

The feedings of the 5000 and 4000 were good stories. Their spiritual meaning was good. The feeding of the twelve disciples was a bad story. It was associated with denial, betrayal, — and sacrifice? How much weight did Mark place in his scribe telling Jesus that love of one’s fellows was worth more than any sacrifice? Mark 12:33-34 Certainly Mark’s Jesus speaks of suffering as the way to the Kingdom. There can be little doubt that the author and audience of Mark’s gospel originally were facing persecution. Mark’s gospel was the way of self-denial, service and giving up one’s life. But this, Weeden has argued, was by way of contrast with the message or life-style of the false apostles, including the likes of the Twelve as Mark depicts them. Sacrifice for ransom or atonement was not on Mark’s agenda, however.

Comparing Paul’s eucharist in 1 Corinthians 10-11

Many have suspected Mark’s theology was influenced by the original theology of Paul. Many also see in Paul attacks against the Twelve, both throughout the Corinthian correspondence and even by name in Galatians.

I have argued in an earlier post that the original eucharist known to the earliest Corinthian church and Paul was quite unlike the formal description of Jesus’ words on his last night found in one Pauline passage. The evidence marshalled by Winsome Munro is that the original eucharist was a celebration of unity in Christ. It was not thought of as eating a sacrificial meal. It was also a more relaxed meal than the ritualistic one we find at the Last Supper. One might even say it took on the more social tone one imagines associated with the feeding of the 5000 and 4000 in Mark.

For details of this argument (mostly Winsome Munro’s), see my earlier post Pastoral Interpolations in 1 Corinthians 10-11.

One summarizing passage from that post:

The Lord’s Supper, according to the original letter (10:16-17), was a meal to commemorate the unity of all as one body in Christ. The partaking of it symbolized their unity in Christ, as one body, one bread. A unity uncorrupted by association with idols. But this eucharist was not to the “pastoralist’s” liking. It was too much like an uncontrolled feast. Not without some exaggeration and causing some indignation, I am sure, he wrote:

When therefore ye assemble yourselves together, it is not possible to eat the Lord’s supper: for in your eating each one taketh before other his own supper; and one is hungry, and another is drunken. What, have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and put them to shame that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you? In this I praise you not. (1 Cor. 11:20-22)

If Mark was coming from Paul’s school and opposition to the Twelve, then this view of Paul’s original letter would support the above interpretation of Mark’s contrasting the feedings of the 5000 and 4000 with the Passover eaten by the twelve.

Obligations of guests to their host

All the above strands of thought began to take on new life when I began thinking of the eucharist scene against the customs that one expects to see played out between a host and guests, particularly in ancient times. By being fed by Jesus as guests of Jesus, were not the disciples bound in a special way to remain loyal to him and defend him, to stop him going to the cross? Surely. Is that also how ancients might have read Mark? If so, we have another angle from which to view Mark’s Passover scene, and it, too, comports with the views we got from elsewhere. The eucharist in Mark was the sealing of the damnation of the Twelve.

All that remained was the final acting out of that damnation. The betrayal, the worldly attempt to stop Jesus going the way of suffering by the use of the sword, the expression of being ashamed of the Son of Man when they all fled and even directly denied him. Peter’s final tears are the tears of anguish. Jesus will not be seen again till he comes (to his kingdom symbolized by Galilee) when he will be seen by those he judges — both the High Priest (Mark 14:62) and Peter (Mark 8:38).

Responses of the later canonical gospel authors

Matthew blunts Mark’s blurring of Judas with the Twelve at the Last Passover meal. Where Mark has Jesus say to the Twelve that it is “one of the Twelve” who will deliver him up (Mark 14:20), Matthew erases that completely and comes directly to the one individual he wants to target, Judas: see Matthew 26:25.

Luke has had more time to think the matter through and decides to omit this scene of Mark’s altogether. He replaces it with

“Then [Jesus] said to them, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:1).

There can be little room here for doubting that Luke saw this occasion as the origin of a ceremony he reverenced.

John cuts to the chase and places the sacred Christian Last Supper or Passover meal where Mark had seen the true eucharist — at the feeding of the 5000. See John 6:4, 22-59 where the miracle is directly associated with the Passover and the symbols of his flesh and blood to be eaten. John has no Passover meal on the night before he died. Jesus himself was the Passover (foreshadowed in John 6) who died at the time of the Passover sacrifice.

So Matthew particularizes Jesus’ pronouncements either side of the Passover meal to lessen the culpability of all Twelve who partook of that last meal. (Peter was also solidly rehabilitated elsewhere several times throughout Matthew’s gospel. Judas stood alone as the renegade.) Luke, in sympathy with the Pastoralists, portrayed Jesus as sanctifying and honouring the eucharist in the gospel. John plays it safe and deletes the final Passover or Last Supper as such altogether. He stresses the eucharistic meaning of the feeding of the 5000 instead.

Post script: and by the mid second century?

It appears that the Pastoralist’s idea of the eucharist (inserted into Paul’s letters) took some time to become the general practice.

Justin Martyr writing around 150 c.e. appears to know only a eucharist that is also unlike anything associated with ransom or atonement. Justin writes that the eucharist was given by the resurrected Jesus to the Twelve. It was to remind them that he had come in the flesh. I don’t recall any suggestion by Justin Martyr that it had anything to do with the notion of a sacrificial meal. (Links to references and my tables of Justin’s accounts of the gospel and church history here.)

Other early Christian texts such as the Didache also speak only of a thanksgiving or fellowship meal.

(And then we have those other bits of evidence for the earliest sacred meals originating from the grave-side customs of fellowshipping with their departed.)

Mark’s and the Sethian communities seem not to be the only ones uncomfortable with what became the orthodox eucharist.

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Mark’s attack on the eucharist?”

  1. My thoughts about the ‘feeding of the 4000/5000’ are that it involved priests whose tithes had been taken by the high priests such as Ananias who had raided the threshing floors for supplies so that many priests went hungry. Further I believe that only some courses (about four or five) of priests descended from certain families were ridden roughshod over in this manner.

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