Understanding how the Gospels came to be written, understanding what they are as literature, is surely a critical part of understanding the origin of Christianity. Surely one of the most central images of Christianity is that of Jesus knowingly traveling voluntarily to his death in Jerusalem. What I find strange is the extent of scholarly argument or assumption over the historicity of this particular image.
One discussion one sometimes encounters among scholars of the “historical Jesus” is the question of whether Jesus really expected to die as he did the last (and/or first?) time he visited Jerusalem. I focus here on the one iconic event that presumably demonstrated this, the Last Supper. I get the impression that many (predominantly American?) scholars reject the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar that the last supper, first mentioned in a letter by Paul (1 Cor 11:23-26), “probably originated in the communities of Asia Minor and Greece where Paul had established churches and not in Jerusalem where Jesus died.”
In addition to the fact that the earliest mention of the meal is provided by Paul of Tarsus, a hellenistic Jew, two cultural norms or practices suggest that the meal had its origins in a pagan context. . . . . The suggestion that those who ate the bread and drank the cup were eating the body of Christ and drinking his blood would have been offensive to Jesus’ Judean followers. The typical reaction of Judeans is indicated by the response Jesus gets when he says in the Gospel of John, that only those who eat his flesh and drink his blood can be saved: the “Jews” and even his followers objected to that language and some dropped out of the movement as a result (John 6:48-66). . . .
The second of the cultural practices that influenced the decision of the Fellows was the custom of having a meal “in memory of” someone who had died. In the hellenistic world societies were formed, in fact, to hold meals in remembrance of those who had died and to drink a cup in honour of some god. Socrates says to the jailer who has just given him the cup of hemlock to drink “What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to some god?” (Phaedo 117). (pp. 139-140 of The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus, by Robert W. Funk and The Jesus Seminar.)
The Jesus Seminar/Funk continues by claiming that the author of Mark’s Gospel modifies “the tradition” known by Paul by relocating the “remembrance” motif from the Last Supper to the meal at which the woman anointed Jesus in preparation for his death: the perpetual memory was to be of her deed, not the last supper.
I would have thought these are good prima facie grounds for at least entertaining some scepticism over the historicity of the Last Supper.
Myths evolve to explain customs
I have not encountered discussions among scholars over Justin Martyr, in the mid second century, indicating that the memorial supper was instituted by Jesus among his disciples after his resurrection and as a memorial, not of his death, but of his having come in the flesh. I am sure such discussions must exist somewhere, but as a layman my time and opportunities are limited in tracking down such things.
Other noncanonical literature, such as the Didache, speak of a memorial meal solely as a thanksgiving ceremony.
So we have Paul, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of John, the Didache and Justin Martyr all pointing to variations of practice and understanding of this rite in the early church. There are other indicators, but it is not the purpose of this post to go into them all. The point I am wanting to make here is one well known among anthropologists, that myths tend to develop in order to create post factum explanations for established rituals and customs.
Context, context, context
If the three rules of property investors are ‘location, location, location,’ the first three rules of anyone wanting to understand what an author intended a literary passage he or she wrote must be ‘context, context, context.’
If we are to understand whether or not the Last Supper as portrayed in the first Gospel, that of Mark, should be read as an indicator of the historicity of Jesus expecting his death was very imminent, it is sensible to read it in its context.
Ever since the dramatic turning point in the Gospel, which is the scene of Peter acknowledging the identity of Jesus, the introduction of the prophecy that Jesus was to die and be resurrected, and the three leading disciples being shown Jesus in his heavenly glory on the mountain, — ever since this pivotal cluster of scenes, Jesus is in prediction mode.
Three times he announces this prophecy that he is to die and be resurrected again (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34).
Then he enters Jerusalem via the city that Joshua and the Israelites first entered the promised land, Jericho.
On his way, surrounded by a multitude, a not-s0-innocent bystander, one who is blind, calls out proleptically of his royal Davidic status. Jerusalem is where the kings were crowned. Mark’s Gospel themes up to the transfiguration have been overturned. There is no more secrecy. Jesus is willing for any who can recognize him to announce his identity to all.
The next act of Jesus is to again demonstrate his royal-divine powers of “wisdom” before his disciples and the “great multitude” (10:46) who were with him. The author here appears to be letting is imagination play with the scenario found in 1 Samuel 9-10. The sign that Saul was to be king was proclaimed by the prophet or seer Samuel. Samuel demonstrated to Saul and his companion that God communicated with him (Samuel) even to detailing for Saul what people will say to him about the donkeys he had been looking for, and other things on his return home.
2.When you leave me today, you will meet two men near Rachel’s tomb, at Zelzah on the border of Benjamin. They will say to you, ‘The donkeys you set out to look for have been found. And now your father has stopped thinking about them and is worried about you. He is asking, “What shall I do about my son?” ‘
3 “Then you will go on from there until you reach the great tree of Tabor. Three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you there. One will be carrying three young goats, another three loaves of bread, and another a skin of wine. 4 They will greet you and offer you two loaves of bread, which you will accept from them.
5 “After that you will go to Gibeah of God, where there is a Philistine outpost. As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, tambourines, flutes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying. 6 The Spirit of the LORD will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person. 7 Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you. (From 1 Samuel 10)
Here Jesus sends two of his disciples to collect a colt on which to ride into Jerusalem as its king. Just as Samuel told Saul the things he would see on his way, Jesus tells his disciples what to expect to encounter:
1As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’ “
4They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. (Mark 11)
And following this,
13So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. 14Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”
16The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. (Mark 14)
Jesus is shown to be divinely in charge of all that his happening. He knows every detail that his followers will experience in their service of him. So when he pronounces doom on the fig-tree, his detailed Little Apocalypse, that a particular woman would be remembered for all generations, that one of his followers is to betray him, that all are to be offended and desert him, that he is to be taken by the authorities and killed, that after his resurrection he will see all his disciples (including Judas by implication) again in Galilee, he is reiterating his prophetic powers. He is demonstrating that he is in control, that he has the powers of “more than a prophet.”
Rationalization ruins the story
Sometimes one reads serious scholarly suggestions that Jesus had made prior arrangements with someone about the donkey and another set of arrangements about the room rental. I have even seen suggestions that Jesus had prepared coded signals (e.g. jars on heads) as part of his underground tactics to avoid arrest! As if a man publicly ambling in to a city with crowds hailing him as their king was worried about secrecy!
To “naturalize” the narratives in this way, to remove their supernatural air, is to rob them of all their meaning. If Mark really knew that Jesus had made prior arrangements for hiring the donkey and a room, yet told the story as if Jesus were emulating and transvaluing characters and events that led to Saul’s inauguration as king, or at least simply as a seer, then we can hardly look on him as an honest author.
As Thomas L. Thompson has said in (I think) The Mythic Past, trying to remove the supernatural from the biblical stories only destroys the stories. It does not bring us closer to presumed historicity. I have suggested Douglas Adams’ quote hits the spot:
If you try to take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have is a non-working cat.
Mark’s tale of Jesus knowing of his impending death at the Last Supper is of the same supernatural type of his knowing that two disciples would find a colt tied at a particular place, that two others would meet a man carrying a jar of water, that all his disciples will flee, and that he would rise again.
The nature of the story itself, it’s reiterated motifs of Jesus the prophet, its clear reliance on Old Testament passages (and other Second Temple literature) for its ideas — the story of Saul and Samuel above, the prophecy in Zechariah of all disciples fleeing when the shepherd was struck, passages in Isaiah and Hosea and Daniel and Psalms about a death of a messiah or servant of God and his rising again (and the examples of Maccabean martyrs and the literally offered salvific blood of Isaac – see the series on Levenson for the posts about these) — declare as surely as the heavens themselves that the Gospel of Mark is creative fiction, not history.
To ask, within the framework of the Gospels, if a real Jesus truly anticipated his death or not, is to begin to take the working cat apart.
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