A scholar reads Paul without Gospel presuppositions

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by Neil Godfrey

The Last Supper
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Not every scholar thinks it is silly to read Paul’s letters without bringing to them assumptions from later documents like the Gospels. Some think it is a sounder method to interpret the later literature in the light of what we can understand from what went before it — and not the reverse.

Associate Professor William Arnal is one scholar who does know how to avoid bringing Gospel presuppositions into his reading of Paul’s letters. What he does in “Major Episodes in the Biography of Jesus: An Assessment of the Historicity of the Narrative Tradition” (Toronto Journal of Theology, 13/2, 1997, pp. 201-226) is use earlier sources to try to shed light on how the Gospel narrative came about.

Paul’s famous passage in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 about the Last Supper saying of Jesus is often pulled out as evidence that Paul knew about the scene we read in the Gospels of Jesus having a final meal with his disciples just prior to being betrayed by Judas. But that is reading the evidence backwards, Arnal rightly argues. First we need to understand what Paul does say, and then compare with the later narrative in the Gospels, and ask what evidence we have to explain the relationship between the two.

Here is 1 Cor. 11:23-25

23For I — I received from the Lord that which also I did deliver to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was delivered up, took bread,

24and having given thanks, he brake, and said, `Take ye, eat ye, this is my body, that for you is being broken; this do ye — to the remembrance of me.’

25In like manner also the cup after the supping, saying, `This cup is the new covenant in my blood; this do ye, as often as ye may drink [it] — to the remembrance of me;’

And here is a portion of the larger narrative in Mark about that Last Supper evening (Mark 14:19-25):

19And they began to be sorrowful, and to say to him, one by one, `Is it I?’ and another, `Is it I?’

20And he answering said to them, `One of the twelve who is dipping with me in the dish;

21the Son of Man doth indeed go, as it hath been written concerning him, but wo to that man through whom the Son of Man is delivered up; good were it to him if that man had not been born.’

22And as they are eating, Jesus having taken bread, having blessed, brake, and gave to them, and said, `Take, eat; this is my body.’

23And having taken the cup, having given thanks, he gave to them, and they drank of it — all;

24and he said to them, `This is my blood of the new covenant, which for many is being poured out;

25verily I say to you, that no more may I drink of the produce of the vine till that day when I may drink it new in the reign of God.’

Arnal uses his first things first approach to argue that Paul had no knowledge of the sort of scenario we now read in the Gospels. He further argues that the Gospel scene was the creation of the author of the Gospel of Mark. That is, it was invented decades after Paul wrote.

Here is his paragraph discussing the relationship between Paul’s Last Supper saying and the Gospel scene. I place his footnote references in block brackets. I also break up the original single paragraph for easier reading and add my own emphases. It is on page 214 of the article. I should make it clear that Arnal is not arguing that Jesus was not crucified, but that the narrative of the circumstances surrounding his death was not known before the Gospel of Mark wrote it. In the passage that follows Arnal is addressing one passage in Paul’s letters.

Paul’s Last Supper tradition in 1 Cor. 11:23-25, a venerable liturgical usage even if it assumes no narrative Passion whatsoever [see Kelber, Oral and Written Gospel, p. 206], is still very clearly a reference to Jesus’ (singular and final) arrest.

Paul refers to these events taken place . . . “on the night in which he was betrayed.” However, the more straightforward reading of paradidomi, especially in the passive voice, suggests being “handed over into custody,” “arrested.” [BAGD 2nd ed. p. 614] The Pauline reference thus does not imply the story of Judas’ betrayal. It could be that the betrayal tradition was an explanatory outgrowth of this traditional, and apparently fixed, vague reference to “the night on which he was handed over.” In fact, the saying does not even directly imply a “last supper” with an inner circle of disciples present, but only that Jesus was arrested and that he spoke the words of institution at dinner on that night. We have here the beginnings of a biographical tradition, if not an outright narrative.

In order to make sense, the speech recounted by Paul requires at least the knowledge that Jesus’ crucifixion speedily followed on his being “handed over.” Nonetheless, the association of liturgical tradition with an event in Jesus’ life is not the same thing as a narrative of the events surrounding his death.

The words of institution seem to revolve around a notion of Jesus’ death as some kind of self-sacrifice for the sake of his followers. They arise out of an interpretation of his death and imply that death, so it is no great wonder that they would come to be placed temporarily proximate to Jesus’ last hours alive.

In this example (not, strictly speaking, part of the sayings tradition), it still seems that a traditional verbal pronouncement — with a very clear liturgical Sitz — predates and in some measure has generated a narrative of the events in question. [references to Donahue and Vernon Robbins]

Thus the narrative becomes an etiology for the “eucharistic formula” rather than this “eucharistic formula” depending on the narration of its first occurrence for its meaning.

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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “A scholar reads Paul without Gospel presuppositions”

  1. Too bad Arnal doesn’t also know how to avoid bringing Gospel assumptions to Q.

    Still can’t reach McGrath’s review of Chapter 10. Could he have changed the address since Neil first gave us his link to it?

  2. I have no idea why it does not reek of mythicism that Paul has Jesus giving instructions as to how his body could be accessed or symbolised in a physical form during a ritual cultic meal.

    Even if Jesus thought he was going to be crucified, surely his tomb or grave or the site of his execution would act as a reminder that he had had a body?

  3. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; this do ye, as often as ye may drink [it] — to the remembrance of me.”

    I suspect that Paul made the eucharist up, because he says, “I received [it] from the Lord.” But I’m not so certain that this includes “in the night in which he was delivered up.” Why in the night? Does this imply a seder? Seems like a strange detail for a vision, but an interesting detail in any event.

    Eisenman suggests that the eucharist could be a play on the idea of “the New Covenant in the Land of Damascus” in the Dead Sea Scrolls (CD 6.19). The first syllable of Damascus in Hebrew (Damashek) is the word for blood (dam), and the last share a root with “to give to drink” (Sh-K-H, Strong’s 8248); thus Damascus (in Hebrew) = “blood, to give to drink.” It also works in Greek (Damakos), where the first syllable is the same as the Hebrew for blood (dam) and the last is the same as the Hebrew for cup (chos); thus Damascus (in Greek) = “blood cup.” It’s at least an amazing coincidence that these elements are all here: the New Covenant, blood, cup, and to give to drink.

    It is also an amazing coincidence that the Dead Sea Scrolls sect were messianic Torah-doers who called themselves the poor, practiced the New Covenant, believed they were living in the last days and dealt with an anti-Torah opponent “who led many astray that he might build his city of vanity with blood and raise a congregation on deceit” (1QpHab 10.9-10).

      1. The Land of Damascus in the Dead Sea Scrolls could be the Damascus that Saul is sent to in Acts. Whether that story is made up or not, this understanding of Damsacus as the area around Qumran makes better sense of the story, as it would explain how the high priest could have jurisdiction over it (9:1-2). It should be added that another name the DSS group call themselves is the Way, which is also what the Christians in Damascus are called in Acts (9:2).

        Additionally, in the Recognitions of Clement, James’ group retreats to the Jericho area after being assaulted by Saul, and this is where the Saul in this story goes with his letters from the high priest.

  4. Using the Blue Letter Bible to investigate the range of meanings possible for “paradidimoi” in 1 Cor 11.23

    “Paradidimoi” is given these meanings:

    1) to give into the hands (of another)

    2) to give over into (one’s) power or use
    a) to deliver to one something to keep, use, take care of, manage
    b) to deliver up one to custody, to be judged, condemned, punished, scourged, tormented, put to death
    c) to deliver up treacherously
    1) by betrayal to cause one to be taken
    2) to deliver one to be taught, moulded

    3) to commit, to commend

    4) to deliver verbally
    a) commands, rites
    b) to deliver by narrating, to report

    5) to permit allow
    a) when the fruit will allow that is when its ripeness permits
    b) gives itself up, presents itself

    The etymology of the word is given as :
    “1) to give

    2) to give something to someone
    a) of one’s own accord to give one something, to his advantage
    1) to bestow a gift
    b) to grant, give to one asking, let have
    c) to supply, furnish, necessary things
    d) to give over, deliver
    1) to reach out, extend, present
    2) of a writing
    3) to give over to one’s care, intrust, commit
    a) something to be administered
    b) to give or commit to some one something to be religiously observed”

    So I find the traditional translation of the word as ‘betrayed’ to be ……… puzzling.
    Particularly when the same word is present earlier in the sentence and yet is translated as having a different sense to that which connotes betrayal.

    Reading the gospel story back into a word?

    1. The post about the Last Supper on Roger Viklund’s site requires patience to get through and its contention that the Jesus used the Last Supper to choose Judas as a messenger boy is a little hard to swallow. The footnotes may be more interesting than the text body.

      It contains an examination of the problem with the “paradidimoi/betray/handover” vocabulary, examples of destruction of the disciples’ reputation in Gospel possibly to make Paul look good, and an interesting comparison of Tacitus on the death of Vitellius with the Luke Gospel Garden Agony and death of Jesus. Why hadn’t someone previously noticed the similar ear cuttings by a bodyguard.


      In early Christian tradition Jesus’ betrayer appeared to have been the High Priest and his minions, not Judas. The role of Judas probably underwent a change at a later time when Judean and Greek Christianity split, and the Hellenizers wanted to discredit the heroes of the Judean branch.

      John 19:10-11. “10 Pilate said “Don’t you realize that I have the power either to free you or to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered, “You have no power over me except that given to you from above. Therefore THE ONE(See John 18:28) WHO HANDED (paradoV’s))ME OVER TO YOU HAS A GREATER SIN.” “.

      This quote from Jesus says it was the High Priest and his court , who were guilty of betraying him (handing him over) to the Romans. This passage is probably the remnant of a very early tradition that was not removed by later editors.

      (John 18:28 : “Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor”).

      The thing speaks for itself, in words attributed to Jesus, the Roman friendly Jewish authorities, not Judas, were blamed for the handover (betrayal) of Jesus to the Romans.

  5. Given the way the evangelists drew on verses from the Jewish scriptures to creatively weave them into their narratives (midrashic techniques) is it not worth thinking that the notion of “paradidimoi/betray/handover” was similarly taken up and woven into a narrative?

    The Gospels as we have them do not look to me like they are notes jotted down in response to eyewitness reports or oral traditions. But we do see clear evidence that their narratives were creative re-writes of other stories such as those in the Jewish scriptures. At the same time they added texture to their narratives by applying reinterpreted verses from the OT.

    If the earliest evidence we have for paradidimoi/betray/handover is from a non-historicist view of Jesus then would not the simplest explanation for its incorporation into the Gospels be that it was found to be a useful ingredient in the larger midrashic creation?

  6. Neil;
    Good point. And it might be possible that the betray/handover dichotomy represents a shift in a communities beliefs.
    When texts were first written there was no betrayal, only a handing over,then the midrashic interpretation,of original myth was changed and a betrayal become the new interpretation. The interpreters were stuck with texts than could be recalled, since they could not change the text, they pulled an Orwell and changed the word;s definition. Probably not all that hard to change the meaning of a word, if they, the NT interpreters, were well organized and functioned in a primarily illiterate society with no dictionaries, only customary usages,
    An interesting topic for research would be to search Greek literature archive (Perseus project) and Church fathers and New Testament translations, to see if the time this linguistic shift took place can be identified., and how fast the changed definition was adopted.
    It seems to have occurred after the ur-NT author since he used “handover (paradidymoi)”, not “betray (?prodote?)”, and after Paul, who did not know about a betrayal, and before the 4th c. Fathers. What did paradidymoi mean to the gospel authors, was their understanding that they were writing about a handing over that resulted in a betrayal, or by that time had the word come to mean betrayal, at least in christian circles. Would a pagan still interpret the word as hand over?

    I think the shift in paradydimoi meaning represented a seismic shift in the foundation myth of the christian community, perhaps when it changed from Judean sect to Greek religion.

  7. Maybe Saul/Paul really learned this from the house of judas where he visited after seeing “the light” and Judas who had been there told him the story. Maybe this is all of Satan.

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