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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