The last supper is recorded by four of the canonical gospels in the bible namely Mathew, Mark, Luke and John (Harris). Based on the history of religion, there are two analogical interpretation of this religious landmark that bears significance from a theological perspective.
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Notably the Hellenistic influence over Judaism from the 3rd century B.C had an impact on most aspects of life, particularly table customs and feasts which relate greatly, if not entirely, to the subject in question.
The initial analogical provision with regards to the last supper was pegged on the reports of the festival as found in the bible—where God is said to have instructed the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb on the 14th day of the month Nisan just before the sunset (Klawans). On that particular night, the Israelites engaging in the festivity were to eat the sacrificial lamb with bitter herbs and unleavened bread (Klawans).
In addition, the lamb’s blood was to be smeared on the Israelites’ house doorposts as an outward sign and symbol of them being part of the festivity. Seeing the smeared blood sign on the doorposts, God would then pass-over these houses (Exodus 12:13). And while doing so, God would smite the Egyptians and non-conforming Israelites (those who did not swab their doors with the blood) with the tenth plague—which entailed killing of the first-born sons.
In the years that followed, this became a Jewish festive meal thereafter known as the Passover. It is commonly perceived to be the frame work of the last supper, offering background interpretation of the actions and words of Jesus that night but as will later be discussed, not necessarily the Passover festival itself.
Essentially, most Christians celebrate the last supper primarily because Jesus Christ told them to do so in remembrance of the sacrifice he made on the cross. The last supper also resembles a farewell meal. As brought out in the context of Luke 22:14-38 and John 13-17 (living bible) Jesus constantly makes remarks that imply his departure.
The solemn words of Jesus such as: “For I will not drink wine again until the Kingdom of God has come….This is my body, given for you. Eat it in the remembrance of me,” create an unmistakable setting of him saying goodbye.
However, in the anchor bible dictionary, Freedman states that the significance of the day varies across different Christian factions. For instance, among the catholic Christians, as well as other historical Christian churches like Anglicans, Lutherans, Episcopalians or even the byzantine Christians; the belief is on the literal words of Jesus that the bread represents his body while the wine represents his blood.
To this group of Christians, emphasis is laid on the principal of hermeneutics and the nature of faith in the apostolic times where biblical interpretations were based literal words.
On the other hand, the Christians who emerged recently tend to be of the opinion that the bread and wine symbolically represent Christians being part and parcel of Christ’s suffering on the cross. To this latter group, God’s passion to humanity through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is greatly emphasized with all Christians being called to obedience and emulation of Christ’s perfect example.
The other analogical perspective of the last supper as influenced by contemporary Judaism is characterized by the use of eschatological metaphors related to the meal. It is this aspect that sets aside all other earthly meals that Jesus may have had before his death. It explains why, these otherwise normal and common gestures of breaking bread and drinking from a cup bears profound significance that it should be commemorated, terming them as ‘prophetic symbolic signs.’
Jesus identified himself with the bread and the wine, engaging in symbolic interpretation of the events as follows: “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant’” (Matthew 26:26–28=Mark 14:22; see also Luke 22:19–20).
As highlighted by Leon-Dufour, the word ‘symbolic’ here does not dilute or in any way invalidate the reality of the matter but offers a deeper dimension of the same. For instance his acceptance of sinners and out casts to the table implies forgiveness which became their inheritance following his crucifixion as foreshadowed by the wine and bread during the last supper.
Also, we are told that at some point in the last supper, Jesus says “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.” Here, Christians get to be reminded that through the sacrifice on the cross, victory over sins is ensued through forgiveness (Freedman).
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Even more importantly, we are informed that in the last supper, the disciples and got to meet together with Christ and fellowship with one another. Here, the significance of fellowship—especially during trying times (just in the same way Christ was undergoing trying moments—is greatly stressed. In addition, the fellowship signifies unity in the body of Christ thus encouraging Christians towards the same (Freedman).
One of the most fundamental questions that have haunted scholars for years and perhaps to date remains debatable is whether the last supper was in fact the Passover meal? This controversy was perhaps born of the conflicting accounts between the Synoptic Gospels that identify the last supper as the Passover and that of John, who does not.
The very word ‘synoptic’ as implied by the Greek etymology means ‘seen together’ meaning these books (Mathew, Mark and Luke) are better studies together. Jonathan Klawens interprets this fact by suggesting that these three accounts are therefore not independent sources at all but a copy of each other (3).
Before indulging into the intricate analysis of the synoptic account versus John’s account to answer or at least attempt to shed light on the Passover and last supper controversy it is important to highlight the journey of the Passover through history. The Passover began before the temple was destroyed, dating to about 70 C.E.
The order of the rituals was as follows: Unleavened bread was broken, wine was served, the diners reclined and hymns were sung. In addition, when partaking of the Passover meal, the Israelites’ Exodus story was retold while the significance of the entire meal and celebration was explained to the audience (Klawans).
It is in fact this order that many scholars use to argue why the last supper was the Passover meal because as noted in the synoptic Jesus and the disciples did nearly all of the rituals (O’Toole). The key word here however is ‘nearly’ meaning it lacks conclusiveness. The breaking of the unleavened bread, serving of wine, reclines of diner and the singing of hymns was part of the last supper.
In fact scholars interpret Jesus’ explanation of the symbolic meaning of the bread and wine to be similar with the re-telling of significance of the unleavened bread, bitter herbs and wine during the Passover meal.
According to Jeremias (15-88), who provides one of the best known studies of the Last supper, points out several parallels of the last supper and the Passover, inclusive of the already mentioned points above. He remarkably notes down that the Last supper took place in the evening, stretching into the night when the Passover was required to be eaten.
Giving of alms to the poor was customary of the Passover, which as noted by John happened during the last supper whereby Judas was said to have left the room that night to do so. The breaking of wine and the serving of bread, also obligatory to the Passover, were present during the Last supper.
However these parallels are not utterly satisfactory to a significant number of scholars who then oppose the idea on the basis that the argument has a myriad of missing links and facts. For instance according to Klawans, wine and bread, the only foods mentioned during the last supper were the basic foods in of any formal Jewish meal. Where was the Passover lamb or the bitter herbs? In addition, during the Passover individual cups were used but in the last supper one cup was used (4).
Moreover, a good number of scholars speculate that considering that the last supper happened just before the arrest of Jesus when there were security reasons for meeting at night, not that it was necessarily the Passover. It was customary for the Passover meal to be a family affair whereas Jesus shared the last supper with only twelve men leaving out women and children.
It is here that John differs with the synoptic as he points out that Jesus in fact died when the Passover sacrifice was being offered and any last meal recorded was that of the previous night. Essentially, the timing of John’s analogy of Passover events is widely believed to immensely compliment the Christianity claim that Jesus was a sacrifice and that his sacrificial death on the cross heralds a new redemption; just in the same way the Passover offering recalled an old order of events (Klawans).
All these divergent belief therefore begs the question, should we follow John’s assertions or should we stand by the synoptic? Or perhaps the unwavering doubt on both sides should persuade us to plead ignorance of the matter? When push comes to a shove, john’s account is more plausible than that of the synoptic.
However, this does not in any way mean that his account is entirely accurate. Nonetheless, if forced to choose between the two inaccuracies, John’s account and analogy is more believable based on scrutinized facts in history and the timeline of events during that time.
Nonetheless, scholars who reject the idea of the last supper being the Passover try to account for the synoptic Gospels claim. For one the proximity of the Passover itself to the last supper creates one motive. Klawans further points out that Christian communities, who were primarily Jews, began to question how, when and whether they should celebrate the Passover in the years after Jesus’ death.
In conclusion, the last supper might have been the Passover, or not. Without a time-travel machine to determine the case of the matter, the truth becomes rather hard to detect. It could be that the right question is not ‘what it was not’ but ‘what it was or is.’ The last supper was a thanksgiving and a blessing.
It was the indiscriminate acceptance of everyone, sinners and saints, a meal, a communion, a proclamation, a messianic banquet and a farewell in anticipation of the coming Kingdom. But on top of the face-value and literal importance of these activities and ventures to Christians, symbolic significances such as the redemption of humanity, costly forgiveness of sins, fellowship and unity among the body of Christ (and the non-Christians as well), among many other symbolic meanings that were discussed herein.
It is only by considering both the symbolic and literal meanings of the last supper that we can be able to utterly decipher the true meaning of the day and celebrate it accordingly (Freedman).
Freedman, David Noel. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Print.
Harris, Stephen L. The New Testament: A student’s Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., 2011. Print.
Klawans, Jonathan. Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder? Bar Magazine, 2010. Web. <https://www.baslibrary.org/bible-review/17/5/9>.
O’Toole, Robert F. “Last Supper.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1992. Print.
Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. 3rd. London: SCM Press, 1966. Print.