Matthew Chapter 26:26-35

These sections had been moving quickly. Being able to focus almost exclusively on the narrative helps with this. In this section, we come to the Last Supper itself; or, rather, we come to the part afterwards, “when the supper was ended” as the words of the Consecration say, whether in the Roman or the Anglican rite. As such, this section raises some really significant theological issues that require a certain amount of investigation.

26 Ἐσθιόντων δὲ αὐτῶν λαβὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἄρτον καὶ εὐλογήσας ἔκλασεν καὶ δοὺς τοῖς μαθηταῖς εἶπεν, Λάβετε φάγετε, τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου.

27 καὶ λαβὼν ποτήριον καὶ εὐχαριστήσας ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς λέγων, Πίετε ἐξ αὐτοῦ πάντες,

28 τοῦτο γάρ ἐστιν τὸ αἷμά μου τῆς διαθήκης τὸ περὶ πολλῶν ἐκχυννόμενον εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν.

They having eaten, Jesus taking bread blessed it and broke and giving it to his disciples said, “Take, eat, this is my body. (27) And taking the cup and having blessed it he gave it to them saying, “Drink from this all, for this is my blood of the covenant which for many is having been poured out for the forgiveness of sins.”

This passage presents some difficulty for me. To clarify, it’s not actually passage per se, but this passage in relation to Paul’s description of the Last Supper as provided in 1 Corinthians 11. First of all, Paul also says that this supper took place on the night before he was arrested. That corroborates the setting provided by Mark and Matthew to some extent. It is incumbent on me to explain these common details. The easiest would be to say that this is an accurate description of what happened, and I think that point has to be conceded. Paul does not say that Jesus was arrested at the opening of Passover, but Mark indicates a tradition making this connexion. That Matthew and Luke got the story from Mark can go without saying, but where did Mark get it? Did he get it from Paul, in which case we are dealing with a single, linear progression? This, of course, hinges on the question of whether Mark was aware of Paul. If so, the problem is solved.

To judge this, we have to weigh a couple of different things. First, the language of Paul and the Synoptics is pretty close. What is the likelihood that two independent traditions got it so close? Pretty slim. This should be balanced against how much other evidence there is for Mark being aware of Paul. How many other places in Mark seem to be an echo of something from Paul? The answer: very few. So if Mark was not aware of Paul, how to explain the similarity of the wording? And it is similar; in fact, the differences between Mark and Matthew are more significant than between Mark and Paul.

So we have the fact that this was done on the night he was betrayed, and we have the similarity of words. The combination may present a case that this tradition was very strong and carried through to various groups, those of Paul, and that of Mark, independently of each other. In this sense there is probably a decent case that the institution of a communal meal went very far back in the tradition. This should not surprise us. If this was the Seder, then of course it started with a communal meal. That’s what a Seder is. The problem is that Paul does not corroborate this. Having this communal meal attach itself to the Passover Seder is something we would expect as time passed. It wasn’t enough to be a meal; it had to be a special meal. In this way many of the significant events in Malory’s telling of the Arthur legend occur on Pentecost. And it would make most sense if the attachment to the Seder came about after the identification of Jesus with the Paschal lamb.  

So how far back does this tradition of the communal meal go? Seder or not, communal meals were a very large part of pagan religious practice, too. A communal meal, in fact, is a central focus in a lot of cultures, religions, and in the mythical family life of (at least) Americans. So there is really nothing special about a communal meal per se, except that communal meals are special in & of themselves. In the case of the Last Supper, the specialness comes from the symbolism of the bread and wine.

As many later critics of Christianity would say, it sounds an awful lot like cannibalism. That’s pretty special. It’s also very ancient, and very specific to certain cultures. It would be good to see some studies on this, on the existence of ritual cannibalism in the ancient Near East. We won’t see them, of course, because no one is willing to go there. However, there is another possible interpretation of this: grapes. The body of the grape is eaten; the ‘blood’ produces wine. So rather than cannibalism of flesh, perhaps this is an echo of the “cannibalism” of a vegetative god; naturally, Dionysios comes first to mind. This is the story of a god who died and was reborn, whose body was cut to pieces and eaten, but also one who produced grapes that provided the blood of wine. This seems to be an interesting possibility since the vegetation god was a central figure in a lot of Near Eastern religion and culture.

This is all directed at the deep background of this institution, the why. What about the when? When was this instituted? Does it date back to Jesus? It’s tempting to say so.In fact, on one reading, it almost has to date back to Jesus. It’s a question of whether Paul originated this, or whether he took over an existing practice. If the latter, the question becomes where did he get it? Per his own story in Galatians, he got his revelation directly from God, and spent almost no time learning anything from any human being. Paul pretty much brags about this. Did he get this directly from God? If so, then we can definitively say that Paul didn’t get this from a living tradition, but as something he dreamed up in a moment of inspiration. Of course, we can’t know if Paul got this via inspiration, so we have to ask if he got it from a living tradition. The answer is, “it’s possible”. He did talk to Peter on his first trip to Jerusalem, and he knew about Peter living (and eating) like a pagan when he was out from under James’ watchful eye. From these, we can assume that Paul had a certain amount of interaction with Peter over time. And what Jesus said on that last night would certainly be a topic that Peter would pass along. So, the chances are, Paul did get this from a living tradition.

But wait, there’s more. If Peter and James told the story of Jesus’ last night on earth, then there is reason to believe that the story of the Last Supper could easily have entered the tradition through multiple streams. Given this, there is no reason this could not have gotten to Mark without the intermediacy of Paul. So the grand prize here is that this could, pretty easily, trace to Jesus. First of all, this is not exactly mainstream Jewish thought here; as I have discussed, it seems much more pagan than Jewish, a reference to Dionysios and the other dying & resurrection vegetation gods of the Near East. This fact makes it less likely that it came from James. And since Paul knew of it, this is obviously pretty old. Perhaps the clincher is that this is a truly odd thing to say. “This is my body” and “this is my blood” are not really part of normal religious discourse, at least not in the Semitic/Western tradition. It’s pretty much original, or at least it’s a very ancient tradition. Together, all of these things (there are probably more if I stopped to think a bit), I believe, point to a provenance with Jesus.

There is one last point. Matthew adds that this was done, “for the forgiveness of sins”. Why does he add that? Where did that come from? I want to stress that this is not a pagan sort of thing, so it’s not likely something Matthew got from his pagan background. It’s not really even implicit in Paul or Mark, either. It’s new with Matthew. It’s interesting to note that the idea of forgiving sins, or sins in general, is, if not a foundation, then a key element for Paul. Already in Galatians he tells us that Jesus gave himself for our sins; in 1 Corinthians 15 he tells us that Jesus died for our sins. The them is very prominent in Romans, surfacing only in the first two chapters of Mark, becoming more popular in Matthew, and then flourishing in Luke and John. So Matthew is re-awakening Paul’s focus on the topic.

Which should pique our interest. With the words of institution, we discussed whether we should consider if Matthew was aware of Paul, landing in the negative; but now, with the second coming of sins and their forgiveness, we have, perhaps, two major thematic connexions between Matthew and Paul. Do we have to reconsider that negative opinion?

It’s not necessary. The idea should be considered, by all means, but it’s not necessary to posit an awareness of Paul. There is, however, a very real connexion. I think what we’re witnessing is the diffusion of Paul’s teachings to an ever-wider audience. Let’s remember that Luke definitely becomes aware of Paul, so the message of the earlier apostle was permeating the thought-world of proto-Christianity, and was becoming poised for a breakthrough in the next decade or so. What this does do, perhaps, is provide yet another indication that Matthew may have been a pagan. Reading the LXII instead of the HS is hardly startling; the LXII was created because ever-larger numbers of Jews could read Greek but not Hebrew. But now we have Matthew encountering significant pieces of Paul’s message, albeit (most likely) divorced from a direct connexion to Paul’s name. And whom did Paul evangelize? Jews? No, pagans. In addition, the idea of Jesus’ blood being spilled for the forgiveness of sins really reinforces the idea of the sacrifice, of Jesus as the Paschal Lamb. It would be very nice if Paul had made the identification of Jesus with the lamb of Passover explicit; but he was preaching to pagans, for whom the idea of Passover may not have carried much resonance. But the connexion of blood sacrifice and forgiveness is not at all the sole possession of Jews; this was a standard means of expiation for pagans–Greeks–as well. So, while tantalizing, the direct affiliation to Paul’s teaching is far from proven, and its probability is certainly less than 50/50, and probably less than a third.

One thing that does get omitted from all the gospel accounts is Paul’s injunction of Jesus that the disciples continue to perform the act in his memory. The omission is curious. For that reason, I think the message of Paul arrived at Matthew’s awareness piecemeal, and without Paul’s name attached. This is where we have to evaluate this omission in terms of the argument from silence. It seems like this should/would be something that the evangelists would mention if they were aware of it. But that is not a certainty. But still, I would say that the lack of this injunction pretty firmly tips the balance against the idea of an explicit knowledge of Paul and any of his writings, even if the message did come down to the evangelists. 

26 Cenantibus autem eis, accepit Iesus panem et benedixit ac fregit deditque discipulis et ait: “ Accipite, comedite: hoc est corpus meum ”.

27 Et accipiens calicem, gratias egit et dedit illis dicens: “ Bibite ex hoc omnes:

28 hic est enim sanguis meus novi testamenti, qui pro multis effunditur in remissionem peccatorum.

29 λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν, οὐ μὴ πίω ἀπ’ ἄρτι ἐκ τούτου τοῦ γενήματος τῆς ἀμπέλου ἕως τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης ὅταν αὐτὸ πίνω μεθ’ ὑμῶν καινὸν ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τοῦ πατρός μου.

30Καὶ ὑμνήσαντες ἐξῆλθον εἰς τὸ Ὄρος τῶν Ἐλαιῶν.

“I say to you, I will not drink the produce of the vine until those days when I drink with you anon in the kingdom of my father.” (30) And hymnizing, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

I believe I used “hymnizing”, or something similar, translating Mark’s version of this. It’s a verb in Greek, so “singing a hymn”, while correct, doesn’t quite get to the true sense of the Greek. Unlike the words about the bread and the wine, I’m highly suspicious of the veracity of these words. This strikes me as some unadulterated dramatic innovation.

29 Dico autem vobis: Non bibam amodo de hoc genimine vitis usque in diem illum, cum illud bibam vobiscum novum in regno Patris mei”.

30 Et hymno dicto, exierunt in montem Oliveti.

31 Τότε λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Πάντες ὑμεῖς σκανδαλισθήσεσθε ἐν ἐμοὶ ἐν τῇ νυκτὶ ταύτῃ, γέγραπται γάρ, Πατάξω τὸν ποιμένα, καὶ διασκορπισθήσονται τὰ πρόβατα τῆς ποίμνης:

32 μετὰ δὲ τὸ ἐγερθῆναί με προάξω ὑμᾶς εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν.

Then Jesus said to them, “All you will be caused to stumble on me in this night, for it is written, ‘I will smite the shepherd and the sheep of the shepherd will be scattered’. (32) After the to have been risen, I will go before you to Galilee”.

This last part has some interesting implications. Jesus is saying that he will proceed the disciples–all of them–to Galilee, after he has been raised. This is unique to Matthew. Mark really didn’t have a resurrection story, so there really isn’t a whole lot of point in comparing the two. It is entirely possible that Matthew provides us with the earliest of the resurrection stories. I think I will save what I have to say about that for when we get to that point in the text. But this bit about going ahead of them to Galilee will play a significant role in that story.

31 Tunc dicit illis Iesus: “Omnes vos scandalum patiemini in me in ista nocte. Scriptum est enim: “Percutiam pastorem, et dispergentur oves gregis”.

32 Postquam autem resurrexero, praecedam vos in Galilaeam”.

33 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Εἰ πάντες σκανδαλισθήσονται ἐν σοί, ἐγὼ οὐδέποτε σκανδαλισθήσομαι.

34 ἔφη αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Ἀμὴν λέγω σοι ὅτι ἐν ταύτῃ τῇ νυκτὶ πρὶν ἀλέκτορα φωνῆσαι τρὶς ἀπαρνήσῃ με.

35 λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πέτρος, Κἂν δέῃ με σὺν σοὶ ἀποθανεῖν, οὐ μή σε ἀπαρνήσομαι. ὁμοίως καὶ πάντες οἱ μαθηταὶ εἶπαν.

Answering, Peter said to him, “If all are caused to stumble over you, I will never be caused to stumble”. (34) Jesus said to him, “Amen I say to you that this very night, before the cock crows three time you will deny me”. (35) Peter said to him, “And even if it be necessary that with you to die, I will not disown you.” In the same way all the disciples spoke.

This, too, strikes me as a piece of dramatic invention, created at a time when Peter had become a well-known figure. Then it would have meant much what it does today: even Peter fell away. Now, the question becomes whether this invention is more or less likely given the variant traditions of this particular episode: that Peter would deny three times, or that he would deny before the cock crowed three times, or before the cock crowed twice, or whatever else. It occurs to me that “solving” the reason behind the variant stories would probably tell us a great deal about how the gospels were written. After all, if  Matthew is writing with a copy of Mark, why not just repeat what Mark said about the denial? To us it seems a simple matter of getting one’s facts–or story–straight. In our world of factual accuracy, this seems both easy enough to do, and important enough to want to do.

The key phrases in that last sentence are to us, and in our world. Why? Because we always, constantly have to remember that they did not perceive the world in the same way that we do. Our insistence on getting the details correct and the story straight would have seemed…odd to Matthew. His attitude would have been something like why sweat the small stuff? Who cares how it actually happened, or even if it actually happened. Focusing on that stuff just misses the point. The point is that even Peter had his lapses. That is what matters here. How can this be? we ask.

Understanding this carries an entire host of implications. We so blithely go on about how “Matthew knew about”, or “used” Mark’s gospel, but what do we mean by that? I have seen this discussed at least once, where a modern scholar was speculating about whether Matthew had a written copy of Mark in front of him as he wrote. Given the almost dead equivalence of language in a dozen (at least) places, the answer has to be unequivocally “yes”. There are too many almost-verbatim quotes that Matthew must have had a written copy, one that was open in front of him. So then, if that’s true, as it must be, then how to explain the factual discrepancies except in terms of this not being important. In fact, it almost seems that Matthew deliberately change the circumstances of Jesus’ prediction. Peter’s asseveration that he will die is much too close in vocabulary for Matthew not to be reading it as he wrote. So what other conclusion is there? Seriously. What other explanation can there be, aside from Matthew making a deliberate decision to change the “factual” circumstances of Jesus’ prediction?

I have no answer to that. What is worse, is that I’ve never seen the question asked. Never. Rather than being faced directly and answered–or having a theory or hypothesis about them–these sorts of discrepancies are swept under the rug. Or, at best, they are acknowledged with a nervous titter, and then swept under the rug. They are trotted out by those who argue against biblical inerrancy, but they are trotted out and left to stand in the ring by themselves. And even biblical scholars like Ehrman who don’t insist on inerrancy–and who rather celebrate the errors–don’t do much with them, either. Here is a clear case where, in one sentence Matthew seems to change, deliberately, a minor factual bit of information, and in the very next copies out Mark’s wording of Peter’s response almost verbatim. Why?

Make that, why?

I have no answer, but I truly feel that I’ve moved the ball just by asking the question.

33 Respondens autem Petrus ait illi: “Et si omnes scandalizati fuerint in te, ego numquam scandalizabor”.

34 Ait illi Iesus: “Amen dico tibi: In hac nocte, antequam gallus cantet, ter me negabis”.

35 Ait illi Petrus: “Etiam si oportuerit me mori tecum, non te negabo”. Similiter et omnes discipuli dixerunt.

About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on September 17, 2016, in Chapter 26, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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