Who Invented the Last Supper?

…maybe someone who wasn’t even there
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: This iconic lineup of ancient texts—bound together forever—has been venerated for centuries. But this gesture of homage to Jesus could very well be one of the biggest blunders of early Christian bureaucrats. The anonymous authors of these four texts could not have foreseen that this would happen, and, had they been around when the deed was done, would have vetoed it. Because, when we read the gospels side-by-side, the glaring contradictions—the theological differences—become obvious.

Why couldn’t these guys get the story straight? Because they were fantasy novelists, not historians. Thanks to centuries of positioning by the church, of course, an aura of holiness hangs over these books that supposedly tell the story of Jesus. Ordinary churchgoers, if they ever were so inclined, could dispel the aura by reading the gospels carefully, meticulously, critically. They are bound together: take advantage of that. Do the nitpicking, and don’t be surprised by so many WTF moments.

But the right mindset will help as well: recognize that the gospel writers were cult propagandists. Yes, I keep saying this because their agenda was to promote the tiny Jesus cult, one of hundreds vying for attention in the first century.

If there is any history in the gospels, it would be quite by accident; the gospels were written decades after the ‘events’ described. Any careful, curious reader—under the impression that the gospels are supposed to be history—would want to know where the stories came from: what were the sources? Imagine what a biography of George Washington would look like, penned fifty years after his death, by hero-worshippers who had no access to documents written when he was alive, e.g., letters from and to him, diaries, newspaper accounts, presidential archives, etc.

We have none of that about Jesus: absolutely none. The gospels emerged out of the imaginations of their authors, and by a careful comparison of these documents, we can see how their imaginations took off. Moreover, once the gospels had been written, they were altered countless times during the centuries they were copied by hand. So the imaginations of the copyists played a role as well.

Modern readers are challenged to think about these issues in almost any chapter of the gospels, and my focus here is on a few parts of the longest chapter in Mark’s gospel, the 14th. Any reader who has been shocked by the dreadful 13th chapter will have little remaining confidence that Mark should be taken seriously. I’ve dealt with that issue in a previous article, and also with the 13th chapter, in this series on each chapter of Mark’s gospel.

Any curious reader should wonder how, forty or more years after an event, the exact script of any gospel episode could have been recorded and preserved. NT scholars have insisted that ‘reliable oral tradition’ is based on eyewitness accounts. Even assuming that oral tradition carried the stories forward (although we have no way to verify that), how likely is it that accuracy will be preserved during forty years of repetition?

In fact there is a knockout blow to ‘reliable oral tradition’ in the story we read in Mark 14:3-9. Here we are told that a woman anointed Jesus with costly oil, but the episode is repeated in Matthew, Luke, and John with alterations and elaborations. Did repetitions by word-of-mouth get garbled? Or did the gospel writers—the fantasy novelists—freely invent?

Mark: This happened at the house of Simon the leper
Matthew: Also at Simon’s house
Luke: It was at a Pharisee’s house
John: It was at the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary

Mark: The woman brought a flask of pure nard, broke it, and poured it on Jesus’ head
Matthew: No mention that she broke the flask; she poured the ointment (no mention of nard) on Jesus’ head
Luke: In this version the woman is labeled a sinner, she wet Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped his feet with her hair and kissed them, and anointed his feet with the ointment
John: It is Mary (sister of Lazarus) who anointed Jesus’ feet, wiped them with her hair (nothing about tears)

Mark ends the episode (v. 9) with this Jesus quote: “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” This doesn’t align with the primary message of Mark’s Jesus, i.e., that the Kingdom of God was about to happen; ‘proclamation in the whole world’ wasn’t part of that agenda. D. E. Nineham, in his 1963 commentary on Mark, notes that this text is ‘hard to evaluate’:

“…as it stands, with its perspective of world-wide evangelism, it hardly goes back to Jesus himself, especially as the phrase ‘to preach the gospel’ belongs to the missionary vocabulary of the later Gentile Church. Perhaps, therefore, it is simply a later addition voicing recognition of what had in fact happened, that the incident had become an integral part of the gospel of Jesus’ death as the Church proclaimed it.” (p. 372)

“…as the Church proclaimed it,” i.e., a fragment of cult propaganda. Let’s keep our eyes on what’s happening in the construction of the gospels.

Richard Carrier has analyzed this text: “Mark 14:3-9 has the very odd story of the woman who spontaneously and for no historically intelligible reason anoints Jesus with precious oil from a priceless jar, which evokes an exchange between Jesus and his disciples that obviously has its entire origin solely within Mark’s literary imagination…the event is historically implausible in every way…” (p. 452, On the Historicity of Jesus)

There is no ‘reliable oral tradition’ in sight.

“We simply cannot identify anything in [Mark] as a historical fact about Jesus—even if there are such facts in Mark, we simply have no means to identify them.” (Carrier, p. 452)

More Bad News

It is in Mark 14 that we find the account of the Last Supper, and surely here, it is commonly assumed, we have recollections of eyewitnesses: Jesus’ famous words as recalled by those who were there. But is that the case? Remember: are accurate quotes possible after forty years of telling and retelling, until Mark committed them to writing? Maybe it didn’t happen that way at all.

Just where did the script of the Last Supper come from? There’s a major clue in I Corinthians, at 11:23-25, in which we find Paul’s report of the famous Jesus script:

“…the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”

This letter was probably written some twenty years after the death of Jesus, and at least 25 years before Mark’s gospel was written. In other words, Paul couldn’t have ‘looked it up’ in Mark’s gospel because it didn’t exist yet. And since Paul never, anywhere else, repeats a verbatim saying of Jesus, how likely was it that this script came from ‘reliable oral tradition’ supposedly in circulation?

Actually, Paul tells us where he got these ‘words of Jesus’: “…I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…” Since Paul was not at the Last Supper—he never even knew Jesus—here he assures his readers that these words came from the best possible source, his own personal visions of Jesus, his hallucinations, which he proclaimed as widely as possible. It is by no means farfetched that Mark used Paul’s letter as his source.

The author of John’s gospel, by the way, deleted this scene entirely from his version of the Last Supper, during which, in his account, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. But earlier, at 6:52-57, by many degrees of magnitudes, he enhanced the ghoulishness of the Eucharist script.

Again, Richard Carrier: “There are strong verbal similarities with the scene in the Gospels (whose accounts all derive from Mark 14:22-25), indicating dependence on this passage in Paul.” (p. 558, On the historicity of Jesus)

So it would seem that we’ve tracked down the words of the Last Supper. And, oh dear, we’ve strayed pretty far from history. Aren’t the foundations for this central Christian ritual getting wobbly? Cult propaganda, aka religious fantasy literature, is not very reliable.

Religious fantasy literature? How can I be so flippant, or even insulting? This is the holy story of Jesus. But is it asking too much of grownup readers to be honest about what they find in Mark’s gospel? How would they evaluate these stories if they came across them in other forms of folklore—anywhere other than the Christian gospels?

(1) Jesus talks to demons who have possessed a mentally ill man, and gives them permission to flee into a herd of pigs;

(2) Jesus glows on a mountaintop while talking to Moses and Elijah;

(3) Twice he feeds thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread;

(4) The primary message of this Galilean preacher is the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, and it will be violent, i.e., most people on earth will be killed.

When Jesus, after his arrest, was interrogated by the high priest, we find this in Mark 14:61-62:

“‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’”

The immediacy of this prediction is unmistakable. Yet we can be pretty sure that the high priest never did, in fact, see Jesus seated next to God or ‘coming with the clouds.’ Hence, of course, Jesus was wrong; or Mark, who authored this delusional theology.

This again raises the issue of the author’s sources, which any curious reader should want to know. None of Jesus’ disciples were there at the interrogation (Peter had tagged along at a distance, after the arrest—and would soon betray him). How did Mark know what happened?

I highly recommend David Chumney’s analysis of this scene, in his book, Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts. The heavy fantasy element in Mark’s gospel is a strike against him as a historian. In the creation of his Jesus story, he was confident that the primary elements could be gleaned from the Old Testament. Here’s what Chumney has to say:

"Throughout the passion narrative, events unfold ‘in accordance with the Scriptures.’ Consider, for example, the events between Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, events that ostensibly occurred behind closed doors.

How does Mark know that ‘the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death’ (14:55)? He infers their intent from Scripture: ‘The sinner watches for the righteous and seeks to put him to death’ (Psalm 36:32).

How does Mark know that ‘some stood up and gave false testimony against [Jesus]’ (14:57)? He finds confirmation of such perjury in Scripture: “[F]alse witnesses have risen against me” (Psalm 27:12).

How does Mark know that Jesus ‘was silent and did not answer’ those charges (14:61)? Jesus’ reticence is anticipated in Scripture: ‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth’ (Isaiah 53:7).

How does Mark know that the Romans flogged Jesus (14:15), struck him, and spit on him (14:19)? He finds evidence for such abuse in Scripture: ‘I have given my back to scourges and my cheeks to blows, but I did not turn away my face from the shame of spittings’ (Isaiah 50:6) In each instance, Mark’s account is derived not from the testimony of eyewitnesses but from the testimony of Scripture. Therefore, such information is not historically credible.”

“The passion narrative in Mark’s gospel—the foundation for what is found in the other three—is comprised largely of allusions to the Old Testament…But why did Mark rely so heavily on such material? He did so, critics have concluded, because that is all he had.”

Bear in mind that by the time Mark created his gospel, Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman army (which is the background of Mark 13), substantially decreasing the chances that any of those who remembered Jesus were still around—or that there were archives (e.g. with court and trial records) to be consulted.

Mark had his imagination, of course, and his skills as a theological novelist. Paul’s script for Jesus’ words at the Last Supper was good enough for him, and he knew that the story Jesus was imbedded in random verses in the Old Testament. All he had to do was fill out the framework of the story. It appears also, from a careful study of his texts, that his knowledge of Greek literature came in handy. See especially, Dennis R. MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.

But How Can the Word of God Be Wrong?

Our efforts at careful, honest, skeptical study of the gospels will always be haunted, of course, by Christian apologists who cherish these texts as the ‘very word of God.’ Who needs sources if God inspired the authors? But if this had been the case, how do we account for the errors, contradictions, and misinformation in the gospels? These goofs are there for everyone to see. No amount of special pleading (‘oh, it’s inspired’) can change that.

Robert Conner has noted that the four gospels “…are in substantial disagreement at various seemingly crucial points. If, as evangelicals are wont to claim, the Holy Spirit used human authors to pen a record for the ages on which belief could be firmly based, then the Holy Spirit made a right shit job of it.” (Debunking Christianity Blog, 13 September 2017).

So, yes, it was a mistake to jam the four gospels together. In Mark 14:63 we read that the high priest tore his clothes in rage when he heard Jesus’ pompous claim that he’d soon be seated next to God and coming on the clouds. We know how the priest felt! We sense the same anguish and frustration when devout folks press the claim that Mark 14 is an account of ‘what really happened.’

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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