Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Part 9

How did Mark find out about the Last Supper?

I sometimes indulge the frivolous thought that New Testament scholarship might have derived some of its inspiration from great mystery writers, e.g., Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), Agatha Christie (1890-1976), and Dorothy L. Sayers (1983-1957). These authors imagined complex plots and their sleuths, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Lord Peter Wimsey, applied considerable ingenuity to discover whodunit. New Testament scholars, who have thrived when these authors were in their prime—and beyond—face one of the biggest whodunits ever, actually a multi-layered whodunit: how did Christianity come to be, how are the New Testament documents related, and how in the world can we figure out who Jesus really was, if he really was? Scholars have yet to agree on a methodology for identifying genuine historical data in the gospels—and they continue sleuthing to unravel multiple mysteries.



In Part 4 in this series, published last October, I focused on the perils of comparing the gospels. It was indeed a blunder to publish our four famous gospels side by side; why did the ancient creators of the Christian canon do that? Maybe the aura of holiness that surrounded the famous names, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, counted more than anything else. We know there were critical thinkers in the ancient world, but they weren’t on duty when decisions about the canon were made; anyone who reads the gospels side by side—even casually, let alone carefully—will be alarmed by the differences.


But then there was the decision to include the epistles, which adds to the mystery, because Jesus of Nazareth, his teachings and parables, ministry and miracles, are missing from the epistles, most of which were written before the gospels. Why did their authors neglect to tell the stories we find in the gospels? Which prompts us to wonder where the gospels come from; where did their authors get their information? Especially since we know they were written anonymously; the famous names were added later. There’s plenty of sleuthing that needs to be done. 


Sadly, sleuthing doesn’t appear to be a common Christian talent or inclination. Any cherished belief or article of faith merits close scrutiny: “Where did this idea come from?” “Who was the very first person to think of it?” There are quite a few such cherished beliefs now held with fierce determination: Jesus was the son of God, believing in him is the key to eternal life, God is love, we’ll end up in hell if we’re not careful. Each cherished idea should be researched; is the very first person who thought of it to be trusted—can that person even be identified? Did the idea come from divine inspiration or human imagination? “Having faith” is no guarantor; that just means there’s no actual evidence to go by. 


Sleuthing is good on another level as well. When the devout look at any chapter of the Bible, curiosity should kick in. Just where did this story come from? Who was the author, what were his sources, where did he get his information? “Well, it’s in the Bible” is not good enough. How did it get there? Even amateur Bible readers can make lists of things they wish weren’t in the Bible; we evaluate and pass judgment on texts all the time.  Sometimes when we get down to genuine sleuthing, unwelcome discoveries and possibilities can be the result; nothing should be exempt from close scrutiny, even stories at the center of Christian piety.


In Mark 14 we find an account of the Last Supper, at which Jesus institutes the Eucharist, a ritual that has endured in Christian worship for centuries. These are the iconic words:

“While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’”  (Mark 14:22-25)

Can we be confident that these are the exact words of Jesus? When Matthew copied this text, he added words: “…which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” And he changed the ending: “…when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom. When Luke copied it, he shortened these verses considerably. But we get a real shock when we see that John ignored Mark’s text altogether; he deleted the Eucharist from the Last Supper. So he wasn’t persuaded at all that these were the words of Jesus. Instead he reports that Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, which the other gospels don’t mention at all. In fact, John also deleted the virgin birth, Jesus’ baptism, the Sermon on the Mount (that Matthew had added), and the parables.  


These discrepancies should put anyone in the mood for sleuthing. What the hell is going on? How would we know what Jesus actually said? It’s certainly a legitimate question: did anyone at the Last Supper take notes—or at least write things down soon afterwards? Historians are always on the hunt for contemporaneous documentation, e.g., personal notes, letters, and diaries, written soon after, about conversations and events. Actually we don’t know if any of the disciples were literate, and even if some of them were, what would have been the motivation to preserve these words of Jesus? Certainly not for the benefit of future generations. Jesus had been predicting the imminent Kingdom of God, when reality would be upended, and the disciples would sit on thrones beside Jesus. 


If there was no documentation of Jesus’ words, perhaps they were handed on by word-of-mouth for a few decades before the gospel of Mark was written. This has been the fond hope of devout New Testament scholars, who want to trust that words told and retold countless times over the years would be preserved intact. This is the “reliable oral tradition” theory that has drawn increasing skepticism from secular historians; it is not a stable source of information about the past. Especially since Mark was probably written after the devastating Jewish-Roman War (66-73 C.E.) that left Jerusalem and the Temple in ruins. Where would Mark have hunted for his information—if his intent was to write history? 


Where indeed? The mystery deepens when we read I Corinthians 11, in which Paul scolds the church folks for misbehavior at communal meals: 


“When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!”  (I Corinthians 11:20-22)


Christians getting drunk in church? We’ll overlook that right now. But then come these startling verses:

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that 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.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (I Corinthians 11:23-26)

The gospels were written well after Paul’s time, so he couldn’t use them to find out about Jesus; he wasn’t present at the Last Supper, indeed he’d never met Jesus. In Galatians he states bluntly that he didn’t find out about Jesus from human sources. Nor does he put these words in the context we know from the gospels, made famous especially by Da Vinci’s painting, i.e., the gathering of the twelve disciples with Jesus.  

Paul was emphatic that he had revelations (= visions = hallucination) directly from Jesus: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…” So this Jesus-script in Paul’s letter is the first ever written account of what Jesus said….as derived from Paul’s imagination. So, pay attention sleuths! Richard Carrier puts it this way:

“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. But note how Mark alters Paul’s account. Where Paul only knows of Jesus taking these objects and requesting those hearing repeat the ritual to establish communion with him, Mark turns it into a narrative scene with guests present: ‘as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed and broke it, and gave it to them’, and so on…

“If we see this for what it is—Mark having turned Paul’s initial instruction from Jesus into a story about Jesus—we can no longer presume that Paul is talking about an actual historical event. The more so as he says he was told this by Jesus, not by anyone who was present at the meal.” (Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, p. 558)

Is there a chance that Paul knew the gospel setting of the Last Supper—so it is hoped by some—based on these words, “on the night when he was betrayed”? Is this a reference to Judas? The Greek word rendered here as “betrayed” is paradidomi, which can also be translated, “handed over.” So what are the translators up to? 

“It’s additionally revealing…that modern translators will presumptuously add implications not in the text. For instance, almost all Bible translations imagine Paul as referring to the ‘betrayal’ of Judas in his account of his Eucharist vision, when in fact Paul says no such thing. He instead uses the same language he does elsewhere, of God (not Judas) ‘handing over’ Jesus to those who would effect his atoning sacrifice (Romans 8:32). Few Bibles get this right…” (Richard Carrier, Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ, p. 42, Kindle)

Sleuths have to monitor translators as well.

Is it any surprise that these words of the Eucharist bubbled up in Paul’s imagination? 

“All mystery religions had an initiation ritual in which the congregant symbolically reenacts what the god endured (like Christian baptism: Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12), thus sharing in the salvation the god had achieved (Gal. 3:27; I Cor. 12:13) , and all involve a ritual meal that unites initiated members in communion with one another and their god (I Cor. 11:23-28). All of these features are fundamental to Christianity, yet equally fundamental to all the mystery cults that were extremely popular in the very era that Christianity arose.” (Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 99)

We are becoming increasingly aware of the influence of Paul’s letters on the gospels. Two books especially are worth careful attention: Tom Dykstra, Mark Canonizer of Paul: A New Look at Intertextuality in Mark’s Gospel, and David Oliver Smith, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul: The Influence of the Epistles on the Synoptic Gospels.

So, back to a fundamental question: “How in the world can we figure out who Jesus really was?” This quest is hampered—it’s actually damaged—by the knowledge that first writers about Christ, who created the most influential epistles, were focused on a theology that shared elements with other mystery cults, and thus had wide appeal. They weren’t all that interested in the historical Jesus; history was their least concern, and they would have impact on the stories created by the gospel writers. 

Packaging the epistles along with the gospels in the canon was a blessing for modern sleuths who have been able to trace influences—and gaffs. But for the survival of this ancient theology so rooted in superstition, it has been a blunder. What an embarrassment that Mark’s Last Supper script can be traced to Paul’s hallucinations.     

My brief video comment on Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Part 9 is here.   


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 published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 400 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.