Baker Academic

Monday, March 14, 2016

Jesus and the Last Supper (the Eerdmans Movie!)

Check out the video I did with the great people at Eerdmans on my new book, Jesus and the Last Supper, that was released in November.

A special word of thanks to Rachel Bomberger and Ahna Ziegler for being so gracious (and so much fun to work with!) over at the Eerdmans Author Interview Series.


  1. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    The first thing that caught my attention in Dr. Pitre's summary of his book was the inclination to attribute to Jesus himself what I normally think of as the contributions of the interpreters of Jesus.

    For example, I'm inclined to think that Jesus' apocalyptic prophet identity was the result of followers of John the Baptist (who expected 'one to come'), becoming converts to the Jesus movement, and:

    Regarding the 'last supper' I'm inclined to think that either the whole of Mark was written by a priest(s) or at least the last week section was written by a priest(s) building on the conviction of previous priest converts, as he depicts Jesus, the person, replacing the sacrificial function of the Temple, "giving his life a ransom for many." (10:45)

    It certainly makes sense that Jesus would gather at least a small group of followers to share a common table during that last week, especially at Passover, but the Passover and new covenant symbolism in blood was likely early on a post-resurrection devout followers' interpretation, taken over by the synoptic writers and Paul. (Although some have thought the 'last supper' to be an invention of Hellenistic Christians who were used to the practice of societies holding meals, and drinking a cup in honor of some god, in remembrance of those who had died; e.g., Acts of Jesus [Jesus Seminar], 1998, 139-140).

    GJohn I take to be an interesting case of dissent from the synoptics. The eating of Jesus' flesh and blood is placed in the gospel as an addendum and critique of the "Jews" (6:52-59), and possibly a later interpolation, following Jesus' speech (6:22-51) as the "true bread from heaven." Further in John, that significant meal during the last week was highlighted by the washing of feet and the command to love one another, not the claims of a new covenant in body and blood.

    Perhaps in the actual unfolding of the last-week events, along the way Jesus said something to his disciples like, "I've sweated blood for you this night. Make that our bond when I'm gone."

    1. Dear Gene,

      A couple of quick points:
      1. *All* of our evidence about Jesus is "the contributions of the interpreters of Jesus." There is no such thing as "uninterpreted" evidence. Sorry to disappoint, but simply declaring a particular datum to be "interpreted" does not constitute an argument for or against historicity. (Non sequitur, as they say).
      2. One of the reasons the book is over 500 pages is precisely because I *do not assume* either the historicity or non-historicity of any teaching or action attributed to Jesus. Instead, I actually examine the *arguments* for and against historical plausibility in each given case. This is precisely what often isn't done when it comes to the Last Supper and related evidence. That's one reason I felt compelled to write the book. Lots of people draw conclusions about Jesus and the Last Supper without making actual historical arguments for or against a given datum.
      3. Thanks for your speculations, but I'm wondering: What evidence do you have that Mark's account was "written by a priest"? What evidence do you have that the covenant language (present in Matt 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; and 1 Cor 11) was a "post-resurrection invention" of "Hellenistic Christians"? And what evidence do you have that John 6:52-59 is a "later interpolation"? Do you have any manuscripts that actually read "I've sweated blood for you this night Make that our bond when I'm gone"? If not, what historical reasons can you give for altering the data and rejecting the language (such as Jesus making a "covenant" in his own "blood") which is present in every single actual account we posses?

    2. Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

      Brant, I thank you for the opportunity of this conversation. First, please understand that I never intended to suggest that you did not do an exhaustive study of historical plausibility, and I admire 500+ pages of drawing conclusions based on careful reasoning. I saw clearly that you valued careful reasoning in the "Jesus' brothers" discussion. To my mind, however, all conclusions contain a substantial degree of subjectivity; no one can escape his/her own identity.

      For myself, I don't have a scholar's credentials, so my conclusions are simply based on my own reading of the text + whatever investigative studies I might have read over the years (I'm 72, so a lot of it was pretty long ago!). I did have 12 semesters of NT Greek, for what it's worth. Also, which may sound stupid and corny, I just find the dialogue of biblical investigation exhilarating.

      To your points: (1) Sorry for being a poor communicator. I totally agree that all Jesus evidence is someone's interpretation.

      (2) I prefer to think of my own interpretations as potentials or hypotheses, not speculation.

      (3)It makes sense to me that a converted priest would be uniquely inclined to replace temple sacrifice with JBap's baptism for sin, to replace temple sacrifice with the individual's faith-prayer-forgiving (Mk 11:22-25), to use words like "ransom", "body and blood," "suffering," with regard to Jesus' purpose, to spend the entirety of chapter 13 on an explanation of the temple's destruction,
      to use the high priest to condemn Jesus to death, to use the chief priests to accuse Jesus before Pilate, to use the chief priests to stir up the crowd, to use the chief priests to mock Jesus on the cross, to use death on a cross as a hint of the gentile mission (15:39).

      (4)The Hellenistic Christian contribution about the origins of a sacred meal I took from a book. Other than what I said, I don't know the specific details, and I simply put it in parentheses as an alternative I came across.

      (5) John 6:52-59 "may" be an interpolation. I don't know of any manuscript evidence. These verses seem very out of place in a gospel where the "body and blood" covenant language is absent at the last meal. My theory of why the Pauline and synoptic versions won out is that priestly interpretations dominated the thinking of the earliest Christians.

      (6) I obviously have no manuscripts or translations that actually read, "I've sweated blood for you this night. Make that our bond when I'm gone." Kind of cool, though, don't you think. Perhaps it's the kind of thing one would say knowing that he was facing death by church and state enemies, and knowing that at the same time this was his last chance to love the enemy in order to be consistent with his own teaching. (I can't think of any story in the gospel traditions where it shows Jesus loving his enemies.)

  2. From: Dr. G
    To: Brant

    Although I personally don't celebrate this, I've always said that ultimately, the Historical Jesus school has an insistently conservative, apologetics side. In that it, at a minimum, continues to say that at least there was some kind of real, actual Jesus out there, in history. And it seems from this video, it's been your aim to expand past that minimum.

    Listening to your video, it seems that you are attemting to use historical backgrounds, to try to reaffirm many core Catholic doctrines. Including the asserted historical authenticity of the Eucharist or Last Supper.

    Traditionally of course, there is nothing more conservatively Catholic than the insistence on the importance and reality of the Eucharistic Communion. Which we are told conveys the at-once spiritual but also literal "presence" of Jesus or God; and the actual literal blood and body of Jesus. But as you note, usually history "neglects" - or better said, rejects - the historicity of any Jewish person telling us to consume blood, say. Which is a capital offense in Old Testament judaism.

    And so you use history to hint at times that in some ways the Historical times, the first century, allow blood or wine to be metaphorical? Even as a real Presence is maintained in the body, especially? And you maintain the historicity of references to the church, in the New covenant and so forth.

    So to rather conservative, EWTN-style Catholics - like your apologetics associates Scott Hahn, Fr. Corapi, Robert Baron- you might seem innovative or daring. But? It seems to me, from a far more liberal or critical perspective, that mostly you seem to be using some notion of history, to mostly reaffirm core traditional Catholic doctrines.

    Would you object to that characterization of your latest book?

    Granted, you are using rather complex language. Which often might be read two ways or more.

    1. Dear "Dr. G.,"
      Thanks for the feedback. A few thoughts:
      1. My "aim" was to evaluate, from a historical perspective, the evidence for what Jesus did and said at the Last Supper. The book simply does not deal with "Catholic doctrines" (as you put it). Instead, it consists of a full-length examination of the arguments for and against the historical plausibility of teachings and actions attributed to Jesus that relate to the Last Supper. The aim was to assess these arguments and fill in a lacuna that has been something of a lacuna in Jesus research since the days of Reimarus.

      2. Sorry to disappoint you, but--again--the book just is not about "Catholic doctrines," as you put it. For example, there is no discussion of the doctrine of the real presence, or transubstantiation, or any other Eucharistic doctrine, for that matter. The book is about whether or not Jesus spoke and acted in ways that suggest he saw himself as the *new Moses,* giving the *new Manna,* and inaugurating a *new Passover* of the *kingdom of God*. It also deals extensively with the historical question of *the date of the Last Supper*. By contrast, the Catholic Church does not have any "doctrines" of the new Moses, the eschatological Manna, the new Passover, or the banquet of the kingdom of God. These are first century Jewish categories, and it is they that were the object of my investigation.

      To be fair: I realize the video may give the impression that I get into doctrinal issues because toward the end of the interview Rachel asked me a specific question about theological *implications* of my conclusions, to which I responded with some brief thoughts. But that's all those were: some off the cuff thoughts about possible implications of the conclusions. The bulk of the book is simply not about this.

      (BTW, you should perhaps do some more research on actual Catholic doctrine of the real presence: the Catholic Church never teaches anything about the "literal" presence or "literal" body and blood (as you put it). The language is that of "real" presence or "substantial presence". You seem to be misinformed here.)

      3. I don't know what tradition or perspective you're coming from, but you seem to be using the word "apologetics" negatively as a kind of scare word. Maybe you are an ex-fundamentalist or something? I don't know. But I am a Catholic. In the Catholic tradition, we don't have a problem with reasoned defense or explanation of a position or conclusion (cf. the Greek apologia). In fact, we actually believe that the use of reason--including historical reasoning--is extremely important and even necessary (of course, reason has it limits). In any case, people--especially scholars-- should be able to explain their positions using well reasoned argumentation.

      That's why, in the final analysis, I'm not really all that interested in whether you think my historical conclusions are 'conservative' or 'liberal'; I'm interested in whether you think my historical *arguments* for my conclusions are right or wrong, and if so why. One of the points of this book is to show that, starting with Reimarus, some scholars--not all--have been somewhat uncritical in both their interpretations of and historical conclusions about Jesus and the Last Supper.

    2. From Dr. G:

      *If* we presume that Jesus was rather wholly Jewish, then key elements of the Lord's supper would probably match roughly the categories you describe. Or say, the 1) blood would refer to the blood of the Passover lamb. The 2) bread is manna. 3)Jesus is the New Moses, etc..

      However,interesting as that is, if this is used to try to next make out a real, historical Jesus, it depends on the assumption that Jesus was wholly Jewish, with no other cultural influences.

      That to be sure is a quite popular theory today. But one which has to gloss over many passages in the NT. Where Jesus says for example, that he had never seen as much faith, in any Jew, as he saw in a Roman centurion. Thus sometimes giving not Jews, but Romans, some kind of favored status.

      And? Given that Romans had taken over Jerusalem in 64 BC, and occupied it from that time to well after the death of Jesus, we might expect to see denied, resisted, but real Roman influences in the new religion of Christianity. Which came to be largely ruled after all, by the "Roman" church.

      So having been graduate-trained in History,I'd say that a broader overview of all of local history, would suggest that even Jesus or Christianity, were being influenced not just by Jewish beliefs, but in spite of themselves perhaps, by Roman culture as well.

      Mark to be sure takes up the question of what we owe to Caesar, in equivocal language. But in one reading, we're are to give to him what is rightfully his.

      So perhaps Christianity is partially oweing to not just Jews, but also to the fullness of the gentiles. As suggested by Hengel and others. (Including recently, even Larry Hurtado, on his blog.)

      This has been argued on thus very blog before. But since it may be new to you, it seems worth mentioning briefly here. Without harping on it, to be sure.

  3. Absolutely stunning interview! What a journey ...

    1. Thanks Frederick. It was a fun book to write.

    2. Brant,
      Would love to dialogue about Luke 22:16-18 read together with 22:30; 24:13-35, 36-43, and Acts 1:4; 10:41. I mentioned your great book in my PhD...

  4. I enjoyed the interview so much that I will have to get the book. But a question: Both Mark and Matthew have "blood of the covenant," instead of "blood of the new covenant." Is there some significance to this?

    1. Hey Julian,
      Hope you enjoy the book. I'll get into that question in detail in chapter 2. The significance of the adjective "new" covenant is tied to the eschatological expectations derived from the book of Jeremiah (31:31-33) and present in other first century Jewish groups (like the authors of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

    2. Yes, I understand the significance of the term "new covenant." What If find interesting is that both Mark and Matthew do not include the word "new." Could it be that they were suggesting that Jesus was really the blood of the "old" covenant, also?

    3. Yes, I understand the significance of the term "new covenant." What I find interesting is that both Mark and Matthew do not include the word "new." Could it be that they were suggesting that Jesus was the blood of "old" covenant, also?

  5. Hi, Brant.

    I've always been critical of even the so-called third quest, 'though I greatly welcome the focus on a truly Jewish Jesus, on account of some of the source-critical methodological assumptions (eg, the idea that Q, Mark, special Matthean or Lukan material, or the gospel of John offer us independent attestation. The gospels can only give us evidence for the views and artistry of the authors and, secondarily, the views of their audiences. It also frustrated me that the earliest source, Paul, is hardly used by most questers despite his providing us with the very earliest accounts of albeit very few instances or views of the historical Jesus as he was understood in the first few decades after his death, especially the brief traditional account of the last supper. Thus, I am really looking forward to reading your book!

    Two questions. Do you share my skepticism regarding the overuse of arguments of independent attestation?

    Also, how would you compare and contrast this book (Jesus and the Last Supper) with your other book (Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper)?