Damien F. Mackey
Josef Ratzinger believes the Last Supper of Jesus Christ to be so wholly new a sacred institution as to divorce itself from the essence of the Jewish tradition of the Passover.
His controversial conclusion is that Jesus did not eat the lamb at the Last Supper.
“I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world” ….
The present “world” has to disappear; it must be changed into God’s world. That is precisely what Jesus’ mission is, into which the disciples are taken up: leading “the world” away from the condition of man’s alienation from God ….
In this volume by Josef Ratzinger, who became pope Benedict XVI, the discussion centres upon:
Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem
To the Resurrection
The then Pope’s general intention was to provide a better rounded than usual approach to biblical hermeneutics in line with Vatican II’s Dei Verbum. For instance, he had embarked upon a thorough account of the Suffering Servant type of Messiahship as embraced by Jesus Christ, and how this challenged the pre-conceived notions of his disciples. In this regard he lingered notably on the wrong attitude to Messiahship of Saint Peter himself, as best exemplified by his reaction to the episode of the Washing of the Feet. Peter’s subsequent fall was there contrasted with the ‘dark destructiveness’ of Judas.
That took the reader to about a third of the way through the nine chapter book, to Chapter 3 (“The Washing of the Feet”).
The remainder of the book contains, amongst its various themes, certain arguments that have aroused a fair amount of controversy. We refer especially to Pope Benedict’s treatment of the Last Supper (Chapter 5) – and “whether or not it was a Passover meal” (p. 145) – and of the Resurrection (Chapter 9), which some think to be completely inadequate, or worse.
A Few Early Impressions
I, like others, did tend to wince, at least initially, when reading Pope Benedict’s bald statements as follows regarding the Last Supper and the Resurrection:
- 103: “… the accounts of the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist are caught up in a dense undergrowth of mutually contradictory hypotheses, which seem to make access to the real event virtually impossible”,
but more especially:
- 106: “The problem of dating Jesus’ Last Supper arises from the contradictions on this point between the Synoptic Gospels [the name given to the collective Matthew, Mark and Luke], on the one hand, and Saint John’s Gospel, on the other”.
Then there was this one:
- 269: “… the Resurrection. … Luke ends up contradicting his own narrative …”.
Did Jesus Eat the Passover Lamb?
At the centre of the controversy, apart from the matter of any perceived contradiction between Saint John and the Synoptics, is the important consideration of whether or not a lamb was involved in the Last Supper. In other words, was it based upon a traditional Jewish Passover meal but then transformed into something far higher by Jesus, or – which seems to be the Pope’s view – was the whole thing entirely new?
The more traditional view has recently been defended by Fr. Brian Harrison of the Oblates of Wisdom and by Dr. Brant Pitre of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.
Fr. Harrison wrote firmly on this issue in an e-mail of 16 July 2011:
… Prof. Ratzinger’s scholarship seems sloppy even by his own standards here, because when you read past the subtitle and first sentence (p. 106), which talk of a contradiction between the Gospels in “the dating of the Last Supper”, you find that the “contradiction” he thinks he finds is over the character, not the date, of the Last Supper. (Ratzinger spends two or three pages discussing – and finally disagreeing with – a scholar who argued some decades ago that it took place on the Tuesday night, not the Thursday, of the original Holy Week. He himself doesn’t deny that all the Gospels place the Last Supper on the Thursday night, and that he was crucified the next day.)
The alleged contradiction is, rather, about whether the Last Supper was the Passover supper or not. The Synoptics make it clear that it was, while John 18:8 says that the Passover meal was to be celebrated by the Jews on the Friday night, not the Thursday night. And indeed, Ratzinger claims that John really wants to tell us that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal. Well, I don’t think he does that at all. Have a look for yourself at the relevant passage, John ch. 13 to ch. 18, which contains all that John says about the Last Supper. The only reference to the Passover is right at the beginning, where John says the supper took place “before the festival of the Passover” (13:1). The rest of Ratzinger’s argument seems to be pretty much from silence; i.e., John says nothing in these chapters that would indicate they were celebrating a Passover meal. But on that sort of ‘logic’, you’d have to say John also “denies” the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, because he also says nothing about it. (Rather, he gives an account of the foot-washing, which the Synoptics don’t mention.) …..
[End of quote]
And Dr. Pitre writes in his article, “Was There a Passover Lamb at the Last Supper?”:
…. As anyone who has read Pope Benedict’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week will know, the Pope devotes a substantial portion of his chapter on the Last Supper to the question of the date of the meal—specifically, whether or not the Last Supper coincided with the ordinary Jewish Passover meal (see pp. 106-115). And as anyone familiar with this extremely complex and age-old question knows, there is simply no way I can address it here adequately.
Thankfully, I am currently working on finishing a full-length scholarly book on the Last Supper (to be published by Eerdmans), in which I will offer a detailed solution to the date of the Last Supper. In that study, I will draw on the massive amount of contemporary research done in this area and add to it some important Jewish evidence that been neglected. (For some suggested readings on the question of the date, see pp. 214-215 in my book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist).
[End of quote]
Before I consider further these areas of controversy, though, and read more of what Fr. Brian and Dr. Pitre have to say, I might continue with a brief sweep through the book, here just gathering a handful of interesting – and, I think, inspiring – points that I have picked up along the way.
Pope Benedict XVI has written:
- 78: “According to the rabbinic theology, the idea of the covenant – the idea of establishing a holy people to be an interlocutor for God in union with him – is prior to the idea of the creation of the world and supplies its inner motive. The cosmos was created, not that there might be manifold things in heaven and earth, but that there might be a space for the “covenant”, for the loving “yes” between God and his human respondent”.
- 80: “In [John 17: Jesus’ high-priestly prayer] the words addressed by Jesus to the Father, the ritual of the Day of Atonement is transformed into prayer. Here we find a concrete example of that cultic renewal toward which the cleansing of the Temple and Jesus’ interpretation of it were pointing. Sacrificial animals are a thing of the past. In their place are what the Greek Fathers called thysía logikê – spiritual sacrifices [literally: sacrifices after the manner of the word] – and what Paul described in similar terms as logikê latreía, that is, worship shaped by the word, structured on reason (Rom 12:1)”.
Pp. 89-90: “Between [John 17] verses 17 and 19, which speak of the consecration of the disciples, there is a small but important difference. Verse 19 says that they are to be consecrated “in truth”: not just ritually, but truly, in their whole being – that is doubtless how it should be translated. Verse 17, on the other hand, reads: “sanctify them in the truth”. Here the truth is designated as the force of sanctification, as “their consecration”.
According to the Book of Exodus, the priestly consecration of the sons of Aaron is accomplished when they are vested in sacred robes and anointed (29:1-9); the ritual of the Day of Atonement also speaks of a complete bath before the investiture with sacred robes (Lev. 16:4). The disciples of Jesus are sanctified, consecrated “in the truth”. The truth is the bath that purifies them; the truth is the robe and the anointing they need.
This purifying and sanctifying “truth” is ultimately Christ himself. They must be immersed in him; they must, so to speak, be “newly robed” in him, and thus they come to share in his consecration, in his priestly commission, in his sacrifice”.
Pp. 100-101: “The universal horizon of Jesus’ mission can also be seen in two other important texts from the Fourth Gospel: first, in Jesus’ nocturnal conversation with Nicodemus: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son” (3:16), and then – with the emphasis here on the sacrifice of his life – in the bread of life discourse at Capernaum “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:51).”
But how do we reconcile this universalism with the harsh words found in verse 9 of the high-priestly prayer: “I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world”? In order to grasp the inner unity of the apparently contradictory prayers, we must remember that John uses the word “cosmos” – world – in two different senses. On the one hand, it refers to the whole of God’s good creation, especially to men: his creatures, whom he loves to the point of the gift of himself in the Son. On the other hand, the word refers to the human world as it has evolved in history. Corruption, lies, and violence have, as it were, become “natural” to it. Blaise Pascal speaks of a second nature that in the course of history has supplanted the first. Modern philosophers have described this historical state of mankind in various ways, as for example when Martin Heidegger speaks of being reduced to the impersonal, of existing in “inauthenticity”. These same issues are presented in a very different way when Karl Marx expounds man’s alienation.
Philosophy in these instances is ultimately describing what is known to faith as “original sin”. The present “world” has to disappear; it must be changed into God’s world. That is precisely what Jesus’ mission is, into which the disciples are taken up: leading “the world” away from the condition of man’s alienation from God and from himself, so that it can become God’s world once more and so that man can become fully himself again by becoming one with God. Yet this transformation comes at the price of the Cross; it comes at the price of readiness for martyrdom on the part of Christ’s witnesses”.
- 134: “Now there is one further expression in Jesus’ words of institution that needs to be explained, one that has been extensively debated in recent times. According to Mark and Matthew, Jesus said that his blood would be shed “for many”, echoing Isaiah 53, whereas in Paul and Luke we read of the blood being given or poured out “for you”.
Recent theology has rightly underlined the use of the word “for” in all four accounts, a word that may be considered the key not only to the Last Supper accounts, but to the figure of Jesus overall. His entire being is expressed by the word “pro-existence” – he is there, not for himself but for others. This is not merely a dimension of his existence, but its innermost essence and its entirety. His very being is “being-for”. If we are able to grasp this, then we have truly come close to the mystery of Jesus, and we have understood what discipleship is”.
And, later (in the Epilogue), now on the episode of the Ascension:
Pp. 281, 283: “The joy of the disciples after the “Ascension” corrects our image of this event. “Ascension” does not mean departure into a remote region of the cosmos, but rather, the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy.
…. The departing Jesus does not make his way to some distant star. He enters into communion of power and life with the living God, into God’s dominion over space. Hence he has not “gone away”, but now and forever by God’s own power he is present with us and for us”.
- 286: “Christ, at the Father’s right hand, is not far away from us. At most we are far from him, but the path that joins us to one another is open. And this path is not a matter of space travel of a cosmic-geographical nature: it is the “space travel” of the heart, from the dimension of self-enclosed isolation to the new dimension of world-embracing divine love”.
- 292-293: “[At his Ascension] Jesus departs in the act of blessing. He goes while blessing, and he remains in that gesture of blessing. His hands remain stretched out over this world. The blessing hands of Christ are like a roof that protects us. But at the same time, they are a gesture of opening up, tearing the world open so that heaven may enter in, may become “present” within it”.
Passover Lamb (continued)
The traditional view that the Last Supper was a Passover Meal is fixed in our minds thanks to the famous eucharistic hymn of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Pange Lingua, “Sing, My Tongue”, with the translated words: “He the Paschal victim eating, first fufills the Law’s command”. Then follows the institution of the Eucharist, “[He] … as Food to His Apostles gives Himself with His own hand”:
|In supremae nocte cenae recumbens cum fratribus observata lege plene cibis in legalibus, cibum turbae duodenae se dat suis manibus.||On the night of that Last Supper, seated with His chosen band, He the Pascal victim eating, first fulfills the Law’s command; then as Food to His Apostles gives Himself with His own hand.|
Correspondingly, there does appear to be a strong case for a paschal lamb to have been involved at the Last Supper, as argued by Fr. Brian Harrison and Dr. Brant Pitre. We continue on with their discussions, beginning with Father Harrison’s e-mail letter:
There are various explanations traditional exegetes have offered as a solution for this difficulty [i.e., no indication by St. John of a Passover meal being celebrated]. The majority view seems to have been that both the Synoptics and John are right, given that there is evidence for some degree of flexibility at that time among different Jewish groups, as to when the Passover meal (normally 14th Nisan) was celebrated (just as there is on our liturgical calendars, when a certain annual Feast can be displaced in a given year by a higher Feast). Since – as we learn from Jn 18: 28 – the regular calendar followed in Jerusalem had the Passover on the Friday, that would have been another good reason why Our Lord would decide to anticipate the Passover meal with his disciples by one day, on 13th Nisan. For he knew he was going to dead by the time most folks there were celebrating their Passover meal; and in any case of course, the Last Supper wasn’t going to be just a regular Passover meal, but was destined to include, at the end, something new, the institution of the Eucharist, in which he himself would be offered, anticipating Calvary, as the new Paschal Lamb. Ratzinger finally gets round to acknowledging this “paschal” (in a new sense) element in the Last Supper, but he doesn’t retract his initial assertion that there is a “contradiction” between John and the Synoptics.
Presumably he thinks the latter are wrong in depicting the first part of the Last Supper as being a regular Passover meal. (That would seem to mean they put false words on the lips of Jesus, who is reported as saying that what he intended to do that night was “keep Passover” [Mt. 26: 18; Mk 14: 14; Lk 22: 11]. The evangelists then tell us that’s exactly what the disciples understood: for they went and “prepared Passover” [Mt. 26: 19; Mk. 14: 16; Lk 22: 13].) In that case they would of course have made sure they had an appropriately sacrificed Paschal lamb ready for the meal [cf. Mk 14: 12], even though the Jerusalem Jews in general would have been killing the lambs in the temple 24 hours later, while Jesus was on the Cross. In view of the latter fact, John is also right in 13:1 in saying the Last Supper was “before” the festival of Passover.
The relevant part of the Jerusalem Bible footnote to Mt. 26: 17 [Father Harrison had referred to this text in a previous correspondence] … reads:
“The ‘first day’ of the week during which unleavened loaves (azymes) were eaten, cf. Ex 12: 1 +, 23: 14 +, was normally that which followed the Passover supper, i.e., the 15th of Nisan; the Synoptics however give this title to the preceding day, thus attesting a wider use of the term, Further, if we take account of Jn. 18: 28 and of other details connected with the Passion, it seems fairly certain that in this particular year the Passover supper was celebrated on the evening of the Friday (or ‘Preparation Day’, Mt. 27: 62; cf. Jn 19: 14, 31, 42). Christ’s Last Supper, which the Synoptics put on the day before, i.e., on the Thursday evening, must therefore be explained in one of two ways: either a whole section of the Jewish people thus anticipated the rite, or (and this is preferable), Christ anticipated it on his own initiative.”
Note the traditionally Catholic outlook of the JB commentator in lines 1-3 above.
It seems he is starting his exegesis from the premise of faith; and so rather than leap to the conclusion that the Synoptics are wrong in what they affirm, he infers that they are “attesting a wider use of the term”. He then goes on to indicate how both John and the Synoptics are right as regards when the Passover was celebrated. Professor Ratzinger does not rebut the kind of explanation given by the JB commentator. He does not even address it. ….
[End of quote]
And, returning also to Dr. Pitre:
…. Catholics everywhere will celebrate Holy Thursday by attending the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
At this Mass, we will read the institution of the Passover (Exod 12, OT reading), sing one of the most famous of the Hallel Psalms (Psalm 118, Responsorial Psalm), and then read the institution of the Eucharist (1 Cor 11, Epistle) and Jesus’ act of washing the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper (John 13, Gospel). This particular Eucharist is a momentous liturgical moment, where we both recall the institution of the very first Eucharist and enter into the beginning of the calendrical Holy of Holies—the sacred Triduum, climaxing in the feast of Easter (in Latin, Pascha).
But how did Jesus and his disciples celebrate the first Holy Thursday?
Specifically, was the Last Supper a Jewish Passover meal?
…. For now, all I would like to do in this post is one brief point about the first Holy Thursday: contrary to what is often claimed by some exegetes, the Synoptic Gospels clearly identify the Last Supper as a Jewish Passover meal—one that included the presence of a passover lamb. Allow me to explain.
A Lambless ‘Passover Meal’?
Anyone familiar with scholarly books on Jesus will be aware that one of the primary arguments against the Last Supper being a Passover meal is that “there is not a word about the lamb” in the Gospel accounts of the institution of the eucharist. In fact, for years, I myself agreed with this view and even have some recordings where I make just that point!
Alas, upon closer study of the entire context in the Gospels in their original Greek, I discovered that the idea that there was no lamb at the Last Supper is just not exegetically sustainable. Although the word “lamb” (Gk arnion) admittedly does not appear in any account of the words of institution, both Mark and Luke in particular explicitly testify that there was a Passover lamb (Gk pascha) at the Last Supper.
This is quite clear in the Gospel accounts—not first and foremost in the words of institution—but in the accounts of Jesus sending the disciples (Peter and John) into Jerusalem to prepare the Passover (Mark 14:12-16 parr.)
“When they Sacrificed the Passover Lamb (Pascha)”
So, for example, in the Gospel of Mark, we read: “And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the pascha, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the pascha”? And he sent two of his disciples, and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you…” (Mark 14:12-13) Though English Bibles translate these with two different words, there is no way for the first use of pascha to refer to the Passover lamb that was sacrificed to be eaten and for the second use of pascha to refer to the now-popular idea of a “lambless Passover meal.” The only way to make this work would be to wrench the second occurrence completely out of context.
“Go and Prepare the Pascha, that We May Eat it”
The presence of the Passover lamb at the Last Supper is even more explicit in the Gospel of Luke. According to his account of Holy Thursday afternoon, the following took place: “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the pascha had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the pascha for us, that we may eat it.” They said to him, “Where will you have us prepare it?” (Luke 22:7-8)
Same problem: there is no way I can see in which the first use of pascha in v. 7 refers to the Passover lamb, while in v. 8 pascha refers to a lamb-less Passover meal (if such a thing were even possible in the 1st century A.D.). The meal which they are preparing for Jesus and the disciples to eat in the upper room that evening clearly consists of the passover lamb which had been sacrificed that day.
“I Have Greatly Desired to Eat this Pascha with You”
To top it all off, in Luke’s account, Jesus even uses the same word in the context of the words of institution on two more occasions. Just a couple of verses later, we read: The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I am to eat the pascha with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished; there make ready.” And they went, and found it as he had told them; and they prepared the pascha….
And when the hour came, he sat at table, and said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this pascha with you before I suffer…” (Luke 22:11-13, 15)
It seems to me that far from the lamb never being mentioned, Luke’s Gospel refers to the Passover lamb in the context of the Last Supper some three or four times, both in the account of the preparation and in the account of the meal itself! ….
[End of quote]
The traditional view, as espoused by Fr. Harrison and Dr. Pitre, seems also to be well in harmony with Verbum Domini’s notion of ‘fulfilling the incarnational paradigm of the Word made flesh’, and of St. Paul’s idea of the Word emptying Itself to being “born under the Law … to redeem those who were under the Law” (Galatians 4:4-5). We think that it may be preferable, therefore, to Josef Ratzinger’s view of a lamb-less Passover. Given what I wrote in
Part One (https://www.academia.edu/18172428/_Western_Logic_and_the_Logos_), it may not be entirely surprising that Josef Ratzinger, who can sometimes exhibit strong western cultural and educative tendencies, might sometimes come to a conclusion on biblical matters that does not do proper justice to the Bible’s non-western, and actually Jewish, Sitz im Leben.
So perhaps with this actuality in mind we might raise the query about a supposedly lamb-less Last Supper with Isaac of old:
‘… but where is the lamb?’ (Genesis 22:7)