Essays on John the Baptist: The Q Source (3)

In this new six part series I present responses to s offered in my course at UNC Charlotte on “John the Baptist.” John is the most underrated figure in Christian tradition, rarely given his due as a messiah and inaugurator of the movement Jesus himself arose from. The responses are by my student, Jeff Poplin, now a USAF Lt Colonel, fighter pilot, married with two boys. Jeff wrote them without notes in response to exams given in the course! They offer a good, concise, and rather extraordinary summary of what we covered in the course:

Discuss the portrait (role, teachings, significance, etc.) of John the Baptizer that emerges from the Q Source (Lukan version), including the possibility that Lukan material such as 3:10-14 and 7:29-30 (and maybe even more), may well have been part of the original Q text (included by Luke but excluded by Matthew). Ask yourself: if all I knew was the John of Q, what kind of John would emerge?

The Q source is widely held to be the material common to Luke and Matthew, but not found in Mark. Scholars believe that is was a collection of the sayings of Jesus around the time of 50 C.E. Basing the discussion on the Lukan version of Q, a very distinctive portrait of John the Baptist emerges within the text. It is clear that John plays an important role from the beginning as the Q material begins with him instead of Jesus. In Luke 3:7-9 John is speaking to the multitudes, calling them a “brood of vipers,” and somewhat chastising them for not being more involved in the movement and with their own lives. This is the most solid Q example scholars have because it is word for word with Matthew in Greek. For such a document to start with John the Baptist instead of Jesus has strong implications and definitely displays the significance and importance John held to the author/people of the time. John is out in the wilderness of Judea baptizing all that come to him. Q even has John saying in Luke 3:16-17 that he baptizes people with water yet there is one greater than he who will come and baptize the multitudes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Jesus is considered the leading figure of Christianity, well it was based on him, but nevertheless John is considered one of the major players in the movement and considered significant by the author of Q.

Brueghel JtB

 

In Luke 7:18-23, one finds John sending two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he is “he who is to come or shall we look for another?” Jesus heals a few people and then sends John’s disciples back to tell “John what you have seen and heard.” To begin with, John is on the scene before Jesus ever arrives into the picture plus John has his own disciples. He is an important leader of a community of followers in the wilderness, preparing the way of YHVH, and is doing so with his own set of followers independent of Jesus. By Luke 7:24-26 one sees the importance John holds in a question Jesus asks to the crowds about John. This is the main statement scholars have regarding John the Baptist. Jesus spoke to the crowds concerning John asking, “what did you go out into the wilderness to behold?” From this simple question, there are three answers offered; a reed shaken in the wind, a man clothed in soft raiment, and a prophet. After two failures, the people give the answer Jesus was looking for in their third response. “A prophet, yes, I tell you, and more that a prophet.”

Being a prophet is the highest rank one can obtain in Judaism, so for Jesus to say John is more than a prophet has strong implications as to his status within the religious community. It shows that even Jesus is of the opinion that John is someone special, doing what the LORD has commanded him to do, and that the people should listen to and heed his words carefully for he is “more than a prophet.” Adding to this is Jesus’ statement in Luke 7:27 where he is referring to John as the one spoken about in Malachi 3, saying this is he (John) of whom it is written, “behold I send my messenger before thy face who shall prepare thy way before thee.” Luke 7:28 contains one of the most important statements about John spoken by Jesus. “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater that John.” This simple statement adds considerably to the portrait of John in the Q source. Here is Jesus, considered to be the son of man, speaking of John as the greatest of all those born of women. Being born from Mary, this puts Jesus into that group as well.

The Q source also adds to John’s profile by explaining what not eating and drinking mean. In Luke 7:31-34, it states that John has come eating no bread and drinking no wine. This shows the reader that John was a vegetarian and abstained from wine, unlike the Son of man and others who are considered gluttons and wine bibbers. Also an important addition to the role John plays is Luke 16:16 where it reads “the law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently.” Here is an excellent verse showing the status John was afforded. Reading this, one notices that it is John who has brought a new covenant to the land of Israel and not Jesus. In addition, Luke 11:2-4 has Jesus’ disciples coming up to him asking to be taught the prayer John taught his own disciples. Here we have Jesus’ own disciples asking him not for his own prayer, but the one John taught his disciples and Jesus begins “when you pray, say…” Preserved here is quite possibly the very prayer John taught his disciples and it is of such importance that the disciples of Jesus wish to learn it too. There are a handful of teachings throughout Luke that are attributed to Jesus but are without any context. Scholars have suggested that these could very well be the original teachings of the Baptist. Some of these teachings are like blessed are the poor (6:20), be merciful (6:32), a blind man can not lead the blind (6:39), do not be anxious about your life (12:22), and no servant can serve two masters (16:13). It can and has been argued that these could have come from John. He and Jesus have geographic connections – Wadi el Yabis and the Jordan River. Family wise their mothers are related, both baptize, and both have disciples. Both carry very thematic teachings like care for the poor, repent and baptize, accept sinners, and the coming kingdom. It could be that these were the original teachings of John and are attributed to Jesus because he picked them up when he picked up the Baptist movement when John was arrested and imprisoned by Herod. Luke 3:10-14 is what scholars label as “maybe Q” – at least entertained as being a possible part of Q but not exactly fitting the definition. It is the only major teaching of John scholars can ascribe to him without doubt. This teaching contains many of the same themes as the various other teachings as stated above, attributed to Jesus but without any context. Here one can see John is telling the people if “you have two costs, give one away,” that sinners (tax collectors) are welcome in the kingdom also, and not to take money under false pretenses. Luke 7:29-30 is also with the “maybe Q” group of texts. Although set in parenthesizes, these too sound familiar to 3:10-14 above in that sinners (tax collectors) are accepted because they had been baptized by John and that the Pharisees and the lawyers had rejected God’s purpose since they rejected the baptism of John. Given such evidence, one can draw the conclusion that such teachings could be from the original Q source and that the various other out of context teaching running throughout Luke 6, 11, and 12, which are attributed to Jesus, could actually be those of John the Baptist.

Essays on John the Baptist: Messianic Expectations (2)

In this new six part series I present responses to s offered in my course at UNC Charlotte on “John the Baptist.” John is the most underrated figure in Christian tradition, rarely given his due as a messiah and inaugurator of the movement Jesus himself arose from. The responses are by my student, Jeff Poplin, now a USAF Lt Colonel, fighter pilot, married with two boys. Jeff wrote them without notes in response to exams given in the course! They offer a good, concise, and rather extraordinary summary of what we covered in the course:

In the 1st centuries BCE Messianic expectations among various forms of Palestinian Judaism were apparently widespread and complex. Both the John the Baptizer movement and the Jesus movement develop out of these contexts. Other than the New Testament materials, our best textual evidence of the ways in which such apocalyptic groups were casting their messianic hopes and dreams is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and related apocalyptic literature. Using Qumran as your main example, what composite picture emerges of the ways in which such groups appropriated the Messianic materials of the Hebrew Bible (as covered in question 1 above)?

The Qumran group has been emphasized as a breakaway movement of priests from the Essenes. They moved to the desert and set up a community along the shores of the Dead Sea, possibly following the doctrine of separation and preparing the way in the wilderness philosophy set forward in Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1. Fortunately, scholars have been able to recover some writings of this community dubbed “The Dead Sea Scrolls.” One important piece of this puzzle of their views on apocalypticism and messianic material is the Community Rule (1QS). Column VIII instructs its members to separate from ungodly men and go into the wilderness to prepare the way of Him. Column IX states, “this is the time for the preparation of the way in the wilderness.” Both these phrases reflect the groups awaiting of a coming messiah and following the words of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. Most interesting is Column IX of the Community Rule. It read, “…there shall come the Prophet and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel.” Presented here is an idea of three figures (similar to Exodus17, I Samuel, and Zechariah 4, 6). Here the Prophet is unmistakably the “prophet like Moses” figure in Deuteronomy 18:15-18. Messiahs in this context is plural and it specifically states two of them (of Aaron and Israel). This reverts back to the notion of a priestly messiah (Exodus 40:13) representing Aaron on one side of the Adon and of a kingly messiah (I Samuel 10) representing Israel/Judah/David on the other.

4Q521

The Damascus Document is another valuable document allowing scholars to analyze and interpret the Qumran ideologies. From this text, unlike the Community Rule where one had not shown up yet, it appears the group came to believe they experienced the Adon/Prophet like Moses but not the two messiah’s. He is referred to as the Teacher of Righteousness as seen in Column VI of version A “until he comes who shall teach righteousness.” Column VII again visits the groups mentality of there being two messiah’s. It makes reference to the star (interpreter of the Torah) as the priestly messiah, coming from Damascus (Isaiah 9:1-2) and the scepter as a kingly messiah figure. This wording would suggest they were studying Numbers 24:17 and picked up the language of star and scepter. Version B of the Damascus Document is thought to come later as it mentions in Column VIII the “gathering in” or death of the Teacher of the community. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs are documents also found in the Qumran material. They are said to be, although seriously doubted by scholars, the last words of Simeon and Dan. This Qumran two messiah tradition is visible in Column VII when it speaks of Israel submitting to Levi and through Judah (priest and king) because it is from them salvation will come. Plural messiah are implied here. One of the most fascinating finds was a copy of Malachi from Qumran that differs from modern day texts. In chapter 3, the text is talking of God sending a messenger to prepare the way and in verse 2 states, “but who can endure them, they come.” Present day texts state “who can endure the day of his coming.” Here we have a first century BCE text not affected by time or translation, showing a plural messiah tradition. What can be said of the Qumran group at this point? They appropriated messianic materials of the Hebrew Bible in such a way as to transform their way of life. First by moving to the desert and preparing the way Isaiah 40:3 for the coming messiahs. Relying on Exodus, and Zechariah, they formed ideas of the three figures: Adon, Priest(Aaron), and King (Israel) and wrote about them in community documents while awaiting their arrival. With the arrival of the teacher (died in 50 BCE), they thought this was it by sadly saw no messiah’s. However, after the teacher’s death, hope stayed alive for another century or so until the group finally disappeared without their prophecies or hopes coming true.

The Jesus Dynasty: Seven Major Themes

In April, 2006 I published The Jesus Dynasty.  Now in paperback it has continued to sell moderately but steadily. I wrote it as a popular summary of my own personal lifelong “quest” for the historical Jesus. It is written in a style accessible to the non-spet and many readers find that it pulls them into the story in an engaging fashion. It also has extensive references and notes. It received an enormous amount of media attention when it was released and has also been translated into more than a twenty foreign languages. It is also available in all major e-book formats (Kindle, iBooks, Nook) as well as an CD Audio version ready by yours truly, see links here.

The following is a summary of some of the main substantive points made in the book that advance our understanding of Jesus and early Christianity. If you have not read it it maybe well be that these themes will grab your attention. I know of no other book on the historical Jesus that includes these wider parameters in trying to understand Jesus as a human being in his own time and place.

1. The Material Evidence
One of the unique features of The Jesus Dynasty is the way in which archaeological discoveries inform and offer a new interpretive context to the unfolding Jesus story. Whether one is considering the location of the family tomb of Jesus, the splendor of the Roman city of Sepphoris, just north of Nazareth, the site of the Suba “John the Baptist” cave, or the location of the sites of the Last Supper, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, Jesus is put in a time and place that becomes real to us through the material evidence that survives.

2. The Historical Mary
Much has been said about the “historical Jesus” but little attention has been given to Mary his mother. She is shrouded in legend, interpreted by theology, and the focus of personal devotion and piety. But what does history actually tell us? She is an unwed mother, a young Jewish woman, Miriam, mother of seven children, eventually widowed, struggling to survive in a troubled time, courageous and full of vision for her gifted children. So much of what Jesus and his brother James became has to trace back to her strong influence.

3. Jesus and John the Baptist
The relationship between Jesus and his kinsman John is a much neglected aspect of the Jesus story. John has been marginalized and minimized as the precursor of Jesus, introducing him and then quietly moving off the stage. John was in fact the most important influence in Jesus’ life. Their mothers were close. They likely knew one another growing up. Jesus looked to John as mentor and teacher and they joined ranks in their shared vision for Israel’s prophetic future as the two Messiahs, conducting a preaching campaign that rocked the nation back on its heels and drew the attention of the Roman authorities. John’s unexpected death was a vital factor in his own developing understanding of the role he and John were destined to play in the course of history, ultimately leading him to the cross.

4. Messianic Self-Identity
Jesus’ own Messianic self-identity, from an historical point of view, was a complex mix of his own royal pedigree, his reading of biblical prophetic texts, and unfolding events. He came to see that his destiny required him to confront the authorities in Jerusalem, and like John, face opposition and perhaps even death. He found himself in the sacred texts of Scripture, and at the same time he began to act out in his own life and career the series of events that would lead up to his death. His was no “Passover plot,” but a giving of the self for a cause in hope and trust that God would somehow honor his faith and fulfill the promises of the Kingdom.

5. On Earth, not in Heaven
The vision of the kingdom of God shared by John, Jesus, and their early followers was a spiritual one, but on earth not in heaven. Like the Hebrew Prophets they looked for a time in which peace would come to all nations and righteous and justice would emanate from Jerusalem as the new spiritual capital of a restored Israel, a beacon light to the world. The entire world would turn from idolatry to worship of the one true Creator God. The two Messiahs were to inaugurate that new era and their deaths would serve for the redemption of the world.

6. James and the Brothers as Successors of Jesus
Although recent studies have moved a long way toward rehabilitating the memory and importance of James, the brother of Jesus, his vital role as the “beloved disciple” and pillar of the Church has been largely lost and forgotten. A recovery of the “historical James” is not only possible, but it is perhaps our best method for getting back to the historical Jesus as well. The towering influence of James was based both on his pedigree, as a descendant of the royal line of King David, and also upon his remarkable faith and strong character, exhibited for over thirty years following the death of his brother. That Simon took charge of things after James’s death indicates that this dynastic aspect of early Christianity has been largely lost and forgotten through the legendary dominance of Paul and Peter. An understanding of the Jesus Dynasty is our clearest entrée to really understanding both the faith and the message of Jesus and his earliest followers.

7. Recovering the Original Gospel
Paul’s gospel message is the formative influence within the entire New Testament and thus forms the foundation of what became world Christianity.  In contract, the original message of John the Baptist, Jesus, and James is a singular one that was gradually, forgotten, suppressed, and marginalized in a Gentile Church that largely lost its Jewish roots and origins. That message can be recovered in both the New Testament and other ancient sources through a careful sifting of textual evidence and a commitment to recover the lost treasures of earliest Christianity. Throughout the book John the Baptist, Jesus, and James are put in the thoroughly Jewish 1st century contexts in which they are most clearly understood historically.

Weekend Seminar: How An Ancient Apocalyptic Vision of the Future Took Over the World

I will be leading a seminar this weekend at the 72nd annual United Israel Conference here in Charlotte, NC at the lovely Doubletree Hotel in Southpark. Registration is open to anyone interested. My topic deals with “Apocalypticism, from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Isis,” and here is an outline of what I will cover:

Tabor Apocalyptic Lecture

 

Details on the conference at: http://unitedisrael.org/uiwu-e…/uiwu-2015-annual-conference/

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Selected Excerpts from The Jesus Dynasty

The Jesus Dynasty was published in April 2006 (Simon & Schuster). It was a New York Times Best Seller, featured on ABC’s Nightline and 20/20 and the cover of USNews & World Report. It has been translated into 22 languages. Here are some key excerpts with further links, media and otherwise, to the book below. It is available in print, e-formats, and audio, see JesusDynasty.com

 

Jesus Dynasty Hardcover

The New Testament gospels:

“[The New Testament gospels present] a tangled tale of political intrigue and religious power plays with stakes destined to shape the future of the world’s largest religion.” (p. 81)

“[A]lthough our New Testament gospels contain historical material, the theological editing is a factor that the discerning reader must constantly keep in mind.” (p. 139)

The birth of Jesus:

“[The gospel of] Matthew implies that Isaiah’s prophecy was ‘fulfilled’ by the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus—but the original text clearly carries no such meaning.” (p. 46)

“The assumption of the historian is that all human beings have both a biological mother and father, and that Jesus is no exception. That leaves two possibilities—either Joseph or some other unnamed man was the father of Jesus.” (p. 59)

More than one messiah:

“The English word ‘messiah’ comes from the Hebrew word moshiach, which simply means ‘an anointed one.’ The equivalent Greek word, christos, also means ‘annointed’ and form that we have derived our more familiar term ‘Christ,’ meaning Messiah…. Most people are surprised to learn that the very first Messiah in the Bible was Aaron. He was ‘annointed’ as a priest by his brother Moses and is referred to in the Hebrew text as a ‘mosiach’ or ‘messiah’ (Exodus 40:12-15).” (p. 58)

“Christians and Jews subsequently have come to focus on the Messiah—a single figure of David’s line who was to rule as King in the last days. And yet, in the Dead Sea Scrolls we encounter a devoutly religious community, usually identified with the Essenes, who expected the coming of three figures—a prophet like Moses and the messiahs of Aaron and of Israel.” (p. 57)

“This ideal vision of Two Messiahs became a model for many Jewish groups that were oriented toward apocalyptic thinking in the 2nd to 1st centuries B.C.” (p. 143)

The family of Jesus:

“That Jesus has four brothers and at least two sisters is a ‘given’ in [the gospel of] Mark, our earliest gospel record. He names the brothers rather matter-of-factly: James, Joses, Judas, and Simon.” (p. 73)

The historical Mary:

“The later Christian dogma that Mary was a perpetual virgin, that she never had children other than Jesus and never had sexual relations with any man lies at the hart of the issue. No one in the early church even imagined such an idea, since the family of Jesus played such a visible and pivotal role in his life and that of his early followers. It all has to do with Mary being totally removed from her 1st-century Jewish culture and context in the interest of an emerging view of the time that human sexuality was degraded and unholy at worst, and a necessary evil to somehow be struggled against at best.” (p. 74)

“There is good reason to suppose that Joseph died early, whether because he was substantially older than Mary or for some other unknown cause…. According to the Torah, or Law of Moses, the oldest surviving unmarried brother was obligated to marry his deceased brother’s widow and bear a child in his name so that his dead brother’s ‘name’ or lineage would not perish. This is called a ‘Levirate marriage’ or yibbum in Hebrew, and it is required in the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).” (p. 76)

“Given this information, a rather different but historically consistent picture begins to emerge. Jesus was born of an unknown father, but was not the son of Joseph. Joseph died without children, so according to Jewish law ‘Clophas’ or ‘Alphaeus’ became his ‘replacer,’ and married his widow, Mary, mother of Jesus.” (p. 80)

The “lost” childhood of Jesus:

“We have extraordinarily good historical records from the reign of Herod the Great. It is inconceivable that such a ‘slaughter of the infants’ would go unrecorded by the Jewish historian Josephus or other contemporary Roman historians. Matthew’s account is clearly theological, written to justify later views of Jesus’ exalted status.” (p. 88)

“A good trivia question would be ‘What was Jesus’ vocation?’ Everyone knows he was a carpenter, or at least the son of a carpenter…. The Greek word tekton is a more generic term referring to a ‘builder.’ It can include one who works with wood, but in its 1st-century Galilean context it more likely refers to a stoneworker.” (p. 89)

Jesus as a Galilean Jew:

“Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian…. To understand Jesus in his own time and place we have to understand his deep commitment to the ancestral faith of his fathers.” (p. 108)

“…[Jesus] is not ‘liberal’ with regard to Jewish observances in any modern sense of the term. What he did not accept were certain oral traditions and interpretations that some rabbinic teachers had added to the biblical commandments.” (p. 115)

“As we shall see, Jesus held Herod Antipas and all he stood for in utter contempt…. It was Herod who had brutally murdered his kinsman and teacher John the Baptizer, and Jesus had witnessed firsthand how Herod’s aspirations for wealth and power had unjustly oppressed the lives of his countrymen.” (p. 106)

His relationship with John the Baptizer:

“Jesus near his thirtieth birthday joined the crowds that were streaming out to hear John. He traveled from Nazareth down to the Jordan, along this very route, to be baptized by John in the Jordan River (Mark 1:9). By such a response he was publicly joining and endorsing the revival movement John had sparked…. [F]rom the time of Jesus’ baptism he was ready to take his destined place alongside John as a full partner in the baptizing movement.” (p. 127)

“The great embarrassment that the Christians faced was that it was well known that John had baptized Jesus—not the other way around! Jesus had come to John and joined his movement—which in the context of ancient Judaism meant that Jesus was a disciple of John and John was the rabbi or teacher of Jesus.” (p. 133)

“There [in a Hebrew version of the gospel of Matthew untouched by the Greek copyists] Jesus’ astounding testimony to John’s greatness stands unedited and unqualified: ‘Among those born of women there is none greater than John.’” (p. 134)

The twelve apostles:

“When he told them, ‘Let’s leave the nets and go fish for people,’ they did not blindly drop everything in some mesmerized state of devotion to his irresistible bidding as is so often portrayed. These disciples had worked with him and lived with him for months the previous year in Judea when they were baptizing huge crowds of people.” (p. 158)

“This is perhaps the best-kept secret in the entire New Testament. Jesus’ own brothers were among the so-called ‘Twelve Apostles.’ This means they were the muted participants in all those many references to the ‘Twelve.’ They were with Jesus at the ‘last Supper’ and when he died he turned his movement over to his brother James, the eldest, and put his mother into James’s care. James is none other than the mysterious ‘beloved disciple’ of the gospel of John.” (p. 163)

Apocalyptic vision:

This arrival of the ‘Son of Man,’ which Christians later took as a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus, was coded language from the book of Daniel. It does not refer to Jesus’ arriving, since he was standing with them when he said it, predicting the effect of their vital mission…. The phrase ‘son of man’ in the dream vision of Daniel 7 stood collectively for the faithful people of Israel who would receive rule from their Messiah.” (p. 164)

The final week in Jerusalem—the Temple and the Last Supper:

“Jesus’ activities that day [in the temple] were not intended to change things or to spark a revolution. Like his ride down the Mount of Olives on the foal of the donkey, he intended to signal something—namely that the imminent overthrow of the corrupt Temple system was at hand and the vision of the Prophets would be fulfilled.” (p. 194)

“Later Christian tradition put Jesus’ last meal with his disciples on Thursday evening and his crucifixion on Friday. We now know that its one day off. Jesus’ last meal was Wednesday night, and he was crucified on Thursday, the 14th day of the Hebrew month Nisan. The Passover meal itself was eaten Thursday night, at sundown, as the 15th of Nisan began. Jesus never ate that Passover meal. He had died at 3 p.m. on Thursday.” (p. 197)

“At every Jewish meal, bread is broken, wine is shared, and blessings are said over each—but the idea of eating human flesh and drinking blood, even symbolically, is completely alien to Judaism…. This general sensitivity to the very idea of ‘drinking blood’ precludes the likelihood that Jesus would have used such symbols.” (p. 200-201)

Jesus’ trial and death by crucifixion:

“Scholars are agreed that little in the accounts of Jesus’ trial before Pilate is historically credible. They have been completely shaped by a later Christian theological tradition that sought to put the blame for Jesus’ death wholly upon the Jewish people while exonerating the Romans as sympathetic to Jesus, with Pilate doing all he possibly could to save Jesus’ life.” (p. 213)

“If Jesus did come to anticipate his suffering at the hands of his enemies, I am convinced that he expected that he would be saved from death, delivered from the ‘mouth of the lion’ as the Psalmist had predicted (Psalm 22:21).” (p. 179)

The resurrection of Jesus:

“As shocking as it may sound, the original manuscripts of the gospel of Mark report no appearances of the resurrected Jesus at all!” (p. 228)

“Paul seems to be willing to use the term ‘resurrection’ to refer to something akin to an apparition or vision. And when he does mention Jesus’ body he says it was a ‘spiritual’ body. But a ‘spiritual body’ and an ‘embodied spirit’ could be seen as very much the same phenomenon.” (p. 230)

“In this context, it is easy to see why the Tomb of the Shroud, the James Ossuary, and the Talpiot tomb discovered in 1980 spark such heated controversy. At the heart of the storm is the unspoken possibility that the tomb might contain the remains of Jesus himself. Neither Christianity or Judaism welcomes that proposition.” (p. 235)

Jesus’ successors and legacy:

“Although the followers of Jesus reshaped themselves under the new leadership of James, and eventually returned to Jerusalem, there might well have been a period in which they retreated to Galilee in order to sort things out, and that is just what these gospel traditions appear to reflect. If that was the case then the more idealized account of the Jesus movement in the early chapters of the book of Acts is Luke’s attempt to recast things in a more triumphant way.” (p. 238)

“There are two completely separate and distinct ‘Christianities’ embedded in the New Testament. One is quite familiar and became the version of the Christian faith known to billions over the past two millennia. Its main proponent was the apostle Paul. The other has been largely forgotten and by the turn of the 1st century A.D. had been effectively marginalized and suppressed by the other.” (p. 259)

“The Nazarene movement, led by James, Peter, and John, was by any historical definition a Messianic Movement within Judaism. Even the term ‘Jewish-Christianity,’ though perhaps useful as a description of the original followers of Jesus, is really a misnomer since they never considered themselves anything but faithful Jews. In that sense early Christianity is Jewish.” (p. 264)

“I would go so far as to say that the New Testament itself is primarily a literary legacy of the apostle Paul.” (p. 270)

“There is no evidence that James worshipped his brother or considered him divine.” (p. 280)

“…[W]hat we can know, with some certainty, is that the royal family of Jesus, including the children and grandchildren of his brothers and sisters, were honored by the early Christians well into the 2nd century A.D., while at the same time they were watched and hunted down by the highest levels of the Roman government in Palestine.” (p. 290)

Academic Endorsements of The Jesus Dynasty

Excerpts from The Jesus Dynasty

Interview with Dr. Tabor on The Jesus Dynasty

Facebook page on The Jesus Dynasty with news and updates

Critical but well done review in Slate by Richard Wrightman Fox.

Read the first chapter here on-line from ABC News

For reviews, interviews and more media coverage of The Jesus Dynasty see Media Tab

Journal of the Jesus Movement in its Jewish Setting: New & On-line

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This looks really interesting and worth checking out. You can access the first issue here, download individual articles, and participate in a forum.

Introducing,
the Journal of the Jesus Movement in its Jewish Setting (JJMJS) – 

FREELY AVAILABLE ONLINE FROM OCTOBER 20! 

JJMJS is a new interdisciplinary peer-reviewed online journal, published in cooperation with Eisenbrauns. 

A rich variety of Jewish and Christian traditions and identities mutually shaped one another in the centuries-long course of Roman Late Antiquity. A no less rich variety of scholarly approaches – from the history of Christian Origins to that of the late empire, from archaeology to Dead Sea Scrolls, from Rabbinics to Patristics – has in recent years converged upon this period, the better to understand its religious and social dynamics. JJMJS seeks to facilitate and to encourage such scholarly investigations across disciplinary boundaries, and to make the results of cutting-edge research available to a worldwide audience.

JJMJS is free of charge with complete open access. The journal is published in cooperation with Eisenbrauns and will be available in hard copy, which can be ordered from Eisenbrauns.

The Last Days of Jesus: A Final “Messianic” Meal

From more of this story read my book The Jesus Dynasty, available at discount prices and in all formats–Kindle, iBook, Nook, CD Audio, which also has notes and references to this material.

NT_Jerusalem

On Wednesday Jesus began to make plans for Passover. He sent two of his disciples into the city to prepare a large second-­story guest room where he could gather secretly and safely with his inner group. He knew someone with such a room available and he had prearranged for its use. Christian pilgrims today are shown a Crusader site known as the Cenacle or “Upper Room” on the Western Hill of Jerusalem that the Crusaders misnamed “Mount Zion.” This area was part of the “Upper City” where Herod had built his palace. It is topographically higher than even the Temple Mount. It was the grandest section of ancient Jerusalem with broad streets and plazas and the palatial homes of the wealthy. Bargil Pixner and others have also argued that the southwest edge of Mt Zion contained an “Essene Quarter,” with more modest dwellings and its own “Essene” Gate mentioned by Josephus, see his article “Jerusalem’s Essene Gateway,” here.

Jesus tells his two disciples to “follow a man carrying a jug of water,” who will enter the city, and then enter a certain house. The only water source was in the southern part of the lower city of Jerusalem, the recently uncovered Pool of Siloam. This mysterious man apparently walked up the slope of Mt Zion and entered the city–likely at the Essene Gate. The house is large enough to have an upper story and likely belonged to a wealthy sympathizer of Jesus, perhaps associated with the Essenes. Later this property became the HQ of the Jesus movement led by James the brother of Jesus, see Pixner’s article “The Church of the Apostles Found on Mt Zion” here.

Later Christian tradition put Jesus’ last meal with his disciples on Thursday evening and his crucifixion on Friday. We now know that is one day off. Jesus’ last meal was Wednesday night, and he was crucified on Thursday, the 14th of the Jewish month Nisan. The Passover meal itself was eaten Thursday night, at sundown, as the 15th of Nisan began. Jesus never ate that Passover meal. He had died at 3 p.m. on Thursday.

The confusion arose because all the gospels say that there was a rush to get his body off the cross and buried before sundown because the “Sabbath” was near. Everyone assumed the reference to the Sabbath had to be Saturday—so the crucifixion must have been on a Friday. However, as Jews know, the day of Passover itself is also a “Sabbath” or rest day—no matter what weekday it falls on. In the year a.d. 30, Friday the 15th of the Nisan was also a Sabbath—so two Sabbaths occurred back to back—Friday and Saturday. Matthew seems to know this as he says that the women who visited Jesus’ tomb came early Sunday morning “after the Sabbaths”—the original Greek is plural (Matthew 28:1).

As is often the case, the gospel of John preserves a more accurate chronology of what went on. John specifies that the Wednesday night “last supper” was “before the festival of Passover.” He also notes that when Jesus’ accusers delivered him to be crucified on Thursday morning they would not enter ­Pilate’s courtyard because they would be defiled and would not be able to eat the Passover that evening (John 18:28). John knows that the Jews would be eating their traditional Passover, or Seder meal, Thursday evening.

Reading Mark, Matthew, and Luke one can get the impression that the “last supper” was the Passover meal. Some have even argued that Jesus might have eaten the Passover meal a day early—knowing ahead of time that he would be dead. But the fact is, Jesus ate no Passover meal in 30 CE. When the Passover meal began at sundown on Thursday, Jesus was dead. He had been hastily put in a tomb until after the festival
when a proper funeral could be arranged.

There are some hints outside of ­John’s gospel that such was the case. In Luke, for example, Jesus tells his followers at that last meal: “I earnestly wanted to eat this Passover with you before I suffer but I ­won’t eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:14–16). A later copyist of the manuscript inserted the word “again” to make it say “I ­won’t eat it again,” since the tradition had developed that Jesus did observe Passover that night and changed its observance to the Christian Eucharist or Mass. Another indication that this is not a Passover meal is that all our records report that Jesus shared “a loaf of bread” with his disciples, using the Greek word (artos) that refers to an ordinary loaf—not to the unleavened flatbread or matzos that Jews eat with their Passover meals. Also, when Paul refers to the “last supper” he significantly does not say “on the night of Passover,” but rather “on the night Jesus was betrayed,” and he also mentions the “loaf of bread” (1 Corinthians 11:23). If this meal had been the Passover, Paul would have surely wanted to say that, but he does not.

As late as Wednesday morning Jesus had still intended to eat the Passover on Thursday night. When he sent his two disciples into the city he instructed them to begin to make the preparations. His enemies had determined not to try to arrest him during the feast “lest there be a riot of the people” (Mark 14:2). That meant he was likely “safe” for the next week, since the “feast” included the seven days of Unleavened Bread that followed the Passover meal. Passover is the most family-­oriented festival in Jewish tradition. As head of his household Jesus would have gathered with his mother, his sisters, the women who had come with him from Galilee, perhaps some of his close supporters in Jerusalem, and his Council of Twelve. It is inconceivable that a Jewish head of a household would eat the Passover segregated from his family with twelve male disciples. This was no Passover meal. Something had gone terribly wrong so that all his Passover plans were changed.

Jesus had planned a special meal Wednesday evening alone with his Council of Twelve in the upper room of the guesthouse in the lower city. The events of the past few days had brought things to a crisis and he knew the confrontation with the authorities was unavoidable. In the coming days he expected to be arrested, delivered to the Romans, and possibly crucified. He had intentionally chosen the time and the place—Passover in Jerusalem—to confront the powers that be. There was much of a private nature to discuss with those upon whom he most depended in the critical days ahead. He firmly believed that if he and his followers offered themselves up, placing their fate in ­God’s hands, that the Kingdom of God would manifest itself. He had intentionally fulfilled two of Zechariah’s prophecies—riding into the city as King on the foal, and symbolically removing the “traders” from the “house of God.”

At some point that day Jesus had learned that Judas Iscariot, one of his trusted Council of Twelve, had struck a deal with his enemies to have Jesus arrested whenever there was an opportunity to get him alone, away from the crowds. How Jesus knew of the plot we are not told but during the meal he said openly, “One of you who is eating with me will betray me” (Mark 14:18). His life seemed to be unfolding according to some scriptural plan. Had not David written in the Psalms, “Even my bosom friend, in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me” (Psalm 41:9). History has a strange way of repeating itself. Over a hundred years earlier, the Teacher of Righteousness who led the Dead Sea Scroll community had quoted that very Psalm when one of his inner “Council” had betrayed him.

When Judas Iscariot realized that the plan for the evening included a retreat for prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane after the meal, he abruptly left the group. This secluded spot, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from the Old City, offered just the setting he had promised to deliver. Some have tried to interpret ­Judas’s motives in a positive light. Perhaps he quite sincerely wanted Jesus to declare himself King and take power, thinking the threat of an arrest might force his hand. We simply ­don’t know what might have been in his mind. The gospels are content simply to call him “the Betrayer” and his name is seldom mentioned without this description.

Ironically our earliest account of that last meal on Wednesday night comes from Paul, not from any of our gospels. In a letter to his followers in the Greek city of Corinth, written around a.d. 54, Paul passes on a tradition that he says he “received” from Jesus: “Jesus on the night 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 broken 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’ ” (1 Corinthians 11:23–25).

These words, which are familiar to Christians as part of the Eucharist or the Mass, are repeated with only slight variations in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. They represent the epitome of Christian faith, the pillar of the Christian Gospel: all humankind is saved from sins by the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus. What is the historical likelihood that this tradition, based on what Paul said he “received” from Jesus, represents what Jesus said at that last meal? As surprising as it might sound, there are some legitimate problems to consider.

Priscilla Banquet

At every Jewish meal, bread is broken, wine is shared, and blessings are said over each—but the idea of eating human flesh and drinking blood, even symbolically, is completely alien to Judaism. The Torah specifically forbids the consuming of blood, not just for Israelites but anyone. Noah and his descendants, as representatives of all humanity, were first given the prohibition against “eating blood” (Genesis 9:4). Moses had warned, “If anyone of the house of Israel or the Gentiles who reside among
them eats any blood I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut that person off from the people” (Leviticus 17:10). James, the brother of Jesus, later mentions this as one of the “necessary requirements” for non-­Jews to join the Nazarene community—they are not to eat blood (Acts 15:20). These restrictions concern the blood of animals. Consuming human flesh and blood was not forbidden, it was simply inconceivable. This general sensitivity to the very idea of “drinking blood” precludes the likelihood that Jesus would have used such
symbols.

The Essene community at Qumran described in one of its scrolls a “messianic banquet” of the future at which the Priestly Messiah and the Davidic Messiah sit together with the community and bless their sacred meal of bread and wine, passing it to the community of believers, as a celebration of the Kingdom of God. They would surely have been appalled at any symbolism suggesting the bread was human flesh and the wine was blood. Such an idea simply could not have come from Jesus as a Jew.

So where does this language originate? If it first surfaces in Paul, and he did not in fact get it from Jesus, then what was its source? The closest parallels are certain Greco-­Roman magical rites. We have a Greek papyrus that records a love spell in which a male pronounces certain incantations over a cup of wine that represents the blood that the Egyptian god Osiris had given to his consort Isis to make her feel love for him. When his lover drinks the wine, she symbolically unites with her beloved by consuming his blood. In another text the wine is made into the flesh of Osiris. The symbolic eating of “flesh” and drinking of “blood” was a magical rite of union in Greco-­Roman culture.

We have to consider that Paul grew up in the Greco-­Roman culture of the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor, outside the land of Israel. He never met or talked to Jesus. The connection he claims to Jesus is a “visionary” one, not Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being walking the earth. See my book, Paul and Jesus for a full elaboration of the implications of Paul’s visionary revelations.  When the Twelve met to replace Judas, after Jesus had been killed, they insisted that to be part of their group one had to have been with Jesus from the time of John the Baptizer through his crucifixion (Acts 1:21–22). Seeing visions and hearing voices were not accepted as qualifications
for an apostle.

Second, and even more telling, the gospel of John recounts the events of that last Wednesday night meal but there is absolutely no reference to these words of Jesus instituting this new ceremony of the Eucharist. If Jesus in fact had inaugurated the practice of eating bread as his body, and drinking wine as his blood at this “last supper” how could John possibly have left it out? What John writes is that Jesus sat down to the supper, by all indications an ordinary Jewish meal. After supper he got up, took a basin of water and a cloth, and began to wash his disciples’ feet as an example of how a Teacher and Master should act as a servant—even to his disciples. Jesus then began to talk about how he was to be betrayed and John tells us that Judas abruptly left the meal.

Mark’s gospel is very close in its theological ideas to those of Paul. It seems likely that Mark, writing a decade after ­Paul’s account of the last supper, inserts this “eat my body” and “drink my blood” tradition into his gospel, influenced by what Paul has claimed to have received. Matthew and Luke both base their narratives wholly upon Mark, and Luke is an unabashed advocate of Paul as well. Everything seems to trace back to Paul. As we will see, there is no evidence that the original Jewish followers of Jesus, led by Jesus’ brother James, headquartered in Jerusalem, ever practiced any rite of this type. Like all Jews they did sanctify wine and bread as part of a sacred meal, and they likely looked back to the “night he was betrayed,” remembering that last meal with Jesus.

What we really need to resolve this matter is an independent source of some type, one that is Christian but not influenced by Paul, that might shed light on the original practice of Jesus’ followers. Fortunately, in 1873 in a library at Constantinople, just such a text turned up. It is called the Didache and dates to the early 2nd century CE. It had been mentioned by early church writers but had disappeared until a Greek priest, Father Bryennios, discovered it in an archive of old manuscripts quite by accident. The title Didache in Greek means “Teaching” and its full title is “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” It is a type of early Christian “instruction manual” probably written for candidates for Christian baptism to study. It has lots of ethical instructions and exhortations but also sections on baptism and the Eucharist—the sacred meal of bread and wine. And that is where the surprise comes. It offers the following blessings over wine and bread:

With respect to the Eucharist you shall give thanks as follows. First with respect to the cup: “We give you thanks our Father for the holy vine of David, your child which you made known to us through Jesus your child. To you be the glory forever.” And with respect to the bread: “We give you thanks our Father for the life and knowledge that you made known to us through Jesus your child. To you be the glory forever.”

Notice there is no mention of the wine representing blood or the bread representing flesh. And yet this is a record of the early Christian Eucharist meal! This text reminds us very much of the descriptions of the sacred messianic meal in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here we have a messianic celebration of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah and the life and knowledge that he has brought to the community. Evidently this community of Jesus’ followers knew nothing about the ceremony that Paul advocates. If ­Paul’s practice had truly come from Jesus surely this text would have included it.

There is another important point in this regard. In Jewish tradition it is the cup of wine that is blessed first, then the bread. That is the order we find here in the Didache. But in ­Paul’s account of the ­“Lord’s Supper” he has Jesus bless the bread first, then the cup of wine—just the reverse. It might seem an unimportant detail until one examines ­Luke’s account of the words of Jesus at the meal. Although he basically follows the tradition from Paul, unlike Paul Luke reports first a cup of wine, then the bread, and then another cup of wine! The bread and the second cup of wine he interprets as the “body” and “blood” of Jesus. But with respect to the first cup—in the order one would expect from Jewish tradition—there is nothing said about it representing “blood.” Rather Jesus says, “I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom comes” (Luke 22:18). This tradition of the first cup, found now only in Luke, is a leftover clue of what must have been the original tradition before the Pauline version was inserted, now confirmed by the Didache.

Understood in this light, this last meal makes historical sense. Jesus told his closest followers, gathered in secret in the Upper Room, that he will not share another meal with them until the Kingdom of God comes. He knows that Judas will initiate events that very night, leading to his arrest. His hope and prayer is that the next time they sit down together to eat, giving the traditional Jewish blessing over wine and bread—the Kingdom of God will have come.

Since Jesus met only with his Council of Twelve for that final private meal, then James as well as Jesus’ other three brothers would have been present. This is confirmed in a lost text called the Gospel of the Hebrews that was used by Jewish-­Christians who rejected ­Paul’s teachings and authority. It survives only in a few quotations that were preserved by Christian writers such as Jerome. In one passage we are told that James the brother of Jesus, after drinking from the cup Jesus passed around, pledged that he too would not eat or drink again until he saw the kingdom arrive. So here we have textual evidence of a tradition that remembers James as being present at the last meal.

In the gospel of John there are cryptic references to James. Half a dozen times John mentions a mysterious unnamed figure that he calls “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” The two are very close; in fact this unnamed disciple is seated next to Jesus either at his right or left hand. He leaned back and put his head on Jesus’ breast during the meal (John 13:23). He is the one to whom Jesus whispers that Judas is the betrayer. Even though tradition holds that this is John the fisherman, one of the sons of Zebedee, it makes much better sense that such intimacy was shared between Jesus and his younger brother James. After all, from the few stories we have about John son of Zebedee, he has a fiery and ambitious personality—Jesus had nicknamed him and his brother the “sons of Thunder.” They are the two that had tried to obtain the two chief seats on the Council of Twelve, one asking for the right hand, the other the left. On another occasion they asked Jesus for permission to call down fire from heaven to consume a village that had not accepted their preaching (Luke 9:54). On both occasions Jesus had rebuked them. The image we get of John son of Zebedee is quite opposite from the tender intimacy of the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” No matter how ingrained the image might be in Christian imagination, it makes no sense to imagine John son of Zebedee seated next to Jesus, and leaning on his breast.

It seems to me that the evidence points to James the brother of Jesus being the most likely candidate for this mysterious unnamed disciple. Later, just before Jesus’ death, the gospel of John tells us that Jesus put the care of his mother into the hands of this “disciple whom he loved” (John 19:26–27). How could this possibly be anyone other than James his brother, who was now to take charge of the family as head of the household?

Late that night, after the meal and its conversations, Jesus led his band of eleven disciples outside the lower city, across the Kidron Valley, to a thick secluded grove of olive trees called Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Judas knew the place well because Jesus often used it as a place of solitude and privacy to meet with his disciples (John 18:2). Judas had gone into the city to alert the authorities of this rare opportunity to confront Jesus at night and away from the crowds.

It was getting late and Jesus’ disciples were tired and drowsy. Sleep was the last thing on Jesus’ mind, and he was never to sleep again. His all-­night ordeal was about to begin. He began to feel very distressed, fearful, and deeply grieved. He wanted to pray for strength for the trials that he knew would soon begin. Mark tells us that he prayed that if possible the “cup would be removed from him” (Mark 14:36). Jesus urged his disciples to pray with him but the meal, the wine, and the late hour took their
toll. They all fell asleep.

“Eat My Body, Drink My Blood”? Did Jesus Really Say This?

One of the more controversial but significant arguments I make in my new book, Paul and Jesus, is that the traditional words attributed to Jesus at the Last Supper–“This is my body,” “This is my blood” over the bread and wine–originated with Paul not with Jesus! Here is a summary of my reasons for reaching this conclusion and I invite readers to explore in depth this and other ways Paul and Jesus differed by reading the book itself.

Adoration Ghent

This most central of all Christian rites—the Eucharist or Holy Communion—involving eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ, however understood, is at once as familiar as it is strange. Here is what Paul writes to the Corinthians around A.D. 54:

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 bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is [broken] for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25).

Mark, our earliest gospel, written between 75-80 A.D. has the following scene of Jesus’ Last Supper:

And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:22-24).

The precise verbal similarities between these two accounts are quite remarkable considering that Paul’s version was written at least twenty years earlier than Mark’s. Where would Paul have gotten such a detailed description of what Jesus had said on the night he was betrayed? The common assumption has been that this core tradition, so central to the original Jesus movement, had circulated orally for decades in the various Christian communities. Paul could have received it directly from Peter or James, on his first visit to Jerusalem around A.D. 40, or learned it from the Christian congregation in Antioch, where, according to the book of Acts, he first established himself (Acts 11:25).

What Paul plainly says is easy to overlook: “For I received from the Lord what I handed on to you.” His language is clear and unequivocal. He is not saying, “I received it from one of the apostles, and thus indirectly it came from the Lord,” or “I learned it in Antioch, but they had gotten it by tradition from the Lord.” Paul uses precisely the same language to defend the revelation of his Gospel and how it came to him. He says he did not receive it from any man, nor was he taught it, but swears with an oath, “I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12). This means that what Paul passes on here regarding the Lord’s Supper, including the words of Jesus over the bread and the wine, comes to us from Paul and Paul alone!

We have every reason to take him at his word. Though it might sound strange to us that anyone would claim to have received by revelation a narrative of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, years after the event, Paul considered that sort of thing a normal manifestation of his prophetic connection with the Spirit of Christ. One of the gifts of the spirit was a “word of knowledge,” and such a revelation could apply to the past, the present, or the future. In the same way Paul claims to have received a detailed scenario of precisely what will happen in the future when Jesus returns. He prefaces his revelation with the claim, “For this I declare to you by the word of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:15). Paul says that he hears from Jesus. To speculate as to where Paul derived the ideas he claims were given to him by revelation is to enter into his personal psychology to a degree to which we have no access. The task of a historian is to analyze what one might claim, but any attempt to rationally account for what a visionary claims to “see” is outside the realm of historical inquiry.

Since Paul’s account is the earliest we have of the Last Supper we have to be very careful in reading the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, all of which record a similar account, but were written decades later. In other words we can’t begin with Mark, our earliest gospel, and assume that Jesus actually said these words at the Last Supper, and then go to Paul, who comes after Jesus, as if he is just echoing the primary account. Things are precisely the other way around. We have every reason to believe that Mark got his tradition of the words of Jesus at the last Supper from Paul! Matthew and Luke, who then use Mark as a source, are also, indirectly, just repeating what Paul had said decades earlier. ((The idea of two distinct forms of the Eucharist, one from Paul and the other from the Jerusalem church, was effectively argued by Hans Lietzmann in 1926. Needless to say it stirred up a whirlwind of controversy though overall I find it quite convincing. For an updated discussion see R. H. Fuller, “The Double Origin of the Eucharist,” Biblical Research 8 (1963): 60-72.))

One way of sharpening this is to ask two questions that take us beyond Paul and back to Jesus. Is it historically probable that Jesus held a Last Supper with his disciples on the night before his death? Is it historically probable that Jesus uttered words about the bread being his body and the cup of wine his blood?

For the first question we have two independent ancient sources: Mark (who is echoed by Matthew and Luke) and the gospel of John. Both report that Jesus ate such a meal and it is reasonable to assume such is the case. For the second question Paul is our only source reporting that Jesus spoke of the bread as his body and the wine as his blood—since Mark, Matthew, and Luke derive their accounts from him. John reports an intimate meal Jesus had with his disciples but never says anything about words such as these spoken over bread and wine. It is difficult to imagine John, who was aware of the other gospels, leaving such an important tradition out of his gospel except by intention. His silence is essentially his “no” vote on the historical reliability of our single source—Paul.

But there is another reason for doubting the historical validity of Paul’s account. Other than Paul, a wholly alternative record of the words spoken at a Christian Eucharist celebration over the bread and the wine come from the early Christian text we call the  Didache (pronounced did-a-káy) that are completely different from the words of Jesus that Paul reports.

You shall give thanks as follows: First, with respect to the cup: “We give you thanks, our Father, for the holy vine of David, your child, which you made known to us through Jesus your child. To you be the glory forever.” And with respect to the fragments of bread: “We give you thanks our Father, for the life and knowledge that you made known to us through Jesus your child. To you be the glory forever” (Didache 9:2-3). ((Translation from Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1, p. 431.))

This precious text, discovered quite by chance in the library in Constantinople in 1873, provides us with clear evidence that early Christian communities were gathering together for a common thanksgiving meal called the Eucharist, blessing bread and wine, but with no connection whatsoever to the Pauline words associated with the Lord’s Supper that became the norm within Christianity. It is also noteworthy that both Jesus and David are equated in this prayer as “your child,” showing the fully human understanding of Jesus as a bloodline descendant of David and thus heir of his royal dynasty. The Didache as a whole, shows no influence of Paul’s teachings or traditions. It fits well with the broader picture we have seen based on the Q source, the letter of James, and the scattered texts that we can identify from later Jewish-Christian sources.

What Jesus said at his Last Supper with his disciples we have no way of knowing but there is evidence he thought of that meal as a “Messianic banquet” to be eaten in anticipation of the their table fellowship in the future kingdom of God. He tells the Twelve:

“You are those who have continued with me in my trials: and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:28).

This saying of Jesus is from the Q source (our earliest collection of the sayings of Jesus), not from Paul, but Luke, who connects it to the Last Supper. Luke’s version of Q is generally considered to be more accurate in preserving the structure of Q.

Luke relies on his source Mark his Lord’s Supper account, including the Pauline tradition of the words of institution about eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus. But surprisingly, Luke knows another alternative source with no such language! He ends up placing them both into his narrative, juxtaposed one after the other:

[Tradition A: Alternative Source] And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22: 15-18)

 

[Tradition B: Mark Source] And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

 

Luke 22:20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood (Luke 22:19-20)

When one reads both traditions as a unit it makes little sense, because Jesus ends up taking the cup twice, but saying entirely different things. When the two traditions are separated each forms a discrete unit.

This becomes all the more significant since Luke’s Tradition A fits with what we might expect Jesus to have said in a Jewish Messianic context.

Oddly, Mark appears to preserve just a bit of this more primitive Jewish tradition, since Jesus concludes the meal by saying: “Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). Matthew includes this verse as well, copying it from Mark (Matthew 26:29). The reason it is odd is that it does not fit well with the Pauline “this is my body” and “this is my blood” tradition that Mark makes the center of his Last Supper scene. Jesus is obviously not anticipating one day drinking his own blood with the disciples in the kingdom. Evidently Mark knew something of the two traditions but mutes the one while playing up the other. He was perhaps bothered by the idea of two different scenes of Jesus blessing the cup, but with different words of interpretation, so he drops the first one.   Luke leaves them both, juxtaposed, even though they might be seen as contradictory. This convolution of Luke was sufficiently bothersome to some scribes that the Western text tradition (based on the 5th century A.D. Codex Bezae) drops the second cup scene (verses 19b-20) entirely; leaving a contradictory combination of Tradition A and B that makes little sense. ((See Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 156-185, for a discussion of various New Testament manuscript traditions. The Western Text (Codex Bezae, designated D) has a number of significant omissions, particularly in Luke, that some scholars have argued are more authentic but the example of Luke 19b-20 seems to be a clear attempt by the textual editors to remove the difficulty of the two cups. It is more likely that Luke’s original text had both than that a later manuscript tradition would have added the second cup. Additions and omissions are almost always in the service of harmonization, when the scribes see difficulties they wish to help resolve with the text they are copying.))

Luke’s Tradition A, supported by Mark’s concluding saying of Jesus at the end of the meal, is probably as close as we can get to what Jesus might have said on the last evening of his life. What he expects is a celebratory meal of reunion in the kingdom of God.

This idea, often referred to as the “Messianic Banquet,” is described clearly in the Dead Sea Scrolls. When the Messiah comes all his chosen ones sit down at a common table with him, in the Kingdom, with blessings over bread and wine:

When God brings forth the Messiah, he shall come with them at the head of the whole congregation of Israel with all his brethren, the sons of Aaron the Priest . . .and the chiefs of the clans of Israel shall sit before him . . . And when they shall gather for the common table, to eat and to drink new wine . . . let no man extend his hand over the firstfruits of bread and wine before the Priest; for he shall bless the firstfruits of bread and wine . . .Thereafter, the Messiah of Israel shall extend his hand over the bread and all the congregation of the Community shall utter a blessing . . . ((See The Messianic Rule 2. 10-20 (1QSa), in Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls, pp. 159-160.))

One thing seems clear. The idea of eating the body and blood of ones god, even in a symbolic manner, fits nothing we know of Jesus or the Jewish culture from which he comes.

The technical term theophagy refers to “eating the body of ones god,” either literally or symbolically, and various researchers have noted examples of the idea in Greek religious traditions in which the deity was symbolically consumed. ((See Preserved Smith, A Short History of Christian Theophagy (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Co., 1922). Parallels have been suggested with Attis the Phrygian god, Mithras, and particularly Dionysus, where an animal was torn apart and eaten raw.)) Although some scholars have tried to locate Paul’s version of the Eucharist within the wider tradition of “sacred banquets” common in Greco-Roman society, his specific language about participating in the spiritual efficacy of Jesus’ sacrificed body and blood by eating the bread and drinking the wine seems to take us into another arena entirely. ((Dennis Edwin Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003). )) The closest parallels we have to this kind of idea are found in Greek magical materials form this period. For example, in one of the magical papyri we read of a spell in which one drinks a cup of wine has been ritually consecrated to represent the blood of the god Osiris, in order to participate in the spiritual power of love he had for his consort Isis. ((See the discussion and references in Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), pp. 217-219.))

Jesus lived as an observant Jew, keeping the Torah or Laws of Moses and teaching others to do the same. Jews were strictly forbidden to consume blood or even to eat meat that had not had the blood properly drained and removed (Lev. 7:26-27). The Jewish followers of Jesus, led by Jesus’ brother James, were quite stringent on this point, insisting that it applied equally to non-Jews as well as Jews, based on the prohibition to Noah and all his descendants after the Flood. They forbade non-Jewish followers of Jesus to eat meat that had been killed by strangling, or to consume any blood (Acts 15:19-20). Paul was admittedly lax on these restrictions and tells his followers they can eat any kind of meat sold in the marketplace, presumably even animals killed by strangulation, so long as no one present happens to notice and object on the basis of biblical teachings (1 Corinthians 10:25-29).

Given this background I think we can conclude that it is inconceivable that Jesus would have had his followers drink a cup of wine, even symbolically, as a representation of his blood, or break bread to represent his body, sacrificed for their sins. (( Bruce Chilton has suggested that Jesus did indeed refer to “body” and “blood”; not to his own, but to that of the Passover sacrifice that he was rejecting as part of a corrupt Temple system: “This is my body”—the bread; “This is my blood”—the wine, so no need for the literal flesh and blood sacrifice of a lamb. As attractive as I find this alternative in the end it seems to me unlikely since the juxtaposition of the terms bread/body and wine/blood come from Paul and have no independent source. See Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans, Jesus in Context: Temple, Purity, and Restoration (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997), pp. 59-89.))

“Bible Secrets Revealed” to Air Beginning November 13th on the History Channel

bible_secrets_revealed_logoBeginning air date has been changed to Wednesday, November 13th

Some months ago I had the pleasure of working with several of the producers of a new series for the History Channel provocatively titled “Bible History Revealed” commissioned by Prometheus Entertainment, the rather fascinating brain-child of Kevin Burns of which and about whom you can read more here. My interview ran for three hours as we zipped through the gamut of topics for the six programs covering A-Z with questions such as the following:

What did it mean to be a prophet? What was the purpose of these prophecies?
Why was Daniel not included in the Prophets section of the Bible?
What is the historical place of the book of Enoch?
What was a messiah?
What message did John the Baptist preach?
Were John the Baptist and Jesus at one time considered rival prophets?
Did Jesus see himself as a divine being?
What is the message in The Book of Revelation?
How do Jews, Christians and Muslims view the afterlife?
What was the most surprising secret revealed by the Dead Sea Scrolls?
How has the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls affected Biblical translations and history?
What does the Gabriel Stone say that might indicate a suffering messiah figure predating Jesus?
Why was the Ark of the Covenant so important and what about all the theories as to what happened to it and its possible current whereabouts?
What needs to happen for the Promised Land and End of Days prophecies to be fulfilled?
How has the Bible been misinterpreted in modern society?

Many dozens of my friends and colleagues were also brought into this six part series with similar questions, but tailored to their particular areas of expertise. Bob Cargill gives a partial list of participants here, as well an updated list of the six shows with their air dates here. All episodes air at 10 pm Eastern/9 pm Central:

“LOST IN TRANSLATION” – Nov 13, 2013
“THE PROMISED LAND” – Nov 20, 2013
“THE FORBIDDEN SCRIPTURES” – Nov 27, 2013
“THE REAL JESUS” – Dec 4, 2013
“MYSTERIOUS PROPHECIES”- Dec 11, 2013
“SEX AND THE SCRIPTURES” – Dec 18, 2013

 

Those of us who have done lots of these sorts of interviews know that of the hours we talk about nearly everything under the sun only a tiny fraction of what we say ends up getting used. I think this is fine as an overall method as it allows the producers and editors to take in the whole range of views and opinions on these controversial topics and the selectively try to represent the depth and breadth of scholarly views. Diversity in this case is a virtue not a vice. It is good for the public to understand that our field of “Christian Origins” in particular is a complex one with a variety of critical methods of inquiry that come into play in what we broadly call the “academic study of religions.” I think this promises to be a good series and I recommend it to my readers–if for nothing else than a nice overview of the diversity of academic positions and opinions.