in and around
the Last Supper

Christianity in essence presents itself as the new covenant, developing from its Jewish roots, the promise of God through the Trinity to redeem the world and everyone in it. This idea is centred in an understanding of the eucharist, and thus with the Kingdom of God and suffering.
This has a history, and it is important to tease out the process as best as possible. The aim is to arrive back at meanings given by Jesus and the first followers before the well repeated words were fixed. This can be done by working back from the influence of Paul, how the earliest Christians used the Hebrew Bible (their scriptures before the gospels were written), and the use of the early parts of the New Testament. This is always imprecise, and something on the lines of following trails of clues - backwards.
Paul interprets the Last Supper as a ritual of the new covenant expressed in the earliest canonical documentary source, arriving some 25 years after Christ's death. He has received or written these words in 1 Corinthians 11:25. It has it that "this cup is the new covenant in my blood".
Paul moves early Christianity on from its Jewish roots in:

  • God's election
  • The covenant between God and Israel
  • The Law as gift
  • Simple repentance

to the need for union with Christ to overcome:

  • Sin, from:
    • Temptations of the flesh
    • Death itself
    • The astral world
Paul regards Christ as God's heavenly companion, at God's right hand, and distinct from God. Yet whilst Christ is subordinate he is the means to God's ends. Christ's perfection is in his surrender to God.
Now this is different from Peter's primitive church, where Christ is more purely God's perfect servant. Paul's is much more of a unique position as the sole mediator. Jesus in Peter's church as Leader, Servant, Prophet, and the Holy and righteous one give way to more Christocentric titles with movement to the Gentile world.
So in the earliest days he was a prophet, a man appointed by God for the very special mission, a servant who was set out by God and anointed by his Spirit to be messiah, who was rejected but raised to reign and return very shortly. This is very Jewish in the fuller sense, and there is little new in terms of covenant about it. It is rather the culmination of what was expected within the Jewish faith.
Why is this important: because going back allows us to get closer to what Jesus may have thought and what he was trying to do.
The earliest believers read their scriptures for meaning. Oral inheritances told of some events in Jesus short ministry, but this was little in detail or meaning without reading back. So something like the Last Supper, which became an important ritual early on as the gathering of the faithful, had a developed meaning fleshed out in the Hebrew Bible.
The core texts are primarily around the covenant (the Mosaic one) and they will have seen how suffering follows on. Zechariah 9:11 ("the blood of my covenant with you") relates to setting captives free - the basis of the seder meal procedure. Zechariah 9:11 is probably about blood on the lintels of the doors. Exodus 24:8 has the blood of the covenant ("that the Lord has made with you" - blood thrown over the people as well as the altar).
This understanding is crucial because Israel at the time of Jesus and after was occupied, the people were not free, and so many still suffered from illness and death in a wretched life. Whereas in the past human-facilitated God-guided event was deliverance out of Egypt, now it had to be in within the same location - and another human facilitated act of God was needed to bring this about. It meant a new earth: the restoration of paradise.
To those unbelieving Jews after Jesus who said the Messiah cannot die and fail, the minority believing Jews said that the scriptures show suffering. Thus Paul could later affirm 1 Corinthians 11:26 ("proclaim the Lord's death until he comes"). He could read back, to such as Isaiah (for example 53:12). Jeremiah 31:33 also has the covenant "to be written on their hearts". He too went back to Moses in Hebrews 10:29 (the blood of the covenant).
These are meanings that make most sense after Jesus' death. Suffering stands as the need for the eschatological (the expectation of rapid fulfilment of the convenant) and the sacrificial is part of suffering. Zechariah illustrates suffering through to chapter 13. These themes weave together but sometimes the sacrificial is over emphasised as if in competition with the eschatological. John's gospel with its developed theology intensifies the sacrificial into a process, putting Jesus' death at Passover, probably because John is less eschatological, whereas the first gospel Mark makes the meal at Passover, 13 Nisan.
So back in time the covenant would be the same one, not new as stated by Paul's Christology. New means beyond Israel, and it goes beyond Israel by a focus not on a people of a land but in christology via the death of Jesus. Jesus' own concern was the people and land of Israel and its restoration.
So Jesus himself would have been carrying out leadership regarding the covenant as it was. He would not have been thinking of a new one. What did exercise him was its immediacy of fulfilment, the viewpoint as expressed in Qumran, except that he went into the community whereas the Essenes stayed pure by being separate. This is an old purity to pollution problem for religion. Jesus got his hands dirty, so to speak, in that he went about healing and preaching amongst the sinful. The weight of sin was seen as the cause of illness and death. Some thought that the rich and wealthy, who lived better and longer, showed evidence of less sin, but Jesus in one of his reversals disagreed. He went around the ordinary folk healing, teaching and preaching so that they would sin no more, in preparation for the coming cataclysmic event. The first would be last, and the last first in Jesus' interpretation.
Whether he thought he was the Messiah or not, or came to think he was the Messiah, he certainly did think he was important in the process of preparing the ground so that the Messiah would come, sent by God before this generation passes away. Paul too shared similar immediacy beliefs, and had to explain why (with Jesus raised) people kept dying.
Given the biblical meanings, the apostles put suffering into context, put the meanings in place, and their expectations of the end - and Jesus' suffering towards it - probably added to their expectations, not diminished them. For them Jesus was the first of the resurrected, raised and ready to come, but it is unclear whether Jesus ever thought he was the Messiah or not. However, a clue must be the twelve disciples representing the twelve tribes of Israel, and a built in prediction that these would be the leaders of the tribes (including of Judas) in the new brought in Kingdom. Jesus then must have regarded himself a special servant above them, and indeed he was later described as in the line of David through Joseph.
Whatever, the most primitive meaning of the Last Supper itself and Jesus as eschatological suggests that the seder based ritual would have been about sharing the bread together - community - and the wine representing the blood of the covenant, yet with the extra charged meaning of pointing to rapid fulfilment in the coming Kingdom of God. In essence the bread and wine is a focus on the community liberated from Egypt, and the hope of their own liberation now.
The Gospels as sources disagree about the words, showing signs of rapid development of liturgy in the early Christian communities, and other manuscripts disagree too. It is not clear if Jesus spoke even something like the words as stated.
The part that stands out is regarding Judas and a prediction of betrayal, not the memory of release from Egypt, the covenant, and extension to release from contemporary oppression.
There must be some debate about whether Jesus is arranging his own suffering and even as necessary to bring about God's action. There is even debate whether Jesus could have hoped to survive the crucifixion (as some people did) in order to lead when the Kingdom arrived. There are questions of preparation and questions of the events. For example, there is the given length of him on the cross that is inadequate for crucifixion (death by suffocation) and there is the matter of the drug he received that may have aided his passing out.
The trial is itself odd (as given in Mark). The Sanhedrin would not have met as it did for this messianic claim purpose, would not have passed a death sentence in one sitting, would not anyway have found a messianic claim blasphemous, and a religious offence had it been caused would have meant death by stoning (which it surely did have the power to impose if it wanted). The Christian meaning given to the High Priest's phrase 'the Son of the Blessed' did not exist then. This is all pro-Roman and anti-Jewish dramatics.
Jesus if setting up his own suffering and even death hardly would have wanted death by stoning; did he think the Romans would crucify him? Beyond all such details, there is the broader question of taking advantage of a highly tyrannical State that regarded life as cheap, and vengeance as normal, against any disturber, and its use of crucifixion. All this is highly speculative and raises ethical questions of motivation.
An important point is nevertheless that Jesus will have been aware from his own reading of scriptures of the link between suffering and the bringing in of the Kingdom to fulfil the covenant, and that God does not act without human action. He might have thought that he had to suffer in a context of love for all - a difficult task indeed. The alternative to taking advantage of the occupation and arranging his own suffering and death is morally more appealing: a devotion to the cause whatever it may bring, and it brings much that is unpleasant even to death.
This morally superior devotion to the cause shows why crucifixion cannot be considered necessary, intended and automatic to the Christian salvation scheme, and that if it is so contrived it leads to artificiality. Devotion and letting events take whatever course they will is a better deal.
This is, of course, a modern outlook speaking, which is informed by moral philosophy. Jesus was not so informed: his view was one of a powerful and intimate God who responded to his people and his people's actions: of the Jews whom God had chosen to be holier than others and thus put high demands of service and action upon them. So acting in order to bring something about in a way that seems ethically dodgy to us may seem perfectly programmatic to a Jew of such eschatological supernatural beliefs in a thought process that we hardly can appreciate.
Even if Jesus used a tyrannical state to die so that God acted, the blood of the covenant is still not really a reference by him to spilling his own blood. Suffering was Israel's already and he would only be bringing this to a door-opening conclusion. He is certainly not asking them to remember him either. Hardly, because he being the Messiah, or the Messiah as someone else coming in clouds of glory, would be soon busy doing what really mattered.
This is built up evidence and argument, but a further clue is in The Didache. In this early Christian guidance of stance and liturgy, Jesus is the servant of God, as in earlier titles. There is no mention of his body and blood within that eucharistic or agape meal liturgy (it may not be a eucharist, as later stripped down and theologised, strictly speaking). Regarding the wine, Jesus glorified makes known the holy vine of David. Broken bread refers to (probably) that represented by the feeding of the four/ five thousands of men and additional women and children, which was scattered over the hills and then gathered to become one, just as the church is gathered. The people who have the eucharist must be the baptised alone, those pure for the Kingdom coming.
This suggests then that the Last Supper was purely Jewish and eschatological, and that participation in the bread and wine eucharist after Jesus' death was to participate in that boundary line between the encroaching Kingdom of God about to burst in and the known world as it was. The future Kingdom was in the bread: it was a glimpse of heaven coming.
The new covenant was forward-looking and eschatological, a new situation; it later on became a more traditional, backward-looking memorial or Christ present new Christian covenant.
Gong back then, to Jesus: he is not focussing upon himself. He did not institute a Church ritual to remember him. He has the expectation shared with others, but he is a mover and shaker towards that newness ahead where all eyes were fixed. The Last Supper is not the first Christian supper: it was Last (Jewish) supper, for them.


Adrian Worsfold



Campbell, S. (1996), The Rise and Fall of Jesus: the Ultimate Explanation for the Origin of Christianity, Edinburgh: Explicit Books.

Cupitt, D. (1978), The Debate about Christ, London: SCM Press.

Draper, J. (nd), 'Information on Didache', Early Christian Writings: Didache, Peter Kirby, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed March 27, 2005, 16:20]

Garrow, A. (nd), Didache Garrow, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed March 27, 2005, 16:15]

The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments, Revised Standard Version, Glasgow: Collins.

Hooker, M. D. (1979), Studying the New Testament, London: Epworth Press.

Lindars, B. (1961), New Testament Apologetic: The Doctrinal Significance of Old Testament Quotations, SCM Press.


The Didache, Chapter 9:

We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever..
And concerning the broken bread:
We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever..
But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, "Give not that which is holy to the dogs."


Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful