Did the Historical Jesus Really Tell His Disciples to “Eat My Body” and “Drink My Blood”?

The long-standing aversion by ancient Jews to cannibalism and the consumption of blood should require no discussion. Biblical injunctions or warnings against the former can be found in such passages as Lev. 26:29, Deut. 28:53-57, Jer. 19:9, Lam. 2:20, 4:10, and Ezek. 5:10. Instructions regarding the latter are found in Gen. 9:4 and Lev. 17:14. These prohibitions have been noted by many scholars in connection with statements attributed to Jesus at the Last Supper. Could Jesus have incorporated symbols of cannibalism and blood consumption during a Jewish Passover meal and instructed his Jewish followers to repeat it “in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19)?

Mark, widely regarded as the earliest of the New Testament gospels, quotes Jesus as saying:

“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 [sōma].’ 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 ESV).

Note the Greek word translated here as “body,” sōma, and also the mention of “the [new] covenant.” One might also stop to ask: Who are the “many” (not all?)? The importance of these elements will be discussed below.

That Jesus sprang this shocking conceptualization on simple Jewish people at this high holy feast seems incredible to some. It certainly fails the criterion of contextual credibility. Neither does it satisfy the criterion of multiple independent attestation, as we will see. For the multiple occurrences testify not to the historical veracity of Jesus’s own utterance, but to the growing use of a Pauline invention.

As is generally conceded, the letters of Paul are the earliest written documents in the New Testament. They precede the gospels by at least twenty years and by as many as sixty years. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians provides the earliest account of Jesus’s so-called “words of institution” later recited in various but similar forms by many Christians at their Eucharistic celebrations. Paul’s statement regarding them is worth repeating:

“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered 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 [sōma], which is 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 Cor. 11:23-25 ESV; italics added).

The first words of verse 23 should not be missed: Paul received these words “from the Lord.” Nor should we overlook Paul’s use of sōma or his incorporation of the term “new covenant.” Both of these terms, as we saw, are found in the Gospel of Mark’s last supper narrative.

Paul is usually rather specific as to whether he is passing on traditions handed on to him by other Christ-believing Jews, when he is creating new instruction, and when he is sharing revelation. A few examples should suffice.

Jesus-traditions handed down orally to Paul from other Christ-believing tradents include 1 Cor. 9:14: “In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (ESV). Note: simply “the Lord commanded,” not “the Lord commanded me,” or “I received from the Lord.” Again in 1 Cor. 15:3: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (ESV). Paul wrote “what I also received,” not “what I received from the Lord.” Once more, in 1 Cor. 7:10: “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband.” Paul does not say the Lord gave this charge to him, i.e., it is not revelation but tradition.

Paul is also clear when he offers his own instruction. The remainder of the previous passage is a good example: “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her” (1 Cor. 7:12 ESV). This is Paul’s command, not that of the Lord. In 2 Cor. 11:17, Paul again is careful to differentiate his command from that of the Lord: “What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool” (ESV).

What is sometimes overlooked in connection with Paul is his self-professed claim to being a visionary. He routinely receives revelation, that is, divine visions and instructions from the Lord, be it God or Christ. His entire ministry to the Gentiles began with a revelation: “But when he [God] who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me” (Gal. 1:15-16 ESV). Paul boasts of his visions to the Corinthians, relating them in the third person to soften the braggadocio:

“I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven– whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise– whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows–and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Cor. 12:1-4 ESV).

Paul says he received missionary instructions in visions and revelations: “I went up [i.e., to Jerusalem] because of a revelation and set before them…the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles….” (Gal. 2:2 ESV). Getting closer to the heart of the matter, Paul claims that his gospel message to the Gentiles did not come from any of the apostles: “For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12 ESV).

Paul was convinced that he received numerous visions and revelations from a divine source. I suggest that Paul received Jesus’s words of institution just as he says, not from a tradition handed down about the historical Jesus from earlier apostles, but via divine revelation specifically for Gentiles (see also Tabor, Paul and Jesus, 150-51; ibid., “The Last Days”; Maccoby, passim). A significant amount of evidence can be brought to bear to support the argument.

First, of the four canonical gospels, only the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) feature words similar to Paul’s “words of institution.” Except for a few select verses in Luke (22:19b-20 which are the subject of numerous manuscript variations), the exact form of these words in Matthew and Luke derives from the Gospel of Mark. Mark, as is obvious to many scholars, is a very “Pauline” gospel (Marcus, 74-75) and is largely written for a Gentile, Christ-believing audience (Burkett, 157). This can be demonstrated in that, for both Paul and Mark, the most important event in Jesus’s life is his death and resurrection. It is only by putting one’s faith in this part of God’s multipart plan of salvation that Gentiles can be redeemed. Mark’s gospel is almost completely focused on the passion of Jesus. Everything leads to it. Jesus predicts it three times. The passion story is the only extended, connected narrative in the gospel complete with plot, heroes, villains, motivation, beginning, middle, and end. Mark’s gospel portrays the Jewish messiah “against type,” as a suffering servant of God, whose death redeems Gentiles professing their faith in it (note the Roman centurion’s final statement of faith – 15:39). This is Paul’s “new covenant” between God and trusting/faithful Gentiles through trust/faith in the death and resurrection of God’s Son.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke each incorporate Mark in the composition of their gospels (two-source hypothesis) and carry forward this focus on Jesus’s passion. Mark’s Jesus recites words at his last supper very close to the words of institution taught by Paul – lacking only the command to “do this in remembrance of me.” Mark, as well as Matthew and Luke, also retains the Greek sōma, “body” (not “flesh,” sarx). It appears that Mark has included in his gospel a version of the words of Paul which were recited in connection with the Lord’s Supper, words which by that time had spread throughout the region thanks to Paul’s mission. According to a number of scholars, Mark may have been written in Rome (Duling, 300-301; Burkett, 157). As far as we can tell, Paul visited Rome (Acts 28:16; 1 Clement 5). Also, of the four New Testament gospels, the one that stands the strongest chance of being written by the author whose name later became attached to it was Mark, not “friend of Peter” (1 Pet. 5:13; Papias 3.15) but of Paul (Phlm. 1:24).

The Gospel of John does not feature Jesus’s “words of institution.” In fact, Jesus’s last supper is not a Passover meal at all. According to John, Jesus was crucified the day before Passover, the day of preparation, not on Passover itself as Mark, Matthew, and Luke would have it. There is a passage in John that seems reflective of later developing Eucharistic language which will be discussed below. In any event, many scholars suggest that the Gospel of John originated as a smaller publication in a Jewish milieu, a “signs gospel” without a passion narrative perhaps based on information shared by the mysterious Jewish disciple “whom Jesus loved.” Later it was altered to reflect Gentile concerns (Brown, Community, 27, 55-58). Also, at this final stage, the gospel was edited to combat docetism (the belief that Jesus was never human but only appeared to be).

Secondly, the sayings source behind Matthew and Luke known as Q, as has been amply demonstrated and defended, shows no interest in the saving significance of Jesus’s death. Q is interested in Jesus’s teachings. This may be reflective of its Jewish origins (Mack, 48) in which Jesus’s death was not considered salvific for Jews who did not require a dying and rising messiah for the forgiveness of their sins (Kloppenborg Verbin, 373-4). Jews had sufficient means of atonement already provided for in Torah. Jesus, as well as his forerunner, John the Baptist, taught Jews to repent before the arrival of the coming kingdom. Neither taught that Jews were to believe in Jesus’s death and resurrection in order to atone for their sins (despite the late, Gentile-oriented quotation attributed to John the Baptist about Jesus taking away “the sins of the [Gentile] world” – John 1:29). Thus, Q has no words of institution despite it being filled with Jesus’s sayings nor does it mention a “new” covenant.

Thirdly, while on the subject of collections of Jesus’s sayings, the Gospel of Thomas shows no interest in the death and resurrection of Jesus for salvation. The reason for this may be a combination of its early Jewish roots and its centuries-long accretion of Gnostic theological speculation. Neither system requires the death and resurrection of Jesus for salvation. There are no words of institution in the Gospel of Thomas nor does it mention a “new” covenant.

Fourth, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, commonly shorthanded as the Didache, a 1st-2nd century church manual, records liturgical practices being followed by Jewish believers in Christ at the time of its writing (and certainly reflecting earlier practices as well) (Niederwimmer, 14). The Didache features a thorough discussion of the Eucharist and prescribes the words that are to be spoken during its celebration. They are worth repeating here:

“Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks as follows. First, concerning the cup: ‘We give you thanks, our Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant; to you be the glory forever.’ And concerning the broken bread: ‘We give you thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge that you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant; to you be the glory forever. Just as this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and then was gathered together and became one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever’” (Didache 9; Holmes, 167-68).

These words, spoken by Jewish believers in the Davidic Messiah Jesus, say nothing about consuming Jesus’s body and blood nor anything about a “new” covenant.

It should be becoming clear that among Jewish believers, at least, there was no tradition of eating and drinking Jesus’s body and blood in celebration of the Eucharist. And there are no serious grounds for suggesting that the historical Jesus would say such things.

But an immediate question is thus raised: Wasn’t Paul Jewish? How could Paul willingly receive and pass on such offensive revelation? This is not a problem for traditional interpreters of Paul who claim that Paul forsook his Judaism. But for those, like the present author, who subscribe to the “Paul-within-Judaism” paradigm, that insists that Paul remained a faithful Jew his entire life never rejecting Torah or instructing other Jews to do so, there is another answer to the question of how a Torah-observant Jew could accept and teach a revelation supposedly from the risen Jesus commanding believers to eat his body and drink his blood?

Paul was thoroughly convinced that he was sent (again, by revelation) to bring the Gentiles to a right-standing with the God of Israel before the coming wrath, as he calls it, that is, before the second coming of Jesus and the destruction of all the world’s evil. Evidence for this is beyond the scope of this paper but is universally accepted by Pauline scholars. What is not generally accepted, is that Paul did not write his letters, nor form his “gospel,” for universal humanity but specifically for his Gentile target audience.

Paul taught his Gentiles that, in order to be made right with God (Paul calls it being “justified,” or “made righteous,” dikaioō), they must immediately reject their personal and ceremonial acknowledgement of all of their official and ancestral gods. They may no longer, as their pagan neighbors do, attend the temples or participate in their sacrifices or celebrate their feasts. They must worship only the Jewish God whose Son’s death and resurrection was for their salvation. Once Paul’s Gentiles become baptized into Jesus’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:4) they become redeemed (their lifetime of sins are effectively erased). Do they become Jews? No, says Paul. In fact, they are not to become Jews (be circumcised). Christ died so that a new covenant could be made available to them through trust (pistis) in God’s Son. Had they asked, Paul would have also told his Gentile Christ-believers that they could not worship in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, either. In fact, these redeemed pagans, unlike any other people in the Roman empire, could not sacrifice in any temple whatsoever! How did Paul address and comfort those he insisted undertake this voluntary form of social and religious ostracism?

Paul taught them that their very own bodies would become temples to the Lord (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Rom. 8:9). As with earthly temples, where the presence of the god resides, “God’s Spirit,” or the Spirit of “living God,” or the “Holy Spirit,” would reside within them. Yet ancient religion without practice was unheard of; Jewish and Greco-Roman religions were obsessed with orthopraxy. What would these former pagan believers practice? How could they express, in a ritual format, an orthopraxy that was denied them through their self-imposed exile from all earthly temples? Paul turned to the Eucharist and adapted it for his Gentile audiences. Christ-believers, both Jews and Gentiles, were already celebrating a meal in honor of their messiah (Acts 2:42, 46) – such religiously symbolic meals were common throughout the empire. The Jewish sectarians at Qumran were celebrating a symbolic banquet with the future messiah(s) (1QSa 1:1-2:20). The pagan “mystery religions” frequently held secret meals in which the god was believed to be present and even symbolically consumed.

Paul makes it abundantly clear in 1 Cor. 10:16-18, while warning his flock not to attend pagan temples, that the Eucharist was effectively the same as Jewish temple observance:

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?” (1 Cor. 10:16-18 ESV).

In this passage, Paul combines his notion of baptism into Jesus’s death (body and blood), consumption of the god (a theophagy which Gentiles would recognize), and Jewish Temple sacrifice.

The question remains, however, how could a Torah-observant Paul even consider such offensive language and symbolism even for Gentiles? The key to the answer may be Paul’s use of the Greek word for “body,” sōma, a word retained by Mark and not replaced with sarx, flesh.

Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 15:39-40 that there were lots of different types of flesh (sarx), one for birds, one for animals, one for fish, and one for humans. He then deftly switches from using sarx, “flesh,” (which has Aramaic equivalencies) to using sōma, “body,” (which does not) to describe two types of human bodies (somata): earthly/perishable and heavenly/imperishable could. No flesh (sarx) and blood, Paul insists, can inherit the kingdom (1 Cor. 15:50); only resurrected bodies (somata) that were heavenly/imperishable could do so. By extension, the risen Christ, in Paul’s view, must be in the form of a heavenly/imperishable sōma. It was, for Paul, this heavenly, imperishable body that was consumed at the Gentile Eucharist. Christ was their “Paschal sacrifice (1 Cor. 5:7),” a substitute, spiritual “lamb” which they would consume during their special religious observance in imitation of their brother and sister Jews. Their own bodies would serve as a replacement for the Jewish temple (as well as pagan temples) within which they were not allowed. In their bodies the divine “spirit of Christ” would dwell (Rom. 8:9-11). They became the living temples housing the presence of their divine lord, a replacement for temples “built with hands (2 Cor. 5:1).” Paul’s use of sōma is the key. As a Torah-observant Jew, he does not envisage offensive cannibalism or blood drinking – his is a mystical, symbolic temple ritual in which the spirit of Christ becomes present within the Gentile celebrant.

Rejection of Paul’s spiritual imagery was not long in coming. The words attributed to Jesus in John 6:51-56 have been convincingly demonstrated to be a late addition to the gospel (Brown, John I-XII, 83, 287; Bultmann, 218-20); they are passages that break the continuity of the surrounding narrative and cannot, on grounds of contextual credibility, be attributed to the historical Jesus. In this discourse on eating the body and blood of Jesus, no Passover or Last Supper context is invoked. It is, instead, and extended theological reflection on Jesus as the “bread of life.” The Greek sōma, “body,” is not used here at all. It is replaced by sarx, “flesh.” No room has been left for Paul’s heavenly, imperishable body. “Flesh” here is human meat. The Greek word for eat, esthiō (used three times), is replaced four times with the crude trōgō, meaning “to gnaw, crunch, chew” – Jesus instructs his hearers to gnaw and chew his human meat.

Scholars have reasonably suggested that this coarse language is meant to challenge docetic Christians who were claiming either that Jesus never came to earth in the flesh or that he did not rise in the flesh (Brown, Introduction, 177; Anderson, 64, 179). There are other indications in the New Testament to similar theological battles (Jn. 1:14; 1 Jn. 4:2; 2 Jn. 1:7; Jn. 20:27, 21, etc. See also Ignatius who uses sarx in relation to the Eucharist [Rom. 7.3; Phil. 4.1; Smyr. 7.1] and also combats docetism [Mag. 11; Trall. 9; Smyr. 2-3, 5-6]). Tellingly, a few passages later in John, Jesus, in true Pauline fashion, is made to say, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:63 ESV). If this is so, why the previous imperative to consume it?

In conclusion, it seems highly unlikely that the historical Jesus identified the eating of bread and wine with the consumption of his body and blood. We cannot even be sure that Jesus celebrated his final meal as a Passover seder. The Gospel of John says no. Paul only refers to the “night when he was betrayed.” Only Mark (and Matthew and Luke who copy him) says that he did. Jewish followers of Jesus seem to know nothing of this command to eat Jesus’s body and drink his blood. This comes from Paul with a specific purpose. Gentiles can ritually consume the spiritual body and blood, the essence, the shekinah, of God’s Spirit to replace their voluntary inability to celebrate any of the authorized rituals practiced by pagans and Jews in the mid-first century CE.

Bibliography

Anderson, Paul, The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel: An Introduction to John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011).

Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1966).

Brown, Raymond E., The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times (New York: Paulist Press, 1979).

Brown, Raymond E., An Introduction to the Gospel of John: The Abridged Edition, Marion L. Soards, ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

Bultmann, Rudolf, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, G. R. Beasley-Murray, R. W. N. Hoare, and J. K. Riches, trans. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971).

Burkett, Delbert, An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Duling, Dennis C., The New Testament: History, Literature and Social Context (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003).

Holmes, Michael W., The Apostolic Fathers in English, 3rd ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2006).

Maccoby, Hyam, “Paul and the Eucharist,” New Testament Studies 37 (1991): 247-267.

Mack, Burton, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).

Marcus, Joel, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000).

Niederwimmer, Kurt, The Didache, Linda M. Maloney, trans. (Minneapolis, Fortress Press: 1998).

Tabor, James D., Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012).

Tabor, James D., “The Last Days of Jesus: A Final ‘Messianic’ Meal,” Bible History Daily, 18 April 2014, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/the-last-days-of-jesus-a-final-messianic-meal/.

Kloppenborg Verbin, John, Excavating Q: The History and Setting of the Sayings Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).

 

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