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Jesus' Last Supper with his Disciples (Mark 14:22-25)

Analysis and Commentary

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Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper

Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper

    22 And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. 23 And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. 24 And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. 25 Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God.
    Compare: Matthew 26:17-29; Luke 22:7-23; John 13:21-30; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Jesus and the Last Supper

It is not without good reason that Jesus’ “last supper” with his disciples has been made the subject of so many artistic projects over the centuries: here, at one of the last gatherings attended by all, Jesus delivers instructions not on how to enjoy the meal, but how to remember him once he is gone. Much is communicated in just four verses.

First it should be noted that Jesus serves his disciples: he hands out the bread and he passes the cup around. This would be consistent with his repeated emphasis on the idea that his disciples should seek to serve others rather than seek positions of power and authority.

Second, it should be noted that the tradition that Jesus is telling his disciples that they are actually eating his body and blood — even in symbolic form — is not entirely supported by the text. The King James translations here certainly make it seem that way, but appearances can be deceiving.

The original Greek for “body” here can also be translated as “person.” Rather than trying to establish a direct identification between the bread and his body, it’s far more likely that the words are intended as emphasizing that by breaking bread with one another, the disciples are being united together and with Jesus’ person — even though he will soon die. Readers should keep in mind that Jesus sat and ate frequently with people in a way that created a bond with them, including those who were outcasts of society.

The same would be true for the post-crucifixion community in which Mark lived: by breaking bread together, Christians established unity not only with each other, but also the risen Jesus despite the fact that he wasn’t physically present. In the ancient world, breaking bread was a powerful symbol of unity for those together at a table, but this scene was expanding the concept to apply to a much wider community of believers. Mark’s audience would have understood this community to include them, thus allowing them to feel connected directly to Jesus in the communion rites they regularly participated in.

Similar observations can be made with respect to the wine and whether it was intended to literally be Jesus’ blood. There were powerful prohibitions against drinking blood in Judaism which would have made such an identification abhorrent to all in attendance. The use of the phrase “blood of the covenant” likely refers to Exodus 24:8 where Moses seals the covenant with God by sprinkling the blood of sacrificed animals on the people of Israel.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, though, we can find what is likely an older phrasing: “this cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Mark’s phrasing, which would be far more difficult to translate into Aramaic, makes it sound like the cup contains (even if symbolically) Jesus’ blood which, in turn, is the covenant. Paul’s phrasing indicates that the new covenant is established by Jesus’ blood (which would soon be shed — the phrase “which is shed for many” is an allusion to Isaiah 53:12) while the cup is something that is being shared in recognition of the covenant, much like the bread is being shared.

The fact that Mark’s version of the words here is more theologically developed is one of the reasons scholars believe that Mark was written a bit later than Paul, probably after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. It is also noteworthy that in a traditional Passover meal, bread is shared at the beginning while wine is shared later on during the course of the meal — the fact that wine immediately follows bread there suggests, once again, that we are not seeing a genuine Passover celebration.

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