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When Did The Last Supper Happen?

Like many churches, we’ll be marking the Last Supper and the institution of the Lord’s Supper this Holy Week on Maundy Thursday evening. However, it has long been known that the chronology of ‘Holy Week’ is problematic in the Gospels. The ‘Synoptic Gospels’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke) tie the Last Supper to the Passover, but John places Jesus’ execution on the day of Passover.

Theories to resolve this have abounded for years. One involves the idea that Jesus and his disciples used an unofficial calendar. A particular version of this theory has them using an Essene calendar, that varied from the mainstream. However, for many it is a further problem to see Jesus having any crossover with the Essene community at the Dead Sea, since his teaching was so radically different, especially his rejection of an ascetic approach to faith.

Others argue that the Synoptic Gospels got it right, but John put the Passover detail into his account of the crucifixion for symbolic reasons. While John is hugely different from the other three Gospels in many ways, I’m not sure that the way John incorporates this detail into his account easily reads as symbolism rather than history.

A further argument is that Jesus brought the Passover meal forward to an earlier date, knowing what was going to happen to him. This, too, is appealing to some, but if the last theory sits loose to John and history, this one risks not taking the historical detail of the Synoptic Gospels seriously.
Today’s Guardian reports another attempt to resolve the different narratives. In an article entitled Last Supper … or penultimate supper? Scientist challenges Maundy Thursday, the sub-editor makes it sound like a scientific solution to the dilemma. Which it isn’t. Although Professor Sir Colin Humphreys is a metallurgist, he seems to be using similar methods to resolve this conundrum to those used by biblical scholars. He is not the first to assert that the number of trials Jesus is subjected to in between his arrest in Gethsemane after the meal cannot be fitted into one night. Combined with the evidence that there are some missing days in the Gospels’ accounts of Holy Week, others have brought the Last Supper forward, as I have already indicated above.
I first heard a version of this theory in 1989 when I visited the Holy Land for three weeks, and Dr Jim Fleming, formerly of the Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research and the Biblical Resources Centre (now the Explorations In Antiquity Center in the USA) proposed to us that the Last Supper probably took place on the Tuesday. However, Dr Fleming seemed to lean on the Essene calendar theory.

Professor Humphreys tends towards the Wednesday. His work depends upon the crucifixion being in AD 33 and Jesus using another unofficial calendar, one that would have identified him with Moses. It will be interesting to see whether these two factors command assent from scholars. Watch this space.

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Fresh Expressions: Emerging Church And The Historic Denominations

Going off at a tangent from a post by Pete Phillips, Fresh Expressions is a joint initiative of the Church of England and the Methodist Church to support ‘new ways of being church’. In a strangely modernist way they have identified twelve categories of new expressions of church!

But the thing is this: the historic denominations are increasingly interested in new forms of church. Is it for creative reasons? Is it desperate? Is it the Holy Spirit? What seems to be being swept under the carpet is the huge potential for clashes of values.

For example, won’t we have to start facing some sacred cows such as entrenched doctrines of ordination? Don’t existing ones play the power card in a way that postmoderns and Jesus-followers should be highly suspicious of? You don’t need to go the whole ontological way that the Anglicans do, just take the Methodist view that although ordination confers no separate priesthood, nevertheless it is ‘representative’ (which is pretty close to specialised priesthood) and it confers presidency at the sacraments on the grounds of ‘good order’. That may have been a pragmatic way of restricting presidency to the presbyters in years gone by without officially conceding a sacerdotal approach, but how does it read now? Let’s play reader-response in the 21st century with it. Who can keep good order? Normally only presbyters? What does that say about everybody else?

(Of course Methodism now allows ‘extended communion’ where authorised people can take communion into homes. It started out as something for the sick, but the Big Bad Rule Book can be interpreted to allow this for home groups. Nevertheless it’s only seen as delegated from the presiding minister at a Sunday service, and the people still need to be authorised.)

How far we have come from a Last Supper modelled on the Jewish Passover that was celebrated in the family. And how far we have come from a Saviour who took a towel and a bowl of water.

Although you can’t say the emerging church is all of one mind on every issue (it’s a ‘conversation’, it likes to think) nevertheless it’s pretty clear that it embraces an understandable postmodern suspicion of the link between truth and power, and it is deeply attracted to the radical picture of Jesus in the Gospels.

So this post is really to ask whether the emerging churches and the historic denominations can fully embrace each other. Either there will be compromise of principles on one side or the other (you can bet that those who still perceive themselves as powerful will expect the others to conform to them). Or there will be persistent conflict: the romance will break up. Or the new wine will break the old wineskins.

Someone please tell me I’ve got it wrong, and why. But my spiritual gift of pessimism comes into play on this issue.