If one were to ask me where, historically speaking, one should look to find the origin of the "soteriological" (i.e., related to "salvation") interpretation of Jesus' death, I would, with Martin Hengel (The Atonement, 73), suggest Jesus' own words spoken at the Last Supper. These words — which, on the testimony of the apostle Paul, go back to the earliest tradition he himself "received" (1 Cor 11:23) — together with the symbolic actions they were uttered to interpret, are almost certainly to be understood (both in the Gospels' narratives and in Jesus' explicit intention) as the positive counterpart to Jesus' "negative" climactic acted parable, the so-called "cleansing of the Temple" (Mark 11:15-19 et par.; so argued Jacob Neusner, "Money-Changers in the Temple: The Mishnah's Explanation," New Testament Studies 35  287-90). That act, as is being increasingly recognized, was intended as an acted parable signifying God's imminent judgment of the Temple, which would find its expression in the horrors delineated in Jesus' famous "eschatological discourse" found, inter alia, in Mark 13. The night before he was executed, Jesus provided another, verbally interpreted acted parable at the Last Supper, a meal which signified that he was about to do, once and for all, that to which the judged (and implicitly obsolete) Temple pointed forward.
The "words of institution" for the Lord's Supper are found in four New Testament texts: Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23; and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Sorting out the similarities and differences between these accounts, and the Tradition-history that lay behind them, is a veritable feast for the New Testament scholar, even as the task appears daunting to the historical-critically uninitiated. Thankfully, for our present purposes such sifting is largely unnecessary, for the major theological emphases can be gleaned from each of the accounts.
Fundamental to a proper understanding of the Last Supper is the recognition of its Passover context. Indeed, the Passover context is evident in both the Markan and Lukan forms of the tradition. Most explicit in this regard is Luke 22:15, where Jesus, at the beginning of the meal, says, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover (to pascha, "this Passover lamb"? "this Passover meal"?) with you before I suffer." Complicating matters is the Johannine tradition of Jesus' passion, which prima facie indicate that Jesus was crucified the day before Passover, at precisely the time the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple (cf. John 18:28; [probably] 19:14). To my mind, the arguments marshaled by Joachim Jeremias back in 1960 for the paschal character of the Last Supper (The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, 41-84) remain compelling. If so, the apparently alternate Johannine chronology is to be explained either as a theological (i.e., non-historical) alteration or, as I prefer, as an indication that the "Synoptic" chronology is due to Jesus' own alteration of the typical chronology in view of his anticipated demise (i.e., the meal was a "quasi-Passover meal [e.g., N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 437-38], with the [absent] lamb's significance taken over by Jesus' interpretation of his own, soon-to-be offered "body" and "blood"). In any case, the basic point is obvious even to the most casual reader: Jesus' death is presented as the "fulfillment" of the Passover lamb typology. In other words, Jesus believed his coming death would be the means to enact the New Exodus promised by God in Isaiah 40-55 for the eschatological redemption of his people.
Within this overarching perspective, each of Jesus' three interpretative words (one about the "bread" and two about the "cup") are instructive about how the earliest tradition (which I would argue goes back to Jesus himself) understood the significance of Jesus' death.
1. "This is my body" (Mark 14:22 et par.). Back in 1966, David Daube (He That Cometh) suggested that Jesus was here identifying himself with the so-called afikomen, the piece of unleavened bread broken off at the beginning of the seder that represents the portion to be eaten by the Messiah at the longed-for Messianic banquet (thus "this is my body" = "this represents me"). Thus, according to Daube (and, surprisingly, considered at least possible by such commentators as Dale Allison [Davies and Allison, Matthew, 3:468] and Craig Evans [Mark 8:27-16:20, 390-91]), Jesus' statement was a piece of messianic self-revelation rather than a picture of self-sacrifice.
Now, I consider it certain that Jesus not only had a "messianic" self-understanding, but that he had made this understanding clear to his closest followers during his ministry. The shape of the Jesus tradition as it was transmitted and, more significantly, the very existence of the early church as an explicitly "messianic" community ("Christians," no matter how sarcastic the original attribution probably was), are inexplicable without it. Nevertheless, both the Lukan and Pauline traditions of the Supper point in another direction:
- "This is my body, which is given (didomenon) for you (hyper hymōn) (Luke 22:19)
- "This is my body, which is for you (hyper hymōn) (1 Cor 11:24)
These traditions, which have just as great a claim to antiquity as does the Markan, associate the symbolism of the bread with Jesus' body handed over to death, a death portrayed as undergone for the benefit (hyper) of Jesus' disciples, the beneficiaries of the New Exodus which would be brought about thereby (cf. esp. Ottfried Hofius, "The Lord's Supper and the Lord's Supper Tradition," in Ben F. Meyer, ed., One Loaf, One Cup, 97-98).
Indeed, Anthony Thiselton (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 877) points to a more significant "background" in the Passover Haggadah itself:
The recital of the Jewish Haggadah (Order of the Seder Service) begins with doxology: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the produce of the vine. Blessed are Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has chosen us from all peoples. . . ." Following the benediction, the karpas (or hors d'oeuvre characteristic of Passover) is dipped in salt water or in vinegar and distributed, associated with the hyssop dipped in blood of the first Passover sacrifice, with the words of a further benediction ... The Haggadah then begins, "This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt ..."Thiselton then concludes that Jesus' "surprise" reinterpretation of the rite was that "my body now replaces the events or objects of redemption from Egypt made participatory and contemporary" (emphasis his). To be more precise, Jesus identifies his "body" handed over to death as the antitype of the "affliction" that the Jews had experienced in their servitude to the Egyptians, and which had been recapitulated in their experience of sin-induced, covenant-shattering exile. Jesus, in other words, was making the claim that his coming death for them (thus implying representation and/or substitution) would entail his suffering the affliction and consequences of the sin that had caused their exile (thus implying identification). In a very real sense, Jesus' death would be the climax of Israel's exilic sufferings, and hence the means by which the highly anticipated New Exodus would take place. This idea becomes clearer in Jesus' words over the cup.
2. "This is my blood of the covenant" (Mark 14:24//Matthew 26:28). Jesus here, as clearly as could be, proclaims his coming death to be a covenant sacrifice. The clear Old Testament allusion here is to Exodus 24:8, which speaks of the ratification of the covenant on Sinai:
And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, "Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.Once again a clear typological relationship exists between the actions of Moses and Jesus, except for the fact that the blood "dashed" (זרק) on both the altar (Exod 24:6) and the people (Exod 24:8) by Moses was (obviously) not his own. The point of this rite was, as E. W. Nicholson ("The Covenant Ritual in Exodus XXIV 3-8," Vetus Testamentum 332  74-86, followed, inter alia, by Rikki Watts, Isaiah's New Exodus in Mark, 352) persuasively argued, was to "sanctify" Israel as "holy" and thus constitute them, as Exodus 19:6 promised, a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Likewise, Jesus' death would be the means by which he would inaugurate a new covenant and constitute his followers their new covenant identity. Facilitating this understanding was a sacrificial understanding of the covenant rite, reflected in Targum Onkelos (an Aramaic translation/interpretive enlargement of the Hebrew text dating o the turn of the eras) on Exodus 24:8, which adds "to make atonement" to the Torah text (cf. also Hebrews 9:20-22).
Both Luke and Paul reflect a tradition which identifies the covenant blood of Jesus as that which ratifies the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34, which supersedes the redundant Sinai covenant, conveys the internal transformation of heart lacking in the Old Covenant, and — most importantly — conveys the forgiveness of Israel's iniquities and sins (cf. Matt 26:28, "for the forgiveness of sins"). This is both national forgiveness — the return from exile — and individual forgiveness, enacted by means of Jesus' covenant sacrifice, articulated in terms derived from the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.
3. "Which is poured out for many" (Mark 14:24//Matthew 26:28). Most scholars acknowledge that Jesus here (as in Mark 10:45) alludes to the Hebrew text of Isaiah 53:12, which states of the Servant that "he poured out (he‘ĕrâ) his soul to death ... he bore the sin of many." By this clause Jesus conveys the means by which the covenant would be inaugurated and the beneficiaries of its establishment. The means would be by his violent death (the significance of the idea of "shedding blood" [haima ekchein]; cf. Johannes Behm, TDNT 2:467), understood in accordance with the template provided by Isaiah's suffering servant.
The perennial issue concerns whether or not Jesus' words are meant to convey a sacrificial significance to his upcoming death. Traditional exegesis (not to mention most contemporary scholarship) has thought so. Not only the traditional Jewish attribution of atoning/expiatory value to the covenant sacrifice (mentioned above), but the use of the verb ekcheō in the LXX of certain Levitical passages dealing with sacrificial atonement (e.g., Lev 4:7, 18, 25, 30, 34) has been enough to convince most scholars. Some have demurred, however. Foremost among these is Morna Hooker, who utilizes what I consider a deficient, divide-and-conquer hermeneutic to make her argument both here and in Mark 10:45 (for my discussion of Hooker's arguments there, see here). Her arguments amount to two: (1) "pouring out blood" simply refers to "bloodshed," and hence has no connection with Isaiah's Servant, who is "laid bare to death," an expression that need not necessarily imply the actual death of the victim; and (2) without any other connection, it is illegitimate to establish a connection via the use of the inclusive "many." More recently, J. D. G. Dunn has denied the presence of sacrificial imagery in Mark 14:24 because the underlying Hebrew term behind the use of ekcheō in Leviticus 4 (LXX) is šapak rather than he‘ĕrâ. Furthermore, noting that the possible Isaianic allusion here is limited to the Markan tradition (reflected in Matthew and Mark), and affirming the disputed point that the Lukan and Pauline traditions are "closer to the original formulation," Dunn suggests that "the case for seeing an allusion to the Servant of Isaiah in what Jesus originally said is not very strong" (Jesus Remembered, 815-16). As an alternative, he posits that "Jesus spoke of his anticipated death in terms of a covenant sacrifice rather than a sin offering" (816, emphasis his).
I have learned as much from Professor Dunn as I have from any other New Testament scholar, but his argument here hardly carries conviction. I find it hard to imagine that he does not know that his antithesis between Jesus' death as a covenant sacrifice and as a sin offering is a false, unnecessary one. The two are hardly mutually exclusive, or excluding, options. His (and Hooker's) wooden approach to discerning Old Testament allusions fares no better (in my previous post I weighed their approach and found it wanting). Mark 9:12, the first of the three Markan "passion predictions," ties the "suffering" of the "Son of Man" to what must occur according to "what is written" in Scripture. It is salutary to ask, with Rikki Watts (Isaiah's New Exodus in Mark, 358): "Who else with the INE [Isaianic New Exodus] horizon 'dies' for the benefit of the 'many' and brings 'the new covenant community of God's people into being', if not the servant?" Simply to ask the question is to answer it.
More significantly, however, Mark and his literary follower, Matthew, both knew the LXX, and would have readily understood the potentially sacrificial connotations of "shed" or "poured out" blood. Indeed, not only would they have been aware of the association, but their choice to use the verb ekcheō here (or, as is more likely, to utilize the pre-Markan tradition that utilized the term) as an ad sensum assimilation to the Hebrew text of Isaiah 53:12 is likely an indication that the earliest Jesus tradition interpreted the Servant's role, and Jesus' embodiment of that role, in terms of the sacrificial, expiatory shedding of blood in the Levitical cultus.
That this is indeed the case is suggested by one other piece of evidence in Isaiah 53. In Isaiah 53:10, the Servant is described in terms of an āšām, a "guilt offering," the purpose of which was to atone for sin (Lev 5:6-7, 15-19; 7:1-7). Isaiah 53:12 provides a clue as to how such atonement would be made: "he bore the sin of many." Here, I dare say, is substitution. Indeed, though the thought is not developed, the clearly metonymical notion of "bearing sin" refers to bearing the judgment consequent upon sin. And in this case such a bearing of sin issues in the liberation of the consequences of sin for the "many" whose sins the servant bore. The thought is not developed, but in a real sense this is a rudimentary version of the idea of penal substitution, whether one likes it or not.
If indeed the earliest Jesus tradition embodied in the words of institution interpreted his death in terms of Isaiah 53 — and I can see no way this can be denied — then it would seem that the earliest church affirmed, as a matter of fundamental belief, expressed not least in their weekly Eucharistic gatherings (cf. Didache 14:1), that Jesus died in the place of sinners so that their sins might be forgiven and they might be constituted as the New Covenant people of God. Moreover, since (as I have more than once emphasized) there is no evidence that there was ever any non-theological interpretation of his death, we are on good historical grounds to suggest that Jesus himself was indeed the origin of such an understanding, thus providing a fixed point from which later theologians, especially Saint Paul, could further explicate its significance. It is to Paul that we will turn in our next post.