As many of you know, Pope Benedict’s second book on Jesus of Nazareth is due to be published next week. Today, those with advance copies are being allowed to discuss three sections from the embargoed manuscript.
(I’m grateful to have the (digital) book but it’s not easy reading with ‘EMBARGOED” emblazoned across each page!)
Chapter 3, Section 4: “The Mystery of the Betrayer”
Chapter 5, Section 1: “The Dating of the Last Supper”
Chapter 7, Section 3: “Jesus Before Pilate”
First, a general reaction to the book. I’ve not yet finished it, but what I’ve read so far as struck a chord, even more, I’ll dare to say, than the first volume. At least with me. This second book has a narrower focus (Passion and Resurrection) and strikes me as more cohesive. I’m more able to appreciate it as a whole, rather than just in disparate bits, as was the case with the first – at least for me.
I was interested in the section on the “Dating of the Last Supper” because I wanted to see how the Holy Father dealt with an issue of scholarly dispute, and this is a fairly direct one: Was the Last Supper a Passover meal or not? And when did it occur?
The Synoptic Gospels all indicate that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. However:
John goes to great lengths to indicate that the Last Supper was not a Passover
meal. On the contrary: the Jewish authorities who led
Jesus before Pilate’s court avoided entering the praetorium,
“so that they might not be defiled, but might eat
the Passover” (18:28). The Passover, therefore, began only
in the evening, and at the time of the trial the Passover
meal had not yet taken place; the trial and crucifixion
took place on the day before the Passover, on the “day of
preparation”, not on the feast day itself. The Passover feast
in the year in question accordingly ran from Friday evening
until Saturday evening, not from Thursday evening
until Friday evening.
Pope Benedict looks at some attempts to harmonize the accounts and ultimately settles on that offered by John Meier in A Marginal Jew.
He concludes that one has to choose between
the Synoptic and Johannine chronologies, and he argues,
on the basis of the whole range of source material, that
the weight of evidence favors John.
John is right when he says that at the time of Jesus’ trial
before Pilate, the Jewish authorities had not yet eaten the
Passover and, thus, had to keep themselves ritually pure.
He is right that the crucifixion took place, not on the feast,
but on the day before the feast. This means that Jesus died
at the hour when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered
in the Temple. That Christians later saw this as no
coincidence, that they recognized Jesus as the true Lamb,
that in this way they came to see the true meaning of the
ritual of the lambs—all this seems to follow naturally.
The question remains: Why did the Synoptics speak
of a Passover meal? What is the basis for this strand of
tradition? Not even Meier can give a truly convincing
answer to this question.
The answer Pope Benedict settles on being that what Jesus celebrated with his disciples was a new Passover meal.
One thing emerges clearly from the entire tradition: essentially, this farewell meal was not the old Passover,
but the new one, which Jesus accomplished in this context. Even though the meal that Jesus shared with the
Twelve was not a Passover meal according to the ritual prescriptions of Judaism, nevertheless, in retrospect, the
inner connection of the whole event with Jesus’ death and Resurrection stood out clearly. It was Jesus’ Passover. And
in this sense he both did and did not celebrate the Passover: the old rituals could not be carried out—when their
time came, Jesus had already died. But he had given himself, and thus he had truly celebrated the Passover with
them. The old was not abolished; it was simply brought to its full meaning.
The earliest evidence for this unified view of the new and the old, providing a new explanation of the Passover
character of Jesus’ meal in terms of his death and Resurrection, is found in Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:
“Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be new dough, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Paschal
Lamb, has been sacrificed” (5:7; cf. Meier, A Marginal Jew I, pp. 429–30). As in Mark 14:1, so here the first day of
Unleavened Bread and the Passover follow in rapid succession, but the older ritual understanding is transformed into
a Christological and existential interpretation. Unleavened bread must now refer to Christians themselves, who are
freed from sin by the addition of yeast. But the sacrificial lamb is Christ. Here Paul is in complete harmony with
John’s presentation of events. For him the death and Resurrection of Christ have become the Passover that endures.
On this basis one can understand how it was that very early on, Jesus’ Last Supper—which includes not only a
prophecy, but a real anticipation of the Cross and Resurrection in the eucharistic gifts—was regarded as a Passover:
as his Passover. And so it was.
When you read and contemplate the entire Gospel of John, you see how consistent this is with Jesus’ actions throughout. When we think, for example, of the Miracle at Cana, we often focus on the themes of abundance, of Mary’s role in the miracle. What we sometimes forget is that this incident is the first of several described over the next few chapters in which Jesus, at ever turn, reveals that the old ritual is being replaced in His own person. The jars which he ordered filled with water were not any jars – they were used for ceremonial washings. And so on.
I’m not up on the shape of current scholarly discussions of the dating of the Last Supper, so I just flipped open a book at hand – N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God to see what he had to say.
At the same time, we have no reason to suppose, granted all we have seen of Jesus’ agenda and the normal mode of operating, that he would have felt bound to celebrate the festival on the officially appointed day. Scriptural regulations permitted Passover to be kept, in case of necessity, at another time than that laid down…
….The symbols ordering Israel’s life and hope were redrawn, focusing now upon Jesus himself. The final meal which he celebrated with his followers was not, in that sense, free-standing. It gained its significance from his own entire life and agenda, and from the events which, he knew, would shortly come to pass. ….Within this wider context, Jesus’ actions with the bread and the cup – which there is excellent warrant to regard as historical – must be seen in the same way as the symbolic actions of certain prophets in the Hebrew scriptures. Jeremiah smashes a pot; Ezekiel makes a model of Jerusalem under siege. The actions carry prophetic power, effecting the events (mostly acts of judgment) wich are then to occur….Jesus intended this meal to symbolize the new exodus, the arrival of the kingdom through his own fate. The meal, focused on Jesus’ actions with the bread and the cup, told the Passover story, and Jesus’ own story, and wove these two into one.
Essentially the same point, at a slightly further scholarly distance.
I’ll have more to say when the book is published, for I’m finding the material on the resurrection to be quite helpful. What Pope Benedict does is a constant weaving and re-weaving of some contemporary scholarship, his critiques of various uses of that scholarship, and deep attention to the person of Christ, not as a mere object of study, but as the One who invites us to fullness of life with Him.