Jesus of Nazareth Part II

The fact that Benedict XVI has spent what little time he can squeeze out of his papal schedule continuing work on his three-volume Jesus of Nazareth indicates the tremendous importance he attributes to the renewal of theology, and in particular, biblical theology.

The second volume of Jesus of Nazareth, covering the events of Holy Week, will be released tomorrow, March 10. (The pope is already working on the third volume, a “prequel” covering the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke.) I have read the preview copy of volume 2 sent to me by the publisher, and it is as theologically rich and insightful as the first volume.

It seems to me that Benedict’s deepest goal is to provide a model of what biblical theology can look like when the tools of modern scholarship are integrated with faith in Scripture as a living word from God. The pope is seeking to reunite what has long been split apart—Scripture and theology, biblical exegesis and Christian faith. He is not afraid to do things that are considered taboo in some biblical circles:

  • He synthesizes reflections based on each of the four gospels (and even Paul) into a single coherent whole rather than only looking at, say, the christology of Mark or the christology of John.
  • He interprets Scripture from within the living tradition of the Church, rather than as a supposedly neutral bystander.
  • He holds that the real, historical Jesus is none other than the Jesus of the gospels.
  • He takes as the purpose of his biblical investigations that both he and his readers might encounter Jesus and grow in friendship with him.

Yet at the same time the pope takes very seriously questions of history and the gradual development in the early church’s understanding. The result is a reflection in which each detail of the passion accounts opens up unexpected depths; each detail interconnects with the whole mystery of Jesus’ identity and messianic mission. Even the differences in perspectives among the evangelists only bring out the figure of Jesus in clearer relief.

Benedict’s book is totally unprecedented in that he writes as pope, yet truly wants to be read as a theologian whose contribution is evaluated and even critiqued by fellow theologians. In the foreword to the first volume he stated, “this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me.”

Following are my own reflections on one of the sections that can be discussed before the book is released tomorrow. I’ll post more later.

When was the Last Supper?

The pope goes into some depth on this subject that has been a matter of controversy ever since the patristic era, since there are apparent contradictions in the Gospel accounts. (For a good succinct summary, see the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, p. 188.) The Synoptic Gospels indicate that the Last Supper was a Passover meal on the Thursday evening before Christ died (Mk 14:12-17). The Gospel of John, on the other hand, indicates that the Passover began on Friday evening that year, which implies that the Last Supper could not have been a Passover meal. Here, in brief, are the main solutions proposed:

  1. The Synoptic Gospels are historically accurate. John tweaks the details for the sake of theological symbolism: at the very hour the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the temple, Jesus, the true Lamb of God, died on the cross.
  2. John’s account is historically accurate. The Synoptics portray the Last Supper as a Passover meal although this was not historically the case.
  3. John is right in that the Passover was on Friday according to the official Jewish lunar calendar; however, the Essenes and perhaps other Jews used a different (solar) calendar, according to which the Passover was on Tuesday evening. Jesus celebrated the Passover on Tuesday according to this alternative calendar.
  4. John is accurate regarding the official Passover, but Jesus celebrated an anticipated Passover on Thursday evening (a day early), knowing that this would be his only chance to do so before he died.
  5. When read correctly, John is not actually saying that the Passover was on Friday evening. Rather, “eat the Passover” (18:28) refers to the feasting that would continue throughout the whole feast of Unleavened Bread, the “octave” of Passover, so to speak, which began on Thursday evening. And “day of preparation of the Passover” (19:14) means the Friday within Passover week. Therefore there is no contradiction between the Gospels, and the Last Supper was a Passover meal as indicated in the Synoptics.

After considering various proposals, the pope adopts the solution offered by John Meier, number 4 on the list above. He writes:

The answer given by Meier is astonishingly simple and in many respects convincing: Jesus knew that he was about to die. He knew that he would not be able to eat the Passover again. Fully aware of this, he invited his disciples to a Last Supper of a very special kind, one that followed no specific Jewish ritual but, rather, constituted his farewell; during the meal he gave them something new: he gave them himself as the true Lamb and thereby instituted his Passover….

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

Without having studied the question in depth, I am more inclined to solution 5 on the list above. The idea of an anticipated Passover makes it difficult to explain, for instance, the question recorded in Mk 14:12, which assumes Jesus’ adherence to the official calendar: “And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the passover lamb, his disciples said to him, ‘Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the passover?’”

But the more important point is what the pope draws out of this discussion: Jesus’ paschal mystery as the interpretive key of all Scripture. At one and the same time Jesus fulfills all that belongs to the old covenant and yet brings a radical and unexpected newness. This Christ-centered understanding of Scripture was foundational the New Testament and most of Christian tradition, yet is rarely addressed in biblical scholarship today. With his careful biblical-theological work, Benedict has given that ancient conviction a new credibility.

If I have one complaint about the book it is that, very understandably, the pope takes as his interlocutors mainly German exegetes of his own generation. It would have been great to see him interact, for instance, with more recent British scholarship (for instance, N.T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, James Dunn, who tend to be less skeptical of the biblical accounts and have put forward some convincing new arguments for the historical reliability of the gospels). But no doubt Benedict had to interrupt his biblical studies to meet a few heads of state, appoint bishops, deal with abuse scandals, and try to revive the faith in historic Catholic countries like Spain. I for one am grateful that he found enough time to continue the work in biblical theology at which he is extraordinarily gifted.

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2 Comments

Filed under Mary Healy

2 responses to “Jesus of Nazareth Part II

  1. That is quite the interesting question. I’ve always heard the explanation as being option #3, but that this different calendar would have the Last Supper on Thursday, instead of Tuesday.

    Personally, I think either option #4 or option #5 to be most plausible.

    When you said, “The idea of an anticipated Passover makes it difficult to explain, for instance, the question recorded in Mk 14:12, which assumes Jesus’ adherence to the official calendar: “And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the passover lamb, his disciples said to him, ‘Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the passover?’””, what struck me was the fact that the question was recorded. What I mean by this is that I have a tradition in my family that we always celebrate Christmas and Easter on specific days and always at my aunt’s house. We don’t call all the members of the family and let them know where and when it will be, because it’s something which is the same every year. However, if perhaps my dad were to tell me that this year, it was going to be a little different, then I would ask him questions about where it was to be held.

    Or maybe that the days were reckoned differently then? Would the issue be resolved if both Thursday evening when they ate the Last Supper and Friday at 3 pm, when Jesus died on the cross were both considered to be “Friday”?

  2. Mary Healy

    Good questions! But note that the question the disciples ask in Mk 14:12 is not when the Passover will be celebrated but where. There is no indication that there is any plan to celebrate it outside of the normal calendar date.
    Regarding the reckoning of days, the issue remains no matter how days are counted (although it’s clear that in Hebrew reckoning the day begins at sundown). The Synoptics show Jesus eating the Passover before he dies, and John seems to indicate the Passover begins after he dies (though solution 5 mentioned above questions that interpretation of John).

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