Jesus and the Last Supper
Church Times Bookshop £32.40
THE many, many books that continue to be written about the Last Supper usually fall into one of two types: those that try to defend the historicity of the New Testament narratives, and those that are sceptical about many of the details of those accounts — or even the existence of the event at all.
Readers inclined to the latter position will find no comfort here. On the other hand, the author does more than simply rehearse the traditional case in favour of the historical basis of the supper.
It is true that he devotes a quarter of the book to a thorough examination of the various theories about the date of the supper (Passover meal, or not?) and to putting forward his own solution that seeks to harmonise the biblical evidence. In the rest of the book, however, he places the New Testament supper material in a much broader context than it is generally given: within the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, the contemporary Jewish world of Jesus, the other words and actions of Jesus’ ministry, and the life of the Early Church.
As the clearly argued opening chapter on method explains, his aim is to establish its historical plausibility by reference to these various areas, because he believes that congruence with them best makes the case for the authenticity of the particulars of the supper narratives.
He undertakes this enterprise in enormous detail, with extensive quotation of the relevant evidence and due account of arguments against historical plausibility of individual aspects, as well as those for it.
Naturally, some of the arguments that he employs are stronger than others, but the greatest weakness overall is that many of them would appear to continue to apply whether the originator of the words and actions in question had been Jesus himself or some other person later in the line of tradition equally versed in those precedents. Thus they cannot settle the question definitively, especially for someone who already entertained doubts. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting attempt to move beyond the usual confines of the debate.
If the thought of tackling a book of more than 500 pages is daunting to some, be assured that its style makes it very accessible, and, at the same time, its wealth of references to other works (there are over 30 pages of bibliography, for example) provides an extensive tour through both traditional and recent biblical scholarship that is valuable in its own right, even for those who may not be won over by the force of the author’s case.
The Revd Dr Paul Bradshaw is Emeritus Professor of Liturgy at The University of Notre Dame, Indiana.