An interesting question has come to my mind in the renewed discussion on whether the risen Jesus has blood. To a slightly off topic question about the Last Supper from Rick Ritchie I gave an answer on which I am now expanding.
Rick thought it strange that Jesus would ask his disciples to do something in memory of his death before that death actually happened. I disagreed, writing:
I don’t see an inherent contradiction in the disciples being asked to repeat this in remembrance of him. I can quite imagine for example a dying old man taking his children to his favourite place and asking them to gather there regularly to remember him after he has gone. Similarly with Jesus’ Last Supper, on the understanding that he knew he was about to die.
But this question then occurred to me:
Would Jesus have said this if he had been sure at the time that he would rise again?
That is, would Jesus have asked his disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine in remembrance of him if he had known that his death was only a temporary matter, for a few days? This of course raises the question of whether he did in fact know this.
The synoptic gospels (Matthew 16:21, 17:23, 20:19; Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34; Luke 9:22, 18:33) have Jesus predicting his resurrection as well as his death, even as he was on his final journey to Jerusalem; in John the equivalent is Jesus’ confident “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25) as well as the more enigmatic “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19). Some scholars certainly hold that these resurrection sayings are not original words of Jesus, but in claiming this they are showing their naturalistic presuppositions, that Jesus could not know the future – and for some of them that the resurrection was in fact only “spiritual” because they cannot accept the physical reality of a “supernatural” event.
But perhaps we need to avoid an opposite error, that of making Jesus so divine and always so confident in his divinity or at least in his calling that he always knew and was confident that he would be resurrected. It is hard to explain the agony in Gethsemane if Jesus is taken as knowing this for certain. On my understanding we see a truer picture of the earthly Jesus as a man called by God, knowing that he was called by God and that God would work things out for him in the end, but at times lacking confidence in that calling. This is not to deny his divine nature, but to suggest that this nature was concealed during his earthly life, even from his own human mind. On this understanding Jesus is a better example for us as we follow in his path.
So, to come back to the Last Supper, at this time was Jesus sure that he would rise again from the dead, and within a few days? Well, we do read in Matthew 26:32 a further prediction of his resurrection, but not a confident one. In John 14:3 we have a reference more to the Second Coming than to the resurrection, and there are also the confusing words of 16:16, repeated in the following verses but never properly explained.
So, then, are we to take Jesus’ words at the Last Supper as a reflection of his temporary lack of confidence in his resurrection? That would imply that they were not intended as anything like the solemn ceremony many have interpreted them as. The three synoptic evangelists, and Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, certainly portray the event as something of great significance. But is this in fact largely a product of later theological reflection?
I write this largely to put the cat among the pigeons. I have no fixed position to present. But I would love to receive comments on this!