One last one. I just can’t resist. One final example of how the gospels were put together using pre-existing writing. Mostly it’s Jewish scriptures, but as we saw a couple of posts ago, the gospel writers also lifted from Paul. They’re at it again with the episode that’s become known as the Lord’s Supper.
Here’s its first mention in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, written almost 20 years before the first gospel:
I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was delivered up, took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
The first thing to note is that, as Paul tells us in Galatians 1:11-12, his teaching doesn’t come from any human source. It was revealed to him directly by the celestial Christ:
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
So it is in his teaching about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11: ‘I received from the Lord’. Now you can believe that Paul really was in touch with a resurrected Jesus who supernaturally revealed to him what had taken place the night before he was crucified or you can, more realistically, acknowledged that this revelation took place entirely within Paul’s own head. Having ruminated on it for a while, he came up with a ritual that owed as much to pagan ritual as to Passover celebrations. Rituals of this kind were common in pagan circles where they were frequently used as memorial ceremonies for the dead. Paul tells those who participate – in what, when looked at with fresh eyes, is a bizarre practice – that, ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ (‘Until he comes’? It’s almost as if Paul doesn’t think his Lord has already appeared on Earth.)
Years later, Mark takes Paul’s idea and quotes it practically word for word in his Jesus narrative.
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:22-25)
Mark embellishes the story, drawing a parallel between Jesus and the lamb that is eaten at Passover and adds Judas’ betrayal to fill out Paul’s ambiguous line about Jesus being ‘delivered up’. And as if by magic, Paul’s revelation now has what looks like an historical setting. (It isn’t.)
Matthew and subsequent gospel writers plagiarised Mark’s story and added their own details so that by the time the fourth gospel came to be written, some 40 years after Paul’s original revelation, they had been changed completely. The day of the supper is different, Jesus spends his time washing feet and the original formula – ‘this is my body…’ etc – has been scrapped altogether, evidence that the story was not regarded as immutable. All those who used it felt free to alter it as they saw fit.
Next time Christians take communion, they would do well to remember that they’re taking part in a quasi-pagan ritual, worked up in the brain of a first-century fanatic who imagined he was in touch with a dead apocalyptic preacher turned supernatural being (or vice-versa). At least that same dead preacher hasn’t, as Mark makes him promise, touched a drop of liquor these past 2,000 years.
Post-script: Having written this, I discovered the other day that, in an old post of his, Richard Carrier made this exact same point: https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/15934
I may, I guess, have read his post before, stored it away in my head somewhere and have now unwittingly channelled it here. Whatever, the point still stands.