© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem!
– Psalm 137
For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears
And palms before my feet.
– G. K. Chesterton, “The Donkey”
In the course of walking through Galilee, Jesus acquired an awareness of his sacrificial role: its contours would have slowly become obvious, however disconcerting. In showing men and women how to die, he would show them how to suffer and overcome suffering, with God’s help. By the Resurrection he showed a way to conquer death itself. And yet the contours of the mythos rivet our attention, especially the anxiety of Jesus in the days before his execution on the cross. The gospels come intensely into focus during the final parts of the story, which begin with the approach to Jerusalem for the Passover festival.
As this major holiday approached, the ground in Palestine must have thundered as tens of thousands made their way toward the Holy City for the annual festival that celebrated the liberation of the Jews from Egypt in ancient times. Jesus and his disciples joined the throng, traveling from Galilee, about a hundred miles to the north, taking a route that avoided the dangerous parts of Samaria and followed the Jordan River – a slightly longer journey but less dangerous, as it avoided roads known for thieves and outlaws who must have regarded pilgrims as easy prey. The usual plan was to spend a week before the holiday in the capital, making spiritual preparations for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, as commanded in Leviticus 23:5, where the word “Passover” occurs – a reference to God’s benevolent “passing over” the houses of Jews as he swept through Egypt intent upon killing the young children of families during the period of ten plagues. The feast itself marks, indeed, the special relationship between God and the Jewish people.
The Jesus story only makes sense within the context of devout Judaism. And Galilee was pervasively Jewish at the beginning of the first century. Archaeological research supports this assertion in ample fashion. Excavations, for instance, have revealed an absence of pig bones, which means that the populace kept to Jewish dietary laws. Diggers have found an abundance of stone masonry instead of pottery, as these vessels could be ritually cleansed. Purification baths and other signs of ritual practice were common during this period. (1) There were only a few substantial synagogues in the smaller towns, but this doesn’t suggest a lack of piety. One assumes that devout Jews met in houses or public locations, as synagogue only means “a gathering.” A fixation with Jerusalem, however, persisted – and the story of Jesus drives toward that physical embodiment of God’s kingdom on earth, the Second Temple.
This massive structure drew faithful Jews from everywhere in Palestine for major celebrations, with the population of the city (usually about thirty thousand) swelling by as many as seventy or eighty thousand during the festive week. The magnificence of the Temple itself may have played a part in this: here was God’s home on earth, the exact spot where the Holy of Holies and its veil focused the rays of God like a magnifying glass, drawing heavenly energies to a fine point of fire. That it had arisen from the ashes of the First Temple must have given it added significance, making it a symbol of rebirth.
Jesus had been there before, as we know: the glimpse we get of him at the age of twelve suggests that pilgrimages to Jerusalem had been a regular part of his life. Though possibly trained by rabbis in Galilee – nobody knows the extent of this – he had nonetheless quarreled with Jewish authorities, attracting fierce criticism from the Pharisees, in particular, as we have seen. Some of them had petulantly asked Jesus for a “sign from heaven,” as if he must somehow prove his legitimacy in the eyes of God. Quite rightly, he showed contempt for this request. Why did he need to prove his Jewish credentials or his connection to God? Of course he filled his sermons with references to Hebrew scripture, making sure that everyone understood that he was a “new” Moses, a prophet in the vein of Judaic prophecy. He made sure that everyone understood that he was a devout Jew. From an early age, he had shown his attachment to the Hebrew Bible and its words – and demonstrated independence of thought with regard to the meaning of actual passages.
A turning point came toward the end of his public ministry on the outskirts of Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus shifted into a self-reflective mood, asking his disciples a leading question: “So who do people tell you is the Son of Man?” The answers he got seem puzzling: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and yet others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Only Peter understood what Jesus was asking. He replied fulsomely: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God” (Mark 8:27-30; Matthew 16:13-20; Luke 9:18-20). Jesus liked this response, saying: “You are blessed, Peter.” He added, famously: “On you, Peter, I will build my church (ekklesia)” (Matthew 16:18). (2) From this point on, the ministry seems to have a sense of direction, as Jesus wished to build God’s kingdom on earth, one that would have a connection to the heavenly kingdom. He seems to have understood, at last, that he must suffer himself, taking on a sacrificial role in the great drama opening before him.
Jesus explained to his followers that he must go to Jerusalem in order to suffer at the hands of the Jewish authorities. Peter objected: “This will never happen to you.” Hearing this childish assertion, Jesus lost his temper with his “rock” Peter, saying “Get behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:22-23). It’s important to remember that Satan here means, as usual, the Adversary. Peter simply refused to countenance a suffering Lord and Savior, and Jesus lost his temper with his resistance. But Jesus went further, explaining to his disciples that they must all take up the cross with him. For the first time, Jesus appears fully to appreciate – and allow his disciples to understand – that each of the disciples must also become models of suffering, taking up his cross and following him.
A week later, Jesus took Peter, James, and John – his closest disciples – to a high mountain, perhaps Mount Hermon or Mount Tabor (the latter is the place most often associated with this event, but the gospels offer no specifics). There he was stunningly transformed or “transfigured.” Matthew and Luke copy Mark almost verbatim in relating this major event, with Matthew – the most gifted writer among the four evangelists – adding a few marvelous touches: “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments turned white as the light itself.” Luke describes the garment as “dazzling.” Almost at once both Moses and Elijah appeared at his side, and God’s voice thundered from heaven, echoing the voice that issued from the heavens at the baptism of Jesus: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).
If anyone had any doubts about the identity of Jesus now, the gospels erase them here. This is the Son of God, and the mystical transformation of his earthly body into a heavenly one prefigures the Resurrection itself. As Thomas Aquinas observed, the Transfiguration shows the disciples, and every Christian, the light at the end of the tunnel: a glorified body. Aquinas used the metaphor of an archer who must see the target before he draws his bow. Aquinas insisted on a bodily resurrection and – like many of the Church Fathers (especially Origen) – regarded the Transfiguration as a central miracle, a glimpse of the world to come. As Norman O. Brown – a New Age prophet of sorts – wrote in Love’s Body: “Christ is able to project the life-giving power of his glorified body without spatial limitation.” (3)
The disciples, especially Peter, found it difficult to absorb the meaning of this vision. Terror had seized them almost immediately upon the arrival of Elijah and Moses, and they fell to the ground. The voice of God had probably added to their amazement and anxiety. Peter, in particular, seemed quite confused as well as eager to do something about what he had seen. He asked Jesus if he might build three “tabernacles” or huts on the spot, perhaps to mark the place where such an astonishing thing had occurred or perhaps to induce Moses and Elijah to stay with them for a while. In fact, Jesus cautioned them to say nothing about what had happened until he was risen from the dead. It’s a mysterious turn in the narrative, and it suggests that Jesus wished to keep this a special moment for his closest disciples. He was creating a pact, giving them a preview of the life to come.
As it would, the Transfiguration appealed to many of the great artists. How could anyone with talent pass up the chance to depict the shimmering body of Christ midair between two of the greatest Old Testament prophets? The best example is perhaps Raphael’s last painting, unfinished at his death in 1520. In it, Jesus floats before a white cloud, in passionate discussion with Moses and Elijah, who hover only just below him. The disciples lie on the ground beneath the trio, stricken by the radiance. The bottom half of the painting depicts a chaotic world, where Christ in shadow casts a demon from a possessed boy. The two panels interact in subtle ways, with suffering humanity below and the glory of the Transfiguration above. Raphael suggests that the two worlds depend on each other – what the poet Wallace Stevens called “the old dependency of day and night.”
On to Jerusalem
Soon after this event, Jesus and his disciples joined the river of people flowing into Jerusalem, pausing to sleep outside of the capital at Bethany – a village to the east of the capital, on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives. It was a place known for its poorhouses and leper colonies, a place of disaffection. (In Mark, for example, we hear of Simon the Leper living in the vicinity.) (4) But the landscape approaching Bethany would have had its beauties as well: terraced hillsides, orchards full of almonds and pomegranates and dates, serried trellises where the vineyards produced a sweet, strong drink of garnet-red wine. It was en route to Bethany that Jesus heard from a messenger that his dear friend and follower Lazarus had died.
Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha, two women close to Jesus. And this death mattered to Jesus. (The phrase “Jesus wept” occurs in the context of this death, revealing the intense emotion that surrounded the event for Jesus. Nowhere else in the gospels does he weep.) Only John’s gospel tells this story, but it’s an unforgettable one, narrated at length in the eleventh chapter.
This good friend of Jesus had been ill for some time, and he died. He was immediately buried in a cave, with a large stone rolled over the entrance. Everyone wondered why Jesus, who was such a gifted healer and supposed friend, had delayed his arrival in Bethany. He might have rushed to Bethany in order to save Lazarus, as Martha impertinently reminded him. What was he thinking? Where had he been? Her hysteria didn’t seem to move him.
Instead of being drawn into her questioning, Jesus explained to her that he himself was the source of life. “I am the resurrection and the life;’ he told her. “Anyone who believes in me shall live, even if he dies” (John 11:25). This response to Martha must have puzzled his followers. It suggested to them that something was up, that a transformation or series of transformations lay at hand. Certainly Peter, James, and John, who had recently witnessed the Transfiguration, understood that the time for the fulfillment of biblical prophecy lay near. This would be no ordinary week in the life of Jesus. He now addressed them with a peculiar intensity, in ways that none of them had quite heard before. But what about poor Lazarus?
Jesus led them to the burial cave. But what did he have in mind? Lazarus had been dead for four days. That’s a long time to be dead, and the body had begun to stink, as Martha pointed out when Jesus commanded them to roll away the stone. Meanwhile, word on the street had leaked out, and locals rushed to the burial grounds to see him for themselves. He was apparently capable of astounding feats, a first-class healer. But how could he help a dead man? Jesus had, in fact, already raised two people from the dead, the widow’s son at Nain and the daughter of Jairus; but the little girl was said to be “sleeping,” and the widow’s son had only just died. But Lazarus had been really and truly dead, and nobody could argue he was simply “unwell.” (5)
Jaws dropped as “the man who was dead walked out, with his hands and feet wrapped in bandages.” The crowd gaped as Jesus told them to untie the man, to free him, that he was no longer dead. Startled (even panicked) by this deed, observers rushed to tell the Pharisees and assorted Jewish elders what Jesus had accomplished, and they met to discuss this man who performed “many miracles.” It wasn’t right, they decided. “If we let him carry on like this,” they said, “the Romans will come and steal our country and take away our nationality.” Jesus had upset the temporal authorities, and political consequences would surely follow. As it were, Jesus had unleashed more than simply a dead man. He had unleashed the vengeance of the authorities; they must somehow control this man who not only challenged their position of dominance but could with his very black magic reverse the effects of death itself. “From that day on they plotted to kill him,” we are ominously told.
A prominent scholar called Morton Smith actually regarded the story of Lazarus as an example of ritual acting out of a peculiar kind. (6) In a sort of miracle play, Lazarus – a man who was not really dead – pretended to be dead and got into the burial cave. Then he walked out of the cave to dramatize a spiritual resurrection, Smith suggests. But this strikes me as unlikely, as the Lazarus story makes sense within its full mythic context, as a sign that Jesus had extraordinary power over life and death. Such power would soon, of course, grow meaningful in the context of his crucifixion. John knew exactly what he was doing as he relayed this tale, as Lazarus stands in for everyone who follows Jesus and finds himself raised to new life, admitted to an enlarged mind, enlightened. The image of Lazarus stepping forth from the tomb like a mummy drew on deep mythic archetypes.” (7)
As John P. Meier notes, “The raising of Lazarus is the last and the greatest of the ‘signs’ performed” by Jesus in the Gospel of John, and where it’s placed, it might be regarded as the culmination of the public ministry. Meier continues: “In a literary sense, the raising of Lazarus unleashes what follows by pushing the plot forward to its inexorable conclusion” as it moves the story forward from the public ministry to the death and resurrection of Jesus.” (8) Indeed, in John, it would seem that the raising of Lazarus is what sets the evil gossip about Jesus afoot, making the Jewish elders nervous about this charismatic young man who seemed to draw so much attention from the crowds. Whatever would he do next?
Immediately after this miraculous feat, Jesus went to the house of Lazarus for a meal, and John emphasizes that Lazarus attended this meal and ate solid food: he was not a ghost but a living and breathing body, capable of digesting a meal. Mary (the sister of Lazarus) in a symbolic move broke out a jar of ointment, “pure” and “precious,” and she anointed Jesus with it – a gesture of thanks, perhaps, for raising her brother from the dead. She also wiped his feet with her hair in what seems a peculiarly sensuous gesture that defies explanation. The house quite naturally filled with fragrances – food, the ointment, perhaps flowers. This was, indeed, the calm before the storm.
Judas sat at the table that night in the home of Lazarus, and he made a typical ass of himself, complaining that Mary wasted her money on this ointment when it could have been given to the poor. It’s in this context that Jesus remarked, in a widely quoted saying, “The poor will always be with us” (Mark 14:7). This wasn’t a callous saying but a way of showing awareness that, as in Bethany where they dined that night, one saw a great deal of poverty. The fallen world would persist until the end of time, or until rescued by God. Poverty (material and spiritual) would taint the world until the kingdom arrived in the fullness of God’s time. This remark by Jesus was also a swipe at Judas, who was a thief and might well steal money destined for the poor.
The Holy City at Passover
The procession to Jerusalem – the name means either City of Peace or Holy City of Peace, depending on your chosen etymology (9) – began with Jesus sending for a donkey (or two, as one of the gospels asserts), saying that he wished for an “ass” and a “colt” in order to fulfill a remote prophecy from the Hebrew Bible. Leaving Bethany, he felt hungry. Noticing a fig tree by the roadside, “in full leaf,” he wondered if any fruit hung there. There was nothing like a good fig to satisfy hunger. But when he found nothing but leaves, he grew frustrated and cursed the tree: “May nobody eat fruit from you again!” (Mark 11:12-14). By the next day, the tree had “withered from the roots.” This episode seems hard on the poor fig tree. But we must take the cursing in context. As Jesus left Bethany, he faced the prospect of his own death by painful execution and knew it; the air around him shimmered with a sense of anticipation. One of his disciples would soon betray him. The fig tree had symbolic resonance, a living organism that had seemed to blossom but not borne fruit: a version of Judas, although in a wider sense it stands in for all faithless people.(10) And Jesus would soon say: “I am the vine, you are my branches” (John 15:5). He represented a living vine, one that bore fruit; he hoped for the body of Christ, meaning his followers, the whole church, to represent a generative system, with live roots and branches, with plentiful fruit. By nature, he was a pruner, and we hear from him that he “removes every branch that doesn’t bear fruit, while every branch that does he prunes, so that it will bear even more fruit” (John 15:2). So this cursing the fig tree doesn’t, in context, seem quite as impulsive or eccentric or randomly vindictive as it otherwise might.
The gospels say that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, approaching the city from the Mount of Olives, joining a throng. Onlookers – nobody knows how many – roared with approval, casting palm branches before him: hence Palm Sunday. They treated him like a king, crying, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Centuries before this, King David had also entered Jerusalem on a donkey – as noted in Zechariah. As ever, Jesus behaved in ways that suggest an easy familiarity with Hebrew scriptures; the parallels shaped his behavior. Nothing he did, even entering the Holy City on a donkey, lacked symbolic thrust or precedent.
Coming into Jerusalem in this fashion, Jesus laid stake to a claim, but not an obvious one. Had he entered on a white stallion, he might have been taken for a warrior-king, a latter-day Judas Maccabeus. Some wished that he would actually take on this explicit political role, wanting him to proclaim a new and definitely political kingdom, a Jewish state with himself in charge, perhaps. But the kingdom of God was – although not exclusively – an interior realm. All of this remains a complicated matter, however; Jesus may not have wished to overthrow the empire of Rome, nevertheless he had something in mind that attracted any number of political revolutionaries during his own time and long after, as in Liberation Theology, which swept South America in the mid-to-late twentieth century with its passion for justice, its call for an earthly kingdom that mirrored the heavenly one. Christians must keep in mind that while the kingdom was and remains a spiritual reality, it has political and social aspects. Jesus addressed and lifted up the materially poor and well as the spiritually poor. He could imagine a state in which human beings and God ultimately reconciled, and this had a political side to it – which is why the Romans did, indeed, execute him. As John Howard Yoder has said in The Politics of Jesus: “The liberation of the Christian from ‘the way things are,’ which has been brought about by the gospel of Christ, who freely took upon himself the bondages of history in our place, is so thorough and novel as to make evident to the believer that the givenness of our subjection to the enslaving or alienating powers of this world is broken. It is natural to feel Christ’s liberation reaching into every kind of bondage, and to want to act in accordance with this radical shift.” (11)
Word spread quickly that the extraordinary healer and radical teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, had arrived in Jerusalem for Passover week, but it’s possible to overestimate the impact of this entrance. Think of the vast crowds moving along the dusty streets, mostly on foot yet some in carts or other crude vehicles, perhaps a few on horseback or camel. How insignificant one man on a lowly ass must have been, except among a discrete band of followers who layered his path with palms and sang his praises. This was hardly a momentous occasion – not going on outward appearances. Jesus was more a rumor in his own time than a legend.
Had this unusual rabbi and healer blended in with the pilgrims who converged on Jerusalem, the story would have ended there. But he made his way to the Second Temple several times within a few days, calling attention to himself creating a stir. On one occasion, recorded in all four gospels (and therefore central to the teaching of the early Christians) he strode into one of the outer courtyards where livestock milled about and money-changers sat at long wooden tables. They probably exchanged Greek and Roman money for half shekels, which could be used to pay the Temple tax by pilgrims. In nearby stalls one could buy turtledoves or pigeons for sacrifice: a lucrative business for a handful of merchants. In short, a bustling commercial scene would have been found at the Second Temple, unremarkable in every way.
Jesus swung his eyes around the courtyard and, unusually for him, lost his temper. He fashioned a whip from cords and, in a bold gesture, lunged at the money-changers, overturning their tables, upsetting the pigeon stalls. “My house shall be called the house of prayer,” he shouted, “but you have turned it into a den of thieves” (Matthew 21:13). Some questions remain: Why did Jesus find the activity of money changing so objectionable? Why did he act violently, when he himself had always preached against violence? Doesn’t such a tantrum make us think less of him?
Consider the situation. The money-changers had monopolized the half shekel, a silver coin about the size of a quarter in American money. Because it didn’t bear the image of the Roman Emperor, with its typical inscription “Son of God” (which referred to the emperor), it was deemed appropriate for paying the Temple tax. Yet a feeling of injustice upset the pilgrims, as well it should: these sharks gave them a raw deal, profiteering from their poverty. It’s worth noting that the only time Jesus ever flared into violence was in reaction to monopoly profiteering. This activity violated his sense of God’s full sovereignty. Here was a house of prayer, not a place for making money or swindling pilgrims. And the violence, of course, seems largely symbolic – overturning tables. One doesn’t read that he drew blood. It’s more like civil disobedience than violent revolution, not unlike the salt march of Gandhi and his followers in the spring of 1930, where many of those in the Indian protest movement set fire to British cloth to symbolize resistance or flung fistfuls of salt distilled from the sea by their own hands into the air to say that they could make salt if they chose, despite the British ban on salt production. People want to control their own economic lives, and when this doesn’t happen, the ground is ripe for revolution.
As Jesus left the Temple in a state of agitation and excitement, he looked briefly over his shoulder, saying, “See these great buildings? Not one stone will be left on another. Each will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). To many ears, this sounded like sedition, and both awe and terror rippled through the crowd. (A major debate swirls around whether Jesus actually prophesied the destruction of the Second Temple that would occur in 70 CE or if, after the fact, later writers inserted this pronouncement. Since probably none of the gospels predate 70 CE, the latter seems like a plausible explanation.) Jesus also said, “If you destroy this Temple, in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). Yet we’re also told that the Temple he talked about was his body, which he regarded as a sacred space. No doubt this comment foreshadows his death and resurrection, which were accomplished in three days.
The Jewish authorities didn’t like what they heard about this exorcist and magician from Nazareth, who counted a Zealot (Simon) and possibly a member of the terrorist sicarii (Judas) among his followers. Soon the high priests met with the Sanhedrin, the governing body of judges, to discuss the problem at hand. This was no small deal, as this august group (Greek synedrion, which means “sitting together”) consisted of seventy-one men of considerable distinction. They met each day in the Hall of Hewn Stones, which adjoined the northern wall of the Temple in a symbolically intermediary space, halfway between the inner sanctuary and an outer court, where it pronounced on legal matters (including punishment for crimes), deriving its authority from within the sanctuary itself, with the Holy of Holies not far away. (12)
The authorities sent spies to investigate the situation, and they approached Jesus in the guise of ordinary folk with straightforward questions. “You’re not swayed by what people say. You don’t care who they are, but you teach what is true to God.” He listened in silence. The spy continued in his apparently guileless fashion: “So is it right to pay the imperial tax to Rome? Yes or no?” Jesus saw through these tactics at once. “You’re trying to trap me,” he said. “Bring me a Roman coin.” They handed him a denarius, which would have borne an image of Caesar. With absolute clarity, Jesus said: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Give to God what belongs to God.” It’s no wonder the spies stepped back and “marveled” at his response. This clever fellow had outfoxed them.
Although he posed no obvious threat to either Roman or Jewish authorities, the political implications of his teaching eluded no one in power. Yet when the Pharisees asked him about this kingdom that he preached, demanding to know its exact location, he responded: “You won’t find the kingdom of God by looking around. You won’t say: Here it is, or there it lies” (Luke 17:20-21). The kingdom of God was coming, and would bring with it a political revolution that enfranchised the poor, although its spiritual dimensions probably meant as much or more to Jesus, and he did not wish to focus his message too narrowly. He hoped to enlarge the minds of those who followed him, to convey a message of all-embracing love that rose above time and place. “The kingdom of God is within you,” he said, yet this knowledge created a yearning for justice in those around him. It offered a taste of freedom.
Remember that Palestine languished under occupation by Rome, which kept a wary eye on the Jews, allowing them a measure of self-government, but only within discrete bounds. The Jewish-Roman conflict would, within four decades, boil over, leading to the destruction of the Second Temple and the burning of Jerusalem. In the time of Jesus, many Jews hated the Romans, who maintained a large presence in the capital, with centurions on the streets, and with reminders of Roman rule everywhere in symbolic abundance. This empire governed by force and cruelty, never hesitating to use extreme violence to control those within their command, however distantly supervised. No Jew felt terribly free in this society.
The Last Supper
Meanwhile, the disciples of Jesus innocently wondered where they would eat their Passover meal. Without prior arrangements, they could have been forced to dine in the streets with the poorest of the poor, and they wished to avoid that, having walked a good distance to get to Jerusalem in time for this feast. Jewish law required them to take this celebratory meal within the confines of the Holy City, so they could not simply retreat to Bethany, where friends such as Lazarus and Martha would have welcomed them. In a strange move, Jesus told one of his followers to go into the old city and look for a man with a pitcher of water. He was told to say, “The rabbi wishes to know the whereabouts of his guest chamber, where he can eat his Passover meal with his disciples. And he will show you an upper room furnished and ready for the occasion” (Mark 14:14-15). One gets the sense that Jesus, knowing the plot of his own story, had arranged everything in advance.
Jesus and his disciples gathered in an upstairs apartment known as the Upper Room for the Last Supper or the Lord’s Supper – both names eventually attached to this memorable dinner, though the gospels don’t use either. The thirteen reclined, men only, around the table, which would have been close to the floor, with cushions around them for comfort: this was the traditional way to dine, although the image of the group sitting upright at a long table has been driven into the collective mind by Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1498), one of the most recognizable paintings in the world. (13) It would have been a tense evening, given the events of the past day and the drama that, upon entering Jerusalem, hinted that something momentous lay ahead.
That this meal would form the backbone of liturgical practice in the coming millennia never occurred to the disciples, who had no plan to start a new religion. Certainly nothing prepared them for the events of the coming days, which unfolded with terrifying speed, a blur of events that would play a huge role in the history of the world from this time forward. They assumed a simple Passover meal, or seder, would take place that night in the Upper Room, and nothing more, even though Jesus had kept this an all-male event, a divergence from the usual practice. (14) He clearly had something in mind.
Jesus began the meal by taking off his tunic, putting a towel around himself, and washing the feet of everyone present: a humiliating act, as slaves normally performed this task. Peter, as he would, objected to the idea that Jesus would assume this subservient role. He obviously hadn’t yet taken on board the idea that the first should be last, that the meek would inherit the earth. In his limited awareness, he failed to register that compassion and service lay at the core of Jesus’s teaching, with humility as a defining virtue; “the poor in spirit” would be truly the blessed.
Accounts vary in Mark, Matthew, and Luke as to what exactly Jesus said as he broke the bread and shared the wine during this final meal with his disciples, but he clearly suggested that the bread represented “his body,” and he asked that in the future his followers should break bread in memory of him. With the cup, he “gave thanks” and said: “Drink this, all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28).
The Eucharistic meal is central to Christian practice, as Paul would later explain to the church in Corinth: “As often as you eat this bread and drink from this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Jesus himself approached the notion of his body as the bread tangentially, leading up to this moment by framing the concept at early moments in his ministry. In John, for instance, a kind of Eucharistic discourse follows the feeding of the five thousand, where Jesus declares: “I am the bread of life” (John 6:48). Certainly Jesus valued the act of recollection (Greek: anamnesis), substituting the usual remembrance of the Passover with recollections of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. The Last Supper prefigures meals where Christ, after the Resurrection, would appear again, as if to confirm and recapitulate the notion of a communal feast with symbolic importance. The Roman Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown observes: ”A sacral meal eaten only by those who believed in Jesus was a major manifestation of koinonia (communion) and eventually helped to make Christians feel distinct from other Jews.” (15)
In John’s version of the Last Supper, Jesus offered a final sermon to his disciples (John 13-17) in what is often called the Farewell Discourse, a densely packed lesson in Christology tinged with Greek philosophical themes. a lecture given to “his own” where Jesus seems acutely aware of his coming departure and recalls what he has said and done during his public ministry. He asks his followers to emulate him, even to surpass him. Unlike anything found in the Synoptic Gospels, in John he puts forward an extensive theological lesson in which he explains that he has come to bring “peace” to his followers (16:33) and to create “eternal life,” which is a deep experience of God – what the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, (16) called the “God beyond God” that forms our “ground of being” – an idea of God that has, over many decades, struck me as useful, as it shifts away from a physical image of God as “somebody” who is somehow “up” there in heaven, employing a metaphor of depth and amplitude. In truth, God cannot be reduced to any spatial metaphor.
The idea that Jesus existed before the world came into being occurs in the Farewell Discourse, and it’s a complex one, suggesting that the Spirit entered Jesus, making him godlike. The philosophical concept itself refers back to the Greek notion of logos as a kind of knowledge that informs creation with order. One thinks of the haunting statement in John, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Or “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). These two remarks participate in the ego eimi tradition: I am, in Greek. The term, used by Jesus in seven major statements in John, implies continuous being, being outside of time. One should recall that God said to Moses: “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). Eternal life, in this philosophical frame, isn’t a continuation of time to another realm. It’s a move beyond or around or through time. It’s no-time or, better yet, the Eternal Now. (17) As the poet Wallace Stevens writes in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” in what strikes my ear as a wonderful echo of Exodus as well as the Farewell Discourse: “I have not but I am, and as I am, I am.”
In the course of his final speech to his disciples, Jesus also mentioned that a comforter would follow after him, a spirit: the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity – a concept that would evolve in the thinking of the church over several centuries, hammered into shape by Tertullian, one of the preeminent Church Fathers. It’s not an idea theologized extensively by Jesus, who shied away from dogma. This “consoler” wasn’t simply a spirit, which would be the Greek word pneuma; instead, it was a Paraclete, a word uniquely used by John, meaning “the One who walks beside” (Greek: parakletos). In this sense the Holy Spirit becomes counselor or reassuring companion.
At the concluding point of the Farewell Discourse lies a wonderful injunction: “This is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.” In putting love at the core of his teaching, Rabbi Jesus put a fresh spin on Judaism, which had been focused on Do Not Do This or That. Do love one another, Jesus said. It’s much as he stated in John 3:17: “For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world. but so that the world might be restored through him.” He sent Jesus so that human beings would understand that, through love and reconciliation. atonement or union with God was possible. In fact, Jesus scolded those who wished to condemn others, as when he said (in the Sermon on the Mount) that he who was without sin should cast the first stone. It’s important, in fact, to notice that Jesus was not a condemning sort of person. He rarely suggested that others would be damned. The emphasis on hell that has preoccupied fundamentalist preachers from the middle of the nineteenth century onward has very little of Jesus in its overtones.
As the Last Supper ended in the Upper Room, Jesus informed Peter that he would deny him three times before the morning broke and the cock crowed. The others must have chuckled as Peter went into his usual frenzy of disavowal, asserting his loyalty. But this was Peter being Peter, one of the only disciples with a distinct personality. He would always leap to praise the rabbi, eager to show himself the most aggressive defender of the faith, in every circumstance the most avid disciple. Yet Jesus treated him at times with unusual brusqueness, leading him on, drawing him out in uncomfortable ways, although one sees that Jesus loved Peter and enjoyed teasing him.
Judas was another matter. Jesus intimated in what must have been an intensely provocative moment during the meal that one of his disciples would soon betray him. Judas guiltily wondered, “Is it I?” Jesus neither confirmed nor denied this, replying, “You say so.” This exchange would have unnerved everyone at the table. A little while later, in a chilling turn that recalls what had happened at the dinner with Lazarus in Bethany only days before, Jesus sent Judas from the Upper Room, telling him he must do whatever he had to do. Judas slipped away, leaving Jesus with only eleven disciples, who probably imagined that Judas had been sent to give alms to the poor, as he seems to have handled the money for the group.
“Get up!” Jesus said abruptly to everyone as the meal ended. “Let us leave here and be on our way.” It was as if, suddenly, Jesus felt that his hour had come. The group of eleven dutifully followed him from the Upper Room into the Kidron Valley, walking toward the Mount of Olives, singing a hymn as they proceeded through the torch-lit spring night in Jerusalem. They could hardly imagine, of course, what lay before them: three days of untold consequence for them, for everyone.
Notes to Chapter 5
1 See Jesus and Archaeology, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006), for a useful selection of essays on recent archaeological work in this field.
2. The word ekklesia means “gathering;’ and only appears once more in the gospels, in Matthew 16:18. Roman Catholics interpret this declaration as the initiation of apostolic succession. No other branch of Christianity
makes this assumption.
3. Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body (New York: Random House, 1966), 174. Brown was a classical scholar and philosopher who, in the sixties, became an iconic figure in countercultural circles. He is largely forgotten today, but his eccentric, prophetic work repays close reading.
4. See Mark 14:3-11. The Temple Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls also refers to a village east of Jerusalem where the sick are cared for. This was probably Bethany.
5. In the Hebrew scriptures, both Elisha and Elijah raised people from the dead. See I Kings 17:17-24 and II Kings 4:32-37.
6. See Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973). Smith, as a young professor at Columbia, claimed to have discovered a letter from Clement (an early Church Father) that, among other things, described a very different version of the Lazarus story in a “secret” version of Mark, Recent scholars have questioned the authenticity of this letter. See, for example, Stephen C. Carlson, Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark (Waco, Baylor University Press, 200S).
7. The parallels between Jesus’s raising of Lazarus and the Egyptian myth of Osiris having been raised by Horus are intriguing.
8. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Mentor, Message, and Miracles, Vol. II (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 798-99.
9. Yerushalayim, a Hebrew name for this site, means something like “God sees the whole, or the peace:’ Peace is Salem or Shalem, as in Genesis 14:18. The Greeks called the city Hierosoylma, and hiero means holy in Greek. The first written instance of the city name occurs on a parchment buried in a cave near the town of Lachish dating from the sixth century BCE.
10. One should also consider Luke 13:6-9, where Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree. A man wants to cut it down, but another says: “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, I’ll cut it down.” The symbolic aspect lies in the metaphor of pruning.
11. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972), 185.
12. See Lawrence H. Shiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Judaism in Second Temple and Rabbinic Times (Jerusalem: Krav, 1991). Recent scholars have questioned whether, in the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin met in a regular way. He might, for example, simply have been called before a smaller group of elders.
13. Leonardo depicts the moment when Jesus said that one of his disciples would betray him. Each disciple reacts in his singular way, with shock or disbelief registered in subtle ways.
14. Whether or not the Last Supper was actually a seder remains in dispute. Mark suggests this, and Matthew and Luke agree. John, however, sees this meal as taking place during the Day of Preparation. For John, Jesus becomes a sacrificial, or paschal, lamb, and lambs were sacrificed on the Day of Preparation. It’s a slight difference but suggests that competing theologies were already in place in the late first century.
15. Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the Nell! Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 289.
16. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952).
17. See Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Scribner, 1963).