Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Last Supper, the Atonement, and Alfred Loisy

In light of Michael’s recent post on Pope Benedict's Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist, I thought I’d post something eucharistic. I know it’s a little long, but I'm still getting used to the rules of blogdom (keep it short and sweet.)

As some of you may know, I have been working on a new book on Jesus and the Eucharist for the last year and a half or so. The working title is currently The Eucharistic Aims of Jesus. In it, I am going to attempt a full-scale reassessment of Jesus and the Last Supper in light of the recent advances in Jesus research, especially restoration eschatology. You would be amazed at just how small a role the Last Supper has played in many of the major historical portraits of Jesus in the century and how people have failed to connect it with the rest of his public ministry (e.g., E. P. Sanders).

In any case, during the course of my research on this topic, one of the most frustrating things I have encountered is the uncritical manner which many scholars treat the accounts of the Last Supper. Despite the fact that the Last Supper and the words of institution are perhaps the most solidly attested sayings or actions of Jesus in the Gospels (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, and Paul 1 Cor 11), many modern researchers either reject the words of institution in their entirety or they cut them in pieces like so many scraps of paper, jettisoning this or that element and uhistorical with almost reckless abandon (e.g., Ruldolf Bultmann).

Why is this the case? I have wondered. What is the reason? It certainly can't be because the texts aren't solidly attested.

Well, today I found one answer to the question. While working on my book, I have also taken Dale Allison’s advice (see his Resurrecting Jesus, chapter 1) to go back and read the old books, and have been working through Hilarin Felder’s work, Christ and the Critics (London: Burnes Oates and Washbourne, 1924 [German original, 1922]) In this fascinating 1000 page defense of the historicity of the Gospels and Jesus’ claims to messiahship and divinity, the German Franciscan scholar critiqued the same scissors-and-paste treatment of the words of institution that has been giving me headaches for the last year, showing that it has old roots and deep reasons behind it.

Felder argues that there is a theological (not historical) motive driving this approach: according to him, the primary reason the Last Supper is treated this way is because it is a huge stumbling block for scholars who want to suggest that it was Paul, not Jesus, who invented the doctrine of the atoning and redemptive death of Jesus.

As Felder shows, many modern critics—contrary to almost all reigning source-critical theories, I might add—have suggested that the Synoptic Gospels borrowed the idea of the redemptive death from the Pauline epistles, in particular the description of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11. As an example of this, Felder cites the work of the famous French modernist Catholic priest Alfred Loisy, whose skeptical conclusions eventually got him excommunicated.

In Loisy’s famous book, The Church and the Gospel (1902), he argued that the redemptive element of the Last Supper accounts must be stricken as unhistorical and argues instead that the concept originated with Paul. His explanation will become typical for much work on the Last Supper in the modern period, so Felder cites it in full:

Loisy: “From all appearances the text of Mark concerning the redemption of many through the death of Christ (Mark 10:45) must have been inspired by Paul, and it seems as if this Evangelist’s report of the Last Supper had been enriched by Paul with the idea of redemption; Jesus seems to have presented the chalice and the bread with reference to his approaching death and the future reunion with his own in the kingdom of God, without, however, setting forth the atoning character and redemptive significance of his death.

The words of Jesus, as given by Luke (22:19), which refer to his atoning death, appear to have been introduced subsequently from the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:24). Mark’s representation of the Last Supper (14:22, etc.) appears to be based on a narration, similar to that of Luke, only what he says of the ‘blood of the new testament’ must have been introduced in accordance with the doctrine of Paul. The second Gospel, so influenced by the editing given it by Paul, must then, in its turn, have influenced the first Gospel of Matthew. Originally a shorter account of the scene of the Last Supper had, therefore, preceded the synoptic representation of it, in which, it is true, the thought of Christ’s approaching death was present, but not the Pauline features of the atoning character of that death.” (Alfred Loisy, L’Evangile et l’Eglise, 72, cited by Felder, Christ and the Critics, 1:187).

To Loisy’s extensive “historical” scenario Felder responds: “We can hardly believe our eyes in beholding this artificial construction of history. “It appears... it should be... it would be... it must be... it could be...” That is all! And from this is drawn the conclusion that the passages of the synoptists bearing on this point [i.e., the redemption] do not, therefore, belong to the Gospel of the Saviour, but to the theology of Paul! A more groundless criticism of the Gospels can scarcely be imagined.” (Felder, Christ and the Critics, 1:178-88).

Yet this it is in fact such groundless hypotheses and speculative "Tradition-histories" that will go on to dominate much twentieth-century work on the Last Supper. The logical force of such "must have" arguments is less than underwhelming.

But I like Felder's concluding comments best: “Remarkable! If the Pauline idea of atonement were not to be found in the writings of the Evangelists, then they [Loisy and Co.] would doubtless say: ‘You see that Paul must have imputed this idea to the Saviour, otherwise we should find it also in the Gospels’. But since it does form a part of the Gospels also, they say: ‘You see that the Evangelists ascribe these views to the Savior in order to please Paul’. (Felder, Christ and the Critics, 1:189). I laughed out loud at this point; anyone whose read Bultmann and his heirs know that this has the ring of truth.

It seems to me that Felder has Loisy pinned—along with the many other scholars who have followed suit in similar excisions of the redemptive elements of the Last Supper. Where else do historical Jesus researchers suggest that Mark’s Gospel—or any Gospel for that matter—is literarily dependent on 1 Corinthians? Why not simply posit the more likely conclusion, that the notion of Jesus' redemptive death goes back to Jesus himself? You tell me.

(Or I’ll tell you, when I’m done with the book. You’ll be surprised who lines up with Loisy when it comes to the Last Supper. I promise.)


Dad29 said...

Any hints?

Like "Last name has XX letters and rhymes with ____________"

Or "French (German, Dutch, US) eminence grise at a University in ____________"

I'd suggest that you could give as a hint the initials of their Order but that is almost a given (hint: rhymes with Essss Jaaayyy)

Sean du Toit said...

Excellent comments Brant. I'm thoroughly enjoying Jesus, the Tribulation and the End of Exile, and if it is as thoroughly argued, your next installment should be fantastic.

Wondering if you'll interact with McKnight's recent proposal in Jesus and His Death? []

Just curious.

Brant Pitre said...

Sorry, Dad29, no hints. I want someone to actually buy the book!

Sean, thanks for the kinds words about the tribulation book. I will try to argue as thoroughly, but perhaps in not as lengthy a fashion. And I will most definitely be interacting with Scot McKnight's Jesus and His Death. It is a book of great importance, although, as you'll see, McKnight and I will greatly diverge when it comes to how we treat the Last Supper (for example, regarding whether it was a true Passover meal or not).

Johnny Vino said...

I first started to really read scripture after falling in love with JPII's writings and his methodology. He uses scripture to interpret scripture - like he actually believes its the living Word of God! My one college course on the New Testament started out with declarations that the Evangelists weren't actually the ones who wrote the Gospels. Just so we didn't bring any quaint piety to serious scripture study! It took me a while to rediscover the Bible after that one - it's taken the Church several decades to start recovering from folks like Loisy.

lumengentleman said...

Very interesting research here, Dr. Pitre. This is actually helping to fill in some of the outlines in my current research viz. the early Modernist movement in the beginning of the 20th century (esp. the work of Loisy and Tyrell).

And certainly, there are plenty of scholars who have adopted this view of the Last Supper in biblical scholarship today - I'll be curious to see who you pin down in particular.

Anonymous said...

Say not, this is the truth, but so it seems to me to be, as now I see the things, I think I see.

Anonymous said...

Where can one find a copy of "Christ and the Critics?"