Friday, June 26, 2009

The Last Supper, Targums and the "Blood of the Covenant" (1 of 2)

All four of the accounts of Jesus' words over the cup at the Last Supper (Matt 26:27//Mark 14:24//Luke 22:19//1 Cor 11:25) have Jesus linking his "blood" to the language of the "covenant". As many scholars have noted (and as I have noted in a past post), the language evokes Exodus 24. Here I want to delve a little further into this material.

Exodus 24: The Covenant Ceremony at Mt. Sinai

In Exodus 24 we read about a climactic moment in the narrative of the Exodus--God establishes a covenant with the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai. It is helpful to review the account:

Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do.” 4 And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord. And he rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. 6 And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. 7 Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”

8 And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, “Behold the
blood of the covenant
which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all
these words.” 9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the
elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was
under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for
clearness. 11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of
Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank (Exod 24:3-11).

An allusion to this story is probably found in all four Gospel accounts of the Last Supper. Jesus links his blood with the motif of covenant while celebrating a meal. All of this mirrors not only Moses’ words concerning the “blood of the covenant” but also the fact that the ceremony in Exodus 24 culminates in a meal (Exod 24:8–11). These similarities are simply too strong to be written off as mere coincidence.

In addition, the description of the sacrificial blood being "poured out" (ἐνέχεεν) in Exdous 24:8 mirrors the terminology used by Jesus in Synoptics’ report of Jesus' words at the Last Supper, in which he describes how his blood will also be "poured out" (ἐκχύννομαι) (Matt 26:28//Mark 14:24//Luke 22:20 [Luke's formulation is slightly different but the idea is essentially the same]). Admittedly, the Greek word Jesus uses is different. But given that its meaning is the same as ἐνέχεεν, that Jesus probably spoke the words in Aramaic and not in Greek, and the other parallels with Exodus 24 a connection is likely.

It might also be noted that as Exodus 24:4 highlights that God’s covenant is established with the twelve tribes, the twelve apostles are prominent at the Last Supper all three Synoptics (cf. Matt 26:20; Mark 14:17; Luke 22:14, 30).

Zechariah 9:11
Up front, I should mention that some scholars think that Jesus was instead alluding to Zechariah 9:11, which also speaks of "the blood of my covenant". I do not believe one has to pit one passage over another though. In fact, as commentators of Zechariah regularly point out, his use of this image is likely drawn from Exodus 24. Even if this passage is in the background then one cannot escape Exodus 24. Indeed, since Jesus seems to have often brought multiple passages together in allusion in other places, it seems likely he is doing something similar here as well.

Matthew, Mark and the Targums
In particular, the allusion to Exodus 24:8 is especially strong in Matthew and Mark, who report that Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant” (τὸ αἷμά μου τῆς διαθήκης ; Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24). The LXX (=Septuagint) of Exodus 24:8 reads: "Behold, the blood of the covenant" (δοὺ τὸ αἷμα τῆς διαθήκης).

Scholars such as Davies and Allison have pointed out that there is a particularly striking similarity between Jesus' words in Matthew and Mark and the account of Moses' words in the Targums, Aramaic paraphrases of the Old Testament which scholars date to a later period. Both Targum Onqelos and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan of Exodus 24:8 even more closely mirrors Jesus’ words, since they include the word "this": “Behold, this is the blood of the covenant” (Jesus' words: "This is my blood of the covenant").

If the similarity is merely the result of coincidence it is an amazing one. Indeed, many scholars suspect that Matthew and Mark preserve an early witness to the rendering found in the Targums. This seems quite sensible to me.

Atonement and the Blood of the Covenant?
There is another feature of the Targums' account which also deserves mention. Notably, in Tg. Ps.-J. and Tg. Onq. of Exod 24:8 the "blood of the covenant" is said to "atone" for sin. This also appears to correspond to Matthew's account, where Jesus' add that his blood will be poured out “for the forgiveness of sins”.

Of course, in the biblical version (MT [Hebrew Bible]/LXX) of Exodus 24 there is no mention of "atonement". So where did this idea come from?

I've got a theory. . . and I'll tell you about it in second (and concluding!) post in this series.


Jim said...

casey discusses the same issue in his upcoming book on the historical jesus. it's really quite an interesting topic and i appreciate your making mention of it.

steph said...

Casey has also discussed this in his chapter and Aramaic reconstruction of Jesus' final passover with his disciples in 'Aramaic Sources of Mark's Gospel' pp 219-252. As rightly demonstrated, there are many reasons to justify Aramaic reconstruction here and historicity.

Taylor Marshall said...