Transforming Both Passover and Roman Banquets

David Balch—April 9, 2009
Maundy Thursday

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14
Psalm 116.1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11.23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I have two, not three, points about the Last Supper in John and the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians. #1) In the first centuries of the common era, our sisters and brothers in Jewish communities as well as early believers in Jesus reinterpreted their Passover meals. The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple left neither community an option. Both of us had to radically revise traditional ideas and practices and go with God into a different future. #2) The early Christian community did not then just adopt common meal practices in Roman society, but radically qualified them in light of Jesus’ last supper.

First, for John and Paul, what did Passover celebrations mean? Both the early rabbis and the early apostles radically reinterpreted Passover. John twice narrates Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem for Passover: in chap. 2, where we read about Jesus cleansing the temple. Again, John narrates Jesus’ journey to Passover in chap. 12, where Mary anoints his feet with costly perfume, which he says she has bought for the day of his burial (12.7), and all this just before the narration of his last supper in chap. 13.

As we know, unlike the Synoptics, in John Jesus’ last supper is not a Passover meal. Rather John writes that Jesus’ last meal occurred “before the feast of the Passover” (13.1; 18:28; 19:14, 42). In John, Jesus is crucified at the time the paschal lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple, so Jesus himself becomes the Passover offering (as in 1 Corinthians 5.7-8). The Passover lamb was not a sacrifice for sin, but deliverance from death (Exodus 12.13, 23, 27, 29). Correspondingly, the purpose of the gospel of John, the writer tells us, is “that through believing, you may have life in his name.” (John 20.31b) “Life” in John is not just an extension of time, not just life after death, but is qualitative, an intimate relationship with God, in the present through the glorified and resurrected Christ, not through traditional sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. The earliest believers radically revised the tradition, still practicing a meal with Passover associations, but now centered in a mystical encounter between the glorified Christ and the community of the beloved, a community given “life.”

The rabbis too radically reinterpreted Passover, as Baruch Bokser writes in the Anchor Bible Dictionary. In order to overcome the physical loss of the sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple, they replaced the Passover offering with unleavened bread as the central symbol, and bitter herbs are eaten because the Egyptians embittered their lives (m. Pesach 10.5). Passover was no longer a pilgrimage holiday celebrating national independence, but became a family gathering independent of any national cult. What had been a sacrificial meal became the seder, so that Judaism could continue after the destruction of the Temple. Despite radically different circumstances, the God of Israel still relates to Israel, and Israel still experiences God’s favor.

Those two examples of the transformation of a central holy day suggest that God goes with us through crises and changes. Many of you have uprooted your lives in order to follow your call to serve God’s people. The gospel of John and the early rabbis’ Mishnah, both written after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, suggest that God is with us as we reformulate meaning in our lives, while the world changes around us. As PLTS considers whether to become a Reconciling in Christ seminary, we can be aware that God goes with us through change. As the whole ELCA deliberates whether to allow individual bishops and synods to ordain GLBT pastors, this God of crises and changes surely accompanies us.

The second point: while revising the practice of Passover meals, the early Christian community did not just adopt meal practices common in Roman society, but radically qualified them in light of Jesus’ last supper. Corinth, from which we have our earliest text about the Lord’s Supper, was the first Roman colony in the east, established by Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. When Rome founded a colony, one of the earliest structures was an amphitheater. Today tourists come from around the whole world to see the amphitheater in Rome. Ancient Corinth also had an amphitheater at the time Paul wrote his letter. Let me read you an ancient description of amphitheater games in Corinth and in the nearby city of Athens:

The Athenians ran in crowds to the theatre beneath the Acropolis to witness human slaughter, and the passion for such sports was stronger there than it is in Corinth today; for they would buy for large sums adulterers and fornicators and burglars and … kidnappers and such-like rabble, and then they took them and armed them and set them to fight with one another. [A visiting speaker,] Apollonius then attacked these practices, and when the Athenians invited him to attend their assembly, he refused to enter a place so impure and reeking with gore…. And thou, O Dionysus, dost thou after such bloodshed frequent their theatre? …. (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 22, trans. Conybeare in LCL)

I am still setting the context for explaining that meals in early churches were different from Roman meals/convivia. One more fact: in those amphitheaters, including the one in Corinth, they staged Greek tragedies by Aeschylus and Euripides. Here I do not have time to go into detail, but they assigned one of these fornicators or kidnappers a role in the tragedy, and when the tragic character died in the play, a real human being actually died in front of the audience in the amphitheater. Here comes the conclusion, and the reason I am explaining society in Corinth. Romans loved to paint visual representations of these tragic, lethal moments in their dining rooms, in their triclinia. Let me show you some frescoes from Roman dining rooms, both of them from Euripidean plays, both acted out in Roman amphitheaters.

This first image is the amphitheater in Pompeii (Balch, Roman Domestic Art and Early House Churches [2008], CD 110). The second image is a mosaic from North Africa that visually represents an amphitheater spectacle (Balch CD 212). The third is from Euripides’ play, Bacchae. King Penthus resisted the new worship of Dionysus, and the penalty is that his mother, Agave, in her charismatic madness, kills her own son, the king (Balch CD 209).

The fourth image is from another Euripidean play, Antiope. I will not explain the plot, except to say that at the climax, the evil queen of Thebes, Dirke, is dragged to death by a bull (Balch CD 210). I repeat: these last two frescos are from a Roman dining room. When a Christian pastor repeated the phrase, “Christ died for us,” in a Roman triclinium, he or she was not introducing the idea of death into that dining room. Death was very popular in Rome, Pompeii, and Corinth.

Paul converted many in the Roman colony of Corinth. He taught them the meaning of Christ’s last supper before he died. Christ did not die for the audience’s entertainment, but rather as the Passover lamb, to liberate us from death and from fear. Given the low economic class of many in the Corinthian house churches, they were liable to be shipped off to the amphitheater to die for the entertainment of the wealthy. Paul rather taught the wealthy masters to wait for those of a lower economic class, to wait for their slaves, not to despise them.

1Cor. 11:20 When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper.

1Cor. 11:21 For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.

1Cor. 11:33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.

The contrast between the wealthy, bloodthirsty Roman convivia, and the conduct and consideration for those of a different economic class that Paul demands is stark. Early Christians not only transformed the meaning of the Passover. Paul is also transforming the meaning of Roman banquets, in the light of Christ’s last supper, the night before he died for us.