In 1 Corinthians 11.20 Paul refers to a gathering of church members at Corinth to eat “the Lord's supper,” complaining that the way in which they did so was not consistent with the true character of the meal. What was meant to be a proclamation of the Lord's death was being celebrated as an occasion for gluttony and even drunkenness. This is the only passage in the New Testament where the meal is described by this name. In what is no doubt a reference to the same meal, Paul states (1 Cor. 10.16) that the Christians came together to “break bread”; hence, we can assume that “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2.46) was another name for the same occasion. The same verse, with its reference to sharing (Grk. koinōnia) in the body and blood of Christ, is the source of the name “(Holy) Communion” for the meal, and the association with thanksgiving (Grk. eucharistoun) in 1 Corinthians 11.24 is the rationale for calling it the Eucharist.

The only full discussion of this meal in the New Testament is in 1 Corinthians 11.17–34, where Paul deals with irregularities that had arisen in the congregation at Corinth. They met, doubtless in the home of one of their members, to have a communal meal, and it is likely that the practice of meeting weekly on the first day of the week (Acts 20.7; cf. 1 Cor. 16.2) was developing. It was a full meal, but apparently each person brought his or her own food (11.21). Since the church consisted of richer and poorer members, differences in the amount and quality of the food and drink existed, so that the social differences in the church were emphasized rather than diminished by this communal occasion. At some point in the meal there was a more formal sharing in a loaf of bread and a cup of wine, which became the focus of significant symbolism.

Already in 1 Corinthians 10.16–17, Paul commented that those who shared in the loaf and the cup, for which thanks had been given to God, were participating in the body and blood of Christ. The reference must be to experiencing the benefits resulting from the death of Jesus, in which he gave himself and shed his blood for the sake of others. At the same time Paul emphasized that those who took part in this way constituted one body; their common participation in the gift of salvation, as symbolized by the one loaf, meant that they belonged together in a way that should overcome the social and other differences that had arisen in the church. Thus, the meal was a powerful sign of unity within the local congregation.

The tradition that Paul had passed on to the church at the time of his visit there is found here in its oldest written form. We also have it in slightly divergent forms in the three synoptic Gospels (Matt. 26.26–29; Mark 14.22–25; Luke 22.15–20, reversing the order of wine and bread). In all of these cases, we have a tradition of what Jesus said and did at his Last Supper with his twelve disciples shortly before his death. Analysis of the differences between the accounts shows that we have two basic forms of the tradition, one given by Mark (who is substantially followed by Matthew), and the other found in 1 Corinthians and Luke (though Luke has also been influenced by Mark). The major difference between the two traditions lies in the two sayings of Jesus:

This is my body. This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
This is my blood of the covenant This cup is the new covenant in my blood
which is poured out for many. (Luke: + which is poured out for you.) Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

There is no agreement among scholars as to which is the older form of the tradition, but the differences are not too significant.

What we have here, then, is an account of the essential elements in the Last Supper that formed the pattern for the church's meal. It has been argued that the story in the Gospels is not so much a part of the story of Jesus as a liturgical text that was preserved on its own and then inserted into the gospel narrative. Some scholars would go further and claim that the story is based on early Christian liturgies rather than on history, the accounts of what the church did having been read back into the lifetime of Jesus. Still others claim that the uncertainty in the tradition of Jesus' sayings and how they express early Christian theology suggest that they are the creation of the early church (or at least that the original form has been heavily modified in transmission), with the result that we can no longer be sure what Jesus said. For example, the presence of the command to “do this” in remembrance of Jesus, which is lacking from Mark's account, given once in Luke and twice in 1 Corinthians, could be due to the early church putting into words what it took to be the intention of Jesus. Even if this is the case, we would still be left with a tradition of Jesus' sharing a loaf and a cup with his disciples, and these actions would invite interpretation. In other words, to account for the origin of the church meal and the early Christians' appeal to Jesus we must surely postulate the historicity of some kind of meal he held.

The Gospels all suggest that the Last Supper of Jesus was associated in some way with the Jewish Passover, though the Synoptics and John disagree on the date of that festival. Like other Jewish formal meals, it began with the breaking and distribution of bread to the accompaniment of a prayer of thanksgiving, and it included the drinking of wine. If it was a Passover meal, the main items of food would have been treated as symbols whose significance needed to be explained. There would then be a precedent for Jesus' explaining the significance of the loaf and the cup. Whether or not a Passover lamb was served (as Luke 22.15 and the story of the preparations for the meal clearly imply), no record has survived of any interpretation of it. Instead, Jesus made three main comments. First, he spoke of this meal as the last that he would eat with his disciples until he ate with them in the kingdom of God (Luke 22.16). This may suggest his imminent death. Second, he made the loaf a symbol of his body, and his distribution of the broken pieces suggests his giving of himself for others. Third, he made the cup a symbol of his blood. Blood, however, signifies death. Jesus associated it with a new covenant, and the echoes of Exodus 24.8 suggest a sacrificial death inaugurating a new covenant. The words “for many” are an allusion to the self‐giving of the Servant of the Lord “for many” in Isaiah 53.11–12. And the way in which Jesus performed this act before his death implies that he was giving his disciples a way of remembering him and enjoying some kind of association with him after his death and during the period before they would share together in the kingdom of God. Hence, the meal that his disciples were to celebrate could be regarded as in some sense an anticipation of the meal that the Messiah would celebrate with his disciples in the new age (cf. Matt. 8.11; Luke 14.15). Such a meal would not be merely a symbol or picture of the future meal but would be a real anticipation of it. This is clear from the language of 1 Corinthians 10.16. Here the believers who receive the loaf and the cup participate in the body and blood of Jesus. The language must not be pressed literally, since the body in fact includes the blood; rather, Paul is saying in two ways that believers have a share in Jesus who died for them. This interpretation is confirmed by his point that it is inconsistent for believers to take part also in meals at which food sacrificed to idols was consumed: such a meal was a means of being “partners with demons” (1 Cor. 10.20), that is, having some kind of spiritual relationship to them. It is also confirmed by Luke's implication that the “breaking of bread” in Acts (2.42; etc.) was a continuation of the meals described in the appearances of Jesus after the resurrection.

We can now see how Paul meant the meal to be celebrated at Corinth. It certainly was an occasion for joyful celebration rather than a funeral meal, but some of the Corinthian Christians carried this element to excess. But it was supremely a way of proclaiming the death of Jesus as a sacrifice on their behalf and the inauguration of the new covenant. It was an occasion for bringing believers together in unity rather than in disharmony. It was a meal for the temporary period before the Lord would return in triumph, and during that period it was one of the ways in which the union between the Lord and his people was expressed.

In Acts we have further evidence that the believers met regularly to break bread (2.42, 46; 20.7; and possibly 27.35). Since there is no reference in Acts to the cup or to any relevant sayings of Jesus, it is sometimes argued that here we have evidence of a somewhat different meal from the Pauline Lord's Supper, a joyful celebration of fellowship with the risen Lord rather than a memorial of his death. There is, however, nothing incompatible between the two types of account, and the combination of solemn remembrance of the Lord's death and joyful communion with him is entirely appropriate.

John's account of the Last Supper lacks the eucharistic elements found in the other Gospels, because for John it was not a Passover meal; John recorded elsewhere teaching ascribed to Jesus about eating his flesh and drinking his blood (6.53).

There are other allusions to the Lord's Supper in the New Testament. For example, the way in which the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes are told (Mark 6.30–44; 8.1–10 par.) suggests that the evangelists saw a parallel between Jesus' feeding the people with bread and his spiritual nourishment of the church. And the development of the understanding of the death of Jesus that we find in the New Testament most probably had its roots in the words of institution where the basic concepts of sacrifice and covenant are to be found.

See also Love‐feast; Sacrament


I. Howard Marshall