If the four Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death, how do we know that they accurately record Jesus’ words and deeds?

Scholars agree that early Christians passed down traditions about Jesus orally and in writing. Is there a way to test one of the traditions to see if it has been corrupted?

Tradition of the Last Supper

Enter the Last Supper. Jesus having a final meal with his disciples is a solid historical fact (see EP Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus). Jesus’ words at this final meal appear in four places in the New Testament: Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:19-20 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-25.

This is one of the few places where we can compare the tradition in the Gospels with an earlier source since Paul’s letters came first. Luke’s wording is very similar to Paul’s wording, so let’s compare their two accounts.

Critical scholars typically date 1st Corinthians around AD 55 and the Gospel of Luke around AD 80-90. We are talking about a gap of about 25-35 years. Paul uses the words “received” and “delivered” to show that he received this tradition before writing his letter and is now passing it down to the Corinthians. Some scholars believe that Paul received this tradition around 3 years after his conversion (c. AD 35), when he met with Peter and James for 15 days (Galatians 1:18-19).

Based on this, here’s what a probable timeline looks like:

last supper jesus meal timeline christianity

Comparing the Tradition

In analyzing the tradition of Jesus, this test case is about as good as it gets. Let’s first look at the two accounts in the Young’s Literal Translation.

Luke 22:19-20
“And having taken bread, having given thanks, he brake and gave to them, saying, ‘This is my body, that for you is being given, this do ye -to remembrance of me.’ In like manner, also, the cup after the supping, saying, ‘This cup [is] the new covenant in my blood, that for you is being poured forth.'”

1 Corinthians 11:23-25
“For I received from the Lord that which also I did deliver to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was delivered up, took bread, and having given thanks, he brake, and said, ‘Take ye, eat ye, this is my body, that for you is being broken; this do ye – to the remembrance of me.’ In like manner also the cup after the supping, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; this do ye, as often as ye may drink [it] – to the remembrance of me.'”

It’s hard to see exactly how similar these two accounts are without looking at the original Greek. Here is where the fun begins! Below is a line-by-line transliteration of the Greek into English, with notes below each coupling.

Luke 22:19-20 (Green)
1 Corinthians 11:23b-25 (Blue)

1. kai labōn   arton    eucharistēsas eklasen kai edōken autois legōn
1. kai elaben arton    eucharistēsas eklasen kai eipen
(labōn and elaben are part of the same root, “say”)
(Luke uses edōken autois legōn, “he gave to them saying” while Paul uses eipen, “he said”)

2. touto estin to sōma mou to hyper hymōn didomenon
2. touto estin to sōma mou to hyper hymōn
(Luke adds didomenon, “is given”)

3. touto poieite eis tēn emēn anamnēsin
3. touto poieite eis tēn emēn anamnēsin
(exact wording)

4. kai to potērion hōsautōs meta to deipnēsai legōn
4. kai to potērion hōsautōs meta to deipnēsai legōn
(exact wording)

5. touto to potērion hē kainē diathēkē          en tō haimati mou
5. touto to potērion hē kainē diathēkē estin  en tō haimati emō
(Paul writes estin (“is”) which is implied in Greek when absent)
(mou and emo both mean “my”)

6. to hyper hymōn ekchynnomenon
6. touto poieite hosakis ean pinēte eis tēn emēn anamnēsin
(Luke says “which for you is being poured out” while Paul says “this do as often as you drink it in remembrance of me”)

How Accurate is the Tradition?

As you can see, the similarities are striking. The only differences in Line 1 are that they use different forms of the same root word (say) and Luke adds Jesus giving the bread to the disciples. The only difference in Line 2 is that Luke adds “is given,” which seems to be implied in Paul’s account. Lines 3 and 4 are identical. The only differences in line 5 are that Paul writes out “is” and uses a different word for “my.”

Line 6 has the largest disagreement. Luke repeats “which is for you” from line 2 and adds ekchynnomenon, which means “being poured out.” This word also appears in Matthew and Mark. Paul adds the line “this do as often as you drink it” and also repeats “in remembrance of me” from line 3.

In combining the two accounts of Paul and Luke, here is what they agree on:

Jesus took bread, gave thanks for it and broke it. Jesus told the disciples that the bread represented his body on their behalf. Jesus also told them to do this in his remembrance. After they ate, Jesus grabbed a cup and told them that the cup represented the new covenant in his blood.

It’s amazing when you think about the fact that neither Paul nor Luke were at the dinner table. What is even more amazing is that when you compare Paul and Luke with Matthew and Mark, the only noticeable difference is that Matthew adds “for the remissions of sins.” Of course, this isn’t a problem because Jesus said much more at the Last Supper than what we have recorded.

Passing the Test

The time gap between Jesus and the Gospels may not be such a significant problem after all. As long as the traditions were transmitted carefully, as in the case of the Last Supper, we can be confident that the historical Jesus is represented in the New Testament. The Last Supper shows that the early Christians were very gifted in accurately handing down the traditions about Jesus.