Sunday, 6 October 2013

A Little Theological Conundrum ...

Two pictures, and some ideas to bounce around the blogosphere today. We are all familiar with the various paintings of "The Last Supper", most of them done in the Renaissance or later, and almost all of them based on the literal interpretation of the Gospel accounts of the event. Jesus and the Twelve. No one else. There's even a convention in the way the twelve are arranged at the table and how they are depicted, but, and here's the conundrum, is this the right way to see it? Is this a correct depiction of the final meal Christ shared with his friends?

Those who like to keep things according to the written word would argue for a yes. However, it isn't quite so simple or straight forward. There are a number of things NOT said in the Gospel accounts for various reasons, among them the fact that the writers didn't expect anyone to be reading this who didn't "know" certain important cultural things about such a meal. Second, you didn't waste valuable papyrus writing down what they perceived to be unimportant details, so here goes the first little hand grenade.

The Gospel accounts don't tell us who else was at the table, and names only the key figures. We know, from other sources, that the "Upper Room" was in the house of the parents of John Mark, the writer of the shortest Gospel, and he actually directs his readers to other witnesses then alive who could confirm what he wrote. He wasn't one of the twelve either, at the time he was a teenager - the 'youth' who followed the twelve and Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane wrapped only in his blanket - and ran away naked when the soldiers tried to arrest him. Why doesn't he mention the Supper was in his parents' house? He didn't need to - everyone knew.

The next bit, is equally important. This was either an Eve of Sabbath meal, or an Eve of Passover meal in a Jewish household. You cannot hold either without sharing it with the entire family, and in the second case, your neighbours and their families, the servants and the children! So, I offer MY version of the Last Supper for argument -

Breaking of Bread.
I'm no Leonardo, but I would like to think this version of The Last Supper, with the wives, daughters and children present is closer to the real event than the more literal interpretations by better painters. What we in Christendom ignore, overlook or fail to recognise is that in a Jewish household the Eve of Sabbath meal begins with the women bring lights to the table, the head of the house then give thanks for the food and breaks and shares the bread. Present are all the household, it is unthinkable for it to be 'men only' and the meal ends with the blessing (usually by the eldest son of the household) and sharing of a cup of wine. Recognise the pattern?

I post this since there is currently a huge row in many Christian churches over the role of women, usually founded on the argument "they weren't present at the Last Supper" or "they weren't selected, ordained or commissioned by Jesus". I'd suggest you read those passages again very carefully - and try to see what is not there "because you would know that".

The second picture is Medieval. It can be seen in Tewkesbury Abbey and adorns the wall of the Trinity Chapel, possibly more famous for the "Kneeling Knight" (supposedly Edward Despenser) on the roof. The painting survived the Iconoclasts largely because it was hidden from view by a wooden screen, though sadly the lower portion of it didn't survive the whitewash of the later puritan tenants. It depicts the Trinity, that stumbling block for Christians and non-Christians alike, and it shows the answer to Christ's question from the cross. Look closely at this wonderful depiction -
It depicts the figure of the Father holding the crucified Son, with the dove of the Holy Spirit between the two. The answer you seek is this - Christ's question was; Why have you forsaken me? The answer is shown here.

I have not forsaken you, I am holding you in my hands.

It depicts the offering of himself, in the form of Jesus that God the Creator and Father has made, and in the Holy Spirit continues to offer in love and grace to anyone and everyone who wishes to accept it. We don't know who the artist is, no one has recorded his name, but the insight he (or she) gives in this painting is profound.


  1. Slim Jim says: Well, my cup of respect overfloweth with the Monk's sagacity! A very interesting perspective, and I am sure it would be worth trying to look at other areas too. The perspective of first century Judaism is very important in understanding how Christianity developed and flourished in the early years.

    On the subject of women clergy, it seems some people get hung up about the wrong things. Why complain about women ministers or bishops, yet toast the health of Her Majesty the Queen? Anyhoo, today's sermon at church was about The Important Thing, and have a look at Luke (look at Luke - wayhey!) 10:38 - 42. I don't think Jesus would mind women clergy at all!

  2. Today, the Monk raises one of my hobby-horse issues, the absence of women in Pauline Christianity. As the Monk implies, but does not say it because we should know that, Jesus was a Jew, he lived in a Jewish family, partook of Jewish culture. It is therefore unthinkable that his life and immediate circle were devoid of female presence. Had he been a mystic or a hermit, it could be possible, but he was neither, or we would have been told as it was not "usual".

    It was not Dan Brown who invented the theory that as an adult Jewish male it is inconceivable that Jesus would not be married, it would certainly be the topic of gossip if he was not! The first references I came across were in "The Sacred Virgin and the Holy Whore" Harris, A: Sphere 1988, the key citation of which is Deut 23:17, 18 and the root of the word translated / transliterated into English as "whore" quite possibly simply being a female temple servant, (a woman who provides you with “services” = whore. Not the strongest justification, but a sadly probable one.) in the same way that the famous Vestal Virgins were many things, but almost without exception, not virgins in the modern meaning of the word.

    Language does tie us in knots when we read or tell of cultures that we either understand implicitly or do not understand at all. The sources Dan Brown used for the concept of Jesus not only being married (or else we would have been told that he was over 30 and still on the shelf) and therefore probably having had issue. (As a good Jewish husband would wish to become a Father very quickly and not to do so would, again, be the topic of gossip and would have made its way into contemporary writings.) were probably the works of Baigent, M. Leigh, R. and Lincoln, H. "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" Cape: 1982 and "The Messianic Legacy" Cape 1986.


    I have always remembered the figure of Hilda of Whitby from my earliest school-days in the North-East of England. The Abbey St Hilda founded, Streanæshalch, or possibly more correctly Streanæshalch
    was chosen as the site of the Synod of Whitby by King Oswiu of Northumbria.The synod was in 664, slap bang in the middle of the Dark Ages and yet well recorded, I was in Junior school in 1964, so the topic was studied as an anniversary of significance. The outcome of the Synod, long story short, was that the Roman method of calculating the date of Easter would replace the Celtic traditions maintained by the Iona community. In my mind, this was the beginning of the end for Christianity in Britain and the UK as the Celtic church, independent of Rome, could well have given us a more stable, more female friendly and certainly a less dogma-bound church. It would also have changed many of the wars and monarchs of note in British history, although, perhaps we would miss the church bell-towers that would probably be absent from out towns and villages. It is a matter of debate if the cross would have not arrived and the fish remained the principal icon of Christianity.

    The Ionian Christianity was brought to Northumbria by St Aiden, Bede chronicled the events later and states that Lindisfarne refused to accept the Roman way and Bishop Colman and the monks withdrew to Iona and later to Ireland in the sixth century. This possibly saved their lives as the Angles of Theodric invaded in the sixth century and in the late 990s Cuthbert 's remains were taken from the island to Durham where they remain to this day in the Galilee Chapel. However, as Lindisfarne declined, the Northumbrian churches looked first to York and then eventually to Canterbury, where before the Synod, all of Mercia, Northumbria and much of Strathclyde looked to Lindisfarne as the Father See. (Those who think that odd ought to arrange a walking trip from Lindisfarne to Dumbarton. [Seat of the Kentergen Kingdom of Strathclyde] and then from Dumbarton to Iona and see which is easier!)

  3. I cite some of the above not just as an interesting part of British historical culture crossing boundaries that we “know” to have existed from the ancient of days, indicated that whatever Canterbury may think today, it was not always the absolute overseer of the faith in these lands and finally, perhaps most importantly, to remind us that although the Lindisfarne gospels are works of the greatest beauty, I would challenge anyone who is not a specialist scholar with a lifetime of research behind them to even render the words of the gospel into modern and readable (not legible, readable) text and then to begin the translation of that text into a form of English that we can read today.

    Streanæshalch is a rather odd way to spell Whitby, that we can understand. But the scivener's hand in which it is written hides the meaning from us. I did try to include a line in the 16th century version of that font, as I have it on my computer, however, the blog turned it into plain modern English, so I can only point you to Dr Google to check out Aldred the Scribe, to help illustrate the issues, Aldred calls himself the son of Alfred and Tilwin—‘Alfredi natus Aldredus vocor; bonæ mulieris (i.e. Tilwin) filius eximius loquor.’

  4. I can always rely on the scholarship of Josephus to add weight to some of my arguments. It is a fact that the Orthodox Churches recognised the Celtic English Church as being part of the Orthodox 'family'. I agree that it's continuing may well have avoided many of the issues of the Reformation, the dogmas we are saddled with today and created a church more in touch with people - but belluld not now have to enricrich worship.

    I am not one of Augustine of Canterbury's fans, the man was arrogant, overbearing and not above using violence to gain his ends. It is recorded that he refused to exchange the 'kiss of peace' or to rise when he met the Celtic Christian bishops at a synod in Wessex, then essentially told them to accept his authority, or face military persecution by his allies. Not exactly a shining example of Christian practice. The Venerable Bede's great treatise is essentially the propaganda of the Roman Church - a case of the victor writing history as they would like it to be.

    I'd miss using Cranmer's beautiful prose though, and the wonderful sound of the organ, our choral tradition and a few other things, but I think we might have a better grasp of the Christian message.