Thursday, April 9, 2009

A New Commandment I Give to You . . .

We celebrate the Thursday before Good Friday in commemoration of our Lord's institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion at the Last Supper, the night in which he was handed over to the high priest Caiaphas, and by him handed over to the Romans, who ordered him first scourged, and then crucified. The English name "Maundy Thursday" comes not from these events, however, but from the "new commandment" Jesus gave to his disciples (mandatum novum do vobis, in the Vulgate Latin), as reported by John in chapter 13, verse 34: "A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another as I have loved you." (The Latin mandatum ["commandment, mandate"] became in French mandé, which in Norman English became "maundy".)

Jesus repeated this commandment to his disciples, in John 15:12 ("This is my commandment: that you love one another, as I have loved you"), so it is apparent how important it was to Him. During their Last Supper the disciples had been disputing with each other about which of them would have precedence in heaven, whereupon Jesus rebukes them, as it were, with this "new" commandment, which he then repeats. The "old" commandment was (Lev. 19:18) "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." After having stretched the concept of "neighbor" to its uttermost (e.g., Luke 10:29-36), Jesus now turns to the model which his disciples are to reflect after He is gone from them. By loving "one another" among themselves, they will mirror to their own followers and converts the relationship in which Jesus held them. In this way, the Church which they would establish and begin to build would have the only foundation by which it could succeed in its mission to bring the light of Christ to a darkened world.

It is noteworthy, then, that this new commandment is reported as having been broken almost immediately after it was invoked at the Last Supper. For one of the twelve, Judas Iscariot, left the meal (without having heard the new commandment, it is true) to betray his Lord for thirty pieces of silver, and thereby gave to the world false witness that money was more important than his Master's ideal of "brotherly love" (philadelphia). 

Or so we have traditionally been told. But could tradition have gone astray on this point? Some new theories about what Judas was actually doing, backed up by a contemporary Jewish account given in the Talmud, cast Judas in a rather different light (although still not blameless: there remain those thirty pieces of silver which he famously accepted, only to recognize too late that they were "blood money" [Mt 27:6]). 

The theory starts by examining the account which John gives of what Jesus said to Judas just before he reminds the disciples about the "new" commandment:
13:21 When he had said these things, Jesus was greatly distressed in spirit, and testified, “I tell you the solemn truth, one of you will betray me.” 13:22 The disciples began to look at one another, worried and perplexed to know which of them he was talking about. 13:23 One of his disciples, the one Jesus loved, was at the table to the right of Jesus in a place of honor. 13:24 So Simon Peter gestured to this disciple to ask Jesus who it was he was referring to. 13:25 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved leaned back against Jesus’ chest and asked him, “Lord, who is it?” 13:26 Jesus replied, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread after I have dipped it in the dish.” Then he dipped the piece of bread in the dish and gave it to Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son. 13:27 And after Judas took the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” 13:28 (Now none of those present at the table understood why Jesus said this to Judas. 13:29 Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him to buy whatever they needed for the feast, or to give something to the poor.) 13:30 Judas took the piece of bread and went out immediately. (Now it was night.)
"What you are about to do, do quickly"---none of the disciples at this point understands what Jesus is telling Judas to do. And since it is John reporting this, who was sitting right next to Jesus (and leaning his head on His chest), he must have heard it exactly, since Judas also had to be seated close by (for Jesus to hand him a piece of bread which He had first dipped in the dish). The ominous note, however, is struck by the translation of the Greek word paradwsei (παραδώσει - from παραδίδωμι, "to hand over" [Strong #3860]) as "betray" in the traditional English version as quoted. 

It is surely significant that this Greek word, which appears 119 times in the New Testament, is translated as "betray" only in association with Judas and his actions (e.g., Mt 10:4); the remainder of the time it can be rendered by the less disparaging phrase "to hand over, turn over, deliver up", with a basic sense of "to give over from one's hand to someone or something". Thus the question naturally suggests itself: could Jesus have deputized Judas to be the one to "hand Him over" to the Jewish authorities, in the sense of turn Him in to answer charges lodged against Him?

Now I direct your attention to the following cryptic passage about Jesus from the Mishnah, which is the earliest part of the Talmud, and which dates from the same time as the Gospels:
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.” But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!
(Translation from the reading in The Babylonian Talmud, transl. by I. Epstein [London: Soncino, 1935], vol. III, Sanhedrin 43a, p. 281.) This passage is noteworthy for a number of assertions. One of the more striking is the claim that charges (of "sorcery" and false teaching) were pending against Jesus for forty days prior to the date on which He was crucified ("hanged upon a tree [cross]", and hence accursed [Deut. 21:23; see Paul's interpretation in Gal. 3:13]). And notice that the original sentence against Jesus was the one prescribed in the Torah---death by stoning, since crucifixion was exclusively a Roman punishment, unknown to the Jews of the Exodus. (The passage in Deuteronomy refers to hanging a corpse, and not a live body, to a tree after the condemned person has been stoned to death.)

Next, notice how this passage corroborates (twice) John's version of when Jesus was crucified: on "the eve of the Passover", that is, the day of the preparation for the Passover, when the sacrificial lambs were being slaughtered at the Temple in Jerusalem, beginning at noon (see this note [#45] for an explanation of why noon of the day before was considered to be the start of "the eve" of the Passover). The synoptic Gospels each tell us that the Last Supper was the Passover meal itself (e.g., Mt 26:19-20, Mk 14:12-18, Lk 22:7-15), and hence the crucifixion occurred on the "day after the preparation" for the Passover (which was still the day before the Sabbath; all Gospels agree that the crucifixion took place on a Friday). It is only in John that we find this account that equates Jesus' sacrifice on the cross with the sacrifice of lambs for the Passover meal.

Finally, notice that the passage from the Mishnah corroborates John's Gospel in one more respect: like John, it says nothing about Jesus causing outrage among the Jews, just before he was brought before Caiaphas, by overthrowing the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. In John, this incident occurs much earlier (Jn 2:13-17), at the outset of Jesus' ministry, albeit also on the Passover (which is simply the reason for Jesus' going to the Temple in the first place).

If we combine John's account with that in the Mishnah, therefore, the following interesting conjecture becomes possible: charges may already have been brought against Jesus before he went up to Jerusalem for the Passover---charges of "sorcery", i.e., miracle cures, including the raising of Lazarus from the dead (Jn 12:9-11), and false teaching, i.e., that He claimed to predate Abraham, or to be able to raise up the Temple in three days. Jesus may have realized that he would have to face these charges once he entered Jerusalem---John tells us also that He was aware that they would result in His death (Jn 13:1). For their part, the chief priests were already looking for him, as John reports in chapter 11, verses 45-57:
11:45 Then many of the people, who had come with Mary and had seen the things Jesus did, believed in him. 11:46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and reported to them what Jesus had done. 11:47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many miraculous signs. 11:48 If we allow him to go on in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation.”

11:49 Then one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said, “You know nothing at all! 11:50 You do not realize that it is more to your advantage to have one man die for the people than for the whole nation to perish.” 11:51 (Now he did not say this on his own, but because he was high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the Jewish nation, 11:52 and not for the Jewish nation only, but to gather together into one the children of God who are scattered.) 11:53 So from that day they planned together to kill him.

11:54 Thus Jesus no longer went around publicly among the Judeans, but went away from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and stayed there with his disciples. 11:55 Now the Jewish feast of Passover was near, and many people went up to Jerusalem from the rural areas before the Passover to cleanse themselves ritually. 11:56 Thus they were looking for Jesus, and saying to one another as they stood in the temple courts, “What do you think? That he won’t come to the feast?” 11:57 (Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should report it, so that they could arrest him.)
Taken together, therefore, the account of the Apostle John and the account in the Mishnah are remarkably consistent with each other. The chief priests and Pharisees are just waiting for Jesus to come to Jerusalem---perhaps because they have already sentenced him to death by stoning (at this point, they have no intent of handing him over to the Romans for crucifixion). Jesus knows what must happen, and what will happen that the Scriptures might be fulfilled: his confrontation with the high priests and elders, who at first bumble his prosecution by producing only false witnesses with stories that do not match, would turn to outrage at His "blasphemous" claim to be the Son of God. This would be a charge that went far beyond all the others made against Him up to that time, and would result in their trying to hand Him over to the Romans to be put to death.

But Pilate would not go along; "blasphemy" against the Jewish God was not a crime under Roman law. As John again makes clear (Jn 18:28-39), it was in the course of His examination by Pilate that an offense punishable by crucifixion emerged: Jesus claimed to be a king "not of this world", which Pilate turned into a claim to be "king of the Jews" in order to justify his abdication of responsibility in bowing to the wishes of the elders that Jesus be put to death (Jn 19:1-16). 

So we return to the minor role played by Judas in this fateful account of what happened. By "handing Jesus over" to the authorities, at Jesus' own request ("What you are about to do, do quickly"), he was the one designated to inform the elders that Jesus was ready to place Himself in their hands, and to face the charges which He (but not they) knew would lead to His suffering and death on the cross. Judas sealed his own reputation by accepting money for his role, and by being the first member of the incipient church to place worldly goods above Christ's commandment that the disciples love one another as He loved them.

Today, the Church sadly continues to provide ample evidence that some of its members value worldly things more than that "new commandment" which Jesus left with the original twelve. The quarreling over property echoes the disciples' petty quarrels at the Last Supper over who would be given the place of honor next to Jesus in heaven.  On this most holy day in the Church year, when we gather in obedience to Christ's command that we commemorate that first Communion and "do this in remembrance of me", let us remember as well that other commandment, the new commandment which He left with us on the very first Maundy Thursday: 

"Love one another as I have loved you.



  1. This is a wonderful teaching and exploration of this Sacred Day. Thank you for it.

    While John is unique in placing the crucifixion on the Eve of Passover, "when the lambs are slaughtered", Mark 14:12 & Luke 22:7 draw out the same message by calling attention to the "sacrifice" of the lamb as the main feature of the day on which Jesus later institutes the sacrament of his body and blood. And Paul points from Last Supper to cross and Cross to Lord's Supper when he writes, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." (I Cor. 11:26)

    As you say, all four Gospels locate the crucifixion on a Friday, on or close to the Passover. Mark, Luke and John emphasize the sacrifice of the "Lamb of God" (Mark and Luke more subtly, since John has established that identity through John the Baptist's announcement in 1:29). Matthew's account of the Last Supper says explicitly that Jesus' blood of the covenant is "for the sins of the world."

    My sermon today (it's up on my blog) reaches your same conclusion via the traditional stripping of the altar. The external things of the church fade to nothing if we ignore and abandon the Lord who told us to love and serve one another, in imitation of his sacrificial love for us. I hope the Spirit inspires that message all around our fragmented denomination.

  2. I think you need to double check your reference to the Mishnah. I don't find the passage about Jesus in my version of Tractate Sanhedrin, and though I think the passage does indeed appear in the Talmud, it's so much later it's hardly corroborative of anything other than how certain Jews may have interpreted the story after Christianity became the dominant faith of the Mediterranean world.

  3. Rick Allen, thank you for your comment. I'm not sure what to say---I gave the specific volume and page reference to my edition of the Babylonian Talmud. In searching for corroboration, I find this description of the passage on the Web, which references a 1950 book by Morris Goldstein that I don't have (I have added the bold for emphasis):

    "This is one of the (few early) passages that Goldstein judges to be a possibly authentic reference to Jesus. He identifies two difficulties: the details do not fit well with the gospel accounts, and Yeshu / Yeshua / Yeshoshua (all forms of the same name) was an extremely common name. In its favor, the fact that this Yeshu is executed around Passover, as was Jesus, makes it less likely that it intends some other Yeshu/a. Differences in detail probably simply reflect a tradition widely divergent from the Christian gospels. There is, as with many of these stories, the strong possibility that stories about other Yeshu/as or accused magicians have mingled with authentic Jesus traditions to create a new story. The story is hard to date with any confidence, but it cannot be later than about 220, CE (Goldstein:29)."

    See also this link, which is to the same effect. I welcome any further enlightenment that you or any other Talmud scholar can give. However, my point was not that what the Talmud relates was actually true, but that its supposed "contradiction" by what is in the Gospels holds true only of the synoptic ones. It actually is, as I explain in the post, consistent with the events that John relates.