The following represents a question and my (amended) response originally posted as comments on my Amazon review of Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, a book making the case that the letters of St. Paul in the New Testament reveal no knowledge of a “historical” Jesus of Nazareth. The questioner asked me about 1 Corinthians 11:24-5, as “proof” that Paul did know a historical Jesus:
…and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Firstly, the context needs to be included, which is that Paul says in verse 23 of First Corinthians:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread…
The Last Supper
These verses are held up as evidence that Jesus really existed, because they are describing what has become known as the “Lord’s Supper” or “Last Supper,” which proponents claim is clearly a historical event, as depicted in the New Testament, as at Luke 22:7-30. In reading the pertinent passage in Luke, however, it should be kept in mind that biblical criticism has revealed several problems with not only these verses in Luke but also as concerns relevant passages in the other synoptic gospels (Mat 26:17-30; Mk 14:12-26). Moreover, there simply is no evidence for the existence of the canonical gospels as we have them by the time Paul wrote this epistle, so he could not have been relating “facts” from them. The reality is that Paul was not in attendance at the Last Supper and would be relaying hearsay at best.
As concerns Doherty, it should be noted that his book is some 800 pages long, and he covers just about every detail in it, including these verses over numerous pages (pp. 18, 48-49, 70, 71, 86, 140-2, 175, 392). Earl’s earlier work, The Jesus Puzzle, released in 1999, also dealt extensively with this particular scripture. It is therefore not a new objection to him or me and has already been addressed. Regarding 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Doherty says (JNGNM, 18):
Here Paul attributes words to Jesus at what he calls “The Lord’s Supper,” words identifying the bread and wine of that “supper” with Jesus’ body and blood. But is Paul recounting an historical event here? There are several arguments to be made that this is not the case, that Paul is instead describing something which lay in the realm of myth, similar to sacred meal myths, found in many of the Greek savior god cults, such as that of Mithras. In fact, the opening phrase of the passage points to Paul’s reception of this information through revelation, not through an account of others who were supposedly participants at such an event. This is an important passage, and it will be discussed in fuller detail at several points later. For now, it does not have to be regarded as a necessary reference to an historical Jesus who had lived on earth in Paul’s own lifetime.
Doherty then goes on to produce an extensive analysis of the passage, including the Greek used to introduce it, which has Paul contending he received this knowledge “through revelation,” not as a historical account. The word translated as “received” in the Greek is παραλαμβάνω or paralambano, which means, among other things “to receive something transmitted,” “to receive with the mind,” as by oral tradition. We know that Paul never met the “historical” Jesus, so his reception of this transmitted information is psychic or spiritual, not physical. He is then “delivering” the “channeled” information to his audience, implying that Paul is the source of the Lord’s Supper pericope later fleshed out by the evangelists. In other words, Paul is not recounting something that he saw in the flesh, and, again, he is therefore not an eyewitness to this purported event. Indeed, as Doherty clearly shows, Paul’s discussion of Jesus is very mystical, supernatural and unreal, as in allegorical and mythical.
Old Testament ‘Prophecy’ or Blueprint?
Secondly, as concerns 1 Corinthians 11:23, Dr. Robert Price discusses the Last Supper as a midrash of Psalm 41:9: “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” Hence, the “betrayal” related by Paul is likewise allegorical, based on Old Testament scripture or “messianic prophecy.” (For details, see Price’s article “New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash.”)
Isaiah 53:12 is likewise pointed to as a source for the Last Supper:
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Earlier in 1 Corinthians (10:3-4), Paul refers specifically to the sacred meal shared by Moses and his followers in the desert:
…and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
Certainly, in referring to the Old Testament scripture (Exd 17:6; Num 20:11) Paul was speaking spiritually and allegorically, as he surely did not mean that a man named “Jesus of Nazareth” was following the Jews around during the Exodus, dressed as a rock. Clearly, here is a precedent upon which, some verses later, Paul could easily build a metaphorical “Lord’s Supper,” a concept he claimed to have received through “revelation,” rather than depicting a historical event.
A Mithraic Ritual?
It is further interesting to note that the Greek word for “rock” is πέτρα or “petra,” (same as “petros,” as in “Peter”), which Paul (1 Cor 10:4) equates with “christos” (ἡ πέτρα δὲ ἦν ὁ Χριστός) or “the anointed,” a title held by several individuals in the Old Testament. The Perso-Roman god Mithra too was the “theos ek petras” or “god of the rock,” who was the god of the Persian king Cyrus, the latter likewise called “christos” in the Greek Old Testament/Septuagint. (Isa 45:1)
Moreover, the city of Tarsus, where Paul was said to be from, was the Asian Minor center from which Mithraism spread during the first centuries BCE/CE. As New Testament scholar Dr. Jonathan A. Draper remarks:
The first mention we have of the Mithraic cult in the Roman Orient is in Tarsus (Cilicia), the home of a number of Stoic philosophers and of the worshiping of Herakles Sandan, the bull-killer, and also the place where Saul of Tarsus started his strange path. (Draper, Orality, Literacy and Colonialism in Antiquity, Brill, 2004, p. 104)
Factoring in the connections to Mithraism already mentioned, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that Paul was relating a mystery in order to appeal to Mithra followers. As I discuss in depth in my book Christ in Egypt: The Horus Jesus Connection, there are likewise a sacred meal and Last Supper in the Egyptian religion among others. Again, there is no reason to assume that these biblical scriptures refer to an historical event.
Jesus or Joshua?
In addition, when analyzing the word “Jesus” used by Paul, as in “Lord Jesus,” it should be kept in mind that the New Testament writers largely utilized the Greek Old Testament or Septuagint (“LXX”). In the Hebrew Old Testament, the name יהושוע or Yehoshua (“Joshua”) appears some 218 times, rendered in the LXX as Ἰησοῦς or Jesus. Hence, any reader or hearer of the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures – used widely by Hellenized Jews of the Diaspora – would have seen or heard this name “Jesus” many times, referring to several different Joshuas, including and especially the Old Testament hero and companion of Moses.
In my book Suns of God, in a lengthy section about Joshua as a pre-Christian savior figure (476ff), I relate that, per the Jewish philosopher Philo and various Church fathers, Joshua was the “angel” at Exodus 23:20 who, accompanying the people out of Egypt, led Israel to the Promised Land. The name Joshua/Jesus means “savior,” and, indeed, in the pre-Christian text The Wisdom of Jesus, Ben Sirach or Ecclesiasticus (46:1-8), Joshua is styled the “great savior of God’s chosen ones.” Church fathers such as Justin Martyr (Trypho, 113) described Joshua as a “figure of Christ” or “type of Jesus,” and the two are frequently interchanged or confused in early Christian writings as well as their translations from the Greek. In consideration of all these facts, it is quite possible that Paul was referring to this mystical savior/angel and “figure of Christ,” Joshua, rather than a purported “historical Jesus.”
Furthermore, it is wise to remember that the Pauline epistles have been interpolated in many places, a fact known by many scholars previous to Doherty who have seen few indications of a “historical” Jesus in these letters. The summary of Paul’s Christ as a mystical and midrashic Jewish-Pagan hybrid remains sound.