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Why Does The Eucharistic Prayer Say ‘Disciples’ Instead of ‘Apostles’ at the Last Supper?

A listener named Jim asks Father Dave about the Last Supper and the Eucharistic Prayer. Jim says, “In the Eucharistic prayer it says, ‘He took bread and gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples.’ Why doesn’t it say apostles? I always envisioned the last supper the way Leonardo da Vinci painted it. Were there more disciples there than the apostles?”

Father Dave clarifies the definitions of apostles and disciples. “You are correct to make a distinction in our modern world between the word ‘disciples’ and the word ‘apostles,’” Father Dave begins. “[Disciples] essentially means pupils or students or learners…in the New Testament, when we hear about Jesus’ disciples, those are the people that are learning from him.”

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“The word ‘apostles’ means ‘ones sent forth,’” he continues, and compares them to a scouting team or task force sent on location. Father Dave also notes that the 12 Apostles are essentially in the “inner circle” of disciples. “The issue is when they were writing these Gospels that they didn’t all confer with one another or have a copy editor with consistency on the use of terms,” he says.

Father Dave compares the scriptural versions of the “institution narrative,” which describe the Last Supper meal referenced in the Eucharistic Prayer. “The three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and then in First Corinthians are the four places in the New Testament that we hear this description of what happened at the Last Supper,” he says. “Why not John? John talks about the Last Supper, but he never describes the meal; instead, just the foot washing part.”

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These four references are not consistent in their use of disciples or apostles, and Father Dave notes that the Church had to pick one for the prayers of the Mass. “Matthew says ‘disciples,’ Mark says ‘the 12,’ Luke says ‘Apostles,’ and First Corinthians doesn’t even say who is there,” he continues.

“[These accounts] are not necessarily disagreeing with each other, because they could all mean exactly the same 12 people sitting at the Last Supper. Having said all that, historians would say it certainly is possible that there were other people there,” Father Dave concludes. “We don’t go by Leonardo da Vinci as the definitive.”