The Saviour’s Seder?

By: Kenneth Ho

Introduction

The celebration of Passover (or Hebrew: פֶּסַח Pesach) commemorates the account of the liberation of the Jews from slavery under Ancient Egypt. While noting that it has been celebrated for millennia by the Jewish community with the aforementioned reason in mind, much has been said as to whether the Last Supper partaken by Jesus and His disciples was indeed a Seder meal. Many of the proponents (most prominently Christians) of the actuality that the Last Supper was indeed a Seder will then bestow upon it novel connotations and implications. If it is possible, I will to the best of my ability as a layperson present the evidence for and against this notion.

History

The tradition of celebrating the Passover has its roots in the biblical account of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt with the LORD declaring to Moses and Aaron that “This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you[1].” It was during this month that the LORD carried out His divine plan to liberate the Hebrews by carrying out the events as can be read in the exodus account in that on the night of the Passover, the Israelites were to eat the lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The lamb’s blood should be swabbed on their doorposts as a sign. God, seeing the sign, will then “pass over” the houses of the Israelites (Exodus 12:13), while smiting the Egyptians with the tenth plague, the killing of the first-born sons. Standard biblical chronology places these events at around 1311 B.C[2].

The Hebrews were enjoined to memorialise the events[3] by the retelling of the slavery and deliverance from Egypt[4] from one generation to the next. The Passover event in particular was to be remembered on the 14th of the first month in the Hebrew calendar called Nisan[5] (initially called Abib[6] but was later changed[7] to Nisan). Initially, the sacrifices of the Hebrews were to be carried out as a private affair among individual families[8] or as a combined household if a neighbour’s household was too small to afford a paschal lamb[9].

However, this private household practice was reformed into a temple cult practice following the construction of the First Temple by King Solomon[10] with descriptions of this practice being found in Talmudic sources[11]. Other biblical references to the practice of the temple cult can be found pertaining to the Second Temple (515 B.C – 70 A.D) in the later books of the Old Testament[12]. Throughout the gospels, it is apparent that this practice developed into a hugely public affair with multitudes of people performing pilgrimages from afar to Jerusalem. Testifying to the numbers of pilgrims during the Feast are diverse non-biblical Jewish sources[13] numbering the totality of pilgrims at approximately 3 million at its zenith.

Despite the development of the public aspect of the Feast, private commemoration was still prevalent among the Jewish families. According to the scholar Abraham Bloch[14], the first step leading to the creation of the home Passover seder service was taken during the period of the great Temples in Jerusalem, when the Jews who had slaughtered the paschal (Passover) offerings joined the Levites in the chanting of the Hallel (psalms of praise). It is currently unclear as to how the development of private commemoration coincided with the dominance of the temple when it existed (if it did happen) but due to space and time constraints, that will not be discussed here. Many works of rabbinic literature, the ancients and contemporary writers[15] document this development and self-research is encouraged.

The Seder Rite and Arguments

Literally meaning “Order”, a Seder is as mentioned, a ritual feast marking the beginning of the Passover. Consisting of 14 rites where each course chronicles a different part of the account of the Hebrews being in slavery to Egypt, receiving deliverance from God, being redeemed by the blood of Passover lamb and finally being restored as God’s people in the Promised Land. The orders of the Seder follow what is called the Haggadah which means “telling” and is called so following the injunction given as “You shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.[16]‘” It is important to note however that Baruch Bokser has shown that a majority of works pertaining to the Haggadah were formed after the destruction of the Second Temple, so the rites below may have been coincidental to the order of the Last Supper or the order of the Last Supper may have been a proto-Haggadah. The rites in order of the Haggadah are:

Kadeish; blessings and drinking of the first cup (Cup of Sanctification).

Urchatz; ritual washing of hands.

Karpas; eating of vegetables dipped into salt water.

Yachatz; 3 pieces of matzah (unleavened bread) are present. The middle bread is broken into 2 pieces with the bigger piece hidden away for later.

Maggid; retelling of the Exodus account.

Rachtzah; washing of everyone’s hands and drinking of the second cup (Cup of Plagues-Deliverance).

Matzah; eating of the unhidden matzah piece.

Maror; eating of bitter herbs.

Koreich; eating of bitter herbs and matzah dipped in sweet paste

Shulchan oreich; eating of the Passover lamb (supper)

Tzafun; the hidden matzah piece is found by a child, broken and eaten.

Bareich; thanksgiving and drinking of the third cup (Cup of Redemption).

Hallel; drinking of the fourth cup (Cup of Restoration).

Nirtzah; conclusion of Seder meal with blessings.

The four cups of wine represent the four promises God made to the Hebrews as told in Exodus 6:6-7 which are: “I will bring you out of Egypt (Sanctification)… I will deliver you from slavery (Deliverance)… I will redeem you with My power (Redemption)… I will take you as My people (Restoration)”[17].

Jeremias and Perrin in their book[18] notes 14 parallels between the Last Supper and a Seder meal as follows:

  1. The Last Supper took place in Jerusalem.
  2. It took place in a room made available to pilgrims for that purpose.
  3. It was held during the night.
  4. Jesus celebrated that meal with his “family” of disciples.
  5. While they ate, they reclined.
  6. This meal was eaten in a state of ritual purity.
  7. Bread was broken during the meal and not just at the beginning.
  8. Wine was consumed.
  9. This wine was red.
  10. There were last-minute preparations for the meal
  11. Alms were given after the meal.
  12. A hymn was sung.
  13. Jesus and his disciples then remained in Jerusalem.
  14. Jesus discussed the symbolic significance of the meal, just as Jews do during the Passover Seder.

However, parallels would be too general and blunt to be decisive in whether the Last Supper was a Seder or not. Such features may have been characteristic of typical Jewish meals but this is debatable. Proponents of the notion that the Last Supper was a Seder also usually argue as such with novel connotations when compared to the traditional Jewish interpretation:

“The Seder starts with the Kadeish, the first cup of wine- the cup of sanctification. As God brought the His people out of Egypt, God brings us too out of the world and out of the bondage of sin. This was the first cup Jesus drank with His disciples (Luke 22:17). Though not mentioned, in the Yachatz, the 3 breads represent the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit with the middle bread, the Son being broken and hidden away in the tomb.

The next order is the washing of hands, either during the Urchatz or the Rachtzah– Jesus instead washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:3-5; 12-17). The Rachtzah, the second cup- the cup of plagues-deliverance is not mentioned but we can assume it is drunk after the Passover account but before supper. The Koreich is next seen when Jesus gives the dipped bread to Judas (John 13:26).

After Shulchan Oreich, the supper, Tzafun commences where the hidden half matzah is found and then broken (Matthew 26:26; Luke 22:19). As the bread is to be found by a child, the Kingdom of God belongs to those receive it like a child (Mark 10: 15). Jesus likewise took the Bareich, the third cup after supper- the cup of redemption, which is the covenant in His blood. This cup is the redemptive covenant which Jesus establishes with the partakers of the Seder by dying on the cross.

However, Jesus did not drink the Hallel, the last cup- the cup of restoration (Matthew 26:29; Luke 22:18). This is because the last cup is drunk at Seder to remember God’s people being restored to the Promised Land. In light of us believers today, as the Jews sojourned in the desert after deliverance from Egypt, so also we now sojourn this earth after deliverance from sin. Therefore brothers and sisters, let us thus sojourn this earth faithfully while we patiently await for the Kingdom of God to return where we will enter the Promised Land and drink the final cup- the cup of restoration with our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Another compelling evidence for the fact that the Last Supper was a Seder would also come from the timing of the Last Supper in the three synoptic gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke places the Last Supper on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread[19]. To understand the context, Exodus 12:6-11 details the command the LORD gave to Moses and Aaron concerning the Passover. In addition, the Jewish day began and ended on sunset[20] so keep this in mind as we dissect the text.

The LORD commanded Moses and Aaron to tell the Israelites to prepare a sacrificial lamb for each household on the tenth of the first month. Then, on the fourteenth of the first month, the Israelites were to kill the lamb at twilight; this was called the LORD’s Passover. Likewise in verse 17-18, the Feast of Unleavened Bread would also be observed on the fourteenth of the first month. Seeing that the Passover fell on the same day as the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and that the Seder meal is eaten on the Passover, it is not irrational to suppose that the Last Supper was indeed a Seder and places the Passover before the crucifixion according to the synoptics’ accounts.

It is also important to note however that the Greek word translated as “day” in the gospels, “hemera”, may not only mean a 24-hour period but can also mean a season or a period[21] so this could be pivotal in our understanding of the chronology of the Last Supper and the events surrounding it. It was also not uncommon for the Jews to use proximate dating in that they attached the name of a feast to both events especially when they occur one after another on consecutive days[22].

The gospel of John places the crucifixion as happening on the day of preparation of the Passover[23] which apparently contradicts the synoptic gospels’ account. For the synoptic gospels place the Passover before the crucifixion but John places it after the crucifixion. One of the problems with following the synoptic gospels’ accounts is that it would follow that the Jewish authorities who handed Jesus over to Pilate and trialled Him would then be guilty of violating their own legislation[24] to not do work on a feasts day of which they would have every reason not to. Perhaps it was indeed illegal as it would further reinforce the case of Jesus’ innocence. Even if it is so, the claim of John that Jesus was killed just before Passover began is still plausible when considering the synoptics’ claim that Jesus was killed on Passover.

And if Jesus wasn’t killed on Passover, but before it (as John claims), then the Last Supper could not in fact have been a Passover Seder. The gospel of John perhaps had theological motives rather than historical accuracy as John’s timing of events supports the Christian claim that Jesus himself was a sacrifice and that his death heralds a new redemption just as the Passover offering recalls an old one.

While I cannot conclusively ascertain whether the Last Supper was indeed a Seder given the limited time and space I have, much scholarly work has been done on this topic. Even then, the scholar Baruch M. Bokser notes that scholarly findings have not been conclusive but have tended towards negation. Whatever the case may be, I pray that whatever findings derived in the future will be used for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God and for His Glory. My hope is that this article prods and quickens the inquisitive mind to further study the word of God.

Helpful Readings:

https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/was-jesus-last-supper-a-seder/

https://www.biblestudytools.com/blogs/michael-j-kruger/did-john-get-the-timing-of-the-last-supper-and-crucifixion-wrong.html

https://www.cgg.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Library.CGGWeekly/ID/742/Is-Passover-on-First-Day-Unleavened-Bread-Part-Two.htm

Helpful Resources:

https://www.sefaria.org/

 

[1] Exodus 12:2 (NASB)

[2] Seder Olam Rabbah; a 2nd century Jewish text written in Hebrew attempting to provide chronology for biblical events

[3] Exodus 12:17

[4] Exodus 12:24; 13:8

[5] Leviticus 23:5

[6] Exodus 23:15

[7] Nehemiah 2:1; Esther 3:7

[8] Exodus 12:3

[9] Exodus 12:4

[10] 1 Kings 6

[11] Talmud Pesachim 64a

[12] 2 Chronicles 29:10- 30:21; Ezra 6:22

[13] Josephus, Wars, 2:280; Talmud Pesachim 64b; Yalkut Shim’oni, Torah, remez 77

[14] Abraham P. Bloch. The Biblical and Historical Background of Jewish Customs and Ceremonies.

[15] Philo: Special Laws 2:145-148, vol. 7. pp. 395-397; Bokser, THE ORIGINS OF THE SEDER The Passover Rite and Early Rabbinic Judaism, pp. 58-59

[16] Exodus 13:8 (NASB)

[17] Nosson Scherman and Avie Gold, The Family Haggadah (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 2008).

[18] Joachim Jeremias and Norman Perrin, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (New York: Scribner, 1966), esp. pp. 42-61.

[19] Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7

[20] Genesis 1:5

[21] See Luke 9:51; 17:24; 19:42; 23:7; John 8:56; Acts 2:20; 8:1; 17:31; Romans 2:5; 1 Corinthians 3:13; 2 Corinthians 6:2; Ephesians 6:13; Hebrews 3:8

[22] Josephus, Jewish War 5.99

[23] John 19:13

[24] “They shall not judge on the eve of the Sabbath, nor on that of any festival.”—Mishnah, Sanhedrin IV

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author, and they do not reflect in any way views of the institutions to which he is affiliated  and/or the other Laikos Theologos contributors.

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