Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?

Read Jonathan Klawans’s article “Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?” as it originally appeared in Bible Review, October 2001. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily in October 2012.—Ed.


 

Traditional Views of Jesus’ Last Supper as a Passover Meal

With his disciples gathered around him, Jesus partakes of his Last Supper. The meal in this late-15th-century painting by the Spanish artist known only as the Master of Perea consists of lamb, unleavened bread and wine—all elements of the Seder feast celebrated on the first night of the Jewish Passover festival. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke appear to present Jesus’ Last Supper as a Seder. In John, however, the seven-day Passover festival does not begin until after Jesus is crucified. Jonathan Klawans suggests that the Passover Seder as we know it developed only after the time of Jesus. Christie’s Images/Superstock

Many people assume that Jesus’ Last Supper was a Seder, a ritual meal held in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Passover. And indeed, according to the Gospel of Mark 14:12, Jesus prepared for the Last Supper on the “first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb.” If Jesus and his disciples gathered together to eat soon after the Passover lamb was sacrificed, what else could they possibly have eaten if not the Passover meal? And if they ate the Passover sacrifice, they must have held a Seder.

Three out of four of the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) agree that the Last Supper was held only after the Jewish holiday had begun. Moreover, one of the best known and painstakingly detailed studies of the Last Supper—Joachim Jeremias’s book The Eucharistic Words of Jesus—lists no fewer than 14 distinct parallels between the Last Supper tradition and the Passover Seder.1

The Passover Seder and Sacrifice

The Jewish holiday of Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. The roots of the festival are found in Exodus 12, in which God instructs the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb at twilight on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, before the sun sets (Exodus 12:18). That night the Israelites are 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.

A San Francisco seder. California Rabbi Jack Frankel and his family lift the first glass of wine during a Seder meal, held on the first night of Passover (and the second night in the Diaspora). The Seder commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. Throughout the meal, the biblical story is retold; the food is linked symbolically with the Exodus. Photo by Rodger Ressmeyer, San Francisco/Corbis.

Exodus 12 commands the Israelites to repeat this practice every year, performing the sacrifice during the day and then consuming it after the sun has set. (According to Jewish tradition, the new day begins with the setting of the sun, so the sacrifice is made on the 14th but the beginning of Passover and the meal are actually on the 15th, although this sequence of dates is not specified in Exodus.) Exodus 12 further speaks of a seven-day festival, which begins when the sacrifice is consumed (Exodus 12:15).

Once the Israelites were settled in Israel, and once a Temple was built in Jerusalem, the original sacrifice described in Exodus 12 changed dramatically. Passover became one of the Jewish Pilgrimage festivals, and Israelites were expected to travel to Jerusalem to sacrifice a Passover lamb at the Temple during the afternoon of the 14th day, and then consume the Passover sacrifice once the sun had set, and the festival had formally begun on the 15th. This kind of celebration is described as having taken place during the reigns of Kings Hezekiah and Josiah (2 Chronicles 30 and 35).
 


 
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As time passed, the practice continued to evolve. Eventually, a number of customs, recorded in rabbinic literature, began to accumulate around the meal, which became so highly ritualized that it was called the Seder, from the Hebrew for “order”: Unleavened bread was broken, wine was served, the diners reclined and hymns were sung. Furthermore, during the meal, the Exodus story was retold and the significance of the unleavened bread, bitter herbs and wine was explained.

The bread and wine, the hymn, the reclining diners—many of these characteristic elements are shared by the Last Supper, as Jeremias pointed out. (Jeremias’s 14 parallels are given in full in endnote 1.) What is more, just as Jews at the Seder discuss the symbolism of the Passover meal, Jesus at his Last Supper discussed the symbolism of the wine and bread in light of his own coming death.

It is not only Jeremias’s long list of parallels that leads many modern Christians and Jews to describe the Last Supper as a Passover Seder. The recent popularity of interfaith Seders (where Christians and Jews celebrate aspects of Passover and the Last Supper together) points to an emotional impulse that is also at work here. The Christian celebration of the Eucharist (Communion)—the Last Supper—is the fundamental ritual for many Christians. And among Jews the Passover Seder is one of the most widely practiced of all observances. In these times of ecumenicism and general good feeling between Christians and Jews, many people seem to find it reassuring to think that Communion (the Eucharist) and the Passover Seder are historically related.

Historical Doubts about Jesus’ Last Supper as a Passover Seder

History, however, is often more complex and perhaps a little less comforting than we might hope. Although I welcome the current ecumenical climate, I believe we must be careful not to let our emotions get the better of us when we are searching for history. Indeed, even though the association of the Last Supper with a Passover Seder remains entrenched in the popular mind, a growing number of scholars are beginning to express serious doubts about this claim.

Of course a number of New Testament scholars—the Jesus Seminar comes to mind—tend to doubt that the Gospels accurately record very much at all about Jesus, with the exception of some of his sayings. Obviously if the Gospels cannot be trusted, then we have no reason to assume that there ever was a Last Supper at all. And if there was no Last Supper, then it could not have taken place on Passover.2

The sacrifice of the Passover lamb is conducted annually on Mt. Gerizim, in Nablus (ancient Shechem), in the West Bank, by the Samaritans, a religious group that split from Judaism by the second century B.C.E. The Samaritans retained the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) as their Scripture, although with some alterations. The Samaritan Bible refers to Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem, as the center of worship. David Harris.

Furthermore, several Judaic studies scholars—Jacob Neusner is a leading example—very much doubt that rabbinic texts can be used in historical reconstructions of the time of Jesus. But rabbinic literature is our main source of information about what Jews might have done during their Seder meal in ancient times. For reasons that are not entirely clear, other ancient Jewish sources, such as Josephus and Philo, focus on what Jews did in the Temple when the Passover sacrifice was offered, rather than on what they did afterward, when they actually ate the sacrifice. Again, if we cannot know how Jews celebrated Passover at the time of Jesus, then we have to plead ignorance, and we would therefore be unable to answer our question.

There is something to be said for these skeptical positions, but I am not such a skeptic. I want to operate here under the opposite assumptions: that the Gospels can tell us about the historical Jesus,3 and that rabbinic sources can be used—with caution—to reconstruct what Jews at the time of Jesus might have believed and practiced.4 Even so, I do not think the Last Supper was a Passover Seder.
 


 
Read “Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible” by Lawrence Mykytiuk from the January/February 2015 issue of BAR >>
 

 

Jesus’ Last Supper in the Gospels

While three of the four canonical Gospels strongly suggest that the Last Supper did occur on Passover, we should not get too comfortable based on that. The three Gospels that support this view are the three synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke. As anyone who has studied these three Gospels knows, they are closely related. In fact, the name synoptic refers to the fact that these three texts can be studied most effectively when “seen together” (as implied in the Greek etymology of synoptic). Thus, in fact we don’t really have three independent sources here at all. What we have, rather, is one testimony (probably Mark), which was then copied twice (by Matthew and Luke).

Against the “single” testimony of the synoptics that the Last Supper was a Passover meal stands the lone Gospel of John, which dates the crucifixion to the “day of Preparation for the Passover” (John 19:14). According to John, Jesus died just when the Passover sacrifice was being offered and before the festival began at sundown (see the sidebar to this article). Any last meal—which John does not record—would have taken place the night before, or even earlier than that. But it certainly could not have been a Passover meal, for Jesus died before the holiday had formally begun.

So are we to follow John or the synoptics?5 There are a number of problems with the synoptic account. First, if the Last Supper had been a Seder held on the first night of Passover, then that would mean Jesus’ trial and crucifixion took place during the week-long holiday. If indeed Jewish authorities were at all involved in Jesus’ trial and death, then according to the synoptics those authorities would have engaged in activities—holding trials and carrying out executions—that were either forbidden or certainly unseemly to perform on the holiday. This is not the place to consider whether Jewish authorities were involved in Jesus’ death.6 Nor is it the place to consider whether such authorities would have been devout practitioners of Jewish law. But this is the place to point out that if ancient Jewish authorities had been involved in something that could possibly be construed as a violation of Jewish law, the Gospels—with their hatred of the Jewish authorities—would probably have made the most of it. The synoptic account stretches credulity, not just because it depicts something unlikely, but because it fails to recognize the unlikely and problematic nature of what it depicts. It is almost as if the synoptic tradition has lost all familiarity with contemporary Jewish practice. And if they have lost familiarity with that, they have probably lost familiarity with reliable historical information as well.

There are, of course, some reasons to doubt John’s account too. He may well have had theological motivations for claiming that Jesus was executed on the day of preparation when the Passover sacrifice was being offered but before Passover began at sundown. 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. Even so, John’s claim that Jesus was killed just before Passover began is more plausible than 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.

A Jewish Last Supper Celebration

What then of Jeremias’s long list of parallels? It turns out that under greater scrutiny the parallels are too general to be decisive. That Jesus ate a meal in Jerusalem, at night, with his disciples is not so surprising. It is also no great coincidence that during this meal the disciples reclined, ate both bread and wine, and sang a hymn. While such behavior may have been characteristic of the Passover meal, it is equally characteristic of practically any Jewish meal.

A number of scholars now believe that the ritual context for the Last Supper was not a Seder but a standard Jewish meal. That Christians celebrated the Eucharist on a daily or weekly basis (see Acts 2:46–47) underscores the fact that it was not viewed exclusively in a Passover context (otherwise, it would have been performed, like the Passover meal, on an annual basis).

An ancient Christian church manual called the Didache also suggests that the Last Supper may have been an ordinary Jewish meal. In Chapters 9 and 10 of the Didache, the eucharistic prayers are remarkably close to the Jewish Grace After Meals (Birkat ha-Mazon).7 While these prayers are recited after the Passover meal, they would in fact be recited at any meal at which bread was eaten, holiday or not. Thus, this too underscores the likelihood that the Last Supper was an everyday Jewish meal.

Moreover, while the narrative in the synoptics situates the Last Supper during Passover, the fact remains that the only foods we are told the disciples ate are bread and wine—the basic elements of any formal Jewish meal. If this was a Passover meal, where is the Passover lamb? Where are the bitter herbs? Where are the four cups of wine?a
 


 
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The Symbolic Explanation of the Bread and Wine at Passover and Jesus’ Last Supper

We are left with only one important parallel (Jeremias’s 14th) that can be explained in terms of a Seder: the surprising fact that Jesus at his Last Supper engaged in symbolic explanation of the bread and wine, just as Jews at the Seder engage in symbolic explanations, interpreting aspects of the Passover meal in light of the Exodus from Egypt: “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant’” (Matthew 26:26–28=Mark 14:22; see also Luke 22:19–20). Is this not a striking parallel to the ways in which Jews celebrating the Seder interpret, for example, the bitter herbs eaten with the Passover sacrifice as representing the bitter life the Israelites experienced as slaves in Egypt?

However, this last parallel between the Last Supper and the Passover Seder assumes that the Seder ritual we know today was celebrated in Jesus’ day. But this is hardly the case.

The Development of the Modern Passover Seder

When Jews today sit down to celebrate the Passover Seder, they use a book known as the Haggadah. The Hebrew word haggadah literally means “telling”; the title refers to the book’s purpose: to provide the ordered framework through which the story of Passover is told at the Seder. Telling the story of Passover is, of course, one of the fundamental purposes of the celebration, as stated in Exodus 13:8: “And you shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went forth from Egypt.’”

The text on this particular page from an illuminated Haggadah created by Zeev Raban (1890–1970) provides rabbinic commentary on a Biblical passage relating to Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. After discussing Jacob’s journey to Egypt, the text continues, “‘And he lived there’—this teaches that our father Jacob did not go to Egypt to settle there permanently, just temporarily, as it is written: ‘And the sons of Jacob said to Pharaoh: “We have come to live in this land temporarily, for there is no pasture for the flocks that belong to your servants, for the famine is harsh in the land of Canaan”’” (quoting Genesis 47:4). From the Raban Haggadah/Courtesy of Mali Doron.

The traditional text of the Haggadah as it exists today incorporates a variety of material, starting with the Bible, and running through medieval songs and poems. For many Jews (especially non-Orthodox Jews), the process of development continues, and many modern editions of the Haggadah contain contemporary readings of one sort or another. Even many traditional Jews have, for instance, adapted the Haggadah so that mention can be made of the Holocaust.8

How much of the Haggadah goes back to ancient times? In the 1930s and 1940s, the American Talmud scholar Louis Finkelstein (1895–1991) famously claimed that various parts of the Passover Haggadah were very early, stemming in part from the third century B.C.E.9 In 1960, Israeli scholar Daniel Goldschmidt (1895–1972) effectively rebutted practically all of Finkelstein’s claims. It is unfortunate that Goldschmidt’s Hebrew article has not been translated, because it remains, to my mind, the classic work on the early history of the Passover Haggadah.10 Fortunately, a number of brief and up-to-date treatments of the history of the Haggadah are now available.11 A full generation later, the Goldschmidt-Finkelstein debate seems to have been settled, and in Goldschmidt’s favor. Almost everyone doing serious work on the early history of Passover traditions, including Joseph Tabory, Israel Yuval, Lawrence Hoffman, and the father-son team of Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai, has rejected Finkelstein’s claims for the great antiquity of the bulk of the Passover Haggadah. What is particularly significant about this consensus is that these scholars are not radical skeptics. These scholars believe that, generally speaking, we can extract historically reliable information from rabbinic sources. But as demonstrated by the late Baruch Bokser in his book The Origins of the Seder, practically everything preserved in the early rabbinic traditions concerning the Passover Seder brings us back to the time immediately following the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.12 It’s not that rabbinic literature cannot be trusted to tell us about history in the first century of the Common Era. It’s that rabbinic literature—in the case of the Seder—does not even claim to be telling us how the Seder was performed before the destruction of the Temple.b

Let me elaborate on this proposition by examining the Haggadah’s requirement of explaining the Passover symbols:

Rabban Gamaliel used to say: Whoever does not make mention of the following three things on Passover has not fulfilled his obligation: namely, the Passover sacrifice, unleavened bread (matzah) and bitter herbs.

(1) The Passover sacrifice, which our ancestors used to eat at the time when the Holy Temple stood—what is the reason? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt. As it is said, “It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover…” (Exodus 12:27).

(2) The unleavened bread, which we eat—what is the reason? Because the dough of our ancestors had not yet leavened when the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He revealed Himself to them and redeemed them. As it is said, “And they baked unleavened cakes…” (Exodus 12:39).

(3) These bitter herbs, which we eat—what is the reason? Because the Egyptians made the lives of our ancestors bitter in Egypt. As it is said, “And they made their lives bitter…” (Exodus 1:14).

Rabban Gamaliel instructs his students in this illumination from the Sarajevo Haggadah. The Haggadah credits Gamaliel with introducing the requirement that the symbolic significance of the food served during the Seder be explained during the meal. Some scholars who assume the Last Supper was a Seder have suggested that Jesus deliberately explained the significance of the bread and wine in fulfillment of this requirement. But the requirement may not have even been in place in the time of Jesus. There were two leaders of the rabbinic academy called Gamaliel: One lived around the time of Jesus; the other, after the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. Sarajevo National Museum.

On first reading, Jeremias might appear to be correct: Jesus’ explanation of the bread and the wine does seem similar to Rabban Gamaliel’s explanation of the Passover symbols. Might not Jesus be presenting a competing interpretation of these symbols? Possibly. But it really depends on when this Rabban Gamaliel lived. If he lived later than Jesus, then it would make no sense to view Jesus’ words as based on Rabban Gamaliel’s.

Unfortunately for the contemporary historian, there were two rabbis named Gamaliel, both of whom bore the title “rabban” (which means “our master” and was usually applied to the head of the rabbinic academy). The first lived decadesbefore the destruction of the Temple, according to rabbinic tradition.13 It is this Gamaliel who is referred to in Acts 22:3, in which Paul is said to have claimed that he was educated “at the feet of Gamaliel.” The second Rabban Gamaliel was, according to rabbinic tradition, the grandson of the elder Gamaliel. This Gamaliel served as head of the rabbinic academy sometime after the destruction of the Temple. Virtually all scholars working today believe that the Haggadah tradition attributing the words quoted above to Gamaliel refers to the grandson, Rabban Gamaliel the Younger, who lived long after Jesus had died.14 One piece of evidence for this appears in the text quoted above, in which Rabban Gamaliel is said to have spoken of the time “when the Temple was still standing”—as if that time had already passed. Furthermore, as Baruch Bokser has shown, the bulk of early rabbinic material pertaining to the Passover Haggadah is attributed in the Haggadah itself to figures who lived immediately following the destruction of the Temple (and were therefore contemporaries of Gamaliel the Younger). Finally, a tradition preserved in the Tosefta (a rabbinic companion volume to the earliest rabbinic lawbook, the Mishnah, edited perhaps in the third or fourth century) suggests that Gamaliel the Younger played some role in Passover celebrations soon after the Temple was destroyed, when animal sacrifices could for this reason no longer be offered.15

Thus, the Passover Seder as we know it developed after 70 C.E. I wish we could know more about how the Passover meal was celebrated before the Temple was destroyed. But unfortunately, our sources do not answer this question with any certainty. Presumably, Jesus and his disciples would have visited the Temple to slaughter their Passover sacrifice. Then they would have consumed it along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, as required by the Book of Exodus. And presumably they would have engaged in conversation pertinent to the occasion. But we cannot know for sure.
 


 
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Why the Synoptic Gospels Portray the Last Supper as a Passover Meal

Having determined that the Last Supper was not a Seder and that it probably did not take place on Passover, I must try to account for why the synoptic Gospels portray the Last Supper as a Passover meal. Of course, the temporal proximity of Jesus’ crucifixion (and with it, the Last Supper) to the Jewish Passover provides one motive: Surely this historical coincidence could not be dismissed as just that.

Another motive relates to a rather practical question: Within a few years after Jesus’ death, Christian communities (which at first consisted primarily of Jews) began to ask when, how and even whether they should celebrate or commemorate the Jewish Passover.16 This was a question not only early on, but throughout the time of the so-called Quartodeciman controversy. The Quartodecimans (the 14-ers) were Christians who believed that the date of Easter should be calculated so as to coincide with the Jewish celebration of Passover, whether or not that date fell on a Sunday. The Jewish calendar was (and is) lunar, and therefore there is always a full moon on the night of the Passover Seder, that is, the night following the 14th of Nisan. But that night is not always a Saturday night. The Quartodeciman custom of celebrating Easter beginning on the evening following the 14th day apparently began relatively early in Christian history and persisted at least into the fifth century C.E. The alternate view—that Easter must be on a Sunday, regardless of the day on which the Jewish Passover falls—ultimately prevailed. Possibly the Gospels’ disagreements about the timing of the Last Supper were the result of these early Christian disputes about when Easter should be celebrated. After all, if you wanted to encourage Christians to celebrate Easter on Passover, would it not make sense to emphasize the fact that Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples just before he died?

Related to the question of when Christians should recall Jesus’ last days was a question of how they should be recalled. Early on, a number of Christians—Quartodecimans and others—felt that the appropriate way to mark the Jewish Passover was not with celebration, but with fasting. On the one hand, this custom reflected an ancient Jewish tradition of fasting during the time immediately preceding the Passover meal (as related in Mishnah Pesachim 10:1). On the other hand, distinctively Christian motives for this fast can also be identified, from recalling Jesus’ suffering on the cross to praying for the eventual conversion of the Jews.17

Jesus is the Paschal lamb in the Gospel of John, which associates the crucifixion, rather than the Last Supper, with the Passover festival. According to John, Jesus died on the “day of Preparation for the Passover” (John 19:14), when the Passover sacrifice was being offered but before the festival began at sundown.
In Matthias Gruenewald’s altarpiece (1510–1516) for the monastery of Isenheim, Germany (but now in the Unterlinden Museum, in Colmar), the crucified Jesus is explicitly linked with the Paschal sacrifice. To the right of the cross stands a wounded lamb, which carries a cross and bleeds into a chalice. The disciple whom Jesus loved comforts Jesus’ mother at left. Mary Magdalene kneels at the foot of the cross, her alabaster ointment jar beside her. At right, John the Baptist points to Jesus. His prediction that Jesus will overtake him (“He must increase, but I must decrease,” John 3:30) is inscribed beside him in Latin. Giraudon/Art Resource, NY.

The German New Testament scholar Karl Georg Kuhn has argued that the Gospel of Luke places the Last Supper in a Passover context in order to convince Christians not to celebrate Passover. He notes that the synoptic Last Supper tradition attributes to Jesus a rather curious statement of abstinence: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Paschal lamb with you before I suffer, for I tell you that I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God…[and] I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:15–18; cf. Mark 14:25 [“I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God”]=Matthew 26:29). The synoptics’ placement of the Last Supper in a Passover context should be read along with Jesus’ statement on abstinence; in this view, the tradition that the Last Supper was a Passover meal argues that Christians should mark the Passover not by celebrating, but by fasting, because Jesus has already celebrated his last Passover.18 Thus, until Jesus’ kingdom is fulfilled, Christians should not celebrate at all during Passover.

New Testament scholar Bruce Chilton recently presented an alternate theory. He argues that the identification of the Last Supper with a Passover Seder originated among Jewish Christians who were attempting to maintain the Jewish character of early Easter celebrations.19 By calling the Last Supper a Passover meal, these Jewish-Christians were trying to limit Christian practice in three ways. Like the Passover sacrifice, the recollection of the Last Supper could only be celebrated in Jerusalem, at Passover time, and by Jews.c

Without deciding between these two contradictory alternatives (though Kuhn’s is in my mind more convincing), we can at least agree that there are various reasons why the early church would have tried to “Passoverize” the Last Supper tradition.20 Placing the Last Supper in the context of Passover was a literary tool in early Christian debates about whether or not and how Christians should celebrate Passover.

Other examples of Passoverization can be identified. The Gospel of John, as previously noted, and Paul (1 Corinthians 5:7–8) equate Jesus’ crucifixion with the Passover sacrifice: “Our Paschal lamb, Christ has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” This too is a Passoverization of the Jesus tradition, but it is one that contradicts the identification of the Last Supper with the Seder or Passover meal.

Both of these Passoverizations can be placed in the broader context of Exodus typology in general. W.D. Davies and N.T. Wright have argued that various New Testament sources depict the events of Jesus’ life as a new Exodus. Early Christians interpreted Jesus’ life and death in light of the ancient Jewish narrative of redemption par excellence, the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Surely the depiction of the Last Supper as a Passover observance could play a part in this larger effort of arguing that Jesus’ death echoes the Exodus from Egypt.21

This process of Passoverization did not end with the New Testament. The second-century bishop Melito of Sardis (in Asia Minor) once delivered a widely popular Paschal sermon, which could well be called a “Christian Haggadah,” reflecting at great length on the various connections between the Exodus story and the life of Jesus.22

Passoverization can even be found in the Middle Ages. Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic custom of using unleavened wafers in the Mass is medieval in origin. The Orthodox churches preserve the earlier custom of using leavened bread.23 Is it not possible to see the switch from using leavened to unleavened bread as a “Passoverization” of sorts?

Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder? Most likely, it was not.

 


 
Interested in Jesus’ Judaism? The Bible History Daily post “Was Jesus a Jew?” includes the full article “What Price the Uniqueness of Jesus?: To wrench Jesus out of his Jewish world destroys Jesus and destroys Christianity.” by Anthony J. Saldarini as it originally appeared in Bible Review.
 

 

When Passover Begins: The Synoptics versus John

14th of Nisan
(Ending at Sundown)
15th of Nisan
(Beginning at Sundown)
Day of Preparation
for Passover.
Passover lamb
sacrificed in late
afternoon.
Passover holiday
begins and a festive
Seder meal is held at
night. Passover lamb
is consumed.
Matthew 26–27,

Mark 14–15

and Luke 22–23
Jesus and his disciples
prepare for Passover.
Jesus and his disciples

hold a Last Supper at

the time of the Passover

Seder. Jesus is arrested

that night.
He is killed the next morning, which is

the day of the 15th

of Nisan.
John 19 Jesus crucified while

the Passover lambs are

being sacrificed.
(The Last Supper is not

mentioned by John, but

it would have taken

place the night before

the crucifixion or even

earlier.)

 


 
Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?” by Jonathan Klawans originally appeared in Bible Review, October 2001.
 

 
klawansJonathan Klawans is professor of religion at Boston University. He is the author of Josephus and the Theologies of Ancient Judaism (Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009) and Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), which received the Salo Wittmayer Baron Prize for the best first book in Jewish studies.
 

 

Notes

a. Some may also ask, where is the unleavened bread? The Gospels do not specify that Jesus fed his disciples unleavened bread, which is what Jews would eat at Passover. This however does not preclude the possibility that Jesus used unleavened bread at the Last Supper, as Jews commonly refer to unleavened bread (called in Hebrew, matzah) as simply “bread.” See, for example, Deuteronomy 16:3 and Nahum N. Glatzer, The Passover Haggadah (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), pp. 24, 64.

b. See Baruch Bokser, “Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder?” Bible Review, Summer 1987.

c. See Bruce Chilton, “The Eucharist—Exploring Its Origins,” Bible Review, December 1994.

1. The book first appeared in 1935 and was revised and translated various times after that. The 14 parallels are listed in the 1960 third edition, which was translated into English in 1966. See Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, 3rd ed. (London: SCM Press, 1966), esp. pp. 42–61. His 14 parallels may be summarized as follows: (1) The Last Supper took place in Jerusalem, (2) in a room made available to pilgrims for that purpose, and (3) it was held during the night. (4) Jesus celebrated that meal with his “family” of disciples; and (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 and (9) this wine was red. (10) There were last-minute preparations for the meal, after which (11) alms were given, and (12) a hymn was sung. (13) Jesus and his disciples then remained in Jerusalem. Finally, (14) Jesus discussed the symbolic significance of the meal, just as Jews do during the Passover Seder. For brief surveys summarizing the question see Robert F. O’Toole, “Last Supper,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1992), vol. 4, pp. 235–236 and Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), pp. 423–427.

2. For a representative statement denying the historicity of the Last Supper traditions, see Robert W. Funk and The Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 139.

3. For an excellent treatment of what we can and cannot know of the historical Jesus, see the recent book by my colleague Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).

4. For an excellent summary of Judaism in Jesus’ time—one which makes judicious use of rabbinic evidence—see E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 B.C.E.–66 C.E. (London: SCM Press, 1992). For more on the use of rabbinic sources, see Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977), esp. pp. 59–84.

5. There are those who attempt to harmonize John and the synoptics by supposing that they disagreed not about when the Last Supper occurred, but about whether the date of Passover was supposed to be calculated by following a solar calendar or a lunar one. Annie Jaubert presents this theory in her book, The Date of the Last Supper (Staten Island: Alba House, 1965). This view cannot be accepted, however. It is too difficult to conceive of Passover having been celebrated twice in the same place without any contemporary or even later writer referring to such an event. Surely it would have been remarkable if two Passovers were held in the same week! Moreover, while we do know of solar calendars from the Book of Jubilees and the Temple Scroll, we do not know how any of these calendars really worked. Jubilees’s calendar, for instance, explicitly prohibits any form of intercalation (the adding of extra days in a leap year). And without intercalation, by Jesus’ time, Jubilees’s 364-day solar calendar would be off not just by days, but by months. It is only by hypothesizing some manner of intercalation that we can even come up with the possibility that in Jesus’ time the two calendars were both functioning, but off by just a few days. Thus in the end, Jaubert’s book presents a good theory, but it remains just that, a theory. For more on these questions, see James C. VanderKam, Calendars in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Measuring Time (London: Routledge, 1998).

6. On the question of Jewish authorities and their role in Jesus’ death, see John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995).

7. For more on the parallels between the Didache and the Jewish Birkat ha-Mazon, see Enrico Mazza, The Celebration of the Eucharist: The Origin of the Rite and the Development of Its Interpretation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999), esp. pp. 19–26 (where he discusses these parallels) and pp. 307–309 (where he provides translations of the texts).

8. A useful version of the traditional text of the Haggadah, with introduction and translation, can be found in the widely available edition of Nahum N. Glatzer, The Passover Haggadah (New York: Schocken Books, 1981). Those interested in appreciating how the Haggadah brings together material from various historical periods might look at Jacob Freedman, Polychrome Historical Haggadah for Passover (Springfield, MA: Jacob Freedman Liturgy Research Foundation, 1974).

9. Finkelstein published his theories in three articles: “The Oldest Midrash: Pre-Rabbinic Ideals and Teachings in the Passover Haggadah,” Harvard Theological Review (HTR) 31 (1938), pp. 291–317; “Pre-Maccabean Documents in the Passover Haggadah (Part 1),” HTR 35 (1942), pp. 291–332; and “Pre-Maccabean Documents in the Passover Haggadah (Part 2),” HTR 36 (1943), pp. 1–38. Glatzer summarizes some of Finkelstein’s claims in The Passover Haggadah, pp. 39–42.

10. Goldschmidt, The Passover Haggadah: Its Sources and History (in Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1960). Glatzer’s edition of the Haggadah (cited above) is based in part on Goldschmidt’s research, but the first edition of Glatzer’s Haggadah was published in 1953, years before Goldschmidt’s final 1960 version of his article.

11. See especially the collection of essays, Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Times, ed. Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence A. Hoffman (Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1999). Those who read Hebrew will want to consult Shmuel Safrai and Ze’ev Safrai, Haggadah of the Sages: The Passover Haggadah (in Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Carta, 1998).

12. Baruch Bokser, The Origins of the Seder (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984).

13. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sabbath, 15a.

14. This view can be traced back well into the middle ages—it is advocated in a 14th-century Haggadah commentary by Rabbi Simeon ben Zemach Duran. This view has also been advocated more recently by, among others, Daniel Goldschmidt, Joseph Tabory, Israel Yuval and Baruch Bokser. Bokser, Origins of the Seder, pp. 41–43, 79–80, and 119 n. 13; Goldschmidt, Passover Haggadah, pp. 51–53. See also the articles by Joseph Tabory and Israel Yuval in Passover and Easter, esp. pp. 68–69 (Tabory) and pp. 106–107 (Yuval). Goldschmidt, Tabory and Yuval go even one step further, suggesting that Jeremias had it backwards. It was not that Jesus was reinterpreting a prior Jewish tradition. Rather, Rabban Gamaliel the Younger required the explanation of the Passover symbols as a way of countering Christian manipulation of these symbols.

15. Tosefta Pesahim 10:12; see Bokser, Origins of the Seder, pp. 41–43, 79–80.

16. Jeremias, Eucharistic Words, pp. 66 and 122–125.

17. On the Quartodecimans and on fasting before Easter, see Bradshaw, “The Origins of Easter” in Bradshaw and Hoffman, Passover and Easter, pp. 81–97.

18. See Karl Georg Kuhn, “The Lord’s Supper and the Communal Meal at Qumran,” in The Scrolls and the New Testament, Krister Stendahl, ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), pp. 65–93. Kuhn builds here on work of B. Lohse, published in German (and cited in his article). See also Jeremias, Eucharistic Words, pp. 216–218.

19. Bruce Chilton, A Feast of Meanings: Eucharistic Theologies from Jesus Through Johannine Circles (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994), esp. pp. 93–108.

20. The term “Passoverize” is used by Mazza, in his brief treatment of the issue; see Celebration of the Eucharist, pp. 24–26.

21. See especially W.D. Davies, Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1964), pp. 25–92.

22. Commonly entitled “On the Passover,” the sermon survives in numerous copies and fragments in Coptic, Greek, Syriac, Latin and Georgian. The oldest copy, from the third or early fourth century, is in Coptic. See James E. Goehring and William W. Willis, “On the Passover by Melito of Sardis,” in The Crosby-Schoyen Codex MS 193, James E. Goehring, ed. (Leuven [Louvain]: Peeters, 1999).

23. On the medieval debate between the Catholic and Orthodox churches on this matter, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 2, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600–1700) (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 177–178. On the archaeological evidence pertaining to this dispute, see George Galavaris, Bread and the Liturgy: The Symbolism of Early Christian and Byzantine Bread Stamps (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1970).
 


 

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  1. David says

    I have known for quite some time that the, “Biblical Archaeological Review,” was a very liberal magazine but if I had any doubts about that, you have removed them all. For you to call people from the Jesus Seminar as scholars really takes the cake. You totally lost my attention at that point. What a bunch of poppy cock.

  2. SKFinston says

    Actually, apart from the first day and the last day, there is no prohibition on ordinary work activities during Passover. I point this out because the author places a great deal of emphasis on the mistaken assumption that this is not the case:

    “First, if the Last Supper had been a Seder held on the first night of Passover, then that would mean Jesus’ trial and crucifixion took place during the week-long holiday. If indeed Jewish authorities were at all involved in Jesus’ trial and death, then according to the synoptics those authorities would have engaged in activities—holding trials and carrying out executions—that were either forbidden or certainly unseemly to perform on the holiday … The synoptic account stretches credulity, not just because it depicts something unlikely, but because it fails to recognize the unlikely and problematic nature of what it depicts. It is almost as if the synoptic tradition has lost all familiarity with contemporary Jewish practice. And if they have lost familiarity with that, they have probably lost familiarity with reliable historical information as well.”

    In this context, it would appear that it is the author who has lost (or more likely never had) familiarity with the contemporary and continuing Jewish practice of Passover, as laid out in the Torah, where it is only the first day and the seventh day that are holy days where there can be no work:

    4 And this day shall be unto you for a memorial, and ye shall keep it a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever. 15 Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; howbeit the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel. 16 And in the first day there shall be to you a holy convocation, and in the seventh day a holy convocation; no manner of work shall be done in them, save that which every man must eat, that only may be done by you.’ {P} (Exodus, Chapter 12)

    http://www.mechon-mamre.org/e/et/et0212.htm

    Accordingly, there is no reason to doubt the synoptic accounts on the basis of the fact that they place the arrest, trial and death of Jesus as taking place during Passover.

  3. Scott says

    Jesus was preparing for the evening beginning the 14th. He did not intend to have a full passover meal which I assume you call a Seder meal. Since Jesus was to be the “sacrificial lamb” to be offered on the following day of the 14th, he did not offer anything but the wine symbolizing the acceptance of the blood he was sacrificing for them and all mankind, and the bread, symbolizing his body being accepted as sacrificed for not only the Apostles, but all mankind, as was God’s plan from the days of Moses and Abraham. After his death, the passover meal of the lamb, bitter greens, and unleavened bread took place, commemorating the passover angel and the departure of Israel after daybreak at some time. So it was not a seder meal. It was the establishment of the new amended covenant long promised by Moses near to Deut. 28 or 30 or so. Since all mankind was now released from the sin of Adam, if they so chose, all would commemorate the emblems of the wine and bread on the evening that began the 14th. And at Pentecost, Jesus presented his bodily sacrifice to God in heaven, so that the body may never be seen again. The spirit of God was then poured out on those gathered that day of Pentecost as evidence of the transfer of blessings from the priesthood to those who accepted Jesus as the messiah of Jehovah/Yahweh/Yahuweh.

  4. Scott says

    Passover seems to be used loosely in the gospels, as covering the whole 7 days of unleavened bread. So for one to assume passover in the gospels is just referring to the 15th, at its start in the evening, would be a mistake. The 14th was the preparation for the 15th meal, which is why the lamb was slaughtered in the 14th in the day, preceding the evening start of the 15th. Lawyers make terrible investigators and historians, since they like to misplace emphasis in order to twist and distort, thereby enhancing what they promote, while belittling any other view point offered. this was the technique of the Greek Stoics as well. But if we are objectively looking for truth, we must dispose of prejudiced techniques in favor of ones that are unbiased and objective, so as to produce a more sound conclusion.

  5. Glen says

    The Seder not in existence yet, indeed! The only logical conclusion to draw from Klawans’ hypothesis (if you buy into it) is that whoever invented Judaism must have drawn heavily upon the New Testament in putting the Seder together!

  6. D says

    Note about two holy days at the beginning and end of Passover. Some commenters on here are confused about this.

    In the land of Israel, including Jerusalem, Passover takes and has always taken seven days. The first and last day are the holy days, when work is forbidden. Days 2-6 are intermediate days, when work is allowed. The seder takes place on the first evening, the beginning of the first day. There is only one seder. This is how the holiday is described in the Bible.

    In the Diaspora, because of the uncertainty of an observed and announced calendar (the rules predate the introduction of a calculated calendar), the entire holiday takes eight days. The first two and last two are the holy days, when work is forbidden. Days 3-6 are intermediate days, when work is allowed. The seder takes place twice, on the first and second evenings, the beginnings of the first and second days.

    Any discussion relevant to Jesus and the Last Supper, taking place in Jerusalem, would automatically have to be based on the first case, not the second. There would be only one holy day at the start, and only one seder.

  7. Chris says

    Jonathan,

    Thanx for an interesting read. This is the kind of summary I appreciate, b/c it includes the historical facts. One thing I esp. appreciate is your acknowledging the unreliability of the ancient “rabbinic” sources for defining issues, due to the vagueness involved. That is a critical point. Therein lies much of the confusion when attempting to re-create the ancient world.

    However, some experts, like David Flusser and his contemporaries, do a fine job of sorting through the “ancient authorities”, and use pieces of them to make sense out of the NT ‘traditions’. Their material is priceless.

    I have to disagree w/you on your thesis, that the “Eucharistic meal” was not part of Pesach. I am convinced that it was, based on the statements in the synoptics. Even Flusser would agree w/me on historical grounds. Remember: An argument from silence is no argument.

    One thing I wish you would have addressed more clearly:

    What is the factual explanation for the disagreement between John’s gospel and the synoptics, regarding the timing of “the last supper”? And what historical evidence is that based on?

    The only thing I can think of, based on something I read in George Foot Moore’s, “Judaism in the first Centuries of the Christian Era”, is “the day of preparation” wasn’t just one day. But I haven’t had time to look any further into the meaning and historical reality of that phrase/term. Maybe you can, considering your professional position and abilities?

    Flusser also make an interesting point about which synoptic writer was the “source” for the “synoptics tradition”: Luke. His reasons also drive my preference on this issue. You can read his article in “Judaism and the Origins of Christianity”.

    If there’s one thing I wish you did, which is the same thing I wish all Christian professional educators and scholars would do, is quit calling the NT’s 2nd Temple history a “religion”, and begin call it what it was: POLITICS & LAW. I believe the sooner we get our heads into that reality, and out of our emotions and Christian traditions, the sooner we’ll all come to terms w/the truths conveyed in the NT.

    Thanx again for posting this enjoyable read! … Chris

  8. Larry says

    When the Israelites first left Egypt, they used Egyptian timekeeping, which did not change the date until midnight. So lots of confusion comes from thinking the DATE changed at sundown when the sabbath began. Thus the passover meal was always described as occurring on the 14th after sundown. But at midnight, the date changed to the 15th. That’s why the date the Israelites leave Egypt is the 15th and the daytime celebration of the day they left Egypt is held on the 15th. (Numbers 33:3).

    A second issue is the misinterpretation of John 19:14′s reference to “preparation for passover.” “Preparation” is a specific term in relation to a sabbath day, whether a Saturday or a special “high sabbath.” There were two special “high sabbaths” during passover week and thus two special preparation days for passover. So John 19:14 is not a reference to the passover seder but to the preparation day for the second high sabbath of passover week. Thus “passover” was a very general term for anything related to events of the entire week. So “preparation for passover” is a specific reference to the day before one of the passover “high sabbaths” which were held on the 1st and 7th days of UFC. Thus the confusion comes when “preparation for passover” is not understood as a preparation day before a sabbath.

    When “preparation for passover” is understood to be one of two days of preparation for the “high sabbaths” of passover week, you have a choice of Nisan 14th or Nisan 20th for the date of Jesus’ death. Since Jesus was arrested on the 15th, there is no other choice here but to date Jesus’ death on Nisan 20th, the preparation day before the passover high sabbath of the 21st. In 33 CE this would have been a Thursday. Supporting this is the reference in Matthew that says Jesus was in the grave for “three nights” which would require him to die on a Thursday as he rose on the first day of the week, the day after a sabbath.

    In order for him to be in the grave for “three nights” and also to die on a day of preparation before a high sabbath and to rise the day after a sabbath, you must have two sabbath days in a row. In 33 CE, indeed, there were two sabbath days in a row, Friday the 21st and Saturday the 22nd. Therefore, there is really no contradiction between John and the Synoptics. Jesus ate the passover meal as the Last Supper on Friday after sundown, Nisan 14th. The passover meal ended precisely at midnight when the date changed to the 15th. Jesus was arrested on the 15th and came before the Sanhedrin at sunrise. He was taken before Pilate the first time just before noon (i.e. “but early”/de proi which means just before the early evening watch which bean at noon). When Pilate discovered Jesus was from Galilee, he sent him to Herod who was not expecting him. Of note, when the Jews said they did not want to enter the palace of Herod so as not to be defiled because they wanted to eat “passover”, this would have been understood as another official “passover” week event, which would have been the special meal and celebration held at the temple on the 15th, mandated by Jewish tradition for a special celebration on Nisan 15th.

    That week a prisoner was to be released and this was apparently set up for Wednesday, Nisan 19th. Thus Herod returned Jesus to Pilate on Wednesday morning, Nisan 19th. This is when they became friends. Jesus was condemned on Wednesday, Nisan 19th and impaled later that night at the “third hour” at 9 p.m. It was now the day of “preparation for passover” meaning preparation for the passover sabbath of the 21st. Jesus died at the ninth hour, 3 p.m. on Thursday, Nisan 20th. He remained in the grave for “three nights” — Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday night.

    There is no conflict in the gospels over when Jesus died, just lack of insight into usage of the term “passover” during Jesus’ time, which was a term used broadly to apply to the entire festival, not just the Seder.

  9. Wayne says

    @1. David: Wow! Where’s the love? “Knowledge puffs up, but LOVE builds up” ‘brother’ David. They will know that we are disciples of Jesus by our LOVE for one another, not by our arrogant (and ignorant) attacks on one another. I never got that Jonathan was giving kudos to the Jesus Seminar from reading his comments. That he called them ‘scholars’ simply identifies them as a group that considers themselves knowledgeable on the Scriptures, just like I referred to you as ‘brother’ – not because there’s any evidence that you are one.

    @Jonathan: First of all, I would just like to thank you for your thorough job of covering this topic. I think you’ve come to the right conclusion using some good logic; even if perhaps some of your assertions about the historic aspects of the passover celebration aren’t perfectly accurate (I don’t pretend to know, but judging by all of the ‘experts’ that have chimed in there seems to be some room for debate).

    Whenever I’ve read the passages that talk about Jesus’ disciples being sent to prepare for the Passover, I’ve always wondered why there was no mention of them killing and roasting a lamb. The only victuals mentioned are bread, dipping sauce & wine. Then as I was reading your article, it occurred to me that there is a perfectly wonderful verse that, for me, resolves the question without all of the scholarly calisthenics: John 13:29

    “27 Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” 28 Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29 Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor.” – Jhn 13:27-29 ESV

    If this episode had occurred at the passover Seder, no such supposition would have ever entered into the minds of the Disciples. Ta da! Good enough for me. :-)

  10. Rick says

    Most comments above are ridiculous. Passover is only a single day. Klawans theory is a theory of a clown.

  11. Rick says

    Sorry, I should have said that Klawans is not a creditable source of information on this topic.

  12. Chris says

    I respectly disagree with your conclusions because all the evidence you presented especially from a biblical perspective to the modern customs show that you are wrong on several levels. Much like you are wrong to accuse the Jews as the only ones who held sabbaths around the moon. When we know that the audience where pagan of origin and not Jewish in the works of Timothy. We know witches and pagans as well as the gnostics and kabbalist held sabbaths too. That is why I am saying your dead wrong and assuming that Christianity had a parting before 400 AD is a far stretch that modern scholarship has proven wrong as well. We know they were talking to the Sethians and other forms of Platonic Paganism that made it into the Church it was not always demonizing the Jews as you would have us think the evidence that James or even the book of Hebrews was cannonized shows how wrong you are!

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