Rabbis Yehiel Poupko and David Sandmel’s recent article, “Jesus Didn’t Eat a Seder Meal,” in Christianity Today was written in response to the increasing interest of Christians in Passover and the celebration by some of Christian seders. Certainly, this phenomenon deserves exploration and comment. But I am not so sure that Rabbis Poupko and Sandmel’s response is the kind that is needed.
The authors explain Christian interest in Passover as partly due to American freedom. Yet more foundationally it coincides with the rediscovery that Christian faith is a tree that springs from Jewish roots—as the authors, in fact, suggest. It is not merely “innate human curiosity” but a realization that Christianity is a fulfillment of Jewish hopes, centered on a Jewish Messiah, a hope that included the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on the part of the nations of the world, i.e. non-Jews. For many Christians, this realization has given new depth to their faith.
Is it then a good thing or a bad thing that some Christians want to celebrate a seder? Is it good or bad for the Jews? To put it in other terms, is it a kiddush haShem or a chillul haShem (a sanctification of God’s name or a desecration of the same)?
The authors find the recent tradition of church seders “particularly troubling,” though whether “most Jews” will agree with them is a moot point. There are few things that most Jews agree on, and attending church seders probably does not head the list. But what is it that troubles the authors?
First, they offer the matter of history. The seder as we know it, they write, did not exist in Jesus’ day. Well, no one is about to argue otherwise. In his seminal book, The Origins of the Seder, Baruch Bokser wrote that the seder as described in the Mishnah—from whence the modern seder evolved—represents “the need to overcome the loss of the temple.”1 In other words, Passover post-70 is quite different than Passover pre-70. And the seder has continued to evolve: the custom of breaking and hiding the afikoman is unknown to the Mishnah.
What Jesus did was a pre-70 Passover ritual, whether explicitly called a seder at that time or not. There was lamb, matzah and bitter herbs. There were cups; the gospels tell of two, but we know that Mishnaic traditions often went back to earlier times, so we can reasonably suppose that there were four. In any event the presence of “cups” shows that traditions had already accrued beyond the bare essentials mandated in Exodus for the Passover observance. There was the singing of the Hallel, as Matthew 26 reports that the disciples “sung a hymn” and then “went out to the Mount of Olives.” In other words, they concluded their Passover with the Hallel Psalms. All this is a reasonable reading of the gospels. To what extent they told the story of the Exodus we don’t know, but we can hardly imagine that the origins of Passover were absent from the Jewish observance of that day.
It becomes rather moot, then, whether it is proper to describe Jesus’ Passover meal as a seder. It was a proto-seder, a pre-70 seder, a seder-in-formation; it was seder-like, it was seder-ish, it was kind-of-like-a-seder, it had elements of a seder—any way you put it, seder is the most relevant way to speak of it. That, certainly, is how Joseph Klausner repeatedly describes it in his Jesus of Nazareth. It wasn’t Rabban Gamaliel’s seder, but neither was his seder my grandfather’s. Seder is as seder does.
Beyond terminology, the authors make the point that at the Last Supper, the focus of Passover on the events of Exodus “takes a back seat” to Jesus’ new expression of faith, in which he created a new ritual. Theologically speaking, that’s not really on target (apart from the fact that Judaism has always created “new expressions of faith” down through the millennia). Correctly, the authors note that “the Jewish Passover meal inaugurates the Jewish people into its history.” That history, however, comes to be expressed in hopes for continued and ultimate redemption, as witnessed by the reusage and the reimagination of Exodus imagery by the biblical prophets. The messianic hope came to be an expression both of a final, climactic exodus and the desire for a renewed Davidic king: an event and a person. The authors recognize this when they go on to speak of the hope for redemption from exile.
Yet the New Testament claims to realize those same hopes in the person of Jesus. That is, he fulfills the hopes of the Jewish people, which is a hope that from the beginning was meant to encompass all nations (Genesis 12:3 is one of the earliest hints of this). Whatever newness Jesus brought must not obscure that the New Testament views itself as a continuation of the same story as in the Hebrew Bible, and the fulfillment of the same.
On to the authors’ next point, that Christian adaptation of Passover shows a “lack of respect.” Conversely, they say, Jews who encourage Christian seders fail to show respect to and understanding of Christian faith. But the Christian faith is not to Jewish faith as Christianity is to Hinduism, or Judaism to Shintoism. The Christian faith arises fully out of Jewish soil; to reiterate, Jesus fulfills Jewish hopes, which included the hope of the Gentiles coming to know the God of Israel.
This is why the Apostle Paul can write in Ephesians 2:12-13, “Remember that you [Gentiles] were at that time separated from Messiah, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Messiah Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Messiah” (substituting “Messiah” for “Christ” to drive home the point). In other words, Gentiles who come to faith in Jesus do not replace Israel and do not negate God’s covenants with Israel but have been brought near to Israel and to those covenants. This too is a fulfillment of Israel’s own hope.
Given all this, one can also view Christian seders as showing not only respect for the Jewish faith, but also a warranted participation in the Bible’s own construal of Jewish and non-Jewish history. The Old Testament has for two thousand years been a dual possession of Judaism and the Church. (Sometimes I call the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible by the name my Jewish family used when I grew up; to me Old Testament always sounded more epic and grander than New Testament). Given that reality, one cannot simply write off Christian Passovers as an infringement of a Jewish possession. One could even argue that a Christian seder shows more respect to the Jewish people than does a Jewish seder in which everyone just wonders how much they can skip before they get to eat.
For various reasons, not necessarily mine, we find rabbis such as Evan Moffic (What Every Christian Needs to Know About Passover)2 encouraging Christian seders and providing resources for the same. Perhaps, in the name of interreligious understanding, it is time to recognize the unremovable Jewish scaffolding that upholds and constructs the Christian faith, and the part that the Passover story plays in that.
1. Baruch M. Bokser, The Origins of the Seder: The Passover Rite and Early Rabbinic Judaism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 3.
2. Subtitle: What It Means and Why It Matters (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014).