Passover in Jesus’ day was a bit different.
by Rich Robinson | April 11 2017
Like most Jews, I grew up celebrating Passover with my parents and other relatives. I enjoyed the continuity of family and community history that I plugged into every year. And then of course, there was the food!
When I began following Jesus, I discovered the account of his own Passover celebration known to Christians as the Last Supper—one of the most remembered and ritualized events in all of human history. That fact raises all kinds of questions: Did Jesus actually celebrate Passover the way Jewish people do today? Did he participate in a Seder, similar to what I grew up with? Should his followers today be remembering this event in a “more Jewish” way?
In the last few decades, there has been a growing number of Christians who are interested in the celebrations surrounding Passover; some churches are even holding “Christian Seders.”1 For some in the Jewish community, this has been a matter for concern, while others are encouraging Christians to engage with the holiday and even to hold church Seders.
The former viewpoint is represented by Rabbis Yehiel Poupko and David Sandmel, who, in 2017, published an article entitled “Jesus Didn’t Eat a Seder Meal” with the subhead “Why Christians Shouldn’t Either.”2 Poupko and Sandmel offered two reasons why Christians should not conduct Seders: first, Seders as we know them did not exist in Jesus’ day, and second, Christians Seders take the focus off the Exodus and put it onto Jesus. Others have voiced similar concerns about Christian participation in the traditional Seder.3
But earlier, in 2014, Reform Rabbi Evan Moffic weighed in with his book What Every Christian Needs to Know About Passover,4 taking the exact opposite viewpoint by encouraging Christians to conduct Seders and providing resources to do just that.
Who is right? Is it problematic that some Christians want to celebrate a Seder? Are Christian Seders a form of “cultural appropriation”? Or are they a welcomed addition in our pluralistic religious society? Is it “good for the Jews” when Christians participate in an age-old Jewish tradition? In more religious terms, is it a kiddush haShem or a chillul haShem (“a sanctification of God’s name or a desecration”)?
It is certainly true that the Seder you and I are familiar with today did not exist in Jesus’ day. In his seminal book The Origins of the Seder, Baruch Bokser wrote that the Seder as described in the Mishnah represents “the need to overcome the loss of the temple.”5 In other words, Passover post-AD 70 is quite different than Passover pre-AD 70. And the Seder has continued to evolve. The custom of breaking and hiding the afikoman, for example, is unknown to the Mishnah.
What Jesus and his 12 apostles did was a pre-AD 70 Passover ritual, whether explicitly called a Seder at that time or not. Three of the first four books of the New Testament (known as the Gospels) identify the Last Supper as a Passover meal.6 There would have been lamb, matzah, and bitter herbs. There were cups; the Gospels tell of two, but we know that many Mishnaic traditions go 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 the Exodus for the Passover observance.
If there were four cups used in the first century, then the Gospel account in Luke appears to begin with the kiddush, “the first cup”:
He took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves.” (Luke 22:17)
We do not know exactly what form “giving thanks” would have taken at that date. Today, we would recite, “Baruch atah Adonai, Elohenu melech ha-olam, borei pri hagafen,” “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.”
The bread would have been matzah, the prescribed “unleavened bread”:
He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19–20)
Again, we don’t know the form of the prayer of thanksgiving, which today is “Baruch atah Adonai, Elohenu, melech ha-olm, ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz,” “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”
Luke notes that there was a cup “after they had eaten,” which would be the third cup. What is interesting is that Jesus gives a new meaning to the bread and the wine, a meaning not to be found in today’s haggadot.7
In Matthew, we see other symbolic actions in line with a typical Seder meal:
As they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me.” (Matthew 26:21–23)
Dipping is part of the Passover evening and forms one of the four questions: “On all other nights we do not dip even once, but on this night we dip twice.” It may well be that Judas, the betrayer in question, dipped into the maror, “the bitter herbs.” We have no way of knowing for sure, but that would comport with the Passover customs and would be significant as an apt symbolic act for the bitterness of betrayal.
There was the singing of the Hallel, as we see in Matthew 26:30:
And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
Jesus and the disciples concluded their Passover with the Hallel Psalms, consisting of Psalms 113–118. All this is a reasonable reading of the Gospels. While we don’t know the extent to which the Exodus story was told in Jesus’ day, we can hardly imagine that the origins of Passover were absent.
It becomes rather moot whether it is proper to describe Jesus’ Passover meal as a Seder. It was a proto-Seder, a pre-AD 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.8
What about the new meanings that Jesus gave to the bread and the wine at Passover? Poupko and Sandmel make the point that at the Last Supper, the focus on the events of the Exodus “takes a back seat” to Jesus’ new expression of faith in which he created a new ritual.
Yet, Jewish people have always been well aware of the connection between Passover and the Exodus, and that has not stopped us from inventing new rituals for the Seder and giving new meanings to existing customs. We are always creating new expressions of our faith (for example, the recent inclusion by some participants of an orange on the Seder plate to represent marginalized Jews). Passover is not only backwards-looking to the Exodus but forward-looking to the final redemption. We open the door for Elijah in the hopes of the arrival of the Messiah. We say, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” in anticipation of a future yet to come. It should not be surprising that Jesus also said new things about the Passover rituals.
The fact is that the rich history that we tap into every time we celebrate Passover 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 of a final, climactic exodus. Biblical scholars have often noted that the biblical prophets use images of the Egyptian Exodus to speak of a greater future redemption:
Though I scattered them among the nations,
yet in far countries they shall remember me,
and with their children they shall live and return.
I will bring them home from the land of Egypt,
and gather them from Assyria,
and I will bring them to the land of Gilead and to Lebanon,
till there is no room for them.
He shall pass through the sea of troubles
and strike down the waves of the sea,
and all the depths of the Nile shall be dried up.
The pride of Assyria shall be laid low,
and the scepter of Egypt shall depart. (Zechariah 10:9–11)
The allusions to Egypt, passing through the sea, and the destruction of Egyptian power are all taken from the Exodus story. Even drying up the “depths of the Nile” reads like a riff on one of the 10 plagues.
The New Testament claims that these prophetic yearnings for redemption are fulfilled in the person of Jesus—he fulfills the hope that was meant to encompass all nations (Genesis 12:3). The New Testament is a continuation of the same story as the Exodus itself. At the Last Supper, the teachings of Jesus brought continued meaning to the core narrative of our people through the ages, that our God has provided redemption for us by His mighty hand and His outstretched arm.
For me, the meaning of Passover was enhanced after I came to faith in Jesus.9 It was like looking at an old tradition with a new pair of glasses. Rather than taking the focus away from Israel and the Exodus, I found my Passover experience fuller.
It made sense to me that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob not only brought our people out of bondage in Egypt but also sent Jesus the Messiah to deliver us from the greater bondage to sin, and to bring us freedom in order that we might know and worship him.
Poupko and Sandmel state that Christian adaptation of Passover shows a “lack of respect,” and conversely, that Jewish people who encourage Christian Seders fail to show understanding of the Christian faith. That stance fails to acknowledge that the Christian faith, not to mention Jesus’ own Passover meal known as the Last Supper, arises fully out of a Jewish historical context.
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].
Gentiles who come to faith in Jesus do not replace Israel or negate God’s covenant with Israel but have been brought near. This is a fulfillment of Israel’s own hope that the nations will come to know the God of Israel. Another viewpoint sees 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. One cannot dismiss Christian Passovers as an infringement of a Jewish possession. There should be no mechitzah,10 or “separation,” so to speak, between the Exodus story and the Last Supper accounts.
The continuity of family and community history is reenacted every Passover. For those of us who believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah, that family is now enlarged to include non-Jews who share that same faith in Jesus. To be sure, Jews continue to be Jews and non-Jews continue to be non-Jews. The Hebrew Scriptures teach us that when Messiah comes, the Gentile nations will embrace him and the God of Israel (Isaiah 2:1–3; Isaiah 11:10). So the family of faith has grown wider, fulfilling Israel’s prophetic hope.
We need to be reminded that every Seder looks not only back to the first redemption but also forward to the redemption to come. The New Testament proclaims that the Redeemer has come, that a redemption greater than the Exodus is here. But it is not yet complete, as a future hope remains.
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.
4. Subtitle: What It Means and Why It Matters (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014).
5. Baruch M. Bokser, The Origins of the Seder: The Passover Rite and Early Rabbinic Judaism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 3.
6. Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:8.
7. Plural of haggadah.
8. Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching, trans. Herbert Danby (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 328–330.
9. For the record, this happened when I was about 19 years old and a student at Syracuse University.
10. The divider in Orthodox congregations that separate the men from the women.