The Passover Seder and Christian Origins

mealSundown marks Erev Pesach, when families traditionally partake in the Seder meal thereby commemorating the time when God redeemed his people from Egyptian enslavement. You will find below what makes two posts, I argue (as many others have), that Jesus’ last supper was in fact a Passover Seder — though the manner in which the ancient Seder was conducted was likely different than it is today (see the Safrai’s The Haggadah of the Sages [Carta: Jerusalem, 2007] ). Some have even questioned whether there was something that could be called a Passover Seder before the destruction of the Temple (and whether Jesus would have participated in such; See my response to Prof Jonathan Klawans below.).

                                                                                                                                                                 

Do The Gospels Contradict Each Other Concerning the Last Supper?

If correctly understood in its historical context, Jesus’ last supper becomes one of the most poignant events of his life. All of the Synoptic gospels agree that Jesus’ last meal was a Seder (Matt 26:17; Mark 14:12-17; Luke 22:1-8);[1]the traditional Passover (Heb. pesach) feast celebrated every year on the 15th of Nisan. The meal is intended to recount the enslavement and redemption of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt (Ex 13:6-10).

What can be a stumbling block to reading the gospel accounts are the differing orders of bread and wine that occur. Mark and Matthew agree that Jesus first broke the bread and then presented the cup (Matt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25), while the order in Luke is wine then bread (Lk 22:14-18).[2] Luke’s account preserves an order of the Passover that nicely parallels the Mishnah (Pes. 10:2-3), the 2nd century C.E. codification of the oral law.

jesus-last-supper-01Two reasons seem to suggest that Mark and Matthew reversed the order. In Jewish tradition the first cup of wine is accompanied by a blessing, which always occurs before the breaking of bread (matzot; cf. Pes. 10:2). Luke follows this tradition (22:17), while the other evangelists have placed the cup and blessing after the bread (Matt 26:27; Mk 14:23). Secondly, Matthew and Mark preserve an edited version of Jesus’ statement about the kingdom of God that we find in Luke, “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes” (Lk 22:18; cf. Matt 26:29, Mk 14:25). In each gospel this statement occurs after the cup.

So what stream of Judaism is influencing the reversal? Judaism during the Second Temple Period was not monolithic. Concerning the order of meals, the Dead Sea Sect believed that the priestly Messiah, Melchizedek, would initiate the eschatological banquet in the exact way he presented the meal to Abraham in Genesis 14:18 (cf. 11Q13) “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High.” Bread then wine was also the order of the Dead Sea Sect’s meals (1QS 6:5-9, esp. 6).

One can quickly see that if the scrolls are ignored we are left to wonder if the gospels are contradicting themselves. Instead, by interacting with this material the gospels are clearly reflecting Jewish customs and beliefs of the day. By reversing the order, Matthew and Mark reflect a tradition that does not become normative in Judaism and yet at some point is the norm within the early Christian church. Moreover, the apparent differences between Luke and the other evangelists indicates that Luke may have been working with an independent source.

When the Jewish background of Jesus’ Last Supper is brought to the forefront, viz., that it was a Passover seder, God’s redemption becomes the central theme. Reclining as the scriptures are read, they recount of the “outstretched arm” and “hand” of God that redeemed them from Egypt. Friends and family, as well as the disciples sit with Jesus as the Passover lamb is set before him on the table. He lifts the first cup of wine and blesses God. Breaking the unleavened bread, all who recline at the table, filling the house, are reminded of God’s outstretched redemptive hand, and the hope that His redemption is once again at hand.


[1] The Gospel of John will not be considered in this blog, due to the complexities involved with its date of the Last Supper. As a quick note, John places Jesus’ last meal the day before the lamb is to be sacrificed, that is, on the 14th of Nisan (see13:1). Jesus is crucified on the same day as it is required for the lamb to be sacrificed. Therefore, according to John’s gospel, he could not have participated in a seder.

[2] Steven Notley has most recently suggested that the order reflected in Matthew and Mark represents the eschatological thinking of the Dead Sea Community (“Eschatological Thinking of the Dead Sea Sect and the Order of the Christian Eucharist” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, Brill: 2006 , 121-138). Manuscript evidence (Codex Bezae) attests to a shorter version of the Lukan passage, eliminating the second cup and Jesus’ statement concerning the “new covenant” (19b-20).

                                                                                                                                                 

seder-plate-40005Jesus’ Last Supper was a Seder: A Response to Prof. J. Klawans

Passover will be celebrated at sundown, and in light of the holiday Jonathan Klawans has written a thought provoking article on whether or not Jesus’ Last Supper was a Seder (i.e. the Seder of the Second Temple period or what it developed into after the destruction of the Temple) or a common Jewish meal (See: Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?). To quickly let the “cat out of the bag,” so to speak, and discuss why I disagree, Prof. Klawans finally posits that Jesus’ last meal was “most likely” not. Utilizing the texts of the Synoptic Gospels as a fairly historically resource provides enough room to disagree with Klawan’s final position. If properly read the Synoptics provide enough information regarding Jesus’ final meal and the probability that it was in fact a Seder.

1. The Problem with the Synoptic Problem

The synoptic problem will be discussed, and has been, ad infinitum but for the moment let us suggest that the scholarly majority readily prescribe to Markan priority (whether that be the two-source hypothesis [which implies Q] or a single source; See: THE SYNOPTIC PROBLEM). Unfortunately, assuming that Mark, and by implication that Matt and Luke utilized him as a source, provides certain narrative deficiencies that can be addressed by moving away from this theory. Utilizing Luke, who on occasion appears to preserve similar but independently attained sources (notice the use of “Lake Gennesaret” in Luke, rather than “Sea of Galilee” in Matt and Mk[1]), provides the better historical resource.

2. The Last Supper According to the Synoptics (See also: Do the Synoptic Gospels Contradict each other Concerning the Last Supper)

Though Klawans does not bring it up, in all three gospels Jesus is concerned with eating the Passover meal (as questioned by his disciples) within the city (Luke 22:9-10; Mk 14:13; Matt 26:18), which is where it was prescribed that worshippers should eat the Passover meal (m. Zev 5:7-8). Furthermore, all of the Synoptics agree to the timing of Jesus’ Last Supper and strongly intimate that it was the Passover meal.

While Prof. Klawans is correct that several elements witnessed in the gospels parallel a normal formal Jewish meal, he is mistaken regarding what the Synoptics attest to what was eaten. He is of the opinion that during this particular meal the disciples “only ate” bread and wine. He further question’s “If this was a Passover meal, where is the Passover lamb?” Yet, as some have mentioned in the past, reference to Passover lamb is in fact preserved in Luke. Confer Jesus’ explicit statement is 22:15, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover (τὸ πάσχα) with you before I suffer..”. The articular to pascha is parallel to the Hebrew ha pesach, a name not only used for the holiday but also for the sacrifice itself (m. Shabb 1:11; also Pes 10:7, הפסח‏ הזה  ). Thus, the Passover Lamb’s location is easily resolved. The peshat reading of Luke suggests that the Passover lamb is already on the table! Luke is the only one of the Synoptics to preserve such a reference.[2]

Klawan’s question regarding the four cups as described in the Mishnah is a historical question regarding the number of cups involved in the Seder before and after the destruction of the Temple and not regarding the identification of the meal as a Seder.[3]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA3. Regarding the Authorities on Jesus’ Trial and Crucifixion

Prof. Klawans is correct that a discussion regarding the role of the Jewish authorities in the crucifixion account is a complex and difficult discussion. Far to complicated for this response. Some notes are warranted, however. Unlike Matt and Mk, Luke does not reflect Jesus being brought before the entire Sanhedrin, something that (as Klawans himself notes) would not have happened during the Passover, but rather he is taken to the high priest and his cohorts. We should note that the family of the high priest, as well as the high priest himself, were not highly regarded during the time of Jesus, as attested in both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Talmud (b. Pes 57a). Jesus’s own criticism during the incident at the Temple (Matt 21:12-13; Mk 11:15-17; Lk 19:45-46), where he combines two texts from Jer and Is (likely through the rabbinic interpretive method gezerah shavah) would have clearly caught the eye’s of the priests.

Luke 19:47-48, And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people sought to destroy him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people hung upon his words.

When Jesus is arrested he is first taken to the high priest’s house, and then taken to the council chamber and not before the Sanhdrin as Matt and Mk suggest.  On the other hand, Luke’s only use of the Gk sunedrion is not likely describing a full Jewish court but rather depicting the chamber where they would have met, sine the Gk. terminology can simply be used for a chamber of meeting.[4] The final Lukan statement, “but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people hung upon his words,” further suggests that what was going to occur needed be done with the utmost of secrecy. Thus it was done during the cloak of darkness during the holiday when it was less likely that the people would notice. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the Sanhedrin would have ordered that a Jew be handed over to a foreign power. For the sectarians of Qumran, handing over a Jew or a nation over to a foreign power would have been grounds for crucifixion (11QT 64:7-11). Within Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism (though we can’t always draw a straight line of continuation) it would have been perceived as a reprehensible transgression to hand over a Jew, especially when execution was on the line (m. Sanh 4:5; j. Ter 8:10; S. ‘olam Rabb). Thus, it was likely that the Jews who decided to hand over Jesus to the Romans were a small group of corrupt priests and their cohorts, who were themselves profiting from the pilfering, seeking to rid themselves of the charismatic preacher from Galilee.

4. The Gospel of John

Prof. Klawans prefers John’s account of the Last Supper, which reflects that the meal occurred before the 14th of Nisan, when it is prescribed that the sacrifice is to be offered. Therefore, Jesus’ crucifixion, according to John, probably occurred on the same day that the sacrifice was to be offered. The evidence of the Synoptics, however, outweighs John’s theological reworking. It is likely that John, whose gospel emphasizes belief and the perseverance of the early church, is reflecting a Pauline tradition regarding the identification of Jesus as the Passover lamb (cf. 1 Cor 5:7). John’s theological tendenz is also attested in the crucifixion account with the Evangelist’s use of Zech 12:10 as a messianic proof-text.[5]

5. The Brevity of Jesus’ Seder

The brevity in which the Evangelist’s depict Jesus’ last meal should not be taken as evidence that it was not a Seder but instead is a witness to their editorial style. Prof. Klawan’s is correct to mention that certain items commonly expected to be part of the meal, spec. bitter herbs (as commanded in Ex. 12:8; cf. also Num 9:11), are missing. Again, we might credit this to the Evanglist’s editing (or even later redactors), who were surely influenced by the developments of what would become the Lord’s Supper in the nascent church. Shmuel Safrai, the great Rabbinical scholar, refers to Jesus’ Last Supper as one of the early testimonies regarding Jewish practice of the Seder during the days of the Second Temple. He notes further that lack of any mention of a Haggadah is not strange but parallels the same phenomenon in other Jewish Literature from this period.[6]

Conclusion

From the Synoptic’s agreement of the time of the Passover, Jesus’ indication that the meal was to be celebrated in the walls of the city, Luke’s addition reference to the lamb, and the order of wine and bread assures us that Jesus’ last meal was in fact a Seder meal.

I think Prof. Klawans has done a justice in that he attempts to read the gospels carefully and compare them to what might have been Jewish practice (pre-70) in light of what is in the Mishnah/Tosefta and what may have been post-70 developments. I will say that there is a great deal of continuation (vs. discontinuation) with the Mishnah and Tosefta to construct Jewish practice in the Second Temple Period. Furthermore, the Synoptic Gospel’s evidence (which, in this case, is more historically reliable than John’s gospel) concerning the Last Supper, especially the Lukan account, suggests that Jesus indeed celebrated the Passover Seder as his last meal.


[1] See S. Notley, “The Sea of Galilee: The development of an Early Christian Toponym” in A. Rainey and S. Notley, The Sacred Bridge(Jerusalem: Carta, 2005), 352-354.

[2] We should also note that Luke’s text of the Last Supper presents the manner in which the meal is to be order, wine and bread (m. Pes 10:2), rather than Matt and Mk’s bread than wine. For a discussion on this matter see, R.S. Notley, “The Eschatological Thinking of the Dead Sea Sect and the Order of Blessing in the Christian Eucharist” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels vol. 1 (ed. R.S. Notley, M. Turnage, and B. Becker; Leiden; Brill, 2005), 121-138. Furthemore, Codex D of Luke’s provides an abbreviated account of the Last Supper, omitting reference to the new covenant, and perhaps preserving a more historical narrative.

[3] For this see S. Safrai and Z. Safrai, The Haggadah of the Sages (Jerusalem: Carta, 2009), trans. from Haggadat Chazal (Jerusalem: Carta, 1998).

[4] This is manner in which Luke uses the Gk term elsewhere in the book of Acts.

[5] See my article, “See My Hands and My Feet: Fresh Light in a Johannine Midrash” in John, Jesus, and History: Aspects of the Historicity of the Fourth Gospel” (vol. 2; ed. P. Anderson, F. Just, and T. Thatcher; Atlanta: SBL, 2009), 326-333.

[6] “Early Testimonies in the New Testament of Laws and Practices Relating to Pilgrimage and Passover” in Jesus Last Week, 41-52.

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One thought on “The Passover Seder and Christian Origins

  1. Pingback: Talpiot Tomb/Good Friday-Easter/Passover Round-Up « Exploring Our Matrix

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