Friday, April 06, 2007

Jesus and the Last Supper as Passover Seder

Last night, I was told by a Jewish friend that at a church service she attended (she's a musician, not a Christian) the congregation was told by clergy that the Last Supper was a Passover seder. This error is apparently not all that uncommon. For instance, in the thoroughly tendentious--if not anti-Christian--Constantine's Sword, James Carroll describes a "Passover Seder," which included some of his Jewish friends, he hosted in the early 1970s when he was a Roman Catholic chaplain at Boston University: "When I lifted the matzo, I cited [Jesus'] act at the Last Supper, his Seder" (pp. 49-50; emphasis in original).

It is quite understandable how a casual reader of the Gospels might mistake it for a seder. In reality, in the Last Supper and the events commemorated during Holy Week, Jesus preempted the Passover.1 Jesus' role as the final, perfect paschal Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36; I Cor. 5:7) is the most obvious and powerful example of this but for present purposes I will focus on the Last Supper-seder connection.

A seder, or ritual feast, takes place on the first night of Passover, which lasts seven to eight days. Unlike the Synoptic gospels, the Book of John is clear that Jesus was judged, crucified, and entombed on the day before Passover began:
Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. [Pontius Pilate] said to the Jews [sic], "Here is your King!" They cried out, "Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!" ... Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him ... Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews [sic] did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. ... But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. ... Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish [sic] day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. (John 19)2
As for the apparently contradictory chronology that appears in the Synoptic Gospels, the exegesis of German New Testament scholar Gerd Theissen will more than suffice:3
In my opinion, in Mark we can discern behind the text as we now have it a connected narrative that presupposes a certain chronology. According to Mark, Jesus died on the day of Passover, but the tradition supposes it was the preparation day before Passover: in 14:1-2 the Sanhedrin decided to kill Jesus before the feast in order to prevent unrest among the people on the day of the feast. This fits with the circumstance that in 15:21 Simon of Cyrene is coming in from the fields, which can be understood to mean he was coming from his work. It would be hard to imagine any author's using a formulation so subject to misunderstanding in an account that describes events on the day of Passover, since no work was done on that day. Moreover, in 15:42 Jesus' burial is said to be on the "preparation day," but a relative clause is added to make it the preparation day for the Sabbath. Originally, it was probably the preparation day for the Passover (cf. Jn 19:42). The motive for removing Jesus from the cross and burying him before sundown would probably have been to have this work done before the beginning of the feast day, which would not make sense if it were already the day of Passover. Finally, the "trial" before the Sanhedrin presupposes that this was not a feast day, since no judicial proceedings could be held on that day. It would have been a breach of the legal code that the narrator could scarcely have ignored, because the point of the narrative is to represent the proceeding against Jesus as an unfair trial with contradictory witnesses and a verdict decided in advance by the high priests.
Then, too, there is the testimony of (non-contemporaneous) Jewish texts:
And it was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshua [the Nazarene] was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place a herald went forth and cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come and plead on his behalf." And since nothing was brought forward in his favor, he was hanged on the eve of Passover." (BT. Sanhedrin 43a.) [emphasis added]
It is also noteworthy that particular dietary rules are an important part of the traditional Passover seder. The Gospels make it clear that Jesus was fairly contemptuous of Israelite notions of ritual purity.4 Violation of the purity code is practically a hallmark of Jesus' ministry For example, there is this passage from Mark 7 (cf. Matthew 15):
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews [sic], do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
'This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.'
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."

Then he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.' But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, 'Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban' (that is, an offering to God)--then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this."

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile."

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, "Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, "It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
The Gospels give no evidence that Jesus and his disciples ate a paschal lamb or bitter herbs--both part of a traditional Passover seder. It also seems unlikely the bread used at the Last Supper was matzo i.e. unleavened bread. The beginning of the Feast/Festival of Unleavened Bread is marked by Passover, of which it is a part. In the Koine Greek of the ancient texts, the Gospels use azumos (Strong's 106)azumos (Strong's 106)azumos (Strong's 106)azumos (Strong's 106)azumos (Strong's 106)azumos (Strong's 106) (transliterated "azumos") in reference to unleavened bread whereas Jesus and his disciples ate artos (Strong's 740)artos (Strong's 740)artos (Strong's 740)artos (Strong's 740)artos (Strong's 740) (transliterated "artos") i.e. regular leavened bread for the Last Supper. This distinction also appears in the Latin Vulgate where the root for unleavened bread is "azym-" and leavened bread is "panem." As for the Aramaic, according to Roy A. Reinhold, the distinction holds true in those texts also.

In short, the Last Supper took place before the appointed time for a traditional Passover seder and, in any event, it bears only a superficial resemblance to one. In the Last Supper, Jesus instituted a new rite to mark a new covenant:
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. (Mark 14:22-24; cf. I Cor. 11:25)
1 To underscore the opposition between the Jewish Passover and Easter (not to be confused with what is now known as Holy or Maundy Thursday), the first ecumenical Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) mandated that Easter should never be celebrated on the same day as Passover.
2 All English-language biblical text in this post is from the New Revised Standard Version via The Unbound Bible. Latin Vulgate is from the Blue Letter Bible. My Latin translation was confirmed using Notre Dame University's Latin Dictionary and Grammar Aid.
3 For those for whom Theissen's treatment does not suffice, there is the detailed chronology of E. W. Bullinger in Appendix 156 of The Companion Bible, which harmonizes the apparent discrepancies among the Gospels.
4 It is somewhat anachronistic, although standard, to refer to 1st century Israelite sects as "Judaism" or "Jewish." The sects criticized in the New Testament are not what we know today as Judaism, the same point could be made about Christianity. As Michael L. Brown, a self-described "Jewish believer in Jesus," states in Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus (Vol. 1), "... Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism are ... siblings;" Brown quotes Rabbi Hayem Goren Perelmuter as saying they "were shaped at approximately the same time."

See also:
In "The Seder That Wasn't," Arthur Magida, former senior editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, asserts:
But let's set the record straight: The Last Supper, an event that according to the New Testament occurred circa 30 C.E., did not resemble the seder as Jews know it today: a meal with several important elements that are eaten in a certain way for certain symbolic reasons. The seder as we know it today didn't even begin to develop until after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E., about 40 years after Jesus was crucified. [emphasis in original]
I was aware of Magida's piece when I first published the post but decided not to include it since it wasn't very relevant to my argument but, hey, it adds some interesting information and, so, here it is now.

Revised: 04/25/2007, 7/18/2008

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