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 Jewish holiday of Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. The roots of the festival are foundin 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.
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 afternoonof 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).
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.
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
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, andwe 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.
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.
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 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.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).
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
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.
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 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).
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 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.15tradition.
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.
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
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 andevil, 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.