Was the Last Supper really a Passover Seder?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
March 29 2010 7:15 AM

Jesus' Final Passover

Was the Last Supper really a Seder?

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

The Last Supper has long been a source of academic controversy and half-baked speculation. From the Council of Trent to The Da Vinci Code, church officials, scholars, and conspiracy theorists have parsed depictions of Jesus' last meal for answers to questions sacred (the nature of transubstantiation) and profane (increasing portion size). Among these denominational debates and pop hypotheses, one rather rudimentary question continues to vex scholars: Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder?

At first glance, the Last Supper bears more than a passing resemblance to the traditional Passover meal. In most depictions, Jesus (a practicing, if somewhat rebellious, Jew) and his 12 disciples are reclining. They say prayers, they drink wine, and they break bread—all hallmarks of a Passover celebration. Symbolically, Jesus' martyrdom the next day dovetails perfectly with the symbol of the Passover lamb, which ancient Jews sacrificed to commemorate their redemption from slavery in Egypt. Thus, Jesus becomes (as in John 1:29) the sacrificial "Lamb of God." The Passover-Last Supper connection reaches all the way to present-day practices of Christianity. In his highly influential book The Shape of the Liturgy, Gregory Dix traces a straight line between the structure of the Eucharist and that of the Passover meal. In this view, the blood and body of Christ are linked directly to the Passover wine and matzo. A closer look at the Gospels, however, reveals a number of discrepancies.

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The books of Mark, Matthew, and Luke all describe the Last Supper as a Passover Seder. Matthew 26:17, for example, addresses the debate about where to hold the meal: "Now the first day of the feast of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto him, Where wilt thou that we prepare for thee to eat the Passover?" Mark, Matt, and Luke, however, are notoriously unreliable. Written in the early days of the church as evangelical tools, they focus more on the sayings of Jesus, not on the precise details of his life. The usually more dependable (at least in terms of biographical information) John places the Last Supper on the day before Passover. In John 18:28, the dastardly Jews who hand Jesus over to Pontius Pilate refrain from entering the impure palace as "they wanted to be able to eat the Passover."

How do scholars square these two apparently contradictory accounts? Some throw out Mark, Matt, and Luke entirely. Jonathan Klawans suggests in the Biblical Archeology Review that while the Last Supper may be "characteristic of the Passover meal, it is equally characteristic of practically any Jewish meal": While reclining is unique to Passover, all Jewish meals traditionally begin with blessings over wine and bread. Along these same lines, W.D. Davies' The Sermon on the Mount argues that the Last Supper-Passover connection was created in part by early Christians who wanted to connect Jesus' martyrdom to the redemption of the Jews from Egypt. Meanwhile, Oxford professor E.P. Sanders places the Last Supper within the context of the Passover celebration but dodges the larger question of whether it was a Passover Seder. Still others assert that there is no contradiction at all between the events of the Last Supper as shared by John and his less reliable disciple-friends. According to this theory, put forth in the 1960s by French biblical scholar Annie Jaubert and cited in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus and his disciples were adhering to the calendar of the rebellious Pharisee sect, which celebrated the start of Passover a day earlier than the rest of the Jews.

Regardless of whether you choose to believe Mark or John, Sanders or Jaubert, one thing is clear: Jesus and his disciples were not eating gefilte fish and hiding the afikomen. The Passover customs Jews know today developed over the course of many centuries, incorporating Hellenistic banquet traditions, Aramaic folk songs, and rabbinic commentary. The Haggadah, a sort of Seder how-to guide, was developed after the destruction of the second temple and standardized by the end of the 10th century. The foods many American Jews associate with Passover—gefilte fish, brisket, and matzo-ball soup—come from an Eastern European context. Most likely, Jesus and his disciples ate the lamb they had sacrificed earlier that day.

Central to the story of Jesus' life and his death, the Last Supper is of vital importance to all those who wish to better understand and follow the religion he founded. While scholars continue to disagree about the details of the Last Supper, many American Christians have taken to celebrating Seders during Holy Week as a way of connecting to the roots of their religion. This practice is facilitated by Web sites such as ChristianSeder.com and Christian Haggadahs like Come to the Table: A Catholic Passover Seder for Holy Week and A Christian Observance of Passover: The Haggadah. Speaking to a reporter for the Arkansas Catholic, Cackie Upchurch, director of the Little Rock Scripture Study, said her church's Seder "really connects us with our Jewish brothers and sisters and to the roots of our faith. It brings to life the fundamental pattern of all of scripture which is captivity, freedom and covenant." Using traditionally Jewish symbols and songs, these Christian Seders highlight the decidedly non-Jewish stories of Jesus' martyrdom and the second coming he alludes to in Mark 26:29.

We may never know whether the Last Supper was a Passover Seder. One can only hope, however, that all this religious intermingling will one day pave the way for Jewish Easter egg hunts.

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