As Holy Week approaches, many Christians and churches will begin thinking more intently about Passover. The final days of Jesus’ life coincide with the Jewish festival, and the New Testament unabashedly describes him as the “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29). It is no mistake to associate the crucifixion with this festival established long ago, but how do we teach and preach about Passover? The most ready answer would seem to focus on Exodus 12, where the Lord gives Moses the commands regarding Passover. In fact, this is the longest and most descript passage regarding the Passover in the Bible. However, in recent times, many have found this passage to be insufficient for understanding the festival, turning to the Jewish tradition of the Seder meal as the source for understanding the Passover.
What is the Seder Meal?
For those unfamiliar with the term, the Passover Seder (from the Hebrew word for “order”) is a traditional Jewish meal that function as the centerpiece of the Jewish celebration of Passover. The meal is comprised of a complex series of steps with symbolic significance retelling the Jewish departure from Egypt. The famous Seder plate includes multiple items:
– a cooked egg symbolizing new life and associated with the festival in ancient times
– a green vegetable signifying Israel’s growth in Egypt
– a fruit paste symbolizing the mortar for building projects while in Egypt
– bitter herbs symbolizing the suffering of slavery
– a lamb bone symbolizing the sacrificial lamb
The lengthy liturgy (Haggadah) and symbolic meal (Seder) rehearsed in the Seder served to illustrate and teach the Jewish people about their heritage from ancient times. The instructions include a time where the sons ask their father questions about what makes the Passover night different, succeeding in carrying out the Old Testament instruction for fathers to teach their children about the exodus (Ex. 12:26, 13:6, 14; Deut. 6:12). But where did the tradition originate?
The Origins of the Seder Meal
The first recorded instruction regarding the Passover Seder is found in Mishnah Pesachim 10, a Rabbinical Jewish text likely composed during the 2nd or 3rd century AD. While there is little doubt that the Rabbinic Mishnah tractate reveals a tradition that goes back earlier than the 2nd or 3rd century, reconstructing the Mishnah’s place in early Judaism in fraught with challenges. Taking the Old Testament at face value, the Jews had been celebrating the feast of Passover for centuries (based upon the description found in Exodus 12). This conclusion is supported by the lack of reference to the Seder by early sources like the Book of Jubilees, Philo, and Josephus. In his decisive work on the topic, Jewish scholar Baruch Bokser argues that the Seder tradition is older than the Mishnah tractate but not earlier than the destruction of the temple in AD 70 (The Origins of the Seder [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984]). Commenting on Bokser’s conclusion, Jonathan Klawan writes, “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” (“Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?” Biblical History Daily, Biblical Archaeology Society). The Seder meal was an important part of Diaspora Judaism at an early date, but it is highly debated as to whether or not it reflects a pre-destruction era of Jewish tradition.
Was the Last Supper a Seder Meal?
Given the later development of the Seder meal, it is unlikely that Jesus’ last meal with his disciples was a Seder meal. Some have highlighted a few parallels between the Gospel accounts and the Seder tradition, but none prove the case. They are brief textual allusions, not recitations of the tradition encountered in the Mishnah. If we read the Gospel accounts of the last week of Christ harmoniously, it is evident that the final meal, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus occur around the celebration of Passover—a historical and theological reality that highlights the nature and design of the atonement. Regardless of whether the Last Supper was indeed a Passover meal or a normal meal on an earlier day, the origin of the Seder tradition makes it historically unlikely that this meal was carried out in the Rabbinic tradition laid out in the Mishnah.
As we think about the final week of Jesus, the significance of his death, and the role Passover plays in the Gospel narrative, these historical realities should shape the way we think and teach. While the Seder meal was an instructive ritual illustrating the Jewish story of liberation from Egypt, it was likely not the way our Lord celebrated Passover. It is quite possible that by the time of the New Testament, traditions and additions to the text of Exodus 12 had grown up around the festival. However, if we want to understand the divine design of Passover, we are better off looking to the words of Moses. The biblical foundation of the Passover tradition begins in Exodus and finds its fulfillment in a new exodus established for God’s people by a final Passover lamb. Our reflections upon Passover should never stray from the New Testament truth stated so powerfully by the Apostle Paul, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). We cherish Israel’s Passover because, by it, we come to know our own.