top of page
  • He Answered Them

Analysing the link between Passover Seder and the Eucharist

Introduction


The Passover and the Lord’s supper are theologically linked as acts of remembrance and shared religious identity. The very evening in which Jesus inaugurated the Eucharist occurred during the festival of Passover; as indicated in the synoptic gospel accounts, the very reason for Jesus’ and the disciples stay in Jerusalem was to mark the events that we read about in Exodus chapter 12. Yahweh commanded the Hebrew people to maintain a knowledge of His divine intervention in their history for perpetuity; paralleling this we see Jesus establish a tradition that would have great significance for, at the time, the unformed Christian Church. This essay aims to analyse and expand upon the connections between the great cornerstones of the Judeo-Christian religions with a focus on the traditions of the Seder meal.


On Feeding the body


The first parallel we can draw between the two celebrations are the inclusion of the elements of the bread and the wine; for the Jewish celebration the bread is called Matzah; these two elements are of great importance to the marking of the event. The bread and the wine play a central role in each tradition. It is easy to gloss over this at first, until we realise that both these traditions are designed to convey a spiritual reality, and that the means in which participants experience this reality is through the body: through a sensory experience, which aids in the establishing of memory.


Memory is the ultimate motivation for both these traditions, for the Jews it is a commemoration of the events that led to the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery, for the Christian it commemorates a new covenant which liberated the follower from sin. The Passover passage in Exodus 12:14 reads ‘This day shall be for you a Memorial Day’; whereas in the gospel of Luke we read of the Eucharist in 22:19 ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’


Although the feeding of the body gradually dissipates and any gratification of the body is only temporary, the spiritual act by which the participant comprehends the spiritual core of the tradition remains.[1]


The Evolution of the Seder meal


All traditions undergo a certain amount of change in time; yet both the Eucharist and the seder meal have maintained the essence of the original act. Kloppenborg, in his essay writes:

As tradition moves from one social domain to another, we should expect not only alterations due to vagaries of memory, but also alterations that are due to the varying social registers in which the tradition is performed.[2]


The seder meal has undergone a more drastic change than that of the Eucharist, perhaps the greatest shift for the seder meal is its adoption into the secular world: Jewish people worldwide celebrate Passover, including many secular Jews. As the seder meal takes place in the home, there is no need for a participant to be a member of a synagogue; this is a departure from the celebration of the Eucharist, which as a sacrament of the Christian Church happens generally within the Church. Some exceptions are made for the sick, infirm or those generally unable to attend the Church – in this event the Eucharist can be taken at home.


The message of freedom is at the heart of the celebration of Passover, giving a more universal appeal to the festival; more recent events in the history of Jewish ethnicity are therefore grafted onto the festival, including the commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which coincided with the first night of Passover in 1943.[3] The instruction found in Torah to not oppress the stranger, has also meant that non-Jews are invited to the seder meal, more as an act of secular human solidarity than from religious motivation.


Despite this, the seder meal remains entrenched in religious ceremony, symbol, and song. Again, we find bread and wine at the centre. The wine in particular takes on symbolic meaning. In the Christian context the wine is representative of the blood of Christ, for the Jew the traditional four cups of wine drunk at the seder have an array of meaning: Yahweh’s promise to deliver the Hebrews from Egypt took four descriptives in Exodus 6:6-8, ‘I shall take you out’; ‘I shall rescue you’; ‘I shall redeem you’; and ‘I shall bring you’.


In Genesis 40:11-13, Joseph’s deciphering of Pharoah’s butler’s dream mentions cups of wine four times, which the Midrash interprets as allusion to Israel’s liberation. Several other reasons are given in the Jerusalem Talmud and the Midrash.[4]


The Matzah bread too is symbolic, as it is for the Christian; in a Christian context the bread is representative of the body of Christ, for the Jews the unleavened bread is used to represent the haste in which the Hebrews would be expected to leave, the lack of yeast reflective of the pressing time.


A dynamic emerges in the relationship between the Eucharist and the Seder, Polan indicates that a ‘simple meal’ is used to illustrate the grace of God; he writes of the Seder meal, which can equally be applied to the Eucharist, ‘[that it represents] a free and unmerited gift now offered to the people in both real and symbolic fashion’.[5]


There is an even closer link between the two, Marcus writes in his essay that the ‘words of institution that Jesus speaks (this is my body...this is my blood) are usually interpreted as his own twist on the Jewish custom of explaining the matzah and other seder elements’.[6]


Was the Last Supper a Passover seder?


Marcus indicates that a generation ago the idea of the Last Supper as a Passover meal was generally agreed upon. However, the biblical chronology found in the synoptics differs slightly from that found in John; for John the Last Supper occurs on erev Pesach, that is the day of preparation for Passover and therefore not a seder meal.[7]

Further to this, the OT passages relating to the Passover do not specify a seder nor the haggadic element of explanation, they merely outline how the Passover lamb should be chosen, cooked, and eaten.


As established above, the seder meal has undergone significant evolution; according to scholars of ancient Judaism, pre-AD 70 the significance was placed on the Passover sacrificial lamb, with the seder becoming a replacement for the tradition only post AD 70.[8]

Marcus counters this argument by citing not only elements of the NT, but also evidence from the book of Jubilees, and from the writings of Philo which indicate that a leisurely meal with the inclusion of wine was de rigueur before AD 70.[9]


Perhaps the more interesting theory put forward by Marcus’ article is that the seder is in fact a reversal of the Last Supper, arising as a Rabbinic response to the Christian Eucharist rather than its source: he cites the work of Israel Yuval who highlighted the Ha Lachma paragraph in the Mishnah Pesahim,[10] a work that lays out the laws relating to Passover. In this paragraph, the literary structure parallels both Luke’s version of Jesus’ words and the Pauline passage in 1 Cor 11.[11] Marcus sums up the haggadic invitation to eat the bread:

This act of eating is linked with the theme of remembrance that is implied in Ha Lachma (that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt) and is so integral to the whole seder. In both cases, moreover, the eating of the matzah has sacrificial overtones (my body given for you/partake of the Passover sacrifice).[12]


Regardless of how one reads into the development of the Passover seder, if it came before or after the instituting of the Christian eucharist, there is a tangible relational quality between the two. Paul, in his 1st letter to the Corinthians makes the link explicit: ‘For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed’ (1 Cor 5:7).

The Paschal Lamb crosses the hermeneutical bridge


The gospel of John continues the theme of Jesus as ‘the lamb of God’. The Lamb is vital to the practice of the Jewish Passover and features as the centrepiece to the seder meal. It was through the blood of the lamb that the Hebrews were spared from the Angel of Death; it is through the blood of Jesus that the Christian is saved from death, as the wages of sin, according to Paul. The symbolic reference given to the Israelites in Exodus 12:5 concerns the unblemished nature required of the sacrificial lamb, which the Christian can find in the person of Jesus. It is clear from this figura that Jesus’ death is required from the outset. Schneiders points out that ἀμνος του θεου is a hapax legomenon and is therefore meaningless without the understanding of the OT text concerning the Passover sacrifice.[13] That as a sacrifice, the condition of sin will be removed. The semiotics associated with both the Christian eucharist, and the Jewish Passover become reliant upon each other for a clearer comprehension of God’s salvific works.


For the Jew, the previous understanding of the Passover, as a liberation from slavery and redemption by Yahweh, can now be viewed through a lens of atonement for sin; for the Christian, the atonement from sin is made all the clearer through the analogy of the Passover sacrifice.


Not all agree, Ney, writing about Samuel Clarke’s eucharistic theology, explains how he insisted that ‘Christian and Jewish remembrance are not the same’. ‘Jews were asked to commemorate the Passover. But on the night that he was betrayed, Jesus brought this commemoration to an end.’[14]


Whether you view the connections between the Last Supper and the Passover seder as supersessionism (as Clarke did), or as a furthering of God’s work, this informs the religious identity of the Jewish or the Christian follower. One practices their respective ritual with very little overlap; although, in the case of the Christian, one may respect the ritual of the Jew and partake of it on occasion, that does not make them a Jew.

Polan writes:

Thus, it was the that the Jewish faith came to be centred on the Passover festival as the memorial meal recalling their liberation and redemption by God. The past is thus made present and borne into the future in the celebration of sacred mysteries.[15]

This could be true for the Christian regarding the eucharist; but in a departure from the Passover seder ritual, many Christian denominations do not place such a high importance on the eucharist as Jews from all sections of society, both religious and secular, tend to do.


On the Eucharist, Memory, and Identity


Keightley writes about the importance of ritual to religious identity stating:

Commemorative rituals are storehouses of the past in that they are deliberately backward looking and intend to call up the prototypical events and persons of the past. Because of their significance and meaning, performance of rituals becomes a corporate habit’.[16]

Where it is true that the eucharist is commemorative, it need not be only backward looking. As with the Passover seder, it is made present by a corporate celebration and cements a community identity. Ritual can also be used in a constructive way to build a community; Paul uses it in such a manner in the anamnesis text of 1 Cor 11:17-26. This type of motivation is also found in the Passover seder, where the children are expected to ask four questions of their elders; this intergenerational element, added to the proceeding, ensures a certain posterity for future celebrations. This instructive element in the eucharist is identified in Keightley’s essay where she cites the work of Paul Connerton in his work How Societies Remember:

Connerton notes that in this verbal and physical doing, Christians not only realise the saving benefits of the paschal mystery- they become cognitively and habitually proficient of what it means to be a member of the body of Christ.[17]


This can also be applied to the shared memory aspect present in the intergenerational Passover seder ritual festivities.


Conclusion


The parallels and divergence with the Passover and the Eucharist traditions have been explored in this essay. The foundational rituals for both Judaism and Christianity focus on shared memory and on religious identity. The exploration of the seder traditions prove valuable in gaining insight into the relationship between the two: from the symbolism of the bread and the wine to the instructive and commemorative elements found in each.






Bibliography

Frankl, Viktor, The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy (Souvenir Press: London, 2004)

Keightley, Georgia Masters, ‘Christian Collective Memory and Paul’s Knowledge of Jesus’, in Memory, Tradition, And Text: Uses of the Past in early Christianity, ed. Alan K. Kirk and Tom Thatcher (Brill Leiden: Boston, 2005)

Kloppenborg, John S., ‘Memory, Performance and the sayings of Jesus’ in Memory in Ancient Rome and Early Christianity, ed. Karl Galinsky (Oxford Academic: Oxford, 2015)

Marcus, Joel ‘Passover & Last Supper Revisited’, New Testament Studies, 59.3 (2013)

Ney, David ‘Christ is not the Passover Lamb: Samuel Clarke’s Marcionite Memorialism’, Journal of Anglican Studies, 20.2 (2022)

Polan, Gregory J., ‘The Passover: A Memorial Meal’, Bible Today, 57.6 (2019)

Schneiders, Sandra M., ‘The Lamb of God and the forgiveness of Sins in the Fourth Gospel’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 31.2 (2013)






[1] Viktor Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy (Souvenir Press: London, 2004) 135 [2] John S. Kloppenborg, ‘Memory, Performance and the sayings of Jesus’ in Memory in Ancient Rome and Early Christianity, ed. Karl Galinsky (Oxford Academic: Oxford, 2015) 286-323 [3] According to the Cultural and Secular Jewish Organisation www.csjo.org/holidays/pesach-passover[accessed 13/04/2023] [4] 1.stages of redemption from Egypt; 2. Kingdoms that subjugated the Israelites; 3. Cups of punishment applied to hostile gentiles; 4. The four decrees of Pharoah mentioned in Exodus; 5. Cups of consolation or deliverance for the Israelites www.torah-thoughts.com/four-cups-of-wine-midrash/ [accessed 13/04/2023] [5] Gregory J. Polan, ‘The Passover: A Memorial Meal’, Bible Today, 57.6 (2019) 353 [6] Joel Marcus, ‘Passover & Last Supper Revisited’, New Testament Studies, 59.3 (2013) 303-324 [7] Joel Marcus, ‘Passover & Last Supper Revisited’ [8] Joel Marcus, ‘Passover & Last Supper Revisited’ [9]Joel Marcus, ‘Passover & Last Supper Revisited’ [10] The paragraph reads: This is the poor bread our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, let them come and eat; all who are needy, let them come and partake of the Passover sacrifice. This year we are here, next year let us be in the land of Israel; this year we are slaves, next year let us be free people. [11] Joel Marcus, ‘Passover & Last Supper Revisited’ [12] Joel Marcus, ‘Passover & Last Supper Revisited’ [13] Sandra M. Schneiders, ‘The Lamb of God and the forgiveness of Sins in the Fourth Gospel’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 31.2 (2013) 31-43 [14] David Ney, ‘Christ is not the Passover Lamb: Samuel Clarke’s Marcionite Memorialism’, Journal of Anglican Studies, 20.2 (2022) 150-163 [15] Gregory J. Polan, ‘The Passover: A Memorial Meal’ [16] Georgia Masters Keightley, ‘Christian Collective Memory and Paul’s Knowledge of Jesus’, in Memory, Tradition, And Text: Uses of the Past in early Christianity, ed. Alan K. Kirk and Tom Thatcher (Brill Leiden: Boston, 2005) 137 [17] Georgia Masters Keightley, ‘Christian Collective Memory and Paul’s Knowledge of Jesus’ 137

36 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page