Was the Last Supper a Seder?

I’ve never actually been to a Passover seder. I know the basic elements, though, because our regional Institute guy once held a seminary “Super Saturday” at which he demonstrated for a large room of kids what a seder is like, and he somehow persuaded me to learn and sing some traditional Jewish songs for the kids. So that is my very limited experience with a seder. But for years and years I assumed that the Last Supper had been a seder. But was it really?

The ancient origins of the seder are described in Exodus 12, where instructions are given to sacrifice a lamb on 14 Nisan, and then that night (which is 15 Nisan; remember that for Jews the day turns at evening) to eat the lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. At the first Passover there was the whole thing about smearing blood and the angel of death “passing over” the firstborn of Israel, but the scripture instructed Israel to eat the same kind of meal annually. This begins the seven-day feast of unleavened bread. When the Israelites settled in Jerusalem, Passover became a pilgrammage festival, with the lambs sacrificed at the temple and people traveling to Jerusalem to partake of it. Over time, various rituals accrued around this meal, which eventually became the seder (Hebrew for “order”). The breaking of unleavened bread, the drinking of cups of wine, reclining, singing hymns, etc.

All three synoptics by their timing seem to portray the meal as a seder. The Gospel of John in contrast has the meal taking place the night before Passover. Should we go with the synoptics, with John, or with neither at all?

In favor of it being a seder are the following points:

– The Supper took place at night (like a seder), whereas the normal Jewish meal was in the afternoon.

– Jews normally sat for meals, but reclined for the Passover, as the Gospel accounts indicate.

– A dish of hors d’oeuvres precedes the breaking of the bread, and this is mentioned in the Gospel accounts.

– It was customary on Passover night to give alms to the poor, as the Gospels suggest.

– The singing of an hymn could have been the second part of the hallel (Ps. 115-118).

– After the meal Jesus did not return to Bethany, and one was supposed to stay within a certain distance of Jerusalem after the seder.

– The Passover Haggadah (Hebrew “telling”) probably suggested to Jesus the symbolic commentary on the bread and wine.

There are responsible scholars who hold to the above view. But these days it has become a minority position. Most scholars would acknowledge it was a festive meal at Passover time, but not specifically a seder. These scholars would say that such a festive meal would satisfy most of the above points, and observe further as follows:

– In the days prior to the arrest, Jesus and his disciples would have met at night for security.

– Jesus shared his last meal only with the Twelve, a community of men, whereas a seder involved also women and children.

– There is a technical Greek term for unleavened bread; the Gospel accounts use the more general artos.

– No mention is made of the paschal lamb or bitter herbs.

– The accounts speak of a common cup, whereas individual cups were used for the seder.

– It is highly unlikely that the trial and execution of Jesus would have taken place during the holiday itself, as the seder reading would require.

– The early Christians celebrated the Last Supper weekly, not annually as would be done for a seder meal.

There are attempts to rebut these points, but these days more people have been persuaded by the second set of points to the effect that the Last Supper was not actually a seder. This suggests that John’s account might be the more historically correct, notwithstanding the possible theological motivation of portraying Jesus as being crucified just as the paschal lambs were being slaughtered at the temple.

The Lamb of God indeed.

Comments

  1. I think each gospel writer has an agenda to their writing as noted by others, but I think you are correct in saying it is very unlikely to have been the Passover. Simply because in my reading they would not have preformed executions between the passover and Shabbot. It would just be to difficult in a climate of mistrust and rebellion for the Romans to take the chance of inflaming opinions.

    I personally considered it to take place before the passover but that is only my own feelings rather than any facts to back them up. Interesting question though.

  2. My belief is exactly as Jon said – as well as the symbolism involved in your last two sentences. I just don’t see a true seder as described.

    Thanks for the detailed arguments; I hadn’t thought it through in that kind of detail previously.

  3. John’s account, which situates the meal so as to have the subsequent crucifixion coincide with the lamb slaughtering, also connects the meal with the feeding of the five thousand.

    One interesting implication of the last supper and crucifixion accounts is that they link Christ’s suffering and sacrifice with Passover and not with the Day of Atonement. That doesn’t bode well for penal substitution theories of Atonement, since the Pascal lamb, while manifestly salvific, can hardly be described as a proxy sacrifice for individual sin. The blood of the lamb preserves Israel from death while its flesh provides the nourishment and energy that will sustain them as they begin their journey out of bondage and into the Promised Land.

  4. Last Lemming says:

    – Jesus shared his last meal only with the Twelve, a community of men, whereas a seder involved also women and children.

    Dan Brown must be in the Seder camp.

  5. Dan Knudsen says:

    Several years ago, while studying this, I ran into a speculation that those from outside of Jerusalem (i.e., from Galilee), held their Passover Feast the day before the rest did because of all the extra people that were there, and to lessen the workload of the priests doing sacrifices at the temple. If so, that would explain it. I have since thought that the Last Supper was a Passover Feast, during which Jesus made some changes and introduced the Sacrament at an appropriate time during the service. When we do a Seder Service, that idea is emphasized: “…at this point Jesus instituted the Sacrament, updating part of the Passover Service…”

  6. Julie M. Smith says:

    Jesus shared his last meal only with the Twelve, a community of men, whereas a seder involved also women and children.

    That’s debatable; I did a post on it (called ‘And Many Other Women’ Part III; links aren’t working for some reason) but I have no strong opinion on the larger seder issue.

  7. I’ve always liked the surprising twist of the seder context for the Last Supper, where the group is expecting the standard Haggadah, but instead are told “this is my body/blood.”