On Wednesday evening, March 27 of this year, Jews throughout the world will sit down to experience a Passover seder meal, the time-honored sequence of rituals which constitute the Passover meal that ushers in the festival of Passover. Guided by the words of the haggadah (the "script" for the seder) as well as by family traditions, Jews experience a kind of "dinner theater" in which the story of our ancestors' servitude and liberation is recounted. Liturgical readings and symbolic foods — including wine, matzah (unleavened bread), maror (bitter herbs), and charoset (usually a mixture of chopped apples, nuts, and wine) — help convey a timeless message: that God heard the anguished cries of our ancestors and liberated them from servitude to allow them to enter into a covenant with God at Mount Sinai.
Many Christians have experienced a Passover seder firsthand because many Jews feel it a privilege and a responsibility to expose non-Jews to the beauty and meaning of this ritual. Obviously, many Christians in interfaith families help prepare, experience, and participate in the seder. Many see in the Passover seder something familiar to them from their reading of the New Testament and its depiction of the meal in which Jesus partook on the night before his death. And they are led to ask, "Was the Last Supper a Passover seder?"
Ah, if only that were an easy question to answer! Alas, it is a question which has been around for centuries and which, for centuries, has resisted a simple answer. Suffice it to say that this question has engendered countless books, doctoral theses, and heated debates among biblical scholars and theologians.
Virtually all are in agreement that, as a Jew, Jesus would have observed Jewish rituals as they were practiced in his day. But this begs the question somewhat, for there is abundant evidence that the seder has evolved over the centuries and much of what Jews do and say at the seder table in 2002 would have been unknown to Jesus and his fellow Jews in ancient Jerusalem.
The common assumption that the Last Supper was a Passover seder is based upon the "testimony" of the "synoptic" Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke). Mark 14:12 tells us that Jesus prepared for the Last Supper on the "first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover Lamb." If he and his disciples gathered to eat the Passover sacrifice, what else could that meal have been except a Passover seder?
The problem is, however, that there exists serious doubt in the minds of many New Testament scholars about the accuracy of the Gospel accounts. They may accurately record Jesus's sayings, but very little about what he actually did.
The Gospel According to John stands alone against Matthew, Mark and Luke in recording that the Last Supper took place the night before the festival began and having the crucifixion take place as Jews were preparing to usher in the festival. In this way Jesus becomes, symbolically, the Passover lamb slaughtered for the festival. So whom are we to believe? John or the other Gospels?
Among the many problems of assuming the Last Supper was a Passover seder is the fact that this would place Jesus' trial and execution on the first day of Passover. The Gospel writers may have intended to implicate Jewish officials in the death of Jesus and by having them so involved on one of their most sacred calendar days would have furthered the polemical anti-Jewish ends for which they may have been striving when the Gospels were compiled after the death of Jesus.
In the October issue of Biblical Archeology Review, Jonathan Klowans writes: "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."*
The constraints of my article preclude an exhaustive examination of this question and the controversy to which it gives rise. The curious reader will want to pursue the various threads which comprise this intriguing tapestry-of-a-question. But it is important to make note of another phenomenon: Christian churches offering a seder, in a non-Jewish context, as an act of Christian faith and worship. Many churches do so in the belief that they are bringing worshipers closer to Christianity's Jewish roots, a laudable goal. But to usurp an inherently Jewish ritual and adapt it to fit Christian theology is deeply offensive to many Jews.
Was the Last Supper a Passover seder? The weight of the evidence leads me to conclude that it probably was not. Christian interest in the Passover seder will endure and is best addressed by efforts on the part of Jews to welcome Christians to a seder table or, failing that, to teach about the seder in Christian settings in ways that helps insure the Jewish integrity of that ritual.
* "Was Jesus' Last Supper a Seder?", Jonathan Klowans, Biblical Archeology Review, October, 2001.
[For further reading, I recommend Passover and Easter: The Symbolic Structuring of Sacred Seasons, Bradshaw and Hoffman, Editors, Two Liturgical Traditions, Vols. 5 & 6, Notre Dame, 1999.]