Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder Meal?

Research confirms it. The most widely observed ritual in the Jewish world is the Passover Seder. More Jews worldwide participate in a Passover Seder than any other Jewish ritual. And why not? It includes three elements vital to the success of any dinner gathering: great food and lots of it, required consumption of numerous glasses of wine (while showing deferential respect to those around the table in recovery), and an ancient story that remains relevant as well as stimulates discussion and debate. The Passover Seder is the first, and continues to be, the most effective family education program and dinner party game plan ever conceived. It was only a matter of time before the Passover Seder began to attract serious attention from folks beyond the Jewish community.

Or: Why Are Our Christian Neighbors Buying All of the Matzah?

The Christian embrace of Passover is curious to say the least. In the latter part of the 20th century, the Christian community saw Passover as an opportunity to explore Israelite/Jewish life in the time of Jesus and to reconnect with Christianity’s “old testament roots.” This approach was warmly welcomed in the Jewish community. Inclusion and acceptance trump exclusion and prejudice every time. Early in my career I led and taught Passover Seders at a number of churches across East Texas. This is in fact how I learned about the observance of Maundy (Holy) Thursday.

Fueled by the assumed connection between the Last Supper and the Passover Seder this interest in Passover as a point of reconnection began to evolve. The Passover Haggadah (the book we use at the Seder meal to “tell the story” of the Passover) was being rewritten to tell a different story. For example, the liberation and redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery became the story of personal liberation from sin and redemption (salvation) through the sacrifice and blood of Jesus, the redefined Paschal Lamb. The “stripes” on the matzah became the lashes Jesus endured during his imprisonment. The symbolism is compelling. It should come as no surprise that most everyone, Jews and Christians alike, think the Last Supper was some kind of Passover Seder.

The truth is the Last Supper was not a Passover Seder. The primary reason is chronological. The Passover Seder did not exist during Jesus’ lifetime. The Last Supper, based on the idea that Jesus was arrested and executed in approximately the year 30 CE, occurred a good 100 years before the Passover Seder began to emerge and develop. In Jesus’ day, the Festival of Passover was exclusively a pilgrimage festival involving the sacrificial practices of Israel at the Temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, he most likely brought with him a goat, not his mother’s gefilte fish.

It is neither a mystery nor rocket science trying to understand the source(s) for the confusion that linked the Last Supper and Passover. Paul put that idea in play when he identified the “sacrifice of Christ” as the “sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb” and encourage the people of Corinth to celebrate the Festival with “the unleavened bread” of sincerity and truth. (I Corinthians 5:6 – 8) The Gospels expanded upon that idea, and before we knew it the Festival of Passover became the Passion of the Christ.

I have no intention or desire here to undermine the truth or challenge the authenticity of Christianity or Christian faith. Identifying the Last Supper as simply a meal and not a Passover Seder changes nothing in the narrative. My intent here is to protect the integrity of the Passover Festival. Any and every attempt, all be they well intended, to reframe Passover as a Christian celebration, renders Judaism irrelevant and Jews invisible.

The Passover story is the defining narrative of the Jewish people. Passover informs and forms our identity and defines who we are as members of a people and citizens of the world.

I can say unequivocally the opportunity to study Christian Bible and learn about Christianity has made me a better Jew; I figure that logic works both ways. I am going out on a limb as the only Rabbi leading the only Jewish congregation in Southeast Texas to make the following offer: Schedule and time permitting, I offer my time and knowledge to any community/congregation seeking to acquire Jewish knowledge and Jewish learning. The more we know and understand about the faiths of others, the stronger and more resolute we can become in our own.

On the second night of Passover (Tuesday, March 26, 2013) Temple Emanuel will be hosting a Passover Seder to which the entire community is invited. Everyone should each gefilte fish at least once in their lives. Contact temple Emanuel for more information.

Learning and experiencing the Passover Seder meal will not make you a Jew, but I believe it can make you a better Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, even a better atheist or agnostic.