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The Lord’s Supper and the Jewish Seder

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While I was writing a Bible Workshop article for the Feast of Corpus Christi, I came across certain blogs written by Jewish Rabbis on the Last Supper. I was searching the web for articles on the Passover meal as Jesus and his companions would have had it, and I did find one: a reconstruction based on the Pesachim and — get this — performed by a congregation of Christians. The article is called “Passover in the Time of Jesus” At first, I thought that the article reflected an academic exercise where students of theology had an experience of a reconstruction of the Last Supper. But it appears that Christian congregations in the States (it seems) are having these reconstructed “seders” as part of their celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. This seems to be the case as can be read from Rabbi Barry’s blog

I read an article in the Oklahoman recently that troubled me. The headline read:

“Churches to offer seder. Christians incorporate Jewish tradition into Easter activities”

I am uncomfortable with this because I feel our holiday is being misunderstood and to a degree, co-opted.

I can sympathize with the Rabbi. Personally I think that there is no excuse in meddling with rites and rituals that one religion holds dear, even if it seems similar to one’s own. Second, I think that Rabbi Barry is in some way correct in saying that — as far as the Gospel’s presentation of the Last Supper goes — the meal that Jesus had with his disciples “on the night he was betrayed” was not the Jewish seder.

Now don’t get me wrong. A distinction must be made between what Jesus and his disciples actually did on that fateful evening and what the evangelists intended to transmit to the Christians of their generation about the meal that Jesus celebrated. While the meal may have had all the trappings of the Jewish seder, it is not transmitted by the evangelists as such. Mark, Matthew and Luke were transmitting the Eucharistic tradition of their particular communities! What we find in the gospels about the Last Supper is not the Jewish Passover meal but the Eucharist. The key is Jesus himself who changed the meaning of the Bread and the Cup of Wine. Rabbi Barry is correct in writing that

It is one thing for these Churches to learn about the Passover seder so that they can better understand our rituals and traditions. I have no problem with that. But it is another thing to take our Passover seder and interpret their religious ideology and theology into it.

See also LutherPunk on this issue who calls the Christian celebration of the Jewish seder a cultural theft. Interesting also is the response from Catechists Journey

Interest in the Last Supper–Seder relationship can also be found in at least three articles in Derek Leman’s blog. Here are the links:

Personally, I find the articles of Derek Leman very stimulating because of his knowledge of Judaism and his efforts to explain the Gospel narratives of the Last Supper in the light of Jewish practices in the first century. In fact, I would even recommend that his articles on the subject of the Passover meal be read by any Christian because of the wealth of information these give. I do not agree with him in his assessment that the Last Supper “is presented” by the Gospels as a Jewish seder for the reason that I already stated above. Elements of the Jewish seder can be found in the Gospels, but this is only because the original setting of what will be later on referred to as “breaking of the bread” was the Jewish seder. The two should not be confused. The “breaking of the bread” — or what we now refer to as “the Eucharist” — is not an offshoot of the Jewish seder but a creation of Jesus himself who wanted his disciples to remember what He did for them on the cross and his assurance that He will once more share a meal with them in the banquet of the Kingdom.

To understand, one must compare and contrast. To understand the Eucharist, the memorial of the Lord’s Supper, it should be compared and contrasted with the Jewish seder. It is not correct to say that to put Jesus in the Jewish seder is putting the Jewish seder in the proper context, because the context of the Jewish seder is God’s saving act for his people, Israel, as Rabbi Barry so well explains. When Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples “on the night he was betrayed” he was looking forward to a new saving act from God, an act that will be accomplished in and through him. To understand what the evangelists were saying in their account of the memorial of the Lord, one will have to begin with Jesus.

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