Christians and Jews throughout the ages have more or less taken it for granted that the Last Supper eaten by Jesus and his disciples was a Pesach Seder. The New Testament evidence is, however, confused and contradictory and the likelihood is that the traditional Last Supper = Seder equation cannot be sustained.
Four main gospel passages are at issue here: Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-31; Luke 22:1-10; and John 13:1-30. Looked at superficially, the first three, from the synoptic gospels, appear to suggest a Seder connection, though many items required or customary at the Seder are completely missing or incorrectly described. John seems much less likely to be speaking about a Seder and indeed he asserts that the Supper was 24 hours earlier than the day given by the synoptic writers: Thursday evening as against Friday.
The Seder elements lacking in the synoptic gospels are the sacramental preparation of the paschal lamb before eating, explicit reference to matzah, the eating of maror, the youngest child’s asking Mah Nishtanah and his father’s narration of the Exodus story. The rabbinic tradition had additionally required four cups of wine (the gospels mention wine but make no special point of how many cups each person drank), as well as charoset.
It is not only the Jew of today who simply cannot recognise a Seder where almost everything is missing. The Jew of the first century was well aware, from family tradition and from the explicit instructions in the Mishnah, that the Seder obligation was not fulfilled without the basic features of symbolic food and historical narrative.
Yet the gospels continue to talk of preparing for Pesach. True, they are confused about when the preparation is to take place, believing it to be “on the day of unleavened bread” (Luke) or “the first day of unleavened bread” (Matthew, Mark) when, in fact, the paschal offering was sacrificed one day earlier. But the three of them use the phrase, “prepare for our (Luke, Matthew and Mark say ‘your’) Passover supper”.
The truth may be that it all took place just before Pesach time, but what occurred was not a Seder but a talk-feast meal shared by Jesus and his disciples in the tradition of other talk-feasts. It was an ordinary meeting of the fellowship (chavurah) which Jesus and the disciples constituted. As observant Jews, they would quite naturally have recited the required blessings on bread and wine and added the Jewish grace after meals.
A major problem is the divergence between John – who places the Last Supper on Thursday evening, presumably a day before the festival – and Matthew, Mark and Luke, who believe it occurred on the actual eve of Pesach, Friday night. How can the sources be so unsure? Since Pesach is so important an occasion and Jewish families have always vividly recalled incidents associated with each successive Seder night, would not Jesus’ followers have clearly remembered whether it was Seder night or not?
The answer may be that by the time the gospel writers were composing their works, decades had passed, strict adherence to Jewish laws may have been dissipating and their purpose was not so much historical veracity as the promotion and propagation of differing theological teachings. The synoptic writers spoke of the festival itself with its theme of redemption in order to stress Jesus as Saviour; John emphasised the day before when the sacrifice took place, in order to focus on Jesus as Sacrifice.
Baruch M Bosker, in his “Origins of the Seder – the Passover Rite and Early Judaism”, argues that both in Judaism and Christianity events following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE led to the biblical Pesach being transformed.
Previously, Pesach had been a festival centred upon a Temple sacrifice. The early rabbinic teachers, he asserts, transformed it by seizing upon the family celebration, a secondary element in biblical times, and upgrading it to become the main feature of the festival.
Likewise they transformed the order of precedence amongst the Pesach foods, so that matzah, originally second in importance to the paschal lamb, now became the main food because the cessation of the Temple sacrifices meant that paschal lamb was no longer available. Thus Judaism reorganised itself and responded creatively to the destruction of the Temple.
Christianity, on the other hand, approached events in quite a different way. It argued that even without the Temple, a Passover offering could still be brought; Jesus was the “lamb of God” whose sacrifice was a paschal offering that took away sin. Hence it was an important part of the program of early Christianity to continue to emphasise the association between Jesus and Pesach, without being too concerned about the strict accuracy of the references in the gospels to Pesach observances.
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