Part two of our republishing of ‘The Contemporary Protestant Seder: Anachronistic Revisionism?’ by the Rev. Dr. Dcn. Timothy J. Wilkinson.
The Early Church, the Seder and the Eucharist
What kind of meal was the Last Supper? At first blush it appears to be a Passover meal imbued with new meaning. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus specifically mentions the desire to eat the Passover meal with His disciples:
Now on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying to Him, Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover? And He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, “My time is at hand; I will keep the Passover at your house with My disciples (Matthew 26:17-18).
…“Where is the guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples.” So His disciples went out, and came into the city, and found it just as He had said to them; and they prepared the Passover (Mark 14:14, 16).
The Gospel of Luke provides additional detail, using the word “Passover” in five of the nine verses from Luke 22:7-15. Clearly, the Synoptic gospels unambiguously identify the Last Supper with the Passover meal. Zeitlin states:
“The description of the Last Supper given in the gospels is undoubtedly a record of the Seder of the first night of Passover. The bread which Jesus ate was unleavened bread and the wine was that used by the Jews on the first night of Passover. The hymn sung by Jesus and the Apostles after the meal was the Hallel, which is still sung by the Jews on that night.”xii
At the same time Zeitlin points out that the Synoptics do not actually portray Jesus eating the Paschal lamb because He Himself
“was the paschal lamb that was to be sacrificed to redeem men.”xiii
By their identification of the supper shared with Jesus as the Passover, the synoptics appear to indicate that the Passover took place before the crucifixion, whereas the Gospel of John specifies Friday it as the “Preparation Day”, which would be the eve of the Passover. In this case the meal was not a Seder, but a common meal. John identifies Christ Himself as the Passover sacrifice and places the time of the supper before the Passover:
“Now before the Feast of the Passover…” (John 13:1).
John locates the sacrifice of Christ at the traditional time that the Passover lambs were sacrificed:
“Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour…” (John19:14)
“Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day…” (John 19:31).
Christ is then crucified at
“about the sixth hour” (19:14),
which is when the lambs were sacrificed in the Temple.xiv
Patristic writers have also varied in their explanations of the whether or not the Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal. Clement of Alexandria (third century), Hippolytus (third c.), Eutyches (fourth-fifth c.) and Eusebius (fourth c.) argued that the supper was a Passover meal eaten early, before the actual Passover was to take place. In contrast, Irenaeus (second-third c.), Origen (third c.), and John of Damascus (eighth c.) believed that Jesus and his disciples ate the actual Passover meal.xv The chronological issue is important because it addresses the question of what type of meal that Jesus shared with His disciples as described in John 13:1-30.
However, as can be seen from the quotations above, the Father did not express a unanimous opinion on this question. Patristic writers were uniform in seeing a linkage between the Passover and the Passion and Person of Christ. Justin, using the typological exegesis common in the Early Church, compared the blood of Christ to the blood that delivered Israel in Egypt:
The mystery, then of the lamb which God enjoined to be sacrificed as the Passover, was a type of Christ; with whose blood, in proportion to their faith in Him, they anoint their houses, i.e., themselves, who believe on Him. … God does not permit the lamb of the Passover to be sacrificed in any other place than where His name was named; knowing that the days will come, after the suffering of Christ, when even the place in Jerusalem shall be given over to your enemies, and all of the offerings, in short, shall cease. … and that lamb which was commanded to be wholly roasted was a symbol of the suffering of the cross which Christ would undergo. For the lamb, which is roasted is roasted and dressed up in the form of the cross.xvi
In his dialogue with Trypho, he further stated:
For the Passover was Christ, who was afterwards sacrificed, as also Isaiah said, ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter.’ And it is written, that on the day of the Passover you seized Him, and that also during the Passover you crucified Him. And as the blood of the Passover saved those who were in Egypt, so also the blood of Christ will deliver from death those who have believed.xvii
In the mid-fourth century Ephrem wrote,
“Our Lord ate the Little Pascha (Passover) and became himself the great Pascha.”
Origen, noting John the Baptist’s declaration –
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
“Here you see the true lamb, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”,
and noting 1 Cor. 7:7 –
“Christ our Paschal lamb has been sacrificed,”
“Let the Jews eat the flesh of the lamb in a carnal way, but let us eat the flesh of the Word of God.’’xviii
As can be seen from these quotations, while the Church Fathers touched upon the question of whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover meal, they were much more interested in how the Lord in His death fulfilled the type of the paschal lamb.xix
In modern times arguments have been made attempting to reconcile the different Passover accounts, including the proposition that the discrepancy is due to the use of different calendars by Palestinian and Diaspora Jews.xx Scholar Bo Reicke posits that the meal eaten at the Last Supper was a quiddush, a “meal of consecration,” while C.C Torrey argues that the word “Passover” could refer to the Passover supper itself, the feast of unleavened bread, or to the entire week of Passover.xxi Perhaps the simplest and most likely explanation of John’s timeline is offered by Jerome Kodell, who argues convincingly that
“It was not a Passover meal as such but had Passover motifs because of the proximity of the feast; as today, a family Christmas meal may take place during the season rather than on the day itself.”xxii
Writing along similar lines, Jonathan Klawans argues
“that Christians celebrated the Eucharist on a daily or weekly basis (see Acts 2:46-47) underscores the fact that it was not viewed exclusively in a Passover context (otherwise, it would have been performed, like the Passover meal, on an annual basis).”
This perspective is supported by chapters 9 and 10 of the Didache, which includes eucharistic prayers that approximate the kind of prayers that would be said at any Jewish meal, including the Seder.xxiii
Perhaps the most satisfying explanation is offered by F.F. Bruce, who points out that the Last Supper took place at least 24 hours before the official celebration of Friday’s Passover. The fact that this would mean that the meal would occur without a Passover lamb, was not without precedent. All Passover meals, except for those in Jerusalem, were fashioned this way because the lambs had to be sacrificed in the vicinity of the Temple at the prescribed time on Friday. In this scenario, the meal celebrated by the disciples was a Passover meal but without the lamb, just like the meal celebrated by Jews in all places except in Jerusalem. This is a satisfying explanation considering the time-frame of John’s Gospel and given the lack of reference to an actual eating of the lamb in the Synoptics. Bruce’s explanation is simple,
“It may be that Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover according to another calendar than the official one; it may be that Jesus, knowing that he would be no longer alive on Friday evening, the official time for celebrating it, deliberately arranged to eat it with his disciples earlier in the week.”xxiv
The view of Orthodox theologians generally is that the meal shared by Jesus and the disciples in the upper room was decidedly not a Seder supper of the Passover. While allowing that it was a supper in a Passover context which included the breaking of bread and the drinking of the cup, the fact that it ostensibly took place on Thursday evening disallows it from being a Passover Seder. More importantly, unlike the Seder, the Eucharist transcends space and time. xxv Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov states:
“All the holy suppers of the Church are nothing else than one eternal and unique Supper, that of Christ in the Upper Room. The same divine act both takes place at a specific moment in history, and is offered always in the sacrament.”xxvi
Alexander Schmemann points out that Christian worship, specifically the synaxis or the Liturgy of the Catechumens, originated in the cultic ritual of the Hebrews. Far from rejecting the traditional worship of the Jews, Jesus and the disciples were regular participants in the services of the Temple and the Synagogue. The Book of Acts records that involvement by the Jerusalem Christians in the Hebrew Cult continued throughout the period of persecution by the leaders of Judaism, persisting up until the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Schmemann states,
“…considering the hostility expressed toward them by the official leaders of Judaism, it is remarkable that there is no mention in the charges brought against them of their infringement of the cultic law.”xxvii
He is making the point that the early Church did not make a clean break with Judaism and that it did not reject the liturgical form of worship practiced by the Jews.
Despite the faithfulness of the early Jewish Christians to their roots, the coming of Jesus the Messiah created a new relationship between His followers and the old traditional cult. Jesus had condemned the legalistic, external and ritualistic interpretation of the Haggadah, criticizing the rabbis for turning traditional ritual into an end-in-itself rather than a means through which people might be able to recognize Him as the Christ. While both Baptism and the Eucharist had their origins in the Jewish tradition, the content was completely new in that the liturgical acts pictured in the old cult were now exclusively and completely connected to his death and resurrection. In speaking of the Passover supper Schmemann states:
There can be no doubt that the new cult has its historical foundation in that “private” cult which united Christ and the little group of disciples whom He had chosen, in the prayer, the meal and the communion which He had with them. But precisely because Jesus was not just one of many teachers or prophets, but the Messiah Himself, this private cult becomes the cult of the messianic community, its central and so to speak “constitutive” act. In addition, because Christ Himself instituted this cult as a remembrance of Himself – “Do this in remembrance of me” – it has no content other than Himself, His coming, the work which he accomplished. xxviii
Schmemann further states that outside of faith in Christ, the communion meal that Christ instituted has no meaning whatsoever. Moreover, it is within the context of the Lord’s Supper that the Church becomes itself;
“There can be no eucharistic gather where there is no Church and there can be no Church without the Eucharist.”xxix
The Jewish ritual meal was transformed because it was given new meaning by Jesus as He celebrated it with His disciples.† Evidence indicates that it was not viewed by the early Christians as a memorial meal for the dead founder of the Christian Church. Rather, the Eucharist was seen as a foretaste of the Heavenly Kingdom in which Jesus is both the celebrant and the sacrifice,xxx offered to, and received by God outside of time. Clearly, the Eucharist of the Church has Passover themes and is purposefully connected through Christ’s actions in the Upper Room to a Seder-like meal. To say that the Seder is fulfilled in the Eucharist is a gross understatement. Rather, the Seder meal shared by Jews and others at Passover today can only be viewed by Christians as a shadow or “type” of the Eucharistic Body and Blood that Christ shares with his followers for
“remission of sins and unto life everlasting.”xxxi
To conclude, the Passover – and the Seder meal associated with it – is a type of the saving work of Christ, in which Christ becomes the Passover. This is made clear in the Paschal hymn, which states,
“Today a sacred Pascha is revealed to us, a new and holy Pascha, a mystical Pascha, a Pascha worthy of veneration, a Pascha which is Christ the Redeemer.”xxxii
Pascha is the Greek word for Passover, making this connection self-evident in most languages; the most obvious exception being the English designation of “Easter”.
Given the centrality of the Eucharist in the early Church and the lack of interest in the Seder meal throughout most of Christian history, the embrace of the Seder by evangelicals can be understood only outside of the context of historic, biblical, and traditional Christianity.