The Passover Meal, the Seder, and the Eucharist.
The Passover Meal, the Seder, and the Eucharist.
The Passover meal was instituted thousands of years ago, in around 1450 BCE, and it is still observed by the Jews today. Over the many centuries, the rituals of the meal have evolved and been adapted by both Jewish and Christian groups, but bread has remained a prominent feature. This article looks at the Passover meal from its origins, to the Seder of the Jews and the Eucharist of the Christians in the Roman period, and beyond.
The Passover in the Old Testament and in the First-Century.
The Passover in Exodus.
One of the most important moments in the history of the Israelites was the night of the first Passover, which is recorded in the book of Exodus. Exodus tells us that the Israelites had been in Egypt for many generations and that they had been slaves for some of this time (Exod. 1:8-13). Moses, who would deliver the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, had asked Pharaoh’s permission for God’s people to celebrate a religious festival in the desert (Exod. 5:1 cf. 10:9). But Pharaoh refused, despite repeated requests from Moses and his brother Aaron, and despite the displays of Yahweh’s power over the Egyptian gods demonstrated in the plagues (Exod. 8:19; 10:1-2; 2 Sam 7:23). The plagues brought misery on the Egyptian people including Pharaoh’s household.
The night of the tenth and final plague was the night of the first Passover. The Israelites were given certain instructions in preparation for this night that are recorded in Exodus chapter 12. These instructions included painting door frames with lamb’s blood. Everyone in the houses with blood-stained door frames would be safe, but in the houses without blood-stained door frames, the firstborn would be killed. In Exodus 12:13 Yahweh says, “The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” (NRSV, my underline.)
Exodus 12:29-30 records the tenth plague that occurred on Passover night:
At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. (NRSV)
In the aftermath of the tenth plague, the Israelites received their liberty, not just to hold a festival in the desert, but the freedom to leave Egypt altogether. They left Egypt and began their journey to the Promised Land in Canaan.
The Israelites were instructed to observe the night of the Passover annually on the 14th of Nisan. Celebrating the Passover comprised eating a home-cooked meal of roast lamb. There were special requirements concerning the lamb and the bread was to be unleavened, as there was not enough time to make bread with yeast on the night of the first Passover. The whole meal was to be eaten standing up as if in a hurry. (See Exodus 12:3-11.
The Passover then became incorporated into the festival of unleavened bread, one of the three annual agricultural festivals (Num. 28:16-17; cf. Exod. 23:14-15; Lev. 23:4-8; Deut. 16:16). Adult men were obligated to “appear before Yahweh” three times a year for these festivals (Deut. 16:5-6; cf. Exod. 23:17; 34:23).
The Passover and the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.
When Solomon built the first temple, men were then obligated to visit the temple in Jerusalem three times a year for the festivals, where possible. From this time onwards the Passover celebrations focused on the temple where the priests sprinkled the blood of the paschal lamb on the altar of the burnt offering. (Wilson 1989:242)
Passover was forgotten during times of spiritual apathy and apostasy, but was revived as part of the reforms of Hezekiah and of Josiah, and when the exiles returned from Babylon and built the second temple in Jerusalem (e.g., 2 Chron. ch. 30; 2 Chron. ch 35; cf. 2 Kings ch. 23; Ezra 6:19:22). Ezekiel, who is the only Old Testament prophet to mention the Passover, refers to it prophetically in regards to a new, future temple (Ezek. 45:21-24).
The Passover continued to be celebrated regularly during the intertestamental times. Jubilees 49:1-23, which was written during this period, gives details about how to celebrate the Passover. Jubilees 49:6 gives the first mention of wine being drunk during the Passover meal.
In New Testament times, the Passover was “a great spectacle of excitement and devotion.” (Wilson 198:243) It has been estimated that about 200,000 Jewish pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire travelled to Jerusalem for the feast. All twenty-four divisions of priests were on duty at the temple, instead of just one division. And all the shopkeepers were busy in the city selling their food and wares to the pilgrims.
The most important purchases were the sheep and goats for temple sacrifices. The animal (preferably a lamb) was selected on the 10th of Nisan (Pesachim 9:5). Family groups or companies of at least ten people were required to eat the lamb at one sitting, with no leftovers. (Wilson 1989:243) Each pilgrim enrolled in a “company” (haburah) for the Passover service. (Maccoby 1998:83) The meal was eaten in houses and rented rooms, or even out in the open, within the city of Jerusalem.
The annual pilgrimage festivals ceased altogether when the temple was destroyed in 70 CE. From that time, people ate the Passover meal in their own homes (or as guests in the homes of friends or relatives), and not just in Jerusalem. Lamb was no longer a part of the Passover meal as priests were no longer in service to check lambs for defects (cf. Exod 12:3-5), and because lambs could no longer be slaughtered and sacrificed in the temple, as had become the custom. After the destruction of the second temple, it came to be “regarded as wrong to eat roast meat on Passover night.” (Maccoby 1998:83) The unleavened bread, however, remained as an important part of the meal.
An old Haggadah (Image courtesy of Ariel Ministries Australia)
The Passover Meal in Judaism – The Seder.
The Seder and the Haggadah.
The rituals of the Passover meal, and the meaning behind these rituals, evolved over time. The Passover meal became known as the Seder and a liturgy developed as a guide, or set of instructions, to help people in celebrating the Seder. This liturgy is known as the Haggadah. The various elements and steps of the Haggadah and Seder were adapted and developed by different Jewish leaders and communities throughout ancient and medieval times, and passed on orally. The purpose of the Haggadah and Seder was, and is, to retell, remember, and celebrate the story of how God liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and thus “renew the basic religious experience of Judaism”. (Maccoby 1998:85)
As time went by, the meal “became overlaid with eschatological ideas, especially those associated with a messianic deliverance for the people of God, . . . the past became the prefigurement of an even greater saving act in the future.” (Howard 1967:329) Moreover, a belief developed that the Messiah would come on the night of the Passover. So the Seder was a time of joy and expectation, as well as a time of retelling and reflection.
The Hagaddah was not written down until the Middle Ages; however, references to the Seder are found in earlier Rabbinic writings, including these words attributed to Rabban Gamaliel:
Anyone who has not said these three words on Passover has not discharged his duty, and these are they: pesach, matzah and maror. Pesach (‘Passover’) – because the Allpresent passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt. Matzah (‘unleavened bread’) – because our ancestors were redeemed in Egypt. Maror (‘bitter herbs’) – because the Egyptians made the lives of our ancestors bitter in Egypt. (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:5)
Gamaliel associated the unleavened bread with redemption.
Today’s Haggadah has “the same basic structure as in ancient times: the four cups of wine, the interrogation by the son followed by the ‘telling’, the eating of unleavened bread and bitter herbs, the meal, and the singing of the Hallel.” (Maccoby 1988:83) The ‘telling’ and interpretations are mainly taken from Pesachim 10 of the Mishnah, and from the Exodus narrative. The Hallel consists of Psalms 113 and 114 which are said or sung before the meal, and Psalms 115 to 118 after the meal.
The Seder and the Afikomen.
One of the more enigmatic customs of the Seder involves a piece of unleavened bread known as the afikomen. The ritual of the afikomen comprises two of the fifteen orders of the Seder, but the ritual is never explained in the Haggadah. Early in the Passover meal, and before the Exodus story is read out, the person presiding breaks a piece of unleavened bread in half: the larger piece is called the afikomen and this is put aside, out of view. This ritual is the fourth step of the Haggadah and is called yachatz (“breaking”). After the meal, the leader takes the afikomen that has now come out of “hiding”, and it is broken up, distributed, and eaten by everyone at the Seder. This is the twelfth step of the Haggadah and is called tzsafun (“hidden”). The afikomen is always the last thing eaten at a Seder, even if there are sweets for dessert. Many modern Jews simply refer to the afikomen as “dessert”.
The word “afikomen” is found in the most ancient rabbinic texts, such as Pesachim 10:8 in the Mishnah, and there have been numerous ideas put forward to explain its significance. The word appears to be Greek but translators have by no means agreed on the Greek Vorlage. (Carmichael 1991:52) Carmichael (1991:53) notes that Robert Eisler (in 1926) and David Daube (in 1966) translate afikomen as derived from the Greek afikomenos, which means ‘The Coming One’, or ‘He that has come’, and that the term refers to an awaited redeemer.
Eisler and Daube argue that in a future-oriented, messianic sense, the unleavened bread stood for the whole of the Jewish people. A broken-off piece of bread represented a longed-for redeemer who had not yet appeared. During the Passover celebration of redemption, this messianic figure was symbolically brought into the midst of the company and united with the Jewish people through a ritual involving the afikomen. (Carmichael 1991:49)
The origins of the ritual of the afikomen have been completely lost. This may be because
. . . as Christianity emerged from Judaism, Jewish ideas which had been taken up and developed by the followers of Jesus were played down or even suppressed by Jewish authorities. The notion that a human being could perform the divine function of redemption came to be eliminated from the Jewish community’s annual meditation upon redemption. (Carmichael 1991:54)
Remarkably, even Moses is absent from the prayers, stories, and biblical passages of the Passover Haggadah. (Carmichael 1991:54).
Yeshua sharing the Last Supper with his disciples.
The Passover Meal and Yeshua´s Last Supper.
Each of the writers of the four canonical gospels records that Jesus and his disciples were together for an evening meal prior to Jesus’ death. This meal has been called the Last Supper. The writers of the synoptic gospels have Jesus referring to this Last Supper as the “Passover meal” (Matt 26:17-19; Mark 14:12,16; Luke 22:1,7). John alludes to the Last Supper, but he does not call it a Passover meal. The fact that John does not refer to this meal as a Passover meal is interesting considering the numerous times that John uses the word “Passover” (Greek: Pascha) throughout his gospel.
Many scholars believe that the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion was a Seder. What this Seder may have looked like is uncertain. Jonathan Klawans (2001) suggests that the Seder as we know it today developed only after the time of Jesus. Eisler, however, believes that the ritual of the afikomen, at least, was already being observed by some, if not most, Jews in the first century and therefore was part of the Seder of Jesus’ time. (Sumner n.d.) Hymns were a part of the Seder of this period. Matthew and Mark record that Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn at the end of the Last Supper, presumably from Psalms 115 to 118 (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26).
Some scholars, however, are doubtful that Jesus’ Last Supper was a genuine Passover meal, as it probably did not take place on the evening of Passover. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ Last Supper is said to have occurred on the evening of the Day of Preparation, and not when Passover began at sundown the following evening (John 19:14; cf. Mark 14:12). (Days begin at sunset, early evening, according to Jewish thinking.) Whether the Last Supper was an actual Passover Seder or not, the supper was held so close to the time of Jesus’ death, which itself happened so close to the day of Passover, that the association of the Passover with Jesus’ death and the Supper was inevitable.
Jonathan Klawans (2001) suggests that Seders could be held near the time of Passover, and not just on the actual night, much the same as we can have Christmas dinners and parties on any day during the Christmas season and not just on December the 25th. Deborah Carmichael (1991:56-58) even suggests that the supper Jesus presided over in Emmaus, a few days after Passover, was a Seder. (See Luke 24:30). If the Last Supper was a Seder, then, when Jesus broke the bread and said, “Take, eat, this is my body”, he may well have been dividing and distributing the afikomen. (See Matthew 26:26; cf. Mark 14:22.) His disciples would have understood Jesus to be associating himself with this messianic symbol which was eaten as part of a Passover meal (cf. Luke 24:30-31).
Jesus and his disciples probably were sharing a Seder in the upper room. But even if they were sharing a regular Jewish meal with its usual customs, it is clear that Jesus did something new and unusual within the established format. The unique details, and not the ordinary details of the meal, are what the Gospel writers record. (Kodell 1991:38) Because the usual details of the meal have not been recorded it is difficult to reconstruct precisely what happened on that night.
A formal meal was an important family and social ritual for the Jews. The typical, formal meal began with a prayer of thanksgiving, where bread was broken and passed around, and it ended with a prayer of thanksgiving. (Kodell 1991:39) This final prayer was recited over a third cup of wine on special and solemn occasions. This cup was then passed around to all participants and was known as “the cup of blessing”, a term Paul used in 1 Corinthians 10:16. (Kodell 1991:41)
If the Last Supper was a regular or formal Jewish meal, and not a Seder, still “we cannot escape the obvious Paschal significance which Jesus gave to the bread and the wine” during the supper. (Howard 1967:330) Jesus used the Supper and imagery of the Passover meal to institute a new memorial meal, a meal to remember him by.
The Passover Meal in the Early Church – the Eucharist
Eucharistia – Thanksgiving.
The first Christians were Jewish, and it seems the prayers of blessing and thanksgiving that were traditionally said at Jewish meals were adopted by the Early Church for their communal meals. The Greek word for blessing, eulogia, is found in Mark 14:22 and Matthew 26:26 where Jesus broke the bread during the Last Supper while instituting a lasting ordinance in his memory. After he had said a blessing for the bread and had given it to his disciples to eat, Jesus gave thanks for the cup of wine. In Mark 14:23, Matthew 26:27, Luke 22:17, 19 and 1 Corinthians 11:24 the word eucharisteō, which means “give thanks”, is used. Eucharistia (“thanksgiving”) eventually became the preferred term for the communal Christian meal. (Kodell 1991:30)
In the Didache, a church manual that seems to have been used widely in the second century, there are instructions for observing the Eucharist. Chapters nine and ten of the Didache provide prayers of thanksgiving for the Eucharist; however, instead of referring to Jesus’ death, the prayers allude to the story of the feeding of the five thousand (Didache 9:4; cf. John 6:10-13). Interestingly, John introduces the narrative of the feeding of five thousand in his gospel with a pointed reference to the Passover (John 6:4). After telling the story of the feeding the five thousand, John continues with Jesus teaching the crowd on the theme of bread:
“For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. . . I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:33-35)
John’s Gospel records lengthy teaching from Jesus during the Last Supper and it records a prayer in John chapter 17 as if “the Lord, acting as the president of the feast, offers a new Haggadah and a new prayer of blessing and consecration . . .” (Howard 1967:336) In John 17:20-23, Jesus prays for unity, a profound oneness for his disciples and for future believers. The Eucharist prayers of the Didache also emphasise the theme of unity, as does the apostle Paul in his instructions for observing the Lord’s Supper.
Koinōnia – Communion.
The close fellowship (koinōnia) and unity of believers, which is a theme of the Eucharist, has caused this supper to also be known as “Communion”. This term is taken from 1 Corinthians 11:16-17:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion (koinōnia) of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion (koinōnia) of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 (KJV)
The participants of the Eucharist “experienced the meal as a gathering of the new family of the children of God. In their view, it expressed their community and unity ‘in Christ.’” (Alikin 2009:8)
The absence of references to Jesus’ death in the Eucharist instructions in the Didache has caused some scholars to suggest that there were two traditions of Eucharist meals in the early Church: one tradition that was recorded in John’s Gospel and the Didache, and another tradition that was recorded in the synoptic gospels and Paul’s teaching. Alikin (2009:110) writes that “The agreements between Mark’s and Paul’s accounts of the last Supper warrant the conclusion that in this story the two authors are using a common tradition.” Nevertheless, in both traditions, the breaking and distribution of bread is a key feature.
A third-century fresco called Fractio Panis (the breaking of bread), In the Greek Chapel in the Catacomb of Saint Priscilla.
Early Christian Meetings and the Eucharist.
The Communal Meal and the Table Talk.
The first Christians incorporated Jewish elements in the Eucharist. They also incorporated elements from Greco-Roman culture into their communal meals. The Greco-Romans held their evening banquets in two parts. The first part was called the supper and the second part was called the symposium, or table talk. Alikin (2009:27) notes that “A supper with an ensuing symposium was the setting in which the followers of Jesus, Pauline groups as well as other Christian communities, came together for sharing their beliefs, their joys and their concerns.” This two-part pattern of meeting, held mostly on Sunday evenings, continued until the middle of the third century, as is attested by many early Christian writers.
Justin Martyr, writing in around 155-157 CE, describes what happened in Sunday meetings in his First Apology (67):
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles [Gospels] or the writings of the prophets [Old Testament sriptures] are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.
The twofold pattern of supper and table talk is also attested to by Tertullian in Carthage (197 CE) who describes the weekly community meal as consisting of a supper and then an after-supper session devoted to the singing of hymns taken from the scriptures as well as new compositions, and prayer. (Alikin 2009:29)
Weekly and Daily Eucharists.
While the main meeting of the church, which included the Eucharist, was held on Sunday evenings, there is also evidence that eucharistic meals were held at other times, even daily. In the Apostolic Constitutions (7.60) the Christians are urged to meet together for worship every morning before work, just as “the Gentiles every day, when they arise from sleep, run to their idols to worship them.” (Alikin 2009:80) Daily church meetings were a widespread practice throughout the Greco-Roman world and by the third century “morning gatherings on weekdays are attested not only for North-Africa and Rome but also for Syria and Palestine.” (Alikin 2009:90) Customs changed, however, and, from the middle of the third century, the Sunday morning Eucharist, rather than the Sunday evening meeting, became the most important Church meeting.
Keeping the Passover: The Quartodecimans.
Some Christians, however, continued to follow at least some Jewish customs and observed an annual Passover feast. For example, a sect of Christians in Asia Minor called Quartodecimans (“fourteeners”) observed a Christianised Passover annually on the 14th of Nisan “as determined by the Jewish calendar, rather than on a set Sunday as became Christian practice.” (Cohick 1998:354) In Peri Pascha, a second-century Quartodeciman manuscript which has been described as a Christian Haggadah, Melitto, the bishop of Sardis, uses the word afikomenos twice, in both instances to refer to Jesus as the Messiah who has come. (Carmichael 1991:60) The Quartodecimans also observed a night vigil on Passover night in expectation of the arrival of the Messiah—the return of Jesus Christ.
The Eucharist Today.
Most churches today continue the traditions which began centuries ago, but they have adapted and altered them. Today’s Eucharist is no longer a real meal but a stylised re-enactment of Jesus’ Last Supper. One thing that is missing from some versions of this re-enactment is the unleavened bread which is still a prominent feature of Jewish Seders. While some churches do use unleavened bread, many other churches use bread with yeast for the Eucharist. In some denominations, the bread has been given new and extra meanings. In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, the bread is thought to become the actual body of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, the bread continues to be the focus of the Eucharist, along with the wine, and the association of the Eucharist with the deliverance of first Passover is not entirely lost. Melito of Sardis was perceptive when he wrote, “The mystery of the Passover is new and old, eternal and temporal, corruptible and incorruptible, mortal and immortal . . .” (Peri Pascha, intro.2)
“For the Messiah our Passover [or paschal lamb] is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast . . .” 1 Corinthians 5:7-8
 Seder means “order”. There are now fifteen steps, or “orders”, in the Seder.
 Haggadah means “telling”.
 Robert Eisler’s paper: “Das Letzte Abendmahl” [The Final Supper], Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft [ZNW] Vol. 24 (1925): 161-92 and Vol. 25 (1926): 5-37.
David Daube’s book: He that Commeth (1966). David Daube is a Jewish biblical and legal scholar at Oxford University.
 John mentions the Passover (pascha) ten times (John 2:13, 23; 6:4; 11:55 (twice); 12.1; 13.1;18.28, 39; 19.14) and he uses the word festival (eortē) a further nine times (John 2:23; 4:45 (twice); 6:4; 11:46; 12:12, 20; 13:1, 29).
 In his book The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, Joachim Jeremias lists fourteen features of Jesus’ Last Supper, as recorded in the gospels, which have parallels with the Passover Seder. However, these fourteen features could also have taken place in a regular Jewish meal. Regular and festive Jewish meals had rituals associated with them. “Joachim Jeremias places the Last Supper and the meaning of Jesus’ words within the context of Passover. However, while Jeremias concludes that the Last Supper actually took place at a Passover Seder, Daube prefers to leave the question open.” (Carmichael 1991:49)
 The Day of Preparation was the day the Passover lambs were sacrificed in the Temple.
 Alikin (2009:8-9) notes, “The prominence of thanksgivings and blessings at Christian eucharistic meals can hardly be explained satisfactorily without taking into account prayer traditions transmitted at ceremonial Jewish meals.”
 Alikin (2009:4, fn9) has compiled these references to Christian meetings with a supper and symposium: 1 Corinthians 11:17-14, 40; Didache 9-10, 14; Justin Martyr’s First Apology 67; Irenaeus’ Against Heresies 1.13; Clement of Alexandra’s Stromata 6.113; Athenagoras’ Plea for the Christians 3; 31; Theophilus’ Apology to Autolycus 3.4; Acts of Peter 13; Minucius Felix’ Octavius 8.4; 9.6; 31.1, 5; Tertullian’s Apology 7; 39; Tertullian’s To the Nations 1.2; 1.7; Traditio apostolica 25-29; Origin’s Contra Celsum 1.1; 8.32; Cyprian’s Epistles 63.
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