Some Thoughts on the Last Supper

Holy Week is a time of preparation,  of sombre reflection, and of contemplative worship. Many churches, including our own,  sometimes gather on the evening of Maundy Thursday for a Passover meal, where the Jewish symbolism of Seder is combined with Christian Scripture,  to remind us of how the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross has a deep connection with the Passover lambs whose blood on the doorposts protected the Hebrews as they escaped from slavery in Egypt.

Many people assume that Jesus’ Last Supper was a Seder, a ritual meal held in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Passover. Three of the gospels tell us Jesus prepared for the Last Supper on the “first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb.” (Mark 14: 12). If Jesus and his disciples gathered together to eat soon after the Passover lamb was sacrificed, they must have eaten the Passover meal, celebrated today as Seder. This is the view taken in a detailed examination of the Last Supper  by German scholar Joachim Jeremias in The Eucharistic Words of Jesus written in 1966. Jeremias lists 14 parallels between the Last Supper tradition and the Passover Seder. 

Exodus 12 tells the people to kill lambs on 14th Nisan and eat the roasted meat on the 15th.  After the temple was built, this annual memorial became a Jewish pilgrimage festival, described in the reign of Hezekiah (2 Chr 30) and reflected in the New Testament narratives (eg John 2: 13)  After the Fall of Jerusalem the feast focussed much more on the unleavened bread, and the retold history, than on the lamb which could no longer be sacrificed. Christians today, especially in the US, get much of their understanding of Passover from the Seder practices of contemporary Jewish families. At this time of the year, interfaith services are held, with elements of both Jewish and Christian heritage included. I attended one such event - a three-hour Passover meal led by a Messianic Jewish woman - in New Zealand about twenty years ago. She definitely assumed the Last Supper was a Seder.

But history and theology are often more complex then we think.
40 years ago I studied liturgics (public worship) at theological college in Dunedin. Our  textbook by Scottish Professor William Maxwell was first published in 1936, but has been republished many times because it is such a valuable guide to the Biblical and historical roots of our worship traditions. I recall few details of those liturgics lectures, and no longer have a copy of Jeremias, but I have kept my 3rd-hand copy of Maxwell's book, principally because of the section on the Last Supper.  He rejects the simple identification of Eucharist and Passover. Let me summarise Maxwell's claims about the origins of the Last Supper:

The Last Supper has been reexamined (he cites Oesterly and others)  and another view offered which more accurately explains the facts. This view is that a weekly religious meal called the Kiddush was shared by groups of male Jews in that era, and was the practice of many rabbis with their disciples. Its purpose was to prepare for a Sabbath or a festival with a simple meal of ordinary leavened bread, and wine mixed with water, accompanied by religious discussion and prayers. These pious Jews, often a messianic group watching for signs of the coming of God's anointed, would pass the cup from one to another as they shared fellowship. There were no women or children present, and the bread was ordinary leavened bread, 'artos'.

Maxwell  goes on to point out how this fits the description in John's gospel of the Last Supper as a pre-Passover meal, followed by Jesus' trial and crucifixion on a non-holy day. John notes that Jesus died on the Day of Preparation (John 19: 31) when the sacrificial lambs were being slaughtered, a point that Paul picks up in 1 Corinthians 5: 7 where he calls Jesus our Passover Lamb. Biblical scholars down through the ages have noticed that the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke)  place the timing of Passover in a different place; theologians often attribute John's differing chronology to his concern to portray Jesus as the lamb that was slain for our salvation. 

Maxwell's proposal hit me like a bombshell at age 20. My Christian upbringing and knowledge of both Passover and Communion had always led me to think of them together; as the New Israel, the new Zion, the church inherits and renews many of the patterns from the Old Covenant. And our Professor was careful to underline that Maxwell's explanation does not deny that the two rituals overlap; he used the example of a Christmas dinner, which may be held earlier in December for a club or workplace, but is still called Christmas. Let's look at the two interpretations then.

 The Synoptic View - Jesus was celebrating Passover.
Three out of four gospels claim this view. Jeremias notes 14 parallels including the elements of bread, wine and reclining diners. The explanation of the meaning of the different foods - the Jewish haggadah - is very much part of Passover and seems to be enacted by Jesus in his description of the meaning of the Bread and wine as presaging his broken Body and poured out Blood. Many assume the lamb was not mentioned because it was so normal at Passover; see the fifteenth century painting here.

The Johannine View - The meal was before the Passover.
The three Synoptic gospels are literally interconnected so it is really only Mark's testimony against that of John. Most of Jeremias' parallels could apply to ordinary first century Jewish meals. The timing of Passover was a subject of debate in Jesus' day. The rabbinic tradition of Haggadah did not become part of the Seder till after the Fall of Jerusalem. In the Last Supper narratives there is no mention of women or children, normally present at Passover, nor of lamb, or bitter herbs, which would have connected with Jesus' prophecy of his death. There is only one cup described, compared with the four used at Seder.  The trial and execution must have been held on a nonholy day (no mention is made of the offence if Jesus was crucified on Passover itself). All the elements of Kiddush including ordinary leavened bread are present in the Last Supper. Communion became a weekly celebration like Kiddush, and the wine was always mixed with water.

I was reminded of all this debate this week when I was sent an article  from the Biblical Archaeology Society. And I reflected on the discussions I have had about the matter with colleagues; many evangelicals seem entrenched about it, maybe because of their theology of Scripture. But the reality is that the two testimonies here are incompatible and you probably can't have it both ways. Though we should always remember that the ancients were not interested in literalism, not even when it came to the crucifixion, about which the testimonies also vary. Perhaps our modern concept of discourses is more useful here than a concern for literalism.

I rather like the comment made by a group of NT scholars, writing about the differing resurrection narratives:
We have a jigsaw puzzle of information and cannot be sure that we have all the pieces. Since the scripture has not given us a single unified story, we must be careful or else we  end up believing that our reconstruction is the truth. A reconstruction may be the truth or it may distort the truth. If we had some other critical pieces of information we might make a different reconstruction...the gospels are not photographs but portraits (Hard Sayings of the Bible, IVP, 1996, p508 and 84).

Perhaps the theology of pilgrimage also has something to offer. When I travelled to the Holy Land, I visited numerous sites that claimed to be the very place where Jesus preached a sermon, performed a miracle or rose from the dead. But our guides acknowledged that for most of these claims we have no archeological proof. But the sites have been revered for centuries and visited by millions of believers over time; that in itself makes them holy. 

The facts are less important than we think. Whichever gospel better reflects the history, it is clear that Jesus death, and his message about it to the disciples, took place in Passover season, with all the symbolism of sacrifice, deliverance, and hope that festival contains. Little is known of how Passover was celebrated in the first century, but if the modern practice of afikomen hiding bread in a napkin and then finding it again was in vogue then, the meal whenever it was eaten contained a portent of resurrection. That makes Maundy Thursday only part of the picture; for those who believe, Sunday's coming!

 To Chew Over: What does the identification of Jesus with the Passover Lamb mean to you?

My faith looks up to Thee,
Thou Lamb of Calvary, Savior divine!
Now hear me while I pray, take all my guilt away,
O let me from this day be wholly Thine!

May Thy rich grace impart
Strength to my fainting heart, my zeal inspire!
As Thou hast died for me, O may my love to Thee,
Pure warm, and changeless be, a living fire!
Ray Palmer