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Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder?

davincilastsupper.jpg

In a blog post (here) that brings a wide variety of artistic representations of the Last Supper, David Assaf wrote that some people either don’t know, or forget, that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder.

לפעמים אנו שוכחים – או שמא פשוט לא יודעים – שהסעודה האחרונה של ישו היתה סעודת ליל הסדר.

The claim that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder is repeated by many and rarely doubted, but the problem is that this claim is probably incorrect.

Assaf brings the following text from Matthew 14:12-26:

12 And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 13 And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, 14 and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” 16 And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover. 17 And when it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18 And as they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” 19 They began to be sorrowful and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” 20 He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me. 21 For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” 22 And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. 24 And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

In one of the most important articles on the possible relationship between the Last Supper and the Passover Seder, Jonathan Klawans wrote:

While three of the four canonical Gospels strongly suggest that the Last Supper did occur on Passover, we should not get too comfortable based on that. The three Gospels that support this view are the three synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke. As anyone who has studied these three Gospels knows, they are closely related. In fact, the name synoptic refers to the fact that these three texts can be studied most effectively when “seen together” (as implied in the Greek etymology of synoptic). Thus, in fact we don’t really have three independent sources here at all. What we have, rather, is one testimony (probably Mark), which was then copied twice (by Matthew and Luke).

Klawans continued and wrote:

Against the “single” testimony of the synoptics that the Last Supper was a Passover meal stands the lone Gospel of John, which dates the crucifixion to the “day of Preparation for the Passover” (John 19:14). According to John, Jesus died just when the Passover sacrifice was being offered and before the festival began at sundown (see the sidebar to this article). Any last meal—which John does not record—would have taken place the night before, or even earlier than that. But it certainly could not have been a Passover meal, for Jesus died before the holiday had formally begun.

Klawans admitted that the description found in John is not without problems, but for a number of reasons he finds it to be more reliable than the synoptic version. You can read here and here for reactions to Klawans’s article.

And what about the seder itself? Again, from Klawans:

How much of the Haggadah goes back to ancient times? In the 1930s and 1940s, the American Talmud scholar Louis Finkelstein (1895–1991) famously claimed that various parts of the Passover Haggadah were very early, stemming in part from the third century B.C.E. In 1960, Israeli scholar Daniel Goldschmidt (1895–1972) effectively rebutted practically all of Finkelstein’s claims. It is unfortunate that Goldschmidt’s Hebrew article has not been translated, because it remains, to my mind, the classic work on the early history of the Passover Haggadah. Fortunately, a number of brief and up-to-date treatments of the history of the Haggadah are now available. A full generation later, the Goldschmidt-Finkelstein debate seems to have been settled, and in Goldschmidt’s favor. Almost everyone doing serious work on the early history of Passover traditions, including Joseph Tabory, Israel Yuval, Lawrence Hoffman, and the father-son team of Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai, has rejected Finkelstein’s claims for the great antiquity of the bulk of the Passover Haggadah. What is particularly significant about this consensus is that these scholars are not radical skeptics. These scholars believe that, generally speaking, we can extract historically reliable information from rabbinic sources. But as demonstrated by the late Baruch Bokser in his book The Origins of the Seder, practically everything preserved in the early rabbinic traditions concerning the Passover Seder brings us back to the time immediately following the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. It’s not that rabbinic literature cannot be trusted to tell us about history in the first century of the Common Era. It’s that rabbinic literature—in the case of the Seder—does not even claim to be telling us how the Seder was performed before the destruction of the Temple.

Or as my friend Josh Kulp put it,

This overwhelming trend among historians and rabbinic text critics leads to the conclusion that Jesus’ last supper, even if it did occur on the eve of Passover, was not a ‘seder’, for there was no ‘seder’ in the Second Temple period.

Update: See some of my comments (Hebrew) to the original post by David Assaf.

Update II: See the following quotation from the Anchor Bible Dictionary’s entry on “Last Supper” for an example of how some scholarship presented the material in the Mishnah as an accurate portrayal of practice during the Second Temple period.

Although a number of scholars identify the Last Supper as a Passover meal, a description of which is given in the Mishnah (Pesaḥ10; cf. Str-B 4/1: 41-76), the majority are still not convinced of this interpretation. However, many would concede that Jesus ate his final meal in a Passover atmosphere; there was, after all, the proximity of the feast.

17 Responses to “Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder?”

  1. 1
    David Assaf:

    Thanks for the interesting references, but where is the link to my post?

    Here it is:
    http://onegshabbat.blogspot.com/2011/04/blog-post_10.html

  2. 2
    Harry Perkal:

    So maybe it was not seder, but it still looked more intersting than my seders.

    By the way if it was a seder who asked the Four Questions?

  3. 3
    Menachem Mendel:

    David,

    Thank you for pointing out my mistake. I have added a link.

    Menachem Mendel

  4. 4
    Nachi Brown:

    You are confusing the origins of the ‘Haggadah’ with the origins of the ‘Seder’, which predate the ‘Haggadah’ by nearly 1500 years. Read the last chapter of the Tosefta for tractate Pesachim for a sense of what a Haggadah-less Seder was like in the time period you’re referencing.
    Chag Kasher VeSameach

  5. 5
    Menachem Mendel:

    Nachi,

    Why do you think that the Tosefta is accurately describing what happened in the early 1st century CE? Is the Seder=Eating the Passover Sacrifice?

  6. 6
    Josh Kulp:

    The Tosefta doesn’t really have a “seder” if what we mean by a seder is “organized meal.” At best we might say that the Tosefta is a proto-seder.
    As far as the origins of the Haggadah, it depends on what we mean by Haggadah. There clearly is a ritual recitation referred to in the Mishnah, and the Gemara calls it the “Haggadah.” Written Haggadot come around in the Geonic period. So the seder does not precede the Haggadah, pretty much at all, if we use the earlier meaning.
    What I find interesting is how powerful the idea is to people that Jesus had a “seder”. It simply satisfies no one to hear that he did a “Passover meal.” They need a seder. I am also very interested in the phenomenon of “scholarly myths.” These are theories usually written in the early 20th century that were based on nearly no evidence but have managed to capture the public’s imagination and that it is very hard for them to let go of. Example 1: The rabbis villify Lavan because the Haggadah was written under Egyptian rule. They wanted to appease the Egyptians by telling them that the real villain is Rome. Clever. Example 2: The rabbis in B’nai Berak were plotting the Bar Kochva revolt. Imaginative.

  7. 7
    Nachi Brown:

    MM – Don’t be lazy. Compare the Tosefta to the Mishna for the last chapter of Pesachim. It’s fascinating.
    Both describe the Seder = 4 Cups of Wine, Matzah, Maror, Korban Pesach/Meal bookended by Hallel (as required by a Korban Todah). The difference is the Churban. The Tosefta is Korban/Hallel-centered followed by all-night freestyle Sippur Yetziat Mitzraim / Pesach study, whereas the Mishna formalized ‘Maggid’ around the Mechilta of the 4 sons and emphasized other Seder elements. Rabban Gamliel had a Korban Pesach Seder, whereas Rabbi Akiva in Bnei Brak had a Maggid Seder. The popular piyutim were later appended by Gaonim & Baalei-Tosafot in the Medieval period.

  8. 8
    Menachem Mendel:

    Nachi,

    I repeat my question, how do you know that what the Tosefta describes is what was observed in the early 1st century CE? I agree that a comparison of the M and T is very interesting and that the Tosefta is probably describing an earlier version of what became the seder, but that is very different than saying that what is described in the Tosefta is an accurate description of what was practiced in the early 1st century CE.

  9. 9
    avie walfish:

    Menachem Mendel is right that neither the Mishnah nor the Tosefta can be fully trusted to describe exactly what was practiced in early 1st century C.E., but some scholars are less skeptical than others on this point. The Mishnah records, as part of the Haggadah /Pesach Meal, disputes between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, as well as halakhic statements and disputes from Yavnean sages, and this indicates that the basic structure existed in early first century. It is also interesting to compare Philo’s description, which largely confirms the Mishnaic / Toseftan account

  10. 10
    bootsy:

    I prefer to simply scrap the current method and simply use the Torah Scroll because the Torah Scroll represents what the Seder is all about. Especially since The Trope Trainer. This would obviously change the Bar/Bat Mitvah organization to a more historical Judaism. Then for Winter Solstice use the Four Books of Maccabees. I think Rabbis in the US would just love it. Well, all but the Orthodox. That was my vision of a State of Israel in 1941, when I was voted first Rosh of Kvutza Kinnereth at the South East Hebrew Congregation in D.C. early 1941. Too bad it didn’t happen for me.

  11. 11
    Sister Anne:

    Interestingly, Pope Benedict XVI, in his latest book, “Jesus of Nazareth: From Holy Week to the Resurrection,” weighs in quite strongly on the “not a seder” side of the question (following the Gospel of John, which he sees as strongly reliable on the cultural aspects of Jesus’ life).

  12. 12
    Menachem Mendel:

    Sister Anne,

    Thank you for the reference to Pope Benedict XVI’s book. The section in which he addresses this question can be found here.

  13. 13
    Jeffrey R. Woolf:

    I’m totally unconvinced by Klawans. If there is a gospel whose credibility is suspect it’s John. It is far more likely that John shifted the date to make Jesus the ultimate Paschal Lamb.

    As for the skeptics, it is irrelevant whether the order in Temple times was exactly that which was later stylized. The post-Destruction order could not have been created out of whole cloth, and accepted as such. It clearly includes earlier elements that reflect the Temple era practice. That practice, it seems to me, definitely included commemorative elements centered around telling the story of the exodus. Kulp, as a minimalist, seems to delight in overkill.

  14. 14
    shammai:

    It wasn’t a Pesach seder and it didn’t take place in the spring (unless someone can show me a tradition where you wave lulavim on Pesach!). Jeses asks his followers to find a room atop a roof in which to have a meal–a strong suggestion of a sukkah, not a place for a seder (unless you’re shabbetai tzvi). and he tells his followers to buy arms and sell their cloaks, if necessary, to do so (cloaks are worn in the fall, not in the spring). Throughout the ancient world, resurrection stories abounded and they were all set in the spring, the season of rebirth, and so paul (the true founder of christianity and i doubt his claims to being jewish) moved the events from sukkot to pesach.

  15. 15
    aspacia:

    “Or as my friend Josh Kulp put it,

    This overwhelming trend among historians and rabbinic text critics leads to the conclusion that Jesus’ last supper, even if it did occur on the eve of Passover, was not a ‘seder’, for there was no ‘seder’ in the Second Temple period. ”

    This is invalid: ”
    The Orthodox Jewish Timeline : Chronological Dates Based On The Seder Olam Rabbah Dates
    (1) Without A Year 0
    Seder Olam Rabbah Date Traditional or Historic Proleptic Gregorian Calendar Date Event In Jewish History
    2892 869 B.C.E. David becomes King of Israel.
    2924 837 B.C.E. Solomon becomes King of Israel.
    2928 833 B.C.E. Jerusalem: First Temple started.
    2935 826 B.C.E. First Temple completed. It takes 7 1/2 years to build the Temple and was completed in the autumn of the 11th year of Solomon’s reign.
    2964 797 B.C.E. In the region of Judea: Division of the Kingdom of Israel into two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Israel in northern Judea and the Kingdom of Judah in southern Judea.
    3338 423 B.C.E. Babylonians destroy First Temple on the 9th of Av and exile the Jews to Babylon.
    3389 372 B.C.E. Babylon falls to Medes and Persians under Darius the Mede and Cyrus the Great of Persia; Cyrus reigns; Proclamation of Cyrus, he permits Jews to return to Eretz Yisrael. Return to Israel. Minority returns in Nissan – same month as Exodus from Egypt. Persian Empire.
    3391 370 B.C.E. Darius the Persian permits Jews to rebuild Temple in Jerusalem. Second Temple started. Medean Empire.
    3408 353 B.C.E. Second Temple completed.
    3828 67 C.E. Romans destroy Second Temple – 9th of Av. About 2,000,000 killed. Cruelty, Exile, Slavery. Destruction of Second Temple by Romans (according to some, the year was 3829 = 68 C.E.).”

  16. 16
    Joe in Australia:

    Whether the Last Supper was a Seder or not, the accounts of it must have passed through people who didn’t know that the sine qua non of a Seder is recounting the story of the Exodus. It’s no answer to this to say that the Seder hadn’t been formalised by this time – without *some* account of the Exodus the Seder is just a meal. *If* the Last Supper were a Seder and *if* the people transmitting the account were familiar with Sedarim you would expect some exposition comparing the Exodus to, say, abandoning sin or entering “the Kingdom of Heaven”. But there’s no mention of this at all.

  17. 17
    mendy:

    מסכת סנהדרין דף מג ע”א says: “בערב הפסח תלאוהו לישו”

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