Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder?
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.”
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 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.