Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder?

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Celebrating Passover is quite the elaborate meal, but where did the rituals of the Passover Seder come from? Was this how they celebrated in Exodus, or even in New Testament Israel?

It’s often taught that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder and that when Jesus instituted the sacrament of communion with the bread and wine that he was just giving meaning to elements that had already been part of the Seder for centuries, yet as disappointing as it may be to hear, the meal Jesus ate with his disciples looked nothing like the modern Passover Seders we celebrate today.

The Seders we now associate with Passover have come out of Rabbinic teachings and tradition, let’s get a refresher on what scripture actually says about how to celebrate Passover.

The Exodus 12 requirements for celebrating Passover are:

  • 10th of Nisan: get the lamb for your family, making sure there will be enough for everyone to eat
  • 14th of Nisan: at twilight, slaughter the lamb and collect the blood to place on your doorframe
  • 15th of Nisan: after sunset of that same day (the 14th) roast the lamb over an open flame fully intact, eat it with bitter herb and unleavened bread
  • 15th of Nisan: all the food must be eaten before the next morning, anything left must be burned
  • 15th of Nisan: eat the meal ready to leave with your shoes on, bags packed
  • 15th of Nisan: tell the story of the Exodus, recall how God passed over Israel and spared their first borns

Immediately after the Passover sacrifice the Festival of Unleavened Bread begins

  • 15th -21st of Nisan: no leaven in the house, may only eat unleavened bread
  • 15th of Nisan: sacred assembly, Sabbath rest, no work except preparing food
  • 21st of Nisan: sacred assembly, Sabbath rest, no work except preparing food

While some form of all these elements are present in the modern Passover Seder, it is much simpler than the ritualized meals observed today. Many Passover Seder’s do not include lamb since the temple was destroyed in 70 AD, there can be no sacrifices made on the altar; instead a chicken wing is often used to represent the lamb shank.

You’ll also notice Exodus 12 has no instruction involving a Seder plate, four or five cups of wine, four questions to ask, charoset, parsley, hardboiled eggs, or a hidden piece of Matzah. All of these traditions were added some time later, likely thousands of years later in the early 2nd century AD. Some of them may have been present earlier – such as having wine with the meal and multiple cups having meaning. Some Rabbinic traditions said there should be four glasses of wine, some five, so it seems practice became to have five and only drink four.

The hidden piece of bread which is a center piece of modern Passover Seders and the Last Supper story is referred to as the afikoman which means “that which comes after” or “dessert”. What’s interesting about this name is that God specifically said not to celebrate after the Passover meal, no after party, no dessert (Exodus 12:11).

While there is value in seeking out our Jewish roots to better understand Christianity, we must keep in mind that much of Judaism is based on Rabbinical teachings and tradition, many of which came after Jesus walked the Earth. And that’s not to say Rabbinical teachings are not worth examining; Jesus references them in his teaching, the Last Supper does seem to have elements of what has now become the Passover Seder, and they give us understanding into the debates Paul was often settling in the early church about what customs Christians should still observe.

So was The Last Supper a Passover Seder?

Depends on which gospel you ask.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all identify The Last Supper as a Passover meal and begin their accounts by saying, “On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread.” John however has a different chronology; in chapter 12, he says it was 6 days before Passover when Jesus was anointed in Bethany, then later in the chapter the Triumphal Entry mentions people coming into Jerusalem to prepare for Passover, which could indicate the 10th of Nisan or just a few days prior of when Exodus 12 says to get the lamb you will slaughter on the 14th. John also notes that the day of Jesus crucifixion was the day of preparation before the special sabbath on the 15th of Nisan.

So despite Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s accounts – the rest of the chronology in those books seems to agree with John’s, that the Last Supper was likely the evening of the 13th of Nisan, with the 14th beginning that night at sunset. It could be the the preparations the disciples ask Jesus about were those made on the 10th of Nisan which would also make sense chronologically with their entry into Jerusalem, or it could be an example of the debate of when to start counting the Feast of Unleavened Bread with some traditions counting eight days and others seven. John’s chronology of the Last Supper also fits with Jesus post-resurrection appearance to all the disciples together a week later, which would have been the 21st of Nisan, the sacred assembly sabbath rest to end the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The significance of John’s chronology is it portrays Jesus as the final sacrificial Lamb, crucified on the the day of Passover preparation.

We ultimately do no know for sure if what we call The Last Supper was a Passover meal on the evening of the 14th of Nisan, however the significance of that meal and the communion sacrament Jesus established that night remain the same.

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