A Simple Liturgical Reason Why the Last Supper Probably wasn’t a Passover Seder

 

by Geert ter Horst

The Korban Pesach (Passover Sacrifice)

The Korban Pesach (Passover Sacrifice)

Each year, when Passover is approaching, Messianics have discussions on the nature of Yeshua’s Last Supper, as it is recorded in the synoptic Gospels. The prevalent question is: Was this Supper a Passover Seder? The discussion about this question is part of the ongoing discussion on the calendrical date of Yeshua’s Crucifixion: Did it happen on the 14th or on the 15th of Nisan?

The traditional assumption of both Judaism and Christianity is that the Crucifixion happened on the Eve of Passover and thus on the 14th of Nisan. This is the date given by the chronology of events as reported in the Gospel of John. Many biblical scholars are of the opinion, however,  that John’s chronology is in conflict with the Synoptics, which, they assume, have the 15th of Nisan, the Yom Tov of Passover, as the Crucifixion date.

The debate about this calendrical difference, and the question how to solve it, is part of the larger problem of how to reconcile the Synoptics and John. In this short note we won’t go into all the details of the rather complicated and technical argument on the calendrical dates of Last Supper and the Crucifixion. Let it be sufficient to establish here that the traditional translation of Mt. 26:17 — and its synoptic parallels Mk. 14:12 and Lk. 22:7 — which has the phrase “on the first day of the feast of unleavened bread” faces some serious difficulties and cannot be taken for granted.

Thus, while some would like to harmonize the Gospel accounts by an effort to conform John’s account to the supposed chronology of the Synoptics, I would instead prefer the option of interpreting the Synoptics in a manner which is in harmony with the Nisan 14 Crucifixion reported by John. I hope to clarify my reasons for this preference in a follow-up article on this website.

For now, however, I’ll limit myself to a simple and forceful reason why, in my eyes, the interpretation of the Last Supper as being a Passover Seder is probably incorrect. This reason is essentially that if the Supper was indeed a Seder, then Yeshua’s institution of the Eucharist was a superfluous and liturgically confusing act.

If the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, a sacrificial Passover lamb would necessarily have been part of it. Yeshua and his talmidim would have slaughtered their lamb in the Temple in the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan  and would have eaten it during the night following, the Seder night of the 15th.

But if this is what happened, then why would Yeshua take bread during the Seder meal and declare that it represented his body? Mt 26:26 says: “And as they were eating, Yeshua took bread, made the b’rakhah, and brake it, and gave it to the talmidim, and said, Take, eat; this is my body”. If the Supper was a Seder, then there was already a powerful symbol of Yeshua’s body at hand: the Korban Pesach. There was no need at all to introduce another symbolic representation of the to-be-sacrificed body of the Messiah. The proper symbol was already present on the table, and Yeshua could simply have declared, pointing to the lamb, “this is my body which is given for you” (Lk. 22:19). If Yeshua’s death was to be the fulfilment of the Passover sacrifice, then why connect this death with the matzah instead of the lamb? The lamb was the proper symbol of Yeshua’s own sacrifice, not the matzah.

Accordingly, one would expect that Yeshua’s words: “this is my blood of the New Covenant”, would have been said when the lamb was slaughtered in the Temple. If there was a Passover lamb present at the Last Supper, then, naturally, its blood dashed upon the altar represented and symbolized Yeshua’s sacrificial blood.

From a liturgical and ritual perspective it sounds rather illogical to suppose that the first generation of talmidim celebrated a Seder which had both the Matzah and the Korban Pesach as the proper ritual symbols of Yeshua’s body. Why open the Seder meal with a broken matzah to signify Messiah’s sacrificed body if later on during the same meal a far more powerful sacrificial symbol will be pointed to? Why have the cup of thanksgiving as the proper symbol of Yeshua’s blood if the far more powerful symbol of real sacrificial blood — one which was an intrinsic part of the Korban Pesach — was already pointed to during the Temple ritual of slaughtering the lamb?

The superfluous addition of bread and wine as sacrificial symbols seems an obvious reason for suspecting that the Last Supper wasn’t a Passover Seder. It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that the night of the Last Supper preceded the Seder night, and that Yeshua’s institution of the Eucharist really was something new, which wasn’t intrinsically connected to the Seder. This implies that the crucifixion took place on the 14th of Nisan, and that Yeshua died about the time when the Passover lambs were slaughtered in the Temple court.

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1 Response to “A Simple Liturgical Reason Why the Last Supper Probably wasn’t a Passover Seder”


  1. 1 Lee Miller March 11, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    Agreeing with your final sentence, the assembly where I attend also wanted to look into this “possible conflict between John’s chronology and the Synoptics” and were pleasantly surprised when it was discovered that there was no conflict and that they agreed in 17 points exactly and almost another dozen in part. It was nice to finally put all that confusion away.


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