Passover has a special allure for Christians. It is on the night of Passover, as all Israel is offering the pascal Lamb and eating matza (unleavened bread) and bitter herbs on the slopes of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that Jesus of Nazareth meets with his 12 disciples for the Last Supper. This may be the best-known Passover meal.
Both of these meals—Jesus’s Last Supper and the first Passover meal—are launch events. Each of them inaugurates a new religious civilization. Thus, for the believing Christian, it is no coincidence that Jesus convenes the disciples at the very moment of the Passover meal to signal that this meal is the fulfillment of and successor to that first Passover meal, and that like the first one, the Last Supper inaugurates a new faith community. For most of Christian history, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, replaced the Jewish Passover Seder. For Jews, however, the most important Passover meal is the very first, described in Exodus 12. It is the meal by which Israel celebrates its liberation from the pagan culture of Egypt/Mitzrayim by serving the One God and bringing an offering to the One God. That first Passover meal is eaten home-by-home, family-by-family. The guest list consists of all the members of the family, men and women, old and young, wise and foolish, learned and ignorant, boys and girls. In other words, present at that first Passover offering was the whole Jewish family in all of its delight and complexity. When Jews today celebrate the Passover, they are reenacting that moment and connecting with all Jews across time and space who have been celebrating the Passover Seder for millennia.
The re-emergence of Christian interest in the Jewish Passover and especially the Seder is due, in part, to the American context. Our social and political culture, where people are free to practice their faith freely as well as freely explore other faiths—has made it possible for Jews and Christians to satisfy their innate human curiosity and to come to know the other as never before. This ethos is felt nowhere more powerfully than in the encounter that takes place between Christianity and Judaism in Christian Holy Week and Passover, which fall in the same week approximately three out of every four years.
This interest can be traced to the emergence of post–World War II Jewish-Christian dialogue, in which the “model Seder,” led by a knowledgeable Jew, emerged as an opportunity to use the Passover/Easter connection to teach Christians about Judaism, but also because Christians wanted to better understand the Jewish background of their faith. But these well-intentioned goals were the victim of their own success. Increasing numbers of Christians wanted to have that experience, even if there were no Jews around to lead it. And so what began as an effort at interreligious and historical understanding morphed into a tradition for many churches’ Holy Week celebrations, so that in some settings the Seder has become a form of Christian worship. This trend has been exacerbated by the increased recognition of the Jewishness of Jesus and a desire among some Christians to do what Jesus would have done—good and faithful Christians want to experience a Passover meal like Jesus. In evangelical settings, the promotion of Christian Seders by those who identify as messianic Jews and other such affiliations has also contributed to its growth.
So this is a phenomenon that cannot be denied, but it is one that most Jews find particularly troubling.
The first reason is historical. The Seder ritual, as it is practiced today, did not exist at the time of Jesus. It was only fully developed by the rabbis in the years following the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., in other words, at least two generations after Jesus. Many assume that Jesus, at the Last Supper, conducted what we now know of as a traditional Passover Seder with the Pesakh (pascal) offering of the lamb, matza, bitter herbs, the telling of the tale of the Exodus from Egypt, and other rituals as found in the Jewish Passover Hagada. This is incorrect. To put it bluntly, Jesus certainly celebrated Passover, but neither he nor his disciples ever attended a Seder, any more than they drove a car or used a cell phone.
In the Last Supper, Jesus surely is making allusions to the Exodus, as does the Jewish Passover meal, but that event takes a back seat to his revealing himself as “the Passover lamb,” as the object of a new and revolutionary expression of faith. The Jewish Passover meal inaugurates the Jewish people into its history; it prepares them to fulfill the responsibilities of the mitzvot (commandments) given at Sinai. As such, it is an event designed for and limited to the Jewish people. Jesus of Nazareth, in the Last Supper, presents himself as the offering not just for all Israel, but for all of humanity. He is, in short, establishing a unique ritual. In our view, celebrating a Christian Seder to commemorate the Last Supper misses the point historically.