Is it wrong for followers of Jesus to celebrate a Passover Seder? Was the Last Supper even a Passover Seder? This past week, Christianity Today published an article by two Rabbis, Yehiel Poupko and David Sandmel, titled, Jesus Didn’t Eat a Seder Meal and Why Christians Shouldn’t Either. I cannot figure out why a purportedly Christian magazine would give these men, who are decidedly not followers of Jesus, a platform for their views. But that’s their decision. What bugged me even more was the con job that was presented in the article itself.
I’m from New York City and as a teenager I used to watch the con men in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park hustle people with their sleight of hand. Nobody ever won, whether playing three card monte or a shell game. That’s what I felt as I read this article–it was “The Passover Hustle,” designed to make Jesus followers feel guilty about celebrating a messianic Passover. Here are three ways they used deception to confuse this issue.
First, the article uses historical sleight of hand. It states, “The Seder ritual, as it is practiced today, did not exist at the time of Jesus.” Frankly no one disputes that. Certainly, the Seder meal was only codified after the AD 70 destruction of the Temple. However, the authors know very well that the codification was based on the book of Exodus and oral traditions present for generations. So, the last supper was substantively a Passover meal/a Seder with multiple aspects of Seder ritual evident in the gospels. Some examples include ritual hand washing, the breaking of bread or matzoh, the use of red wine, reciting the Hallel psalms (they sang a hymn after the meal), the anticipation of the messianic kingdom (Jesus said I won’t drink of this cup until I drink it with you in the kingdom), eating ground up bitter herbs (called the sop that Jesus passed to Judas). The great scholar Joachim Jeremias in the Eucharistic Words of Christ, notes 14 of these clear associations with the Passover Seder. So, even if the Last Supper was not a Seder as practiced today, it certainly was an incipient Seder, as practiced before AD 70.
A second problem with the article is its theological sleight of hand. The authors intend to drive a deep wedge between Exodus of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament faith. They argue that the Exodus belongs to Jewish people and the Last Supper belongs to Christians, and the two shall never meet. They further maintain that Jesus created a new religious civilization unrelated to the Jewish world from which He came. The problem with their view is that Exodus is the foundation for New Testament faith. Without understanding Passover, we could never fathom what Jesus’ cousin John meant when he said, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Or Peter’s description of the Messiah Jesus as “that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (1 Pet 1:19). Or Paul’s declaration that “Messiah our Passover has been sacrificed for us” (1 Cor 5:7). Followers of Jesus, recognize that He is the Jewish Messiah, the ultimate fulfillment of the Passover ritual. The authors may disagree with this conviction but they may not determine how followers of Jesus should express their faith in the Jewish Messiah Jesus.
A third issue with the article is that it practices cultural sleight of hand. The authors assert that observing a messianic Passover Seder somehow shows a lack of respect for Judaism and Jewish people, as if Judaism never borrowed from any other culture. Of course Jewish scholars actually recognize that some aspects of the Seder, such as reclining at the table to show freedom is taken directly from Greco-Roman culture. The authors maintain that Jewish people find it troubling when followers of Jesus participate in a Seder, particularly if led by a Messianic Jew. While it may very well bother these authors, they certainly don’t speak for all Jewish people at large. Moreover, Romans 11:18 attests that the Jewish root sustains the faith of Gentile believers. When followers of Jesus celebrate Passover, even with all its messianic implications, it reflects great appreciation for Jewish people. No disrespect is ever intended or present.
If we believe that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Messiah of the world, we can’t help but appreciate the heritage of the people of Israel. It enlightens and enlivens our faith. And that’s why we lose if we play the Passover hustle; We’ll have abandoned the Hebrew heritage of the Scriptures from which we understand our faith, while cutting ourselves off from the rich root of the olive tree from which our faith springs. Always keep your eye on the pea!