The ‘Splainer: Was the Last Supper a Passover seder?

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Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" painting.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" painting.

The ‘Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do”) is an occasional online feature in which RNS staff give you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday is a time when Christians believe Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples, breaking bread and wine with them for the last time before his Crucifixion on Good Friday. Recently, it has become a practice in some Christian churches and homes to hold a “Christian seder” on this night, adapting to a Christian context rituals and practices from the Jewish Passover meal. But was the Last Supper really a Passover seder? And should Christians borrow from one of the most important observances of the Jewish calendar? Scholars, both Christian and Jewish, think not. Let us ‘splain …

Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" painting.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” painting.

Q: Why do some people think the Last Supper was a Passover seder?

A: It comes out of the New Testament: Three of the four Gospels say Jesus prepared for the Last Supper during the Jewish holiday. Mark says it happened on the first day “of unleavened bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb.” There are also some similarities between the biblical Last Supper and a Passover seder. Scholar Joachim Jeremias listed 14 of them, including the breaking of bread, the drinking of wine, the singing of hymns and discussing the meaning of all of these.

“If Jesus and his disciples gathered together to eat soon after the Passover lamb was sacrificed, what else could they possibly have eaten if not the Passover meal?” writes Boston University prof Jonathan Klawans in his well-regarded examination of the supper-seder link. “And if they ate the Passover sacrifice, they must have held a seder.”

Q: OK, then, history has decided. The Last Supper was a Passover seder. Pass the wine.

A: Except Klawans and other scholars think it wasn’t. For one thing, they point to the Gospel of John, which tells a different story — that the Crucifixion happened on the “day of preparation for the Passover,” meaning Jesus died before the holiday began. And if we are to believe the other three Gospels, that would mean the trial of Jesus, a Jew, was held during the holiday when such things were banned. More likely the Last Supper was an average Jewish meal.

Surinamese Jews share the Passover Seder at the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Paramaribo on April 18, 2011. The Suriname Jewish community, considered as one of the oldest in the Americas, has only around 200 members. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ranu Abhelakh *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SEDER-SPLAINER, originally transmitted on March 24, 2016.

Surinamese Jews share the Passover seder at the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Paramaribo on April 18, 2011. The Suriname Jewish community, considered one of the oldest in the Americas, has only around 200 members. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ranu Abhelakh
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SEDER-SPLAINER, originally transmitted on March 24, 2016.

Q: If the Last Supper wasn’t a seder, where did some contemporary Christians get the idea to hold a seder on Holy Thursday?

A: Klawans and others think it stems from a spirit of interfaith exploration that developed in the 1960s and continues today — Pope Francis’ best friend is a rabbi, and cities and towns everywhere have interfaith councils. Many lay Christians and Jews were exposed to each others’ practices for the first time.

Add to that a growing interest in the historical Jesus  — who was Jewish — and the result is a growing fascination among Christians with what the real Jesus did, said and experienced. Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy, who writes about interfaith issues from the perspective of her own Jewish-Christian household, writes of Christians who hold seders, “Their logic is that since Jesus was celebrating Pesach (Hebrew for Passover) during the week when he was arrested, tried, executed and resurrected, in a desire to be more Christ-like, they too should celebrate the holiday.” Today, there are a variety of Christian seder manuals, many mapped out like the Haggadah, the book of prayers, songs and scripture Jews use throughout their own seders. Some even have “Hebrew for Christians” pronunciation guides.

Q: Is that kosher?

A: Many Christians love their newly adapted seder, saying it links them more firmly to the Old Testament, provides context for the life of Jesus and gives them a deeper understanding of Judaism, which Christianity sprang from. But others are less comfortable in the borrowed rituals. Jews suffered centuries at the hands of Christians and have no right to usurp the story of Jewish deliverance from slavery, they say.

“I wonder, though, how Christians would feel about Jews or Muslims having play Eucharists?” writes the Rev. Ann Fontaine, an Episcopal pastor in Wyoming. “Dressing someone up like a priest and saying the words from the Book of Common Prayer?”

Professor Klawans revisits the Last Supper/Passover seder debate every year in his own preparation for Passover. This year, he writes that the Last Supper is still not a Passover seder. In fact, Passover 2016 begins one month after Holy Thursday, at sundown on April 22. Then he adds, “But why should historical skepticism ruin anyone’s holiday? Happy Easter and Chag Sameach (Hebrew for ‘Happy Holiday’) to any and all who celebrate!”

(Kimberly Winston is a national correspondent for RNS)


  • Dr. Cajetan Coelho

    Our vast human family – builds it own traditions with basis in historical past. That’s the way life is made, re-made and re-shaped.

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  • Christopher W. Chase

    It is certainly true that seders in Rabbinic Judaism are very different from the seders in the time of the Temple, and so adapting a contemporary Jewish seder to Christian purposes is anachronistic. But John isn’t a synoptic Gospel. And its later than all the Synoptics. Why privilege John over the Synoptics on this issue?

  • GLH

    What you are translating as “the day of preparation” is also simply the Greek word for Fruday (Παρασκευὴ) . The passage reads that he was crucified on the Friday of Passover.

  • Jon

    The correct answer: “we don’t, and can’t, know.”.

    The only evidence we have are the gospel accounts, three of which (Mk, Mt, Lk) say clearly that it *was* a seder, and one of which clearly says it *was not* a seder. Denying this contradiction due to personal insecurity helps no one.

    From this and many other lines of evidence, including contradictions, the gospel accounts were obviously embellished/written to make them propaganda for the faith, not historically accurate accounts. Heck, that’s even what the word “Gospel” means.

    It’ll only be after people (especially Christians) get comfortable with seeing the various Bibles as fallible that a discussion about the actual likelihoods will be possible without people distorting the text, getting emotional, and so on.

    Here’s a post by a Biblical scholar that reflects this question:

  • The Seder form that Jews celebrate today did not exist before A.D. 70.

    “Thus, the Passover Seder as we know it developed after 70 C.E. I wish we could know more about how the Passover meal was celebrated before the Temple was destroyed. But unfortunately, our sources do not answer this question with any certainty. Presumably, Jesus and his disciples would have visited the Temple to slaughter their Passover sacrifice. Then they would have consumed it along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, as required by the Book of Exodus. And presumably they would have engaged in conversation pertinent to the occasion. But we cannot know for sure.”

  • I continue to wish that RNS would find another name for its ” ‘Splainer.” Not only does the name evoke the comic scene of Ricky Ricardo lording it over hapless Lucy (“Loo-see, you got some ‘splaining to do”), it also sounds more than a little racist to my inner ear because of the intended accent of the word. Yes, I know we now have such things as “mansplaining,” but that carries a similar stigma of sexism to the word’s inherent racism. I may be the only RNS reader with this problem, but I trip over the unfortunate title every time I try to read one of these worthwhile articles. Please reconsider.

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  • Mark Rich

    No, the synoptics are not the only evidence we have. We also have the earlier evidence of 1 Cor 11, which follows exactly in the format of a Chavurah meal. Such a meal could be eaten any evening of the year except Passover. Only the Seder meal could be eaten only on Passover among a group of believing friends, which Jesus and his disciples certainly were.
    So we have the evidence of 1 Cor 11 and also of the practice itself, which was never restricted to the one night of Passover, nor was it restricted to the specialized foods of the seder meal. This is also what made the meal possible for Gentiles to eat.
    Gregory Dix laid all this out in his 1945 classic The Shape of the Liturgy, reissued in 2005. Read it!

  • Garson Abuita

    It would be helpful if we could drop the idea that there was one Passover meal prior to 70 CE and one after. The Gospels portray Jesus as being involved with and disputing with the progenitors of rabbinic Judaism. The modern Seder quotes many rabbis from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, some of whom were contemporaries or near-contemporaries of Jesus or the Gospel writers. The Last Supper may not have been a “Seder,” but the important thing is that the historical connections are present nonetheless.

  • OK so it was Friday..I’ll go with that..explain how Sunday is 3 days after Friday. Seems like it should be Easter Monday.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    Besides Bart Erhman, there are also Catholic theologians / Biblical scholars such as like Brant Pitre who do make an interesting case concerning the idea of a distinction between an old and new Passover at the roles of the different cups of wine vis a vis the Intertestamental seders and the Talmudic discussion of the haggadah. The Eucharistic liturgy owes clear debts to the feasting tradition in late Temple Judaism.

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  • The synoptics clearly evidence that the “last supper” was a Passover meal (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22). The reference in John 19 can be understood to be the day of preparation for the Sabbath day during Passover week.

  • Patty

    It is obvious to me that Jesus was the sacrificial lamb for passover. Don’t know anything about a seder, do you get bread and wine before or after the sacrifice?

  • Heather Moore

    Christians borrowed all their tradition. Jesus was a Jew not a christian. So were all the 1st believers and the bible was written by all Jews. You do not understand the festivals or Jewish time days are sundown to sundown. Passover is not 1 day. It is a beginning to the festival of unleavened bread. The reason went to Jerusalem was for Passover it says it in Gospel. Jesus did not come to create a new religion of Christianity he came to fulfill the Jewish Torah. Men made Christianity. if you did absolutely any research on Easters foundation you would know it was the pagan festival that revolved around the sun & spring solstice. It was a pagan celebration of fertility that all the pagans died eggs in blood, used rabbits & chic’s as a symbol. The fertility goddess’ name was easter or ashter or ashra. The early “real Christians” celebrated passover. Constantine outlawed it because he was really a pagan & he hated Jews. Easter is a pagan backed tradition of man. Passover is god…

  • Garson Abuita

    Patty: There is no Passover sacrifice anymore because the Temple no longer exists (although some have attempted to revive the practice and head to the Temple Mount with a lamb on the eve of the holiday, and the Samaritans still do their own sacrifice on Mount Gerizim). During the seder, a cup of wine is drank, but before the bread (matzah) is eaten and the meal begins, the core symbols of the seder are explained. One of these is the zroa, a roast lamb or chicken bone used to represent the Paschal sacrifice. This practice was instituted by Rabban Gamliel (II), grandson of the Gamliel mentioned in the Book of Acts, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

  • Here’s one of many articles which explains the language and background that goes over the chronology of the week. Books have been written and this draws from some of those works.

  • willys36

    I never cease to be amazed how Protestants defend the celebration of the non-biblical Easter holiday. It is easily shown that Christ kept the Passover, just changing the method of observance. He kept it on Tuesday, was crucified and died Wednesday just before sunset, was in the grave exactly 72 hours as required by Biblical prophesy, and was resurrected on the Sabbath just before sunset. The Savior gave as specific as humanly possible detailed directions on how he wanted the new Passover observed so what does the worlds churches do? They throw out that unambiguous directive and replace it with borrowed pagan traditions. Just like they take their lead from the Catholic Church and throw out the Sabbath Day, part of CREATION, and substitute the day dedicated to the worship of the sun god then try to defend that move by twisting a few scriptures grotesquely. I have a document I have been collecting for years with dozens of church leaders admitting Saturday is the Bibliccal Sabbath.

  • charles hoffman

    The Seder as we know it is a construct of the rabbis that was developed after the destruction of the 2nd Temple (60 AD); it’s formalities are first sketched out in the Mishnah which was written over 140 years after the death of Jesus.

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  • EqualTime

    Wasn’t Barabbas released because it was a Passover tradition?

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  • Leon

    Tell it like was(the truth)! AMEN!

  • A new lump

    It says in 1st Corinthians 5: 6+7….”your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ our passover lamb has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the Festival not with old leaven the leaven of malice and evil but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth…” Written by a jew about a jew that he believed to be his messiah. Clearly his first followers thought there was a connection with Jesus/Yeshus and passover. ??

  • A new lump

    To continue on that theme in the book of the jewish prophet Isaiah ch 53 ( ESV) it clearly describes a man who would be sent by God as a sacrificial lamb to bear the sins of others. Coincidence??

  • My, my, so many experts. Christian/Jew let each decide just what IS important
    in either. We can “date” and “write” all we want, each has to decide just what
    “IT” (whatever that is) means to each. I would think it safe to say that both have some “Pagan” elements.

  • Clifton Palmer McLendon

    (In re “three days”)

    I am glad you asked that! I wondered the same thing for quite some time. One day when I was about twelve years old, I decided to ask, and received this answer:

    The Jewish custom is to start the new day at sunset. Jesus died on Friday afternoon, and the Jewish Sabbath would begin as soon as the sun went down.

    Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea put the body of Jesus into the tomb before the sun set, so it was still Friday. When the sun set, Saturday began, and the Corpse was still in the tomb, and so remained while the sun rose and then set again, bringing Sunday. Some few hours later, Jesus was resurrected, and shortly after that, the visitors found the tomb empty.

    Part of Friday => first day
    All Saturday => second day
    Part of Sunday => third day

    The man who explained it said that since Jesus was dead in the tomb beginning on Friday and ending on Sunday, the Jewish reckoning of time would call it three days.

    … and that is how it was explained…

  • A new lump

    With all the erudite and scholarly discussion over the ? “was the passover seder celebrated by Jesus” i believe you are distracted by the wrong ? I think the real ? Should be “Was Jesus Gods final passover lamb?” As he was presented by Paul (1st Corinthians 5:7) for Christ our passover lamb has been sacrificed”. and by John the baptizer (John 1:24 and 1:36 ) “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” As well as the description of a man who would “go as a lamb to the slaughter” and “the Lord would lay on him the iniquity of us all” by the prophet Isaiah (ch53)

  • Cliff

    Friday to Sunday does not fulfill Jesus’ prediction. No matter you slice it, it comes short.
    “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
    ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭12:40‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

  • osuredleg

    Now, don’t go bringing logic to a gunfight, my friend! The fact is, SATAN LOST when Yashua/Jesus was crucified, so he had to take over and hijack the whole narrative (i.e., the New Testament) and then corrupt i4 and have the ignorant masses worship in TOTALLY DIFFERENT WAYS and on DIFFERENT DAYS than the Messiah and the Disciples and followers did. This is what happened when Constantine came along in the 4th Century AD/ACE.

    The Old Testament cleary warns/admonishes us to NOT follow the ways of the pagans and the traditions of mankind. But most people are too lazy and/or caught up in these traditions that that are indoctrinated with since childhood to be able to change. Lucifer knows this, and uses that knowledge against us all!

  • osuredleg

    I have to point out to you that this is WRONG, as Jesus said that he would be in the ground for three days and three noghts, just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights. And counting from sundown to sundown is not a “Jewish” reckoning; it is from God, and it’s in the BEGINNING of the Bible in Genesis, BEFORE there were any Israelites and the Tribe of Judah.

  • osuredleg

    THANK YOU Heather!!! I am SO TIRED of seeing these kind of articles over-and-over again every year by those who are IGNORANT of history and the truth and who are just trying to justify with that still follow pagan traditions. God Bless you, sister!

  • osuredleg

    There was NO coincidence when it came to Yashua/Jesus, as He was was the perfect fulfillment of all of those prophecies. I think what some of us on here are trying to point out, though, is how that most awesome and greatest of events of all history was CORRUPTED by SATAN and then twisted around by his lies and using evil men throughout the ages to deceive the masses into following PAGANISM…which basically means, worshipping Lucifer, whether the people know they are doing it or not. After all, he is the father or lies, is he not?!

  • Eliezer

    “I wonder, though, how Christians would feel about Jews or Muslims having play Eucharists?” writes the Rev. Ann Fontaine, an Episcopal pastor in Wyoming. “Dressing someone up like a priest and saying the words from the Book of Common Prayer?”

    Well, there it is. The big unanswered question.

    Anyone care to reply to this?

  • Eliezer

    You know Jews sacrificed pigeons and goats, grain and oil.

    Why don’t you say Jeezus was the Goat of God? Or His Pigeon?

  • Yeshua is the Passover Lamb. It is only by His sacrificial blood that covers us by faith that we are able to escape death, that is eternal death. The writings of both the old and new testaments speak to us of the Messiah who would suffer and die, and return to reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. PTL Receive Him as Savior and Messiah, turn away from sin, and know His blessed peace and promise of everlasting life. Shalom

  • M Hay

    There were extra high holy days that year, something like a double Sabbath. I dont remember why but it could be researched.
    Most Christians don’t know that.
    So Jesus dieing on the day of preparation was actually a Wednesday.
    We are told plainly in New Testament Scripture that they hurried to get him off of the cross because of Passover. He was burried in the tomb of Joses of Aramathea a near kinsman. 3 days and nights reaches to Sat afternoon when we are told saints of old were seen in Jerusalem resurrected. The women went to the tomb on Sun morning but it was empty and Mary crying thinking his body was stolen was spoken to by Christ\Messiah. She called him Raboni. He said to not touch me for I am not yet presented to my Father in heaven. Jesus\Yeshua was a first fruit and must be waved in heaven as an acceptable offering. God bless! Jesus was and is a Jewish Messiah. But not for Israel only but the world.