In their book Let Us Break Bread Together: A Passover Haggadah for Christians Pastor Michael Smith and Rabbi Rami Shapiro begin with good intentions.
They want Christians to have an enriched understanding of the Passover, to explore and honor the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewish roots of Christianity. They have “no desire to blur the distinctions between those traditions.” They caution against Christians holding Seders as an experience of the exotic and affirm the sincerity of many Christian Seder observances.
The authors acknowledge in the preface that “some in each of our faith traditions may conclude that we have failed.” Failure is a harsh word. It would be kinder to say that the authors need first to reexamine their premises and second to take note of some scholarly issues they do not mention.
First, while it is commendable to want to learn about the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewish roots of Christianity, is having a “Christian Seder” really the best way to learn? Why not simply study with a Rabbi? If you want to learn about a Seder, ask a Jewish friend for an invitation to an authentic one.
While the contemporary Seder may have some points of contact with the meal Jesus and his disciples ate, it would not have had much resemblance to the Seders Jews celebrate today. My colleague, Rabbi Charles Arian, has pointed out that the Seder rituals used by contemporary Jews developed after the destruction of the second Temple and evolved over centuries.
To do something that Jesus did, participate in a simple communion service of bread and wine in remembrance of him. To take part in an observance that developed across the centuries after the time of Jesus, take part in the beautifully rich ritual of the Seder. This Christian is as uncomfortable with Christians performing a Jewish ritual as most Christians would be if a synagogue held a Lord’s Supper service to teach Jews about Christianity.
A second matter, not addressed by Smith and Shapiro, is the question of whether or not the meal Jesus ate with his disciples even was the Passover meal. It is true that the Passover is the context and that in Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12, and Luke 22:9 the disciples ask Jesus where he would have them prepare for him to eat the Passover.
However, what are we make of the fact that bread that was broken was not unleavened bread. The Greek word of unleavened bread is azumos. This word never appears in any New Testament account of the Last Supper. Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19 all use artos, the word for regular, leavened bread.
Mark 14:1 and Luke 22:1 and 9 use azumos when they refer to the Feast of the Unleavened Bread which is called the Passover. Why then do they not use this word for the bread at the Last Supper a few verses later? Did the disciples make a huge mistake in Passover preparations and get the wrong bread?
What about I Corinthians 11:23, 26, and 28 where Paul repeatedly uses artos rather than azumos? Was Paul, this “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” unaware of the difference between leavened and unleavened bread? No, in I Corinthians 5:8 he uses azumos, when he speaks of “the unleavened bread of purity and truth.” With leavened bread, no lamb, no women and no children we have a meal markedly different from a Seder.
This issue regarding the bread is but one point in the wide variety of views held by Christian scholars on whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover meal.
At one extreme is Joachim Jeremias, who reconstructs the ceremony with a Haggadah overlay that would please Smith and Shapiro.
At the other is John Dominic Crossan, who holds that what Jesus created and left behind was a simple but powerful tradition of open commensality, that welcoming table fellowship that cut across social stratification. After Jesus’ death, certain Christian groups created the Last Supper as a ritual that combined the commensality from his life with a commemoration of this death.
Other scholars have spilled gallons of ink in penning positions between these extremes.
John Chrysostom railed against Christians in Antioch for attending and taking part in Jewish festivals that they found meaningful. Smith and Shapiro’s book would have the fourth century golden-mouthed preacher spinning in his grave.
Thankfully we live in a different time and can react more calmly. Perhaps Chrysostom would honor a contemporary Christian’s choice to attend a Jewish Seder. One can attend a Seder and find it meaningful, but meaningful in Jewish terms, not with a Christian overlay that ignores the historical development of the Haggadah and the scholarly issues connected with the Lord’s Supper.
John E. Roberts is pastor emeritus at Woodbrook Baptist Church in Baltimore and associate scholar with the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.
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