Eucharist and Seder: What Should the Simple Scholar Say

(Paper given at the 2018 AM Denver NAPH session of SBL on "The Institution of the Lord's Supper, a Passover Seder?")

See Also: The Last Supper, Paul and Qumran: The Tail that Wagged the Dog

By Peter Zaas
Professor of Religious Studies
Director of the Kieval Institute for Jewish-Christian Studies
Siena College
June 2019

The Passover Haggadah, the manual, the handbook, the enchiridion, the FAQ for the Pesach Seder, the most elaborated of all Jewish liturgical moments, famously describes four children: The wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who knows not how to ask.  Please bear with us as we try to shoehorn some thoughts about how to compare Passover and Eucharist into a model suggested by these four paschal forechildren.  This will be a short presentation, but I still invite you to recline:  Why should this presentation be different from any other presentation?

What is it that we are setting out to compare?  The title of the session is “The Institution of the Lord’s Supper, a Passover Seder,” and we can start there, but it is only a starting-point.  We can start briefly with the historical question, like the wise child:  “What are the testimonies, the ordinances, and the legal decisions which the Lord our God commanded you?” leaving aside for the moment the textual question of why the Haggadah has the Lord commanding you, while in the Yerushalmi and the Mekhilta[1] the Lord commanded us.  What is it that we are comparing? the wise panelist might ask:  The historical event tagged “The Last Supper,” the meal Jesus ate with his students after offering the Pesach sacrifice (in the Synoptic tradition) or before offering it (in the Johannine tradition) with the Jewish ritualized meal that commences the festival based in one tradition on the nostalgic memory of that same sacrifice?  Event with ritual?  The Christian ritualized meal that retells and reenacts Jesus’ Paschal meal with the Passover Seder?  Ritual with ritual?

The question is a complicated one, not least because the Christian Eucharist reenacts a Passover event, whether or not the Gospel occasion occurred on erev Pesach or the night before.  Is the Christian Eucharist a commemoration of a Passover Seder in some form that modern Jews would recognize?  Joachim Jeremias, certainly a ben chacham, thought that it was, but, while he delineates fourteen connections between Jesus’ Last Supper and the Jewish Pesach Seder,[2] they are so general that they depend on one’s prior acceptance of the connection in order to be convincing.  The meal was held at night, they drank wine, the guests talked about the meaning of the meal, all descriptions of the Pesach Seder and most other Jewish meals as well.  

The academic consensus is presently that while Jews during the 2nd Temple period certainly ate liturgical meals connected to festival sacrifices, the Passover Seder developed during the Tanaitic period, and the Christian Eucharist celebrates an event that was not a Pesach Seder.  Jesus and his students offered the paschal sacrifice and shared it in liturgical purity, but no one before the Mishnaic period, in fact, did those things in the form of what we now call a Seder.  The Seder emerged, like a great deal of Jewish liturgical practice, as a way of commemorating a sacrifice that could no longer be offered; it is a complex exercise in sacred nostalgia.  Jesus ate the Passover, but had no Seder.  This is what we must tell the wise child:  Look carefully at the testimonies, the ordinances, and the legal decisions.  Take special care in the precision of your language:  Comparing the central ritual of one community with the central ritual of another using rituals as interwoven as these is an exercise whose missteps can be more than academic.

The tam, the naive child asks only “Ma zot?” What is this? In tamimut, there is chochmah, in naivety wisdom, it seems to me, if not so much to the sages.  What is a Pesach Seder, and what is a Christian Eucharist? 

In my minhag, the definitional question is the functional question, “What is it?” and to me this means “What does it do?”  To the naive child, we can say that both the Pesach Seder and the Christian Eucharist help relive moments of redemption and help look forward to new ones.  We can say that while this is a characteristic of many religious rituals, it is quintessentially true of these two.

Relive Moments of Redemption

In the generations during which the Sages found ways to build a Judaism that was not dependent on a physical Temple or physical sacrifices, they discovered the force of sacred nostalgia, rebuilding the Temple and its sacrifices as an edifice whose physical existence was only in memory, and who rituals could only be performed in liturgical retrospect, nostalgically.  Perhaps we should say that they re-discovered the force of sacred nostalgia, for what is the composition of the written Torah by the exiles in Babylonia an attempt to recreate an earlier Temple that they believed to be lost? This is not at all to say that our sages built a Judaism that only looked to the past, but what happened in the past was concrete, enshrined in both law and architecture, while what was to happen in the future was a matter for speculation, argument, and hope.

One of the things that makes the Pesach Seder the Pesach Seder is that the events it re-enacts are not the obvious ones, although they have become, through shear repetition, the expected ones.  The Haggadah mentions authorities who lived while the Pesach sacrifice was still offered, but it portrays them telling a far older story.  While we are enjoined to instruct the Chacham ain maftirin achar hapesach afikomen, “We do not finish the afikomen after we eat the Pesach sacrifice” ultimately the story we have told all four types of children, and any other children present as well, is about the yetziat Mizraim, the Exodus, not the sacrifice, although of course the two topics are unavoidably linked.  Our sources preserve an ancient conflict about what aggadah the magid should relate:  The canonical Haggadah introduces the obligation to make the story of the Exodus central to the Seder with the story of the five sages who told that story all night, buttressed with the statement of one of them, Elazar ben Azariah which extends the obligation to discuss the Exodus at night to the daytime as well, and to the world to come.

But our sources yield an alternative story, my wise child, and your wisdom will increase if you embrace this kind of conflict, the kind your wicked sister just adores:  The Tosefta records another Seder, conducted by Sages who were absent from the one at Bnei Brak:

Once it occurred that Rabban Gamliel and the elders were reclining at the house of Boethus ben Zonim in Lod, and they were busy with the halakhot of the Pesach sacrifice all night until the cock crowed.  They lifted the table in front of them, prepared themselves, and went to the study house.[3]

If the account in b. Berachot 27b-28a is historical, then these two Seders represent those conducted by rival n’siim Elazar b. Azariah and Gamliel II, presumably during the period before they reconciled their differences.  But speculation aside, these two accounts demonstrate two drastically different approaches to the aggadah of Pesach, with the Sages surrounding Elazar recounting the yitziat Mizraim and the Sages surrounding Gamliel discussion the pesach halakhah.  The approach of Elazar became the canonical approach, and it is the Exodus from Egypt, not the legal requirements for the Passover sacrifice, that we recount to our children, wise, wicked and otherwise, in our Seders today.

So we should observe, my wise child, that both liturgies, the Eucharist of nascent Christianity and the Passover Seder are examples of sacred nostalgia, ways of preserving in liturgy something that has been lost.  The eucharistic liturgy preserves not the loss of the Paschal sacrifice—that sacrifice was still being made when that liturgy was created—but the loss of the person Jesus himself, the liturgy proclaiming as it does “the Lord’s death until he comes,” in Paul’s words,[4] written, appropriately enough, by that Jewish traveler as he prepared for his own Pesach observance, although not for a Seder.


The liturgical retelling of Jesus’ final meal with his students is surely the oldest liturgical artifact of nascent Christianity, if “Christianity” is the right term for this movement in such an early period. Its scriptural account can be redacted to at least two sources, the account beginning in I Cor. 11.23 and the account beginning in Mark 14.22; it is, along with Lord’s Prayer,  liturgy that predates the Gospel of Mark, and predates, for that matter, the Passover Seder, a product of the 2nd century of the Common Era.  If the historical question is did Jesus celebrate a Seder, the answer must be no; he ate a liturgical meal following the pesach sacrifice, but no Seder; no Exodus, no charoset; matzo yes, for chag ha-matzot was upon him, but no Four Questions and no Four Children to explain their answers to.  It is certainly possible that the Sages of B’nei B’rak and the Sages of Lod had the Christian Eucharistic in mind when they began crafting the pesach seder, but it is not possible that Jesus opened the door for Elijah, at least in the sense we are talking about here.

But as we are not restricted to one type of daughter or son, so are we not restricted to one type of comparison; there are many ways to look at two sacred meals side-by-side; as the Haggadah offers us a taxonomy of four types of children, we might delineate four types of comparison.

Functionally.  The Christian eucharist functions as the centerpiece of nearly every instance of Christian liturgy, especially in Catholic tradition:  Daily and weekly worship, sacramental observances along the rites de passage from baptism to marriage to deathbed unction.  At each of these observances the worshiper reenacts events in sacred history and is reminded of the meaning of those events.  The eucharist functions communally, but typically requires the presence of a priest.


Functionally, the Passover Seder resembles the Christian eucharist only in part:  Like the Eucharist, the Passover Seder transports the participant (participants in the Passover Seder are unlikely to think of themselves as “worshipers” unlike participants in the Christian Eucharist) into the sacred past, reenacting the Egyptian Exodus in a variety of narrative and symbolic ways.  But the Passover Seder is an annual event conducted almost inevitably in a family setting, without the leadership of clergy.  It functions in a communitarian way, but emphasizes the home-based nature of much of Jewish ritual practice.

Historically.  The historical connections between Christian Eucharist and Passover Seder are complex, and the complexity has muddled the comparison.  Jesus’ students joined their teacher in celebrating the pesach sacrifice; their organization of the occasion in the Synoptic Gospels is recognizable to any Jewish traveler at Pesach time looking for a place to organize a Seder.  But Jesus’ students weren’t organizing a Seder.  They were a century too early for that.  They were organizing one of the ritual meals following any major Jewish sacrifice, meals that certainly featured blessings over bread and over wine.  That their teacher with whom they shared the occasion spoke to them of its importance is hardly surprising.  The Pesach Seder, with its reenactment of the Egyptian Exodus, is a product of Tannaitic times, and was conceived by sages who were certainly aware of Christian Eucharistic practices.  That the Christian Eucharist is somehow modeled on the subsequent Pesach Seder is a difficult claim, much more difficult historically than its opposite, that the Seder is based on the Eucharist, no matter how unpalatable a claim like that might be to some modern sensibilities.

Phenomenologically.  The phenomena of the Passover Seder are similar to those of the Christian Eucharist:  They both involve bread and wine.  There was certainly a time when the Lord’s Supper consisted of more than the beverage and the starch, but churches whose sacred meals consist of more than bread and wine are probably as rare as Passover Seders which limit themselves to those kinds.  Both rituals involve the re-enactment, in narrative and in symbol, of events in sacred history.  The participant in the Eucharist joins Christ at the Lord’s table; the Jewish family at its Pesach Seder shares the bread of poverty with their spiritual ancestors escaping Egyptian slavery.

Anthropologically.  From a standpoint of cultural anthropology, at least in the Durkheim-Douglas-Smith trajectory, Eucharist and Seder both establish groups and grids; groups of eucharist- and seder-participants, and grids among participants.  Does the eucharistic community follow the Johannine tradition and dine on leavened bread at the Lord’s table?  Does it follow the Synoptic tradition and celebrate the chag ha-matsot with Jesus over unleavened bread?  Is Christ physically present in the bread and the wine or is he not?  Who is invited to participate? All of the variations in eucharistic practice and belief among the 33,000 Christian denominations (itself a traditional number, like the number of mitzvoth) help to locate worshipers among the many possible groups of worshipers as well as on the grids within each group.  Pesach Seders likewise distinguish groups; worshippers from non-worshippers, and establish grids within groups:  Do the participants in the Seder consume kitnyot, forbidden to observant Ashkenazim but permitted, in most cases, to observant Sephardim?  Do they, following the lead of some feminist activists from my own alma mater, add a crust of forbidden chametz to the seder plate, or, with Susannah Heschel, an orange?  Is there a cup of Miriam?  A fifth cup in memory of the Six Million? All of these variations place the Seder participant on a grid with her group as definitively (or as vaguely) as do the variations in Christian Eucharistic practice. 

If we had more than the canonical number of Pesach children, we could surely find more ways to compare Eucharist and Passover.  We could look at these two liturgical occasions against a backdrop of interfaith and ecumenical dialogue, for example:  Whatever the precise historical relationship of these two sacred meals, they are ways in which Jews and their various Christian cousins each celebrate the founding moment of their mutual traditions.  They celebrate through food, drink, and story, through reenactment and prayer; there is much that is common and much that is distinct, much in both columns to inform a meaty (or bread-y?) conversation with the respected other. And by the same token there is much that is different, and many of us complain when boundaries are crossed:  Do we applaud or bemoan Christian Seders?

“What a Difference a Difference Makes,” wrote one of my late, lamented teachers,[5] whose memory we honored on Shabbat afternoon:

A “theory of the other” rarely depends on the capacity “to see ourselves as others see us.”  By and large, “we” remain indifferent to such refractions.  Rather, it would appear to imply the reverse.  A “theory of the other” requires us to think, to situate, and to speak of “others” in relation to the way in which we think, situate, and speak about ourselves.[6]


As we distinguish amongst ourselves, as we distinguish amongst our various others, so we distinguish amongst our children, sorting them into the wicked and the wise, the simple and the one who doesn’t know where to start, sh’aino yodea l’sh’ol.  But perhaps our categories need some work, along with our parenting skills.  Perhaps our good son is a sycophant, the wicked daughter an independent thinker, the simple child viewing the world through an artistic filter.  And the one sh’aino yodea l’sh’ol? Although we have been ignoring her, perhaps that is the child who will grow to become a good scholar, always searching for the right question to ask.



[1] Jerusalem Talmud Pes. 70b; Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 13:14:1.

[2] Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, 3rd ed. (London: SCM Press, 1966),42–61

[3] Tos., Pes. 10:12.

[4] 1Cor 11.26.

[5] Smith, Jonathan Z.  “What a Difference a Difference Makes,” in Neusner, J. and Frerichs, E., eds., To See Ourselves as Others See Us.  Christians, Jews, “Others in Late Antiquity (Chico, CA:  Scholars Press, 1985.  3-48.

[6] Smith, p. 48.

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