(Paper presented at the 2018 AM Denver NAPH session of SBL on “The Institution of the Lord’s Supper, a Passover Seder?”)
By Charles Carpenter
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
These panelists gathered together for a NAPH session at the annual meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature to discuss the continuity or the discontinuity of the Jewish Seder celebration and the Christian communion as outlined in the Scriptures and celebrated in both a Jewish and a Christian context. I was asked to respond to these presentations, which I will articulate below.
Each panelist referenced, alluded to, or directly addressed the three prevailing passages that deal with the communion in the New Testament, begging the question: to what extent is there a connection between the Jewish Seder meal and Christ’s upper room discourse and meal in Luke 22:7-38 (and the synoptic parallels 26:1-29, 14:12-25, John 13:1-38). Each of the panelists denied a strong connection between the two celebrations but added some very fruitful responses to what Jesus was inaugurating during the meal and discourse: how Jesus’ response could encourage unity within the larger religious and non-religious communities.
The first panelist, Peter Zaas, argued that in the Christian communion Jesus inaugurated a new meal not paralleling the Seder, but an authentic meal for the Christian community without removing any of the other current commemorations. His engaging, insightful, and beautifully articulated presentation demands one be acutely aware of both Jewish and Christian traditions. The connective strength of his metaphors and historical discontinuity of the Pesach Seder, Eucharist, and the Lord’s Supper provides us with questions that demand thoughtful responses. One thing is certain—from Peter’s presentation about the Pesach Seder, Eucharist, and the Lord’s Supper—each meal respectively is a way to preserve something or someone who has been lost, or a way to participate in events preserving what has been lost and what must remain. Further, the way one commemorates these events takes on greater meaning as the historical context of each is brought to the fore and new participants are added. Even though he concludes that the Seder and the Lord’s Supper are not the same thing, they functioned in a way to strengthen the observers—calling them to a kind of existential unity.
Zaas’ insights are helpful for Christians, encouraging them to read their sacred texts canonically and not focus exclusively on the event of the Last Supper. Zaas understands that the Christian commemoration of the Last Supper “transports the participant into the sacred past, reenacting the [events (all the events of God’s deliverance)] in a variety of narrative and symbolic ways.” However, two issues are important to consider as one takes a closer look. First, Zaas’ insistence of a priest or a member of the clergy to preside over the wafer and juice/wine and disseminate them to their parishioners is not a necessarily an exclusive practice within many Christian contexts. Second, what is remembered and the effect of this remembrance carries significant divergences within each tradition, even within the Christian tradition. In many contexts, for example, the only past evoked is a past where sins are present and the participants are in need of absolution. The elements are not ways to think about God’s provisions through challenging circumstances like the Seder, but ways to be clean before a holy and just God.
Many Protestants, at least within the vein of the reformed tradition, take the sacred elements as a means of enacting God’s grace and evoking God’s grace in their present circumstance. Because the elements are personal—more than corporate—one’s standing before God does not demand the presence of a clergyman for dissemination. Thus, sacred elements outside the presence of a clergyman is a growing trend within protestant Christian circles.
Taking the elements in this way has contextual weight, especially as one considers Paul’s emphasis in I Corinthians 11 and 12. Paul begins his discussion in the passive voice: he had received from the Lord a teaching that directly ties back to right standing before God and the corporate body. When writing to the church at Corinth, he emphasizes the Lord’s Supper and furthermore demands the participants examine themselves for at least two reasons: personal standing before God and corporate standing. Thus, this meal is at least a reminder to the observers to follow Christ and seek righteous unity (I Cor. 11:1), especially unity within their immediate context. Also, Paul refers to the past meal (from the Gospels) to show that factions were present (Judas v the other disciples and Jesus) in the same way that factions were present within the church at Corinth. Jesus illustrates the need to serve—even his betrayer—which seems to be Paul’s reference in his letter to Corinth.
So, when one harkens unto “the nostalgic memory” of the events in the Last Supper, they are commemorating a unity even in the midst of their enemies and not necessarily a corporate evocation of the Exodus account. Thus, like the Seder, Christians commemorate a kind of unifying principle, but not the same kind of unifying principle as in the Exodus account. Israelites look back to God’s past provisions and a future hope, connecting the messianic longing to a future reality; whereas, Christians look to the present effects of Christ’s work, namely the kind of examination that leads to unity. Christians do not harken unto God’s messianic provisions historically, replacing the Israelites for the Christians; instead, they (Christians) are to find a way to unify and trust God to be the absolver of sin and the unifier of all, even their enemies. Zaas concludes his comments with an image of unity—projecting and encouraging Christians to respond differently to the other, for Christ demands and exemplifies a supra-reality which includes his enemies.
Like Peter Zaas, Ken Hanson’s presentation accentuates the fact that the Seder and the Christian communion are different, even showing that these commemorations have different sources and different outcomes. For Hanson, the Christian communion is not a Seder but a transformation of the Seder.
His presentation offers insightful analysis on the Qumranic community and their practices, especially as they relate to ceremonies which usher in and/or anticipate the messianic era. His insight on the possible allusion to the Qumranic practices in the Gospels cannot go unnoticed. His suggestion that the communal Lord’s Supper could have been an inaugural Qumran-inspired “Messianic Banquet” is a helpful direction for new insights on this important topic. He highlighted the Qumranic ceremonies and the days of the week on which Jesus’ disciples reclined together. His insights force one to question the veracity of current and past scholarship on the Lord’s Supper and the Seder connection.
Also, Hanson’s insight on the Pauline “love feast” could offer some great connections to this communal meal, especially since Paul references “love feast” in contrast to the fractioning individuals in several places in his letters. This “love feast” could have been the feast featured in Acts 2 where the practice of giving and receiving was also part of Christ’s commemoration. For example, just after the text concerning the Last Supper in Luke’s account, the disciples began to debate who was the greatest. This connection is interesting since Jesus disseminated the cup in such a way as to show equality among the community, the familial community. So in the Lukan account, sharing, giving, and receiving was not a top-down gesture but a side-by-side sharing. Luke says, “Take this and share it among yourselves.” This way of understanding Luke offers a continuity within the Gospel itself. If interpreted this way, Paul’s account could have been a further reference to the sharing among each other and not competing with the other.
Moreover, Hanson accentuates the order of cup and bread as a way to point out how the Pauline account replaces the Seder meal, offering a new meal and demanding the Seder be usurped for the messianic meal. Perhaps this adjustment was a kind of intentional usurpation. Or, perhaps, even as he pointed out, this meal could have been a new statement about the covenant. If true, could this have been a new reality added to the current Seder celebration, continuing a long tradition of adding a different ending to the meal, of identifying a new community for a fuller reality to be understood? In other words, this meal could have been a nascent frame around which the early Christians were to build their identity. If this is true, then the last cup in the Lukan account could be the fourth cup of the Seder.
Hanson’s analysis suggests that scholars still demand a synoptic reading of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which is a waning trend among scholars. Furthermore, insisting that there are textual Pauline glosses on the Gospels also seems troublesome. However, he rightly observes that Paul’s statement about the meal does not suggest a ceremonial or ritual practice, but a practice emphasizing unity.
Like Zaas and Hanson, Garber does not see the Christian Communion as a Jewish Seder; however, he understands the communion event is more than a Seder, a Christian version which looks onto meaning more than the form and substance. Like Zaas, Garber assumes the reader has a rich history in the rabbinic sources, which he attests is a valuable commodity for the Christian to understand.
Garber’s presentation accentuates the difference between the Gospel and epistolary texts [Luke, Matthew, Mark and Paul (I Corinthians)]. He does not illustrate this difference as a kind of redaction or failure of the authors to follow the traditions of a Seder meal, but an accentuation of the “triumph of moral victory”—a way to teach the intrinsic value of the other. Thus, the order of the cup and the meal does not determine the meaning, but how one takes the meal. The meaning and value of the celebration and commemoration go beyond the meal and into the unity for which the meal stands. The meal with its form and substance directs the observer to the intrinsic value of the event, not the extrinsic value of the forms and substances.
Paying close attention to the rabbinic sources, Garber furthers Hanson’s idea—that the Lukan cup signifies a further fulfillment of the messianic age, an age where “a universal sibling…can be realized…in our day.” He connects the Halakha and Paul epistle to the church at Ephesus where Jews and Gentiles united peacefully and the “Judge-of-all-the-Earth (is) to deal justly with the Nations of the World. Garber understands the Seder discussion to be helpful if a Christian harkens back to the rabbinic sources for observations that lead to the profundity of meaning within the event. Thus, the question concerning the connection between the Seder and Christian communion demands the Christian to reach back to his/her Jewish roots to find how to unify with the other, bearing the weight of the other, even to the point of communing with the other. This communion and confession needs to include even coming to the aid of the suffering ones, the six million Jews who suffered under the weight of intolerance and anti-Semitism.
Each presenter agreed on three points: the communion meal is a meal accentuating unity and that the Seder and communion meals are different. But the most important issue that all can agree upon is, as Garber suggests, that any communion that fails to seek a universal peace also fails to recognize Christ’s purpose in making peace for all mankind.