Passover Seder, Once More

The intention of the previous post was clear. Or so I thought. It was meant as an uncomplicated statement of fidelity to the male priesthood. The presence or absence of women at the Last Supper is not the critical issue. My allegiance is what it is because Jesus of Nazareth is Who He is: male, in body and bearing.

Yet a surprising number of readers leap-frogged over the point and headed for the word seder. Some questioned the appropriateness of it in terms of days of the week and the Jewish calendar. Others raised linguistic obstacles. All insisted on an all-male meal that was absolutely not a seder. Infallibly not. A few clung to the issue like a terrier worrying a bone. They would not let go.


Dieric Bouts. Moses Celebrates the First Passover, from The Last Supper panel (1464-67).


Why so squirrely? Somewhere in the high grass of objection to the word seder lurks anxiety over feminist assault on the male priesthood. Electrically charged, the concern seems to carry with it an impulse to de-Judaize that ancient meal. So, please, let us talk about it a bit more.

In Jesus’ day every capable Jewish male was obliged, from the age of thirteen, to celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem, the earthly seat of the presence of God. The paschal lamb could only be sacrificed and eaten in Jerusalem. Pilgrim caravans streamed into the holy city from throughout the Jewish world. In Philo’s words: “Countless multitudes from countless cities come, some over land, others over sea, from east and west and north and south, at every feast.” Women were not duty-bound to make the annual pilgrimage but they did. Mary was one of them. And as we learn from the Lucan story of the boy Jesus in the Temple—a year short of his male obligation—they brought children, sons especially, with them.

The women at the foot of the cross and at the tomb on Easter morning had not traveled to Jerusalem to attend an execution. They came for Passover, its ritual meal taken in community.


Celebration of Passover, manuscript illustration for The Mirror of Human Salvation (15th C).


Joachim JeremiasJerusalem in the Time of Jesus cites the elaborate details of the ancient Passover, providing valuable entry into the milieu of the gospels. A recognized authority on the historical environment of the New Testament period, he commented in depth on the festal tenor of the multi-day celebration. This is particularly evocative:

If a man was to fulfill the commandment to rejoice at the festival he had to see that his women-folk enjoyed themselves too. The Babylonian Jews gave their wives bright clothes for Passover, and the Palestinians white linen.

[Could Joseph afford a length of good linen for his wife? Or might she have hinted—as women do—at some other small feminine or household thing?]


Facsimile of a 15th C. Passover illustration in a missal.


Turn to John P. Meier. The first volume of his A Marginal Jew includes an annotated journey through the differences between the Marcan and Johannine time-line of the passion. Despite numerous chronological disparities, the gospels of Mark and John agree that Jesus ate with his disciples in some Jerusalem home on Thursday and died on a Friday. Contention follows the rest.

The Synoptics and John disagree on the nature of the Last Supper (a Passover meal or something else?) and on the date (the 14th or 15th of Nissan on the Hebrew calendar?). John, with his theological tilt toward Jesus as having superseded observance of the Jewish feast, gives no indication that the supper was a Passover meal. By contrast, Mark 12:14 states,

On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?

Could this possibly be a later development, an editorial note inserted by Mark into earlier traditions? Some exegetes say yes, some no. Meier writes:

It would be foolish to claim that the choice between the two chronologies is a clear or easy one. Great scholars have defended and continue to defend both positions. . . . The best one can hope to do is to ask which of the possible scenarios seems the most probable.

Ultimately, Fr. Meier sides with the Johannine view. He withholds assent to Luke 22: 15-16, which includes Jesus’ words at the beginning of the meal: “With desire [eagerly] I have desired to eat this Passover meal with you before I suffer.” He believes the Lucan passage to be a subsequent editorial insertion of early Christian reflection on the Last Supper. He considers it a “long and hardly justified leap” to accept the verse as echoing Jesus’ exact words.


A family Passover scene. Barcelona Haggadah (14th C).


Possibilities and Probablities

So it goes. Trained, judicious scholarship explores a complex, vulnerable past through varying lines of credibility. Meier admits that scholarship offers “possible scenarios,” distinguishing interpretations that are “quite plausible” from others less so. He is a careful guide through the thickets of biblical criticism. Still, credible possibilities are not certainties. Even converging lines of probability end, as they must, in an assertion. And in matters resistant to verification, assertions are humble things. They welcome debate.

Even the most scrupulous scholars come to their task with hopes, leanings, and reluctances, however subliminal. Taking plausibility as our guide, it is fair to wonder if, perhaps, a scholar-priest is ineluctably drawn to interpretations that reinforce prior inclinations and assurances.

It is equally fair to consider how much is lost by distancing Jesus—Yeshua bar Yosef—from a liturgy sacred to the Jewish piety in which He was raised. The Word Made Flesh assumed Jewish flesh. Not Roman, Greek, or Persian flesh.  The Word entered a particular people: the seed of Abraham, tribe of Judah. Torah observant, Jesus lived as a Jew and died as one. Psalm 22 was on his lips in extremis: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.”


Jame Tissot. Jesus Teaching in the Temple (c.1898).


Louis Bouyer, in The Paschal Mystery, wrote:

Now, to repeat, the Eucharist, in the form in which Christ instituted it .  .  . follows the pattern of an Israelite religious banquet. We must then think of it in this pattern in order to understand it and to appreciate the mystery as it figured in prophetic vistas.

Bouyer describes the Passover meal as a “strikingly characteristic” religious banquet. Emphasis on “the father of the family, presiding at table” suggests what we call a seder. Josef Jungmann, S.J., discussed the origins of the Mass in the Roman rite in similar terms: “The first Holy Mass was said on ‘The same night on which He was betrayed’ (1 Cor. 11:23). .  .  . The setting was significant—the paschal meal.” He adds:

In Christ’s day the paschal meal was surrounded with a very complicated ceremonial. Before the meal proper, at which the Easter lamb was eaten, there was a little preliminary—a serving of bitter herbs and unleavened bread .  .  .  . The father of the house took one of the loaves of unleavened bread, broke it, pronounced over it a little blessing and passed it around.  .  .  . Into this arrangement our Lord’s Last Supper fits very easily.


Jesus enters Jerusalem with his mother and John the Baptist. Byzantine mosaic (14th C). Istanbul.


Jungmann admits “the records of the Last Supper contain few details concerning the ceremonial of the meal.” For emphasis, he repeats reference to the “omission of nearly all details of the paschal feast.” He notes apparent differences in the accounts, including “differences even in detailing the form of the words of institution.”

Passover liturgy is the consummate Jewish act of thanksgiving for deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The Mass, our communal Eucharistic meal, is a act of thanksgiving for deliverance from slavery to death, the last enemy. (The etymology of “eucharist” signifies thanksgiving.) Clamor for certitude on nomenclature or the matter of womenfolk at Jesus’ last table-gathering is incidental to the sublime gift that has come to us out of Jerusalem.


Miracle Mass. The hand of God offering the bread and wine. St. Honoré portal, Amiens Cathedral (13th C).


NOTE: For clarity’s sake, seder—the word we use  for the Passover meal—came later. Similarly, the Mass is a later term for the Eucharistic meal in the early Church. Liturgies develop over time. In terms of both the Passover and the Eucharistic meal, the substance and signification of the ritual is the same. The choreography changes; the essence endures.