Last Seder: A Jewish Reading of the Last Supper

On the night before he suffered, Jesus ate a “last supper” with his disciples. At that meal, he gave them bread and wine and told them to take the bread and wine in remembrance of him. Thanks to increasing levels of education in the Jewish roots of Christianity, most Christians today realize that the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples was a traditional Jewish Passover Seder meal, but most Christians probably still do not realize exactly how the Last Supper conforms to a traditional seder meal. The following article is based on Torah Club Volume Four: Chronicles of the Messiah, a commentary on the Gospels from a Messianic Jewish perspective.

The Typical Passover Seder

Although the various elements of the traditional Passover Seder have undergone alterations and development over the centuries, today’s seder meal liturgy resembles the one conducted by Jesus and his disciples in the upper room. The Hebrew word seder means “set order,” and the set order of conducting a Passover meal seems to have been established early. Jewish writings describe the set order of the Passover meal as it was practiced in the days of Jesus and the disciples.

In those days, the seder meal began after dark. No one ate anything from midday until they had all settled in around the table that night. Over the course of the evening, each person drank four ceremonial cups of wine. The first cup of wine accompanied a declaration of the day’s holiness (kiddush). After the first cup, the ceremony commenced with bitter herbs and vegetables dipped into a vinegar sop (karpas). Then the servers put out the unleavened bread (matzah), fruit compote (charoset), and the Passover lamb. A child at the table asked the prescribed questions. The father or host of the seder replied with an exposition of Deuteronomy 3626:5–9 and a discussion of the significance of the ritual foods: the Passover sacrifice, the unleavened bread, and the bitter herbs. The recitation of Psalms 113–114 (Hallel) and a blessing in thanks of redemption preceded the second cup and the meal. After the meal, they poured a third cup to accompany the grace after meals, and the fourth and final cup accompanied the conclusion of the seder and as they sang the remainder of the psalms of Hallel (Psalms 115–118).

Around the Master’s Table

They went and found it like he said to them, and they prepared the pesach. When the hour arrived, he reclined with the twelve apostles. (Lukas 22:14, Delitzsch Hebrew English)

Simon Peter and John saw to the preparations: wine, unleavened bread, bitter herbs, vinegar for dipping, fruit compote, and the roasted sacrificial lamb. Cushions and mats surrounded the low, horseshoe shaped triklinium table. The table accommodated as many as thirteen participants. About five people could sit on the left and five on the right with the remaining ones reclining at the narrower center table. Everyone reclined along the outside of the table, allowing the inside of the table to remain accessible to the servers. Even to this day, participants in a Passover Seder lean to one side when eating the ceremonial foods as a remembrance of those days when everyone reclined around the seder table.

Foretaste of What is to Come

Before even taking the first of the four cups, he declared, “I have deeply longed to eat this pesach with you before my suffering. For I say to you, I will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” (Lukas 22:15–16 DHE). He anticipated a period of separation from his disciples, but he also foresaw the day when he would be reunited with them to celebrate the grand seder at the Messianic banquet in the kingdom of heaven, i.e., the Messianic Era.

Judaism teaches that, at the Messianic banquet in the kingdom, the Messiah will receive his coronation rites, take four cups in his hands, and pronounce the blessings over wine preserved in its grapes since the foundation of the world. The twelve disciples came to Jerusalem expecting just such a festive meal. They anticipated a violent upheaval, throwing off the Roman yoke, followed by the coronation of the king. They had expected a resurrection of the dead and a great banquet with the Messiah. Instead, they had a simple seder with the Master, a foretaste of the appointed time to come.

The First of Four Cups

Participants in a Passover Seder drink four cups of wine. This rule goes back to the days of Jesus. The rabbis said, “A person must have not less than four cups of wine at Passover, even if they must be paid for from the funds devoted to charity for the poor” (Mishnah).

The Gospel of Luke specifically mentions two cups at the Last Supper. Matthew and Mark mention only one cup, but we can assume that Jesus and his disciples did take all four cups. In Jewish tradition, all four cups are considered one cup, called “The Cup of Salvations.”

Luke says, “He took the cup and made a [blessing] and said ‘Take it and distribute it.’” (Lukas 22:17 DHE). The blessing over wine was simply, “Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe who creates the fruit of the vine.” Jesus may have added a second blessing pertaining to the festival day, making mention of the Exodus from Egypt and the sanctity of the festival season. Then he took a solemn vow, vowing to abstain from wine and the Pesach meal until he is able to drink and eat with his disciples again in the Messianic Era:

For I say to you, I will surely not drink the fruit of the vine from now until the kingdom of God comes. (Lukas 22:17 DHE)

This does not mean that he abstained from the cup that night at the table. Jewish law requires that one who makes a blessing over food or drink must taste of the thing for which he has blessed God. Jesus drank from the first cup and passed it to his disciples.

Karpas and the Traitor

After the first cup, participants in the Passover Seder wash hands and then take part in a ritual called karpas. The ritual involves dipping a green vegetable twice into red wine vinegar. (In modern seders, salt water often substitutes for the wine vinegar.) The meaning of the ritual is obscure, but according to some opinions, it represents the betrayal of Joseph whose brothers dipped his coat in goat’s blood—the event that initiated the descent into Egypt. It may also represent dipping the hyssop into the lamb’s blood.

As the Master and his disciples dipped the karpas into the dish of vinegar, he said, “Amen, I say you, one of you will betray me” (Mattai 26:21 DHE). He further said, “Look—the hand of the one betraying me is with me on the table” (Lukas 22:21 DHE).

The disciples reacted with shock. They were greatly grieved and each man began to say to him, “Is it I my master?” Jesus replied with an allusion to the karpas ritual. He answered and said, “The man who dipped his hand in the bowl with me is the one who will betray me” (Mattai 26:23 DHE). The other disciples had not observed whose hand dipped into the vinegar simultaneously with the Master, but Judas Iscariot knew.

Gospel readers unfamiliar with the seder might assume that the dipping into the bowl with Iscariot (reported in Matthew and Mark) is the same as John 13:26 where Jesus dips a piece of bread and hands it to Iscariot, but the two incidents refer to different rituals during the course of the seder.

Iscariot alone knew that his hand had dipped the karpas into the vinegar at the same moment as the hand of Jesus. This indicates that Iscariot must have been reclining next to Jesus at the table. Carrying on the pretense of ignorance, Iscariot turned to the Master and asked, along with the others, “Rabbi, is it I?” He said to him privately, “You have said it.”

The Matzah in Remembrance

The meal continued. An ancient Jewish description of the seder meal says, “Next they bring unleavened bread, lettuce, and fruit compote (charoset) … in the days of the Temple they would set before him the body of the Passover lamb.” (Mishnah).

Before eating the lamb, the participants at a seder had to discharge their obligation to eat unleavened bread (matzah) and bitter herbs. For the duration of the festival, no grain product exposed to moisture (and allowed to rise before baking) can be eaten or brought into the home. The Torah commands the Jewish people to eat unleavened matzah-bread on each of the seven days of the festival and specifically during the seder.

During the course of the seder meal, the master of the table lifts the unleavened bread and declares, “This is the bread of affliction.” Later, he says the blessing for bread, breaks it, and distributes it to everyone at the table.

Jesus made the blessing for bread: “Blessed are you, LORD our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” He may have added the additional blessing for the festival, “… who has sanctified us with his commandments and has commanded us about eating matzah.” Then he broke the bread of affliction, ate some, and distributed it among his disciples, telling them, “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

He instructed his disciples to henceforth eat the unleavened bread of Passover in remembrance of him. With those words, he invested the Passover ritual with new, additional significance. Previously, the disciples of Jesus ate the unleavened bread at Passover in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt. The Torah explicitly says that Passover “will be a memorial (zikkaron) to you” (Exodus 12:14).

Christian tradition has embellished the ritual, but the original context indicates a simple, Passover rite common to every Jewish home, albeit, augmented with additional symbolic associations. By declaring the unleavened bread as a symbol for his body, the Master invited the disciples to henceforth remember Passover as the occasion of his suffering and sacrifice. As Paul says, “For as often as you eat this bread … you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

Korech

Our Master Jesus distributed the unleavened matzah-bread according to seder custom and turned his attention to the bitter herbs and Passover lamb. After a blessing for the bitter herbs and the lamb, they began to eat the main course.

As they ate, Jesus became troubled in spirit, and he testified and said, “Amen, amen, I say to you that one of you will betray Me” (Yochanan 13:21 DHE). Again the disciples began looking at one another, at a loss to know of which one he spoke. The twelve men had spent the last three years together in the most incredible of adventures. They had walked and talked, learned and argued, eaten and drank, camped and travelled together. They had seen the sea calmed, the sick healed, demons cast out, and the dead raised. Their shared experiences forged a bond of fraternity out of which betrayal must have seemed unimaginable. The unspeakable thought broke their hearts.

John the son of Zebedee reclined at the table beside the Master. Iscariot may have reclined in the place of honor on the Master’s left. That arrangement explains how Iscariot dipped into the dish (karpas) at the same time as the Master and how Jesus could easily give him the morsel.

Simon Peter nodded from across the table to get John’s attention. He said to him confidentially, “Tell us who it is of whom he is speaking.” John leaned back and asked in a whisper, “Master, who is it?”

Jesus replied softly, “That is the one for whom I shall dip the morsel and give it to him.” Jesus dipped the morsel into a dish, and he handed it to Iscariot:

Yeshua answered, “Watch—it is the one to whom I dip my piece and give it.” He dipped his piece and gave it to Yehudah ben Shim’on Ish-Keriyot. After he swallowed it, the satan came within him. Yeshua said to him, “What you will do, do quickly.” (Yochanan 13:26–27 DHE)

This ritual is called “korech.” According to the custom, one should combine the matzah-bread, the Passover lamb, and the bitter herbs, and eat them together (korech) as a sort of sandwich to literally fulfill the verse that says, “They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs” (Numbers 9:11).

The bitter herbs remind the participants in a seder of the bitterness of the suffering in Egypt. For disciples of the Master, the bitter herbs also remind them of the bitterness of the night he was betrayed and of the onset of his suffering.

In seders today, we have no Passover lamb, but we still perform korech by dipping unleavened bread into fruit compote (charoset) and bitter herbs (maror), such as grated horseradish root. The volcanic effect of horseradish on matzah allows one to experience the culinary equivalent of John’s statement regarding Judas, “After he swallowed it, the satan came within him” (Yochanan 13:27 DHE).

The Third Cup

He said to them, “This is my blood, the blood of the new covenant, which is poured out on behalf of many.” (Markos 14:23 DHE)

After eating the Passover meal, participants in a Passover Seder pour a third cup of wine to accompany grace after meals. Some refer to the third cup as the cup of thanksgiving because it accompanies the prayer of thanks for the food. Likewise, Paul refers to the cup of the Master as “the cup of thanksgiving.” (1 Corinthians 10:16) 

The text in Luke and 1 Corinthians explicitly states that Jesus took the cup “after they had eaten,” “after the meal.” That can only be the third cup, the cup of thanksgiving. The Greek word eucharisteo means “to give thanks” and, in this context, implies only the traditional Jewish practice of pronouncing a blessing to accompany a meal. The sacramental meaning of the word “Eucharist” developed in later Christian tradition.

Our Master said the blessing for wine and distributed the cup to his disciples, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

As he passed the cup of thanksgiving to his disciples, Jesus instructed them to henceforth take the wine of Passover in remembrance of him. With those words, he once again invested new symbolism into the Passover ceremony. He did not institute a new ritual or replace the previous symbolic associations. Previously, the disciples of Jesus drank four cups at Passover in remembrance of the salvation from Egypt. As stated above, God ordained Passover as a “memorial” of the exodus. Rabbi Jesus told his disciples to henceforth take the cups of Passover in remembrance of him.

Again, Christian tradition has embellished the ritual of the cup, but the original context indicates a simple, Passover rite common to every Jewish home, albeit augmented with additional symbolic associations. The ritual cup of the Master symbolizes his willing, sacrificial death: “For as often as you ... drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

As noted above, the traditional blessing for wine thanks God for creating the fruit of the vine. As he passed the cup to his disciples, Jesus said, “Amen. I say to you, I will surely not drink of the fruit of the vine again until that day when I will drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Markos 14:25 DHE). What does he mean when he says that he will drink the wine “new” with his disciples? Jewish tradition explains that, when the Messiah comes, he will host a great banquet in the kingdom, and he will serve wine that has been preserved since the creation of the world.

Fourth Cup and Singing the Hallel

After their recital of the Hallel … (Mattai 26:30 DHE)

In the days of the Master, participants in a Passover Seder sang through the Hallel (Psalms 113–118). They recited a portion of the psalms before the food in conjunction with the second cup, and they recited the remainder of the psalms after the meal in conjunction with the final cup.

The Gospels mention Jesus and the disciples keeping the same custom: “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26). Before they left for the Mount of Olives, however, they lingered over the fourth cup.

Jesus said the blessing for the last cup. In conjunction with the last blessings over the fruit of the vine, he said, “I am the vine and you are the branches” (John 15:5). They talked at the table long into the night as the Master delivered his farewell discourse to his disciples. He spoke all the sayings recorded in John 13–17. He warned the disciples that they would deny him. Simon Peter adamantly insisted he would never betray Jesus. He told them to prepare for the trauma to come, and he prayed for them.

When Jesus finished his farewell discourse, he left the table. His disciples followed him. They went out from the city, crossed the valley at the foot of the Mount of Olives, and climbed the hill to the garden of Gethsemane. Then Jesus prayed, “My Father, if only you were willing to make this cup pass from me! Yet let it not be according to my will but according to your will” (Lukas 22:42 DHE).

 

More Messianic Passover Teachings

Want more about Passover from a Messianic Jewish perspective? Check out our Passover page!

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