The more we know about Passover, the more we can understand the Last Supper
Photo Credit: KUL Heschel Center
“If Christians forget the connections between Passover and the Last Supper, they risk forgetting not only the Exodus, they also risk forgetting Jesus’s affirmation of Jewish Scriptures and tradition”, explains dr. Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, the first Jewish woman to teach New Testament at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, in a commentary for the Heschel Center of the Catholic University of Lublin.
The full commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew (Matthew 26:14—27:66) for the Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.
Mathew 26:17 states, “On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” The expression, “the Passover,” refers to a lamb sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple and eaten by Jews to commemorate the night the angel of death spared them.
The Last Supper, according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, was a Passover meal. Jesus and his disciples were among the two million Jews – the number comes from the Jewish historian Josephus – who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast.
The more we know about Passover, the more we can understand the Last Supper.
For example, Mathew 26:20 states that Jesus and the disciples “reclined” (aÓnakeime÷nwn) at table. Reclining at table is the position of free people.
Next, while the Book of Exodus does not mention drinking wine at Passover, by the second century BCE, the non-canonical book of Jubilees associates wine with the holiday. The Mishnah (Pesachim 10) specifies four cups of wine signifying the freedom and joy of the holiday, freedom and joy that anticipate the olam ha-ba, the world to come, the messianic age.
Third, Mathew 26:30 states that after the meal, “they sang the hymn….” Philo of Alexandria, a first-century Jewish philosopher, speaks of singing in celebrating the Passover. The Mishnah, Pesachim 5:7, states that Jews at Passover sang Psalms 113-118, the Hallel Psalms.
Fourth, when Jesus states that his betrayer “Is one dipping into the bowl with me” (Mathew 26:23) he may have been dipping his matzoh, unleavened bread, into bitter herbs, eaten on Passover to recall the bitterness of slavery. Mathew may also be recording another tradition known from the Mishnah. Pesachim 10:4, records, “On all the other nights we dip once,” that is, the common practice of dipping food into sauce, “but on this night, we dip twice.” The second dip signified what free people, people have leisure time, can do. Today at the seder, we Jews dip vegetables into salt water, twice, to remind us of the tears of slavery.
Mathew 26:24 also alludes to Psalm 41:9, “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heal against me.” Often when both evangelists and rabbis cite a text, they presume readers know the literary context. The previous verse, Psalm 41.8, reads, “they think … that I will not rise again.” The following verse, Psalm 41:10, reads, “Lord, be gracious to me, and raise me up.” The Psalm thus adds nuance to the Last Supper.
The Last Supper was not like seders we Jews celebrate today: the Last Supper included a lamb sacrificed in the Temple. After the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, Jewish seders included new readings and rituals. Although traditions changed, Passover still reminds us that people are still enslaved, and so it prompts us to work for freedom.
If Christians forget the connections between Passover and the Last Supper, they risk forgetting not only the Exodus, they also risk forgetting Jesus’s affirmation of Jewish Scriptures and tradition.
About the author:
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine is a Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Mary Jane Werthan University’s Vanderbilt Divinity School, Graduate Department of Religion and Department of Jewish Studies, as well as the Woolf Institute, Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge UK. She has delivered more than 500 lectures on the Bible, Christian-Jewish relations, and religion across the world. In the spring of 2019, she became the first Jewish woman to lecture on the New Testament at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome; in 2021, she was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.