What Do We Do about Christian Seders?

This week, Jews around the world will sit in quarantine around the table, and virtually, with family and friends to observe the Passover seder. It is my sincere hope that all will able to sit at a table, and join together safely, either remotely or in person , and reenact this home ritual that dates back millennia. The Passover Seder, in its form we recognize today, was a rabbinic creation, modified and added to, in the centuries after the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE. We Jews, descendants of the Israelites, use this ritual to remember the story of the Exodus, our journey from slavery to freedom, and with every generation, find parallels to metaphorical journeys and social justice causes. It is a truly joyous time, a time of observance, of family and friends, and of Jewish commitment.

However, throughout the centuries, especially in modern times, we Jews too often have found the Passover Seder misrepresented or co-opted by our Christian neighbors. Every year at this time, Christians celebrate Good Friday and Easter, which fall within the Passover week, and every year inevitably rabbis like myself receive the emails and calls from Christians and Messianics asking if they can join in or host their own seder, in order to “recreate the Passover like Jesus celebrated.” In addition, we see countless invitations, on Twitter and other social media platforms, to seders, such as the one from Harvest Time Church, which states:

COME TO (sic) a special online Passover Seder. Christians can discover their Jewish roots, Jewish people can discover the Passover’s fulfillment, and God’s love can melt all our hearts!

As I said earlier, the Passover seder was created rabbinically after the fall of the 2nd Temple; therefore, Jesus never celebrated the Passover seder because it hadn’t been invented yet. So, this is an important learning moment for our Christian friends. However, I do want to distinguish this discussion from the wonderful practice of inviting Christians to Jewish seders in order to experience a Jewish Passover; this is a fruitful interfaith task, and embodies not only our pursuit of tikkun olam through education, but also representing the open tent, the tent open on all sides, embodied in the words of our Haggadah, “let all who are hungry come and eat.”

It is when the Christian seders take on their own ideologies that they become dangerous. Dr. Michael Cook, renowned author and New Testament professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, recounts a newspaper article from years ago in which the Judaism has been completely lost altogether in regards to Passover:

Shepherds’s Chapel of Gravette held their annual Passover Meeting…in Springdale, AR. Passover is a Christian religious holiday commemorating the sacrifice Jesus made for the world and celebrating His resurrection…252 of those attending were baptized.

It would be laughable if it weren’t so upsetting. When I was a student at Boston University, around Passover time I walked down Commonwealth Avenue and found myself face to face with a Jews for Jesus presentation on the street. The young men and women were drawing art on canvas; on one side of the canvas was a painting of the blood painted on the doorposts of the Israelite homes as the Angel of Death passed over the houses; on the other side was the blood dripping from Jesus’ cross. At the time, I was uneducated on the substantial amount of “church seders” and typology that occurs in many Christian denominations, where Judaism is slowly taken away and replaced with ideas such as the death of the firstborn foreshadowing the death of Jesus; the lamb without blemish paralleling Jesus, the Lamb of God; the lamb’s blood on wooden doorposts of Israelite homes anticipating Jesus’ blood on the wooden cross; the three pieces of matzah representing the Trinity; and the broken middle matzah constituting the body of Jesus (middle member of the Trinity) broken on the cross.

It is upsetting to see our ritual twisted and changed to fit the ideology of another, especially without our endorsement, but rather than responding in anger, it is our duty as Jews to educate, and to do so kindly. These Christians, at least the vast majority of them, do not create a Christian Passover out of maliciousness; most do not intend to take part in replacement theology; they are simply acting out the teachings of their faith. This does not include, of course, the pain we have experienced over the centuries, wherein danger and death have faced Jews from Christians because of the horrendous blood libel, the medieval mythology that claimed Jews kidnapped and killed Christian children for their blood (supposedly to use in the baking of Passover matzah). This also does not include those missionaries who make it a point to use the Christian Seder to attract Jews and convert them. Those aspects and intentions deserve a different response from us. But for those Christians who are misinformed, and who genuinely wish to strengthen their own religion by learning from its predecessor, our religion, this is a sacred task, one that should be encouraged.

Years ago, at my congregation on a Saturday morning, a teenage Christian girl came to our Shabbat services to learn about Jewish worship. When the Torah, our holiest text, came around to her during the hakafah, she touched it, and then in an instance of pure beauty, she crossed herself, fusing Judaism and Christianity for her together for the first time in a very real way. Could there be any more amazing thing to see, than a young Christian person’s faith reenergized by learning the Jewish roots and connection, a moment when Judaism serves as the teacher and helper to Christianity through peace and education rather than tension and violence? The Passover Seder is the same way, the same opportunity for those who wish to come and learn. Just as the young Christian girl in my pews had to be educated as to what the Torah represented, so too do the Christian guests at our seder tables need to be educated as to why Passover is a purely Jewish ritual, and not a Christian one, but a ritual, nonetheless, that can inspire them.

Most Christians are taught through the synoptic Gospels, that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder. They come to this conclusion because the gospel of Mark identifies the Last Supper as a “Passover meal,” known to them as the “first day of Unleavened Bread when they sacrificed the Passover Lamb…”.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Pascal (Passover) sacrifice were both known to Israelite culture and celebrated in the 1st century CE. Their origins come from the Torah, wherein Exodus 12:17 tells us:

You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time. 18 In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening.”

The Bible also tells us that there was a Pascal Sacrifice, for us to slaughter on the eve of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, as stated in Numbers 9:1-3:

“The LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, on the first new moon of the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying: 2 Let the Israelite people offer the passover sacrifice at its set time: 3 you shall offer it on the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, at its set time; you shall offer it in accordance with all its rules and rites.”

As Robert Alter and other biblical scholars note, it is most plausible that the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover Sacrifice “were originally two different holidays – matsot (agricultural) and pesah (pastoral) – that were drawn together in the literary formulation” of the Torah text. So while it is quite possible that Jews of the 1st century in Jesus’ time knew of and celebrated these two holidays, they did not constitute the Passover Seder. As Dr. Michael Cook mentions in his work, at the Last Supper in the gospels, there is no mention of matzah (instead bread is mentioned), no mention of bitter herbs, or of the Exodus. No, the Passover Seder had yet to be created because the seder itself was a replacement of the Passover sacrifice which, while the Temple still stood during Jesus’ time, was done. Renowned New Testament scholars, such as Amy Jill-Levine and Michael Cook, understand that the author of the Gospel of Mark, “tried to transform an ordinary Last Supper meal into Passover observance so that he could correlate Passover, the festival of physical and political freedom for the Jews, with Jesus’ death, which brought spiritual freedom for humanity.”

This was a common practice for the gospel writers, to connect Jewish festivals and rituals to Jesus, in order to form a bond with the Hebrew Bible and Jewish practice. However, scholarship and history tell us that the Passover Seder not only originated after Jesus’ time, but that “neither Jesus the Jew nor pre-70 Christians ever practiced a Seder of any kind, let alone celebrations like those that many churches today stage to “reenact” the Last Supper.”

So, it’s an easy fix. When we come together to celebrate Passover this year, as Jews we have an opportunity to pass along knowledge, to break misconceptions, to right the wrongs of typology and replacement theology, and welcome Christians to our tables to take part in a millennia old ritual which welcomes all, speaks of freedom and justice, and can provide beautiful interfaith understanding. May this Pesach bring about knowledge and education to our Christian friends, may we continue to inspire one another through learning about our faiths, and may we hold fast to truth and education in the era of the internet and so much misinformation. Then will we fulfill the charge of Jew to be a “light unto the nations.”

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Harvey is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel, in West Lafayette, Indiana. He joined the community from his previous position as rabbi of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 2015, Rabbi Harvey earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Throughout his tenure at HUC-JIR, Rabbi Harvey served congregations, small and large, in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Rabbi Harvey was recently admitted to the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, within the Doctor of Science in Jewish Studies program.
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