Is the Seder about Christ?

I’m going to muse a little bit about the Passover seder.  I’ll use as my lauch-pad an article that Rachel Held Evans references in her latest post, That’s a good question….  The article is Do Christian celebrations of the Passover offend Jews?  It’s about Christians and Messianic Jews who celebrate their own versions of the Jewish seder, as they interpret the seder’s rituals in light of Christianity.  Here’s a quote from the article:

“They take our symbols, our holiday, our ritual and start investing them in Christian meaning,” said Rabbi Stuart Federow, who leads Congregation Shaar Hashalom and speaks out against the evangelization of Jews on his Web site, “It’s spreading out through the more liberal Christian churches. The Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians are doing this without understanding the hurt it causes to their Jewish friends.” 

As with most things, my reaction to this quote is mixed.  Let me start with the negative, since (as usual) that’s the stronger part of my reaction.  Is it me, or is the word “hurt” a little overused in our day and age?  I’m sorry if you stumbled on this post expecting political correctness, but I have a hard time either sympathizing or empathizing with what Rabbi Stuart Federow is saying.  If there are Jewish people who are “hurt” because Gentiles and Jewish believers in Jesus want to interpret Passover rituals in light of Christ, then they need to develop thicker skin!  A prominent element of Christianity is that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Passover lamb.  I realize that Jews who don’t believe in Jesus as Messiah reject this notion, but, news flash, there are people in this world who accept it, and they’re not obligated to drop that belief or to ignore the Jewish roots of their faith just because some may find it offensive.  Sheesh, you’d think that Christians observing seders is equivalent to vandalizing synagogues, from what Rabbi Federow is saying!

On that note, here’s a post I wrote way back in September 2007, defending Christian observance of the Passover: But It Is My Tradition, Too.

Now for my positive reaction to Rabbi Federow’s comments.  I think that some evangelicals who profess to “love the Jewish people” are a little condescending.  They go to seders and claim to see Christ in the afikomen, while they consider the Jews around them to be spiritually blind for not interpreting it that way.  I once heard an evangelical talking about his pastor who went to a seder, and he said that his pastor loves the Jewish people because their beliefs and rituals were a preparation for the coming of Christ.  “It’s like appreciating the first hammer, which is rudimentary,” he said.  “It’s not as good as the subsequent hammers, but we can still appreciate it as a first step.”  Hey, in my opinion, it’s fine to believe that way, for many of us think that our way of believing and doing things is superior to others’.  But I doubt that many Jews are thrilled to hear that their rituals are “rudimentary,” or “a first step,” while the person claiming that is patting them on the back as if he appreciates them. 

I watched an annoying (yet well-done) movie on the Trinity Broadcasting Network yesterday, called The Messiah: Fulfilled Prophecy.  It’s about a first century rabbi named Yehudah, who embraces Jesus as the promised Messiah, and he conducts his family’s seder after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Two of his brothers think he’s a heretic, while one of them believes in Jesus.  And Yehudah’s father doesn’t agree with Yehudah, yet he admires him as a sincere pursuer of truth.  Basically, Yehudah conducts the family’s seder and tries to ramrod Christianity down everyone’s throats, by interpreting the Passover lamb in reference to Yeshua’s death, and the afikomen in terms of Yeshua’s resurrection, while the women are looking at him like he’s a profound sage. 

One of Yehudah’s skeptical brothers argues that Yehudah is making the Scriptures say what he wants them to say, and he asks how Yehudah can be so sure that his interpretation is the right one.  But this skeptical brother is at a disadvantage, for he’s in a setting in which the events of the New Testament Gospels actually happened!  In his reality, darkness covered the land and the temple curtain was rent in two during Jesus’ death.  And Yehudah was one of the men who saw Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24).  Non-Christians today can say those were merely stories, or apocalyptic imagery, or attempts at apologetics, or whatever.  But the skeptics in this movie didn’t have that option!

Does the seder have anything to do with Jesus Christ?  My dad and I used to attend a small Armstrongite offshoot, and there was a woman there who was a Messianic Jew, trying to learn about our beliefs.  She knew that we kept the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, in some fashion, and so she asked us if we observed a seder.  The leader replied that we do not, for the seder has nothing to do with Christ.  “Oh, but it does,” she responded.  The leader then said, “Don’t tell an orthodox Jew that!”  And she retorted, “They don’t see how it relates to Christ, but it does.  I’ve been celebrating the seder since I was a little girl!”

At my Jewish school, the message that I usually get is that the Passover seder was a rabbinic invention, designed to preserve the Passover after the temple had been destroyed, and with it the possibility of offering a Passover sacrifice.  You see that in Professor Jonathan Klawans’ article in Biblical Archaeology ReviewWas Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?  I don’t remember my password for the Biblical Archeology Review web site—or even if I’m still subscribed to it—so I’m not sure if I can read Baruch Bokser’s piece on whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover seder.  But his book, Origins of the Seder, seems (if I’m reading it correctly) to lean towards the argument that the seder was a rabbinic innovation after the destruction of the Second Temple.  How can a rabbinic custom foreshadow Christ, when it originated after Christ?

At the same time, neither Klawans nor Boker disproves the existence of some sort of Passover meal before the destruction of the Second Temple.  Exodus 12 prescribes that for the very first Passover.  Could some of the seder rituals have been part of that?

The part of the seder that Christians most attach to Jesus Christ is the ritual of the afikomen.  What happens is this: You have three Matzos.  The leader breaks the middle one and hides a piece of it.  The children then look for it, and the one who finds it gets a prize.  Christians have interpreted the three Matzos as the trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The middle one is the Son, Jesus Christ, who is broken for our sins.  And wrapping the middle matzo up and finding it symbolizes Jesus’ resurrection, for Jesus’ corpse was wrapped in garments, and he was found by his followers.

The first seder that I attended was a Messianic one, and the rabbi told us that the Jews have alternative explanations, such as the one that claims that the three Matzos represent Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  But I could tell that he didn’t think their explanation was as good as his Messianic interpretation.

I tried to do some research on the afikomen—on the Internet, in Bokser’s book, in my Jastrow rabbinic dictionary, etc.—but I was hitting my head on a wall.  Some say that it existed before the coming of Christ.  Others claim that it’s late and post-dates the historical Jesus.  Some say afikomen is a Greek word.  Others say it’s Aramaic.  Some say it means “he who comes.”  Others say it means “dessert.”  In the Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 119, there is a debate about what it means in Mishnah Pesachim 10:8.  Some rabbis say it’s the practice of going to another party after finishing up the seder, which the rabbis prohibit.  Others treat it as a dessert, whether that be fruit and nuts, or a matzo.  As I looked at modern-day Jewish sites, I saw the view that the afikomen was intended to replace the Passover lamb as the last thing to be eaten at a Passover meal.  So could the ritual of the afikomen exist in a seder that had a Passover lamb, as I saw on the movie, The Messiah: Prophecy Fulfilled?  I’d guess not, but the only thing I can say with certainty right now is that my head is spinning with uncertainty about what the afikomen is, let alone what it means!

I’ll stop here.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to Is the Seder about Christ?

  1. rustin says:

    Very interesting blog and comment on Christian theft/borrowing of the Seder. Christians have no tradition of a Passover Seder ritual. Therefore any Cristian seder is dependent upon the Jewish model.
    If such groups were to barbecue a lamb and follow a script cobbled from the Synoptic gospels, the response would be very different. Matzah, wine, bitter herbs, and Afikomen have been exclusively Jewish ritual items for thousands of years. It is simply cultural expropriation based on a contemporary reconstructionist fad.

    Once upon a time perhaps some Arabian Christians participated in the Stoning of the Satan. Maybe they even sacrificed a kid in remembrance of the Akeidah. Imagine how Muslims would react to Christians performing trinitarian versions of these rituals?

    On the other hand, those Christians that are interested in “The Jewish roots of Christ/Christianity” tend to be more Zionistic and supportive of Israel. Not Catholics. Not Eastern Orthodox. This softens much of the umbrage.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Good points, Rustin!


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