by Jonathan Went


Israel's Passover

Pesach, or 'Passover', which was kept by Jesus (Luke 2.41-43; Mark 14.12-26; John 12.12), commemorated in early Spring Israel's deliverance from Egypt in which God "passed over" them and preserved them from His judgement on Egypt (Exodus 12.13).

"And you shall eat of it [the roasted lamb] this way, with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in a hurry. It is the LORD's Passover. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast. And I will execute judgments against all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. 13 And the blood shall be a sign to you upon the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you. And the plague shall not be upon you for a destruction when I smite in the land of Egypt. 14 And this day shall be a memorial to you. And you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD throughout your generations. You shall keep it as a feast by a law forever." (Exodus 12.11-14)

This night was to be different from all other nights. God Himself would 'pass over' (çñt, pâçach) and redeem every household from judgement over which was daubed the blood of the lamb. This was not an atonement sacrifice. The Israelites had not sinned. This was pure deliverance from circumstance. The yoke of Egypt and slavery was about to be thrown off and the demonic gods of Egypt judged.

Some Jewish sources in the Talmud say that the Israelites were worshipping idols in Egypt with the Egyptians and that Moses called them to come "away from the idols which you are worshipping with the Egyptians, the calves and lambs of stone and metal, and with one of these same animals through which you sin, prepare to fulfil the commandments of your God. The planet sign of the month Nisan (Aries: Ram) is a lamb; therefore that the Egyptians might not think that through the powers of the lamb they had thrown off the yoke of slavery, God commanded His people to take a lamb and eat it. They were commanded to roast it whole and to break no bone of it, so that the Egyptians might know that it was indeed a lamb which they had consumed."(1)

Passover preparation

Date Purpose First References

10th Nisan(2) Mar/Apr purchase of Passover lamb Exodus 12.3-6

14th Nisan Mar/Apr Passover Feast Exodus 12.6f.

15th-21st Nisan Mar/Apr Feast of Unleavened Bread Exodus 12.18 f; 13.3f.

A Sunday, Nisan Mar/Apr Firstfruits   Leviticus 23.9-14

The synoptic gospels tell of the first day of unleavened bread and the disciples' preparation of a full Passover meal. This included (according to Exodus 12) the purchase of the lamb (sheep or goat) on Nisan 10 for each household (if an Egyptian daubed blood on his house too, he could have been saved, it was without national distinction). Significant in itself this speaks of corporate familial salvation not our over concentration on the individual, compare the account of the Philippian jailer's conversion, or that of Lydia, in Acts when their whole families were baptised.

On Nisan 14/15 after having been set aside for 4 days the lamb is killed and the flesh is eaten with the unleavened bread.

"And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it." (Exodus 12.8)

The original Passover feast was to be kept "to the Lord . . . throughout your generations . . . by an everlasting ordinance . . . forever" (Exodus 12.14,24), now whether this "everlasting" requirement is met with in the Passover cum Lord's Supper or only in the continuance of Passover proper is debatable.

Passover and gentiles/foreigners

The ongoing celebration of Passover proper was peculiar to Israel for no foreigner was allowed to eat it (Exodus 12.43,45) although a circumcised servant or foreigner could. Thus, Passover was only to be kept by those in covenant relationship, symbolised by circumcision. In the New Testament, though circumcision is unnecessary for Gentiles who wish to be included in the covenant (cf. Acts 15), a circumcised heart fulfils the true requirement of covenant relationship - but this was true even of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 10.16; 30.6; Jeremiah 4.4; 9.26) as well as the New Testament (Romans 2.29). Hence Paul can write to all the Corinthians (5.7-8), Jews and Gentiles, to keep the feast (lit. "go on keeping the feast") in sincerity and truth not with the leaven of immorality and sin. This may imply that the whole Christian life is a Passover feast and that leaven or sin should always be removed or that some were neglecting the feast, seeing it as an element of Judaism not Messianism (Christianity).

The cups of wine and other features of Passover practice

In this section that follows it is worth pointing out that the Passover seder includes much that is extra-Biblical, drawn from oral tradition, some of which is recorded in the Mishnah and Talmudbut which may be of varying date.

The Jews associated four cups with Exodus 6.6-7:

Cup 1 "I will bring you out" [deliverance]

Cup 2 "I will rid you of their bondage" [freedom]

Cup 3 "I will redeem you" [redemption]

Cup 4 "I will take you for my people and I will be your God" [consummation]

Even "the poorest in Israel . . . must not give them less than four cups of wine to drink" (Mishnah, Pesachim 10.1). Why wine? Because it "makes glad the heart of man" (Psalm 104.15; Tosefta, Pesachim 10.4) and as such is suitable to commemorate freedom.

The third cup of redemption came to be associated with the coming of Elijah and eschatological expectation of the Messiah. Others put aside a 5th cup for Elijah.

The famous feature in the celebration of modern Passovers is the removal of leaven (châmêts) from the house. Jesus used leaven to refer to either false teaching or the hypocrisy of not keeping true teaching (Matthew 16.6-12; Mark 6.14-28; 8.15; Luke 12.1). The unleavened bread signified not only purity but being in a state of readiness or haste to leave. The idea of leaven being sin is not necessarily intended.

The Passover seder service includes the dipping of the karpas (vegetable) dipped in salt water and the bitter herbs (maror) dipped in a paste of fruit, nuts, wine and spices (charoset). Since some of these dishes are not specifically mentioned in the gospels they may not have come into the seder until after Jesus' time. Nevertheless, the bitter herbs are specifically Biblical though and are mentioned in Exodus 12.8:

"and with bitter herbs they shall eat it"

The Vulgate Latin version renders "wild lettuces". The Targum of Jonathan is:

"with horehound and endive they shall eat it"

Pliny says(3), there is a wild endive, which in Egypt is called chicory. According to the Mishnah(4) and Maimonides(5), there were five sorts of them, and anyone, or all of them, might be eaten; their names with both are these, Chazoreth, Ulshin, Thamcah, Charcabinah, and Maror; the first four of which may be the wild lettuce, endive, horehound, and chicory the last. Maror has its name from bitterness, and is by the Mishnaic commentators(6) said to be a sort of the most bitter coriander. They were expressive of the bitter afflictions of the children of Israel in Egypt.

The roasting of the lamb was according to specific instructions. The manner of roasting it, according to Jewish writings, was this, a spit made of the wood of pomegranate is brought and thrust into its mouth right through it. It is specifically a wooden spit, not iron, nor on an iron grate.(7)

A much later Jewish writer, Maimonides(8), supplies more detail:

"they transfix it through the middle of the mouth to its posteriors, with a wooden spit, and they hang it in the midst of a furnace, and the fire below:"

Thus it was not turned upon a spit but suspended on a hook and roasted by fire underneath, and so Biblical commentators have drawn attention to the fact that it was like Christ suspended, hanging upon the cross. The early church writer, Justin Martyr(9), says that the lamb was roasted in the form of a cross; one spit, he says, went through from the lower parts to the head, and again another across the shoulders, to which the hands (or rather the legs) of the lamb were fastened and hung; and so was in every way a type of Christ on the cross.

The lamb was dropped from the seder when the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70. The use of a roasted lamb or shank-bone of lamb came back in but cooked in a different way to distinguish it from the Passover lamb itself.

The Hallel ('praise', Psalms 113-118) is sung on the first service of the three main Jewish feasts and the half Hallel is sung on the other days of Passover, because although there was rejoicing for Israel's salvation the Egyptians had to be drowned to provide it and as they are also God's creatures a measure of restraint and remorse is introduced. These psalms/hymns are amongst the most ancient parts of the seder service for the Mishnah records discussions between rabbis Hillel and Shammai on their performance and these rabbinic schools of thought were contemporary with Jesus and the apostles.

After the Hallel the Nishmat, 'the soul of [every living thing]', doxology is recited. This practice also known as Birkat Ha-Shir 'Song of Blessing' is know since Mishnaic times. It has been added to since but a curious medieval legend ascribes this Jewish practice to the Apostle Peter!

Traditionally, Jews remain, after a Passover meal, or any other for that matter, for many hours talking about God (cf. Tosephta, Kethubim 5.5). This is not only traditional practice but the Biblical injunction of Exodus 12.26-27, although the Passover's retelling and education have become a midrashic expansion and haggadah in their own right. The explanation of the pesach, matzah and maror, was introduced at the end of the 1st century by Rabban Gamliel.

Eating Passover is considered to be not a memorial but a reliving. Hebrew allows for this since it had no word for history and its verbs do not properly distinguish between past and present. Modern Hebrew uses historiah borrowed from the Greek. Classical Hebrew used the word and concept of memory. "History is what happened to someone else. Memory is what happened to me".(10) Memory is zêkher in Hebrew and relates to the concepts of preserving a family line through male descendants, memorials, remembrance and the having of a name. To blot out the name of someone (e.g., the Amalekites, is to blot out their memory). Hebrew also uses toledhoth (generations, descendants).

"The most important gift one generation can give to the next is the knowledge of the journey those before us took, and the sacrifices they had to make, to bring us to where we are. Without that knowledge, we travel blindly. If we forget what our parents fought for, we may have to fight for it again. Hindsight is the necessary tutor of foresight". (11)

The whole meal-celebration is carried out whilst reclining together at table fellowship. Reclining is a mark of a freeman at a great feast. Indeed, when the Jewish child asks the traditional questions at Passover, one of them is "why do we recline and not sit on this night?". If, as it seems, the last supper was a Passover meal then it is very unlikely to have looked anything like medieval paintings since they would not have been seated around a table. Another surprise to Christians is that wives and children may well have been there too, not just male disciples - since it is inconceivable that the wives and children were at home celebrating their own Passovers. Passover is a feast that celebrates redemption of whole households and a nation, not individuals. This would of course have depended upon how many of Jesus' disciples' families had come up to Jerusalem for the festival.

The bread and wine were separate elements of the meal-celebration. Grace would often precede and/or follow the meal, the bread would be taken as part of the meal, which would then continue to completion. The symbolism in the bread is not so much in the broken body of Jesus but in the promise of his continuing presence and the disciples' future unity, "we are one body, just as we partake of one bread". Its unleavened nature is often associated with sin and its rooting out, but more historically unleavened bread is that which is baked without time to rise and indicated the preparedness to leave Egypt and thus is symbolical of haste and readiness (Exodus 12.11).

The latest addition to some modern Passovers is an orange of all things. This is a protest symbol for those that believe in women's ministry in Judaism since a Jew recently commented that a woman belongs in the rabbinic pulpit about as much as an orange belongs on the Passover seder plate!


We have already noted that Jesus kept Passover as a child and an adult (Luke 2.41-43; Mark 14.12-26; John 12.12). Mark 14.12 (cf. Matthew 26; Luke 22) shows that the last supper was a Passover meal.

"his disciples said to him, where do you want us to go and prepare, that you may eat the Passover" (Mark 14.12)

It was Thursday morning and the Passover was to be slain after the middle of the day, "between the two evenings", and eaten in Jerusalem at night. The disciples were still at Bethany, 2 miles from the city. Jerusalem freely loaned out rooms on festival nights that all those on pilgrimage to the city might be able to celebrate the feasts properly.

Passover symbolism in the Last Supper

Most Christians think of the last supper as more of a symbolic communion eucharist than a full festal meal. Given this we often miss out on the full meaning of the Passover and the additional meaning Jesus gave to it.

The gospel accounts of the last supper begin with the search for a venue and the lamb. However, the familiar terms paschal lamb and Passover lamb may mean different things. Paschô is Greek for 'to suffer' whereas pesach means 'to pass over', presumably pascha is a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic or Hebrew for 'Passover'. Whether this was a wordplay or a linguistic mistake the association of the Passover lamb (Exodus 12) together with the suffering lamb (Isaiah 53) has stuck. Lambs for atonement for sin were also a part of Jewish practice.

The three lambs together signify: freedom through suffering as an atonement for sin

Paul cites Jesus as "our Passover" (1 Corinthians 5.7), the word 'lamb' is not in the Greek, for indeed the sacrifice could be a lamb or a kid.

We noted earlier that Judaism associates 4 or 5 cups of wine, not just one, with Passover. In Luke's account of this supper the wine is taken at least twice, at the beginning and end of the meal. It is most likely that the last supper 'cup' of wine is to be associated with the third Passover cup, that of redemption (Exodus 6.6), associated with the coming of Elijah and eschatological expectation of the Messiah. "After supper" (1 Corinthians 11.25) the cup of red wine mixed with water would be taken and shared together from the same cup. It, like the sharing from one loaf, was symbolic of 'togetherness', freedom and fellowship in a covenant. The wine and water were later taken as symbolic of the blood and water that flowed from Jesus' side. Mishnah, Berakoth, 7.5 cites the adding of water to wine in the time of Jesus.

The fourth cup, of consummation, Jesus declined to drink (Matthew 26.29; Mark 14.25; and Mishnah, Pesachim 10.7, "between the third and fourth cups he may not drink") until his return and consummation of the kingdom. Thus redemption history had moved on from the exodus and into the realms of this new covenant(12), though it did not negate the Passover celebration for the Jews themselves, Jewish Christians now had additional reasons to celebrate on this auspicious occasion. Revelation 21 speaks of God finally taking us to be His people in the fullest possible sense of consummation and echoing Exodus 6.7 "And I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God".

The dipping of bitter herbs or other foods may be mentioned in the gospel accounts of the last supper, or it may be only the dipping of bread. 'Dipping in the bowl' is referred to in Matthew 26.23 and in Mark 14.20 this is specifically 'dipping the bread'.

Jesus' last supper concluded with the singing of hymns (Matthew 26.30; Mark 14.26), possibly the second half of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) traditionally associated with Passover.

Like the Passover injunction to educate at the feast through the retelling of history the last supper accounts show that Jesus' self-disclosed and preferred title is teacher or 'master' (cf. Matthew 23.8,10; Mark 10.17; John 3.2; 13.13,14; didaskolos is used of Jesus more than 40 times and rabbi about 15 times). According to John's gospel chapters 13-17 Jesus teaches many things in the context of a final meal. In the early church this carried through into the fellowship meetings (e.g., Acts 2.42; 20.7) where breaking of bread and teaching were part of the corporate meal-meeting event.

The constant state of readiness of the Passover (Exodus 12.11) is repeated in the fact that the last supper precede Jesus' imminent arrest and his being taken away from them and the Eucharist proclaims the Lord's death until He comes again (1 Corinthians 11.26). Jesus' second coming is described as being like a thief in the night and the time of the Exodus deliverance was at night (Deuteronomy 16.1).

It is interesting that Hebrews 11.28 regards Moses' keeping of the Passover as an act of faith, not ritual. It was direct trust in God's means of salvation from Egypt however illogical it may have seemed at the time.

Thus the last supper was a full fellowship meal, looking back on the exodus and immediately forward to the crucifixion and ultimately towards the parousia (second coming) and messianic banquet/kingdom consummation (cf. Isaiah 25.6-9). As such the early church continued to observe it, eventually splitting the Agape (love feast) from the more symbolic last supper/eucharist, perhaps because of the kind of excess mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11.17-22. The synagogues also had 2 meal occasions, the full assembly meal and the household Sabbath meals where each family would arrange their own company, early Christians might have thus been able to arrange exclusively Christian Sabbath meals. In the end the Agape was forgotten and the eucharist became more formal, central and even 'magical' in the later doctrine of transubstantiation. The Passover symbolism is mostly lost on gentile believers. Jesus was the ultimate Passover [lamb] (1 Corinthians 5.7) and as such died with all his bones intact (cf. Exodus 12.46; Numbers 9.12; Psalm 34.20). Jewish Passover is considered to be the 'eating of history' and the treasuring of freedom through education and enactment and is a joyful occasion, the church all too readily emphasizes the morbid death of Christ not his joyous resurrection or return. Indeed, 1 Corinthians 11.26 describes the purpose of the meal as proclaiming "the Lord's death till he comes".


Last Supper/Passover and 'The day of preparation'

John is distinct amongst the gospels for basing his record of Jesus' ministry around three Passovers (John 2.13,23; 6.4; 11.55/12.1/13.1/18.28,39/19.14). For him Passover was significant, for the synoptic gospels and modern scholars it was chronologically problematic!

John 19.14 mentions the "day of preparation of Passover" as the timing for Jesus' trial yet the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) speak of a Passover last supper already having taken place. Sceptics have seen in this apparent discrepancy a reason to doubt either the crucifixion accounts themselves or the Passover origins of the last supper and later eucharist (communion).

Passover was a week long festival, not a single day. The only hint at the idea of preparation comes at the beginning of the week when the "lamb is set aside for 4 days". If this were the day that would make the eating of the Passover lamb an event in the week following Jesus crucifixion and resurrection, losing all the prophetic symbolism and fulfilment. Further, there is no such day as 'preparation of Passover' in Old Testament or Jewish literature.

However, 'the day of preparation' is a description of the day before Sabbath, our Friday, ending at about 6pm, when the Sabbath began. The gospels sometimes call it "the day of the preparation" or just "the preparation" (Matthew 27.62; Luke 23.54; John 19.31) or sometimes the "Jews' preparation day" (John 19.42) and it is explained by Mark (15.42) as "It was the preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath".

A Jewish tradition expects Israel's messianic deliverance to be on 15th Nisan, the day after Passover, which would fit with Jesus' crucifixion on the day after Passover, the preparation of the Sabbath:

"on the same day, the fifteenth of Nisan, Israel is to be redeemed, in the days of the Messiah, as they were redeemed on that day, as it is said, according to the days" (Cabalistae apud Fagium in loc. cf. Micah 7.15)

Passover or Chaburah?

Was the last supper a Passover seder (order) meal (synoptic accounts(13)) or some other special meal (some interpretations of John's account), if the latter it may have been akin to that of a Chaburah (pl. chaburoth, from chaber = 'a friend'). This was the formal supper of family or community groups banded together for devotional or pious purposes. The Jewish tractate Berakoth 6-8 contains many references to these.

Both Judaism and early Jewish Christianity placed considerable emphasis on fellowship around feasting and food. Indeed, Jesus was termed a 'glutton and winebibber' for his regular meal table fellowship and evangelism. His parables also contain several references to food and feasts. The miracles often contained the 'food' provision element too, e.g., the water into wine, feedings of 4000 and 5000 etc.

If we ditch the Passover symbolism though, we lose its salvation/deliverance typology. However, if we add to it rather than replace it with the Chaburah then we gain the first meal of a new community of faith, a fellowship meal of those committed to each other.


The Eucharist and blessing the elements

It is an unfortunate aspect of eucharistic history that 'eating the bread' and 'blessing God' has become 'blessing the bread' and 'eating God'. In churches, Catholic and Protestant alike, the bread and wine are blessed, and in Catholic ones the bread is believed to become the very body of Christ/God (transubstantiation). This doctrine of blessed bread and transubstantiation can be traced back as early as Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 150; Apology, 1.66.1-2) and Ignatius (c. A.D. 110; to the Smyrnaeans 7), although the strict term transubstantiation was not in use until the 12th-13th centuries. Transubstantiation was particularly odious to the Jews and to the docetists(14)who would have no part of it.

For a Jew, to bless the bread itself would have been equally unthinkable. It was God Himself who was blessed. If one peruses the New Testament accounts of the Last Supper and of the miraculous feedings it is apparent that the text usually reads, "and X blessed [it] and broke the bread. . .", the subject of the blessing is usually added rather than originally present in the text itself. Thus, the 'it' could also be 'Him' or 'God', to a Jew this would be the most likely reading. In this instance the NIV and RSV offer some of the better translations of e.g., Matthew 26.26; Luke 24.30; Mark 6.41, the NASB, Phillips, KJV and NKJV are incorrect in their implied grammar resulting in the food itself being blessed rather than God. Acts 27.35 records Paul's continuing practice of blessing God before taking food, just as Jesus, both in accordance with Deuteronomy 8.10.

Part of the growing desire to bless and sanctify the eucharistic elements arose out of Hellenistic dualism. This saw the world divided between matter and spirit, secular and sacred, unholy and holy etc. Thus the material elements of bread and wine, and indeed the vessels themselves, required sanctification and blessing to make them holy, according to the Greek view. This process later spread to all kinds of relics and religious objects.

The Didache (10) probably has the earliest and most faithful eucharistic blessing which is directed toward God, not at the bread and wine, and sees an eschatological symbolism in its celebration, just as the New Testament says that the Lord's death is proclaimed until He comes in the Eucharist.

Grace and blessings

Jesus and early Jewish Christians used a common Jewish blessing at mealtimes, along these traditional lines:

"Barukh attah Adonai Elohenu Melek ha-olam ha-motzi lechem min ha-arets"
"Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the ages/universe, who brings forth bread from the earth"
"Barukh attah Adonai Elohenu Melek ha-olam borê' p'rîy haggâphen"
"Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the ages/universe, who creates the fruit of the vine"

Often, it was said at the end of the meal (Deuteronomy 8.10) and/or at the beginning, as well as over the separate elements of a meal. The Mishnah tractate Berakoth (6-8) contains numerous instructions on saying grace at mealtimes.

In fact, much of the wording of blessings, graces and eucharistic prayers, particularly in the Didache, are Jewish in tone and content, indeed they "have almost word for word parallels in Judaism".(15)

The Didache(16) was an early Christian teaching document otherwise known as the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles and possibly contemporary with the earliest of New Testament documents.

Eucharist in the Didache

9. At the Eucharist, offer the eucharistic prayer in this way. Begin with the cup: 'We give thanks to You, our Father, for the holy vine of Your son David, which You have made known to us through Your Son Jesus', 'Yours is the glory, for ever and ever'. Then over the broken bread: 'We give thanks to You, our Father, for the life and knowledge You have made known to us through Your Son Jesus.', 'Yours is the glory, for ever and ever'. 'As this broken bread was scattered upon the hills and gathered together and became one loaf, so may Your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom.', Yours is the glory and the power, through Jesus Christ. for ever and ever.'. But let no one eat of this eucharistic thanksgiving, but those who have been baptized into the Name of the Lord; for the Lord's own saying applies here, 'Give not that which is holy to the dogs.'
10. When all have had sufficient, give thanks in these words: 'Thanks be to You, holy Father, for Your sacred Name which you have caused to dwell (tabernacle) in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality which You have revealed to us through Your Son Jesus.', 'Yours is the glory, for ever and ever'. 'You. 0 Almighty Lord, have created all things for Your own Name's sake; to all men You have given meat and drink to enjoy, that they may give thanks to You, but to us You have graciously given spiritual meat and drink, together with eternal life, through Your Son.' 'But before all things we give You thanks that You are powerful.', 'Yours is the glory, for ever and ever'. 'Remember, Lord. Your Church; to deliver it from all evil and to perfect it in Your love; and gather it together from the four winds - even the Church which You have sanctified - into Your kingdom which You have prepared for it.', 'Yours is the power and the glory, for ever and ever'. 'Let Grace come, and this present world pass away.', 'Hosanna to the God of David', 'If any man is holy, let him come; if any man is not, let him repent.', 'Maran Atha. Amen.' But permit the prophets to give thanks as much as they desire....
14. And on the Lord's own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your sins, that your sacrifice may be pure. And do not let anyone who is in dispute with a brother take part until they are reconciled, in order that your sacrifice may not be defiled. For this is the offering of which the Lord said, 'In every place and at every time offer Me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great king, says the Lord, and My name is wonderful among the nations'.

The Lord's Supper, communion, or eucharistic meal, as it appears in the Didache, comes across as more of an Agape love meal. The meal is more than just symbolic bread and wine, the end prayers come after all have eaten to satisfaction, implying a full meal rather than token elements. The emphasis is more on a fellowship meal prefiguring a messianic banquet with prayers of thanksgiving for physical and spiritual food and drink in general, for the ingathering of the Church and for the second coming of Jesus. It was an occasion at which the prophets were free to pray as much as they liked. In 1 Corinthians 11 the meal has already become an occasion for greed and divisions and very soon the Agape meal became separated from the more symbolic communion meal. It has been suggested, therefore, that the Didachepredates the Corinthian letters.

The prayers at the eucharistic meal are, on the whole, simply Christianised Jewish graces. The use of the doxologies (from doxa, meaning 'glory') is very Jewish and like many of the Psalms. The very Jewish style and vocabulary are early, for at a later date Jewish graces and blessings were banned amongst Christians. "Let Grace come" and maranatha (Aramaic for "our Lord come"), which are similar in meaning have echoes in 1 Corinthians 16.22 and Revelation 22.20.

Liturgical content/order

The Jewish Passover, Didache (9,10,14) and New Testament last supper accounts all portray a 7 fold action (numerologically significant) within the context of a meal. Meal fellowship and the remembering of sacred history were very important corporate events to the Jewish community. However, the earliest ecclesiological liturgies all portray a 4 fold action which "without exception for 1,400 years was prepared to ignore the New Testament on the point" and the reason for which "must be connected in some way with the severance of the eucharist proper from its original connection with a meal".(17)

Seven fold action

1. took bread

2. gave thanks over it

3. broke it

4. distributed it

- later -

5. took cup

6. gave thanks

7. distributed it

Four fold liturgy

1. offertory - took bread & wine

2. prayer/benediction - giving thanks

3. fraction - breaking of bread

4. communion - distribution of elements

Early Church variation on some of the elements included:

bread & water

bread & salt

bread only

Although some of these took place in what established orthodoxy might call fringe or heretical groups. Nevertheless, they place a greater emphasis on the bread than on the wine. Wine was a later addition to Passover compared to the original symbolism of lamb, bread and bitter herbs. Christians tend to highlight the wine because of its association with the blood. Compare the eucharistic account in Didache 9 where the wine is mentioned and thanksgiving is offered in a very Jewish style "the holy vine of your son David made known to us in your Son Jesus" but passed over when compared to the symbolism of the bread which is said to offer life and knowledge, i.e., feeds the soul, and its unity is said to represent the coming together of the church as one body.

Evidence from the gospels

Some gospel accounts have Jesus saying "drink this all of you, for this is the blood of the covenant . . . for the forgiveness of sins", other gospels and textual variants add 'new' before covenant. Thus it is Jesus who seems to institute an added significance to the bread and wine of Passover.

Only Luke mentions wine before and after the meal and hints at possible allusions to the multiple cups of wine of Jewish Passover.

Suggested order for primitive early church Passover seder Psalm 113 (& 114? - rabbis Hillel and Shammai debated this before Jesus' time)

Kaddish - blessing of God, over wine

Matzah, blessing of God, with unleavened bread lifted up

"This is the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry let them come and eat: all who are needy, let them come and celebrate Passover with us. . ." (the remaining parts of this blessing were introduced after the time of the 1st century and the Mishnahitself).

Roasted meal with bitter herbs (watercress, coriander, horseradish...)

Questions and Answers (no evidence for early origin but cf. Deuteronomy 6.7)

Nishmat doxology recited after Hallel

The door is flung open to admit Elijah and the Messiah. Expectation of 2nd coming.

"proclaim his death until he comes"

More wine

More hymns/Psalms


The Date of Easter

Whilst Pesach/Passover is celebrated on the variable day of 14th Nisan, Easter now always takes place on a Sunday, the first after the full moon following the vernal equinox. But this was not always the case. In the earliest church Easter was kept on 14th Nisan, as Passover, and this continued later in minority groups known as quartodecimans. From the mid-4th century we have the date we have and as a result a severed link with its Jewish roots.

The Quartodeciman(18) controversy, c.190 A.D., resulted in long and bitter disputes about the proper way to calculate Easter's date - indeed, this was the principal point at issue between the Celtic churches of Ireland, Scotland and Wales and the Latin church established in England - but eventually the Roman view triumphed in Western Europe: and Easter is now celebrated (in the words of the Book of Common Prayer) on "the first Sunday after the full moon which happens on or next following the 21st of March the Spring Equinox."

Easter was celebrated at the same time as Passover until 325 A.D (Council of Nicaea), making it effectively an annual last supper event commemorating Passover through crucifixion and resurrection. The reasons for change were on the surface calendar based. The Jewish lunar calendar was thought inappropriate for Christians. The council of Nicaea in writing to the Egyptian church (12) said,

"the most holy feast of Easter, . . . all the brethren in the East who formerly kept this festival when the Jews did, will henceforth conform to the Romans, to you and to us all who from the earliest time have observed our period of celebrating Easter."

At Antioch the church kept Easter on 14 Nisan, as the Jews. At Alexandria in Egypt they calculated the date according to their own reckoning. The church eventually settled on the Alexandrian and Roman custom. However, Ephesus and the traditions of the apostle John, the evangelist Philip and the martyr Polycarp, kept to 14 Nisan, whatever day of the week it was, whether Sunday or not. Polycrates of Ephesus, who cites these authorities, speaks of "keeping the day when the people put away the leaven" and having the Holy Spirit, the range of Scripture and the need to obey God and not man as justification for sticking to 14 Nisan. Meanwhile, Victor of Rome denounced and excommunicated those in Asia who kept these customs. Irenaeus held that the disputes should not divide believers but that the resurrection itself should be celebrated on the Lord's day.

From the 8th century Easter has been held on the first Sunday after the post Spring equinox full moon. Usually the difference amounts to days, although in 1997 it amounted to a full month (at the next full moon, March 28-30, Easter, April 22ff., Pesach/Passover).

Post Biblical/Pagan Additions to Easter

Believe it or not, 'Easter' actually can be found in the King James Bible but not the New King James:

"And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people." (Acts 12.4)

The word in the Greek translated as Easter is pascha which is only here translated as 'easter'. Pascha is elsewhere always translated as Passover (28/29 times).

Easter's name is said to derive (according to the 8th century English church historian, Bede) from the pagan goddess of spring, Eostre. The Anglo-Saxons named this month Eastermonath after the Goddess Eostre. Bede said that the name "Easter" was derived from the Teutonic goddess of spring, Eostre, Ostra, Eostur, Eastur, Ostara, Osta. The same root is found in the name for the place where the sun rises (East, Ost). The word Easter, then, originally may have meant the celebration of the spring sun, which had its birth in the East and brought new life upon earth. This symbolism was transferred to the supernatural meaning of our Easter, to the new life of the Risen Christ, the eternal and uncreated Light. It is not certain, however, whether such a goddess ever existed and she may have been merely the name of a season. Nevertheless, pagans are convinced of her authenticity.

Further still, Easter could be nothing more than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people of Ninevah, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. On the Assyrian monuments that same name is Ishtar.(19)

The cross, which in Christianity is a symbol of the crucifixion and Easter was also a pagan symbol of the four seasons - hence hot cross buns, marked to represent the four seasons. In fact, hot cross buns were offered to Diana, the Roman moon goddess. The buns were moon shaped and divided into the four quarters of the moon.

In the 2nd and 3rd century church it became the practice for people to be christened and baptised only at Easter, as this was the symbolic time of year associated with new life (and also new birth). New Life became the justification for the introduction of egg imagery into medieval Easters.

The moves away from a more Jewish Passover/Easter began in the 2nd century and earlier. Tertullian wrote towards the end of the 2nd century that it was not fitting to feast on the day on which the bridegroom was taken away. This meant the Jewish Sabbath: Friday evening to Saturday, yet this would have been an astonishment to Jewish believers for whom the Sabbath was (and still is biblically) an eternal feast upon which you may never fast. Hence churches are stripped bare and the eucharist is not taken on Friday or Saturday (the Easter Lord's supper took place on Thursday evening). Other anti-Jewish sentiment was expressed in the Good Friday intercessory collect in the Book of Common Prayer, "mercy for all Jews, Turks, Infidels and Hereticks", this has now been more suitably expressed. It is also noteworthy how absent the 'lamb' is from modern western Easter celebrations. In Europe, in countries like Poland and Italy the lamb is still a part of the feast, but elsewhere it is all but forgotten.

Copyright © 1998 Jonathan Went. Used by permission.

Jonathan Went teaches at Christ for England Bible School and tutors Hebrew privately and by correspondence. He is a graduate of University College London. He has studied theology with London Bible College and is researching a PhD on the Hebrew nature of man. He resides in Norwich, England.


1. quoted in Hebraic Literature, Tudor, NY, 1943, p.373

2. Abib in Hebrew, subsequently the months adopted the Babylonian names above

3. Pliny, Nat. Hist. l. 19. c. 8. & 21. 17. & 32. 22.

4. Mishnah, Pesachim 2.6

5. Hilchot, Chametz Umetzah, 7.13

6. Maimonides & Bartenora in Mishnah, Pesachim (2.6)

7. Mishnah Pesachim 7.1,2

8. Hilchot Korban Pesach, 8.10

9. Justin Martyr, Dialog. cum Trypho Jud. p. 259

10. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi, The Times, 22 April 1995

11. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi, The Times, 6 May 1995

12. It is interesting that in some N.T. manuscripts the word 'new' is missing from 'new covenant' in the last supper accounts of "this is my blood of the new covenant".

13. Matthew 26.17-30; Mark 14.12ff., Luke 22.7ff.

14. An heretical early Christian sect from the Greek verb dokein 'to seem to be' wherein Jesus is imagined to have been God who only seemed to be man, as all bodily mortality was despised by docetists.

15. Oscar Cullman, Early Christian Worship, SCM, 1953/78, p.13

16. An early Christian teaching manual including the Jewish teaching 'The Two Ways', dated between A.D. 50 and sometime in the second century, although the best understanding places it very early indeed.

17. Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, A&C Black, 1945/78, p.50

18. Eusebius, H.E. 5.15,23-5

19. cf. Rev. Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons, 1943/959, U.S.: Loizeaux Brothers, Neptune, NJ, p.10