Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Robert M. Johnston, Ph.D.

Jewish Roots of the Lord’s Supper

The Christian “Eucharist” is enrooted in a Jewish practice loaded with deep meaning and rich memories.

The week when Jesus was executed contained the festival of Passover (Pesach in Hebrew, Pascha in Aramaic). The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke record that Yeshua ate the Passover meal with his disciples in an upper room on the night that he was arrested (cf. Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7, 8, 15), which was Thursday night (confirmed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23).

But according to the Gospel of John, it was Friday, the day when Yeshua was crucified, that was the day upon which the Passover lambs were slain at the Temple in preparation for the Passover meal that night. Indeed, Matthew, Mark, and Luke indicate that Yeshua died at precisely the very time that the sacrifice of the lambs began (Matthew 27:45-50; Mark 15:33-39; Luke 23:44-46), and so Paul is able to say metaphorically, “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7, 8).1

How could Yeshua celebrate Passover the night before his crucifixion if his death occurred at the time the Passover sacrifice was slain in preparation for the Passover meal? Scholars have explained the seeming discrepancy in various ways. We know that Jewish denominations of the time differed regarding the sacred calendar. Might the Sadducees, who controlled the Second Temple, have reckoned the 14th of Nisan to be one day later than the Pharisees or certain other sects reckoned it? Might there have been an ancient halachah, not preserved in the Mishnah, which allowed the Passover to be eaten early in an emergency? We can only guess. What is important for Christianity is that from these two traditions—that of the Friday Passover and that of the Thursday Passover—came the two Christian permutatations of Passover: Easter and the Lord’s Supper.

 When first instituted, Passover was a family celebration (Exodus 12); but it became one of the three pilgrimage festivals (hagim) because of its association with Unleavened Bread (Exodus 23:14, 15), celebrated near the Tabernacle or Temple, where the animals were sacrificed. After the destruction of the Temple, the festival became again a family celebration, but without the sacrifice of an animal. It is important to note that the lamb (or goat) was definitely a sacrifice (Exodus 23:18; 34:25), and that its bones must not be broken (Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12).  Because Yeshua died at the very time of the sacrifice of the lambs and his bones were not broken (John 19:31-37), his followers could not help but see his death as a redeeming sacrifice foreshadowed by the Passover lamb. They recalled the words of John the Baptist, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, 35). They commemorated this sacrifice every year on the 14th day of Nisan. Only later, perhaps motivated by a desire to distance Christianity from Judaism, did Christians begin to observe Easter (still called Pascha, from the Aramaic, in many European languages) on a different day, always on Sunday.

From the tradition of the Thursday-evening Passover meal in the upper room came one of the two basic rituals of Christianity, known variously as the Lord’s Supper, Communion, or the Eucharist. Yeshua himself infused the sacred meal with new meaning. He gave thanks, a berachah. He broke the matzah and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (1Corinthians 11:24). He dipped it into the charoset and gave it to Judas, who was going to betray him (John 13:26). When he took what was probably the third cup of wine (the cup of redemption), he recited the Kiddush, “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, creator of the fruit of the vine,” and then said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25). He and his disciples, who formed a haburah (a band of people who joined together to celebrate the Passover together), then sang the Hallel, Psalms 113-118, and went out (Matthew 26:30).

The various New Testament accounts do not give a complete description of the entire meal, but they all mention the elements that were going to be the essential and permanent features of the new Christian Pesach (Pascha). Some early Christian communities celebrated it once a year, on the 14th of Nisan. Others celebrated it daily (cf. Acts 2:42, 46), and yet others weekly or at other intervals. Though the meal was a modification of Passover, it was yet something new. The Christians regarded the original Passover as a type, or foreshadowing of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice. The Exodus from Egypt symbolized redemption from sin. Henceforth whenever they ate the Lord’s Supper together, they did it to remember the redemption that they had in Yeshua and to anticipate their reunion with him in the Kingdom of God. As Paul said, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1Corinthians 11:26).

1 All biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

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