Holy Week

Was Jesus’ Last Supper Actually a Passover Meal or was it Something Completely New?

This year for Lent I decided to take it upon myself to read the second part of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, which is subtitled – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. And although I have read a lot of it, I am not completely finished with it yet, but hoping to finish the chapters up to the Resurrection by Saturday morning. My lack of reading though has assisted me to write this blog post or should I say quote Pope Benedict himself.

Last year on Holy Thursday, I wrote the blog post titled, The Four Cups, the Last Supper, and the Cup on Consummation. Using Brant Pitre, Scott Hahn, and James Socias, I wrote about the Four Cups of the Passover Meal and whether or not Jesus drank the fourth cup or if the fourth cup is actually the Cross itself. To read last year’s post, check out the link above.

The reason I am writing today’s post on Good Friday of this year is because last night while sitting in front of the Altar of Repose at my parish, I re-read some parts in the Last Supper chapter that made me rethink some things I wrote about last year. Although Pitre’s book, Jesus and Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, mentions and highlights the Four Cups of the Passover, it’s interesting that Pope Benedict XVI writes nothing about the four cups in the aforementioned book. A somewhat interesting note of fact is that Pitre’s book was published on March 2, 2011 and Benedict’s on March 10, 2011. Theological ships passing in the night?

Why doesn’t Benedict talk about the four cups? Are the four cups not important? Did Jesus use/drink the cups? What about St. Luke’s account that speaks of cups?

Although there is a lot to say on this particular topic, Chapter Five covers the entire Last Supper, I am going to pick up on page 113. The question is – Was Jesus’ Last Supper Actually a Passover Meal or was it Something Completely New?

“We have to ask, though, what Jesus’ Last Supper actually was. And how did it acquire its undoubtedly early attribution of Passover character? The answer given by Meier (John P. Meier – A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus) is astonishingly simple in many respects convincing: Jesus knew that he was about to die. He knew that he would not be able to eat the Passover again. Fully aware of this, he invited his disciples to a Last Supper of a very special kind, one that followed no specific Jewish ritual but, rather, constituted his farewell; during the meal he gave them something new: he gave them himself as the true Lamb and there instituted his Passover.

Jesus & Eucharist - EWTN

In all the Synoptic Gospels, the prophecy of Jesus’ death and Resurrection form part of this meal. Luke presents it in an especially solemn and mysterious form: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (22:15-16). The saying is ambiguous. It can mean that Jesus is eating the usual Passover meal with his disciples for the last time. But it can also mean that he is eating it no longer but, rather, is on his way to the new Passover.

One thing emerges clearly from the entire tradition: essentially, this farewell meal was not the old Passover, but the new one, which Jesus accomplished in this context. Even though the meal that Jesus shared with the Twelve was not a Passover meal according to the ritual prescriptions of Judaism, nevertheless, in retrospect, the inner connection of the whole event with Jesus’ death and Resurrection stood out clearly. It was Jesus’ Passover. And in this sense he both did and did not celebrate the Passover: the old rituals could not be carried out –when their time came, Jesus had already died. But he had given himself, and thus he had truly celebrated the Passover with them. The old was not abolished; it was simply brought to its full meaning.

The earliest evidence for this unified view of the new and the old, providing a new explanation of the Passover character of Jesus’ meal in terms of his death and Resurrection, is found in Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be new dough, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Paschal Lamb, has been sacrificed” (5:7; cf. Meier, A Marginal Jew I, pp. 429-430). As in Mark 14:1, so here the first day of Unleavened Bread and the Passover follow in rapid succession, but the older ritual understanding is transformed into a Christological and existential interpretation. Unleavened bread must now refer to Christians themselves, who are freed from sin by the addition of yeast. But the sacrificial lamb is Christ. Here Paul is in complete harmony John’s presentation of events. For him the death and Resurrection of Christ have become the Passover that endures.

On this basis one can understand how it was that very early on, Jesus’ Last Supper – which includes not only a prophecy, but a real anticipation of the Cross and Resurrection in the eucharistic gifts – was regarded as a Passover: as his Passover. And so it was” (pp. 113-115).

I am by no means an expert on this topic. I just find it interesting and I find the absence of the four cups from the writings of Benedict, at least in this book, to be equally interesting. Does anyone know if he speaks of the four cups in another document or even in a homily?

I will conclude with Benedict’s words from the beginning of Chapter Six: “Jesus’ final meal – whether or not it was a Passover meal – was first and foremost an act of worship. At its heart was the prayer of praise and thanksgiving, and at the end it led back into prayer.”

It was an act of worship! This however is a topic for another time.

5 replies »

  1. In The Catechesis of The Good Shepherd, we say, “This was the first time anyone`s ears heard these words, This bread is my body, this wine is my blood”. Check us out, cgsusa.org

  2. Tom, thanks for posting. I read BXVI on the last supper a couple years ago, and am now reading Pitre’s, “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Last Supper.” I think the important distinction is that BXVI is really exploring the biblical text itself, while Pitre is also bringing in early Jewish sources to fill in the gaps about what the Jewish Passover included. He speaks of developments from the first Passover in Egypt to the Passover celebrated in Jesus’ day. The four cups, if I am not mistaken, were a development in the Passover ritual. Luke mentions the cup, prior to the institution of the Eucharist, and it is fair to conclude that this is one of the cups of the ritual in use at the time. The “four” cups are not really mentioned directly in the text, and that is probably why BXVI doesn’t address them. The really interesting fact when discerning if it was a traditional Passover meal, is that no lamb is mentioned in the meal, with the obvious implication being that Jesus is the Lamb of God. I think both BXVI and Pitre are informative, and don’t necessarily contradict each other. They each present the Last Supper as a New Passover. The discrepancy is really more about the actual day of the Last Supper. Was it on the day of the Jewish feast (as the synoptics seem to indicate) or prior (as John portrays it)? Lots of theories about this!

    • Thanks for the comment, John. Yes, there is no doubt that the Passover Meal over the centuries from the time of Moses to Jesus did develop and things were added, as the Four Cups as well as the Hallel Psalms (Ps 113-118) they sang. The First Passover was eaten standing up as they were in flight. By the time of Jesus, they were sitting/laying down at the table.

      Your other point is fascinating too about the Lamb. No lamb is mentioned, but when we examine this new meal in light of Christ, we can see him as the Lamb.

      I didn’t have time to go into the dating of the Last Supper, but Benedict’s treatment of this in the book is excellent. Personally, I like Annie Jaubert’s theory, but B16 doesn’t commit to this theory. When I was at Franciscan, my professor, thought that Jesus could have celebrated the Last Supper with the Essenes and was probably had a good relationship with them for a variety of reasons.

      Thanks again for your comment.

  3. Tom,
    It is a blessing to read your blogs and makes me hunger to learn more of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
    God bless you, brother.

  4. I read this post and the one on the cups. I am a Protestant minister and have been studying the cups as a result of studying Psalm 116. Prior to that I preached a series on Daniel from a prophetic viewpoint. Anyway, I felt led to preach Ps 116 as it would help with several grieving congregants. In v18 is a cup of salvation…this led me to the study on cups for which you were helpful. In the Hebrew the cup is Yeshua. I was suprised you did not mention this. Do you have any thoughts?
    A fellow follower of Christ,
    David Gibson