Was the Mystical Supper a Passover Meal?
This article is a slightly edited version of a “Mini Study” in The Heavenly Banquet, Understanding the Divine Liturgy by Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis, (Orthodox Witness, 2008).
The Divine Liturgy did not appear ex nihilo (out of nothing). It came from somewhere. The question is, from where? Its origins are traced in the Jewish worship of the day, but which worship? Specifically the question often asked is: Was the Mystical (Last) Supper a seder (a Passover meal) or a chabûrah (a friendship meal)? There is a short and a long answer. The short answer is, neither! The long answer follows. But first, an explanation: What is a seder meal, and what is a chabûrah meal? A seder is a Passover supper the Jews had on the anniversary of the Passover, to commemorate the passage of the angel of death over the homes of the Jews, leaving unharmed their first-born, and destroying every first-born of the Egyptians, from their children to their animals (see Ex. ch. 12). The chabûrah meal, on the other hand, was a formal supper, at which friends and relatives gathered, usually bringing their contribution—similar to our pot-luck meals, but very formal.
Icon on the book cover of The Heavenly Banquet: Understanding the Divine Liturgy
The Mystical Supper could not have been a Passover meal because the bread used was not unleavened (azyma), but leavened (artos). However, the question, “Which kind of bread was used at the Mystical Supper,” may or may not be settled by this simple, matter-of-fact statement. The question, “What kind of meal was the one that gave origin to the Eucharistic meal,” requires some further studying. We narrow this study to point out the newness of “the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11:20), and the elements in it that set it apart from anything else that preceded it and resembles it.
The Divine Eucharist was instituted by our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, on the night before His Passion (that is His suffering). The events are narrated in all four gospels. According to the scholars, the three synoptic gospels clearly show that the Lord had a Passover meal with His disciples, because they narrate the meal as taking place on the night of the “unleavened bread” (Mt. 26:17, Mk. 14:12, Lk. 22:7). Also the synoptic writers mention repeatedly (three times each!) that the meal they were going to prepare was a “Passover” meal, and even the Lord Himself says, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Lk. 22:15). Besides, there were some signs of a seder supper of Passover present, like the breaking of bread and the drinking of the Cup. It would therefore seem beyond question that they must have had a Passover meal in mind. However, there is more to consider.
In the first place, it is very obvious that this meal could not have been a seder, a Passover meal, because it took place not on Friday evening, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, but on Thursday evening. This is clear from the narratives of the holy Evangelists Matthew and Mark. They both place it on the night of the Lord’s betrayal and arrest,1
because they both say that after the meal “when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mt. 26:30, Mk. 14:26) where the arrest took place (Mt. 26:50, Mk. 14:46). The Lord had dismissed Judas, saying to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 13:27). “He immediately went out; and it was night” (John 13:30). Later on he appeared with the soldiers for the arrest (John 18:3). On the following day, Friday, “when day came… they led Him away to their council” (Lk. 22:66). St. John the Evangelist notes that the Jews who led the Lord from Caiaphas to the praetorium did not want to go in, “so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover” (John 18:28). St. John even marks the day and the time the Lord appeared before Pilate: “It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour” (John 19:14). They then rushed to crucify and bury the Lord Jesus, because of the impending Passover (see John 19:31 and 42).
How then are we to explain the specific mention that the Mystical Supper took place “on the first day of Unleavened Bread”? (Mt. 26:17, Mk. 4:12). The erudite and holy Archbishop Theophylact of Bulgaria solves this issue, saying that, “‘The first day of Unleavened Bread’ means Thursday, the day before the feast of Unleavened Bread. For the unleavened bread was eaten on Friday.”2 This explanation is confirmed by the learned Archimandrite Kallinicos, who also quotes a Christian scholar of Jewish descent, to the effect that since the people began the preparations of collecting the bread and preparing the unleavened bread, it was called the first day of unleavened bread.3 Another Western scholar writes, “The reasonable conclusion is, that, in a popular way of speaking, a day before the legal day had acquired the name of ‘First day of Azyma’ and not unfitly, if on that day early arrangements were commenced for the complete exclusion of leaven from the houses.”4
Consider also the following: many preparations were made for the Mystical Supper, but no mention is anywhere made of any lamb. It does not seem that they had the traditional and mandatory lamb for a Passover meal. How could they, since no lambs were allowed to be slaughtered on the day before the Passover. In addition the disciples were not a household (Ex. 12:4), so they did not qualify to share a lamb together, which had to be eaten by a single family, or perhaps shared with another family (Ex. 12:4). A further consideration is that they did not have the prescribed topic of conversation, which was supposed to be about the (historic) deliverance of Israel by God from the bondage of slavery in Egypt (Ex. 12:26-27). All these elements surrounding this meal (including the artos eaten, mentioned above) point to the conclusion that this was not a typical Passover meal.5 Was then the Mystical Supper a chabûrah meal? Hardly. The sacrificial language used, the talk about a broken body… and poured out blood, are not becoming for a friendly meal. Also the talk about a Covenant has no place with such meal either. Both the talk and the action of eating Christ’s broken body, and drinking His poured out blood, were totally out of place in such a meal. If anything, these elements were signs of a Passover meal: the blood (Ex. 12:13), the Covenant (Ex. 12:14), and the prescription to keep a memorial of it (Ex. 12:14.24), belonged to a Passover meal. Confusing? Understandably so, since this meal was neither a seder nor a chabûrah. What was it then?
The Lord’s Supper was a startling new kind of meal, because the food He offered in its course was something totally new under the sun. Indeed it was a Passover meal: not the old Passover, but the new Passover.6 “Our Lord Himself took a specific Jewish worship practice, one that had been revealed by God, filled it with the new meaning of the New Covenant, and transformed it into Christian communion. He had become The Passover Lamb, ready to be sacrificed for the deliverance of God’s creation.”7 In this new Passover the sacrificial lamb was the Lord Himself, a “lamb without blemish” (Ex. 12:5), the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. Christ and His disciples, down to us, constitute the new family, which the Lord called “His Church” (Mt. 16:18). The meal instituted, and its remembrance, was that of a new Passover, by which man is delivered from the slavery of evil, ignorance, sin, the devil, and death. The bread they ate was the new “bread of life which came down from heaven” (John 6:53). The wine they drank was the new wine Christ would drink with them again “new in the Kingdom of God,” after His Resurrection.8
Christ and His disciples were not following the Old Covenant (Ex. 24:1-8), which was a memorial of the deliverance of their ancestors from Egypt, but, as Christ had foretold (Jer. 31:31-34), they were following “the New Covenant” (1 Cor. 11:25), by which He made the Old Covenant obsolete (Heb. 8:13). Christ based His New Covenant, His new relationship with men, in His blood, which became “the new and living way” (Heb. 10:20). He shed His blood out of His love for man. Therefore the New Covenant is based on love. Christ died on the Cross for us. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This we proclaim at the celebration of every Divine Eucharist. Christianity is the new religion that needs new ministers: “new wine is for fresh skins” (Mk. 2:22. cf. Lk. 5:38). The new Faith calls for a new form of worship, a new kind of sacrifice, offered on the first day of the week, which for the Jews memorialized the first day of creation. The Lord’s Day “is a Christian institution,”9 in which we memorialize the new “day which the Lord has made” (Ps. 117(118):24), the day of our re-creation. On this day we celebrate “the miracle and the mystery of the new life”10 lived by the community that bears His name. Indeed “old things have passed away; behold all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).11
- The Apostle Paul also places the Mystical Supper clearly “on the night when He was betrayed” (1 Cor. 11:23). The night the Lord was betrayed was Thursday night.
- Ad Marc., 14, 12-15, PG 123:648B. See The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, Vol. II, translated from the original Greek by Fr. Christopher Stade, Chrysostom Press, House Springs, Missouri 1993, p. 119.
- Archimandrite Kallinicos, o.c., p. 309. He quotes G. Wildon Peiritz, The Gospels from the Rabbinical point of view, 1873. Hastings (o.c.) writes of him: “By birth a Jew, of German nationality, a Cambridge graduate, and an Anglican priest, of wide reading and profound learning, Peiritz had, to an exceptional extent, the ability to form a correct opinion on the problem before us.” Furthermore that other learned Archimandrite, Spyridon Sp. Bilalis, refers to him in agreement: Orthodoxy and Papism, vol. II, “The Union of Churches” (in Greek), Orthodoxos Typos, Athens 1969, p. 212.
- Hastings (ibid.), following Peiritz.
- How quickly commentators call the Mystical Supper a Passover meal! See, for example the OCA website: “At the end of his life Christ, the Jewish Messiah, ate the Passover meal with his disciples.”
- It is amazing how the non-Orthodox scholarship misses altogether this fundamental point. They have the Lord preside over a seder, blessing and thanking God for earthly gifts. Thus, for example, Lane, o.c., p. 505ff .
- Quoted from Liturguica.com
- “He calls His resurrection ‘the Kingdom’ [Mt. 26:29, Mk. 14:25], because when He rose from the dead He showed Himself to be King and Ruler over death” ( St. Theophylact, o.c., p. 122).
- Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Come Before God, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, Massachusetts 1986, p. 12.
- Ibid., p. 14 (emphasis added).
- It is worthwhile to cite this extensive passage from the Liturgica website: “The problem with understanding the Last Supper as the Passover seder and by extension of understanding the Eucharist as a re-presentation of the Last Supper is that it results in the observance becoming a dramatic memorial. The Last Supper was a historical event that occurred once. In contrast, the Eucharist is the actual experience of the Lamb who was eternally offered on the cross. True, the crucifixion occurred once in time and need not occur again, as the New Testament clearly states. But, the crucifixion of Christ is an event with eternal consequences. Through this event all humankind before and after the cross, in fact all creation, may be saved; and in this sense it is an eternal sacrifice. Not that Christ is eternally re-sacrificed, but that the scope of the crucifixion is eternal—reaching out to each communicant in the Eucharist. That is why in the Orthodox prayer before Communion, the priest says: ‘remembering… the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand and the second and glorious coming… ’ What do Christians remember? Those actions of Jesus Christ which are eternal (past, present and future), which transcend time and space and in which Christians are saved to eternal life.The Eucharist is the actualization of the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection and the Second Coming”.
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis