Passover becoming the Lord’s Supper

  • Question 141, from John, United Kingdom

    I was wondering when the churches began to separate the bread and wine out of the context of the Passover Seder, and how the “Bread and wine” became “the Lord’s Supper”. Can you help?

    It is generally accepted that the ‘Last Supper’ that Jesus shared with his disciples took place around the time of the Jewish Passover. In the synoptic gospels, the ‘Last Supper’ certainly appears to be during Passover week, but John’s gospel implies it takes place beforehand. In John chapter 13, the Last Supper is set “just before the Passover feast” (verse 1), and the disciples assume Jesus is giving Judas instructions regarding preparations for Passover (verse 29). In addition, none of the gospels mention the Passover lamb being eaten, and there is some debate over whether the ‘bread’ mentioned is the unleavened bread used during Passover, or ordinary bread.

    Generally though, there is a significant correlation between Jesus’ last meal with his disciples before his arrest and the Jewish festival of Passover. Even if it wasn’t actually a Passover meal, the gospel authors deliberately link the Last Supper to Passover because of the significance of Passover in Jewish thought – through the death of a ‘blameless lamb’, the chosen people are spared from death themselves. This sacrificial imagery was reinterpreted in the New Testament as applying to Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John chapter 1, verse 29)

    However, even in the New Testament it is clear that the ‘Lord’s Supper’[1] was separated out from Passover, particularly in those churches composed mainly of non-Jewish believers, where Passover wouldn’t have much significance. Proof of this separation can be seen in the frequency of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, which was certainly more often than the yearly Passover. Acts chapter 20, verse 7 implies that early Christian gatherings on the first day of the week were specifically in order to ‘break bread together’.

    Additionally, the Lord’s Supper, as a Christian rite described in the New Testament, does not involve the other elements of the Passover meal, for example, the lamb, or the bitter herbs, which reminded the Israelites of slavery, and so on. While the rite of the Lord’s Supper seems to have been initially in the context of a meal (often called a ‘love feast’), this seems to have become a separate act even within New Testament times[2] and was certainly divorced from a meal by the second century.

    Of course, in Jewish-centred Christian churches, the link to Passover may have lasted longer. Unfortunately we know little about the practices of the more Jewish stream of Christianity which undoubtedly existed in Judea up until the Jewish uprising against the Romans in AD70. However, there were Christian sects who retained a quasi-Jewish identity after this. One such group were the Quartodecimans, so named because they commemorated Jesus’ death on the day of the Passover; the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan.

    The Quartodecimans were eventually classed as heretics, mainly because by insisting on commemorating Christ’s death on 14 Nisan, they were out of sync with the mainstream church, who chose to celebrate the resurrection on the nearest Sunday to 14 Nisan. This meant there was a possibility of one group of Christians commemorating Christ’s death on the same day as another group celebrated his resurrection, which seemed both confusing and foolish.

    The Quartodecimans were accused of legalism, which was a kind of coded reference for being ‘too Jewish’. Hippolytus, writing ‘against heresies’ in about 230AD, criticises their practices because the Passover rules only applied to the Jews “who in times to come should kill the real Passover”[3]. The Quartodecimans were therefore probably the last group of Christians who maintained a close link between the Passover meal and the events of Easter. Subsequently, there have been attempts by some Christian groups to rediscover the significance of Passover and reinterpret it in a Christian way, but these groups are marginal within contemporary Christianity.

    Notes & References
    [1] Lord’s Supper is the term used in 1 Corinthians chapter 11. The term ‘Last Supper’ is not found in the New Testament.
    [2] 1 Corinthians chapter 11 seems to imply the Lord’s Supper is an act of worship, which doesn’t necessarily take place in the context of a meal.
    [3] Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 8.11, cited in Hultgreen & Haggmark, The Earliest Christian Heretics, Fortress Press 1996, p.153

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