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Was the Last Supper a Seder?

Lawrence Bush
April 14, 2017

The great Italian Catholic painter and inventor Leonardo Da Vinci was born in Tuscany on this date in 1452. Among his masterworks is “The Last Supper,” a painting nearly thirty feet wide by fifteen feet high, in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. It shows Jesus and his disciples at a meal, following Jesus’ announcement that he will soon be betrayed by one of them, as recounted in the Gospel of John 13:21. “Many people assume that Jesus’ Last Supper was a seder,” writes Jonathan Klawans at Biblical Archaeology Review. “And indeed, according to the Gospel of Mark 14:12, Jesus prepared for the Last Supper on the ‘first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb.’” However, John dates Jesus’ crucifixion to the “day of Preparation for the Passover,” and, Klawans continues, if “the Last Supper had been a seder held on the first night of Passover . . . that would mean Jesus’ trial and crucifixion took place during the week-long holiday. If indeed Jewish authorities were at all involved in Jesus’ trial and death ... those authorities would have engaged in activities -- holding trials and carrying out executions -- that were either forbidden or certainly unseemly to perform on the holiday.” In the 1950s, after the excavations at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, Annie Jaubert argued that there were two Passover feast dates during Jesus’ time, an official lunar holiday and a different, solar calendar-based date used by the Essene community. Numerous other scholars, however, “now believe that the ritual context for the Last Supper was not a Seder but a standard Jewish meal,” writes Klawans.

“[T]he Passover Seder as we know it developed after 70 C.E. [which itself is some 35 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, according to most Biblical scholars]. I wish we could know more about how the Passover meal was celebrated before the Temple was destroyed. But unfortunately, our sources do not answer this question with any certainty. Presumably, Jesus and his disciples would have visited the Temple to slaughter their Passover sacrifice. Then they would have consumed it along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, as required by the Book of Exodus. And presumably they would have engaged in conversation pertinent to the occasion. But we cannot know for sure.” --Jonathan Klawans

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.