Resource Library Perspective Papers A Christian Guide to Passover

A Christian Guide to Passover

Perspective Paper

For thousands of years, Jewish people around the world have recounted the exodus story through the feast of Passover. Recently, a growing number of Gentile Christians have also begun to observe Passover. Desiring to reconnect in a greater way to the Jewish foundation of their faith, more and more churches have begun hosting Passover Seders for their communities. Whether you are just beginning on this journey out of curiosity, or whether you are an experienced Passover host, this guide is written for you.

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This is a part of our series of Perspective Papers. These papers are not official statements or positions from Gateway Church, but are our thoughtful perspectives on complex issues related to Israel.


Introduction

For thousands of years, Jewish people around the world have recounted the exodus story through the feast of Passover. As one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays, Passover is a time for Jewish families to come together and give thanks to God for rescuing them from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. Recently, however, a growing number of Gentile Christians have also begun to observe Passover. Desiring to reconnect in a greater way to the Jewish foundation of their faith, more and more churches have begun hosting Passover Seders for their communities.

Whether you are just beginning on this journey out of curiosity, or whether you are an experienced Passover host, this guide is written for you. This is not a how-to manual for a Passover Seder. Rather, this is an informational guide aimed at helping Christian pastors and church leaders understand how to engage with Passover.

We at GCFI believe that churches should sensitively evaluate whether it is appropriate to host a Passover Seder. The holiday of Passover has immense significance for the Jewish community, and it has the potential to be offensive when it is appropriated by Christians. As you’ll see below, we instead encourage Gentile Christians to go to a Passover Seder hosted by a local synagogue, a Messianic Jewish congregation, or a Jewish ministry within a church led by a Jewish person, rather than try to host their own. We invite you to continue reading below to learn more.

Historical Overview of Passover

There are numerous special “feasts” in the Torah that God commands the people of Israel to keep. Each of the feasts encapsulate some of the most significant moments in Israel’s history. In this sense, the biblical feast of Passover serves as the earliest and most evident example. Whenever God says, “Keep this feast as a memorial for you and your generations” (Exod 12:14), it is because the events signified are integral to Israel’s communal story and identity.

The name Passover comes directly from Exodus 12:13, “And when I see the blood upon your houses, I will pass over [pasachti] you and will not destroy you with the plague.” The Hebrew root pasach (פסח) can be translated as “to pass over.” Thus, within the very name of the feast itself is a narrative, a word picture that summarizes God’s miraculous and gracious deliverance of the people of Israel.

At first, each individual family was required to sacrifice a Passover lamb in their homes (Exod 12:3-4). But once Solomon’s Temple was built and the Israelites settled in their own land, the practice of sacrificing a lamb privately changed into a public event at the Temple, where the priesthood presided over the ceremony (Deut 16:16). As a result, Passover became one of the three major pilgrimage feasts of Israel (along with Shavuot [Pentecost] and Sukkot [Tabernacles]).

When the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple and carried the people of Judah into exile, the memorial of their redemption from the captivity of Egypt only increased in importance. If God had already delivered the people of Israel before, He could do it again. Keeping the feast of Passover thus became a rallying cry for the Jewish people, a proclamation of liberation.

After the exile ended and the Temple was rebuilt, pilgrimage and sacrifices resumed once again and continued through the time of Jesus. In fact, the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus grew up making the journey to Jerusalem every year for Passover (Luke 2:41-43). It is likely that He continued observing it each year, although we only know for sure of three other Passovers during Jesus’ ministry (John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55). What is clear is that all four Gospels culminate during the feast of Passover, emphasizing its importance (Matt 26:17; Mar 14:12; Luke 22:15; John 19:14). Jesus Himself tells the disciples at the Last Supper, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before My suffering” (Luke 22:15).

The book of Acts shows how Jewish believers in Jesus continued to observe Passover in the years following the ascension but with the conviction that there was another meaning hidden in the feast, as the Apostle Paul writes, “Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7). After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., a series of Jewish insurrections led to the eventual dispersion of all Jews from Jerusalem in 135 C.E. These events influenced the development of early Christianity and Judaism in a major way, as we’ll discuss further below.

Passover and the Parting of the Ways

According to Scripture, Passover begins on the 14th of Nisan and the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the 15th (Lev 23:5-6), continuing for seven days. In the century after the destruction of the Second Temple, a conflict arose concerning the precise date of the feast. A faction of believers in Jesus called “fourteenthers” claimed that Passover should always be observed on the 14th of Nisan. But another group of believers argued instead that it should be held on the Sunday after the 14th. Though the difference might seem insignificant, the debate reflected a growing separation between the Church and its Jewish foundation.

For the first 135 years of its existence, the early Church depended upon a group of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to set the correct date for Passover (Epiphanius’ Panarion 70.10). However, an increasing number of Gentile Christians began to question this practice, and once a Jewish constituency was no longer rooted in Jerusalem, it became necessary to find a solution. The Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.) addressed the question directly, and it was decided to reject the Jewish date and keep Passover on the first Sunday after the 14th of Nisan instead. This choice to break with the prior tradition was essentially a choice to break with any kind of dependence on Jewish leadership, as made evident by Emperor Constantine:

“We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews, for the Savior has shown us another way; our worship follows a more legitimate and more convenient course (the order of the days of the week); and consequently, in unanimously adopting this mode, we desire, dearest brethren, to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews, for it is truly shameful for us to hear them boast that without their direction we could not keep this feast. How can they be in the right, they who, after the death of the Savior, have no longer been led by reason but by wild violence, as their delusion may urge them? They do not possess the truth in this Passover question” (Eusebius’ Vita Const., Lib. iii., 18-20).

Constantine’s decree that the Church shouldn’t have “anything in common with the Jews,” drew a sharp boundary between the Christian practice of Passover and the Jewish practice. Within a few decades after his letter was written, it became prohibited in various regions for Christians to keep Passover with the Jewish community (Apostolic Canons 7).

Around the same time as the “fourteenthers” controversy, rabbinic authorities began establishing their own official way to observe Passover based upon the traditions handed down to them. It was in this period that the Seder (ritual Passover meal) and the Haggadah (an instructional guide for the Seder) began to take shape. The Hebrew word Haggadah (הגדה) means “the telling.” Like the name “Passover” (Pesach), the root word occurs in the biblical account: “And you shall tell [v’higadata] your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’” (Exod 13:8). Over the centuries, “the telling” of the Passover story began to incorporate various prayers and traditions shaped by rabbinic interpretation.

When Passover Became Easter

History details how Passover quickly took on a new meaning for followers of Jesus. As early as the mid-second century, Melito of Sardis wrote Peri Pascha, an ancient Christian homily interpreting the story of Passover through the lens of Jesus’ redemptive passion and crucifixion. Some scholars have even suggested that Peri Pascha could have been part of an early Christian Haggadah, since Eusebius preserves a letter identifying Melito of Sardis as a “fourteenther” (Hist. Eccl. 5.24).

With differing dates for the feast and differing interpretations of the feast’s meaning, the Gentile Christian observance of Passover began to look drastically different than the Jewish observance. A third-century Syrian writing called the Didascalia Apostolorum describes new Christian traditions for Passover, including instructions to fast on Friday and hold a “vigil” on Saturday night. Whereas Israel’s exodus had once been the focus of Passover, now the death of Christ as the “paschal lamb” became the Christian focus (as Melito’s homily shows).

A further development also occurred after the Council of Nicaea decreed for the Sunday observance to replace the 14th of Nisan: the resurrection became a more natural focal point, since Jesus died on Friday but was resurrected on Sunday. In time, a focus on the three-day remembrance of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (known today as the Triduum) superseded the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. By the end of the fourth century, the celebration of the Triduum is evident in the writings of Saint Augustine (Ep. 55).

Interestingly, it is not until the eighth century that the name “Easter” is introduced, appearing in the writings of Bede, a Northumbrian monk who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Before this time, the Latin name had been Pascha, borrowed from the Greek Pascha (πάσχα), which itself stems from the Hebrew, Pesach (פסח). The Greek Orthodox Church still uses the name Pascha today, but “Easter” has become the preferred English term. In modern parlance, Easter and Passover represent two entirely separate holidays and faith traditions, despite their shared origins.

Development of the Seder and the Haggadah

The first Passover was a real, historical event. The Israelites covered their doorposts with lamb’s blood and left Egypt in such a haste that they didn’t have time for their bread to rise. They observed the feast a year later (Num 9), but the Torah is silent on whether they kept it while wandering in the wilderness for the next 39 years after. It is not until the Israelites enter into the promised land that Passover is described as kept again (Josh 5:10-12), yet the Chronicler makes it clear that Passover was rarely kept in any significant way until the reign of King Josiah (2 Chron 35:18; 2 Kgs 23:22). And although Josiah set a precedent, the observance of Passover was quickly disrupted by the Babylonian exile and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. The feast is not described in the Scriptures as being kept until the dedication of the Second Temple and the reforms of Ezra (Ezra 6:19-20).

What this brief biblical sketch shows is that our information about the observance of Passover is fairly limited within the thousand-year period between Moses and Ezra. Indeed, it is only mentioned as being kept five times after the book of Deuteronomy, by Joshua (Josh 5:10-12), Solomon (2 Chron 8:13), Hezekiah (2 Chron 30), Josiah (2 Chron 35), and Ezra (Ezra 6:19-20). It is possible that Passover was observed more frequently than this, even in Babylon, but Scripture does not tell us. Its observance only became more regular after the close of the Old Testament in the Second Temple period.

Certainly, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the exile of Jews from Jerusalem nearly a century later transformed early Judaism and Jewish life in a radical way. Passover involved pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the sacrifice of a lamb at the Temple—two things that became impossible for Jews by the middle of the second century. As a result, the prior focus on the Temple shifted to a greater focus on the table.

During the first night of Passover, when normally the Passover lamb would be eaten, it became customary to gather for a ceremonial meal. Partly influenced by the Greek symposium (which involved reclining, drinking wine, and asking questions), the meal emphasized symbolic elements and rituals set around the dinner table in a particular order (the Hebrew word seder [סדר] means “order”). The first description and order of the meal is recorded in the Mishnah (Pesachim 10 [c. 200 C.E.]), but it was by no means fixed, as evident later in the Talmud (b. Pesachim [c. 500 C.E.]). There remained considerable debate over the various practices and symbolisms and what should be included in “the telling” of Passover.

Moreover, concerning the Haggadah itself, though it is referenced in the Talmud (b. Pesachim 115b-116a), the first manuscripts do not appear till the tenth century (discovered in the Cairo Geniza). The text underwent numerous changes until it was mostly standardized after the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Since that time, the production and printing of Haggadot (plural of Haggadah) has steadily increased, and to this day there have been thousands of variations of the Haggadah published using similar outlines but keyed to different themes. Especially in recent years, one can find Haggadot written with contemporary interests in mind, such as a Zionist Haggadah, a LGBTQ Haggadah, or even a Harry Potter Haggadah.

Learning from History

In a time when “Jewish roots” is becoming a buzzword in the Church, the history of Passover observance can help promote better Christian understanding of Judaism and better Jewish-Christian relations in general. There are at least three key points that emerge from our historical survey above:

1. Passover is not a Christian holiday

If it’s true that Jesus and His disciples observed Passover each year as the Torah commands, then shouldn’t Christians follow in these same footsteps? In our discussion above, we’ve seen that this line of thinking is misguided because the Passover Jesus observed is not the same Passover that we know today (as found in the traditional Haggadah). There are hints of the oldest Passover traditions in Second Temple Jewish literature, such as the cups of wine and the recitation of Hallel, but nearly all scholars of early Judaism agree that there is no way to be certain these traditions existed in the same form before the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., let alone the existence of the other elements added later to the Seder.

As believers in Jesus, it is not right to assume anything that we do not find written explicitly in the New Testament. We don’t know if traditions surrounding the afikomen were developed by the time of the first century and whether it was this piece that Jesus called “His body,” or whether it was the third of four cups He called “His blood.” We only know what the text tells us. Christians who wish to reconstruct the same type of Passover Jesus observed are forced to speculate and go beyond what the New Testament itself says.

Many of the traditions observed during a modern-day Seder have their origins in later times and do not necessarily reflect the kind of Passover Jesus would have been familiar with. In fact, there is a longstanding debate whether the Last Supper itself was even a Passover meal (like the Synoptics say) or if it took place the evening before Passover (like the Gospel of John says). There are valid theories explaining how to reconcile the two accounts based upon the alternative dates that various sects used, but the point is that the Gospels themselves contribute to our uncertainty regarding the type of Passover Jesus observed.

What we do know for certain is that the Christian celebration of Easter developed in place of the Jewish Passover within just a few centuries (though the name “Easter” occurs later). The two should not be conflated. The feast of Passover today involves the eating of unleavened bread, bitter herbs, the recounting of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, and a host of other Jewish traditions which have developed over the centuries. Easter, on the other hand, recounts the story of Jesus’ resurrection, which Christians do not always relate to the Passover story.

Sometimes the practice of Communion (also called the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist) is connected to Passover, because it was during Passover that Jesus raised the cup and broke the bread saying, “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:23-25), but it is rare that the story of Israel’s exodus is ever discussed during Communion. When Christians collapse both Easter and Communion into Passover, they lose a proper honoring of the uniqueness of all three events, and they also commit the historical error of assuming the Passover Jesus observed is identical to the Passover the Jewish community observes today.

2. Gentile Christian Seders can be viewed as an act of cultural appropriation

The feast of Passover has had immense significance for Jewish identity and Jewish self-understanding for thousands of years, long before Christianity existed. If the way Jesus observed Passover was in continuity with the Judaism of His time but was nevertheless not the same way the Haggadah nor the early Church portrayed Passover observance, then it follows that Gentile Christians who host Passover Seders engage in a form of cultural appropriation. There are simply not enough similarities between the Passover Jesus kept in the first century and the Passover that the Jewish community keeps today to justify the practice of Gentile Christian Seders.

When well-meaning believers in Jesus set out to host a Passover Seder, what sources do they use? We have already discussed above how both the Old Testament and the New Testament are limited in their description of how to keep Passover. Rather, the only way to have a “Seder” in the modern sense of the word is by referencing the Haggadah or by integrating extra-biblical Jewish tradition and history in some way. It might be justifiable if these were shared liturgies between early Judaism and Christianity, but we cannot be sure which prayers and practices had developed by the time of Jesus. It takes an act of faith to connect all the dots between the Gospel accounts and the modern-day Haggadah.

Furthermore, because it is the anniversary of Christ’s death, Passover season has historically been a time of heightened antisemitism. Accusations of deicide (murdering God) have frequently led to Jewish persecution and violence during a holiday that is meant to signify Jewish deliverance and salvation. Shockingly, history records hundreds of “blood libel” cases in which Christians have accused Jews of abducting and murdering children to drink their blood during Passover. The well-known seventeenth century rabbi Turei Zahav even urged his community to replace the traditional red wine with white wine to avoid any suspicion that they might be drinking blood.

How many times have Jewish people observed Passover while in fear of what Christians might do to them? This dark history should compel us toward an honoring cultural sensitivity, not cultural appropriation. When we as Gentile Christians take the Haggadah and imbibe every page with a so-called “fuller” Christian meaning, though we might be well intentioned, we are guilty of trespassing on sacred ground that has never belonged to us.

3. A Messianic Jewish Passover Seder is a legitimate expression

Although it may be inappropriate for Gentiles to host a Passover Seder, it is an entirely different matter when a Jewish believer in Jesus hosts a Seder. Why? Because the Seder is part of their Jewish history. The Jewish person who interacts with Jewish tradition is doing so as an insider, not an outsider. Whether one can be considered halakhically Jewish while also believing in Jesus is intensely debated within the various branches of Judaism. Nevertheless, we at GCFI believe that a Messianic Jew can rightfully utilize the Haggadah and offer their own Messianic interpretation of the Passover Seder without causing the same kind of harm that occurs through Gentile appropriation. In the former case, it is an intra-Jewish matter, and Messianic Jews add to the diversity of interpretations of Passover that already exist within Modern Judaism.

We believe in the deep importance of ongoing relational partnership between the Christian Church and Messianic Jewish community. Therefore, we strongly encourage pastors and church leaders to seek out a local Messianic Jewish congregation and ask to join their Passover celebrations. If that is not possible, we also encourage churches to find a Jewish representative who can host the Seder for them. In this manner, the Church is more enabled to be “one new man” (Eph 2:15), Jew and Gentile united together in mutual blessing, interdependence, and honoring of individual and communal identities.

Should Christians Celebrate Passover?

As we have argued throughout this guide, attending a contemporary Passover Seder will not necessarily bring someone closer to the way Jesus observed Passover. The twenty-first century Passover Seder is markedly different than the first-century, Temple-based Passover. The Gospels do not mirror the Haggadah, and the early Church developed its own way of celebrating Passover that eventually became known as the Triduum (Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday).

However, these facts do not mean that followers of Jesus cannot benefit by attending a Passover Seder. We encourage churches to seek out this experience appropriately alongside a Jewish host with at least four reasons in mind:

1. Passover is part of the Bible’s story.

The theme of “exodus” occurs repeatedly throughout the Old Testament. In fact, the Jewish scholar Yair Zakovitch argues that “no other event in the history of Israel is given so much attention by biblical writers as is the Exodus—as many as one hundred and twenty references in a variety of literary genres across the canon” (And You Shall Tell Your Son [1991], 9). When we learn about this important theme, we are equipped to better understand all of Scripture and the biblical narrative as a whole.

2. Passover is part of Israel’s story.

Ancient Israel celebrated Passover, and the Jewish people have continued to observe it throughout all their recorded history. As we participate in a Passover Seder, we are drawn deeper into Jewish history and tradition and deeper into the experience of the hardships, hopes, fears, and dreams of the Jewish people. An encounter with the Jewish people as they are, is an encounter with those who are “beloved” of God and who have an “irrevocable” calling (Rom 11:28-29). This should enlarge our heart for Israel and help promote greater reconciliatory relationship between the Church and the Jewish people.

3. Passover is part of Jesus’ story.

Jesus was a Torah-faithful Jew who grew up celebrating the feast of Passover according to the tradition of His family and the Jewish community He was raised in. The Gospels also reveal that Passover was the climax of Jesus’ life and ministry. Luke records the moment when Jesus “set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). From this time on, Jesus was determined to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, where He would be sacrificed as “our Passover lamb” (1 Cor 5:7). Even though the traditional Passover Seder developed after the time of Jesus, it can still teach us about the many ways the story of Israel converges with the story of Jesus.

4. Passover is part of our story.

The feast of Passover is all about God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel, the same covenant faithfulness that we as Gentiles have been “grafted into” (Rom 11:17-18). If God has kept His promises and remained faithful to Israel, He will also remain faithful to us. The Apostle Paul exhorts those of us who are Gentiles, “Remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” (Rom 11:18). Passover grounds us in our spiritual heritage as those who have been “grafted in” and who “share the rich root of the olive tree” (Rom 11:17).

Toward Greater Honor

God could have chosen any time for Jesus to give His life as a ransom, but He chose Passover. Why? Because He planned to accomplish spiritually what He began physically in Egypt—a new exodus that would bring about deliverance from death itself (Rom 6:5-11; 1 Cor 15:22-23). Our faith in Jesus’ blood parallels the faith act of the Israelites applying the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts. All those who believe in the power of the blood of the Messiah Jesus are liberated from death, a theological truth that continues to have vast significance for Christians today.

But despite the important meaning of Passover for believers in Jesus, we need to remember the long history of its observance within both Judaism and Christianity. We can’t celebrate Passover in a vacuum, as if it is somehow a “biblical” holiday and not a Jewish holiday. We also can’t ignore the many centuries of Christian antisemitism and supersessionism that make the appropriation of Jewish tradition and culture problematic.

What is needed now, in our post-Holocaust age, is for the global Church to approach these issues with humility, sensitivity, and honor. Passover Seders hosted by Gentile Christians have the potential to do more harm than good because they depreciate Jewish history and Jewish identity. When Gentiles begin to act like Jews, they erase the God-ordained distinction between Jew and Gentile, ultimately resulting in the very supersessionism they claim to reject. It might seem like keeping the Jewish feasts will help to promote reconciliation, but in actuality, it communicates the idea that Christians know better than Jews do about their own traditions.

Moreover, the assumption of sameness between first century and twenty-first century Judaism requires the laying aside of two-thousand years of Jewish history—something that reflects innocent ignorance at best or blatant arrogance at worst. Christians who utilize the Haggadah are often highly selective of the material they use because their aim is to show the many ways Jesus is hidden in the Seder. In the process, they overlook how the Seder was largely developed after the time of Jesus and how it is replete with Jewish interpretations and customs that are connected to Jewish covenantal identity.

It is time for Gentile Christians to humbly submit to their Jewish brothers and sisters when it comes to the observance of Jewish feasts and traditions. The Church cannot be the Church unless it consists of both Jewish and Gentile believers united in Messiah. GCFI does not believe that God calls all Gentile Christians and churches to celebrate Passover as part of the life of faith, though we recognize that the Holy Spirit leads some to do so. At the same time, Gentile Passover Seders often muddy the biblical distinction between Jew and Gentile and have the added danger of causing offense and misunderstanding within the rest of the Jewish world.

If you are a pastor or church leader interested in hosting a Passover Seder, and you don’t already have a Jewish ministry within your church led by a Jewish person, we encourage you to seek out a local Messianic congregation or synagogue, or if that is not possible to invite a Jewish leader to host the Seder for you. It is this direct, relational connection that will produce great fruit and blessing for your church in a way that will far outlive a yearly Seder. If you need any assistance connecting with a Messianic leader, we would be delighted to help.

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