Five Reasons You Probably Shouldn’t Attend a Christian Seder

Five Reasons You Probably Shouldn’t Attend a Christian Seder April 15, 2014
The Seder plate at Rabbi Joseph Edelheit’s home, including oranges, olives, and tomatoes.

It’s Passover until this evening, and lots of Christians — especially evangelicals — are attending Passover Seder dinners. But they’re not traditional Seder dinners, with Jews. No, they’re a co-opted rite, sometimes hosted by a “messianic” Jew, and sometimes just by Christians who’ve read a Wikipedia entry.

I’ve been to a Seder for the past couple years. My family and I have been hosted by Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, a sometime contributor to this blog, and a dear friend. In his role as director of the religious studies program at St. Cloud State University, Joseph has hosted Seder dinners for Christian students — at the Lutheran campus ministry for instance — but the difference is that he’s really Jewish. He’s a rabbi. He’s not playacting. This is really his thing.

Many Christians, particularly evangelicals, are drawn to primitive Christianity. They want to follow Jesus like those first Christians did, before Constantine and Charlemagne mucked everything up with Christendom. I personally think that’s a noble goal, and I’m not totally averse to it. However, having a Seder meal at your church or Christian college is not the way to do here. Here’s why:

1) We know very little about Jesus’ Passover meal. The Gospels themselves equivocate on the meal — either it took place on Passover, or on the night before Passover. In the Synoptics (and Paul), there is bread and wine, but in John only a cup into which both Judas and Jesus dipped their hands. Bread and wine, blessed and passed, was common for any Sabbath meal with family or friends. The Passover meal in the first century surely featured meat, but there’s no mention of that in the Gospels or Paul.

2) The Seder meal as we know it developed well after Jesus lived. Before 70 CE, Passover was a festival celebrated by going to Jerusalem, to the temple. That’s why Jesus and the disciples went there. It wasn’t until after the temple was razed that modern, rabbinic Judaism was born, and along with it the practices and rites we know now as synagogue worship and home-based practices like the Seder dinner. In other words, Jesus didn’t eat horseradish or sip salt water.

3) Early Christian eucharistic meals were not patterned after the Seder, but after the Greco-Roman symposium meal. At a symposium, family and friends would gather for a meal to discuss philosophy, the gods, government, and the like. Social distinctions were temporarily ignored; men and women ate together. The eucharistic meal in the early church took this concept and amplified it, even allowing slaves to join the company.

A funeral banquet.

4) The early church often met for eucharist in cemeteries. In the Roman world, friends and relatives of a deceased person would meet at the person’s grace in the necropolis on the 3rd and 30th day after death and have a feast on the sarcophagus. The party was called a refrigerium, meaning “refreshment” for the dead, and the top of the sarcophagus even had a hole to pore food and wine into the casket. Early Christians, often persecuted for gathering together, took up this practice because Roman officials had so much respect for the dead that the church could meet unmolested in the cemetery. So successful was this rite, that Christians began celebrating the anniversaries of martyrs by meeting at their graves and having an all-night party — one of the only times when women were allowed to be out past dark in the ancient world. The practice was still common in the late 4th century, so much that both Ambrose and Augustine preached against it, but to no avail.

5) How would you feel if a rabbi or imam performed a mock baptism? That’d be pretty weird, right? That’s pretty much how it is when Christians take a practice that is central to Judaism and attempt to recreate it with Christian meaning. Virtually every Jew I’ve ever asked about this finds the practice offensive.

So, if you want to recreate an early church practice, pack a lunch and bottle of wine and go have a party in a cemetery. Or hold a Greek symposium, inviting people who come from different races and classes than you. That’d be a great way to be true to the early church, without stepping on the practice of another religion.

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  • mochalite

    Well said, especially #5. I’ve always thought Christian seders were just tacky … “here, let’s demonstrate how Jews just don’t get it.”

  • KentonS

    Hmm… I think you’re overreaching here. Learning about another culture is not a bad thing, and unfortunately not everyone has the opportunity to attend a seder hosted by a rabbi. I get that these can sometimes come across as crass, but the solution isn’t to forbid the experience, but instead to reform the practice so that they’re more honoring. In other words, I wouldn’t have a problem with a rabbi or a imam taught a lesson in the christian practice of baptism in order for their congregants to better understand our faith (or their own) – even if it included a demonstration.

    Your putting the word messianic in quotes is somewhat telling here. I know there is a lot of tension when this question is raised, but aren’t ethnic Jews allowed to follow Jesus? And can’t they share with others the traditions they grew up with?

    • I think Messianic is likely in quotes because–from what I’ve been told–many Messianics are not ethnically Jewish at all. They are Christians drawn to various practices of Judaism. So they may not have grown up with any Jewish traditions.

      • megaforte84

        And there’s another phenomenon going on among evangelicals of trying to convert Jews by saying they can still keep some cultural distinctiveness. Jews For Jesus is often mentioned when this movement is brought up. From what I’ve heard, many of those groups start trying to push converts into discarding practices they’d been told they could keep after they’ve been around long enough for leaving to not be easy.

        A seder led by someone in that movement would likely include the same ‘everything is a symbol for the eventual coming of Jesus’ fallacy that happens when evangelicals who are not ethnically Jewish try to hold seders.

        I had a friend in college who is a Messianic Jew. She is not a recent convert and her family has held their beliefs since before that evangelical movement got going. Her family’s practices outside of Passover include a lot of ‘we do this because we are Jewish’ practices, and while she hasn’t talked to me about what they do for Passover, I’d presume that the focus at a seder in her home would still be on Jewish history or that there would be an actual blend between Jewish and Christian aspects of this particular holy day season. I’d also presume that the fact I know nothing of her Passover observances but have seen photos of what they do for other holy days up on Facebook means that outsiders including other kinds of Christians probably wouldn’t be welcome to come gawk.

      • KentonS

        I’m aware that there are indeed a lot of Gentile Christians drawn to the practices of Judaism, but that shouldn’t discount the fact that at the same time there are many Messianics who indeed *are* ethnically Jewish, and for them the quote marks are a form of taunting. I get that Tony’s attempting to side with those the church has persecuted in the past. That sort of bridge building is admirable! But not if it means belittling those who follow Jesus who are ethnically Jewish.

  • Jeff Carter

    I’m one of those Christian pastors who has in the past and even this year lead a passover service for my congregation – with the caveats that you mentioned. I’ve never intended it as an appropriation – but an appreciation.

    Even so – your comments weigh on me.

    • I think that a Passover worship service would be totally appropriate for a Christian church. But it should be a Christian worship service that celebrates God’s deliverance of Israel. It shouldn’t be a Jewish service — a Seder, for example — with Christian overtones.

      • Pat68

        What the church that I attend has done in the past is an actual Seder with readings from the Haggadah. It was not Christianized at all. The pastor who led it is a Hebrew scholar and a Jewish contractor who does work for the church participated as well.

      • Andy

        Christianity IS an overtone of Judaism. I don’t think you understand that.

      • Andrew Dowling

        This doesn’t make sense to me . . .as Andy states, the whole religion of Christianity is basically an overtone of Judaism. The cat is kind of out of the bag already about Christians claiming the Jewish heritage . . .these battles were fought in the late 1st and 2nd century. Saying a Chrstianized seder is insensitive to Jewish sensibilities. . .so is the entire Trinity!

        And I’m someone who believes Jesus never intended to start any new religion in the first place.

        • SonjaFaithLund

          I think we lost the right to claim any kind of “Jewish heritage” when Christian Europe not only taxed Jews for not converting, but made it so that they were barred from most jobs and one of the few they could hold was one the Catholic church considered sinful (usury), essentially damning them further than the church already taught that they were. Or maybe when the Jews of Spain were told to convert to the faith of those who hated them and be monitored carefully and tortured if they were discovered to still secretly be practicing their real faith, or sail across the ocean to a totally different world from the one they knew all their lives. Or maybe when the Christian czars of Russia endorsed pogroms in Jewish villages, where people vented their frustrations at their bad luck by murdering innocent people. I could go on and on.

          At one point it was a denomination of an apocalyptic offshoot of Judaism, yes, but Christianity has been used to oppress Jews since it became the religion of the Roman Empire. We should be begging their forgiveness, not insisting that we’re basically Jews anyway so we can do what we want with their sacred traditions *which our ancestors imprisoned and murdered them for practicing*.

          • Andrew Dowling

            I think that becomes a silly argument . . for example, my Irish grandfather would’ve been oppressed by the ancestors of the Englishwoman he married. So which heritage do I get to claim? Further disbarring Christianity from the Jewish tradition makes persecution even more likely than it has been through the centuries, as well as being ignorant of its heritage.
            Also, the ceder is not akin to the Eucharist . . I’ve participated in a thoroughly Jewish ceder several times as a non-Jew. It was not a big deal that I was there. Among Reformed Jews (the majority the U.S), I don’t think any would be offended at Christians having their own ceder . . most would probably feel heartened that they are doing anything to recognize the religion’s Jewish roots at all.

  • Alan Christensen

    Also, in the more sacramental Christian traditions we already have a rite that reenacts the Last Supper–Maundy Thursday.
    I would love to be invited to a seder some time, but I would want to appreciate it on its own terms rather than as an imperfect version of a Eucharist or something like that.

  • What do you think about a “seder” that is very simple and explains what Jesus may likely have been doing and what he may have meant by his own actions; one that doesn’t use the seder elements that developed later?

    • That just seems like a Maundy Thursday dinner.

      • Even if you add in things like the blessings over food that were in place at the time, or “hallel” at the end? (i.e. “the hymn” that Matthew and Mark mention in their accounts).

  • A quick question (and maybe you can ask your Rabbi friend if you don’t know the answer, but I’m also thinking that depending on the branch of Judaism, the sedarim will probably be different in some ways. I’m fairly certain that gentiles are not allowed/welcome to take part in an Orthodox Jewish seder–so if a Christian were to attend an actual Jewish seder hosted by a Jewish person, it would have to be someone of the Conservative or Reform branch, correct?

    • Well, I know as a gay married couple, my husband and I aren’t welcomed at his orthodox cousins’ Seder table. 😉

  • Digger

    Since the nation of Israel rejected the Messiah–the only true God–any “Jewish Seder” dinner that excludes Jesus is sinful, and is therefore far worse than any attempt by Christians to hold a Seder dinner. Jewish Seders that exclude Jesus are guilty of worshipping false Gods, and for a supposed Christian to take part is to worship the false God right along side.

    • Raymond Watchman

      This arguably the most ignorant, offensive and theologically illiterate comment I have ever read.

      • JenellYB

        I think maybe it’s a lame effort at trolling.

    • Lamont Cranston

      It’s so funny when a bible idolator starts whining about other people worshipping false gods.

  • Good article Tony. Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy (a former leader of the Chicago Emergent Cohort) has written a very similar one as well:

    Her perspective adds even more weight to the argument by the fact that she is married to a Jewish man and has been actively engaged in navigating the challenges of an interfaith family. Hope you and your readers will check out her article!

  • Mr. Rundquist

    Thanks for the shout-out!

  • S_i_m_o_n

    “Reasons” 1 through 4 seem to be more interesting historical facts than actual reasons. That or as reasons they are not very persuasive. Reason 5 is certainly the point you’re trying to make isn’t it Tony? My question would then be what if the Passover meal was a seder and Jesus quite intentionally recreated it with a new meaning?

    • Andy

      That’s exactly what Jesus did. He reduced the Seder to its barest elements: the fruit of the vine and the bread. This is where we get the Lord’s Supper from.

    • Digger

      John MacArthur put it quite well, “the last passover and the first communion.” He has a sermon by that name that I recommned at Grace to You.

  • Andrew Watson

    I usually enjoy your posts, Mr. Jones, but this one bothers me. I don’t think any Christians are intentionally performing a “mock” Seder, but I am sure all our Jewish friends appreciate you for being offended on their behalf.

  • Andy

    Well guess what, Tony?

    We Christians are “grafted in” to Israel (cp. Romans 11). That means we get to memorialize the feasts that our forefathers participated in. This is NOT the same as a Muslim cleric performing a baptism or Methodist lay preacher facing Mecca. It’s called JUDEO-CHRISTIANITY.

    And, no, most Jews aren’t going to like it because they don’t believe in Jesus. But we’re Jews who believe our Messiah has come! And that does NOT make us insensitive, intolerant, or exploitative. You may not believe this, but I’ve done the Seder with some real, honest-to-goodness Jews before. And it was beautiful.

    Happy Holy Week. Christ is risen.

  • kelly C.

    I get your point….but celebrations are free for everyone…however they choose…I think you are being a little “PC” 🙂

  • Brian Newman

    Five reasons you can celebrate the Passover Feast.
    1. We know enough about Jesus’ ways in general and his last meal with his friends.
    2. The Israelites were told to remember the Exodus and to tell their children year after year. If you believe in a continuity between covenants then it is legitimate;
    3. Early Christian practice being patterned after the Greeks matters more than the biblical story of the Exodus?
    4. All Messianic expressions of the Passover are not the same today – and they have not been the same over the centuries. They have changed over time – just as many expressions of faith have morphed.
    5. Virtually every Jew I’ve ever asked about other people celebrating the Passover finds it respectful and flattering. Clearly Tony Jones and I interact with different Jews. Tony might want to come to the neighborhood where I grew up on Long Island and have a look.

  • tee kay

    More importantly we no longer need to keep any of the feasts or passover do to the fact the real passover lamb has come. We do the communion service in remembrance of Jesus’s flesh and blood which we must eat to inherit heaven but it doesn’t appear to be essential to do passover now. Satan has a deception for the church have you managed to avoid it? check out the full story –>

  • Kullervo

    #5 is really the least compelling. I’m not convinced that “cultural appropriation” in and of itself is even on God’s radar. The bona fide theological mismatch between the Jewish seder and Christ-our-passover is more than enough reason.

    • SonjaFaithLund

      Even if God doesn’t care about cultural appropriation, Jewish people do. It’s a matter of respect. As I said above, there’s something really wrong with taking a tradition that’s not only not ours, but was one for which Jewish people could be imprisoned or killed for observing at various points throughout history, and removing its original significance to apply our own. It’s the historical power imbalance between our two faiths that makes it wrong. Our ancestors wanted to destroy Jewish traditions, and now we want to absorb them, but either way apparently Jewish people should shut up and let Christians do what we want with their sacred practices. That’s what I’m hearing from a lot of people on this issue, and as the partner of a Jewish person it offends me and breaks my heart to hear my fellow Christians have such disregard for boundaries and respect.

  • So… I passed your post onto my pastor, who spent many years in missions to Jews. Here it is, verbatim.

    It would be nice if people actually knew what they were talking about but that is too much to expect in the internet age when so many people have become mavens (experts) in things that they basically have little or no knowledge.

    The first error the writer made is that the actual food elements are given in Torah so they pre-existed the time of Christ and thus, was part of the Last Supper, or perhaps I should say, “Last Seder!”

    He’s right. Some things have changed. Jesus and the disciples ate lamb. Today, the menu tends to be chicken for Passover. But we know when and why it changed. When the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. by Titus’ army they could no longer sacrifice the lamb since it must be sacrificed at the temple. When the Jewish people were scattered in the diaspora (Christians tend to call it, “the exile”) they were often quite poor and the rabbis decided that everyone, even the poorest family, could generally scrape up enough money to buy a chicken for Passover. Thus, the Jewish people could be united on this one night as they ate chicken for Passover wherever they might be in the world. By the way, this isn’t a “Christian” interpretation. It’s taken straight from Jewish literature that is available with minimal research.

    The shank bone of the lamb is always put on the Seder plate as the reminder of the absent Passover Lamb.

    The “Sop” (KJV) into which Judas dipped was actually a double dipping, one into horse radish and the other into a receipt called horoseth (I may have missed on the spelling). It is a combination of chopped up apples, raisins, mixed together with red wine and is a reminder of the bricks the Jewish people had to make as slaves in Egypt. It is traditionally called, “Hillel’s Sandwich” because Rabbi Hillel, the mentor of Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 5.34) created it. Thus, it was part of the Passover Seder before the time of Christ.

    The three Matzo’s in the unity holder is a major item of Passover so let me comment on this. I know longer have the article but many years ago I clipped an article out of a Jewish newspaper in which there was an “Ask the Rabbi” column. As I recall, the actual question was asked of a rabbi in England and was being reprinted in the Jewish newspaper that was either published in Denver or New York City. The reader had asked the rabbi what was the meaning of the three matzo’s? He replied in essence: The three matzo’s represents a unity of three, Israel’s prophets, priests and kings. But it was not so in the most ancient of times. Originally, the three matzo’s represented the Father who is above, the Messiah, and the Way which is below which is the Spirit. My eyes nearly fell out of my head when I read this. I kept it for many years, using it with Jewish people but unfortunately lost it somewhere among our moves.

    In regard to the feast that the writer spoke of being borrowed from the pagan Greeks, he is completely wrong about this, too. The New Testament church gathered to celebrate communion and along with it had a Agape “feast”. The feast represented the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb we will celebrate with Jesus. Paul chided the Christians at Corinth for the abusive manner in which they were celebrating the Agape Feast because the wealthy were coming and eating like kings while the poor Christians were eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches…or nothing at all, going home hungry (1 Cor. 11.17-22).

    Some churches still celebrate the Eucharist, and Agape feast today. The Brethren Churches would be one with which I am familiar. I believe their may be others. They would all tell the blogger that they are highly offended by his suggestion that their Agape Feast had roots in a pagan Roman celebration.

    The bottom line is that as painful as it is for many within the rabbinic and rabbinic Jewish communities to admit, all the apostles were Jewish and the New Testament church was overwhelmingly Jewish. It has been suggested that there may have been as many as a million Jewish believers by the end of the first century. The church did not become overwhelmingly Gentile until during and after the time of Emperor Constantine.

    The Jewish people no longer believe in or follow Mosaic or Biblical Judaism today as it was given by Moses and the prophets. I vividly remember Rabbi Tanenbaum telling our theology class this many years ago (back in the 1960’s) when I was a student at the University of Judaism. He went on to say, “We follow Rabbinic Judaism as it was formed and given to us by the rabbis.) In fact, he went so far as to say, “I will defend Rabbinic Judaism to the death. But I will not defend Mosaic or Biblical Judaism.”

    Thus, Messianic Jews around the world are unapologetic about celebrating Christ in the Passover. It is their Passover, pointing to God’s ultimate Passover Lamb, who became the saving Passover Lamb of every Jewish follower of Jesus.

  • Peter Machado

    you would think so, because you’re not Christian, but if you want to have a complete seder, and get the full story all the way to Christ, then attend a Christian seder, no disrespect but I think we tell the full story.