Lecture 17: From Pesah to Pascha (m mar 31)

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Shaye J.D. Cohen scohen@fas.harvard.edu

CB 23

Lecture 17: From Pesah to Pascha (M Mar 31)


  • Nisan: the non-biblical name of the first month (in the spring) in the Jewish calendar; the Pesah sacrifice is on the afternoon of Nisan 14 into the evening (which is the beginning of Nisan 15); the seven day matzah festival (colloquially known as Pesah or Passover) begins on Nisan 15.

  • Easter: the Christian feast of the resurrection of Jesus (name apparently derives from the Saxon goddess Eostre, whose festival had been celebrated in the spring)

    • There is a pagan side to Easter (bunnies, eggs, festival of spring etc) which is not our concern

  • Pascha: the name for Easter in Greek and Latin and with slight variation in Romance languages (Pâque, Pasqua) (pascha from Greek paschein= passion = suffering, fortuitous homophony with Hebrew Pesah)

  • Eucharist (lit. “thanksgiving” in Greek): the Christian ritual of eating bread and drinking wine instituted by Jesus during the “Last Supper”; also called Communion.

Quick review of chronology:

  • Letters of Paul: 50s CE

  • Gospel of Mark: ca. 70 CE

  • Gospels of Matthew and Luke: ca. 80-90 CE [Mk Mt Lk together known as the synoptic gospels]

  • Gospel of John: ca. 100 CE

  • Epistle of Barnabas: ca. 130 CE

  • Justin Martyr: ca. 160 CE

  • Melito of Sardis: ca. 180 CE

  • The Mishnah, including Mishnah Pesahim: ca. 200 CE

Two Christian trajectories:

  • from Pesah sacrifice to Last Supper to the Passion to Easter

  • from Pesah sacrifice to Last Supper to the Eucharistic Words (or Words of Institution, “this is my body … this is my blood”) to Eucharist (wine and bread)

First trajectory:

All four Gospels connect Jesus’ execution/resurrection with Passover, but do so in different ways, the synoptics vs. John: (see Klawans)

Holy Week


Fri X


Sun ↑


14 (Last supper)









Good Friday (day of crucifixion) – Easter Sunday (day of resurrection)

Matthew 26:2, 17-30 (closely follows Mark):

  • Th is 14 Nisan [though note confusion of Mt 26:17, where the first day of the feast of unleavened bread seems to refer to 14 Nisan; cf. Mark 14:12], F day of crucifixion is 15 Nisan.

  • The Last Supper is a paschal meal; not quite a seder. Sequence: meal (including dipping), presumably the Paschal lamb; bread; blessing (in Greek eulogia); wine; give thanks (in Greek eucharistia); hymn. [but no bitter herbs] Matthew 26:23 Jesus replied, "The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me...  26While they were eating, Jesus took bread, pronounced a blessing, and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body."  27Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. 28This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom."  30When they had sung a hymn …

  • This sequence does not agree with the Mishnah: bread followed by wine, presumably at the beginning of the meal.

Luke 22:14-20:

  • Same chronology as Matthew

  • The Last Supper is a paschal meal; not quite a seder. Recline; wine; give thanks (in Greek eucharistia); bread; give thanks; meal, presumably the Paschal sacrifice; wine. [but no bitter herbs] Luke 22:14When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15And he said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God." 17After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, "Take this and divide it among you. 18For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." 19And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me." 20In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you…

  • This sequence agrees with the Mishnah: wine followed by bread at the beginning of the meal; “give thanks” presumably means “blessed God.” Words of institution recited over wine after the meal [=third cup in the rabbinic seder]

Last Supper is a Paschal meal but is not a rabbinic seder: no storytelling, no scriptural exegesis, no scripted speech (see Klawans)

Contrast John 13:1; 19:14, 31-37:

  • crucifixion is on F 14 Nisan

  • No last supper in John, ceremonial or otherwise; no institution of Eucharist [but note Jn 6:52-58 Jesus is the bread of life, “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life”; commentators have long understood this as reference to Eucharist]

  • John 1:29 Jesus is the (Paschal) lamb of God The next day John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

    • Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, an offering and sacrifice of sweet savor to God (Ephesians 5:2)

  • “This is my body… this is my blood” for John means that Christ is the paschal lamb. John has shifted chronology for theological reasons to make Jesus the sacrificial lamb [this is the usual explanation; or have the synoptics Passoverized the tradition of John? See Klawans]

  • Christ the (Paschal) lamb is everywhere in later Christian theology, liturgy and art. Also inspired by Revelation 5:6 etc., Christ as the Lamb.

    • Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 40 and 111.3: Paschal lamb is the type of Christ, with whose blood believers anoint themselves (and attain salvation)

Easter is the Christian Passover, the high point of the Christian liturgical year:

It is truly right and good, always and everywhere, with our

whole heart and mind and voice, to praise you, the invisible,
almighty, and eternal God, and your only-begotten Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord; for he is the true Paschal Lamb, who
at the feast of the Passover paid for us the debt of Adam's sin,
and by his blood delivered your faithful people.

This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children

of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the
Red Sea on dry land.

This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered

from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness
of life.

This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell,

and rose victorious from the grave. (from Easter Service, Book of Common Prayer, http://www.bcponline.org/ pages 286-287)

“He is Risen!” an Easter greeting in many churches

As in the rabbinic seder, the redemption from Egypt prefigures future redemption.

Second trajectory: from Last Supper to Eucharist

Earliest account of the last supper is Paul 1 Corinthians 11:23-26:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

  • Sequence: bread; give thanks; meal; wine

  • “On the night of his betrayal,” but no Pesah mentioned. The ritual commemoration of Christ’s death is not dependent on Passover, even though elsewhere Paul knows that Christ is our pascha (1 Corinthians 5:7) Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Leaven = sin; unleavened bread symbolizes spiritual cleansing.

    • Therefore western churches use unleavened bread (wafers) for communion; Greek Orthodox use leavened

  • Disassociation of Eucharist from Pesah clear in Paul; disassociation of Eucharist from a meal clear in Justin, Apology 40 and 111 [not the Dialogue with Trypho], earliest extant description of Eucharist;

  • There is then [after the baptism of the newest members of the group] brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen.

  • And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each.

  • Note importance of Sunday.

  • Christian debate between E and W about use of unleavened bread – disassociation from Passover

Later Christian theology: by ingesting body and blood of Christ we partake of his life, death, and most particularly his resurrection.

The ritual is transformative, as is the rabbinic seder; the vehicle for that transformation in both cases is bread/matzah and wine.

  • How the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ was much debated by medieval Christians; see the What is Christianity reading.

From the Eucharistic liturgy:

  • Beloved in the Lord: Our Savior Christ, on the night before
    he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and
    Blood as a sign and pledge of his love, for the continual
    remembrance of the sacrifice of his death, and for a spiritual
    sharing in his risen life. For in these holy Mysteries we are
    made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one
    body in him, and members one of another. http://www.bcponline.org/ page 316

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