Posted by: mattcolvin | April 21, 2011

That Is Just Not How Rites Come Into Being

It’s around this time of the year that some pastors begin to complain about the “traveling Seder shows” and the claims that are put forward by many Jewish Christians about the origins of the Lord’s Supper, the meaning of the bread which Jesus broke, and the value of celebrating Passover.

The push-back against Christian Passover celebrations is motivated first by a legitimate desire on the part of pastors to protect the flock against speculative teaching; second, by a sometimes misguided desire to avoid finding the meaning of the Supper in extra-Biblical traditions (as though the Bible were necessarily comprehensible as a closed system); and thirdly, by a desire to safeguard the Eucharistic theories of the pastor’s own tradition.

I won’t give a prolonged defense of the proposal of David Daube here, although I continue to believe that it is the easiest explanation for the things that Jesus did and the things that Jesus said in the Upper Room — and perhaps more important, for the the things that He did not say, and the reactions that the disciples registered to it all. All I will say here is that it is absolutely impossible that His disciples could be confronted with a piece of bread and made to identify it with Jesus without some already-existing understanding of that bread as the Messiah. As Daube puts it, “Jesus could not at the same time have introduced both the general idea of eating a cake of unleavened bread as the Messiah and the specific identification of that cake with himself. This is just not how rites come into being. The ceremony — some ceremony — of eating a piece of unleavened bread as the Messiah must have been practiced before; the new thing was the identification, the self-revelation, the proclamation that the Messiah had now found bodily, human presence.”

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Was it called “aphikomen”? We don’t know. But that the bread already meant “Messiah” is certain. It had to, for Jesus to make himself understood in so few words, without any further explanatory discourse in which he untangled the mysteries of Aristotelian substances and accidents, or any other anachronistic and unavailable mechanisms generated by theologians in ignorance of the Passover.

It is a thing utterly to the shame of the Holy Catholic Church that at the same council of Nicaea where it laid down the Creed it also forbade Jewish Christians from celebrating Easter by the Jewish calendar, lest Holy Week should coincide with Passover. St. Paul had suffered so many things so that Gentiles would not have to become Jewish. Would he have tolerated for a moment the idea that Jewish Christians must become Gentiles, and use a Gentile calendar?

It is only by Nicaea’s forcible divorce of the Last Supper from its Paschal origins that the Church has been enabled to theorize the workings of the Eucharist in blithe and willful ignorance of the Passover at which the Eucharist was instituted.



  1. Wonderful. Note this: “… it also forbade Jewish Christians from celebrating Easter by the Jewish calendar, so that Holy Week would coincide with Passover.” I know what you mean but it would read better by continuing the thought: “Jewish Christians from celebrating Easter by the Jewish calendar, so that Holy Week would NOT coincide with Passover.” From your best Quartodecimen friend.

    • Pastor Steve,

      Thanks for reading, and for the correction. You may be pleased to know that I have a circle of friends down here in Cincy who are as excited about Daube’s view of the supper as I am, and that they give me frequent and needed pressure to work on that book idea I floated to you back in 2004 or 2005. So it is a priority this summer. I may ask you to contribute a foreword or at least a blurb.

      Oh — and I have learned Hebrew.

  2. You’re writing a book? Can I preorder a copy?

  3. You frequently mention Daube and his influence. How would you recommend starting with him? Any particular works to be read first? Any to be safely ignored?

    • I have the Collected Works of David Daube, in four volumes. Of these, volume 2 (“New Testament Judaism”) is the best. Volume 1 (”Biblical Law and Literature”) is also very good. Volume 1 (”Talmudic Law”) and volume 4 (“Ethics and Other Writings”) can be safely skipped.

      I’m afraid volume 2 is expensive ($50-60), but contains important articles (especially on the Last Supper and Passover) that are not included in cheaper collections like Daube’s “Rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament.”

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