Why are Christians celebrating Passover?

Passover has been gaining in popularity in Christian communities in recent years. Why are many churches holding Passover seders?
The Last Supper
Jesus’ last supper is described as a Passover seder in the New Testament: whether this is historically accurate has long been a source of controversy.

Celebrating Passover is extremely common with 70% of American Jews attending Passover seders. In many ways, Passover is the ultimate Jewish holiday that recalls the Jewish people’s miraculous exodus from Egypt. But did you know some Christians are starting to celebrate the holiday as well, and even host their version of a Passover seder?

Given the growing trend of non-Jews celebrating Passover in recent years, we wanted to better understand Christian seders held in some churches. What do Jews think about Christians holding their own Passover seders? Is this a case of wrongfully appropriating Jewish tradition, or is it simply a way for Christians to explore Jesus’ Jewish roots? And, is it a good thing for interfaith dialogue?

As we learned more about Christian seders, it quickly became clear that not all of the seders are alike. In this seder tutorial, Pastor Scott Stewart of Agape Church of Little Rock, Ark., explains how to celebrate Passover, with barely any recognition that this is a Jewish holiday. It felt like Stewart was even telling Jews the proper way to lead a Passover seder.

However, other Christian seders focus on exploring the Jewish roots of Christianity. For example, in this recording, Pastor Tom Holladay of Saddleback Church teaches his congregants about how Jesus, who was a Jew, and his followers would have celebrated Passover in their time. It’s clear that Holladay’s seder is meant for Christians, not Jews, but we wanted to talk to him to see if he would help explain seders at Saddleback to us. Holladay was more than happy to do so, and here’s what we learned after exploring this fascinating topic.

Learn more about Passover — check out our complete guide to the holiday.

Christian Passover seders, unpacked

Holladay is a senior teaching pastor at Saddleback Church, based in Orange County, Calif. He has been guiding church communities through Christian-themed Passover seders for more than 30 years — one year, Holladay led a seder session from a stage in front of 20,000 Saddleback members.

Holladay explained that participating in the Passover seder “reminds us of how tied we are to our Jewish roots,” noting that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish. He said that the ritual helps Christians become more familiar with Judaism and promotes understanding between the two religions.

It’s true that Holladay’s seder sessions include some components familiar to Jews: the Passover story is told, the blessing over wine is recited in Hebrew (so that participants “get a sense of how Jesus and his disciples would have said it,” Holladay explained), and kids ask the four questions and search for the afikoman.

But in general, Passover at Saddleback is very different from a Jewish Passover seder. Instead of reliving the Exodus story, the experience is more about understanding how Jesus and his disciples would have celebrated the holiday.

Also, the common symbols of the Passover story are completely reinterpreted in a Christian context: In Holladay’s explanation, chametz is a symbol of sin, and Passover is about purifying oneself from those sins. The sacrificial lamb — and the blood the Israelites put on their doors so the Angel of Death would pass over their homes — are invoked as symbols of Jesus’ sacrifice and suffering.

In addition to wanting to explore their Jewish roots, Christians are drawn to Passover because they “identify with the freedom God gave to the Israelites,” Holladay said. “For Christians, the Passover seder is a deep part of our Easter celebration,” he added. The connection between the two festivals “starts with the very fact that Jesus and his disciples celebrated the seder the night before Jesus died.”

Jesus’ last supper is described as a Passover seder in the New Testament: whether this is historically accurate has long been a source of controversy. According to Jonathan Klawans, a professor of religion at Boston University, there is a general consensus among scholars of early rabbinic literature that the seder was first developed after 70 C.E., almost two generations after Jesus’ death.

We asked Holladay to respond to arguments that Christian seders are inappropriate because they are either cultural appropriation or ignore centuries of persecution of Jews, often done by Christians. Holladay acknowledged this painful history and said he is in no way ignoring that. “For a Christian to persecute a Jew when Jesus was a Jew is not understandable to me,” he said, adding that he hoped the annual seder “prevents further persecution and puts us in the place of the right sentiment and heart toward one another.”

As for the argument that this appropriates Jewish tradition, Holladay replied: “There was a celebration in Jesus’ day of the Passover. It’s what he did the night before he died on the cross.” Holladay said he does not claim to be replicating seders led by Jews: in fact, he encourages his congregants to attend their Jewish friends’ seders to experience that. Before we ended our call, we asked Holladay if there was anything else he wanted to add for the article. “The last thing I’d want to do is be an offense to any of your readers,” he responded. “I don’t know them, but I love them. We’ve got to love each other.”

Perspectives from the Jewish world

The increasing popularity of Christian Passover seders has prompted a hot debate in both Jewish and Christian communities about whether they are appropriate. While supporters argue the seders promote understanding between the two faiths, opponents say they appropriate Jewish tradition and promulgate a theology harmful to Jews.

Amy Jill Levine, an Orthodox Jewish professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, argued that holding Passover seders in churches “is not necessarily a good idea.” Levine wrote, “Not only is the Christian seder historically compromised — it is also a problem in interreligious relations” because of how Jewish symbols are completely reinterpreted in Christian terms.

Levine further argued that Christian seders do not “remove the problem” of a lack of sensitivity between the religions. “To the contrary, the performance serves to absolve the congregation: how could they be anti-Jewish if they are doing something so Jewish as having a Passover seder?”

Rabbi David Greenspoon, a Conservative rabbi, argued that it is inappropriate for Christian communities to hold Christian seders because they are “a practice of supersessionism — the theological idea that Christianity has superseded Judaism,” adding that “Christian supersessionism has had disastrous effects for Jews throughout history.” Greenspoon argued that the best way for Christians to connect with the Jewish roots of Jesus is to attend a Jewish seder, allowing them to witness “the fact that Judaism has been a vibrant and evolving religious culture and not simply a precursor to Christianity.”

However, Reform Rabbi Evan Moffic, who has led Passover seders at churches, challenged the idea that this is an appropriation of Judaism: “Who decided the seder is only a Jewish ritual? The origins of the seder are the Passover meal described in detail in the Book of Exodus, which is also part of the Christian scripture. While the Exodus story is central to Jewish identity… we do not hold an exclusive claim on it.”

Moffic concluded: “To live in a time when Christians can find their own meaning in Jewish ritual is a blessing we should celebrate, not a practice we should bemoan.” Rather than condemn Christian seders, Moffic continued, concerned Jews should work to “bring in rabbis and other knowledgeable Jews who can help facilitate them.”

Similarly, Mark Silk, a Jewish professor of religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., underscored that the increasing popularity of Christian seders is okay with him. In a piece for the Religion News Service, Silk argued that it is both impossible and unreasonable to demand that Christians avoid Jewish traditions: “Christians started off as Jews, and if we started to ask them to strip away all the Jewish textual and liturgical and theological appropriations they’ve made over the years, there wouldn’t be a lot left of the religion.”

Perspectives from the Christian world

The Christian community is also divided over the practice and the question of how Christians should go about exploring Jesus’ Jewish roots. Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy, a Christian woman married to a Jewish man, argued in a piece for the Religion Dispatches website that “Christians celebrating their own Passover do unwitting harm to the Jewish people because they ignore centuries of persecution of Jews” and treat their Jewish neighbors “as relics rather than people.”

Reverend Ann Fontaine, an Episcopalian priest, agreed. In a piece for the Episcopal Cafe website, Fontaine warned that this practice is “ripping off the spirituality of others.” Fontaine challenged her co-religionists: “How can those of us who have not walked the path of another tradition, and lived with the oppression and violence [they have endured], skim off the cream of an ‘interesting’ ritual?”

Journalist Rich Barlow, who has attended seders at his Catholic church, had a different view. In an op-ed for WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station, Barlow argued that “sharing customs like the seder, if done properly, might promote some desperately needed interfaith understanding.” 

He further argued that “today’s cultural appropriation police engage in overkill” and that borrowing from other cultures can have important benefits, concluding, “One person’s appropriation can be another’s cultural sharing, and people are better for sharing cultures.”

The bottom line

After exploring the world of Christian seders, we realized that this topic is more complex than we initially thought. Not all Christian Passover seders are alike, and we understand the desire of many Christians to learn more about Judaism. Our warm conversation with Pastor Holladay — and the sense of hope it left us with for promoting compassion between the two religions — added a human element to our understanding of this topic. At the same time, we are reminded that the question of Evangelical Christian support for Judaism and Israel is complex. As some churches continue to hold Passover seders, we believe an approach rooted in sensitivity, empathy and mutual understanding is key for both the Christian and Jewish communities.

Need inspiration for Passover? These 18 things will inspire you.

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