Easter celebrates the day when Jesus Christ rose from the dead. The biblical witness is that this took place on the third day, in a sequence which ran crucifixion, death and burial (first day)…at rest in the tomb (second day)…the discovery of the empty tomb and subsequent appearances of Jesus, risen from the dead (on the third day).
So the earliest tradition about Jesus claims: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Cor 15:3b-5).
Already in this earliest affirmation about the events of Easter, an explicit link is drawn with the traditions of the Hebrew Scriptures. There is debate as to which specific scriptures are in view (and the links needs to be made by interpretive argument, rather than standing as self-evident); but the connection with Jewish traditions is claimed from the earliest period.
It is in celebration of the resurrection of Jesus that the day he rose came to be known as Easter Sunday. According to some of the New Testament accounts, this resurrection occurred soon after the Jewish festival of Passover. The last meal of Jesus—in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke—took place at the feast of unleavened bread, the Passover eve Seder, when the liberation from slavery in Egypt was remembered by Jews. This was the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan.
These gospels claim that Jesus blessed the bread and broke it, and then related the broken bread to his body, which was to be broken or given for the sake of the world. He also blessed the wine and gave to those at table with him, indicating that the symbolism of the wine in relation to the covenant—the agreement sealed at Sinai, according to Israelite tradition—was now also to be related to his mission.
In one version of this last meal, his words link “the fruit of the vine” with the promise of the coming kingdom of God, but then he goes on to link it with “the new covenant in my blood”. In another version, the more unlikely claim—unlikely because it would be quite unlike what an ancient Jew would have thought or said—was that Jesus said “this wine is my blood of the covenant”. Whatever he said, these versions agree that this meal was a Passover meal. Jesus died the next day, on the fifteenth of Nisan.
It is important note, however, that the contents of this meal and the precise order of those contents can not be known with certainty; the Seder meal which Jews today celebrate each Passover is derived from medieval practices, so we cannot know for certain what transpired at the last meal,of Jesus and his followers. And Christians should not attempt to hold a Seder meal on Maundy Thursday; as well as being anachronistic, this practice actually claims and “Christianises” a ritual which is important to Jewish people.
Not all Gospels see the date of the last meal this way, however. The fourth Gospel, attributed to John, actually places the death of Jesus on the cross at the precise time that the lambs are being slain in preparation for the evening meal—that is, on the fourteenth of Nisan. In this version, Jesus dies on the fourteenth of Nisan, a day before the other versions claim. What was historically more feasible is hard to say. We just don’t know.
What is clear, however, is that embedded in the earliest stages of the evolving Christian tradition, is the notion that what took place in the death of Jesus was intricately linked with the Jewish Passover. Standing behind this claim is the inevitable unspoken text, with supercessionist undertones, which I might paraphrase as something like:
“what you celebrate, we celebrate too; what you remember as taking place, we recall as having occurred in a way that was more powerful, more significant, than what you remember; yes, God, at Passover, saved his people from slavery in Egypt; but we celebrate that God, in Jesus, saved all people who believe in Jesus from slavery to sin; his death on our behalf inaugurated a new covenant, by which God set people free to a new form of life, symbolized in the resurrection.”
As is often the case, indications of Christian triumphalism and supercessionism can be heard at the edges of the Easter story. The Christian faith emerged from the Jewish faith—but this does not mean that it ended the Jewish faith, that Christians superceded Jews as God’s chosen people, or any such assertion.
Easter is a time when Christians come closest to offending Jews with these kinds of claims. We need to take care not to pass these supercessionist ideas on when we preach at Easter. Indeed, we need to ensure that we value Jewish people, as people of living faith today, and relate to them with openness and honesty as our brothers and sisters in faith.