21 September 2017

Guess who’s coming for Passover…

At the Passover Seder, the memorial meal they share to commemorate the greatest event in their calendar, Jewish families follow an order of service or Haggadah in which the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and its significance is recounted through stories, songs, questions and symbolic actions. The Passover Seder is a multi-sensory teaching experience developed over the centuries to inculcate the meaning of the Exodus from Egypt in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people through sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

The Seder table is laden with symbolic items such as candles, cups of wine, bitter herbs, raw horseradish, a roasted egg, the shank bone of a lamb and three pieces of matzah or unleavened bread. Early in the Seder, a mysterious ritual takes place in which the middle matzah, called the afikomen, is broken and the larger half hidden away. At the end of the meal the afikomen is eaten as a dessert.

‘The Coming One’

Jewish tradition sees the three matzah as symbolic of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the three divisions of the Jewish people (the priests, the Levites and the people) or even the three measures of fine meal from which Sarah baked bread for the three angelic visitors who, according to tradition arrived at Abraham’s tent on the night of Passover. M a n y Messianic Jews see the afikomen as a type of the second Person of the Godhead who died and was buried but who returned from the grave. The term afikomen appears in neither the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament. The earliest occurrence of the word occurs in The Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic legal rulings codified at the beginning of the third century AD. Tractate Pesahim 10:8 of the Mishnah reads: ‘… no food may be eaten after the [matzah afikomen]’.

Although there is disagreement over what the word actually means, most scholars agree that afikomen is a Greek word. Some think the term is derived from the Greek word for ‘dessert’, epikomoi. Others suggest it comes from epi komon, a call for after dinner entertainment, while others think it derives from epikomion, a ‘festival song’.

In 1925, the German scholar Robert Eisler proposed that the afikomen was part of the Passover observed by Jews at the time of Jesus and that the broken matzah represented the Messiah. Eisler’s thesis was largely forgotten until 1966 when David Daube, a Jewish scholar at Oxford University, produced evidence to support Eisler’s theory. Daube argued that the term afikomen was derived from afikomenos meaning ‘the Coming One’ or ‘He who has come’ and that the ‘Coming One’ was none other than the Messiah.

Desperately expecting Messiah

Daube argued that the unleavened bread Jesus broke at the Last Supper was the afikomen and that when Jesus announced, ‘This is my body’, He was making use of an existing tradition to reveal himself as the Messiah. As the Church became increasingly Gentile and lost sight of its Jewish roots, the Passover elements of the ‘Lord’s Supper’ – including the afikomen – became submerged under heated discussions about Transubstantiation and the ‘Real Presence’.

None of this explains how, why or when the afikomen was introduced into the Passover. If the breaking of the middle matzah was an established part of the Seder ritual at the time of Jesus, why and when was it introduced?

Christians are so used to the terms ‘Christ’ and ‘Messiah’ they tend to forget that in our English versions of the Hebrew Scriptures (apart from some translations of Daniel 9) the term ‘Messiah’ is absent. However, from the very first page of the New Testament ‘the Messiah’ (‘Christ’ in most of our English translations) is on virtually every page. As we read the Gospels, it is clear that in the first century there was intense Messianic expectation:

What think ye of Christ? whose son is he? They say unto him, The Son of David. (Mt 22:42)

Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? (Mark 14:61)

This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was? So there was a division among the people because of him. (John 7:40-43)

What had happened to create the atmosphere of intense Messianic expectancy that existed at the time of Jesus? To answer that question, we must turn to the book of Daniel.

The fourth kingdom

In Daniel 2, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon dreams about a colossal statue made of gold, silver, bronze and iron. The four metals represented four kingdoms, of which Nebuchadnezzar’s was the first and finest. Verse 44 states: ‘And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed … and it shall stand for ever.’

One of the greatest Jewish biblical commentators, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, interpreted Daniel 2:44 in this way:

‘When the kingdom of Rome is still in existence … The kingdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, which will never be destroyed … will crumble and destroy all these kingdoms.’

In the first century, Israel was occupied by the Romans and there was great messianic expectancy among the Jews because Rome was the final kingdom of Daniel’s quartet of empires and the kingdom of God had to be established while the final kingdom was in existence. A number of messiahs rose up, the most famous of whom was Shimon bar Kochba but two others are mentioned in Acts 5:36f and in the works of the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.

In the Jewish division of the books of the Bible, the book of Daniel is found in Ketuvim, the ‘Writings’, which includes Psalms, Ecclesiastes and the two books of Chronicles. In spite of Daniel’s exclusion from the prophetic section of the Jewish Bible and from the synagogue readings, a rabbinic ruling reveals that Daniel is indeed a prophetic book. The Talmudic tractate Megillah informs us that ‘the Targum of the Prophets was composed by Jonathan ben Uzziel under the guidance of the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi and that ben Uzziel sought to reveal the inner meaning of Ketuvim, the section of the Bible that includes the book of Daniel. However, says Megillah 3a, a voice from heaven, forbade ben Uzziel to reveal the inner meaning of the Ketuvim because in it ‘the date of the Messiah is foretold’!

The ancient Jewish Flavius Josephus records, ‘Daniel … did not only prophecy of future events, as did the other prophets, but also determined the time of their accomplishment’. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 10, ch 11:7)

Back to the future

To this day, Passover is linked in Jewish thinking to the coming of the Messiah. At every Passover Seder, a place is set at the table for Elijah, the forerunner of Messiah, and at the end of the meal, after the afikomen has been eaten, the children are sent to the door to see if Elijah is coming.

At the time of Jesus, Messianic fervour was particularly high during Passover, the festival that commemorated the redemption from Egypt. And there was good reason why this should have been so. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah had foretold a second Exodus that would be even greater than the deliverance from Egypt. Isaiah 40- 55, for example, reveals that as God redeemed his people from Egypt, leading them through the desert by the hand of His servant Moses, he would lead them again through the desert by the hand of a greater Servant.

Josephus records that at Passover anti-Roman feeling ran higher than usual and that the Romans always had a full contingent of soldiers present to quell any riots. With the great groundswell of messianic hope, this would surely be the time for the rabbis to introduce the afikomen into the Passover to reinforce the expectation that Israel’s redemption was near. (cf Lk 2:25 and 24:21)

When Christians partake of the Lord’s Supper they not only remember the death of the Lord Jesus but also look forward to the final phase of redemption, the return of Jesus. This looking back in anticipation of the future was a feature of the Passover. From the time the afikomen was introduced into the Seder, Passover not only looked back but also forward. The festival was no longer a memorial of deliverance past; it encouraged the Jewish people to look forward to an even greater deliverance.

This knowledge should enhance Christian appreciation for the Lord’s Supper. The bread we break is the equivalent of the middle matzah which Jesus called his ‘body’. While the Jewish people eat the afikomen with no knowledge of its significance, Christians eat it in remembrance of the one who has come and will come again. The next time we participate of the body of the Lord, let us pray that the veil which remains over the hearts and minds of the Jewish people will be removed so they may see that, according to their prophets and even some of their greatest sages, Messiah has come.

Mike Moore