Scholars have often wondered how the practice of Christian Eucharist could have arisen from the Lord’s Supper, which occurred in the context of the Jewish Passover. Since Passover occurs only once a year, how is it that the Christians got the notion that they could celebrate Jesus’ sacrificial meal weekly, if not daily?
The Last Supper
The answer is found in the ancient Israelite sacrifice called the todah.
While most people have heard of Old Testament sacrifices such as the holocaust offering or burnt offering, those who have heard of the todah sacrifice are as rare as lotto winners. Today's ignorance concerning the todah, however, should not imply that it was unimportant to the Jews. Far from it. The todah was one of the most significant sacrifices of the Jews.
Indeed, an old Rabbinic teaching says: "In the coming Messianic age all sacrifices will cease, but the thank offering [todah] will never cease."(1) What is it about this sacrifice that makes it stand alone in such a way that it would outlast all other sacrifices after the redemption of the Messiah?
A todah sacrifice would be offered by someone whose life had been delivered from great peril, such as disease or the sword. The redeemed person would show his gratitude to God by gathering his closest friends and family for a todah sacrificial meal. The lamb would be sacrificed in the Temple and the bread for the meal would be consecrated the moment the lamb was sacrificed. The bread and meat, along with wine, would constitute the elements of the sacred todah meal, which would be accompanied by prayers and songs of thanksgiving, such as Psalm 116.
What does the word "todah" mean? It is Hebrew for "thanksgiving," although it also connotes a confession of praise in addition to gratitude. For example, Leah gave thanks to God when she bore her fourth son, and so she named him yehudah — or Judah — which is the verbal form of todah — to give thanks.
There are many examples in the Old Testament of people offering todah — thanks — to God. Jonah, while in the belly of the whale, vows to offer up a todah sacrifice in the Temple if he is delivered (cf. Jon. 2:3-10). King Hezekiah offers up a todah hymn upon recovering from a life-threatening illness (cf. Is. 38). However, the best example of todah sacrifice and song is found in the life of King David.
After David had defeated the last Canaanite stronghold, he decided to bring the ark of the covenant up to Jerusalem. The bringing of the ark to Jerusalem was the occasion of a great national todah festival. The sacrifices were "peace offerings," and the todah was the most important and common peace offering. All the elements of the todah were present. For example, David offered bread and wine along with the meat of the sacrifices (1 Chron. 16:3). Most importantly, David had the Levites lead the people in todah hymns, that is, psalms of thanksgiving (1 Chron. 16:8-36).
At this pivotal point in Israel's story, David not only changes the location of the ark, but he also transforms Israel's liturgy. At the todah celebration that brought the ark into Jerusalem, David gave the Levites a new mandate — their primary job was to "invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord" (1 Chron. 16:4). The Hebrew word for "invoke" is zakar, which literally means to remember — the noun form signifying "memorial" (zikkaron). One of the most important purposes of a todah meal was to remember the saving deeds of the Lord. Indeed, this is one of the functions of the todah psalms: to recount the mighty deeds of God (cf. Ps. 22:28).
We are also informed that "on that day David first appointed that thanksgiving [todah] be sung to the Lord by Asaph and his brethren" (1 Chron. 16:7). The Levites were to give thanks and praise to God "continually" (1 Chron. 16:37, 40). This perpetual adoration was to characterize the Temple liturgy as a todah liturgy — a liturgy of thanksgiving.(2)
The Psalter made up the heart of the hymns and prayers of the Temple liturgy. In light of David's appointing the Levites to give perpetual thanks, we can see why "the thank offering constituted the cultic basis for the main bulk of the Psalms."(3) The todah psalms have a twofold structure. First, although they may begin with thanks and praise, the first half of the song is largely a lament, where the psalmist recounts how his life was in peril. Then the psalmist recounts how God graciously heard his plea and brought about deliverance from death. Thus the second part of the song, or at least its conclusion, is usually taken up with giving thanks and praise to God.(4) So the movement of the todah psalms is from plight to praise — a movement that reflects Israel's movement from enslavement to exodus — while also looking forward to the paschal mystery of Our Lord.
Todah and Jesus
The importance of the todah as a backdrop for Jesus and the Last Supper comes into sharp focus when we realize that in Jesus' day the Greek word that would best translate the Hebrew todah was eucharistia, which also means "thanksgiving." From the earliest Christian sources we learn that the celebration of the Lord's meal, or what we call the Mass, was known by Christians as the Eucharist. After all, at the Last Supper Jesus took the bread and wine and gave "thanks" (eucharistia) over them (Luke 22:19).
The German biblical scholar Hartmut Gese claimed that the todah stands behind what Jesus did at the Last Supper. He goes so far as to argue that Jesus' giving thanks over the bread and wine came in the context of a todah sacrifice rather than a Passover meal. However, no other Scripture scholars have followed Gese's theory about the todah backdrop of Jesus' meal, because the evidence for the Passover in the Gospel narratives is overwhelming.
Here is where I would like to make an adjustment to Gese's theory. I think he is right to see the todah backdrop, but wrong to deny the larger Passover context. The solution to the seeming dilemma is actually quite easy. The Last Supper celebrated in the upper room is both a Passover and a todah meal. The Passover has all the same elements found in the todah: bread, wine, and sacrifice of a lamb, along with hymns and prayers. Indeed, the Hallel psalms (113-118), that were sung during the Passover meal were all todah psalms! The Exodus narrative itself has the basic contours of a todah hymn, with Israel in distress and lament calling out to the Lord (cf. Ex. 2:23-25), while the Lord in turn hears their cry and delivers them (cf. Ex. 6:5-7). The Passover has both the form and content of the todah, because it is a concrete example of a todah sacrifice.
Philo, a first-century Jew, describes the Passover as a festival of thanksgiving: "And this festival is instituted in remembrance of, and as giving thanks [eucharistia] for, their great migration which they made from Egypt."(5) Philo focuses here on two key reasons for the Passover: remembrance and thanksgiving (cf. Ex. 12:14, 13:3). Here again we must note how the Passover fits into the todah genre, for remembrance was one of the primary purposes of the todah. The Passover is Israel's corporate todah meal.
When Jesus takes the bread, breaks it, and declares thanksgiving (eucharistia), He is performing the key function of both the todah and Passover — giving thanks for deliverance. But here Jesus is not simply looking back at Israel's history of salvation, but forward to His death and Resurrection. In other words, Jesus is giving thanks to the Father for His love and for the new life to be granted in the Resurrection. Note that Jesus' words over the bread, His thanksgiving, is what the Christian tradition has focused upon — so that they could call every re-enactment of the Last Supper "Eucharist."
In the Eucharist, Christians give thanks for God's deliverance and remember how Jesus brought about the new exodus with His death and Resurrection. For Jesus had told them, "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). This act of remembrance is what the todah is all about — recalling in gratitude God's saving deeds. This leads us to one of the key fruits of a todah — or Eucharistic — spirituality: A deep sense of thankfulness leads to worship. Worship flows from gratitude; cut off from gratitude the will to worship withers.
The todah teaches us to trust God with a grateful heart. By "remembering" Jesus' gift of Himself upon the Cross our love for God is rekindled. Such "remembrance," which is the purpose of todah, leads to deeper trust. As the psalmist says, "Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the Lord our God" (Ps. 20:7). (6)
1. Taken from the Pesiqta as quoted in Hartmut Gese, Essays On Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1981), 133.
2. The prayers for the morning and evening sacrifice were characterized by the todah thanksgiving (1 Chron. 16:40-41). See also Allan Bouley's discussion of how the prayers at the morning and evening sacrifices included thanksgiving formulas in From Freedom to Formula: the Evolution of the Eucharistic Prayer from Oral Improvisation to Written Texts (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1981), 7-13.
3. Gese, 131.
4. Some examples from the multitude of todah psalms are Psalms 16, 18, 21, 32, 65, 100, 107, 116, 124, 136.
5. Philo, The Special Laws, II, 145. The Works of Philo, trans. by C.D. Young (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 582.
6. I use here the KJV translation of Psalm 20:7, which is closer to the Hebrew in my judgment.
Tim Gray. "From Jewish Passover to Christian Eucharist: The Story of the Todah." Lay Witness (Nov/Dec. 2002).
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
Scripture scholar Tim Gray is a member of CUF's board of directors. His book Sacraments in Scripture may be ordered by calling Emmaus Road Publishing toll-free at (800) 398-5470. CUF members receive a 10% discount.
Copyright © 2002 LayWitness