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Supersession or Subsession? Exodus Typology, the Christian Eucharist and the Jewish Passover Meal

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 January 2013

Matthew Myer Boulton*
Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, IN 46208,


Contemporary Christian construals of the Eucharist, both in doctrine and in practice, generally tend to subordinate, de-emphasise or omit theological reference to the Jewish Passover meal. And yet the key New Testament texts in which the Eucharist's institution is variously narrated – the very texts and institution allegedly ‘remembered’ in eucharistic rites – are virtually unintelligible apart from Passover. Thus, at the heart of Christian doctrine and practical life sits a particular theological problem: namely, precisely how to relate the distinctively Jewish character of the Eucharist's origins as narrated in the New Testament to the distinctively Christian character of eucharistic doctrine and liturgy. Drawing on two Jewish thinkers, Michael Fishbane and Yair Zakovitch, in this article I offer one model for understanding the Eucharist–Passover relationship in particular, and the Christian–Jewish relationship generally, as fundamentally typological, performative and ‘subsessionist’. That is, I propose a subsessionist (as opposed to supersessionist) typological understanding of the Eucharist as a Christian rendition of Passover, at once distinct from its Jewish counterparts today and utterly dependent on the ancient Israelite festival for its intelligibility and force. From Fishbane, I draw the idea that throughout the Hebrew Bible, the exodus narrative provides a crucial interpretative key applicable to both prior and anticipated redemptions. From Zakovitch, I draw the idea that the ubiquity of exodus typology in Hebrew scripture may function to create an impression of periodic repetition in salvation history, in effect reassuring Israel that future deliverance will conform to the essential patterns of the prestigious past. The typology at play here, then, so far from being a triumphalist ‘prophecy-fulfilment’ arrangement in which the ‘old’ is valuable only insofar as it serves as a signpost pointing to the ‘new’, is rather a ‘paradigm-rendition’ typology in which the new performance is clarified and authenticated precisely insofar as it corresponds to the old, exalted original. At stake here, I contend, is not only a more fruitful framework for conceiving the relationship between Eucharist and Passover (or indeed between Christianity and Judaism), but also a crucial theological strategy for resisting what amounts to a de facto Marcionism in contemporary Christian communities.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2013

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1 Obama for America, Change We Can Believe In (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2008), pp. 195, 201Google Scholar.

2 The opening line of the New York Times’ coverage is representative: ‘Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, standing before the Old State Capitol where Abraham Lincoln began his political career, announced his candidacy for the White House on Saturday. . .’ See Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zaleny, ‘Obama Formally Enters Presidential Race’, New York Times, 11 Feb. 2007.

3 For the purposes of this article, we can bracket the important historical question of just how ‘against slavery’ Lincoln actually was, or in what ways he was against it, since the point is that in Lincoln's ‘house divided’ speech, he explicitly had slavery in view – and even more, that in US national mythology today, Lincoln is typically considered the anti-slavery figure among presidents.

4 Examples of Christian supersessionist approaches to typology are innumerable; a line from Erich Auerbach's classic 1944 essay, ‘Figura’, sums up the set: ‘The Old Testament, both as a whole and in its more important details, is a concrete historical prefiguration of the Gospel’. See Auerbach, , Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 44Google Scholar. Indeed, the sheer prevalence of this view and its variations has led many recent interpreters to flatly define Christian typology itself as a supersessionist form of figural reading. See e.g. Biddick, Kathleen, who puts it this way: ‘Christian typology posits the theological supersession of the Christian Church over Israel’. Biddick, The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), p. 4Google Scholar.

5 See e.g. Meier, John P.'s multivolume series, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1991, 1994, 2001, 2009)Google Scholar; Levine, Amy-Jill, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006)Google Scholar; and Chilton, Bruce, Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2000)Google Scholar.

6 Fishbane, Michael, ‘The “Exodus” Motif/The Paradigm of Historical Renewal’, in Biblical Text and Texture: A Literary Reading of Selected Texts (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1998), p. 121Google Scholar.

7 Ibid., p. 122.

8 Ibid., p. 123.

9 Ibid., p. 140.

10 Ibid., p. 126.

12 Ibid., p. 133.

13 Ibid., p. 129.

14 Zakovitch, Yair, ‘And You Shall Tell Your Son . . .’: The Concept of Exodus in the Bible (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1991), p. 9Google Scholar.

15 Ibid., p. 46.

16 Ibid., p. 60.

17 Ibid., p. 20.

18 See e.g. Exod 4:22–3, 5:1 and the periodic refrain beginning at 7:16: ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness”’ – a goal fulfilled in Exod 24 in the blood ceremony of covenant ratification. In that rite, Moses first reads from ‘the book of the covenant’ – i.e. the book containing ‘all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances’ (24:7, 3) – and then dashes sacrificial blood on the people, saying, ‘See the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with these words’ (24:8).

19 For further discussion, see Senn, Frank C., ‘Should Christians Celebrate the Passover?’, in Bradshaw, Paul F. and Hoffman, Laurence A. (eds), Passover and Easter: The Symbolic Structuring of Sacred Seasons (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

20 See Yuval, Israel Jacob, Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006)Google Scholar and ‘Easter and Passover as Early Jewish-Christian Dialogue’, in Bradshaw and Hoffman, Passover and Easter.

21 Auerbach, Erich, Memesis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953), p. 12Google Scholar.

22 For variations on this hermeneutical approach, see e.g. Ellen F. Davis, ‘Critical Traditioning: Seeking an Inner Biblical Hermeneutic’, and Hays, Richard B., ‘Reading Scripture in Light of the Resurrection’, in Davis, Ellen F. and Hays, Richard B. (eds), The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003)Google Scholar; Moberly, R. W. L., The Bible, Theology and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus (Cambridge: CUP, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Lindbeck, George, ‘Postmodern Hermeneutics and Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Case Study’, in Frymer-Kensky, Tikvaet al. (eds), Christianity in Jewish Terms (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000)Google Scholar.