The Bible is full of customs, traditions, and rituals. Many Jewish cultural practices seem unusual to the rest of the world. But the gospels read by millions of non-Jews today are full of these peculiar traditions. Take the most fundamental of gospel passages, the bread, and the cup, the cornerstone of Christian practice. It originates from deeply ethnic Jewish custom.
In the passion narratives after the last supper, Jesus ascends the Mount of Olives with his disciples. They are in the garden at night-time. Amidst the olive trees as he prays to God about what is to come. It is a moment of agony and Jesus is visibly uneasy. He has no doubts, but in his humanity, he struggles with what is approaching.
He says “remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:29, Luke 22:42) In Matthew’s story he says, “my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Mat. 26:39).
Is this just a quaint phrase or is there a deeper context behind it? Numerous Christian commentaries refer to this cup as the “cup of God’s wrath” citing Psalm 11:6 and Isaiah 51:17 as background passages. Jesus will take sin upon himself and will have to carry its weight. Similar ideas appear in another passage where Jesus asks his disciples “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38). In this context, the cup, of course, is an idiom that stands for what Jesus must endure, his future fate. Jesus is speaking about his death. Jesus predicted his sufferings and hinted to his disciples a number of times about his future.
But there is a rich cultural context and many ancient customs behind Jesus’ seemingly plain language. If you consider the setting of the feast of Passover as the timing of his comments, the cup that Jesus wished would pass may refer to a very particular cup dramatized during the formal Jewish Passover meal. There are disagreements among scholars about whether Jesus actually celebrated Passover with his disciples. Some claim that the last supper was just a meal before Passover and others insist on the Passover context. Regardless, Jesus kept repeating the phrase “this cup” and my hunch is that the first-century readers saw something more in this phrase because they were familiar with Jewish customs of the Passover meal.
Unfortunately, the majority of Jesus’s modern interpreters are not aware of how Passover was celebrated during the 1st century. But there are historical sources that share those cultural details. In Mishna, in Pesahim 10 (2nd century CE) the celebrants drink four cups of wine in remembrance of the four stages of God’s deliverance from Egypt. The cups and the symbolism behind them are inspired by the four promises of God found in Ex 6:6-7. The evidence from Jewish literature suggests that many of the Passover rituals explained in Mishna and both Talmuds existed long before the temple was destroyed. Some of them can be traced even in the gospel’s accounts.
For example, in Mishna, the third and the fourth cup of Passover are connected with the singing of הַלֵּל (hallel) “Praise” (Psalms 113-118).
“They mixed the third cup for him. He says a blessing for his food. [And at] the fourth, he completes the Hallel and says after it the grace of song” (m.Pesahim 10:4)
In Mark we read this -“Truly I say to you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Mark 14:25-26).
If the second-century custom, mentioned in this rabbinic text was already practiced in the days of Jesus then his enigmatic words make perfect sense. Jesus offered one of the four cups of Passover to his disciples as his blood. After that, he mentioned not drinking wine until he will drink it in God’s Kingdom. And they went up the mountain singing hymns from the book of Psalms. Thus his words in these verses may be related to the third and fourth cup. This is when the singing of Hallel songs traditionally occurs. It is very possible Jesus turned down the fourth cup just because this was the time for the third cup in his life. And the succession of cups has a particular symbolism in the Passover setting, which connects to his overall message.
His words in these verses may be related to the customs of the third and fourth cups. This is when the singing of Hallel songs traditionally occurs. It is very possible that Jesus turned down the fourth cup just because this was the time for the third cup in his life. And the succession of cups has a particular symbolism in the Passover setting, which connects to his overall message.
According to Rav Tarfon and Rav Akiva, quoted in Mishna, the third cup of the celebration was connected to God’s redemption of Israel. God redeemed Israel from slavery by his own right hand (Ex 6:6). Perhaps just as 2nd century Jews connected this cup with the last morsel of sacrificial lamb, so Jesus connected this third cup of Passover with his own death on Passover.
Could it be that this was the third cup of Passover that Jesus called the “cup of his blood”? He charged his disciples to remember it not just as the deliverance of Exodus but as his redemption, each time they drank it. This cup meant death to Jesus, but it also meant redemption for many. Is this the cup he saw himself drinking? Is this the cup he prayed about that it may pass in the garden?
Perhaps these explanations take some imagination and creativity. But they are all built on historical context, on the historically-attested culture and customs, on the language of that era. Understanding the intricacies of this colorful and rich celebration of Passover, knowing its customs helps us to understand Jesus’ words in context. These very cultural terms were no doubt familiar to his disciples, but to most modern followers of Jesus, they are foreign and strange.
Take it or leave it, but do not stay ignorant to the deep cultural context of many gospel passages. The rituals and customs of Israel provide a vivid means to understand Jesus’s words.