TAMPA — As they gather around the dinner table tonight to commemorate Good Friday, the food set before them will hold special meaning.
This year, members of Northside Bible Church in Lutz will eat matzo, bitter herbs, saltwater and parsley — all foods served at a traditional Jewish seder.
Northside's pastor, Dan Coggins, calls their meal Seder 60 A.D. In addition to celebrating Easter, the congregation will observe Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jews' exodus from slavery in Egypt.
"Jesus observed Passover," Coggins said. "Why can't we?"
Coggins' interpretation of Passover is decidedly Christian. Celebrations like his are at the center of a national debate among Christians and Jews about how believers should observe Passover, the eight-day holiday that began Wednesday at sundown.
Many scholars from both faith traditions have no problem with Christians observing Passover in accordance with Jewish tradition. But some Christians have incorporated their own faith traditions, upsetting scholars who say they are disrespecting Passover's true meaning and passing along inaccurate teachings.
"There are limits," said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which is based in Chicago. "I am vehemently opposed to Christians usurping the Jewish traditions by taking the seder and giving it new Christological meaning."
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As part of the traditional Passover celebration, Jews hold a special dinner the first two nights of the holiday called a seder. Attendees retell the exodus story through prayer, song and the eating of symbolic foods. Bitter herbs, for example, bring to mind the suffering of the Jewish slaves under their Egyptian captors.
Some theologians say that Jesus Christ's last meal was a seder. With that in mind, Coggins set out years ago to learn more about the traditional meal.
He attended several seders as a guest of Jewish friends. He soon wondered how Jesus and his followers might have celebrated the holiday in their days.
Coggins began to hold seders. At first, they were almost identical to Jewish seders. He even used the Maxwell House Haggadah prayer book.
But then he made some changes.
"Jesus is the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice," he said. "I changed it so that I can teach early church history and also get more of a look back at how the Lord's Table originated."
Now, in addition to retelling the Jews' exodus from Egypt, Coggins' seder includes teachings on Jesus, the Zealots, the Galatians, and the disciples Paul and Mark. Bucking tradition, the evening's entree will be lamb. The seder will also include a ceremonial washing of the feet.
Other bay area churches have explored Passover celebrations.
All Saints Lutheran Church in Lutz holds "teaching seders."
At Paula White Ministries in Tampa, Passover is a fundraising tool. In a recent mass mailing, White asks for donations so that believers may "actively participate in Passover by pleading the blood, honoring God through … offering and celebrating …redemption through Holy Communion."
Most theologians do not believe the holiday is about Jesus Christ, and many question the validity and the appropriateness of a Christian seder.
"The celebration of the seder is not a ritual that Christians regularly include in their books of worship, whether we are talking about Catholics, Protestants, or Orthodox Christians," said Ben Witherington III, a New Testament professor at the Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. "It is a Jewish celebration for Jews and always has been."
Other Christian scholars say there is no harm in Christians holding seders. They believe the meal is the origin of all Christian Eucharistic celebrations and that any forum where Christians can recall their Jewish roots is positive.
But some Jewish scholars say there is cause for concern.
Rabbi Michael J. Cook, a professor of Judaeo-Christian Studies and Intertestamental and Early Christian Literature at Hebrew Union College, said Christian seders are not authentically Jewish and should carry a different label.
"Seders suffused with Christian theology are changing Passover's perception by the popular culture," Cook said. "The Jewish origins of Passover have been totally effaced."
Cook said Christian seders are part of a disturbing trend that includes missionary Christians, who exploit Passover as a way to woo Jews to Christianity.
As he prepares for his church's seder in Tampa, Coggins insists that his church's celebration is simply a continuation of a long story that is a part of Christian history.
"God has always had a plan to redeem fallen mankind pictured in the shedding of blood, in Eden, in the flood, in Egypt at Passover, in the wilderness," he said, "And the final pinnacle is when Christ was crucified for our sins."