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He Who is Coming
The Hidden Afikoman

by Paul Sumner

"Messiah our Passover has been sacrificed.
Let us therefore celebrate the Feast."

(1 Corinthians 5:7-8)

"I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God,
the One Coming into the world."

(John 11:27)

  Near the beginning of a traditional Passover Seder, a piece of matzah is broken in half. The larger of the two pieces is hidden away in linen cloth until the end of the meal. When it is brought back from concealment it is shared by everyone at the table as their final morsel. This broken and hidden piece of matzah is called the afikoman.

The ceremony and the name afikoman are shrouded in mystery.

None of it is explained in the Haggadah for Passover. Nor is it mentioned in Scripture. The term afikoman appears first in the Mishnah (the earliest collection of rabbinic legal rulings, codified around 200 CE/AD) in tractate Pesahim (10:8). [ 1 ] Although afikoman is written in Hebrew letters, it is actually a Greek word.

Jewish historians disagree why a Greek term entered the Passover liturgical tradition or what it means. One historian said, "It is of uncertain etymology." But others say it is derived from epikomoi ("dessert") or from epi komon (a call for after dinner pastime, entertainment), or from epikomion ("festal song"). [ 2 ]

Over the centuries, its meaning was lost — or deliberately forgotten.

Deeper Significance
In 1925 an Austrian scholar named Robert Eisler argued that at the time of Yeshua the afikoman was originally part of an established messianic ritual observed during the Passover.

He said the whole piece of matzah held up at the beginning of the meal represented all Israel, while the broken-off portion stood for the longed-for Messiah. When the hidden afikoman emerged from concealment at the end of the Seder, it symbolized the coming of the Messiah in the midst of his people. [ 3 ] [On whether there were 2 or 3 matzahs used during the meal, see Note 4 below.]

Eisler's Thesis
• Whole matzah = all Israel
• Broken, hidden piece = Messiah
According to Eisler, this symbolic ritual was already being observed by at least some (if not most) Jews in the first century at the time of Yeshua. The ritual thus predated him.

Eisler's thesis was vehemently criticized by prominent Jewish and Christian scholars who tried to suppress the publication of his sequel article in 1926. They failed. But his research lay dormant for forty years until 1966.

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The Uncovery
In his book He That Cometh (1966), Professor David Daube, a Jewish biblical and legal scholar at Oxford University, revived Eisler's proposal and provided more significant documentation for the thesis. [ 5 ]

Daube argued that the word afikoman had nothing to do with "dessert," but came from the Greek verb afikomenos which means "the Coming One" or "He who has come." [ 6 ]

Daube said the Passover meal long had a messianic tone to it. And the afikoman matzah glowed with a special aura. He believed this was because it symbolized the expected Messiah. [ 7 ] The afikoman energized the Seder with a deep sense of expectancy: the hope of an even greater, future Passover redemption.

Appropriately, this matzah was the last thing eaten at the meal. Daube believed that the unleavened bread that Yeshua gave to his disciples at the last Passover meal was actually an afikoman.

Thus, when Yeshua lifted the unleavened bread and said, "Take, eat; this is my body," he was in effect saying: "This broken and hidden matzah, which has for our people symbolized the Messiah, is fulfilled in me. I myself am the Afikoman — the Coming One — whom you expect." [ 8 ]

Daube discusses the declaration in Sanhedrin 98b–99a (attributed to Hillel): "There will be no Messiah for Israel, since they have already enjoyed him during the reign of Hezekiah." (Hezekiah was king during the time of Isaiah in the 8th cent. BCE.) What's striking in this Talmudic passage is that the word "enjoyed" is literally "ate" (achal). To eat the Messiah? [He That Cometh, p. 2]

The implication of Eisler's thesis — and Daube's added validation — is clear: Yeshua took an existing Jewish messianic-prophetic tradition and used it as an opportunity for self-revelation. He was uniting himself with his people into "one loaf" and fulfilling their messianic hopes.

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Submerged Stream
This messianic symbolism and ritual were eventually lost to Jewish tradition.

Daube (himself a Jew) suggests the linguistic origin of afikoman may have been deliberately distorted by the rabbis. Hence, later definitions "dessert" and "after-dinner entertainment" were put forth to cover the duplicity. Or the messianic symbolism of the ritual was suppressed by later rabbinic commentators because the "messiah" didn't arrive.

In other words, because Yeshua's Jewish disciples perpetuated the old customs about the afikoman, official Judaism abandoned them.

This was (and continues to be) a common rabbinic tactic for treating perceived heresy. Whatever gave credence to Yeshua's claims must either be reinterpreted or rejected altogether. [ 9 ]

Similarly, in the later gentilized Christian church, the original Passover background to the "Lord's Supper" ( 1 Cor 11:20) was obscured by two forces.

One was Emperor Constantine's edict in AD 325 that Christians must have nothing to do with "the odious Jews" by commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus when Jews observed Passover.

The second compelling force was the heated discussions in the church about Transubstantiation and the efficacy of the sacrament.

In time, the messianic (i.e., Jewish) symbolism in the Seder and Afikoman disappeared in the Church behind the Eucharist and the Host, Communion and the Breaking of Bread.

• Paul Sumner

Readers may wish to read this article on the Afikoman in Russian translation: ТОТ, КТО ПРИХОДИТ (ИЛИ СПРЯТАННЫЙ АФИКОМАН).

Readers may wish to read a reconstruction of a 1st century Seder in The Last Passover of Yeshua [PDF].

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NOTES

1 — This Mishnah passage on the afikoman is discussed later in the Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 119b-120a (also 86a):

See also Mekilta, tractate Pischa [Passover] 18.122-30. [return to text]


2 — For discussions about the afikoman see for example: "Epikoman," Herbert Danby, Mishnah, Pesachim 10:8 (Oxford Univ. Press, 1933), p. 151 n. 9; "Afikomen," Jewish Encyclopedia (1901), 1:224; "Afikoman," Encyclopædia Judaica, 2:330; Cecil Roth, The Haggadah (London: Soncino, 1934), pp. viii, 15; Philip Birnbaum, The Birnbaum Haggadah (New York: Hebrew Pub. Co., 1953, 1976), p. 69.
      Marcus Jastrow lists these definitions from Jewish literature: "after-meal entertainment; things belonging to the after-meal, dessert; fruits, sweet-meats, nuts, dates, etc." (Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature [1903], p. 104).

Liddell & Scott's classical Greek—English Lexicon defines epikomios as "a festal procession," belonging to a komos (the preposition epi can denote "after"). A komos meant "jovial festivity with music and dancing; revel, merry-making." In time, public komoi honored several gods, esp. Bacchus; then they were held in honor of sports heroes. In my view, it's unthinkable that Jews would adopt a Greek word that connoted Bacchanalian revelry into their celebration of the Festival of Pesach.
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3 — Robert Eisler's two-part article, entitled "Das Letzte Abendmahl" [The Final Supper], appeared in the journal Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft [ZNW] Vol. 24 (1925): 161-92 and Vol. 25 (1926): 5-37. [return to text]

4 — In contemporary Jewish custom, three matzahs (matzot) are used during the meal. The middle matzah is taken from the stack of three for the afikoman. Why three? Tradition says they represent the ancient Priests, the Levites, and all Israel. This is a later innovation; it is not mentioned in the tractates on Passover in either the Mishnah or the Talmud.

Some Christian interpreters see in the Middle Matzah a symbol of Jesus (who was broken, hidden away, then returns in the distant future), the "middle" or second person of the Trinity. The NT does not mention multiple pieces of unleavened bread. It only says Yeshua "took bread."

In his book "The Temple" (1874), Alfred Edersheim (1825—1889) suggests that there were originally only two matzot used in a Seder at the time of Yeshua. In chap. 12 ("The Paschal Feast and the Lord's Supper") he reconstructs the meal and notes:

"From the time of the evening-sacrifice nothing was to be eaten till the Paschal Supper, so that all might come to it with relish. It is a moot point, whether at the time of our Lord two, or as at present, three, large cakes of unleavened bread were used in the service." (p. 237)

"Hands were now washed a second time, with the same prayer as before, and one of the two unleavened cakes broken and 'thanks given.' " (p. 241)

[
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5 — Daube's proposal first appeared in his book He That Cometh (London, 1966, pp. 6-14). For a discussion of his work see D. Carmichael, "David Daube on the Eucharist and the Passover Seder," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 42 (1991): 45-67. See also Daube's related study on Passover-NT links in "The Earliest Structure of the Gospels," New Testament Studies 5 (1959): 174-87.
      Eric Werner also says afikomenos may allude to the Passover afikoman ("Melito of Sardes, the First Poet of Deicide," Hebrew Union College Annual 37 [1966]: 205-6). [
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6 — The verb afikomenos appears to be a perfect middle-passive participle (masculine singular nominative) of afikneomai (Liddell & Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon). This form does not occur in the Septuagint, but it appears in the so-called "Christian Passover Haggadah" of Melito of Sardis in the 2d century. There Melito calls the Christos, "This one who is coming out of heaven [houtos afikomenos ex ouranon] to the earth" (Melitonos Peri Pascha, On the Passover §66).

The verb afikneomai can be translated "to arrive at or to reach." Thus, the Afikoman-Messiah is the one who arrives or finally reaches his destination.

The NT attributes the title "Coming One" to Yeshua, verifying that it was a messianic moniker:

"[John's disciples] said to him, 'Are you the Coming One, or shall we look for someone else?' " (Matt 11:3)

"When the people saw the sign he did, they said, 'Truly, this is the Prophet, the One Coming into the world.' " (John 6:14)

"[Martha said to him], 'I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the One Coming into the world.' " (John 11:27)

" 'The One Coming from above is over all.' " (John 3:31)

"Amen. Come, Adon Yeshua." (Rev 22:20)

The verb used in these texts is erchomenos (from erchomai), not afikneomai. The Hebrew equivalent is ha-Ba ("Coming One"), a title based partly on Psalm 118:26: "Blessed is the One Coming in the name of the LORD."


[barukh haba beshem YHVH]

The "HaBa" in verse is assigned to Yeshua in Matt 21:9; 23:39; Luke 13:35. Erchomenos also echoes the Septuagint version of Habakkuk 2:3b:

"Though he should tarry, wait for him,
for he will surely come [erchomenos] and will not tarry."
In Revelation 1:8 and 4:8, God is known as "the one who is, the one who was, and the coming one [ho erchomenos]." Like his Messiah Son, the Father God is always coming to his people. [
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7 — Note the article on this website: Predictions of Messiah's Coming in Jewish Literature [PDF]. [return to text]

8 — Notice Paul's words: "As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes [erchomai]" (1 Corinthians 11:26). [return to text]

9 — In contrast, the "Messianic Rule" (1QSa) from the Dead Sea Scrolls reflects light here. This 1st cent. BCE text describes how an "anointed one of Israel" (Heb, mashiach yisrael) — whom "God begets" (yolid) — will gather a community of at least ten men for "the common table" of bread and new wine. He "shall extend his hand over the bread" and the congregation "shall utter a blessing" (1QSa=1Q28a 2:11-12, 14, 20-21).
      Though the text breaks off here, it shows that bread and wine were early used within a close-knit Jewish community presided over by someone whom the group considered anointed by God. [
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