One of the greatest works of art of all time is Leonardo de Vinci’s portrayal of the Last Supper in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan. Unfortunately it is woefully inaccurate from a historic point of view! The painting depicts Jesus and his disciples sitting on chairs at a long rectangular table. Through the windows in the background we catch a glimpse of a mid-afternoon pastoral scene. The disciples are all pasty-faced Europeans and they are eating bread rolls and what looks suspiciously like fish or perhaps chicken.
We know of course that the Passover meal started at sundown, around six in the evening, and that any view from the windows would, in all likelihood, be dark. The disciples were all nut-brown Semites, and they would have been eating lamb and unleavened flat-breads. All this is relatively inconsequential. However, the table layout seriously detracts from our understanding of what was actually happening when Jesus shared his last supper with his disciples that fateful Passover night.
At the time of the Last Supper, meals of that sort were customarily held at a U-shaped table (triclinium) popularised by the Romans. The tables were low and the guests sat on cushions with their feet behind them as they lent on the table with one arm. The positioning of the people around that table was most significant. The person who arranged the meal would sit at the end of the one arm. Next to him would be the host and on his left was the place of honour where the most favoured guest was seated. Seats for the other guests would be allocated in order of their importance, the least worthy of all being placed at the end of the opposite arm of the table.
With this basic knowledge of the customs of the day and drawing from biblical evidence we can reconstruct the table seating arrangements for that “Last Supper”. Jesus had sent Peter and John to prepare the Passover meal (Luke 22:8) and so one of them would have been seated to the right of the host, Jesus. The logical choice would have been Peter because Jesus had already identified him as the future leader of the church. However, John identifies himself as the disciple who leaned back against Jesus at the Last Supper (John 21:20) so that would have placed him to the right of Jesus at the table. Where was Peter sitting then? From the sequence in which Jesus washed the disciples’ feet it seems that Peter was probably right at the other end of the table, in the place of least importance. Jesus had taught his disciples that they should not aspire to the seats of honour at the table but should take the least important place in the hope that the host would invite them to move up to a better place and thereby honour them before the other guests. When Peter saw that John was sitting at the top of the table it is quite likely that he would have made a show of going to the least important place. John 13:21-25 backs this up where it records the following; ‘Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.” His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.” Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” In order to gesture to John and make himself heard Peter was probably at the other end of the u-shaped table, directly opposite to where Jesus and John sat.
How Jesus answered John is very significant indeed. He said, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon.’ (John 13:26-27). It was customary for the host to honour his special guest by offering him the first portion of the meal, a piece of bread dipped in the lamb stew. This means that the guest of honour was none other than Judas, the great betrayer! (Seated in the place of honour next to Jesus.) What grace the Lord Jesus displayed! Knowing that Judas was to betray him and that the other disciples looked down upon him and had accused him of embezzling the groups funds, Jesus still honoured him in this way. Only Jesus could do that!
If you have any texts that you believe are misunderstood because of a lack of historical or cultural context then please comment so that we can all benefit.