Who was at the Last Supper?

Last-SupperToday is Maundy Thursday in the Christian calendar, which commemorates when Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples the night before his crucifixion. Passover was one of the obligatory feasts when a large number of pilgrims would have been in Jerusalem. We have artists like Leonardo Da Vinci to thank for giving the impression that the ‘Last Supper’ was eaten at a table with Jesus seated in the centre, and with only his twelve closest disciples present. However, I think Da Vinci was wrong.

Some scholars dispute that the Last Supper was actually the Passover, although the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were unanimous that it was – Mark even specifies that it was on the day when the Passover lambs were sacrificed (Mark 14:12). This is disputed by some scholars on the basis that John 18:28 appears to contradict this with a statement that the Chief Priests claimed they would be “defiled” by entering the Roman governor’s court (on the Friday), and that defilement would make it impossible for them to eat the Passover later that day. This implies, it is argued, that Passover that year was on Friday night, not Thursday, and the ‘last supper’ was therefore held on the night before Passover. However, I think John’s account can easily be reconciled with the synoptic gospels if we accept that there was some overlap in the terminology related to the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread which was connected to it. There is evidence that in the first century CE Passover day and the week-long festival of unleavened bread which followed Passover were referred to collectively as “Passover”. John’s reference is most likely to the priests being unable to join in with the festival meals during the week-long “Passover” festival, and not to the Passover meal itself which had already happened the night before. Any other interpretation puts John in conflict with Matthew, Mark and Luke. If you’ve read any of my posts on contradictions in the Bible you will know that I don’t have a problem with contradictions per se. But not every “difficulty” has to be a contradiction, and some (many?) can easily be explained.

So I am going with the traditional view that the last supper was held on the Thursday night and that it was the Passover meal. According to Jewish tradition and law, it was necessary that the Passover meal be eaten indoors, in groups, and following procedures which were carefully laid down in the law and by tradition. Jerusalem on Passover night was a crowded city and space was at a premium. To find a vacant “large upper room” (Mark 14:15; Luke 22:12) in Jerusalem at Passover would have been well nigh on impossible as thousands of pilgrims from around the country (and around the world) would have been in Jerusalem for the occasion. It’s highly unlikely that at short notice they could have found a large room for the exclusive use of a dozen or so people. At best they would have arranged to have shared a large room, with other groups of between 10 and 20 people (the numbers specified by Jewish law). For several families or groups to have gathered together in one large room, and then to have eaten the meal around their individual tables was such a common practice that the Jewish Oral Law (the Mishnah) explained the procedure for such cases.

The book of the Acts of the Apostles refers to a gathering of 120 disciples “all together in one place” in Jerusalem a short time after (Acts 2:1). Elsewhere it refers to the Jerusalem church meeting at the home of John Mark (Acts 12:12) and there is some circumstantial evidence that the last supper was held in the same home (let me know if you’d like me to provide it).

It is extremely likely that Jesus and the Twelve celebrated Passover in a large room which could have accomodated 120 people. They probably shared the room with several other groups, possibly with other disciples, especially the ones who travelled around the country with them. This helps to explain why private conversations between Peter and John, John and Jesus, and Jesus and Judas , were not heard by the others present, because there would have been considerable background noise. So the idea often portrayed in artistic works like Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” that Jesus’ final meal with his disciples was a small, quiet, intimate meal is probably far from the truth. It’s more likely that it was held in a large, crowded, noisy room. For those commemorating Maundy Thursday this year, however, with the isolation imposed by Covid-19 restrictions, this will be an altogether different experience with tiny groups or just individuals, perhaps joining with others via the internet. Whatever you do, I hope it will be a meaningful time for you.

2 comments on “Who was at the Last Supper?

  1. Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for this interesting post. It had not occurred to me previously that Jesus and the Twelve may not have had exclusive use of the furnished upper room that is referred to. This is a possibility, points in favour being (as you mentioned) the extreme overcrowding in Jerusalem during the Passover season, and explaining background noise that would make it difficult to hear everyone’s conversations. However, there are also a couple points against. For one, the Gospels suggest an element of secrecy in Jesus’ arrangements for the meal. This is especially clear in Matthew, where the person (possibly a man-unusual!) carrying a water jug serves as a predetermined signal to convey the disciples to the location. Clearly Jesus did not want the meal to be interrupted either by the authorities or members of the public. This stands in favour of his arranging a private setting without others present who may divulge his location. The narratives imply either that Jesus uses supernatural knowledge/power to make the arrangements or has a prior agreement with his host. In either case the problem of finding available space at the last minute is circumvented. Another factor is that the setting is described as a guest room or dining room ‘upstairs’ (Mark/Luke) and in a person’s house (Matthew). True, Mark/Luke calls it ‘large,’ but then an average sized house would not have had an upstairs room that could comfortably accommodate 13 people plus servers etc. Thus, while it is possible that they did not have exclusive use of the room, it seems to me just as likely that they did.

    One point in which Da Vinci’s painting is unquestionably anachronistic is the upright seating arrangements. The references to reclining at table and a disciple being at Jesus’ bosom make it clear that they were reclining on a U-shaped arrangement of three couches around a table (triclinium). This helps to explain some of the social dynamics of the meal, such as Simon Peter motioning to the beloved disciple to find out who the betrayer was. Peter probably did not have eye contact with Jesus from where he was reclining.

    Anyway, I hope you have a blessed Easter Triduum.

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Hi Tom, thanks for your comments. You’re absolutely right about the meal being celebrated reclining at a U-shaped triclinium. I agree with you that there appears to be an element of secrecy in the synoptics and the intention seems to have been to avoid the authorities. However, this wouldn’t preclude having a meal with sympathetic supporters, and their families. We shouldn’t forget that Passover was (and is) a family occasion and it’s possible that at least some of the “inner circle” had family members with them. Then there were close disciples of Jesus who lived in, or near, Jerusalem as well as their families, including Mary, Martha and Lazarus. These close supporters could have made up the larger group who were gathered for Passover in the “large upper room” without “members of the public” being there. The cryptic instructions about following the water-carrier could suggest that prior arrangements had been made to join a group or to at least share the space with them, although the details were not disclosed (especially not to Judas).
      I hope you also have a blessed Easter.

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