The Last Supper?

Some Problems of Interpretation

The Passover is always on the fourteenth day of Nissan in the Jewish calendar, when the festival of the unleavened bread is celebrated, although this will not be the same day in the modern calendar. Celebrating the exodus of the enslaved Jews from years in Egypt, the ceremony is of great importance to the Jewish communities, but it also enters into the consciousness of Christianity because the day on which Jesus was captured was at just such a festival. Two days later a mob crowd of the Scribes and the Priests laid charges against him and finally brought him to Pilate for judgment. Barabbas and his release and the rest of the story is too well known to require repetition.

Here is a good example political plot by the established powers, focused on a single individual who seemed to threaten the social, religious and economic status of the community. Not the first nor the last example of such a procedure, it has similar earmarks through the centuries. But it is different in this case because it combines into a single thread the ancient history of the Jews coming out of Egypt, with the celebration of that moment at a specific date a millennium later in Roman Israel, and finally connects with two thousand years of Christian belief focused on that very event as a critical historical and also theological moment. Because of these factors, it is important to re-examine the best and most trustworthy documentary texts we have to see if there are any points which have been left unclear.

For most Christians in the West, the large painting of Leonardo da Vinci on the subject of Jesus' Festival of the Unleavened Bread will come to mind. Originally painted on a large wall display just before l498, it soon deteriorated and has been "restored" dozens of times up to this present century. We all know the picture which shows a long table at which a central Jesus sits between the evenly placed seated apostles, and for most people this painting is a part of their social and religious consciousness. Mention the Last Supper and this picture comes to mind.

But the portrayal of a table with chairs is incorrect. In 16th century Europe as well as in ancient Israel, people sat on stools or benches at their dining table, and the "chair" was a prized and rare novelty used as a sign of the power of office. A rare chair on which Zeus is sitting in seen in one of the Parthenon friezes from 430 BC. Much later a Bishop's chair meant more than his office furniture, a Pope would be carried in a processional seated on a "gestatory chair", and we still us the term for the Chairman of a Committee or the head of a college academic department. Chairs as such were in Chaucer's time signs of power and honor, they were seignateurial in spirit and meaning.

What was the arrangement at Jesus' famous Feast of the Matzo Day? Some have suggested that it might have been something like the Greek "triclinium" arrangement, the usual square table surrounded by three couches for elegant dining in the Greco-Roman world. But this would have been totally unsuitable for Jesus and the disciples, who were not likely to have used the Greek dining apparatus of a wealthy consular official. They were Near Eastern Jews and would have followed the usage of the Levantine Semitic peoples at the east of the Mediterranean Sea. This was probably sitting in a semi-circle on carpets or pillows while servants brought in dishes to little tables before each person. Such an arrangement persists to the present day in traditional Arab societies and is also seen in rural India, and this is what we should have in mind when we think of the setting of this critical Passover dinner.

For a description of a typical dinner in a modern remote Christian Aramaic village, from the Rev. Sutton, a scholarly observer who lived there for some time, see Appendix below.

But there are some curious details preceding the evening of ceremonial dining, which start with the account given my Mark 14:12. These have some problems and deserve a closer look:

On the first day of Unleavened Bread (azuma) when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said until to him: "Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?" So he sent two of his disciples saying to them:" Go into the city and a man carrying a water jar will meet you. Follow him and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house: "The teachers asks, where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples." He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there." So the disciples set out for and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

The story continues with the dinner and Jesus' prophecy of betrayal which was clearly on his mind and colored the tone and talk of the whole evening. The paragraphs Mark 14:17 ff. are so important and gripping that we may miss the prior details, as noted above, which outline the political tone of this most political of evenings.

First, consider the man carrying a water jar, specifically a "keramion hydatos". This Keramion is not a jug or a goblet, but an amphora style container two foot long jar with tapered bottom, regularly used for storing wine, as in Herodotus 6:123. But if a water container is specified, then it will be a rounder container carrying much more water, with two slim loop handles for carrying it while a third is used to tilt for pouring out. It might not seem important that this Hydria or water jar is mentioned, except for a social fact which we would never think of. In the ancient world it was women who carried water, it was their connection with the cooking, the kitchen and the procurement of water for spring or source which was their familial responsibility. And for a man to carry a water jar would be improbable and socially improper. In a study from Dhaka in modern Bangladesh, 70% of women carry the water, another 13% carry along with a man, but only 3% men carry water alone. There is much documentation of this in various eastern societies on the web, 2450 cases of women carrying and only 450 for men as surveyed now worldwide.

So the man carrying a water container would stand out in the city and this was the sign by which the disciples would find their guide. In a dangerous political situation, caution and secrecy are most important, and this is the first link in a complicated process of ensuring safety for the master, rabbi Jesus.

The disciples go along with the man, but after knocking at the door, typically with his foot, the guide asks the owner of the house "Where is the guest room?" If a safe house, as here, the owners says Yes and they go in. But if it is not safe and the mob has sent people there to ask beforehand, he can say NO and they go to another house as pre-arranged. That is the reason for the phrase "....wherever he goes in". There must be a string of houses to check for safety before going upstairs to the formal dining quarters.

The fact that the disciples went to the city and found everything as he had told them, does indicate that this was a prepared scenario for ensuring safety, planned because of foreknowledge of a mob plot that evening, now being fostered.

Now look at the parallel passages in Matthew 26:17 and Luke 22:7 which have essentially the same story, but most curiously omit the Man with the Hydria, substituing the word "deina" in its place. Now this is a most strange word, in the detailed grammar of the Greek language it is an unusual "undeclinable noun", roughly used for some man who is "a such and such", an unknown somebody. So here the disciples would go to town and look for a Mr Nobody, wondering how they are to identify him. No red rose in his lapel, no blind man led by a black dog, but just a somebody or other. This loses the point of finding the man who knows what is going on, a man who has instructions and will respond when the disciples look him in the eye.

Why would Matthew and Luke change the Marcian text? Probably because it is so unusual an image that the Hydria-Man calls up. Men just don't go around carrying their wive's water bucket in a Near Eastern conservative society where this would be embarrassing. So they nod and change the word, thus losing the intentionally secret part of the storyline.

But the secret had got out. Someone had followed the disciples with the water-man, but the mob knew not to grab Jesus during the Festival, so they waited two days as at Mark 14:1 ff. and then proceeded first with unfounded charges, then went to Pilate and the rest is a bad chapter in history. There have been many cases of this kind of political assassination since that time, not a few within the enclosure of the church walls, and there is no reason to think that unjust power has run its course in time. But the existence of recording documentation, as here, is part of a safeguard against social and religious excessiveness. This above all, quite aside from the theological arguments which may be drawn from these gospel passages, gives hope for a better future in the name of justice.


The Rev. Darrell Sutton has supplied me with this material on modern Aramaic Christian dining, which probably goes back via a long tradition to the days of the early gospel writers. It is interesting to note the conversational activity in Leonardo's painting, which is parallel to the family verbal activity which Rev, Sutton mentions. Viewing the Last Supper in a Near Eastern mode may seem unfamiliar, but it avoids the incongruities of early modern European dining arrangements with table and chairs.

Looking back on my days in Amman, Jordan brings a smile to my face. Remembering a culture so distant, yet, so unique enhances the mystery of Aramean peoples. The modern day Aramaic community stretches from Southeast Turkey unto India with multiple small groups residing in many Arab nations across the Middle East. Fragmented into Assyrian, Chaldean and smaller independent non Catholic sects, they have preserved traditions, which in their minds descend directly from the first century in general and the disciples of Jesus, in particular.

No less important to them is the manner in which the family bond is solidified; a major chain in the familial link being the way meals feature in their customs. Today, the Syriac community dwells humbly in remote rural areas and prefer to keep it that way. Day to day affairs regarding food is handled accordingly. As a rule, fresh bread {lokhma} is purchased everyday from the town baker, then the children scurry to market to pick up 15 pound sacks of rice, and other spices as mothers prepare to hone their culinary specialties over small gas lighted stoves. In fact, stoves of such a type that every few days, youth amble through the streets shouting 'gas--{banzeen}-- gas, get your gas here!'

There are few places where one can get an inside glimpse of the typical Aramaic meal but for a real experience allow me to be your verbal guide. Men and boys take their positions at their regular spots in the seating arrangement. Mothers and girls, now done with cooking, begin to fill the table (often a floor rug) with all kinds of salads, and lamb-chicken-beef, their will be dips of various kinds for the bread, which is designed to be a filler. It was a running joke to keep 'tomasha--dip' on the table for me. This was a special kind of egg and tomato concoction full of spice. I loved to take steaming bread and dip with family right out of the skillet. Steeped in religion, prayer is then offered and one by one each party reaches in to eat. If there are any guests, no one eats until the guests are served, and no one refrains from eating until the guest is finished.

Maybe three hundred times I have watched as the father of the family would lean back on his pillow, upon which he sat, and look me in the I only to inquire s'waylokh - - - -are you full? I have eaten with both Assyrians and Chaldeans, attended their weddings and participated in their village dances, and one thing I must also iterate is that there are no quiet meals. Hearty laughter, anecdotes and jokes in abundance, there is a joy that fills the room as the belly becomes full. Immediately after eating the ladies began to prepare tea, the old fashioned way. With tea leaves in the pot and a sweet aroma calling out everyone's name. In the meantime as the tea was being fired up on the stove, among the family members with which I dwelled in Jordan, it was common for the father to tell stories and proverbs in Syriac after nearly every meal. The idea was to try and impart wisdom as well as stump family members with riddles. Many a time I have observed the little children learn new words as the elders spoke and all others sat back and made allowance for age. This is the Aramaic way; to teach by transmitting culture from one generation unto the next, and what better occasion than at mealtime.

This manner of instruction by parable closely resembles the pattern found in Holy Scripture. Indeed, it is believed to be the most appropriate form of education for the Aramaic speaking child. Following Jesus in each Gospel pericope one is touched by the number of teachings that occurred inside of someone's home. I can honestly say that I am grateful for the time spent in the Middle East as I studied Semitics and can only fondly look back and wish nostalgicly for those days again.

Pastor Darrell Sutton
Independent scholar
Dir. Semitica Language Acadamy
Lecturer in Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic/Islamic studies

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College