March 24, 2016

The Setting of the Last Supper: A Triclinium

In preparation for Holy Week, and for Passover, I created this video about the possible setting of the Last Supper at a Roman styled triclinium. Below is the text for the video:

Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper has riveted the minds of the world for centuries. Yet this depiction of the Last Supper, like many others, is quite inaccurate when it comes to the actual setting of the Last Supper. Because of these depictions, we often picture Christ seated at the center of a long table, with his disciples on each side of him. However, according to ancient Roman and Jewish culture, and several verses found in the gospels, we find a much different setting. With this more accurate setting, we are able to learn of a powerful message of Jesus’ true love.

It was Thursday, just before the setting of the sun. Jesus and the apostles had gathered in a large upper room on Mount Zion in the upper city of Jerusalem. The home would have been a wealthy home, as it had an upper chamber, and all of the preparations for the Passover feast would have already been made. The most prominent feature of the room would have been a low table in the shape of a “U” called a triclinium. A triclinium was a Roman styled table, of various sizes and styles, that had been adopted by the Jews of the first century. The table had large couches, or cushions, placed on each of the three sides, allowing the middle to be open for entertainment and servers.

From Food at the Time of the Bible by Miriam Vamosh
The guests would lay on their left side facing the inside, leaving their right hand free to eat the meal. This would mean that each guest could lean on the bosom of the person to their left. Their legs would be towards the outside, allowing a servant to wash their feet as they ate the feast, similar to when Jesus’ feet were washed by the penitent woman in Luke chapter seven.

The host of the feast would not sit in the middle, as is often depicted in artwork of the Last Supper, but instead second to the left, with the guest of honor on his left, and a trusted friend to his right. The seating then continued around the triclinium, the most important guests seated on the left, then going around the table, with the least important sitting on the far right. The servant, if seated at the table, would occupy the last position, closest to the door, so they could go and obtain more food as the evening progressed.

Unknown author
If this seating arrangement was followed by Jesus, and from the scriptures it seems to be the case, Jesus then was seated not in the center, but second from the left. John 13:23 indicates that John the beloved was seated to Jesus’ right, as John had to lean on the bosom of Christ to ask of the identity of the betrayer. Matthew 26:23 indicates that Judas was seated to the left of Christ, in the seat of honor, as both Jesus and Judas were able to eat from the same bowl. John 13:24 indicates that Peter was across from John, on the right side, as he had to signal to John to ask Jesus who would betray him.

The Betrayal by Marilyn Todd-Daniels
This would mean that Jesus had placed the youngest apostle John on the side of eminence, while placing Peter, the chief apostle, in the seat of the servant. This would make sense, for according to Luke 22, there was strife among the disciples as to whom was the greatest. Always the teacher, Jesus said unto them: “But he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth.” (Luke 22:26-27).

Possible seating arrangement for the Last Supper
To further teach Peter, and the others, of the importance of servant-leadership, Jesus then washed the feet of the twelve disciples, including the feet of Judas. Peter, who Jesus had placed in the seat of the servant, was most likely responsible for washing the feet of the guests, yet Jesus, the host, and the greatest of them all, now acted as servant and washed their feet. This would explain the protest of Peter in John 13 when Peter says: “Lord, dost thou wash my feet? ... Thou shalt never wash my feet.” (John 13:6, 8). Then Jesus teaches Simon Peter: “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet... The servant is not greater than the lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.” (John 13:14, 16).

This seating arrangement would also mean that Jesus placed Judas, who would betray him, in the seat of honor. It seems that to the very end Jesus loved Judas, and desired to teach him of his love by placing him in this most important seat. It was as if Jesus was trying to give Judas one less reason to betray him. Jesus, at some point, gives Judas a “sop,” a piece of bread dipped in broth, yet another sign of honor. However, Judas had already made up his mind. “And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly.” (John 13:27).

Unknown author
Once Judas left, the Gospel of John indicates that the entire mood of the evening changed. From this point on Jesus teaches some of the most important teachings contained in all scripture. From this moment light could fill the darkened chambers of the upper room. Yet, a valuable lesson had already been taught to the disciples because of the seating arrangement Jesus had chosen. A lesson of servant-leadership, and a lesson of true love and devotion towards even the greatest of sinners.