The Last Supper
One vital key to understanding Scripture, is in being able to see the event as it happened in that ancient culture. Too often, wrong interpretations of GOD's ways are made simply because the oriental culture was not understood.
From the wall of a 12th Century Spanish Church at San Baudelio to the contemporary painting from the Sri Lanka Christian Art Association, impressions of the Last Supper seem to always follow the same traditional view. Whether they be Stained Glass Representations, Sculptures, Oil Paintings, Lithographs or Pencil Drawings, they too often ignore the Biblical culture and picture this Last Supper as something European (see The Last Supper). One can even buy a Handcrafted Olive Wood representation of the Last Supper for only $1,950. Unfortunately it probably doesn't depict the true event.
The first and most obvious error in the modern understanding of the Last Supper, is that the Palestinians didn't sit in long-back chairs around grand oak tables, whether they be rectangular, round or square. Rather, they normally sat on the floor. Their table was a cloth spread out on the ground, or perhaps on occasion they would have a piece of wood slightly elevated off the floor. Around this they dined, occasionally reclining back on a pillow or simply laying on their sides, but generally sitting upright on the floor. Many suppose also that the Last Supper was the Passover meal, but that is unlikely, as we shall endeavor to illustrate in this Study.
It has long been suggested (though not very commonly known) that the Upper Room in Jerusalem was not where this Last Supper was held by Yeshua and His disciples (see Commentary on the New Testament by John Lightfoot, 1684). More likely it was held in Bethany, a day or even two days before the Passover meal was celebrated.
The Passover lamb was slain on the afternoon of the 14th during the month of Nisan and then eaten that evening, celebrating the occasion of the passing over of the angel of death on the night that the nation of Israel left its bondage in Egypt almost fifteen centuries earlier (EXODUS 12). The Feast of Unleavened Bread however, was a seven day celebration which commenced on the day after the Passover was slain, on the 15th of Nisan, running for seven days through the 21st. Thus, the rendering we have in MATTHEW 26:17 can't be accurate or even sensible.
"Now the first day of the feast of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto him, Where wilt thou that we prepare for thee to eat the passover?"
The italicized words in this King James Version were added by the translators in a vain attempt to make some sense of this passage. As the Feast of Unleavened Bread began the day after the Passover was prepared, there is just no way that Matthew, who was writing to fellow Jews, would have written that the disciples were asking about preparing the Passover on "the first day of the feast of unleavened bread". If they did, they would already have been a day late for it.
It should be noted that because these two celebrations, the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were observed consecutively, that on rare occasions they might be referred to as one combined feast of eight days, but this would only be in discussions with Gentiles (see Josephus, Antiquities, ii.15:1). When speaking or writing to fellow Jews, one would never say that the Passover meal was prepared on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for the lamb was sacrificed on the day before that feast, then eaten that night.
On page 105 of his book Jesus-Jeshua, Gustaf Dalman makes comment on this passage.
No instructed Jew could have called the eve of the Feast 'the first day of the Feast'; only a Gentile could possibly have thought of the day of the offering of the Passover lamb and the night of the Passover meal as the first day of the Feast.
Thus, the Passover meal and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were two consecutive feasts, the Passover being slain on the fourteenth, then eaten that night, and then on the fifteenth the seven day Feast of Unleavened Bread commenced.
Perhaps reading what Mark wrote concerning this same incident, we may be able to make better sense of what Matthew actually intended; "And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover, his disciples said unto him, Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?" (MARK 14:12). The English word for day here is translated from the Greek word hemera and can mean day but it can also mean time, or season, as in ACTS 8:1, "....And at that time [hemera] there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem....".
Thus, when Mark wrote about "the first day of unleavened bread" he wasn't necessarily speaking of a particular day in which they killed the passover lamb, but he was very likely speaking of the time or season of the year. The word first which was translated from the Greek word protos should not disturb us either, for although it can mean first in time, such as the first day of a feast, it can also mean first in rank or honour, as Mark used it in the verse below.
RSV MARK 6:21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and the leading [protos] men of Galilee.
Thus, these leading men of Galilee were first in rank or prestige, but not the first in time. In referring to the season when the passover lamb was to be killed, Mark could have been emphasizing its great importance by simply writing that this was the chief feast, where, as James Morison suggested, the Jews "were wont to sacrifice the passover" (A Practical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Mark, page 386); or perhaps as Bo Reicke wrote, "when they usually sacrificed the passover lamb" (The New Testament Era, page 180).
Writing that the Passover lamb was killed on the actual first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread had to be the furthest thing from Mark's mind, or from Matthew's. As both evangelists had to know that the lamb was not sacrificed on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, we must find another explanation for what they wrote.
There is every reason for us to expect that these evangelists were simply explaining to their readers that this most important feast, this time of the year when the Passover lamb was to be slain, marking and remembering the deliverance of their nation from the angel of death in Egypt, was perfectly coinciding with the real Passover Lamb which was also soon to be slain. The parallels between what was brought about by the slaying of that first passover lamb and what was accomplished in the slaying of Yeshua as the true Passover Lamb are absolutely astounding when one considers them.
Luke in his Gospel wrote concerning this same incident, "And came the day [hemera, time] of unleavened bread in which was needful to be killed the passover" (LUKE 22:7). There is every reason to expect that all three of the the evangelists were referring, not to the actual day of the week when the Passover lamb was to sacrificed, but rather they were referring to the time of the year, the season.
Most likely therefore, when the disciples asked the Lord about preparing for the Passover meal, it was not as many teach, on the actual day in which the Passover lamb was to be killed, but rather it was perhaps still two days away, as the evangelists had noted.
MATTHEW 26:1-2 And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said unto his disciples, Ye know that after two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified.
MARK 14:1-2 After two days was the feast of the passover, and of unleavened bread: and the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take him by craft, and put him to death. But they said, Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar of the people.
Yeshua's declaration here about being betrayed and crucified, and then the subsequent passages where the disciples asked where they should go and prepare the Passover meal (MATTHEW 26:17 MARK 14:12 LUKE 22:9), could all have easily occurred on the same day. Thus, there is no good cause for us to jump to the assumption that in these few verses, two full days had passed by.
We should remember that the preparation of the Passover required much more time and effort then a few hours would have allowed. For starters, they would have needed to thoroughly clean the room of any possible contamination from leaven, which must be carried out the morning of the fourteenth. Candles were lit and every nook and cranny was examined for any trace of leaven. Then they would have needed to find and purchase a lamb without blemish, being between eight months and one year old. Then the lamb would have to of been taken to the Temple and be ritually sacrificed, along with perhaps tens of thousands of others that same afternoon. Finally, they would have needed to roast the lamb so that it could have been eaten that night. Thus, they would have needed plenty of time to make all of these necessary preparations for this immensely important day. To suppose that not until the very morning of the feast that they would then have been inquiring about where they were to prepare for this celebration is just not reasonable.
It has been suggested that Yeshua had already made all the arrangements for the Passover meal, and all that the disciples needed to do was to go find that man bearing the pitcher of water and follow him to the Upper Room. But if that was the case, then why were the disciples concerned about making the preparations? It is more reasonable to expect that they did not wait till the very day in which the lamb was to be slain to ask about making the preparations, but were still a day or two out from it.
They knew that they would need some time to accomplish all that would be required. Two days would be adequate, but not a few hours. It just does not seem logical to assume that they would wait for the very day that the lamb was to be sacrificed to ask Yeshua about where they would celebrate the occasion. Thus, when they had found the Upper Room, then we are told that they went ahead and "made ready the passover" (MATTHEW 26:19 MARK 14:16 LUKE 22:13).
We should also remember that both Matthew and Mark tell us that the religious leaders were even then conspiring to capture Yeshua, but they were determined not to take Him during the feast, lest there should be "an uproar among the people" (MATTHEW 26:3-5 MARK 14:1-2). Two days before Passover would work great for them, even the day before the Passover, but definitely not the day of the Passover.
Passover was an exceptionally solemn occasion, where many thousands of Jews were all celebrating the Passover meal as one nation. All which we know that the religious leaders did with Yeshua after they captured Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, could not possibly have occurred on the night after Passover was celebrated, which would have been on the morning which the Feast of Unleavened Bread was just commencing.
Alfred Edersheim tells us on page 198 in his book The Temple, Its Ministry and Services, that "The first day of 'unleavened bread,' or the 15th of Nisan, was a 'holy convocation,' when neither servile nor needless work was to be done, that only being allowed which was necessary for the joyous observance of the festival". Thus, if they were going to put an end to this Nazarene, it would have to have been before either the Passover or the Feast of Unleavened Bread had began.
On another related point, John in his Gospel tells us that when the religious leaders took Yeshua before Pilate so as to have Him condemned, that they themselves went not in, because entering into the judgment hall would have defiled them and then they could not have participated in the Passover meal (JOHN 18:28). Clearly, according to John the Passover could not have already have been celebrated the evening before, if they were still concerned about being unable to eat it by entering into the judgment hall.
Usually, apparent contradictions in the Gospels are the result of us reading into the text what is just not there. When we read what was actually written, free from the Translators' bias, then we often find that all four Gospel accounts fit together without any wrinkles.
Thus, if we are willing to take the time necessary to closely scrutinize the time between the two days before the Passover and the moment when they all sat down for the Last Supper, we will see that very little time had actually elapsed.
What happened between those two events;
a) A woman anointed Yeshua's head with a costly ointment.
b) Judas Iscariot left to meet with the chief priests.
c) Yeshua sent two disciples to Jerusalem so as to prepare the Passover meal.
We had previously assumed that when this woman anointed His head with ointment, that this happened during an evening meal which He was attending at Simon the leper's house. That would have accounted for one whole day. Howbeit, this may not be the case at all, for the text does not really say that they were eating their evening meal, but only that they were reclining.
MATTHEW 26:7 There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat [anakeimai, reclined] at meat.
The phrase at meat being in italics, tells us that the translators added it in an attempt to explain why He was sitting. Of course they were assuming that He was sitting so as to eat, but that is not necessarily the case. The word sat is translated from the Greek word anakeimai which means to simply recline. It is possible that they ate while they were reclining, but not necessarily so. They could have just been reclining as a way of relaxing. Consider the passage below.
JOHN 13:23 Now there was leaning [reclining, anakeimai] on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.
This disciple was anakeimai, reclining on Yeshua's chest. Consider also this passage from the same chapter in MATTHEW which actually commenced the Last Supper.
MATTHEW 26:20-21 Now when the even was come, he sat down [reclined, anakeimai] with the twelve. And as they did eat, he said, Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me [MARK 14:18].
The question we might ask is that if anakeimai simply means to eat a meal, then why did both Matthew and Mark write that they reclined and that they then did eat? Why add the phrase that they ate, if anakeimai already meant that they were eating? The simplest way to understand the passage is to say that when the evening arrived, that Yeshua reclined with His disciples, and then, maybe immediately, or maybe a little while later, they ate.
Yeshua sitting down with the Twelve disciples here, could still have been that same day referred to in MATTHEW 26:2 as still two days away from the Passover meal. Consider the very same incident of the woman anointing Yeshua's head with ointment as it was recorded by Mark.
MARK 14:3 And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat [katakeimai, reclined], there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head.
Here, the Greek word which the Translators have rendered as "sat at meat", is kata-keimai which means basically the same thing as ana-keimai only that ana-keimai means reclining among others while kata-keimai means simply to lay down. There is nothing in either of these passages to cause us to assume that they were then eating their evening meal.
Consider the following comment by Abraham Mitre Rihbanyin in his book The Syrian Christ.
In several places in the Gospels reference is made to Jesus' "sitting at meat" (Matt. xxvi:7, 20; John xii:2). The marginal note in the Revised Version gives the word "recline" as the real equivalent of the original Greek term which is rendered "sit" in the text. This, no doubt, is correct, so far as the original text is concerned, but the reference is to a Greek and not to a Syrian custom. The Greeks were in the habit of reclining on couches while eating, and it is not at all improbable that certain wealthy Orientals imitated this custom in the time of Christ, as certain wealthy Syrian families of the present time imitate European customs. But I fail to find, either within my own experience, or in the traditions and literature of Syria, that reclining at the table was ever proper posture; certainly never among the common people of which the Master was one. To sit erect on the floor at the low table, with legs either folded under the body, or thrown back as in the act of kneeling, is the seemly (laiyik) posture, which is ever sung in Arabic poetry. In this we were instructed from childhood. On unusual occasions, such as those of sorrow or great joy, friends might rest their heads on one another's shoulders, or breasts, as John did at the Last Supper, but these are rare exceptions. Good breeding and "reverence for the food" require the sitting erect at meat.
from pages 225-226
Thus, when they reclined at Simon the leper's house, there is no reason for us to assume that they were simultaneously eating the evening meal. Most likely they were just taking a breather, a rest from their routines. If that was the case, then that would make the Last Supper the only meal recorded in scripture as occurring between the two days before the Passover, and Yeshua's capture in the Garden of Gethsemane. With all of the other evidence we have considered, that makes a pretty strong argument for the Last Supper not being the Passover meal.
Luke gives us a good idea of what was going on here, with this mention by Yeshua of His intense desire to eat with them the Passover meal.
LUKE 22:14-16 And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him. And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: for I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God.
Many have assumed that Yeshua was declaring here that this Last Supper which they were about to eat, was indeed the Passover meal which He had desired to share with them. But that is not necessarily what He intended. He plainly said that He had hoped to share this season's Passover meal with them. The verb is in the past tense (aorist tense with indicative mood), and it means, "at one time I did desire" (Jesus Christ our Passover, page 104-105, by Victor Paul Wierwille).
Perhaps they were in the middle of the passover meal when He spoke, but just as likely He was making this statement a day or two before the actual Passover meal. We must consider the real possibility that He was declaring that previous to that night, He had greatly desired to eat this coming Passover meal with them, but now He realized that this desire was not to be realized until they ate it together in the kingdom of GOD, after their resurrection.
It must be admitted by all that there is nothing in scripture that gives any evidence that this Last Supper was the Passover meal. There is never any mention of a lamb being slain, or of a lamb being roasted, or of a lamb being eaten. Nor is there any mention of any unleavened bread being prepared and baked. Nor can we find any mention of bitter herbs nor of any of the other particulars which are associated with the Passover celebration.
Instead, we are told that Yeshua sent Judas on his treasonous errand, and that some of the disciples mistakenly assumed that Judas was sent to purchase items for the upcoming feast (JOHN 13:27-29). Of course everyone present would have known that this would be highly unusual during a Passover meal, but it would make perfect sense if the Passover was still a full day and a half away.
There is also good evidence to show that Yeshua as the true Passover Lamb was crucified on a Wednesday, having risen three days and three nights later (MATTHEW 12:40), sometime late Saturday, as He was seen by witnesses early Sunday morning. Thus, His own crucifixion and death would coincide with the slaying of Israel's passover lambs that same day. If that is the case, and Wednesday was the Passover, then two days before the Passover must have been Monday. Allowing for that, lets look at what occurred next.
It was sometime Monday. Very likely Monday morning if we now realize that Yeshua's reclining in Simon the Leper's house was not at an evening meal but just an opportunity to relax for a spell. At that reclining, a woman anointed His head with an expensive ointment and some of the disciples then gave her a hard time for it. Yeshua's rebuke resulted in Judas running to the chief priests to offer his Master up to them. They agreed. About the same time Peter and John were sent into Jerusalem to find the Upper Room and begin some of their preparations for the Passover meal. Of course at this time Yeshua probably didn't know that He would be betrayed that very night, so He thought that He might still eat the Passover with them that coming Wednesday (JOHN 13:1).
All of this could easily have been accomplished that Monday; so in the evening Yeshua sat down with His disciples and ate the Last Supper, probably while still in Bethany. After this Last Supper was finished, Judas having already been sent on his errand (JOHN 13:27-30), Yeshua and His disciples walked over to the Garden of Gethsemane. Sometime later, Judas arrived with the soldiers and Yeshua was taken. It was then either late Monday night or very early Tuesday morning. He was not crucified till Wednesday morning, so that left around 30 to 36 hours for His captors to do with Him as they pleased. When we add His time upon the cross, He was suffering at their hands for around forty hours.
We must also consider that City gates in that era were always locked at night. It would have been extremely difficult if not impossible for Yeshua and His entourage to leave the Upper Room in Jerusalem, pass through the locked and guarded gates and then collectively make their way up into the Garden of Gethsemane, especially considering that He was wanted by the authorities. But if the Last Supper was at Bethany or Bethphage, then traveling to the Garden of Gethsemane was a straight shot without ever coming to Jerusalem.
One might then wonder about Judas Iscariot. How was he able to enter Jerusalem at night (JOHN 13:30) so as to notify the authorities of Yeshua's whereabouts? Knowing the likelihood that Judas would find his opportunity to betray Yeshua at night, then no doubt he would have been offered a pass by the Chief Priests, which when showed to the gate keepers would allow him entrance.
Another assumption that is questionable is the number of people who sat with Yeshua (Jesus) the night of the Last Supper. Nearly all artists portray only the twelve apostles, and while Matthew, Mark and Luke all wrote that He sat down with the twelve apostles to eat, it is unreasonable to think that there were not other disciples coming and going as the evening progressed, especially so if the meal was at Simon the leper's house and not in the Upper Room. On an earlier occasion in MARK 9:35-36 it says that Yeshua sat down, calling the Twelve to Him, but then He took a child in His arms. Even though He specifically called only the Twelve to Him, there were evidently still others present.
When Yeshua answered during supper concerning the one who would betray Him, He said, "It is one of the twelve, that dippeth with me in the dish" (MARK 14:20). This seems an odd response from Him if only the twelve apostles were present. To make such a distinction suggests there must have also been others at the table. If there were only the Twelve there, why would He distinguish the betrayer as one of the Twelve?
One likely participant at the supper was Lazarus. When Yeshua revealed to them during the evening that one of the Twelve was going to betray Him, it caused quite a stir, "And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, Lord, is it I?" (MATTHEW 26:22). We are told that a certain disciple was resting his head upon Yeshua's chest, but that disciple was not named. He was simply referred to as the one "whom Jesus loved", and to this one Simon Peter "beckoned to" so as to find out who the betrayer was.
JOHN 13:23-26 Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom [chest] one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake. He then lying on Jesus' breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it? Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.
This disciple who was lying on Yeshua's chest was only identified as one "whom Jesus loved", and Church Tradition has identified him as John. I'm sure Yeshua loved a lot of people, but it is interesting that only one disciple in the whole Bible is named as being loved by Yeshua. "Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus" (JOHN 11:5). On four later occasions the phrase "whom Jesus loved" is used in the fourth Gospel but never is this individual identified as being anyone other then Lazarus (13:23; 20:2; 21:7, 20). Unless we therefore have some other indication that another disciple is meant, it then behooves us to expect that GOD has set aside this special designation, the disciple "whom Jesus loved", only for Lazarus.
It is also curious that Lazarus is identified in JOHN 12:2 at a supper just prior to this Last Supper, as being "one of them that sat at the table with him" [with Yeshua]. These inspired words seem to be just a casual remark, but they firmly establish for us that Lazarus did indeed sup with Yeshua during these final days.
It is somewhat awkward that right after this Last Supper, just when the Lord was disclosing unto them that "the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table", that then the Apostles should be discussing "which of them should be accounted the greatest" (LUKE 22:24). An interesting explanation is offered by C. F. Burney in his book entitled The Aramaic Origin of the Fourth Gospel, page 144. Although he believes that the mystery guest "leaning on Jesus' bosom...whom Jesus loved" was a John different than the Apostle, his insight is still most interesting. Read it here (I took the liberty of rendering Burney's Greek into English, and my personal comments are in red).
Then, after Yeshua's capture in the Garden of Gethsemane, Mark's Gospel mentions "a certain young man" following them (MARK 14:51). His name is not given, but that he was not one of the Twelve seems likely. The Companion Bible gives the following note concerning the incident.
That this might be Lazarus, is probable: (1) because the Lord had returned to Bethany each preceding night of that week; (2) because Lazarus would be looking out; (3) because of the linen robe, betokening his social position; (4) and especially because he was wanted: "The chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death" (John 12:10). None of the apostles were arrested. Peter (though suspected) and another (John 18:15) were unmolested; (5) his name is not given here by Divine guidance, because Lazarus was probably still alive and therefore in danger.
Another reason that Lazarus seems a logical choice as this un-named disciple, is because of the discourse Peter had with Yeshua about this "disciple whom Jesus loved" in JOHN 21:20-23. Peter had asked the Lord what would become of this disciple and Yeshua seemed somewhat ambiguous with His answer. "Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die." As Lazarus also had been raised from among the dead, it is of little surprise that the brethren would wonder what would now become of him, especially because Yeshua had told Martha just before raising Lazarus from among the dead, that "whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die" (JOHN 11:26). Would he die again or live eternally like Yeshua? But if John was the disciple in question, then this whole discourse between Peter and Yeshua makes little sense.
The last verse of the previous chapter, JOHN 20, quite nicely sums up the whole Gospel; "But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God". Then chapter 21 starts an entirely new topic and seems to be tacked on to the Gospel account, as if it was an afterthought or an appendix of some sort. The writer then closes that additional chapter by commenting, "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen." In other words, he included this additional account (perhaps related by Lazarus) of the experience at the sea of Tiberias, but there were many more accounts by others which he didn't include.
The reason most think John was this "disciple whom Jesus loved" is because of verse 24 of chapter 21. The reader must decide for himself, does verse 24 explain who the mystery guest at the Last Supper was? Consider another possibility.
JOHN 21:24 This is the disciple [Lazarus] which testifieth of these things [not the whole fourth Gospel but only the last chapter], and wrote these things [chapter 21]: and we [John and the others] know that his testimony [Lazarus', the eye witness] is true.
Another question that begs to be answered is that if this unnamed disciple at the Last Supper was in fact the writer of this gospel, as Church Tradition assumes, why all the mystery? Why does not John declare it was himself, instead of describing the mystery guest as "one of his disciples, whom Yeshua loved"? But if Lazarus was still alive, and the Sadducees still wanted him dead (JOHN 12:10), that would be ample reason to conceal his identity.
It should also be noted that a trial of capital punishment by the Sanhedrin required two days if the defendant was found guilty. The first day they would conduct the trail (early Tuesday). If a verdict of guilty was arrived at, then they must wait a day and conduct another vote to verify the guilty verdict (Wednesday). Neither of these votes could occur on a sabbath or holy day, so early Tuesday morning would have been the last time they could have tried Him before the passover (see The Prosecution of Jesus, page 114, by Richard Husband).
One final side-note concerning this Last Supper meal. In that culture they didn't eat with knives and forks, or even chopsticks. They simply broke off a piece of flat bread, wrapped it around a fragment of food and then dipped it in a common bowl. If the host wanted to show honor to one of his guests, he might then place the dipped sop into the mouth of his guest. This is the significance of what Yeshua did to Judas Iscariot who was even then preparing to betray Him. Likely, with all the commotion, only Lazarus was close enough to hear Yeshua's words, "He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it."