How An Italian Painter Hijacked the Jewish Passover Meal

How An Italian Painter Hijacked the Jewish Passover Meal

Bible

One of the most well-known and widely recognized religious paintings is Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. His work of art has captivated the minds and hearts of Christians for centuries. Da Vinci devoted three years of his life (from 1495-98) to this masterpiece during the Italian Renaissance period. It is intended to depict the Last Supper, particularly the moment after Jesus announced that one of the Twelve would betray Him (John 13:21). It displays Jesus in the middle of the table, flanked on both sides by His twelve apostles. James is immediately on His right; John is immediately on His left. Judas is seated next to John. The work has been scrutinized by everyone from pastors to artists and mathematicians for its symbolism, theological insights, and psychological complexity. In May of 1999, an effort was made to restore the painting to its original glory after being damaged by exposure over the years of being displayed, and it was completed beautifully. The Last Supper remains one of the most important paintings of the Renaissance and, perhaps, human history.

As a child, I can still remember gazing at the large picture hanging in the living room of my grandmother’s home. It is a painting many of us have grown to love. However, what it is that we love is a painting, not something that contains any kind of factual truth. Indeed, The Last Supper is perhaps as “factual” as The Da Vinci Code. Da Vinci was a Roman artist and mathematician, not a biblical theologian. He used his talent to earn a living, not preach the gospel. We cannot fault him for painting certain elements of the final meal inaccurately. What we need to be careful of, though, is that popular depictions of biblical accounts or Scriptural truths do not color our perception of the way that things truly transpired.

Let’s revisit the events of the day of the Last Supper. The disciples knew that they would need to find a place to eat the traditional Passover meal, but didn’t know what kind of plan Jesus had in mind. So they asked Him: “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” And he [Jesus] sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us” (Mark 14:12-15).

Let’s get this straight. In a crowded city with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arriving for Passover, the disciples were to be looking for a man with a water jug to follow. To a Western audience in the 21st century, we read this without any hesitation, but it probably sounded like bizarre instructions to the disciples. See, men didn’t carry water jugs; women did. Think of Rebekah in the Old Testament and the Samaritan woman in the New Testament, who notably went to the well to draw water—men were not drawing water with them. It was embarrassing for a man to carry a water jug in public, as Robert Boyd explains in his book, World’s Bible Handbook:

The custom of carrying water in the Holy Land is ancient. However, it was and is the woman’s job to go to the well or spring with a pitcher and carry water to [her] home. When the Gibeonites deceived Joshua (9:3-27), he judged them and made them servants to chop wood and carry water. This punishment may seem mild to us, but how humiliating it was to a man – carrying water in public – a woman’s job! This helps us to better understand how easy it was for the disciples to identify the man carrying the water pot when Jesus sought an upper room [in which] to eat the Passover. It was not a question of seeking one man out of many carrying a water pot – this man would stick out above all others, in that he alone would be carrying one. A man may carry a water skin, but seldom does one carry a water pot.

Little did this unknown man know that he would be hosting the God of the universe and His disciples for Passover. I often wonder what that jug of water was used for. Maybe the man served his guests water to drink after a long day walking in the Judean heat. Or maybe it was the water Jesus put in the basin to clean each of the disciple’s feet. It’s only speculation. But it makes another point about the ministry of Jesus: He can use anyone at any time to accomplish His plan. We just have to be open and available like the man with the water jug.

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After walking all day, finding the man that they were to find, and setting up supper in the upper room, they would be coming in just in time to celebrate the Passover meal at its traditional time: right at dusk. It began when the sun went down because they counted the days from sundown to sundown. Mark plainly tells us: “And when it was evening, he came with the twelve” (Mark 14:17, emphasis mine).

This is the first major discrepancy with Da Vinci’s painting. If you notice the windows at back of the painting, you will notice a blue sky on a sunny day with beautiful rolling hills in the distance. The light from this scene washes in and floods the room with brilliant afternoon sun, which works marvelously for lighting a canvas, but does not do well to jive the painting with the events it depicts. Not only do the windows reveal striking afternoon light, but they are framed by peaked mountains surrounded by green grass. I have walked in Jerusalem, and I can assure you that the scene outside the window closer resembles a Western mountain range than the arid downtown Jerusalem.

Another discrepancy in the competing accounts of the Last Supper regards the items on the menu. In Da Vinci’s painting, the table is lined with puffy French bread and grilled fish. Da Vinici probably incorporated fish into the meal because the Christians used it as a symbol for Christ. Being born and raised in New Orleans, this is my kind of meal—I love catfish Po-boys. Unfortunately, Jesus wasn’t a Cajun from America. He was a Rabbi from Israel. And Jews ate roasted lamb with matzah, or unleavened bread and bitter herbs during the Passover.

Thirdly, in the painting, the arrangement of the table is incorrect. It depicts the men seated behind a banquet table on benches, like something you would find in a formal Roman dining hall. The problem with this is that ancient Jews would have never sat erect behind a linear table to eat. They would have reclined on cushions lying on their sides next to a low table called a triclinium. The u-shaped table sat roughly a foot off the ground.

 

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Large cushions surrounded the table and the middle section was left open for serving the food and entertainment. Each guest would recline on their left side with their legs protruding away from them so that their right hands were free to pick up pieces of food from the table. Because their legs extended away from the table, servants could wash their feet as they enjoyed the meal. In John 13, the text states that “[Jesus] rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:4-5). The men were already seated at the table and were partaking of the meal when Jesus began washing their feet.

We see this sort of occurrence happen again in Luke 7:36-38: “One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.” The penitent woman approached Jesus from behind because His legs extended behind Him as He reclined at the table.

Something else to note is the position of the host of a traditional Jewish dinner. The host of the banquet did not sit in the middle of the table as portrayed by Da Vinci. He would sit second from the left. The person immediately to his left was the honored guest and the person to his right would have been a confidant or close friend. This picture depicts a more accurate rendering of what was the likely seating order.

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The servant who had easy access to replenish drinks or food throughout the evening occupied the final seat closest to the door. Peter may have sat in the final position across from Jesus. This could explain why Peter was forced to direct John with hand signals during the dinner.

After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side, so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking” (John 13:21-24, emphasis mine).

Jesus was likely teaching Peter, the rock on whom He would build His church, humility by placing him in the servant seat. He stated earlier in Luke 22:26-27, “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” Additionally, Jesus said the last will be the first in Matthew 19:30. Everyone would have received the servant-leader lesson that Jesus was communicating.

Notice what John does as he inquires about Jesus’ betrayer. “Then, leaning back on Jesus’ breast, he said to Him, “Lord, who is it?” (John 13:25, NKJV). If a man were seated upright in a chair at a banquet table, leaning over to his left and putting his head on that man’s chest would not only be uncomfortable, it would be awkward and undeniably obvious. When John leaned over to Jesus, rested his head on His chest, and asked the question, it may have been because he was trying to not attract a lot of attention to the inquiry. It was obviously a touchy subject (and Peter was clearly curious about it).

Now how can we be relatively sure of where Judas was sitting when Jesus posed the question? We can assume he occupied the spot reserved for the honored guest because he was able to dip his hand into the same dish as Jesus. Matt. 26:23 records Jesus’ response: “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!”

What strong and persuasive language! It sounds almost like Jesus was trying to persuade Judas to rethink what he was about to do by giving him the choice seat of honor. Some have suggested that Judas was actually a good man who became disillusioned along the way. I heard someone teach that Judas was a misguided, card-carrying political zealot who grew impatient with Jesus dragging His feet in starting the insurrection against the Roman oppression. After all, he certainly wouldn’t be the only one to misunderstand the ministry of Jesus. Most of the disciples Jesus chose were zealous for the return of the Messiah. Many, if not most, of the disciples expected the Messiah to come with vengeance and destruction before restoring peace to Israel. Anything less than a full upheaval of the Roman occupation would not be sufficient. They understood it would require much bloodshed to usher in the Kingdom of God.

Still others have suggested that Judas was misguided in his perception of the ministry. So is that why he only sold Jesus out for a measly 30 pieces of silver, the price for purchasing a slave? Would that have been enough to get the revolution started? After all, he had already seen Jesus heal the sick, walk on water, give sight to the blind, and raise the dead. Taking out a Legion of Roman soldiers could have been done with the blink of an eye. One man in particular who taught this view continued by stating this is why Judas greeted Jesus with a kiss. He loved Jesus. He didn’t want Him to die. He wanted the Romans to die. It’s a scandalizing argument, to be sure. However, one doesn’t have to search far in the Scriptures to disprove it.

Two Scriptures come to mind immediately. After Jesus finished proclaiming that one of his followers will betray him at the last supper, John 13 records what happened to Judas, “Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 13:27). The only way the Devil could enter Judas was if he was a pawn of Satan’s from the beginning. Earlier in the book of John, Judas’ identity is revealed by Jesus himself, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil” (John 6:70). Judas was part of God’s plan to bring about the culmination of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Psalm 41 predicted that one of Jesus’ closest friends would turn on him: “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me” (Psalm 41:9; Matt. 26:14, 48-49 is the fulfillment of this prophecy). Zechariah predicts the amount of silver and the manner in which it is returned: “Then I said to them, ‘If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.’ And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. Then the Lord said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter’—the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord, to the potter. Then I broke my second staff Union, annulling the brotherhood between Judah and Israel” (Zechariah 11:12-13; Matt. 27:2-5 is the fulfillment of this prophecy). God sovereignly used Judas to bring about the death of His Son Jesus.

Furthermore, the signs of Judas’ character are disclosed throughout the Gospels in three ways. First, Judas Iscariot never had a life-changing encounter with Jesus. We don’t have any recorded instances of Judas revealing the person and work of Christ, which would have undoubtedly been recorded had they happened, given his particularly dramatic role in the end of Jesus’ life. Other characters like Nathaniel, Peter, John, Andrew, James, Nicodemus, and the Samaritan Woman all recognize that Jesus is the Christ. Second, when the disciples are listed, there are slight variations in their order. Scholars believe the order explains the intimacy of the relationship with Jesus (see in particular Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16). In every account, Peter, James, John, and Andrew are always listed first and Judas is always last, which may explain his disassociation with Jesus and the others.

The third, and most telling revelation of Judas’ character is through his speech. The Gospels record three times that Judas speaks. His greed is on display when he confronts Mary for wasting her expensive ointment by anointing Jesus’ feet. John 12:3-6 records this account:

Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance o the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.

What appears to the disciples to be a heartfelt desire to care for the poor turns out to be a ploy to hinder adoration toward Jesus. Judas was simply disgusted by the woman’s act of worship. The two other documented dialogues surround his denial and betrayal of Jesus (Matt. 26:25; Luke 22:48).

Judas should have been nominated for an Oscar for his ministry performance. He concealed his true identity from the disciples until the end of his life. At the last supper, none of the other eleven had any idea that Judas was an instrument of Satan’s. Matthew records another perspective of the final meal with Jesus in Matthew 26. After Jesus shocks the group by stating, “When it was evening, he reclined at table with the twelve. And as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:20-24).

Jesus’ statement sent a shockwave through the hearts of his followers. Did he just say what I think he just said? He must be mistaken. We left everything to follow you Jesus. We’ve been together for years. How can you suggest that one of us is a turncoat? Each of the men respond by saying, “Is it I, Lord?”

John asks, “Is it I, Lord?”

Peter asks, “Is it I, Lord?”

Matthew asks, “Is it I, Lord?”

The rest of the men follow suit. Now it’s Judas’ turn to speak up. Verse 25 records his response, “Judas, who would betray him, answered, “Is it I, Rabbi?” Jesus said to him, “You have said so” (Matt. 26:25).

Notice that “Rabbi” was the word Judas chose to refer to Jesus. At the end of the discipleship experience, Judas still looked at Jesus as a teacher. He had heard most of the sermons Jesus preached, witnessed many of the miracles Jesus performed, and watched people healed before his eyes. He was one of the twelve sent out to cast out demons and prophecy about the kingdom. He was one of the 72 who were commissioned and empowered to preach the good news to anyone who would listen and heal anyone willing to receive it.

Judas may have enjoyed Jesus’ teaching and may have admired Jesus’ ministry, but when push came to shove, he was still in control of his own heart. He had not surrendered his life to Christ. He was still the captain of his ship, he was still on the throne of his heart, he was still calling the shots. He was so close to Christ and missed a relationship with him. Judas is reminder for all of us today. You may have the godliest parents in the world. Your dad may be a deacon and your mom may sing in the choir. You may have attended Sunday school or life groups for years. You could have been baptized as a child and raised in a Christian home, but to you he’s still a teacher. He’s still rabbi to you because you are still doing it your own way not his way.

Jesus warned against those who disguise themselves as Christians but are secretly lost in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7, he stated, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:21-23). No one wants to stand before the judge of the entire world and not be known.

“Hey Jesus, do you remember me? It’s Mike!”

He may reply, “Have we met before?”

“Jesus, it’s me, Susan. I went to church on Easter and Christmas!”

He may reply, “Do I know you?”

The question is not do you know Jesus. The real question is does Jesus know you?

If you haven’t surrendered your life to him, would you do that now through repentance and faith in him, trusting that he is the only way to God.

What’s the Big Deal?

How in the world did all of this come from a discussion about a Renaissance painting? Don’t get the wrong idea. I have always loved Da Vinci’s painting. But the issue at hand is bigger than one simple painting: it is the danger of allowing non-biblical sources to affect our understanding of biblical topics. The world has plenty of opinions to offer about Scripture, and can even quote it—and without a proper understanding of it in its original context, the God it proclaims, and the Messiah it paints, the world’s twisting of biblical truth will seem persuasive.

Much has been said indeed about the person and the teachings of Jesus, but what we need to know is how much of it is trustworthy. Is the Jesus we know the man who was born to a human woman, reared in a Jewish land, and raised in a Hebraic culture, or is he a Jesus of their imaginations, who resembles an American pastor sitting at an upright table in the middle of a sunny afternoon wearing a glittering-white robe?

It seems that now, more than ever, is the most crucial time to rediscover Jesus so that we may know Him more intimately than we ever have.

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Robby Gallaty is the Senior Pastor of Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, TN. He was radically saved out of a life of drug addiction on November 12, 2002. In 2008, he began Replicate Ministries to equip and train men and women to be disciples who make disciples. He is also the author of Growing Up: How to Be a Disciple Who Makes Disciples (2013), Firmly Planted: How to Cultivate a Faith Rooted in Christ (2015), Rediscovering Discipleship: Making Jesus’ Final Words Our First Work (2015), Foundations: A 260-Day Bible Reading Plan for Busy Believers (2015), and The Forgotten Jesus: How Western Christians Should Follow an Eastern Rabbi (2017).