How An Italian Painter Hijacked the Jewish Passover Meal (Part 3)

How An Italian Painter Hijacked the Jewish Passover Meal (Part 3)

This is part 3 of a 4 part series. Click here for part 1.iStock_000017881637_Small

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).

Check back next week for part 4.

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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).