Did where Jesus sit at the Last Supper have significance?
By Dr. David R. Reagan
Founder & Director, Lamb & Lion Ministries
I hope you’ve been enjoying our latest series on our television program Christ in Prophecy, demonstrating how biblical archaeology makes the Bible come to life. After leading over 40 tours to Israel, I’ve learned first-hand how by just being in the land of the Bible you experience so many more insights into God’s Word. Truly understanding the manners, customs and times of the Bible will make it come alive for you.
While you may not be able to make it to Israel anytime soon, you can this week via “Christ in Prophecy.” To help me bring Israel to you, our special guest has been Dr. James Fleming. Jim is one of the most knowledgeable teachers of Biblical Archaeology, having lived and taught in Israel for 37 years at Jerusalem University College and at the Hebrew University. His first claim to fame is that he discovered the ancient Eastern Gate buried beneath the current one. Jim’s walked or motorcycled about every square mile of Israel, and is so familiar with Israel past and present that Israeli tour guides come to him for training.
He now operates the Explorations in Antiquity Center in LaGrange, Georgia, an interactive museum where people here in the U.S. can experience the life and times of Jesus Christ in the First Century. It’s a fascinating place by which in this series we’ll continue to tour his facility to glean some exciting new insights into the Bible.
The following is what I think is a fascinating excerpt from the third program, giving you a deeper insight by knowing where Jesus, John, Judas Iscariot and Peter would have sat at the Last Supper.
Where Jesus Would Have Sat
Dr. Reagan: Where would the key figures during the Last Supper have been sitting at the U-shaped table?
Dr. Fleming: There was an order of importance. If you didn’t know the seating arrangement in advance you might have the same argument Jesus’ disciples had as they walked into the room for the Last Supper. An argument arose as to who was the greatest among them.
The Apostles knew there was an order of importance when seating. They knew that when facing the table the big-wigs sat on the left-hand side.
Don’t think of the middle of the table being the most important like Leonardo Da Vinci did when he painted “The Last Supper.” The middle is for the sort-of-sometimes-wigs, sometimes-no-wigs, meaning just the medium level.
Over to the right I’m sorry to say is for the least important. So, the order goes left to right, from most to least important.
Dr. Reagan: So, Jesus would not be sitting in the middle as He’s the most important person?
Dr. Fleming: Right. Do you remember when Jesus earlier in Luke’s gospel chapter 14 said something to the effect, “When you’re invited to a feast don’t take an important place. Someone more important than you may come and the host will move you down. Why don’t you take a low place. What an honor for you when the host will move you up.” Jesus saying this means that everyone in Jesus’ day knew about the order of seating arrangement.
Did you know archaeologists have even found games where the board is set up as a triclinium? To play you move up and down the game board for more levels of importance.
Dr. Reagan: Would Jesus then have sat on the far left end?
Dr. Fleming: Actually, the second place in on the left would be the host’s spot.
First remember that you’re not sitting, you’re lying down. You would always recline on your left elbow and so you would eat with your right hand, even if you are left-handed. To eat at such a table you’d have to learn to eat with your right hand and recline on your left elbow. For a thief to have his right hand cut off as punishment would therefore then be a social stigma, for you couldn’t eat at a banquet. See why the healing of the man with the withered right hand at the Capernaum synagogue would be a special joy, for now he could attend a banquet.
Where John Would Have Sat
Dr. Reagan: If the host sits or lies down in the number two seat, the seats on each side of him must have been very special places.
Dr. Fleming: On either side of the host are the main guest seats. The right side of the host or first seat would be for the right-hand man or assistant. Any host has a right-hand assistant. This comes from a military motif where a general in a battlefield would 9 out of 10 times have their sword in their right hand. With their shield on their left they couldn’t defend their right side, so they’d have a right-hand man with a shield to protect that undefended area. That would be for the most trusted position. That the Ascension narrative has Jesus ascending to the right hand of God the Father means the right side is the most trusted position.
Dr. Reagan: So, who would have been Jesus’ right-hand man?
Dr. Fleming: The one leaning on Jesus’ chest — John. John if you remember wanted to speak to the person behind him — Jesus — and so he needed to lean back.
Dr. Reagan: John being most likely the youngest and therefore the lowest in the Apostles’ eyes must have galled Peter. He was numero uno by all accounts.
Dr. Fleming: You’re not kidding. In Church art Peter is near Jesus. Da Vinci has him near Jesus. Remember though that Peter is not near Jesus and so has to motion to John to ask Jesus who the betrayer is.
Where Judas Iscariot Would Have Sat
For the next most important place, I will skip over the host in the second seat on the left and go to the third seat on the left. This seat is for the guest of honor. He would be located to the left of the host. Any host has a right-hand assistant, so too a guest of honor. Now this is going to surprise some people. When people think of the Apostles, usually in their minds Judas is at the end of the line and without a halo.
The way the host shows the guest of honor is to dip bread into his bowl and put it in the mouth of the guest of honor, which is called offering the sop. Remember clearly in the Gospels Jesus offered the sop. If you asked anyone in Jesus’ day how one shows who the guest of honor is, he shares the bowl of the host.
Now here’s kind of a sad thought. If Jesus has John leaning on his chest, Judas who is already arranged to exchange information for money has Jesus heavy on his heart in every sense of the word. I don’t imagine he ate much.
Remember the text said that Jesus offered the dip to Judas before he left. I hope Judas knew the Lord loved him to the end. He offered him that reconciliation bread till the end.
Where Peter Would Have Sat
Dr. Reagan: Where would poor Peter be sitting at the Last Supper if not at the most honored seats?
Dr. Fleming: There are three evidences that would have led the first hearers to imagine Peter reclined at the lowest place at the table. Sitting in the lowest spot doesn’t sound like Peter, does it? After all, Peter is as we find him in Mark’s gospel first out of the boat, first to sink, first to confess, first to deny, and first to guess when he doesn’t know the right answer. Remember the Lord said, “I want you to forgive one another.” I always pictured Peter going, “How many times Lord, seven?” Jesus answered, “No, seventy times seven.” So, Peter tended to be the first to volunteer and the most vocal of the Apostles.
Three evidences people would have us picture Peter sitting at the lowest place during the Last Supper.
Number one is the weakest evidence, and so we’ll just call it “Peter’s Personality.” If Peter and John schlepped everything upstairs and got the room ready, it’s probably alright with Peter for Jesus to give the right hand seat to John. After all, John helped. But, for Jesus to give the guest of honor seat to the treasurer, remember Judas kept the purse, well nobody likes the treasurer.
By the way, Judas might have been the only Judean as Judas Iscariot means “Judas, the man of Kerioth.” Kerioth is a village south of Hebron in Judea. Remember after Judas’ tragic suicide, the Ascension story addressing the eleven? “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up in the clouds?” So, the eleven may have all been Galilean’s and Judas probably was the only Judean.
For Jesus to give the guest of honor seat to Judas probably seemed like bad judgment to Peter. I can picture Peter whining, “Well, I didn’t get an important seat” and then stomping around “stomp, stomp, stomp, stomp” and plops down. That’d be very human of Peter. After all, we find earlier particularly in Mark’s gospel, Peter seems to only open his mouth to exchange feet, right? He’s always saying and doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.
There are three stronger evidences.
So, the second evidence occurs when it is time to wash the feet. Everybody knows that the lowest placed person at the table was the one who was supposed to wash the guests’ feet.In fact, we find a basin on many archaeological digs near the lowest place at the table. If Peter had already schlepped everything upstairs and did all this preparation work, he is certainly not about to do more. So, when it’s time for the foot washing, nobody moves. The other guys aren’t feeling so bad because they’re not positioned in the place at the table that has to do it. They were probably thinking, “Oh, Peter’s there, it will do him some good.”
Normally a good teacher tries three things when your students are not catching on. Number one, you might just wait a while before asking, “Has anyone learned what it’s about being a servant?” Nobody moves. Two, you might give a hint. Remember at the Last Supper we have Jesus saying, “I don’t want you to lord it over one another like the pagan Gentiles do.” Still, no one moves. And third, of course, you set the example yourself.
The third evidence that Peter was sitting at the lowest and last position on the right can be discerned from when Jesus said,“One of you will betray me.” Everyone asked modestly, “Is it I?” In fact, that’s what’s great in Da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper,” for he is depicting Jesus saying, “One of you will betray me.”Most art until that time showed the moment of the consecration of the bread and the fruit of the vine. But, with Da Vinci, everyone’s face is asking, “Is it I? Could I do that?”
In John’s gospel Peter asks, “It’s not me, is it?” Peter’s sure it’s not him, but remember, he was dying of curiosity to know which of these other guys it was who was going to speak against Jesus. It says he motioned to the beloved disciple to ask Jesus who it was. Now, because of John sitting in the first position on the left, do you see John would be looking away from everyone on his left elbow? It would therefore be hard for any of these people to catch John’s attention. But, from the opposite seat at the far right, it wouldn’t have been so hard for John to see Peter. He therefore had to be in a place he could catch the beloved disciple’s eye.
When it comes to the time to wash the feet, here’s the most important point. You are always supposed to wash them a certain way. Jesus took the towel and basin and started washing the feet. Partway through, Jesus asks, “Who is greater, the one who washes the feet, or the one whose feet are being washed?” The Apostles reply, “The one whose feet are being washed.” And Jesus said, “Yet, here am I washing your feet.”
The fourth and strongest evidence that Peter was sitting in the last position is when Jesus finally got to Simon Peter, you can imagine how bad he would have felt by then seeing His master wash all the other guy’s feet before him. Peter is the only one who refused to let Jesus wash his feet. This would have led First Century hearers of the text, knowing there is a place assigned to washing feet, to imagine Peter was probably the only one in the place actually assigned to wash their feet.
Remember how Peter actually says, “He cries out, ‘Lord I refuse to let you wash my feet.’ ‘But Simon your feet are dirty.'” Great conversation! “‘I feel so bad, give me a bath.’ ‘What has been bathed only needs their feet washed.'” This interchange would have contributed to people picturing Peter positioned probably at the lowest end of the table.
It’s nice, isn’t it, that we can picture how people would have sat in the First Century? In light of the culture, we have four descriptions from First Century sources about the seating around such a table. The seating is something that we archaeologists feel confident about.