Jesus and the Apostles did not sit on chairs at a table. Rather they reclined on ground or on mats and pillows, leaning on their left elbow (either forward of back) and eating with their right hand. Their legs were stretched out behind them. (See sketch)
This was the typical fashion for eating in the ancient world. That they reclined to eat is made plain in the Gospel of Mark: While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me–one who is eating with me (Mk 14:18). It also explains some things that seem strange to us moderns. First of all why did John lean back on Jesus’ chest to ask him a question? (Jn 13:25; 21:20) This would be strange and physically awkward in a modern upright table setting. But reclining on one’s side on a mat meant you had to lean back to talk to the person next to you.
There is also another strange scene where Jesus is reclining to eat in the home of a Pharisee, and a woman begins to anoint his feet (Luke 7:38). In a modern upright table setting this would mean she’d have to be under the table. Strange indeed! But in the ancient setting the posture was such that one’s feet were behind and thus the woman could approach Jesus from behind and begin to anoint his feet without his prior knowledge.
The Place of honour in modern western settings at a typical long rectangular table is either at the center or at one end. Everyone is seated upright and facing in to the center and can generally see all the others well. However, in the ancient meal setting the table was “U” shaped either as a half circle or with 90 degree arms.
It would seem that the place of second honour was at the other end of the U shaped table on the right corner. This would help explain why Peter is not at Jesus’ immediate right or left and has to motion to John across the room to lean back and ask Jesus a question (Jn:13:24-25). Since Peter would like have had the other place of honour it makes sense that he would be across the room and unable to ask Jesus himself.
Commemorated today by Christians, the Last Supper is the final meal that, according to the Gospel, Jesus shared with his closest disciples in Jerusalem, hours before he was turned over by Judas to Roman soldiers and crucified.
The scene was immortalized by Leonardo Da Vinci, but the masterpiece, one of the world’s most famous and powerful paintings, isn’t historically accurate, according to Generoso Urciuoli, archaeologist at Italy’s Petrie centre and author of the Archeoricette blog on ancient food. “The starting point is the assumption that Jesus was a Jew,” Urciuoli said.
“Leonardo’s mural derives from centuries of iconographic codes. Embodying the sacrament of the eucharist, the Last Supper has a very strong symbolic meaning and this does not help the historical reconstruction,” Urciuoli said.
Putting together historical data and clues from artworks such as third century A.D. catacombs paintings, the researchers were able to reconstruct food and eating habits in Palestine 2,000 years ago.
The picture that emerges is completely different from traditional renderings of the Last Supper. The dinner, which happened on the upper room of a house in Jerusalem, wasn’t a seated gathering at a rectangular table.
“At that time in Palestine, food was placed on low tables and guests ate in reclining position on floor cushions and carpets,” Urciuoli said. “Verses from the gospels of John indicate Judas was very close to Jesus, probably to his immediate left. Indeed, we are told that Judas dipped bread into Jesus’s dish, following the practice of sharing food from a common bowl,” Urciuoli said.