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dianoigo blog

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Place Settings at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John

In John 13:1-30, we have the Fourth Gospel's account of the Last Supper. The account differs differs significantly from those in the Synoptic Gospels—for instance, the words of institution of the Eucharist do not appear, and it may not be understood as a Passover meal. Nevertheless, the level of detail concerning the events at the meal are consistent with the writer's claim to present eyewitness testimony (cf. John 19:35).

When we picture the Last Supper, many of us imagine a scene inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, with Jesus and the apostles seated on one side of a long table.


A masterpiece, to be sure, but anachronistic in its depiction of the dining arrangements. In the early days of the Roman Empire, the typical dining room layout was as pictured below.

Figure 1: Plan of a Roman Triclinium1

Each of the rectangles is a large couch (Latin: lectus), arranged as three sides of a square. On each couch, diners (represented above by arrows) would recline on their left elbow at an angle to the table (Latin: mensa) in the centre, to which food and drink were brought by servers. (For a depiction of a triclinium with men reclining on it, see here.) The three-couch setup (Latin: triclinium) typically accommodated nine diners. At the Last Supper, there were apparently thirteen (Jesus and the Twelve).2 Dalby notes that 'More than nine diners could squeeze in, especially if some were sitting rather than reclining.'3 Thus, it is plausible that all thirteen men could have fit onto a triclinium, though space would have been limited.4 Four participants in the meal are named explicitly: Jesus himself, the Beloved Disciple (BD),5 Judas Iscariot, and Simon Peter.

Dunbabin informs us that the three couches 'were designated summus, medius, and imus (highest, middle, lowest), the three places on each couch numbered in turn, and strict rules of precedence dictated the positions of the guests'.6 According to first-century Roman custom, the host reclined at position 1 on the lectus imus (toward upper left in the diagram), while the highest-ranking or most honoured guest reclined at position 3 on the lectus medius (top left in the diagram), adjacent to the host.7 This position was referred to as locus consularis (the Consul's place). The Roman philosopher Plutarch gives a detailed account of dining conventions in the Table Talk portion of his Moralia.8 He describes arbitrating a disagreement between his brother, who allowed guests to seat themselves, and his father, who believed that the host should seat the guests to ensure that hierarchical order is strictly preserved. He also speculates on the reasons why the third position on the middle couch had become the most honoured.9

How were the participants in the Last Supper (as described by the Gospel of John) arranged around the table? We have no information on the location of anyone but the four explicitly named participants: Jesus, BD, Judas, and Peter. Scholars have proposed various configurations of these individuals around the table, and there is no universal consensus for anyone's position. Some scholars have followed Whiteley's argument that BD was the host of the meal and Jesus the guest of honour,10 while others have Jesus as the host and one of the other three as the guest of honour.11 While certainty is not possible, I think the most likely scenario is that Jesus was in the host's position, Judas in the guest of honour's position, BD to Jesus' right, and Peter to Judas' left, as depicted below.12

Figure 2: Proposed Positioning of Participants at the Last Supper in John 13

The evidence for positioning the men is as follows. First, BD was reclining 'in Jesus' bosom' or 'in Jesus' lap,' a position from which he could lean back against Jesus' chest (John 13:23-25). Dunbabin explains that diners on a triclinium 'lie diagonally across the couches, almost in the lap of their neighbour.'13 The typical diagonal positioning requires that BD reclined to the right of Jesus (notice at lectus imus in the diagram how the head of the person in position 2 would be adjacent to the chest of the person in position 1). This rules out Whiteley's hypothesis that BD was the host and Jesus the guest of honour, because then Jesus would have had no one to his right, 'in his bosom.' Plutarch states that the position below the host (i.e., position 2 on lectus imus) typically 'belongs either to his wife or his children'.14 Thus, it is a logical location for the disciple described as 'beloved' by Jesus. Thus, we can be fairly certain of the positions of Jesus (host) and BD (to his right).

It has sometimes been assumed that Peter reclined in the position of the guest of honour, as the highest ranking of the Twelve. This makes sense in principle, but it does not accord with the statement that Peter 'nodded to' BD to find out from Jesus who the betrayer was. If Peter was in the locus consularis position, he would have been closer to Jesus than to BD. It is absurd to envision Peter leaning around Jesus to make eye contact with BD in order to induce BD to ask Jesus a question.15 Thus, Peter could have been anywhere on lectus medius (apart from position 3) or on lectus summus.16 It has been argued that since Jesus' ethic inverted the roles of master and servant (as per John 13:4-17 and Luke 22:24-27), there was probably no hierarchical arrangement at the Last Supper.17 This is possible, but unlikely. Jesus does not dispute that he is in fact the Master (John 13:13), so the servant ethic is not about eliminating hierarchical order. Jesus' saying in Luke 14:7-11 presumes knowledge of hierarchical positioning at a banquet, and in Luke 22:24 an argument breaks out at table at the Last Supper over which apostle is greatest—a topic possibly precipitated by concern with their positions around the table. In John 21 (as well in sayings in other Gospels, such as Matthew 16:17-19) Jesus seems to give special authority to Peter, and so it is plausible that his location at the table reflected this. Position 2 on lectus medius is one of the positions of honour mentioned by Plutarch other than the locus consularis, and he notes that the Persians held it to be the most honoured position.18 From this position Peter could easily have attracted BD's attention and signaled him with a nod. He would not have been too far from Jesus, but any private conversation with Jesus would have been overheard by the guest in the corner between them.

This leaves the position of Judas. In John 13:26, Jesus identifies his betrayer as the one to whom he will hand the morsel after dipping it. He then hands it to Jesus. Although it is not impossible that Jesus rose from the table with the morsel and took it to Judas at another couch, this is unlikely. Such a move would have been very conspicuous, whereas Jesus' signal to BD was clearly intended to be subtle. It is most likely, therefore, that Judas was within reach of Jesus' position. With BD to his right and Peter (perhaps) in position 2 on lectus medius, the only remaining position within Jesus' reach is position 3 on lectus medius, the locus consularis. But why should Judas recline in the position of the most honoured guest? Two possible reasons may be suggested. First, the Gospel of John is emphatic that the events of Jesus' betrayal and Passion fulfill the biblical prophets (John 15:25; 17:12; 18:9; 19:24; 19:28; 19:36). In John 13:18, Jesus alludes to his betrayer as fulfilling a scriptural quotation from Psalm 41:10, which states, 'Even my trusted friend, who ate my bread, has raised his heel against me' (NABRE). There is irony in Jesus' pointing out his betrayer by handing him a morsel (an act of kindness and friendship); the irony of Jesus' betrayer being among his closest followers would have been heightened by Jesus placing his betrayer in the position of highest honour at the meal. Second, when Plutarch speculates on why the third position on the middle couch came to be the most honourable place (chosen by highest officials), one of the reasons he gives is that
this place seemed to have peculiar advantages for the transaction of business'... there the space made at the corner where the line of couches turns between the second and third enables secretary, servant, bodyguard, or messenger reporting conditions at camp to approach the consul, speak with him, and learn his will without any of the guests annoying the consul or being annoyed by him.19
Thus, the locus consularis position was conducive to discretion, a requirement of those who might need to engage in important business during the meal. This aligns with Judas' status as treasurer of the group (John 12:6; 13:29). Indeed, when he left the meal, the others assumed that Jesus had sent him on some financial errand.

There is no way to be absolutely certain of the positions of Jesus and the apostles at the Last Supper. We can place Jesus and the Beloved Disciple with very high probability in positions 1 and 2 on lectus imus. Judas was probably within reach of Jesus' position, and Peter was not in the place of highest honour, but was somewhere else on lectus medius or on lectus summus whence he could motion to BD. It is thus highly plausible that Simon Peter was in the middle position on lectus medius and that Judas Iscariot was in the position of highest honour, which was in fact 'in the bosom of' Simon Peter.

  • 1 This diagram is my own, but adapted from W. Warde Fowler, Social Life at Rome in the Age of Cicero (New York: Macmillan, 1909), 279. Similar diagrams can be found in Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 43; Gil P. Klein, 'Torah in Triclinia: The Rabbinic Banquet and the Significance of Architecture', Jewish Quarterly Review 102 (2012): 333.
  • 2 John 13 refers to those at the supper merely as 'the disciples' without giving their number. Luke 22:11-14 describes those at the meal both as 'the disciples' and 'the apostles'; Matthew 26:17-20 and Mark 14:14-17 as 'the disciples' and 'the Twelve'. The Gospel of John agrees with the Synoptic Gospels that there was a group of close disciples known as 'the Twelve' (John 6:67-71; 20:24), but never provides a complete list of their names. By comparing John 6:70 ('Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?') with 13:21 ('one of you will betray me'), we can surmise that the same 'you' are referred to, i.e., the Twelve.
  • 3 Andrew Dalby, 'Men, Women, and Slaves,' in A Companion to Food in the Ancient World (ed. John Wilkins and Robin Nadeau; West Sussex: Wiley, 2015): 199.
  • 4 Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, the Fourth Gospel gives no details on the venue for the meal. Mark (14:15) and Luke (22:12) describe the venue as a large upper room that is furnished; the furniture presumably refers to the triclinium, table, cushions, etc.
  • 5 The Beloved Disciple is the main source of much of the narrative of the Gospel of John. He is traditionally identified with John the son of Zebedee, but since the Gospel never names him, we will just call him BD.
  • 6 Dunbabin, Roman Banquet, 39.
  • 7 Dunbabin, Roman Banquet, 39-40; Fowler, Social Life, 279; Dalby, 'Men, Women, and Slaves', 199.
  • 8 Table Talk I.2-3, in Moralia, Volume VIII, 615c-19a. For text and translation, see Paul. A. Clement and Herbert B. Hoffleit (trans.) Plutarch’s Moralia (16 vols; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1969), vol. 8.
  • 9 For other ancient primary sources that describe a Roman banquet, the reader may refer to Satire VIII in Horace's second book of Satires and to the Dinner of Trimalchio (chapters 27-78 of Petronius' Satyricon, Volume II), which date from the first century B.C.E. and first century C.E. respectively. Aristophanes' play The Wasps (lines 1122-1264), though much earlier, gives a humorous account of a son dressing his father for a banquet and trying in vain to teach him the etiquette.
  • 10 D.E.H. Whiteley, 'Was John written by a Sadducee?' Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II.25.3 (ed. H. Temporini and W. Haase; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1995), 2481–2505. I was not able to access this work but its argument is described in detail by Brian J. Capper, '‘With the Oldest Monks...’: Light from Essene History on the Career of the Beloved Disciple?', Journal of Theological Studies 49 (1998): 1-55. Those convinced by Whiteley's argument, besides Capper, include Richard Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 15 n. 15.
  • 11 E.g., Bradford B. Blaine, Jr., Peter in the Gospel of John: The Making of an Authentic Disciple (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 72-73 n. 65.; Michael J. Kok, The Beloved Apostles? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist (Eugene: Cascade, 2017), 5-6 n. 17.
  • 12 This seems to be close to Raymond Brown's view, apart from his less precise placement of Peter. Due to COVID-19 restrictions I am not currently able to access Brown's commentary in the library, so I am relying on a second-hand description of his comments by Henry J. Shea, 'The Beloved Disciple and the Spiritual Exercises,' in Studies in the Spirituality of Jesus 49 (2017): 6.
  • 13 Roman Banquet, 40.
  • 14 Moralia, Vol. 8, 619d; Clement and Hoffleit, Plutarch's Moralia, 47.
  • 15 So Capper, 'Light from Essene History', 14-15; Blaine, Peter in the Gospel of John, 73 n. 65.
  • 16 We should also note the sequence of events in John 13:5-6: Jesus 'began to wash the disciples' feet' and then 'came to Peter.' This suggests that Peter was not the first disciple whose feet Jesus washed, which he would have been if he were in the locus consularis position and Jesus moved around the triclinium in a clockwise fashion.
  • 17 So Urban C. von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John (3 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 2:606.
  • 18 Moralia, Volume VIII, 617d, 619b.
  • 19 Moralia, Vol. VIII, 619de; Clement and Hoffleit, Plutarch's Moralia, 47, 49.