By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Last Supper is the meal that Jesus shares with his disciples after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. At the Last Supper, Jesus announces that one of his disciples will betray him. The meal is the subject of one of the greatest works of Renaissance art, a mural painted on the wall of a nun’s refectory by Leonardo da Vinci; it is also, of course, the origins of the ceremony known as the Eucharist, in which bread and wine are taken in memory of Jesus’ body and blood.
But the phrase ‘Last Supper’ appears nowhere in the Bible, and our perception of this event is, in most cases, wrong. Let’s take a closer look at the event known as the ‘Last Supper’, by analysing what the Bible actually tells us.
The Last Supper: summary
All four of the Gospels describe the Last Supper; below we follow the story of the Last Supper as it’s set out in the Gospel of Matthew 26:17-30, with occasional embellishments from the other gospels.
The Last Supper takes place during the Jewish festival of Passover. Jesus announced that he would keep the Passover with his twelve disciples. (In the Gospel of Mark 14:13-15, Jesus specifically directs his disciples to a man in the city who will show them an upstairs guest-room all ‘furnished and prepared’ for them to eat their Passover meal together.)
When evening came, Jesus sat and ate with his disciples. He told them that one of them would soon betray him. They were all saddened by this, and asked Jesus in turn, ‘Is it I?’ But Jesus would only say that it was one of the men who dipped his hand with Jesus in the food dish.
Judas, who betrayed Jesus, asked Jesus, ‘Master, is it I?’ But all Jesus said in response was, ‘Thou hast said.’
Jesus took some bread and blessed it, breaking it and giving each of his disciples a piece. He told them to take it and eat for ‘this is my body.’
He then took the cup of wine, blessed it, and gave the wine to them, telling them to drink it because ‘this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.’ Jesus added that he would not drink wine again after this, until he drank it in heaven with his disciples when they were all reunited in God’s kingdom.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus also told Peter that before the cock crowed that day, Peter would deny knowing Jesus, three times (Luke 22:34).
After supper they all sang a hymn and then went out to the mount of Olives. Shortly after this, Judas betrayed Jesus by publicly identifying him (by greeting him with a kiss) so the officials knew whom to arrest.
The Last Supper: analysis
The Last Supper is an important event in the history of Christianity because it immediately precedes Jesus’ betrayal and subsequent arrest. It is also of significance because of Jesus’ identification of the bread and wine as symbolic of his own body and blood. They have been eaten and drunk in memory of him, and his sacrifice, ever since.
But whether Jesus meant that the bread and wine, when taken at Holy Communion, merely to symbolise his body and blood, or whether he meant that they would somehow, through God’s divine presence, become transformed through the sacrament into his body and blood, is something that Christians – notably Protestants and Catholics – have disagreed over.
Indeed, during the Reformation of the sixteenth century, denying transubstantiation – that is, the doctrine which stated that the bread and wine at Communion literally became Jesus’ body and blood – could get you burnt at the stake. However, Jesus often speaks in metaphors and so stating ‘this is my body’ and ‘this is my blood’ needn’t mean that his words should be taken literally.
The phrase ‘Last Supper’ emerged later than the accounts of this meal given in the Bible. Even now, though, some Christians – particular Protestants – avoid using the term, preferring to speak of the ‘Lord’s Supper’ on the grounds that the meal we commonly know as the ‘last’ supper probably wasn’t the very last meal Jesus ate with the apostles.
Here’s a question for you: in which book of the New Testament do we find the earliest reference to the Last Supper? Not in any of the four Gospels – although they all describe this meal – but in St Paul’s 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, which was (almost certainly) written before any of the four Gospels.
In 1 Corinthians 23-27, Paul sets out the relationship between the Last Supper and Holy Communion – the importance of the bread and wine – although he doesn’t describe the meal in detail, other than saying Jesus ‘took bread’ on ‘the same night in which he was betrayed’.
The question of how the disciples ate at the Last Supper is also not as straightforward as we might first think. Although Luke tells us that Jesus ‘sat down’ with his disciples to eat, in John 13:23 we are told ‘there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.’
This disciple is usually identified with John himself, and this is the interpretation Leonardo da Vinci followed in his famous painting of the Last Supper. But why was he ‘leaning on Jesus’ bosom’? Were they sitting down at all?
It’s been pointed out that in Roman-occupied Palestine, the custom was to lie on one’s front and dine in this position, rather than sitting on chairs. Not only this, but it was Jewish custom at meals, and especially at Passover, to recline around a low table, leaning on your left arm, with your feet behind. Your right arm would then be used to eat the food.
This arrangement not only matches Jewish and Palestinian custom at this time, but also makes sense of the idea of John (assuming it was John) leaning on Jesus’ bosom.