Where would Jesus, John and Judas Iscariot have sat at the Last Supper?
This question was posed to Dr. James Fleming, one of the most knowledgeable teachers of Biblical Archaeology, on our show Christ in Prophecy. Dr. Fleming 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. Dr. Fleming has 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, and so in this series we’re going to tour the facility to glean new insights into the Bible by understanding the manners, customs and times of the Bible.
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 you 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.
In the twelfth part of this series with archaeologist Dr. James Fleming at his Explorations in Antiquity Center, we’ll glean some biblical insights by learning where at the Last Supper Peter would have sat.