VANCOUVER, WA, April 6, 2012 — The modern location of the upper room on Mt. Zion, where Jesus and his twelve disciples shared his “last supper,” has one of the longest standing traditions of any of the sites of Jesus’ life. No other place associated with the event has any claim to authenticity.
The upper room shown today by tour guides is in a building from the crusader period (1095-1291), but nevertheless it is the same location. A room large enough to host the twelve disciples and Jesus must have been at a premium during the busy first century Passover celebration.
Did Leonardo da Vinci paint the event as a first century Passover meal?
First century historian, Flavius Josephus reminds us that the Jewish sect, called Essenes, did not have a hometown of their own, but lived together in many places throughout the Holy Land. Jerusalem was considered their sacred city. In 104 BC, many of the faithful Essenes fled Jerusalem from a Hasmonean ruler to various parts of the empire.
Many Essenes settled in Qumran, a community near the Dead Sea, until an earthquake in 31 BC forced many of them to Jerusalem. The Essenes’ long-standing opposition to the Hasmonean priesthood, along with Herod the Great’s bitter attitude towards the Hasmonean dynasty, encouraged Herod to reward the Essenes with a sanctuary in Jerusalem.
The Qumran community of Essenes took up residence in the southwestern part of Jerusalem. A ritual bath just outside the city walls, with steps leading to a garden, raises the question, “Why a ritual bath outside the Holy City?” Deuteronomy 23:10 describes the conditions which require a man to go outside the camp and, as evening approaches, to wash himself and at sunset return to the camp.
Father Bargil Pixner (a Roman Catholic archaeologist) excavated a gate in the area of the city outside the southern old city walls. Today it is called the “Essene Gate.” Archaeologists, Frederick Bliss and Archibald Dickey also identified the Essene Gate in their field report in 1895.
The disciples were to say to the owner of the house, “The teacher says, my time is at hand; I am to keep Passover at your house with my disciples.” (Matthew 26:18). Jesus’ words opened the door for a non-Essene group to use their guestroom. The Passover supper the disciples enjoyed with Jesus is located in the Essene community in southern area of Jerusalem.
Prior to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, Christians fled the city for Pella in the North where they waited for the return of Jesus. By AD 73, with hopes of the second coming fading, Christians returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt a Jewish Christian synagogue on the site of today’s upper room location. The foundation stones are still visible today. It was here that some suggest the day of Pentecost was celebrated as described in Acts 2. The mention of “devout men” may be a reference to Essenes.
The Christian manifesto (upper room discourse), spoken by Jesus in the upper room in an Essene guest room, followed the Passover meal. James Fleming introduced the seating chart of the twelve apostles around a tri-clinium to me in the early 1980s. Rather than the traditional last supper table as painted by Leonardo da Vinci, Fleming suggested the table was a tri-clinium as was the custom in Roman culture.
Certain positions around the table were set by tradition. The host was always second on the left table, which was the head table. The server always occupied the left end of the right side of the table. With Jesus sitting in the middle of the left side of the table, leaning on his left elbow as was the custom and John is said to have been leaning on Jesus’ breast, John would have been on Jesus’ right side on the end. (John 13:23)
Judas, as the guest of honor, sat on Jesus’ left, and when Jesus identified his betrayer, Jesus gave Judas the sop. Earlier, as Peter entered the room and saw Judas in the place of honor and John on Jesus’ right, he stormed to the servant’s seat. Sitting directly across from John, Peter could get John’s attention to ask Jesus who the betrayer was. (John 13:24-25) Little wonder Peter was defiant, shocked, and disturbed when Jesus came to the server’s seat and began washing his feet.
The Lord’s last supper with his disciples on Passover is one of the most intimate and important statements of the Christian faith. Not only were some of the great principles of the Christian life initiated and the promise of a future house prepared for the faithful, but the tradition of Communion (Eucharist) was inaugurated. Perhaps Dan Brown’s story plot in his The Da Vinci Code would be revised if he hadn’t leaned so heavily upon da Vinci’s famous painting.