NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
From all accounts, it appears that the man who owned this house was a follower of Jesus. They may have met the last time our Lord was in this area when He came to cleanse the Temple. However, what man would have a room big enough to host a supper for thirteen people or more? There is an interesting custom spoken of in the Babylonian Talmud that may help shed some light on the place where Jesus ate with His disciples. It reads, “A synagogue which contains a dwelling for the synagogue attendant is liable to have a piece of parchment in a case inscribed with specified Hebrew verses from the Torah.1”2 Jewish commentator Rabbi Rashi explains, “In the metropolis people from many cities assemble in the synagogue, it, therefore, seems to belong to everybody, i.e., to nobody, whilst in the villages those who attend are known to all, being like partners in the synagogue.”3 In the same Talmud we read: “…a synagogue in a large town since people from all parts come to it, may not be sold, it being regarded as belonging to a wider public.”4
In other words, the place Jesus sent His followers to did not belong to the man who took care of it, he was merely the synagogue attendant. And, the owner of the lot was compelled at festival time to allow those who asked to use the space freely. For as Moses Maimonides states, “A house in the city which is sold is never designated as the permanent property of the buyer.”5 Many scholars believe that this later became the Upper Room where the disciples and followers awaited the arrival of the Holy Spirit, while other say it was within Jerusalem proper, because after the supper was over they did not have to walk far over to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was later arrested.
Verses 20-21a: In the evening Jesus was at the table with the twelve followers. They were all eating.
According to the law of Moses, this meal was to be consumed at night.6 Now, the mood and tone changes from what we’ve been reading in Matthew’s account of what happened during these last days of Jesus’ before His crucifixion and resurrection. Gone were the miracles, the teaching sessions, addressing large crowds of followers, and debates with the scribes and Pharisees. Our Lord’s focus on His suffering and death now were paramount in His mind and actions.
He may have felt much like His royal ancestor, David, who thought about what was facing him through the actions of someone who betrayed him, “It is you, the one so close to me, my companion, my good friend, who does this. We used to share our secrets with one another, as we walked through the crowds together in God’s Temple.”7 As the Rabbinical fathers point out, this was a close relationship that involved knowing one another very well because of shared interests and purpose and learning from one another.8
Later on, our Lord would even used the words of His forefather when addressing the one who would turn his back on Him, “My good friend, the one I trusted, the one who ate with me—even he has turned against me.”9 All the prophesies that foretold His suffering and death were about to be fulfilled. And perhaps the words in Isaiah about His pain and suffering were on His mind. Also, the word that the prophet Zechariah received may have given Him cause to ponder, “The Lord All-Powerful says, ‘Sword, wake up and strike the shepherd, my friend! Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will run away. And I will punish those little ones.’”10
In the Jewish Mishnah we read these instructions: “On Passover eve close to minhah time,11 a man may not eat until night falls. And even the poorest person in Israel may not eat unless he reclines [as a sign of freedom]. And they [the charity officials] may not provide him with less than four cups of wine; even if he is so poor that he normally receives from the charity plate but did not receive wine, he must purchase it himself.”12
In deference to the famous picture of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, Jesus and His disciples did not “sit upright” at the table, but they “reclined” alongside the table. In the Mishnah we find the following instructions, “If those at the table are sitting upright, and are not part of the group, each one says Grace for himself. If they have reclined, one says Grace for all.”13 We know that after Jesus took the bread He blessed it, so this is even more indication that they were reclining next to the table. And in the Talmud we find this teaching: “Even the poorest man in Israel must not eat until he reclines. It was stated: For the eating of the unleavened bread reclining is necessary…As for the drinking of] the wine, — It was stated in Rabbi Nahman’s name that reclining is necessary.”14
Then, in an older version of the Talmud we read this: “Said Rabbi Levi, ‘Because it is the custom of slaves to eat standing, here [on Passover night, the Mishnah requires people] to eat reclining to proclaim that they have gone out from slavery to freedom.’ Rabbi Simon said in the name of Rabbi Joshua b. Levi, ‘That olive’s amount [of unleavened bread] with which a person fulfills his obligation on Passover ― one must eat it reclining.”’ 15
The account Maimonides gives of this usage reads this way: “Even one of Israel’s poor should not eat until he can recline. A woman need not recline. If she is an important woman, she must recline. Even a son in the presence of his father or an attendant in the presence of his master must recline. However, a student before his teacher should not recline unless his teacher grants him permission. Reclining on one’s right side is not considered reclining. Neither is reclining on one’s back or leaning forward. When must one recline? when eating the matzoh and when drinking these four cups of wine. While eating and drinking at other times: if one reclines, it is praiseworthy; if not, there is no requirement.”16
Also in this same Tractate, Maimonides comments on the Haggadah, which is the guide used for the Seder meal, and points to the moment when the son asks the host, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”17 The host then cites five different reasons, and the fifth one is, “On all other nights, we eat either sitting upright or reclining. On this night, we all recline.”18 And for our Lord and His disciples, this truly was a night different from all others. But not because they were reclining, but because it would be their last meal together.
This may bring up the question, how then was it that John was observed leaning on Jesus’ chest? We may find the explanation in these instructions in the Talmud: “Said the Exilarch19 to Rabbi Shesheth: Although you are venerable Rabbis, yet the Persians are better versed than you in the etiquette of a meal. When there are two couches [in the set], the senior guest takes his place first and then the junior one above him. When there are three couches, the senior occupies the middle one, the next to him in rank takes the place above him, and the third one below him. Rabbi Shesheth said to him: So when he wants to talk to him [the senior guest], he has to stretch himself and sit upright to do so!”20
Scholars point out that the disciples went to prepare a place for the supper, and it was not until the next night that Jesus and the others arrived to eat. If this was the case in such a small room where thirteen long couches around a table would be difficult to arrange, then the triple couch would have Jesus in the middle and perhaps Peter above Him and John below. But all of this is speculation and does not earn that much importance. What is important, is what happened that night at the meal and how it affected the rest of the outcome for the ensuing hours in the life and ministry of Jesus, and the meaning it gave to a meal that Christians have commemorated ever since.
1 Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21
2 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Yoma, folio 11b
3 Ibid., folio 12a, footnote (1)
4 Ibid., Masekhet Megillah, folio 26a
5 Mishnah Torah, Sefer Avodah, Tractate Beis Habechirah, Ch. 7, Halacha 14
6 Exodus 12:8
7 Psalm 55:13-14
8 Mishnah, Fourth Division: Nezikin, Masekhet Aboth, ch. 6:3
9 Ibid., 41:9
10 Zechariah 13:7
11 Afternoon prayers
12 Mishnah, Second Division: Mo’ed, Tractate Pesachim, Ch. 10:1
13 Ibid., First Division: Zera’im, Tractate Berakhot, Ch. 6:6
14 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Pesachim, folio 108a
15 Jerusalem Talmud, Second Division: Mo’ed, Tractate Pesachim, Ch. 10:1, [I:3 A], Neusner Edition
16 Mishnah Torah, Sefer Zemanim, Chometz U’Metzah, Ch. 7, Halacha 8
17 Ibid., Ch. 8, Halacha 2
19 Exilarch, the official title of the head of Babylonian Jewry – Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Pesachim, folio 39b, footnote (24):
20 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Berachot, folio 46b