The Guéranger Blog

Welcome to the Gueranger Blog! You have stumbled across the notebook I use to record my thoughts as I read through Dom Prosper Gueranger's 15-volume set, The Liturgical Year. I do not have any special expertise in liturgy, but I have some general knowledge of Catholic theology and an enthusiasm for Gueranger's magnum opus. Think of it as the Liturgical Year fan site!

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Reconstructing the Last Supper

Canisius | 11 April, 2006 15:54

Dom Gueranger's reconstruction of the Last Supper (VI,366-371) is the kind of thing one would like to see more often in popular literature. A few details about the structure of the Passover meal can really illuminate the sequence of events on that first Holy Thursday. However, there are a few details where I think we can correct what Gueranger says by looking to our earliest historical sources for the Passover ritual.

1. Gueranger states that Jesus and the disciples stood around the table with staffs in hand to eat the Passover. He doesn't say, but I assume he derives this detail from the commandment in Exodus 12:11, "In this manner you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD's Passover."
    It isn't actually possible to go straight from the commands given in Exodus 12 to a description of a 1st Century Passover meal, because the Jews quite reasonably interpreted some elements of Exodus 12 as applying only to that first Passover in Egypt. This is a case in point: it was considered a religious duty to recline at table for the Passover.

2. Gueranger states that Jesus and his disciples first ate the legal repast of the Passover, and then had a feast at which they reclined at table.
    The few sources we have for reconstructing the Passover do allow for other food besides the legally required Passover elements, but they specify that the Passover food must be the last thing eaten. The Passover food is supposed to be what satiates the appetite. This requirement was strict enough that dessert was forbidden after the Passover meal.

3. Gueranger states, "It was the custom in the east, that guests should repose two and two on couches round the table.... John is on the same couch as Jesus, so that it is easy for him to lean his head on his Master's breast. Peter is on the next couch, on the other side of Jesus, who is thus between the two disciples.... Peter is struck by Jesus thus frequently alluding to the crime, which is to be committed by one of the twelve. He is determined to find out who the traitor is. Not daring himself to ask Jesus, at whose right hand he is sitting, he makes a sign to John, who is on the other side, and begs him to put the question."
    Gueranger's arrangement has the advantage of getting Peter at Jesus' right hand, but it makes for an awkward account of how Peter asked John to ask Jesus about Judas. Key here is the fact that couches at the time were customarily three-seaters, and the most important guests would sit at the head couch: the host at the lead position on the couch, the next most important person present just below him, and the third most important person just below him. The most natural account of the Last Supper story is that Jesus, John, and Peter were the three most important people on the head couch; John was the one just below Jesus, and so was in a position to ask discretely about the traitor, while it would have been impossible for Peter to whisper the question over John's head without making a scene.
    Of course, this puts John in a more honored position than Peter, being in the second position on the head couch. But this is actually what you would expect. John's Gospel consistently compared Peter and "the beloved disciple" (commonly assumed to be John) to indicate that the beloved disciple is actually better even though Jesus entrusts the Church to Peter. (There's a good message behind this about the distinction between personal sanctity and the dignity of the office.) As an aside, this seems to me good evidence that tradition is correct in saying that the beloved disciple was John. After all, given the formalities governing the meal, to place the beloved disciple in that position was to bestow on him a public honor, and it is difficult to imagine someone so important in the disciples' group apart from Peter, James, and John.

4. Dom Gueranger says that Jesus and the disciples ate three meals: first, the Passover meal; then, a second feast; third, the Eucharistic banquet. He does not give his reasons for this, but I suspect that three facts are operative here: a) if the command of Exodus 12:11 meant that the Passover meal had to be eaten standing, then the Passover meal could not be the same as the one described in John's Gospel where they recline at table; b) John's Gospel does not describe the institution of the Eucharist, and so it seems to be a different meal from the one described in the synoptics; c) the synoptic gospels do not mention anyone eating the Passover lamb.
    As we have seen, the command in Exodus 12:11 was not taken as applying. In fact, the Jews only ate reclining at festive meals, so the fact that John's Gospel describes them eating while reclining is an argument in favor of it being the Passover meal. The reason why John's Gospel does not describe the institution of the Eucharist is a complicated issue, and I don't want to go into it here, but I don't think it presents a difficulty. While it is true that the synoptic gospels do not describe the eating of the lamb, this is probably because they do not describe any details of the Passover ritual not necessary for recounting the institution of the Eucharist.
    I have tried mapping the four gospel accounts onto the traditional Passover meal, and the result is in fact a remarkably harmonious sequence of events. The fact that everything fits together so well seems to me an argument in favor of saying that the Eucharistic banquet and the Passover meal were in fact the same. This is all the more probable since the synoptic gospels say the meal was a Passover meal and then do not indicate any break between that and the institution of the Eucharist.

5. Dom Gueranger states that Jesus, in response to Peter's question about the traitor, dipped a piece of bread in the dish and gave it to Judas. This is based on John 13:26.
    The Vulgate does in fact say panem, "bread", and the New Revised Standard Version and the New Jerusalem Bible say "piece of bread". If you look up the Greek work psomion in Greek dictionaries, some will give "bit of bread" as the meaning.
    However, the Greek word psomion is actually broader than that: it just means "morsel", as the Revised Standard Version has it. It does not really specify what kind of food the morsel is. The evidence cited by dictionaries for saying that psomion means a bit of bread is actually John 13:26, but there is no need to say that it means bread there.
    If you map the four accounts of the Last Supper against the Passover ritual, the most probable conclusion is that the morsel mentioned in John 13:26 is a bit of bitter herbs such as endive. The only food described by our historical sources as dipped were the bitter herbs, and placing the scene of John 13 at this point in the ritual makes good sense in conjunction with the other accounts.

6. Dom Gueranger says that Judas received communion. There was a big dispute about this at one point in history in connection with how to treat apostate bishops. Judas was taken by both sides as the archetypal apostate bishop, and the Last Supper scene was interpreted in light of how each side wanted to think about the bishops. The folks who said Judas did receive communion won, although it had more to do with this other dispute than with exegesis of the text, as far as I recall. Anyhow, Dom Gueranger is in good company here.
    If we map the four Last Supper accounts onto the Passover ritual, it appears that Judas left before communion. I'm not saying this to support a particular theological position, since it seems to me that Judas could just as well have received communion, but when I try to line things up I get the conclusion that he was gone at that point.


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