Jesus Verse by Verse

an expanded commentary on the Gospel of Matthew

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Digression 34: Was the Last Supper Restricted?

Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the last supper shows twelve disciples seated with Jesus, and this has reinforced the assumption that the last supper was a private affair. There are other paintings, less well known, which challenge that assumption by showing many others present, including women and children.  But if one looks closer at da Vinci’s masterpiece, it’s hard to avoid noticing that one of those present appears to be female. Maybe even he had his doubts. But what Biblical indications are there that the last supper was a private, exclusive meal between 13 men? This matter isn’t insignificant, because the assumption that this was the case has led to the sense that the “breaking of bread” as a re-living of the last supper is to be a closed door affair only for the faithful, who are to sit there with long faces. That assumption itself breaks down at a crucial and obvious point- for Judas was there and partook of the meal, despite the Lord’s clear knowledge that he was the apostate extraordinaire. That Jesus broke bread with Judas, in the hope, surely, of reclaiming and restoring him, surely has huge implications for our attitude to the Lord’s supper today. Note that it was only after the Supper had ended that Judas went out.
It’s true that the “disciples” and “twelve apostles” are recorded as keeping the feast with Jesus. He did so "with the twelve" (Mk. 14:17), "with the twelve" [disciples] (Mt. 26:20), "the twelve apostles with him" (Lk. 22:14), But there seems no implication that they were the sole guests; if they were, surely that would’ve been clarified in the record? There’s a similar situation in Mk. 9:35,36, where the Lord sits down [to eat, the Greek could imply] and calls the twelve and talks with them. But then He takes a child and exhibits the child to them, inviting them to be like that child. Clearly others were present- at least, a child was- although the focus of the narrative is of course upon Jesus and the twelve. But this doesn’t mean others weren’t present. In the Middle East today it’s almost impossible to have a meal without children and family members from the household somehow being present. If really only the twelve were present, we would expect the record to make that clear and explicit, as it would’ve been most unusual. But the Gospels’ combined lack of comment on this point is significant. At very best, to argue that only the twelve were present is an argument from silence. Arguments from silence are only admissible if there is surrounding evidence supporting the probability of the argument; and there is no such evidence for the proposition that the twelve alone were present. However, there is considerable circumstantial evidence presented below that there were others present.
The twelve were clearly to be understood as the equivalent of the twelve tribes of Israel, the foundation of a new Israel. Often the Biblical records focus only upon some aspects of a situation in order to demonstrate a typological point. Thus we read that Jews who were normally dwellers (Gk. ‘permanent residents’) of Mesopotamia were also ‘dwelling’ (again, as permanent residents, the Greek implies) in Jerusalem at Pentecost. They had come to Jerusalem to keep the feast, but the gathering of Jews from the diaspora and their conversion to Christ is presented by Luke as the initial fulfilment of the kingdom prophecies which spoke of this (Acts 2:5,9). And so it may be with the emphasis given on the presence of the “twelve” at the first “breaking of bread” meeting.
Defining Disciples
The term "disciples" is used about followers of Jesus other than the twelve in Mt. 8:21; Jn. 7:3; 8:31; 19:38; Mt. 12:49 [where they include both male and female- His disciples were as His mother and His brothers]; Lk. 7:11; 19:37,39 [His disciples were "a huge number"- not just twelve, and Jn. 4:1 says that Jesus had more disciples than John]; Lk. 14:26,27 [any who bear the cross and follow Jesus are His "disciples"]; Jn. 2:2 [Mary was one of the "disciples"]; Jn. 6:60-66 [many of Christ's "disciples" turned away at His teaching]; Jn. 9:27,28 [the healed blind man was a "disciple" of Jesus] . There seems a difference between "the disciples" and "the twelve disciples", as if the twelve were a subset of the larger group of "disciples". The "disciples" of Jesus are presented in the Gospels alongside the "disciples" of John the Baptist (Mk. 6:29) and the "disciples" of the Rabbis (Mt. 22:16; Mk. 2:18); the term clearly means followers or students. The early believers were called "disciples", and they numbered 120 by the time of Acts 1:15. "The twelve" are even differentiated from "the multitude of the disciples" in Acts 6:2. Indeed, the word "disciples" is used no fewer than 28 times in Acts to refer to the followers and believers in Jesus- and not specifically to the twelve. Both "the apostles" and "the disciples" were present at the last supper (Lk. 22:14,39), implying they referred to two different groups, although all the 12 disciples were apostles. It should be noted that even the term “the apostles” is applied to believers other than the twelve- e.g. to Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:4,14; Rom. 1:1; 11:13), Sosthenes (1 Cor. 1:1 cp. 1 Cor. 4:9), the elders in Corinth (1 Cor. 12:28 cp. Eph. 4:11), Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25 Gk.), unnamed co-workers of Paul (1 Thess. 2:6; 2 Cor. 8:23, AV “messengers” is the same word translated “apostles”) and to Andronicus and Junia (Rom. 16:7).
Other Considerations
A few other considerations, none definitive in themselves, are worth bearing in mind:

  • If the Last Supper was a Passover, then not just males were present; the evidence is that men and women, along with the extended family of the host, kept Passover together, singing and praying together; even if they sat at separate tables, they were in the same room and ate from the same lambs (1).
  • Mk. 14:13,17 records the Lord sending two of His disciples to prepare the Passover, and then He arrives “with the twelve”. The suggestion could be that those two disciples were separate from “the twelve” and yet still presumably partook of the Passover they had prepared.
  •  "It isone of the twelve, that dipped with me in the dish" (Mk. 14:20) would suggest that there were others present; but it was not any of them, as the questioner likely implied; it was one of the twelve. If only the twelve were present, this seems a strange thing to say in response to the question as to who the betrayer was.
  • John says that “Judas, not Iscariot” asked Jesus a question (Jn. 14:22). He may or may not have been the other Judas mentioned in the list of disciples- but seeing Judas was such a common name at the  time, not necessarily.
  • Judas Iscariot’s replacement was to be from one of those “who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (Acts 1:22). Surely presence at the Last Supper was implied in those qualifications?
  • Clopas (Lk. 24:18) and his companion [his wife, perhaps- see Jn. 19:25] recognized Jesus at Emmaus “in the breaking of bread” (Lk. 24:35)- presumably because His mannerisms and style were so identical to what they had witnessed a few days before at the Last Supper.
  • Early Christian tradition and liturgies consistently speak of how both disciples and apostles were present at the Last Supper- e.g. The Anaphora of Basil of Caesarea: “[Jesus] took bread, blessed, sanctified, broke and gave it to his holy disciples and apostles ... ”. This is the same formula used today by the Coptic and Orthodox churches. Whilst this proves nothing of itself, the question of course is why the two terms were used- the implication is surely that from earliest times there was the tradition that the twelve apostles and other “disciples” were present.

  • A fair case can be made that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” who leant on His chest at the Last Supper was not in fact John, as is commonly assumed (Jn. 13:23-26). John’s Gospel has previously identified Lazarus as the disciple whom Jesus loved: "Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus" (Jn. 11:5); and Lazarus is presented in Jn. 12:2 as sitting with Jesus at another such meal, being "one of them that sat at the table with him". The anonymity would be understandable in order to protect him from persecution as the Gospel accounts were distributed. Mark's Gospel likewise speaks of "a certain young man" (Mk. 14:51). Bullinger in The Companion Bible suggests this person was also Lazarus: “That this might be Lazarus, is probable: (1) because the Lord had returned to Bethany each preceding night of that week; (2) because Lazarus would be looking out; (3) because of the linen robe, betokening his social position; (4) and especially because he was wanted: "The chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death" (John 12:10). None of the apostles were arrested. Peter (though suspected) and another (John 18:15) were unmolested; (5) his name is not given here by Divine guidance, because Lazarus was probably still alive and therefore in danger”. If “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was in fact Lazarus, this sheds some light on the ending of John’s Gospel in Jn. 21:20-23. Some confusion is clarified over the supposition and rumour that “that disciple should not die". Because Lazarus had been resurrected by the Lord there was naturally a question as to whether he would die again- and that question is clarified. Note that it is John’s Gospel which alone records Lazarus’ resurrection, and it is that Gospel which understandably clarifies the question. In this case we need to revisit Jn. 21:24- “This is the disciple which testifies of these things”. The “things” in view would then not be the entire Gospel, but the incident by the sea, and it was Lazarus therefore who would’ve written John 21. That there was a Divinely inspired editorial hand at work in John’s Gospel is evident from the comment that “we know that his testimony [Lazarus', the eye witness] is true”. This suggestion about Lazarus explains the old question as to why John didn’t refer to himself more directly in his own Gospel and appears to present himself as anonymous. These are of course just suggestions, but if they appeal to you- then we have another non-member of the twelve present at the Last Supper.

Joachim Jeremias is still likely unsurpassed in the amount of scholarly attention he gave to the Last Supper. And he concludes:
“According to Mark 14 and Mt.26,20, Jesus was surrounded by his twelve disciples at the Last Supper. But we may not without further ado conclude from this that the women mentioned in Mark 15,40 and Luke 23,49-55 had been excluded. An Oriental text does not allow this kind of argument from silence. Neither may we attach too much importance to the fact that this composition of attendance at the meal (Jesus and the Twelve) reported in Mark 14,17 is nowhere else expressly mentioned in the Gospels: it is certainly a pure coincidence. On the contrary, it is almost certain that during his ministry of preaching, Jesus had the habit of taking his meals with the great circle of those listening to him. That follows from the warning given to hypocrites that it would serve them no purpose to be able to state that they had eaten at the same table as Jesus during his preachings in their country (Luke 13, 26ff). Mark reports that quite often Jesus was so pressed by the crowd around him that is was impossible for him to take his food (Mk.3,20; 6,31). Often, and especially on sabbaths (Mk.1,29-31; Lk.14,1), Jesus was invited to meals with other participants (Mk.14,3; Lk.7,36;11,37; John 2,1-11). Occasionally he himself entertained invited guests (Lk.15,1f; compare Jn.1,39). On one occasion he even had a great number of invited guests (Mk.2,15). The characterisation of Jesus as ‘a glutton and drunkard, friend of Publicans and sinners’ (Mt. 11,19) confirms the fact that meals in large assemblies happened frequently. Often during his travelling around, it was quite natural for Jesus to take his meals surrounded by his disciples and fans.... (Mk.6,32-44; 8,14; Jn.4,8.31; 21,12)” (2).
(1) Lynn H. Cohick , Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009) p. 90.
(2) Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (London: S.P.C.K., 1966) pp. 46-47.