The Last Supper remains one of the most culturally recognised meals. We are so familiar with the image of Jesus and his disciples sitting around a table. But if you had to put some food on that table, would you know what to serve? All four gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, describe Jesus having dinner with his friends just before his arrest and eventual execution. But the gospels are curiously quiet on what was eaten at dinner – after all, one cannot live on bread alone.
Unlike the other three gospels, the Gospel of John doesn’t mention bread or wine – only that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. But we know that more than bread and wine must have been served. The question is, what?
The menu would have been partly determined by the day on which the Last Supper took place. The synoptic gospels 1 state that the meal was on the first day of Passover, but John presents the meal as just before the festival of Passover. There is good reason to suspect that John’s date is historically more plausible than that of the other gospels: is it likely that Jewish leaders held a trial on the eve of Passover, for example?
However, even if the Last Supper was a Passover meal, there was no fixed liturgy until the end of the second century CE. In other words, what ancient rabbinic texts describe (to say nothing of current Jewish practices!) does not necessarily reflect how Jews of Jesus’ time celebrated Passover.
Nevertheless, the text of the Mishnah, dating from around the second century CE, gives us an idea of the kinds of foods available to celebrate this festive meal: wine, vegetables, bread, fruit, and ‘two cooked dishes’. The Mishnah also states that food eaten for the Passover is more limited than normal.
But what exactly were the ordinary foods and dishes eaten by ancient Jews in the first century? Again, these were much the same as their pagan neighbours. Poor Jews and poor pagans probably ate more similarly than wealthy members of their respective communities. Poor people were less likely to enjoy meat on a regular basis; they might have to wait until a civic festival to eat meat and would normally rely on legumes for protein.
One notable difference, observed by ancient Roman authors, was that Jews refrained from eating pork. This dietary taboo remains Jewish practice today, but it’s unclear to what extent the Kosher food laws developed by the rabbis reflect common practice before the second or third century. It seems that different communities interpreted the biblical prohibitions in different ways and with greater or less flexibility.
So, whatever Jesus ate that night, it was likely similar but not identical to what his pagan neighbours might be eating in recipe and preparation. Staple foods in antiquity were cereals and pulses – bread, porridge, and beans. In later rabbinic Judaism, beans belong to a category called kitniyot, forbidden for some Jews during Passover, but that restriction came after Jesus’ time.
Bread would be made from barley, wheat, oats, sorghum, or rye, in any combination. Wheat was more expensive, so poorer folk would have had rougher, tougher brown bread. Anything else, from meat and fish to fresh fruit and vegetables, was a supplement.
If the Last Supper was a Passover meal, the bread would have been unleavened, but the loaf would still have been accompanied by all sorts of side dishes. These may have included broad beans, lentils, and fava beans, which were eaten by all social classes, providing the main source of protein for those who could not afford meat. Chickpeas would have been a frequent dish on the Palestinian table, including as a paste, like hummus.
Jesus and his followers were anything but elite. Their meal would have been modest, in keeping with their Galilean origins, but they probably splashed out if the meal was festive or special in some way. Several early depictions of the Last Supper include a fish.
So, what should you pick up from the shop if you want to eat like Jesus? Certainly some wine — the Roman world preferred the more expensive white varieties, so perhaps red for this event. Don’t forget to mix your wine with water!
Try some good hummus, whole-wheat flatbread, and a can of broad beans to make a dish of Vitellian peas as described by Apicius. Remember some olive oil for dipping your bread, a nice fish, and if you’re feeling particularly posh, some meat. Perhaps some lamb, roasted and served with a honey-date sauce – but maybe skip the milk in Apicius’ recipe.
Dr Meredith Warren is a Lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Sheffield and is Deputy Director of SIIBS. Meredith’s main research interests lie in the cultural and theological interactions among the religions of the ancient Mediterranean, and especially metaphors of food, eating, and the sense of taste. Join Meredith at a Roman banquet taking place on 18 May as part of the Festival of Arts and Humanities. There you’ll be able to sample various vegetarian and meat courses and get a taste for the flavour of Jesus’ world. You can find Meredith on Twitter @DrMJCWarren.
Header image: The Last Supper. Mosaic, Ravenna, Italy [via Flikr, Creative Commons license].
In-text image 1: Roman mosaic, second century CE. Fish and vegetables hanging up in a cupboard. From a villa at Tor Marancia, near the Catacombs of Domitilla. Seafood (in bucket, bottom left) was not eaten by Jews [via Wikicommons].
In-text image 2: Sale of bread at a market stall. Roman fresco from the Praedia of Julia Felix in Pompeii. Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples) [via Wikicommons].