Matthew 26:20

Did Jesus Sit for the Passover?

Did Jesus Sit for the Passover?

Matthew 26:20

“Now when the even was come, he sat down with the twelve” (KJV)

Most people who read this verse assume that Jesus “sat down” with the apostles in the upper room to eat the Passover meal on the night of his betrayal by Judas. They picture a scene similar to Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting, “Last Supper,” in which Jesus sits at the middle of a table, with six apostles to His left and six to His right. Is this an accurate depiction of what occurred that night?

The King James Version of the Bible quite clearly says that Jesus “sat down” with the twelve (Matthew 26:20; cf. Mark 14:18; Luke 22:14). The KJV also says that Jesus “was set down again” after washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:12). The term at Matthew 26:20 is anekeito, from katakeimai, which means “to lie down” (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). Arndt and Gingrich define the word as, “lie down,” and further refine this by adding, “recline on a dining couch.”

Ralph Gower describes the formal meal in the first century: “The triclinium . . . was an arrangement of three tables set around a square, with access to the middle gained through the open side of the square so that servants could come and go to bring in food and to take away the left-overs. Couches were arranged on the outside of the three tables, close to one another, so that the guest could recline to eat. The guest was given a cushion to lay on his left arm with his head towards the table, leaving his right arm free to take what he wished. This made it possible for servants to rinse the feet while the guests continued the banquet” (The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times, pp. 246, 247).

This arrangement helps us to understand other aspects of the evening meal. The KJV says that Jesus “was set down again” after the washing of the feet (John 13:12). This term is anepesen, from anapipto which may be defined as “to fall back” or “to recline for a repast” (W.E. Vine). Arndt and Gingrich concur. They say that it means “lie down, recline esp. at a meal,” or to “lean, lean back.” This is why the NASB renders the word as “reclined.” Apparently John, the beloved disciple, was lying to Jesus’ right, with Jesus to his back. We can understand how this posture clarifies passages such as John 13:23: “There was reclining on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved.” Note also verse 25: “He, leaning back thus on Jesus’ bosom, said to Him, “Lord, who is it?” Gower observes, “If one wished to speak to the person on one’s left it was necessary to lean back and nearly lie on him in order to talk” (p. 247).

By understanding the custom of the time it is also easier to understand how the “sinful woman” could have access to Jesus’ feet when He was “reclining” at the table in the Pharisee’s house (Luke 7:37-38). This repentant woman did not need to climb under a table to reach the Lord’s feet. She needed only to go to the foot of the couch where Jesus’ feet were extended. This custom would also help us to understand how Mary of Bethany could anoint the feet of Jesus when He and the others reclined at table (John 12:1-3). Perhaps it may add light on the statement that Lazarus, after he died, was in Abraham’s “bosom” (Luke 16:23). The place to one’s right was a position of special favor and intimacy during a meal.

This study of the meaning of Greek words should remind us that it is helpful to consult reliable translations of the Bible, Bible dictionaries, and other Biblical helps. We can thereby better understand the facts in the inspired text and not fall into foolish misunderstandings.

Richard Hollerman

Note: We took out Jesus’ face from the painting above.

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