Historical Cultural Context
The Meaning of a Meal
Reading this familiar passage from a first-century, Middle Eastern cultural perspective adds fresh insight to a cherished event in Jesus’ life.
Scholars agree that John’s report is historically more probable than the Synoptic report. The meal Jesus shared with his disciples was not a Passover meal (see Jn 13:1-2). Jesus was crucified just as Passover was beginning (Jn 18:28; 19:31). Mark and the other Synoptics have given the meal a Passover interpretation in part because they wanted to demonstrate that Jesus faithfully observed traditional customs.
Notice also, quite in accord with the culture, that the meal was prepared by the males. “You shall observe this rite as an ordinance for you and your sons for ever” (Ex 12:3, 4, 24). Women prepared ordinary meals. One, usually a widow, served the men who ate first together with the boys past the age of puberty. Women, girls, and boys under the age of puberty ate separately and later.
In Jerusalem, Jesus had a disciple upon whom he could rely to provide a place for himself and the Twelve to celebrate this ceremony. A man carrying a water jar would be very easy to spot. Drawing and carrying water was a woman’s task (Gen 24:11). and any man present at the well or spring would be a challenge to the honor of all the fathers, brothers, and husbands with whom the women gathered were associated.
If a man did carry water, it was more often in a skin than a jar. Women carry water in a jar balanced upon their heads. Men carry it in a skin slung over the shoulder or under the arm. A man carrying a water jar (Mk 14:13) is a cultural anomaly, easy to spot.
Anthropologists identify meals in antiquity as ceremonies rather than rituals. A ritual (like baptism) effects a change in status, but a ceremony is a regular and predictable occurrence which confirms and legitimates people's roles and status in a community.
Eating together implies that people also share common ideas and values, and often common social status as well (see Mk 2:15-17 for the implications of Jesus’ choice of meal partners). People in antiquity paid close attention to who ate with whom, who sat where (Lk 14:7-11), what people ate and drank (Lk 7:33-34) and where (Mk 6:35-36), how the food was prepared (Jn 21:9), which utensils were used (Mk 7:4), when the meal took place (Passover, Mk 14:12: before Passover, Jn 13:1-2), what was discussed at table (Lk 22:24-39, part of which was reported on the way to the garden in Mt 26:30-35 and Mk 14:26-32). etc.
Significance of the Meal
As a ceremony, this final meal of Jesus with his disciples cements their mutual relationship. At this meal. Judas definitively separates himself from the group.
Jesus transforms the bread and wine into symbols of himself and the rescue he is about to effect for his friends and followers. The apostles would recognize that Jesus is performing what modern scholars call a “prophetic symbolic action,” that is, an actual initiation of the event he is describing, namely, his redemptive death. Nevertheless, the disciples would not understand the complete meaning of the action until after the resurrection.
By interpreting Jesus’ final meal as a Passover ceremony, the Synoptic evangelists added the dimension of “remembrance” to the event. A remembrance is a ceremony whose repetition would make present an event that occurred in the past.
Each celebration of the Passover ceremony “makes present” that mighty salvific deed of God for the current generation. The same would now be true for subsequent generations of Christians who repeat and celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
Knowing well the meaning of a meal enhances its observance.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University