Last Supper, The (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
LAST SUPPER, THE. The final meal of Jesus with his followers in Jerusalem the evening before his crucifixion on the orders of Pilate in or around 30 C.E. is called the Last Supper. During the meal Jesus is said to have expressed a desire to be remembered by breaking bread and sharing a cup of wine, inspiring the central ritual of Christianity variously called the Eucharist, Mass, Lord's Supper, or Holy Communion. Leonardo da Vinci's fresco, executed in Milan in the 1490s, is probably the best-known pictorial representation of the Last Supper.
The participants left no firsthand reports of the Last Supper. Instead, varying accounts were handed down and recorded two or more decades afterward in books eventually collected into the New Testament (Matt. 26:170, Mark 14:125, Luke 22:78, John 137, and 1 Cor. 11:239). These and noncanonical sources, notably Didache 10 and 9 (in presumed chronological order), are the origin of a variety of liturgies, including washing one another's feet (John 13:14), so the details are open to conjecture.
Throughout his mission Jesus shared meals so enthusiastically that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:334; Matt. 11:189). Thus it is plausible that he would have told companions to seek out an upper room in a house, where he organized supper before being seized by Roman authorities.
In the eastern Mediterranean the standard beverage, staple, and accompaniment were wine or water, bread, and a range of relishes, including fish. These all featured in both Jesus' reported sharing (such as the mass distribution of loaves and fishes) and early versions of the subsequent Christian agapes (love feasts) and Eucharists (thanksgivings).
Any familiar religious shape to the last meal would have been Jewish, since Jesus did not seem to have intended to inaugurate another religion. In that context the presence of women might have been quickly ignored in favor of twelve male disciples representing the twelve
His followers soon believed that Jesus used distinctive words of institution over the bread and cup. These might have emerged from Passover procedures, as argued by Joachim Jeremias in The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (1966), and Jesus would surely have employed some form of Jewish thanksgiving or berakah standardly used as a grace before food. Yet Dennis E. Smith and Hal Taussig, in Many Tables (1990), argue for a Greco-Roman setting for the meal or more plausibly for early interpretations, so the bread and cup derive from the formal deipnon or dinner and subsequent symposion or talking over a shared drinking cup.
In Paul's influential version, probably written in 534 C.E., the key points are that Jesus took a loaf of bread, gave thanks, broke it, and said: "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." After supper Jesus said: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often you drink it, in remembrance of me" (1 Cor. 11:235). Accredited priests then transformed the bread and cup into Jesus' actual flesh and blood, and this transubstantiation was added to the matters for rancor and division. Some Protestants even retreated so far as to commemorate a self-proclaimed eater, drinker, and server entirely without bread or wine.
See also Christianity: Eastern Orthodox Christianity; Christianity: Western Christianity; Judaism.
Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Translated by Norman Perrin. London: S. C. M. Press, 1966.
Smith, Dennis E., and Hal Taussig. Many Tables: The Eucharist in the New Testament and Liturgy Today. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.
Symons, Michael. "From Agape to Eucharist: Jesus' Meals and the Early Church." Food and Foodways 8, no. 1 (1999): 334.