The traditional location of the Last Supper—the Crusader era “Upper Room,” known also as the Cenacle—has one thing going for it: height. The only location-specific information we can pull from the various Last Supper accounts is that Jesus and his apostles secured a large furnished space, the upper room of an unnamed (and presumably wealthy) householder in Jerusalem (Mark 14:12-16). The Cenacle stands tall indeed, nesting above David’s tomb on the heights of Mount Zion. But who knew that Mount Zion’s Christian claim to fame has a competitor—in a basement?
The Monastery of St. Mark is the central church for the Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem. Syrian Orthodox Christians today often worship in Arabic, but their official religious language remains Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. Services in this language are held here on Friday evenings. Like the Coptic and Ethiopic churches, the Syrian Orthodox Church maintains its linguistic and theological independence from other Orthodox communities.
By the entryway to the compound, an English inscription identifies the place as the location of the “Upper Room,” as well as the house of St. Mark (Acts 12:12)—hence “the first church in Christianity.” A Syriac inscription inside the doorway of the church itself ostensibly provides ancient support to the second of these claims.
The church structure is modest: It dates back to the Crusader period (so the guidebooks say) and consists of a single room, under a vaulted ceiling. Lacking pillars, it doesn’t even qualify as a small basilica.
From the back of the structure, a staircase leads downstairs to an even smaller space. It is here, they say, that the Last Supper took place. The austerity of the room, combined with its size (about right for 13 people, I’d say), may work in the Syrians’ favor. As for stairs down? The locals note that 2,000 years ago, one would have had to climb up to the level of the present church’s basement.
In a niche on the right side of the church across from the entryway is a faded icon of the Virgin Mary. A sign posted on the wall claims it was painted by none other than the evangelist Luke. Again, scholars are skeptical. But the traditions associating images with the Gospel’s author are intrinsically interesting: They provide, albeit at one remove, scriptural support for the Christian veneration of icons.
St. Mark’s has yet another claim to fame, one that will surely resonate with BAR readers. It was here, in the summer of 1947, that the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Mar Samuel purchased three Dead Sea Scrolls from Kando, the cobbler and antiquities dealer who was also a member of the Syrian Orthodox community. These three scrolls—The Rule of the Community, the Habakkuk Pesher, and the Great Isaiah Scroll—were photographed by John Trever of the American School of Oriental Research and eventually published in The Dead Sea Scrolls of St. Mark’s Monastery. The scrolls remained in Mar Samuel’s possession—and, presumably, spent a good deal of time in this very compound—until he brought them to the United States in 1948, where he then sold them to Yigael Yadin in 1954, after placing that now legendary advertisement in the Wall Street Journal. No plaque memorializes these events in St. Mark’s, so I advise readers to come prepared to remember in their own way Mar Samuel and those Dead Sea Scrolls that once made this place famous.
The Syrian Orthodox Monastery of St. Mark is located inside Jaffa Gate on Ararat Street, which winds its way between the main streets of the Arab market and the Armenian Quarter. Admission is free, and there is a small gift shop displaying icons as well as cards with the Lord’s Prayer in Syriac.
Jonathan Klawans is Professor of Religion at Boston University. He specializes in the religion and religious literature of ancient Judaism.
Professor Klawans is also co-editor (with Lawrence M. Wills) of the recently-released Jewish Annotated Apocrypha (New York: Oxford, 2020).
Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder? by Jonathan Klawans
Many people assume that Jesus’ Last Supper was a Seder, a ritual meal held in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Passover. And indeed, according to the Gospel of Mark 14:12, Jesus prepared for the Last Supper on the “first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb.” If Jesus and his disciples gathered together to eat soon after the Passover lamb was sacrificed, what else could they possibly have eaten if not the Passover meal?
Jesus’ Last Supper Still Wasn’t a Passover Seder Meal by Jonathan Klawans
Every spring, as the Boston snow begins to melt, the emails start coming in. Some are positive, others negative—but all exhibit continued curiosity and excitement about the Passover Seder meal and its relationship to Jesus’ Last Supper. And if they are writing to me about this, it’s because of the piece I wrote in Bible Review back in 2001.
The Last Days of Jesus: A Final “Messianic” Meal by James Tabor
On Wednesday Jesus began to make plans for Passover. He sent two of his disciples into the city to prepare a large second-story guest room where he could gather secretly and safely with his inner group. He knew someone with such a room available and he had prearranged for its use. Christian pilgrims today are shown a Crusader site known as the Cenacle or “Upper Room” on the Western Hill of Jerusalem that the Crusaders misnamed “Mount Zion.”
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“Mount Zion’s Upper Room and Tomb of David,” BAR, January/February 2017 by David Christian Clausen
One of the most fascinating tourist sites in Jerusalem is a building that stands atop Mount Zion, the southwest hill of Old Jerusalem. The lower story of this unique building is traditionally identified as the Tomb of David and the upper story as the room of Jesus’ Last Supper. What is the historical evidence for these claims? How likely is it that these sacred sites are actually located on Mount Zion, let alone in this specific building? Can archaeology help answer these questions?
“Church of the Apostles Found on Mt. Zion,” BAR, May/June 1990 by Bargil Pixner
I believe that the famous Church of the Apostles, intended to mark the site where the apostles prayed when they returned from the Mount of Olives after witnessing Christ’s post-resurrection ascent to heaven (Acts 1:1–13), can still be found on the southwestern hill of Jerusalem, today called Mt. Zion.
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