A Study of the First Century Historical and Archaeological Setting of the Last Supper
LaGrange, GA: Biblical Resources, LLC, 2008, 239 + vi pp.
Reviewed by Dorothy Resig
In each of the Four Gospels, there is a disproportionate amount of material about Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem—especially the last 24 hours—so it comes as no surprise that entire books are devoted to this short time span. One of the latest, from Hannaniah Pinto and James Fleming of Biblical Resources, LLC, and the Explorations in Antiquity Centera (Fleming is also a member of BAR’s editorial advisory board), suggests by its title and subtitle that it is a study of the Last Supper, Jesus’ last night with his followers. But it is much more than this.
In nearly 240 richly illustrated pages, Pinto and Fleming set the Last Supper in the context of Jesus’ teachings and crucifixion, as well as in the broader history of the Exodus, Passover traditions and Roman culture.
The first chapter, “The First Passover,” includes discussion of life and bondage in Egypt, the plagues, the sojourn in the wilderness, the scriptural references to Passover, and its observance throughout Israelite history, down to the Second Temple period. In Chapter 2, “Passover in Roman Times,” the authors cover everything from the Hasmonean kingdom and the Roman conquest to the imperial cult and the rise of the Zealots. Chapter 3 tackles the complex puzzle of “Jesus’ Last Week,” including Palm Sunday, messianic expectations, the upper room of the Last Supper, the garden at Gethsemane, the arrest and trials of Jesus, the crucifixion and burial, as well the symbolism related to these events.
In Chapters 4 and 5, the authors reach the core of their topic: “The setting of the Last Supper” and “Teachings of Jesus at the Last Supper.” In the former, their discussion ranges from dining rooms and reclining positions to meal customs and seating priority. This gives new meaning to the Bible references to the Beloved Disciple “reclining next to [or in the bosom of] Jesus” (John 13:23) and to “the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish” (John 13:26). The latter chapter (Chapter 5) explains the significance of many of Jesus’ teachings such as foot-washing, the vine and branches, bread and wine, the good shepherd, a meal covenant and remembrance. Chapter 6 explains a traditional Passover seder, a structured meal that the authors believe was the format of the Last Supper, including the meaning of the symbolic foods and an English Haggadah summary. There are also instructions for planning your own Passover meal. This chapter is clearly intended for a Christian (or other non-Jewish) reader who is not familiar with the rich traditions and symbolism of the Passover seder.
The last two chapters are dedicated to helpful and robust appendices and indices that supplement the text. Although there is a good deal of suggested reading included in the index, there are no footnotes or citations in the text, so this book is better-suited to the lay reader than a scholar. The real contribution of Pinto and Fleming to the topic is that they bring with them the full resources of the Explorations in Antiquity Center and the travel and study experience gained through its parent company, Biblical Resources (of which Fleming is the founding director). The text is heavily illustrated with more than 500 color photographs, including archaeological sites and artifacts, geography and modern cultural subjects, relevant plants and wildlife, religious art, archaeological replicas from their museum, and original relief maps and models. In addition the book boasts thorough Biblical citations and scriptural references on almost every page. Although some topics were repeated in multiple chapters and the sequence was sometimes confusing, Pinto and Fleming’s attention to detail and ability to explain word meanings, discuss cultural significance and offer drawings and diagrams to illustrate a concept makes this book an excellent resource for those seeking an introduction to the rich cultural, archaeological and historical context of Jesus’ last night.
Interested in Jesus’ final days? Read Jonathan Klawans’s full article “Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?” in Bible History Daily.
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