A bean stew, lamb, olives, bitter herbs, a fish sauce, unleavened bread, dates and aromatized wine likely were on the menu at the Last Supper, says recent research into Palestinian cuisine during Jesus's time.
The food wasn't eaten during a formal seated gathering at a rectangular table, as shown in many religious art paintings, but with Jesus and his apostles reclining on floor cushions, as the Romans did at that time.
The study by two Italian archaeologists relied on Bible verses, Jewish writings, ancient Roman works and archaeological data to investigate the eating habits in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 1st century A.D.
"The Bible discusses what happened during that dinner, but it doesn't detail what Jesus and his 12 dining companions ate," Generoso Urciuoli, archaeologist at Italy's Petrie center and author of the Archeoricette blog on ancient food, told Discovery News.
Urciuoli, who specializes on the history of early Christianity, and co-author Marta Berogno, archaeologist and Egyptologist at Turin Egypt's museum, will publish their findings next month in the book "Gerusalemme: l'Ultima Cena" (Jerusalem: the Last Supper).
"The starting point is the assumption that Jesus was a Jew. He and his disciples observed the traditions transmitted by the Torah and its food related bans," Urciuoli said.
Commemorated today by Christians, the Last Supper is the final meal that, according to the Gospel, Jesus shared with his closest disciples in Jerusalem hours before he was turned over by Judas to Roman soldiers and crucified.
The scene was immortalized by Leonardo Da Vinci, but the masterpiece, one of the world's most famous and powerful paintings, isn't historically accurate, according to Urciuoli.
"Leonardo's mural derives from centuries of iconographic codes. Embodying the sacrament of the eucharist, the Last Supper has a very strong symbolic meaning and this does not help the historical reconstruction," Urciuoli said.
Putting together historical data and clues from artworks such as third century A.D. catacombs paintings, the researchers were able to reconstruct food and eating habits in Palestine 2,000 years ago.
The picture that emerges is completely different from traditional renderings of the Last Supper. The dinner, which happened on the upper room of a house in Jerusalem, wasn't a seated gathering at a rectangular table.
"At that time in Palestine, food was placed on low tables and guests ate in reclining position on floor cushions and carpets," Urciuoli said.
Plates, bowls and jars were likely made of stone. Evidence for 1st century A.D. stone vessels has been found at numerous sites near Jerusalem and Galilee.
"Jews that observed the rules of purity used stone vessels because they were not susceptible to transmitting impurity," Urciuoli said.
"Another possibility is the use of fine red terra sigillata pottery, an international trend at that time," he added.
The position of the guests around the table followed a precise rule, and the the most important were those at the right and left of the main guest.
"Verses from the gospels of John indicate Judas was very close to Jesus, probably to his immediate left. Indeed, we are told that Judas dipped bread into Jesus's dish, following the practice of sharing food from a common bowl," Urciuoli said.
Urciuoli and Berogno narrowed the search for the food present at the Last Supper by reconstructing two other important meals mentioned in the New Testament, the wedding at Cana, which records the water to wine miracle, and Herod’s banquet, famous for the beheading of John the Baptist.
"The wedding at Cana allowed us to understand the Jewish religious dietary laws, known as kashrut, which established what foods can and cannot be eaten and how they must be prepared. On the other side, Herod's Banquet allowed us to analyze Roman culinary influences in Jerusalem," Urciuoli said.
Apart from wine and bread, tzir, a variant of the Roman fish sauce garum, was likely present both at the wedding of Cana and Herod’s banquet, as well as at the Last Supper, the authors said.
Detailing their research in the book, Urciuoli and Berogno also hypothesize the Last Supper might have occurred during the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, an autumn feast commemorating the years the Israelites spent in the desert in fragile dwellings after the exodus.
But according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus prepared for the Last Supper on the "first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb."
If the Last Supper was a Passover dinner, held by Jews then as now to commemorate the exodus from Egypt, the meal would have likely included lamb.
Scripture provides us with another clue: unleavened bread and wine were also on the menu. Jesus broke bread and blessed wine, telling his Apostles that the bread was his body and the wine was his blood — thus laying the basis for the communion.
According to Urciuoli and Berogno, other food on the table would have included cholent, a stewed dish of beans cooked very low and slow, olives with hyssop, a herb with a mint-like taste, bitter herbs with pistachios and a date charoset, a chunky fruit and nut paste.
"Bitter herbs and charoset are typical of Passover, cholent is eaten during festivities, while hyssop was also consumed on a daily basis," Urciuoli said.
Image: Detail of Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper. Credit: Haltadefinizione.com/Wikimedia Commons.