"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 12 The Last Supper and Farewell Discourses

12.2 Table Talk (Jn 13.21-16.33): 12.2.1 Judas' Departure (Jn 13.21-30)


John used this verb to increase the solemnity of what Jesus is about to say. He has hinted before, as in v18, but now he will be completely explicit.

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Literally, "was reclining on Jesus' breast". The Greek word "kolpos" (κολπος), used here, is usually translated as "bosom" or even "lap". It indicates the upper part of the chest, especially as forming a enclosed place for an embrace. Given the way that guests were arranged around a table for a banquet or other formal dinner, such as the Passover meal, this statement provides us with some practical information about the placement of guests at the Last Supper as well as making an important point about the relationship between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple which has implications for all believers.

Although people in Roman Palestine normally ate their meals seated as we do now, for the Passover feast Jews adopted the Hellenistic practice of reclining to eat, as symbolic of their freedom from slavery in Egypt. So how was this done? The Greeks and Romans, at least the wealthy and those who could afford to imitate them, reclined on couches and raised up themselves up on cushions. Since most people are right-handed, the custom was to recline on the left side or elbow, leaving the right hand free to handle food and drink. These pictures and explanations from the Getty Museum's Iris blog show the classical Greek and Roman banqueting practices, as nearly as we can reconstruct them: http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/reclining-and-dining-and-drinking-in-ancient-greece/ and http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/reclining-and-dining-and-drinking-in-ancient-rome/. You should have a look at them before reading on.

It is probably not safe to assume that Jews in the time of Jesus conformed exactly to their Greco-Roman model, but they would certainly have been strongly influenced by it. Most attempts to reconstruct the seating arrangements for the Last Supper assume that Jesus and his disciples reclined at the table following those customs. The classic Roman table arrangement was for nine guests, three on each of the three couches that surrounded the table in a square U-shape. As we have seen, there were likely at least 14 present at Jesus' Passover meal with his disciples, so they would have been crowded together more closely than in a Roman triclinium (dining room).

So how do we get from all this to the translation given here? John the Evangelist tells us that the Beloved Disciple lay on Jesus' bosom1. This means that he was on Jesus' right around the table; if he were on Jesus' left he could not reach Jesus' bosom, only his back. In the close quarters of the reclining dinner, some diners were likely pushed so close together that they braced themselves not just with their right leg against the left (as shown in The Iris) but against their nearest dinner companion. So the BD was braced against Jesus' chest as he reached toward the table.

To continue with the seating arrangements that can be deduced from John's narrative, verse 26 shows that Judas must have been on Jesus' other side. Jesus could have handed something only to one of two people: the one on his right or the one on his left. Since the BD was on his right, Judas must have been on his left. If Jesus rolled to his right into a more prone position, propped on cushions, he would have been able to give something to Judas, and speak to him, without disrupting the meal. Peter likely faced the BD across the table, since he is able to signal to him discreetly with a nod of the head.

If Peter were sitting across from the BD, that would also explain why, in the previous section, he appeared to have been the disciple Jesus reached last in washing their feet. If Jesus went round the table from his own place, then he would have likely washed the BD's feet first and Peter's last. After his conversation with Peter about the footwashing (and presumably finally washing his feet), Jesus took off the towel and resumed his seat. It is not possible to say anything about the placement of the other disciples around the table on the evidence of the Gospels, particularly since we don't know exactly who was there. That is, it seems that the Twelve, Jesus, and the BD were there, but there may have been more, perhaps as many as six more at table, not to mention those who cooked and served the meal.

It seems most likely that Judas, Jesus, and the BD were at the left side of the "U" formed by the mats or couches around the table, with Peter placed across from them on the right side. According to Roman customs, that would have put Jesus, the BD, and Judas in the place where the host family sat, and Peter among the "low status" guests. We cannot be sure that these status markers were observed by Jews in the time of Jesus when they adopted the reclining posture for festival meals, but if they were, this is perhaps an indication that the BD was the host, that is, that the house in which the Last Supper was eaten, may have belonged to the BD or his family.

Such speculation aside, I have chosen to go with the translation "reclining on Jesus' right side" because it conveys more clearly what the evangelist is explaining to us about the physical arrangement around the table than a literal translation. But it also conveys something about the spiritual relationship between Jesus and his disciples. The word "kolpos" is only used in one other passage in this gospel, Jn 1.18, at the end of the prologue: "No-one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father's side: he is the one to describe Him."

Here "kolpos", translated "side" indicates the closeness, the intimate contact, between Father and Son. In the present passage, it indicates the placement of John and Jesus at the table but it also indicates the closeness of the relationship between Jesus and one who was both a disciple and a personal friend (like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, whom Jesus is also said to have loved in Jn 11.5). Throughout the gospel, the evangelist describes how relationship with Jesus is the bridge by which a mortal being can enter the life of God. Those who put their trust in Jesus are able to become children of God according to Jn 1.12-13.

In the coming sections of his final teaching with the disciples we will see that Jesus went more deeply into the intimate life of God, the relationship among the Father, the Son, and the Advocate, and the sharing of that life with the disciples. In this verse we get a hint about that. The BD, Jesus' friend and disciple, shows us that same bridge into the heart of God: his relationship with Jesus in v23 offers a parallel to Jesus' relationship with the Father in Jn 1.18. By becoming Jesus' friend and disciple (by putting our trust in him, loving him, and obeying him), we too can have that relationship to Jesus, and through Jesus, with the triune God. We too can recline at Jesus' right side, as Jesus himself is at the Father's side.

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Peter captures the BD's attention with an inclination of the head, which allows him to signal that the BD should ask Jesus about what he said. The whole group of disciples is still at a loss to know Jesus' meaning.

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This word, "psōmion" in Greek, originally meant a morsel or tidbit of food of some kind. It appears that over time it came to be applied to a piece of bread but here it should not be so understood. At the Passover meal, morsels of food were dipped twice: herbs (karpas) were dipped in a bowl of salt water and later the bitter herbs (maror) were dipped in charoset (a mixture of wine, fruit, and nuts). Since this incident follows so closely after the footwashing, it seems likely that it refers to the first dipping, dipping lettuce or other greenstuff into the salted water.

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The evangelist makes clear here what he was saying awkwardly in Jn 13.2. From the point at which Judas received the morsel Jesus dipped in the dish and took it, he was under the influence of Satan. See Appendix 4 for a discussion of this passage in the context of the other "Satan" references.

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Lest we think that the evening of 15 Nisan, when the Passover meal was eaten, a strange or indeed impossible time for the other disciples to imagine Judas doing some shopping, Smith 1991 contains some information about practice at the time. It appears that it was quite lawful to make purchases on the night of 15 Nisan. But the next day, 16 Nisan, was a Sabbath that year, and so it would be impossible to buy anything for the festival that day. The other disciples are therefore not out of line to be thinking that Jesus was reminding Judas to pick up something that they might need for the next day's dinner. This is the more ironic because both Jesus and Judas know that this group of disciples will never gather for another meal during the festival of Unleavened Bread. Before the next night, Jesus will have been crucified and Judas will no longer be one of the Twelve. See Smith 1991 p 32.

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1 As I did in the Introduction I will refer to the Beloved Disciple as BD from now on, following the example of Raymond Brown. As we saw in the Introduction, it is likely that the evangelist is introducing himself into the story as "the disciple whom Jesus loved"; follow the link above for a more detailed discussion of the BD.