Even after 2,000 years or so of Biblical scholarship, there are many questions unanswered. For instance, I have met a few religious teachers and theologians and Biblical experts in my time, and I have even met A.N.Wilson once or twice, and none of them could solve for me one of the big problems of the New Testament: What was the seating plan at the Last Supper?
This was obviously an important topic in the Middle Ages, when everyone from Leonard da Vinci downwards had a crack at depicting the final meal together, and they all had to get everyone sorted out before things started. Many a painter tried to solve the question by presenting a long table with all the disciples on the far side, leaving the near side of the table absolutely free of diners. This seems to me to be a painter’s solution rather than a theologian’s or a restaurateur’s solution - if you put everyone on the far side of the table, facing you, it means that the onlooker can then see everyone’s face, but it doesn’t actually make for a sensible seating plan, as you will know if you have ever attended recreations of the Last Supper.
Yes, I have sometimes sat at recreations of the Last Supper. So have you, probably. They are called the top table, and are very often staged at big dinners, or at conference dinners, or in college dining halls. There we sit, a dozen or more men and women in a row, all facing one way, not so that the artist can see them but so that the other diners can look up and gawp at us and study our strange table manners and make secret malicious remarks about the ones who have got nobody to talk to... Yes, even at a well organised top table there are going to be some losers. The person at either end, for instance, who has only the one neighbour to talk to, and when that neighbour feels he has to talk to HIS neighbour, well, the end person sits and has no conversation for the next while, and wishes he had brought a book ...
That’s why I hope that Jesus and the disciples didn’t really have a top table last supper, as portrayed in the big paintings (“The Last Supper ” - now a major picture ! ) because one can imagine that it led to all the grumblings and inconveniences produced by normal top tables...’I had the misfortune to sit next to Judas and he was in a foul mood all evening ...’ ‘Jesus didn’t say much either - he kept studying his notes for his speech, and rewriting them under the table ...’ ‘How was your lamb? Mine was really tough...’.
Every time I sit at a top table these rebellious Biblical thoughts run through my mind. I had slightly different Biblical thoughts the other night, though, when my wife took me out for a birthday dinner to a local posh hotel, a country hotel where we were the only diners in a small dining room. Not the only guests in the hotel, however, as there were several private rooms containing small groups being taught management techniques at pre-dinner seminars. I know that was what was happening, because I blundered into one where the leader was saying to his disciples, ‘These are the normally accepted ground rules, but I’m not sure we should always buy into these ground rules, because the downside is that... ‘ and I shot out again before they could use the word “access” or “prioritise”.
In another room, left empty by the management pupils, there was one of those boards with huge sheets of paper on, the kind where the lecturer writes a few significant words in squeaky felt tip pen before flipping it dramatically over the board to reveal another clean sheet of paper, and I had a look at what he had already written. It was management gobbledy gook, full of “focus” and “profile” and similar meaningful stuff...
And suddenly it occurred to me that the traditional scene of the Last Supper makes more sense in terms of a management seminar than a meal. Jesus standing there... the disciples taking weary notes ... the smell of food drifting up, telling them that if they got through the next half an hour, they’d be given some food, and Jesus saying:-
‘Now, what about inheriting the earth? Let’s write that up on the board. Inheriting ... The ... Earth... Now, who do you think is going to inherit the world? Anyone? What’s that you say, Peter? The holy ones ? Mmmm, perhaps - but I tell you what, let’s try thinking MEEK. I’ll write that up....’ Squeak squeak squeak, the word MEEK is scrawled up....”Anyone got any thoughts on MEEK?’
Just a thought.
The Independent Monday May 17 1999