This year on Nisan 14 many will celebrate the Passover and begin the festival of unleavened bread. As a Christian, on that evening, after sundown, I will be commemorating the ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ and meditating on the new covenant he established at his last meal with the disciples. Modern passover plates use modern tradition, so let’s dig a little to find what 1st-century Jewish passover meals were like.
Since the Gospels note that the meal included at least bread and wine, some hypothesize that the meal could have taken place at Passover. This is corroborated by the Gospel of Mark, which notes that the Last Supper took place during the “feast…of unleavened bread.” If so, they tell Rosella Lorenzi there would have been much more on the table:
According to Generoso Urciuoli and Marta 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.
The roots of the festival of unleaved bread are found in Exodus 12, in which God instructs the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb at twilight on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, before the sun sets (Exodus 12:18). That night the Israelites are to eat the lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The lamb’s blood should be swabbed on their doorposts as a sign. God, seeing the sign, will then “pass over” the houses of the Israelites (Exodus 12:13), while smiting the Egyptians with the tenth plague, the killing of the first-born sons.
In researching what they may have eaten as Jewish men of the first century I found more interesting information published by two Italian scholars.
A 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.
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 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.