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Bible, tradition concur: Da Vinci got it wrong

By NCR Staff

None of the five scriptural accounts of the Last Supper — the four gospels and Chapter 11 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians — relate exactly who was present at the event. The image of Jesus sharing the meal exclusively with the 12 apostles is the product of artistic imagination rather than scriptural exegesis.

Both a close reading of the texts and a knowledge of the cultural context suggest that an assortment of other followers of Jesus were present at the Last Supper, probably including women.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus instructs his disciples to prepare a Passover meal. The word disciple is used throughout each of these gospels in an inclusive fashion to refer to followers of Jesus, both men and women. The accounts go on to say that Jesus sat with the Twelve during the meal, but nowhere do they say the Twelve were the only ones present.

Instead, when Jesus breaks bread and shares it, the three gospels say he does so with his disciples, not simply with the Twelve. John likewise uses the word disciples to describe those present at the meal.

This more inclusive tradition is preserved in early church fathers and in ancient liturgical texts. The earliest liturgical text that includes the words of consecration, dating from 337 A.D., says explicitly that Jesus shared bread both with his apostles and his disciples.

The cultural context also suggests that a Passover meal in first-century Palestine would have been a broader affair. Among other things, it is quite likely that women would have been present as cooks and servers.

Thus while Leonard DaVinci’s rendering is more familiar, Bohdan Piasecki’s painting of the Last Supper is probably a more accurate image.

A fuller version of the argument that women were present at the Last Supper can be found in Marjorie Maguire’s essay in the June 5, 1998, issue of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 1999