Meals of the Community

Meals of the Community

by Suzanne Tunc

Chapter IV from Des Femmes aussi Suivaient Jésus, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris 1998, pp 69-77. Translated by John Wijngaards and here republished with permission of the author.

The Gospels do not say anything explicitly about the participation of Jesus in the meals which he had with the twelve Apostles. However let us read certain texts carefully ....

Jesus’ meals with the people he preached to

Eminent theologians are convinced that one can deduce from quite a few events in the Gospels that other disciples were present at Jesus’ meals apart from the twelve.

This is what Jeremias wrote in 1972:

“According to Mark 14 and Mt.26,20, Jesus was surrounded by his twelve disciples at the Last Supper. But we may not without further ado conclude from this that the women mentioned in Mark 15,40 and Luke 23,49-55 had been excluded. An Oriental text does not allow this kind of argument from silence. Neither may we attach too much importance to the fact that this composition of attendance at the meal (Jesus and the Twelve) reported in Mark 14,17 is nowhere else expressly mentioned in the Gospels: it is certainly a pure coincidence. On the contrary, it is almost certain that during his ministry of preaching, Jesus had the habit of taking his meals with the great circle of those listening to him. That follows from the warning given to hypocrites that it would serve them no purpose to be able to state that they had eaten at the same table as Jesus during his preachings in their country (Luke 13, 26ff). Mark reports that quite often Jesus was so pressed by the crowd around him that is was impossible for him to take his food (Mk.3,20; 6,31). Often, and especially on sabbaths (Mk.1,29-31; Lk.14,1), Jesus was invited to meals with other participants (Mk.14,3; Lk.7,36;11,37; John 2,1-11). Occasionally he himself entertained invited guests (Lk.15,1f; compare Jn.1,39). On one occasion he even had a great number of invited guests (Mk.2,15). The characterisation of Jesus as ‘a glutton and drunkard, friend of Publicans and sinners’ (Mt. 11,19) confirms the fact that meals in large assemblies happened frequently. Often during his travelling around, it was quite natural for Jesus to take his meals surrounded by his disciples and fans.... (Mk.6,32-44; 8,14; Jn.4,8.31; 21,12).

Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, London 1966, pp. 46-47.

LAST SUPPER by Bohdan Piasecki.
Click here or on the image for enlargement.

I have quoted these texts at length because it gives an insight in Jesus’ life style in Galilee and during his travels, whether he journeyed across neighbouring provinces or was on his way to Jerusalem. Jeremias speaks of meals with his ‘disciples’ and his ‘fans’. Also the women who followed Jesus were his disciples, they will thus have taken part in his meals. It is true that in general during Jesus’ time, the women did not eat together with the men: they served the men standing up, while at the same time, according to other Jewish customs, the men would not have simply eaten while the women stayed in the kitchen . . . if there was a kitchen! But could such rules have been observed during the travels of Jesus?

We must imagine what such a journey implied. The Jews travelled frequently and often in family groups, or with friends. For pilgrimages, for instance, when they walked as a group, men and women together, such as we see Mary and Joseph did when they went to Jerusalem with the twelve years old Jesus (Lk.2,45-52). The travelled with family, neighbours and friends, It would not surprise us if Jesus occasionally blocked the routes of Galilee and Palestine when he passed by -- with his disciples, men and women, and occasionally a crowd. The presence of women will not have been more unusual than we would think it to be today.

Quite a few texts show Jesus taking his meals in the open air, as Jeremias indicates. This happened not only during the multiplication of the bread (Mk.6,32 and parallels) whether these are symbolical accounts or not, but also on other occasions. Mark mentions that one day the disciples had forgotten to bring bread (Mk.8,14). When John reports on the meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman, he indicates that the disciples had gone to the village “to buy something to eat” (Jn 4,8), after which he describes the meal itself (Jn 4,31f.). The same evangelist recalls Jesus’ meal with his disciples on the shore of the Lake of Genesareth after his resurrection (Jn.21,12). Perhaps at this last meal, which is situated outside ‘the terrestrial life’ of Jesus, women did not participate but for all the other meals, how should we imagine things happened? All will have had to sit in a circle, as happened during the multiplication of the bread.

Even when the meal took place inside a house, the evangelists show that the women took part in it. During the episode of Mary and Martha (Lk.10,38-42), Martha does not forget to say her piece! The same applies to the dinner in honour of Lazarus, in which Mary plays the principal part since she comes to anoint Jesus with perfume (Jn.12,1-11). And although Martha serves at table, Xavier Léon-Dufour does not hesitate to write that “among the participants at the meal are Lazarus and his sisters”. According to him they took full part in this meal. Moreover, how could we suppose that Jesus would have refused access at his table to the women friends who followed him!?

X. Léon-Dufour, Lecture de l’Évangile selon Jean, Seuil Paris, vol. II, p.443.

Living ‘with Jesus’ presupposed participation in his meals.

It need not surprise us that the Gospels never speak of the presence of women at Jesus’ meals. This silence, as Jeremias reminds us ,may not be taken as a proof of their absence, since it was normal not to mention them. Recalling the multiplication of the loaves, Matthew specifies that there had been “about 5,000 men without counting the women and children” (Mtt.14,21). Should it surprise us that there is therefore not more question of women in the course of their ‘life with Jesus’? It is already surprising that Luke does mention them explicitly at his side!

Our reflection on ‘life with Jesus’ and the Twelve since his preaching in Galilee until his going to Jerusalem and his death seems therefore to suggest that we have to consider the women as normal participants in the meals of the group.

Jesus’ Last Supper

It is quite likely that the Last Supper of Jesus was shared by others than just the Twelve. For that matter, John in his presentation of this supper, does not mention ‘the Twelve’ but ‘the Disciples’ a wider term which can include the women. But let us first focus on a more general point.

The episode of the disciples of Emmaus who recognise Jesus during the breaking of the bread (Lk.24,12-35) may serve as typical. How would they have been able to recognise Jesus by this sign if they had not shared the bread with him at his Last Supper? Even if the episode is symbolical, as certain scholars think, the fact that it is reported by Luke indicates at least that one believed — that one knew — that others than the twelve had been present at the Last Supper.

Moreover, we can ask some questions about the identity of these two disciples. Luke mentions Clopas or Cleophas. The name of the other disciple is not mentioned. But it is possible that it was this Cleophas that had a wife called ‘Mary’ — a woman who, according to John, stood next to the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and whom it is not easy to know who she was. “Next to the cross stood his mother, the sister of his mother, Mary, the wife of Cleophas, and Mary of Magdala” (John 19,25). It may well be therefore that we have to identify the second ‘disciple’ of Emmaus as Cleophas’ wife. She would therefore have participated equally in Jesus’ meal with Cleophas, her husband.

And what to think of the ‘disciples’ who fulfilled the conditions to replace Judas after his fall, Barsabbas and Matthias (Acts 1,21f.)? Will they not have taken part at the final meal with Jesus if they had followed him to the point of being considered as ‘Apostles’, since one of them would now join the other eleven?

It is natural for the evangelists not to mention other disciples but the twelve at the Last Supper, since they symbolised the 12 tribes of the new Israel and since, in this capacity, their presence was indispensable. But there is nothing that suggests that we have to suppose that others could not have been present.

The presence of women at the Last Supper.

This allows us to believe that, in spite of the silence of the texts on this question, women must also have been present at the Last Supper of Jesus. It is not only because Jeremias asks himself “where would the women have been able to eat the Pasch?”, for it is not at all certain that the Last Supper has been a Pascal meal, although the atmosphere was Pascal. But many elements, decisive ones in my view, argue in favour of their presence.

Jesus’ women disciples were in Jerusalem at the moment of Jesus’ death, as the four evangelists testify. It would have been altogether improbable for them to have been absent precisely on the evening of Jesus’ farewell meal. The affection which Jesus bore in their regard, argues in favour of their presence. Luke makes Jesus say to his friends: “It is you who have been constantly with me in my trials” (Lk.22,28). Xavier Léon-Dufour, who seems to think that the twelve must not have been the only participants at the Last Meal, writes that during the supper, “the disciples which he has chosen surround him, representing at that last meal Jesus’ community which he has succeeded to bring together. They are the ones who, with the exception of a single person have followed him faithfully until that day . . .” Who, more than the women, deserved this title of ‘faithful’, those who did not leave during the passion, as the eleven Apostles did after Judas’ treason, and who did not deny Jesus as Peter would do? Xavier Léon-Dufour, who does not mention women explicitly, speaks of the ‘community’ gathered for this meal as ‘the little remnant’, those who have believed in him, ‘his own’. The women belonged to this small, faithful remnant. We have already observed that Mary of Magdala could be considered as being part of those whom Jesus called ‘his own’, by the way in whichs he recognises Jesus by his voice alone during his apparition.

Other arguments point to the same.

When the women who had left to embalm a dead person, come back as Messengers of a Living person, where will they tell what the Lord himself has confided to them? Although neither Matthew (28,8), nor Mark (16,10), nor Luke (24,9) give further details, it is probably in the Cenacle, the house which Jesus had chosen (Mt.26,17-19; Mk.14,12-16; Lk.22,7-13), because the house was vast and could accommodate all his disciples for his last meal - an indication of the great number of participants. No other house is mentioned in the Gospels. It is also not indicated that the disciples had left it, except to follow Jesus to the Garden of Olives.But they must have come back there immediately after his arrest and remained there well hidden until after the Passion of Jesus, because of the fear which they found themselves in. It could not have been but to that place that the women went directly and without hesitation when they returned from the tomb, a sign that the place was known to them and that they must have been there before. For what other purpose, if not for the Last Supper? Since they ‘followed Jesus’, their presence at the meal was quite natural. The twelve ‘in the house’ (the Cenacle) do not seem in anyway surprised to see the women come back.

It is also clear that the disciples of Emmaus, returning to Jerusalem after having recognised Jesus at the breaking of the bread, find “the eleven and their companions” (Lk.24,33). Who are these ‘companions’? According to all evidence, they were those who followed Jesus with the eleven, therefore the women, and without any doubt those who had taken part in the Last Supper of Jesus.

A fourth century document confirms our interpretation. It is called the Ecclesiastical Canons of the Apostles. It presents a curious dialogue between the twelve and Mary and Martha on the position which it is correct to give to women in the Church, -- which seems to indicate that the question had not been clearly determined by then. The document makes John say that at the Last Supper Jesus had not permitted the women to ‘stand up straight’. It was the position of the person presiding at the Eucharist in the fourth century, but probably not those of men at the Last Supper. If the Jewish rules of the time of Jesus had been observed (which is not certain), the men were seated or possibly stretched out on couches, and the women stood up straight! According to the document, Martha then replied: “It is because of Mary, because Jesus has seen her smile”. Mary then said: “It is not because I laughed. For he has told us on other occasions, when he was teaching, that what is weak, will be saved by the strong”. This discussion, obviously imaginary, is concocted because it makes the women themselves recognise their incapacity to minister because of their supposed lack of seriousness and their weakness, but it is contrary to the spirit of Jesus who exalts the weak and dethrones the mighty! However, the dialogue clearly witnesses to a tradition existing in the fourth century, a tradition which is not contested, according to which the women were present with Jesus at the Last Supper, a presence that was supposed to be as normal as their participation in the meals of the Christian community.

The ‘Meals of the Lord’ of the Early Communities

It is precisely what we know about the ‘Lord’s meal’ of the early communities which provides another argument in favour of the presence of women at the Last Supper. Could we in fact imagine that, starting from the first community in Jerusalem which was made up of convert Jews, the early Christians would have admitted women without any difficulty, if Jesus had not introduced this custom to his disciples first, by allowing their presence at meals, including the Last Supper?

All these arguments therefore speak strongly in favour of the presence of the women who followed Jesus, both at the meals which he took in the course of his public ministry and at his farewell meal.

The significance of the women’s presence at his last meal also introduces the question of the meaning of the ‘memory’ which should be retained of Jesus’s words. “Eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood” has never been refused to women. But does John in his gospel not show that the words of Jesus on his ‘flesh’ to be given to the world are addressed to ‘the crowd’, to the whole of humanity, men and women (Jn.6)? It is the whole of humanity that Jesus invites to his table - God’s table, even if without any doubt that invitation was not fully comprehended or understood at the time.

The fact that women have never been refused participation in ‘the Lord’s meal’ (Acts 2,47; 1Cor 11,17-18), would seem to indicate that Jesus’ words were addressed to them also, to at all others. Why then separate the reception of the body of Christ from the re-realisation of his words, thus substantially reducing the instruction which Jesus had given according to Lk.22,19 and Paul 1Cor.11,25? “Take this all of you . . . Do this in memory of me!”

Suzanne Tunc

Read also the article by Marjorie Reiley Maguire: Bible & liturgy concur: women were there!

You may also like to refer to the original French: Des Femmes aussi Suivaient Jésus.

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