By Elizabeth Prata
Growing up, I used to watch the PBS Masterpiece Theatre classic “I, Claudius”. It was about one of the least known Emperors of the Roman Empire, Claudius. Claudius is not as well known, being sandwiched in history between the more famous emperors Caligula and Nero. I was fascinated with the Roman banquets, of which the show “I, Claudius” had many. I used to wonder why they ate while reclining. It seemed cumbersome to me.
However, Amos mentioned reclining while eating in Amos 6:7– “Therefore they shall now go captive as the first of the captives, And those who recline at banquets shall be removed.” Amos lived in around 760 BC. As a matter of fact, the first known artistic depiction of someone reclining while eating is captured in this ‘Garden Party’ relief from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal, Nineveh, Iraq, about 645 BC, well before the Roman Empire. The relief is currently housed at the British Museum. King Ashurbanipal reigned from 669-631 BC. Here he is shown eating while reclining on his left side, with a pillow propped under his armpit and his wife upright in front of him. This custom was later shown in Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art and writings. It was picked up in Jewish traditions.
I was then and I am still bemused by the Roman custom of eating while reclining. The Romans said it aided digestion. It also was a cultural boast, that the upper class Romans were so wealthy they could afford to not only sit to eat, but to recline. Leisure was a mark of class and wealth.
The photo below from Wikimedia Commons shows a re-enactment of a Roman banquet. The Romans would lie on their left side with a pillow under their armpit. They would use their right hand to eat. Their feet would extend out and away from the specially designed couches upon which they would recline for many hours. Dinners took a while, interspersed as they were with conversation and entertainment. Women were allowed to participate at dinners at later stages of the Empire, and usually sat in upright chairs in front of their husbands.
As the custom caught on, the middle class then the lower classes copied the posture of reclining while eating.
The typical dinner would include nine guests. There were three reclining couches arranged in a semicircle, with three diners to a couch. The inside of the horseshoe was left open so slaves could pour wine and serve food. Anything not eaten, like bones or shells, were cast to the floor to be swept up by the slaves later.
The host would assume the place in the middle of the central couch and to be placed next to him was the place of honor. It is like “the head table” at a wedding. The place of honor was given to the one on his left. Jesus spoke to this when he said in Matthew 23:6, “They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues,”
As Barnes' Notes describes, "On these the guests reclined, leaning on their left side, with their feet extended from the table, and so lying that the head of one naturally reclined on the bosom of another. To recline near to one in this manner denoted intimacy, and was what was meant by lying "in the bosom" of another, John 13:23; Luke 16:22-23.
“John 13:23— “There was reclining on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved.“
Barnes continues, "As the feet were extended "from" the table, and as they reclined instead of sitting, it was easy to approach the feet behind, and even unperceived. Thus, in Luke 7:37-38, while Jesus reclined in this manner, a woman that had been a sinner came to his feet "behind him," and washed them with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head. She stood on the outside of the couches. So our Saviour washed the feet of his disciples as they reclined on a couch in this manner, John 13:4-12. Whenever we read in the New Testament of "sitting" at meals, it always means reclining in this manner, and never sitting as we do. The chief seat, or the "uppermost" one, was the middle couch at the upper end of the table. This the Pharisees loved, as a post of honor or distinction."
All one had to do if wanting to ask a private question or make a one-on-one comment was to lean back against the person next to you, and with your head at their bosom, ask it in a low voice. The Beloved Disciple, assumed to to be John, asked this of Jesus when prompted by Peter, ‘who was going to be His betrayer?’
“He, leaning back thus on Jesus’ bosom, said to Him, “Lord, who is it?” (John 13:25).
Jesus replied to the Beloved Disciple who had just asked Jesus who His betrayer was going to be by saying it is the one to whom I will dip this bread (Verse 26). Because Jesus was able to hand Judas the bread it it assumed that Judas had been reclining at the second place of honor, to the Host’s left.
Jesus certainly had upside down ideas about the places of honor, so the ritual usually associated with Roman & Jewish dining places can’t be dogmatically assumed, except for Jesus being at the center. In Luke we notice at one point the guests choosing their own places of honor.
“When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”” (Luke 14:7-11).
The handing of bread that had been dipped was a custom of friendship, or reconciliation. By Jesus handing Judas the bread He was giving an offer of friendship at that late stage, and still giving Judas grace to change his mind.
Judas was close to Jesus because Jesus handed him the bread and Judas took it.
“After the morsel, Satan then entered into him.” (John 13:27).
So Judas accepted the gesture but still resolved to betray Jesus! Then Jesus said, “What you do, do quickly.”
Here are a couple of other verses referring to intimacy and closeness in proximity by being at the bosom-
Isaiah 40:11— “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambs And carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.”
The picture of being at Jesus’ bosom shows us rest, intimacy, care. Are you reclining at Jesus’ bosom today? It is an amazing thing to know that He is holy, holy, holy; that His thunder can rend the earth into pieces, but that His love of His forgiven is as gentle and accessible as being able to lay your head on His bosom. He will even gather you into His arms and carry you. He is not just the Judge of all sins, He is not only the Subduer of foes, but He is the gentle Shepherd, able to tenderly carry the feeble and the weak. Come to Him today, your Shepherd, your Companion.