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Last Supper held three days before crucifixion, scholar says

March 24, 1997 GMT

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Jesus and his disciples shared the Last Supper three days, and not several hours, before the crucifixion.

They did not sit at a banquet table like the one envisioned by Leonardo da Vinci, but were reclining, Roman-style, and eating from small round tables.

The hosts were followers of a radical Jewish sect.

Such theories, presented in a new book and other recent research, challenge traditional beliefs about an event that has evolved into a central Christian ritual, the Holy Communion.

The four Gospels of the New Testament provide little detail on the Last Supper, saying only that it took place in a guest room inside walled Jerusalem around the time of the Jewish Passover holiday.

According to Christian tradition, Jesus gathered his disciples for a farewell meal in the city on a Thursday evening, then walked to the Mount of Olives. There, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was arrested by the authorities who were tipped off by Judas. The crucifixion took place Friday morning, just hours later.

Bargil Pixner, a Benedictine monk and Bible scholar at the Dormition Abbey on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion, tells a different story in a new book, ``With Jesus in Jerusalem,″ based in part on archaeological excavations.

Pixner believes the Last Supper took place on Tuesday evening and was given by the Essenes _ Jewish purists who rebelled against what they perceived as the corruption of the Temple priests. Jesus’ trial lasted from Wednesday to Friday, he says.

The Essenes, authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, mostly lived in small rural communities, including their center at Qumran in the Judean Desert. But Pixner believes they also had a monastery and living quarters on Mount Zion.

Pixner said he found archaeological proof for the existence of an Essenes quarter in Jerusalem during excavations on Mount Zion in 1977.

He excavated the remains of the Essenes Gate, one of the entrances to the walled city first mentioned by Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. Later, he examined ritual baths nearby, which he said were too big for individual families and must have belonged to a larger community, probably the Essenes.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke say the Last Supper, a meal marking the Jewish Passover celebration, coincided with the start of Passover. But John says the meal was held ahead of the holiday.


Pixner said he believes Jesus celebrated that Passover according to the Essenes’ fixed 364-day solar calendar, rather than the Temple’s newer lunar one. The Essene Passover always began on a Tuesday night, while the Temple Passover would have started at sundown Friday that year, he argues.

Although Jesus was not close to the Essenes, whose exclusionary practices contradicted his teachings of universal compassion, he chose to go with their calendar for the Passover meal because he knew he would not be alive by the start of the Temple Passover, Pixner says.

Other Bible scholars fiercely dispute Pixner’s theories.

Jerome Murphy O’Connor, a researcher at Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, says the Essenes were poor and couldn’t have afforded to live on tony Mount Zion.

Scholar Stephen Pfann says the Essenes’ Passover and the Temple Passover never fell in the same week. He also says Jerusalem’s gates were named after what lay outside, not inside the city walls.

As for the Last Supper, scholars say, the actual meal looked quite different from the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting _ Jesus sitting on a chair at the center of a large rectangular table with disciples on either side.

Jesus and the disciples were probably lounging on low couches, around small round tables, as was customary at the time, Murphy O’Connor and Pfann say. ``One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus,″ according to the Gospel of John.

Murphy O’Connor argues the Last Supper room wasn’t even on Mount Zion but rather in a poorer quarter of the city, closer to the Temple.

Nevertheless, the site revered by Christians today as the Last Supper room is a second-floor Crusader chapel and one-time mosque on Mount Zion. Renovated a year ago by Israel’s government, it has become a ``must″ stop for Christian tour groups from around the world.

On a recent day, dozens of pilgrims from Wesleyan University crowded around the Rev. Joseph Coleson in the dark chamber with sleek Gothic arches and Islamic verses carved into the walls.

``We are standing in the place where the church really started,″ said Coleson, a lecturer at the Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. Group members sang, ``Holy spirit, I need thee.″ Other visitors bowed their heads in prayer. Some danced in a circle.

Coleson said the scholarly debate over the Last Supper wouldn’t change Christian beliefs.

``This is inside fun,″ he said. ``It doesn’t really affect the essence of faith. It happened _ that’s what really matters to Christians.″