Drama Around the Triclinium

Reasonable, educated speculation based on an understanding of the Jewish seating custom can help us appreciate the drama in the Upper Room at Jesus’ final Passover more than 2,000 years ago.

He and the disciples would have sat at a triclinium—a low table around which people reclined on three sides. Excavations have revealed that many homes had them. The left side held the seats of honor. Moving clockwise around the table, the seats became less important. The last couch on the right was the servant’s seat. It is probable that Jesus occupied the second couch on the left, where the host usually reclined. He would have rested his left arm on a cushion and used his right hand to eat.

By tradition, John is the disciple “whom Jesus loved.” John may have reclined on the first couch on the left, to Jesus’ right: “Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved” (Jn. 13:23).

Earlier Jesus said one of them would betray Him. “Simon Peter therefore motioned to him [John] to ask who it was of whom He spoke” (v. 24). In seeking John’s attention, Peter may have been on the last couch on the right, usually reserved for servants who washed the feet of those around the triclinium.

Apparently, Peter did not or would not perform the task. So Jesus removed His garment, took a towel and a water basin, and washed the disciples’ feet. It is assumed that He would have started at the left side of the table and worked around toward the right.

John 13:6–13 gives the impression that Peter’s feet were the last to be washed. Jesus’ example taught humility and service. For Peter, often considered the leader of the group, reclining on the servant’s couch, the lesson must have been heart-piercing.

When John asked Jesus who was to betray Him, Jesus answered, “He who dipped his hand with Me in the dish will betray Me” (Mt. 26:23). The couch to the left of the host was reserved as a chief guest couch. It is suggested that Judas was on it. This would have made it easy for Jesus to give him the sop, or food.

Later, choosing the darkness of unbelief, Judas left the triclinium (Jn. 13:30). Jesus then instituted what today is called communion. Jesus always invites us for fellowship and communion. But we can only come in faith, as we trust in Him.

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