Did the disciples sit on chairs?
The most reproduced religious painting in history, Leonardo da Vinci's famous depiction of the Last Supper, shows Jesus and the disciples sitting upright at a table as people do today. The truth, however, is that chairs (which were no doubt expensive) were not used AT ALL during Jesus' final Passover meal with his disciples.
Based on Jewish law and tradition, those who observed Jesus' last celebration of the Passover reclined around a low, long oval table. Each person would be lying on their left side and leaning on their left arm, with their feet behind them and their heads facing the table. This would mean that all those located on the left side of the table would have the front of their bodies somewhat facing the end of the table. Each of the disciples had a pillow to place under their left arm. This eating position during a meal like supper allowed the right arm to be free to use for eating.
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
Where did the disciples sit?
Jesus was the host of this very special observance of the Passover. The Bible does not directly state the seating arrangement used for the last meeting. We can deduce, however, where Judas, Jesus, Peter, and John HAD to have sat based on traditions in use during the time and the Bible's record of what occurred at this solemn gathering.
In the above diagram, Judas is sitting to the left of Jesus (the host), in the place designated for the most honored guest. Although traditionally the host would choose who would be the honored guest (see Luke 14:7-11) the Bible does not state that Jesus asked Judas to sit next to him during "supper" Judas may have felt in his own mind he DESERVED to be honored and, according to Edersheim, did what was necessary to secure the seat for himself:
"There is, we believe, ample evidence that he (Judas) not only claimed, but actually obtained, the chief seat at the table next to the Lord." (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book 5, Chapter 10)
Judas' exalted opinion of himself as the "greatest" disciple, deserving of honor, could have easily been encouraged and fed by Satan (see Luke 22:1 - 4) whose chief sin is vanity (Isaiah 14:12-14). Peter, in the seating diagram, is located across from John in the lowest (most humble) place at the table.
the Life of Christ
Why is the seating CORRECT?
The above seating diagram is correct (and Da Vinci's portrayal of the "supper" is incorrect) because it explains how and why certain events, most of which centered on Judas Iscariot, occurred at Christ's last Passover celebration.
The Bible states that Peter somehow got John's attention, during the Passover, to ask him to ask Jesus who it was that would betray him (John 13:21, 24). Peter, because he was sitting on the opposite side of the table, was able to not only get John's attention but also lean over the table to request John find out who among them was the betrayer.
Scripture states that John was close enough to Jesus to lean against his chest and ask him what Peter wanted to know (John 13:23 - 25).
John HAD to be sitting next to Jesus for him to be able to lean back and ask a question. However, how can we determine if John was reclining to his left or right side? Based on tradition, those at the last supper leaned on their left side and arm, with their head close to the table and their feet behind them. This freed their right arm for eating. In this position, anyone who leaned BACK would be moving toward the person on his or her left. This means that Jesus HAD to be to the left of John!
The exchange that involved Peter, John, Christ and Judas HAD to have been quiet enough such that the other disciples at the table had NO IDEA what was going on (John 13:28). As the above seating diagram shows, Peter was close enough to John, and John was close enough to Jesus for them to communicate without the other disciples hearing. This meant the other disciples DID NOT KNOW the betrayer would be the one given a piece of bread (the "sop") during supper.
Traditionally, the host of a formal meal would give the chief or honored guest at the table the first "sop." The sop was a piece of bread or other small amount of choice food that dipped in a sauce. The host, once he had the sop, would place it INTO the mouth of the honored guest. The honored guest of a formal meal, who received the sop, sat to the LEFT of the host. The Bible is clear as to the name of the honored guest that received the sop during Christ's last meal.
"Jesus answered, 'He it is, to whom I shall give a SOP, when I have dipped [it].' And when he had dipped the SOP, he gave [it] to Judas Iscariot, [the son] of Simon." (John 13:21, 25 - 26, KJV)
Judas asked, after he received the sop, if it was HIM who was the betrayer (Matthew 26:23 - 25).
As mentioned previously, the disciples were completely unaware of any of the conversations regarding who was the betrayer. Judas had to be sitting next to Jesus in order for his whispered question and answer not be heard by the other disciples.
After Judas left the room where the Passover was held Jesus began to do something that caught the disciples, especially Peter, entirely by surprise. He took off some of his clothes, wrapped a towel around his waist, and then came to Peter to begin to wash the feet of all of his disciples (John 13:3 - 8)! As you can see from the above diagram, since Peter was sitting on the end of the table, it was only natural to begin 'foot washing' with him. This helps explain Peter's impulsive rejection of having his feet washed near the end of the last supper.