"Then came the day of the unleavened bread, on which the Passoverlamb had to be sacrificed." -- Luke 22:7

EIN KEREM, Israel (RNS)-- Raising bread and wine high in the air, theymouthed the ancient Hebrew blessings over the fruit of the vine, andthen finger-dipped soft pieces of flatbread into the mushy "sop" of aRoman-era style roasted and stewed meat dish, unaided by knife or fork.

"What an adventurous way to eat," said Martha Traw, a preschoolteacher from Peabody, Mass., here with a group of evangelical Christianson a tour of Israel. "It's hard to imagine that people did this everyday in biblical times."

Partaking in a "biblical meal" has become a popular way forChristian pilgrims to evoke the atmosphere and experience of theRoman-era Passover feast forming the basis for the Last Supper mealrecounted in the New Testament.

At least 30,000 Christian pilgrims from all over the world annuallytake part in such meals, conducted in the picturesque village of EinKerem just outside of Jerusalem, where John the Baptist was born.

The program is sponsored by the Biblical Resources Center, aninstitution founded by biblical archaeologist Martin Fleming. Thenondenominational Christian teaching center aims to deepen Christianunderstanding of the New Testament by giving tourists hands-on exposureto biblical-era Jewish and Roman culture.

Staged in the vaulted room of an old stone house in this village ofgrape arbors, the meal certainly evokes something of the atmosphere ofancient Israel. But the contemporary slacks and windbreakers worn byparticipants like Traw, and her husband George, provided a readyreminder this was a meal in the third millennium and not the first.

"We're not observing a Seder per se," Center guide and teacher TomPowers, told the group as they gathered for the meal.

"But I'd like you to know what you could expect if you were to cometo me to eat at my house 2,000 years ago," he added as he welcomed theBoston-area pilgrims around a three-sided Roman-style table, or"triclinium."

In fact, many Passover rituals celebrated by Jews today as part ofthe ritual Seder meal developed in the period following Jesus'crucifixion and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D.

In the New Testament era, when the temple was still standing, themain ritual focus of the Passover holiday was the sacrifice of the"pascal" lamb at the temple in memory of the escape from Egypt. Jewishpilgrims brought the animal offerings to the high priests for slaughter,and the roasted and spiced meat was subsequently eaten by all during theholiday, along with spices and bitter herbs, unleavened bread and wine.

It is the special mood associated with this meal celebrated by Jesusand his disciples that the Center seeks to recreate.

As the group settled onto cushions facing a low, three-sided tableilluminated by clay oil lamps, Powers described how Jews reclined ontheir left elbows, supported by pillows, during the Passover in biblicaltimes in imitation of the freeborn Roman citizens and aristocrats.

"Why are simple Galilean Jews eating in what might seem to be adecadent style," he asks, portraying one artist's rendition of thedisciples virtually sprawled atop one another. "Well, the rabbis saidthat you should eat this one meal a year lying down."

Seating arrangements in Roman times typically followed a rigid orderof status. And the probable order of the disciples around the LastSupper table, sheds light on the relationships and rivalries betweenJesus and the disciples, according to some interpreters.

For instance, the New Testament account of the Last Supper describeshow John reclined on Jesus' chest. It is thus likely he was seated tothe right of Jesus, the position typically occupied by a trusted friendof the host.

The seat of the "guest of honor" was meanwhile on the left.Typically, it would have been reserved for another disciple in Jesus'inner circle. But the New Testament hints that at the Last Supper, JudasIscariot actually occupied this position, describing how Jesus passedthe meat-soaked bread, or "sop" to Judas.

This dipping of the sop, Powers said, was a typical Roman-eragesture by the host to his guest of honor. But in the case of the LastSupper, it provided an ironic comment on the behavior of Judas, whobetrayed his master.

"It's a picture to me of both tenderness and sadness," observedPowers. "Jesus is trying to reconcile with Judas to the very end. Heputs him in the seat of honor, and probably even reclines on his chestduring that long meal. Just think of the emotional turmoil going on inJudas' mind."

Similarly, the New Testament account of Jesus washing the feet ofthe disciples cited in the Last Supper text suggests Peter was seated inthe lowliest position at the end of the three-sided table.

"This would have been the position usually reserved for theservant," Powers said. "It may not fit with our notion of Peter. But ifwe can imagine Peter coming into the room, getting mad that he is notseated next to Jesus, and then maybe impulsively stomping over to theservant position and plopping down, then it fits.

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