EIN KEREM, Israel (RNS)-- Raising bread and wine high in the air, they mouthed the ancient Hebrew blessings over the fruit of the vine, and then finger-dipped soft pieces of flatbread into the mushy "sop" of a Roman-era style roasted and stewed meat dish, unaided by knife or fork.
"What an adventurous way to eat," said Martha Traw, a preschool teacher from Peabody, Mass., here with a group of evangelical Christians on a tour of Israel. "It's hard to imagine that people did this every day in biblical times."
Partaking in a "biblical meal" has become a popular way for Christian pilgrims to evoke the atmosphere and experience of the Roman-era Passover feast forming the basis for the Last Supper meal recounted in the New Testament.
At least 30,000 Christian pilgrims from all over the world annually take part in such meals, conducted in the picturesque village of Ein Kerem just outside of Jerusalem, where John the Baptist was born.
The program is sponsored by the Biblical Resources Center, an institution founded by biblical archaeologist Martin Fleming. The nondenominational Christian teaching center aims to deepen Christian understanding of the New Testament by giving tourists hands-on exposure to biblical-era Jewish and Roman culture.
Staged in the vaulted room of an old stone house in this village of grape arbors, the meal certainly evokes something of the atmosphere of ancient Israel. But the contemporary slacks and windbreakers worn by participants like Traw, and her husband George, provided a ready reminder this was a meal in the third millennium and not the first.
"We're not observing a Seder per se," Center guide and teacher Tom Powers, told the group as they gathered for the meal.
"But I'd like you to know what you could expect if you were to come to me to eat at my house 2,000 years ago," he added as he welcomed the Boston-area pilgrims around a three-sided Roman-style table, or "triclinium."
In fact, many Passover rituals celebrated by Jews today as part of the 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, the main ritual focus of the Passover holiday was the sacrifice of the "pascal" lamb at the temple in memory of the escape from Egypt. Jewish pilgrims brought the animal offerings to the high priests for slaughter, and the roasted and spiced meat was subsequently eaten by all during the holiday, along with spices and bitter herbs, unleavened bread and wine.
It is the special mood associated with this meal celebrated by Jesus and his disciples that the Center seeks to recreate.
As the group settled onto cushions facing a low, three-sided table illuminated by clay oil lamps, Powers described how Jews reclined on their left elbows, supported by pillows, during the Passover in biblical times in imitation of the freeborn Roman citizens and aristocrats.
"Why are simple Galilean Jews eating in what might seem to be a decadent style," he asks, portraying one artist's rendition of the disciples virtually sprawled atop one another. "Well, the rabbis said that you should eat this one meal a year lying down."
Seating arrangements in Roman times typically followed a rigid order of status. And the probable order of the disciples around the Last Supper table, sheds light on the relationships and rivalries between Jesus and the disciples, according to some interpreters.
For instance, the New Testament account of the Last Supper describes how John reclined on Jesus' chest. It is thus likely he was seated to the right of Jesus, the position typically occupied by a trusted friend of 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, Judas Iscariot actually occupied this position, describing how Jesus passed the meat-soaked bread, or "sop" to Judas.
"It's a picture to me of both tenderness and sadness," observed Powers. "Jesus is trying to reconcile with Judas to the very end. He puts him in the seat of honor, and probably even reclines on his chest during that long meal. Just think of the emotional turmoil going on in Judas' mind."
Similarly, the New Testament account of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples cited in the Last Supper text suggests Peter was seated in the lowliest position at the end of the three-sided table.
"This would have been the position usually reserved for the servant," Powers said. "It may not fit with our notion of Peter. But if we can imagine Peter coming into the room, getting mad that he is not seated next to Jesus, and then maybe impulsively stomping over to the servant position and plopping down, then it fits.
"In addition, if Peter was in a servant's position, it would have been his job to wash the feet. But perhaps Peter didn't take the hint, and that is why Jesus finally gets up to wash the feet, to teach him a spiritual lesson.
"The closer Jesus gets to Peter, the more embarrassed Peter gets, until he finally bursts out saying `you're not going to wash my feet," Powers said.
In terms of the Passover meal itself, it is likely it began with the blessings over wine and bread which were and are still common openers at any religious Jewish meal. Wine represented the surplus of the harvest, the drink that gave room for joy and celebration.
Bread, meanwhile, was the ancient sustenance of life, and thus deserving of special gratitude. As in today's Passover, the bread in Roman times would have been baked without leaven to commemorate the Exodus of Jews from ancient Egypt, when their hasty departure left no time for the leavening to rise.
Roasted lamb from the Temple sacrifices would have later been stewed with spices to stretch it among as many family members as possible. Since lamb is an expensive commodity in Israel today, the guests at the Biblical Resources Center typically get a stewed-beef version of the original feast spiced with herbs like native hyssop, cumin and garlic.
The biblical Passover meal also would have included bitter herbs recalling the suffering of Jews in Egypt, which probably meant lettuce or onions, rather than the grated horseradish typically used today in the Seder, he said. Many other modern Passover ritual items and customs were also not yet common in the early Roman-era meal, Powers said, including eggs and parsley dipped in salt water to symbolize the tears of suffering in Egypt. Also missing from the meal, was the sweet-style "charoset" made of fruit, nuts and wine, which is a favored food in seders today as well as a symbolic reminder of the "bricks and mortar" used by Jewish slaves in Egyptian construction projects.
In fact, another kind of "charoset" was probably present in Roman times -- the spices spread onto the meat itself, according to Jewish scholar Noam Zion. Zion is the author of "The Family Participation Hagaddah," a recently published book seeking to make the ancient customs of the Seder more relevant to modern-day Jews.
"Whenever a sacrifice was made, it had to be eaten in the style of a `king,"' Zion said. "Since a king typically would eat meat with spices, so did the sacrifices have to be eaten with condiments. That is probably the original meaning of the charoset, which later became a separate, sweetened dish."
Modern scholars, Zion notes, know very little about the real character of the Seder during the early Roman era.
"We know that Jews at the time did a sacrifice in the temple, and ate all of the elements," Zion said. "They had to have matzoh, or unleavened bread, eat bitter herbs and have wine. But we don't know whether they celebrated the Seder by drinking four cups of wine, per se, as we do today."
"The real revolution in the Seder is after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the first century," he said. "That's when the Seder as we know it was created by Rabbi Gamaliel, a great rabbi of around 100 A.D., who lived in the period when the Mishnah, or Jewish law, was being codified."
A significant percentage of the American Christians who visit the center to try the "biblical meal" have already experienced a modern Seder as a result of the contemporary Jewish-Christian dialogue and Christian interest in the Jewish roots of Christianity. Yet for many Christians, examining the Roman-era customs that surrounded the biblical Last Supper adds another dimension to the age-old story.
"I never imagined it as such an intimate experience between Jesus and the disciples," Martha Traw said.