Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Minor, Trivial Biblical Stuff, Part 4: The Upper-Room

And He said to them, "Behold, when you have entered into the city, there shall meet you a man, carrying a jar of water. Follow him to the house that he enters, and you shall say to the householder of the house, 'The Teacher says to you, "Where is the guest-room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?"' And he shall show you a large upper-room, furnished; there make ready."

-Luke 22:10-12
The Last Supper, one of the most important events in the life of Christ wherein He instituted the Eucharist, was held in an anagaion (anything that is above ground; traditionally rendered and understood as "upper-'room'"). Now we wonder: what could this upper-room be? First, let's check how houses looked like in the 1st century.

First and foremost, we must remember that one traditional candidate for the site, known as the Cenacle, as it stands today, only reached its present form around the medieval period (there is still some debate as to exactly when), after experiencing numerous cycles of destruction and reconstruction. So, it's rather unlikely that Jesus and His disciples held their last meal in a wide, spacious Gothic room such as this - supposing that this is the actual site. The area would have looked totally different in the 1st century AD.

Many 1st-century houses in Roman Judea were small, box-like buildings, usually built from hand-made and sun-dried day bricks or stone. Interior walls (or also the exterior if one could afford it) were covered with a mixture of soil, chalk and straw or lime plaster. Wide benches of mud brick or stone for sitting and sleeping, and shelves for storage, were built into the structure itself.

Stairs or a wooden ladder led up onto the flat roof, which was usually composed of timber covered with reeds, followed by a layer of mud and a dry mixture of chalk, earth and ash, which provided insulation. This layer was applied while the mud plaster was still damp. Finally a mixture of mud rich in lime was added, to keep out water. A stone roller was then used to compact each layer. It was because of this mud that weeds sometimes grew on rooftops. In some areas where timber was scarce, another possible alternative was stone beams covered with plaster. The roof was usually bordered with a wall around two feet high as a safety measure. The interior tended to be a cramped, cold and dark space (due to the small and high windows, which prevented intruders and the cold from entering), so the courtyard and/or the roof tended to be more important parts of the house where work was done, since they were used for tasks that needed good light - such as spinning and weaving, and food preparation. The roof might also be used for sleeping at hot days, or for drying food or textiles, or even as a dining area. At times temporary tent or booth-like structures were even set up on the rooftop as a protection against the hot sun and the elements. Hence, some historians think that it may be possible that the 'upper-room' where Jesus and His disciples ate the Seder was actually the rooftop of the house they were in, with a sort of booth, stall or awning (most likely made out of thatch or tree branches, probably kind of like the sukkah erected during the week-long Jewish festival of Sukkot, aka Feast of Booths) erected on it, and furnished with tables and couches (chairs were mostly non-existent; people either reclined on couches or sat on the floor) for the meal. In a busy season such as Passover, when many people crowded the streets of Jerusalem, this was the only available space for anyone who is seeking room.

Another possibility is that the house was a two-storey house (see left). In such a dwelling, a lower room or cellar was used as a storeroom and stables for animals. The main living area, partitioned into several sections, was located on the upper level, accessed by a flight of stairs. It had a work and kitchen area, where the children often slept, and a separate bedroom for the parents. In a more wealthier home, a third room would be added for guests and for entertaining (='upper-room'?).

Passover was a season when thousands of pilgrims from all over the known world flocked into the Holy City, swelling its overall population probably tenfold. At this time of year, there were a lot of people on the streets, many of them trying to find houses that would and could let them stay in for the feastdays or, in the event where such is not possible, building temporary structures in virtually any place they could (the word used for 'guest-room' here, katalyma, is the same word that was used by Luke to describe the place where Joseph and Mary found no room for the birth of Jesus - which is traditionally misrendered as "inn"). What is interesting is that the words, 'the Teacher' and 'my guest-room', suggest that Jesus was well-known to that householder.


Mark of the Vineyard said...

Have you read The Life of Christ, by an italian abbot named Ricciotti? Very good, sound book, especially in contextualizing Christ's life.ple

Patrick said...

Thanks for the comment!

No I haven't, but thanks for the tip anyway/