Joe MulrooneyUnlocking the door to the Upper Room

The current model of priesthood is based on the Last Supper as not only the institution of the Eucharist but the ordination of 11 men as priests.   The gospel accounts have come to be read like documents written by scribes recording events as they happened. In fact what we have are precious memories which have been shared by a community for many years.   The evangelists were most likely not present; they were simply writing down what they themselves knew of the oral tradition. There are some discrepancies in the accounts but basically they are incontestable because the Eucharist was fundamental to the fledgling church.   St. Paul is the first to transmit the core which had been handed on to him. He states very clearly it is exactly what he is doing and nothing else. Art has also played a role. For centuries it has depicted the traditional scene of Jesus and his companions and fossilised it for us.  The event can be re-imagined using good theological principles to reveal it as an inclusive community event.   


The Historical Setting:  the City of Jerusalem at this time.

Its normal state was crowded, but at Passover it would be crammed to overflowing.   Not only was it crowded it could be dangerous. In Josephus we find the following:

Protest against Archelaus (4 BCE) 

Now came the festival at which Jews serve unleavened bread according to their ancestral custom. It is called the Passover and is a memorial of their deliverance out of Egypt. They observe it with enthusiasm, and it is their custom to slaughter sacrifices in greater number than at any other festival. An innumerable multitude of people come out of the country, and from abroad also, in order to worship God. 

Now the rebellious who lamented Judas and Matthias, the interpreters of the laws [killed by Herod in the golden eagle protest], gathered in the Temple gaining recruits for their faction. Archelaus was afraid that something dangerous would spring up from their fanaticism, so he sent a company of legionaries under the command of a chiliarch to suppress the violent efforts of the rebels before the whole crowd was infected with their madness. And he gave orders that if they found any more actively rebellious than the others they were to bring them to him. But the rebellious followers of the teachers and the people were outraged at this, and with loud cries and exhortations they made an assault upon the soldiers and, surrounding them, stoned most of them to death, although some of them and their commander ran away wounded. After they had done this, the rebels took up their sacrifices again. 

Now Archelaus thought there was no way to save everything except by eliminating those who inflamed the crowd, so he sent in the entire army; even the cavalry was used, to prevent those that encamped outside the walls from assisting those that were within the Temple and to kill those that escaped the foot-soldiers and thought themselves out of danger. Three thousand men were killed by the cavalry, while the rest escaped to the neighbouring hills. Then Archelaus issued a proclamation that everyone should retire to their own homes. So left the festival and went away fearing worse was to come, although they were still bold due to their undisciplined state.    Ant. 17.9.3 213 (War 2.1.3 10)

A Samaritan Disturbance (9 CE) 

During the governorship of Judaea by Coponius, who, as I have said, had been sent with Quirinius, the following incident occurred. As the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which we call Passover, was being celebrated, it was customary for the priests to open the Temple gates just after midnight. This time, when the gates were first opened, some Samaritans who had secretly entered Jerusalem threw human bones about in the porticoes and the entire Temple. On this account, the priests excluded everyone from the Temple, which they had not customarily done, and took other measures to watch the Temple more carefully. 

Ant. 18.2.2 29

Roman Soldier Exposes Himself (c. 50 CE) 

While Judaean affairs were under the administration of Cumanus there occurred an uprising in the city of Jerusalem in which many of the Jews perished. I shall first explain the cause from which it was generated. When the feast called the Passover was at hand, at which time our custom is to serve unleavened bread, a great multitude gathered together for it from all parts. Cumanus was afraid lest an attempt at resolution by prompted by their presence, so he ordered one company of soldiers to take their weapons and stand guard in the porticoes of the Temple to repress any attempts of rebellion that might begin. Indeed, this was what previous procurators of Judaea had done at such festivals. 

But on the fourth day of the festival, a certain soldier displayed his uncovered genitals to the multitude. This action put those that saw him into a furious rage, and made them cry out that it was not an insult to them, but an impiety against God. Some of them even reproached Cumanus, and asserted that the soldier was prompted by him. When Cumanus heard this he was himself not a little provoked at such reproaches laid upon him, yet he merely advised them to cease their desire for revolution and not to ignite a riot during the festival. 

But when he could not induce them to be quiet, for they continued their insults toward him, he ordered the whole army to take full armour and come to Antonia, which was a fortress, as I have said before, that overlooked the Temple. The multitude, when they saw the soldiers, became frightened and hastened to flee; but as the passages of the exits were narrow, and as they thought their enemies were pursuing them, they were crowded together in their flight, and a great number were pressed to death in those narrow passages. Indeed, the number that perished in this tumult was calculated to be twenty thousand. So they had mourning instead of festivities; and all of them forgot their prayers and sacrifices, and took themselves instead to lamentation and weeping. Such were the sufferings produced by the lewdness of a single soldier. 

Ant. 20.5.3 106 (War 2.12.1 224)


There are two further references to numbers. 

For the Passover protest against Florus in 66 CE he says “the people came out to him in number not less than three millions”

War 2.14.3 280

These priests found the number of the sacrifices was two hundred and fifty-six thousand five hundred; which, if we assume no more than ten feasted together, amounts to two million seven hundred thousand and two hundred persons;

War 6.9.3 422-427

One should of course be very cautious in accepting his figures and details reliable but, however exaggerated they may be, what Josephus writes must be taken as an indication of the tension surrounding the festival..

In addition once can safely imagine it would be a hotbed of crime.  There would be rich picking for robbers, fraud, assault, etc. Barabbas was a notorious prisoner. (Matt 27:16) He had taken part in insurrection and was murderer.  (Mark 15:6) (Luke 23:18 & 19) “Two criminals” (Luke). “robbers” (Matt and Mark) were crucified at the same time as Jesus, 

The Last Supper – or as the disciples would have anticipated it, not only The First Passover together, but Passover in Jerusalem.

The late biblical scholar, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, taught the New Testaments accounts were on a “need to know” basis.   Applying this principle to the Passover Feast, the rest of the meal is not described because the Jewish Communities knew all the ritual.  It was only necessary for the unique actions of Jesus to be described. For us the rest has to be reconstructed.

It is in the feverish in atmosphere in Jerusalem that Jesus and his disciples are about to celebrate Passover.  We should imagine that all his party in a state of excitement. There had been the triumphant entry; this was going to be the high point of the mission, the reign of the Messiah. 

 We know the whole group had travelled together;  we do not know where they lodged or camped. In view of the evidence it is surely inconceivable that Jesus would leave the rest of the men and women, including his mother and Mary of Magdala, to fend for themselves, find a venue, and prepare their own separate celebration.  It should also be noted that Josephus calculates family groups as no more than 10 which would no doubt fit into the largest room of a normal home, or on the roof. Jesus has booked “a large upper room” suggesting it was available for hire for larger parties. (Mark 14:15. Luke 22:12)  

Furthermore, the narrative told to the first audience would not need to include the detail that the women were present.   It was simply natural they would be there. Passover included every member from the oldest to the youngest, the latter having a significant part to play.   The case is the opposite for the men. Unless their presence was stated it would be assumed they would be celebrating Passover elsewhere, even leading the ritual for those with them.  

If the average house could accommodate 10 for Passover it is not unreasonable to assume 3 more could squeeze in.    Therefore the need for a large room implies a large number of people present. Some have imagined the women cooking, and peeping round the door.   Whilst that might seem a step forward it from the traditional ‘males only’ interpretation of the meal it is contrary to the spirit of Passover as a family feast.    Jesus has already defined his family in Matt 12.50. Furthermore it was, and is, the duty of the head of the household to celebrate Passover for the whole household.

Who is mentioned as being present?

One of the problems in trying to work out who was there is the inconsistency of the texts.    

In Mark, the oldest account, the disciples ask “Where will you have us go to prepare for you to eat the Passover?”   Jesus sends two of his disciples and tells them to follow a man carrying a jar of water When evening comes Jesus arrives with the twelve.

In Matthew’s version we lose the man carrying the jar of water and the disciples are told to “go to a certain one” and tell him Jesus and the disciples will keep the Passover at “your house”.   The owner may well be male, but it could female. “Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house.”  (Luke 10:38)    It is the disciples who prepare the Passover and not the owner of the house.   In the evening Jesus sat at table with the twelve disciples. (“Disciples” is missing in some versions.)

In Luke the two disciples are named as Peter and John and they prepare the Passover.  The man with the jar of water is back. When the hour comes Jesus sat at table and the apostles with him.  (Luke 22:14)

John has no account of preparations;  during the meal there is the foot washing after which Jesus resumes his place.  (John 13:4-12). The only other incident recorded within the meal is the giving of the morsel (14:26)

The Passover meal takes a lot of preparation and needs a lot of time.   It is clear only the room is ready. It is always assumed that the two disciples in Mark were men.   Preparing for Passover is a woman’s job so why the assumption? I suggest it is because women have not been considered disciples.  It will need more than two disciples to prepare properly. The lamb has to be fetched and cooked and other dishes made ready. Peter and John could no doubt fetch the lamb, and buy the wine, etc.  but they are fisher folk. Cooking lamb is a different matter altogether as is preparing the other dishes.

There is a distinct lack of clarity as to who was present.   The terms disciples, the twelve, and apostles have over time merged popular conception to the twelve apostles.   

 Apart from Jesus the only consistent name in the accounts is Judas.    Each of the gospels has the advance tip off alerting us that Judas, identified also as being one of the twelve, is the traitor who will betray Jesus.    In Mark, Peter is named in the prediction that they will all fall away. This incident takes place on the way to the Mount of Olives; they all go to the Mount of Olives “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives”  (Mark 14:26) It is when they get to the place called Gethsemane that the group is split up. Disciples are told “Sit here” but Peter, James and John are called to accompany Jesus.     

The same sequence is in Matthew although it is “Peter and the sons of Zebedee”.  In Luke there is the account of the dispute as to who is the greatest and the prediction that Simon (Peter) will betray Jesus.  When Jesus leaves for the Mount of Olives the disciples follow him. (Luke 23:39). There is no inner circle of Peter, James, and John.   

In the discourse in the Gospel of John we are given more names.  Simon Peter protests at having his feet washed (13:6-11). Questions are asked by Thomas (14:5), Philip (14:8) and Judas (not Iscariot) (14:22.)   After what we know as the High Priestly Prayer, Jesus “went forth with his disciples across the Kidron Valley where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. (18:1). 

The New Testament uses “Apostles”,   “Disciples”, and “the Twelve”. “The twelve” has a symbolic meaning.   

Apostle and Disciple have a more technical meaning at that time in that they are related to tasks.      Apostles are sent on a mission. They are carriers of messengers on behalf of another, often to foreign parts.  For example Augustine of Canterbury “Apostle to the English”; Cyril and Methodius, “Apostles to the Slavs”.    

Jesus’ apostles are commissioned to go out to teach and heal.  Mary of Magdala and the women were commissioned by the “young man in white robes” to tell the disciples and Peter that they would see Jesus in Galilee (Mark 16:7)  In John Mary is commissioned by Jesus himself to reveal the forthcoming Ascension to the Father. (John 20:17) Mary of Magdala has been officially recognised as an apostle by Pope Francis.  St. Paul claims for himself the title. The greetings at the start of epistles refer to him being an apostle called by the will of God. In defence of his claim in 2 Corinthians he states “have I not seen the Lord” and his prove is that the Corinthians that they received the message and accepted it.  (1 Cor 9:1 ff)

 A disciple has a different role.  Greek philosophers had disciples.   Their characteristics are sitting at the feet of the master or mistress (Hypatia of Alexandria had disciples), following if they were peripatetic like Jesus, and looking after his material needs.   The gospels record the women members of the group doing all these things, sitting, listening, following and providing from their own means. The word disciple is not applied to them in the gospels but they certainly fit the criteria.

Disciples can also be apostles if they are sent on a mission.   “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.” (see Luke 10:1-10)

New Exodus;  New Covenant

The Passover, whilst commemorating a unique event, it is ritually re-enacted as if it is happening right there in the present.  (anamnesis). “We were slaves in Egypt”. Just as following the original Passover Moses led the whole community into a new future, Jesus too is founding a new community, with the twelve apostles symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel.    The Covenants God made in the Old Testament concerned “the people”, “descendants” “the nation”. They were inclusive. Likewise Jesus is initiating new future and it is inclusive.  


In both what he taught and his actions, Jesus constantly subverted the established conventions of his time.   If we accept that the Last Supper was an inclusive event where the Eucharist was instituted then the command “Do this in memory of me” was addressed to all present.   It was not the ordination of 11 men. Indeed it could be argued that the subversion of an all male priesthood, as in the temple, was the final act before entering his Passion.

Ann Lardeur  B.D. M.Th.


On re-reading I see I need to explain statement about evangelists not being present.   John, Matthew and Mark would have been but the texts we have are not on the whole written by them.  It is the writing down of their preaching as it had evolved at that time. John’s gospel is particularly complicated.   Paul on the other hand is the author of most of the epistles attributed to him.