Every Seder table I’ve sat down to since childhood has had place tags. Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s don’t, though. In the Synoptic Gospels’ Last Suppers, everyone hears everything said by anyone. But John restores my place tags.
John brings his layers of proximity to the Last Supper, which for John also means layers of intimacy and understanding. Just as John assigns the master of the feast, the servants, the reader, and Mary to different circles when Jesus turns the water into wine, he assigns the disciples to different positions at the Seder table, and therefore to different levels of relationship and intimacy.
John places his own personae (always “the disciple whom Jesus loved”) next to Jesus. John even uses the Seder tradition of reclining at table — the perogative of a free man, thanks to the exodus from Egypt — to suggest John’s inner-circle status. The Revised English Bible has John “reclining close beside Jesus,” but the King James declares that John was “leaning on Jesus’ bosom.” Peter, who is not next to Jesus or John, has to signal John to have him ask Jesus a question. Judas is within arm’s length of Jesus, presumably: Jesus gives him a sop after he dips it in the wine.
John’s Seder is more like a real Seder or like any meal with a dozen or more people present. Not everyone hears everything. The volume goes up and down. Conversations happen simultaneously at times. John’s Last Supper is therefore more like modern theater than the Synoptic Gospels’ Last Supper, but it’s still John’s theater. The stage directions, the intimacy, even the dramatic conversations itself point to layers of relationship and understanding.
John’s drama centers on the sop. The Synoptic Gospels use the sop as a generalization, a means of turning a specific question into an indication that Scripture is being fulfilled. Here’s Mark’s version:
They began to be grieved and to say to Him one by one, “Surely not I?” And He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who dips with Me in the bowl. (Mark 14:19-20)
The New American Standard notes suggest that “one” may also be read “the one.” This ambiguity is as close as the three gospels come to using the sop as the means of identifying Jesus’ betrayer. Jesus doesn’t answer the disciples’ question directly in the Synoptic Gospels; that is, he doesn’t make the sop a means of identifying Judas. He simply paraphrases Psalms, making the verse prophetic of their last meal together. Here’s the verse Jesus alludes to:
Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me. (Psalm 41:9, NNAS)
But John transforms the sop into the means of identifying the betrayer. How? Here’s the King James Version of the text:
When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me. Then the disciples looked one on another, doubting of whom he spake. Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake. He then lying on Jesus’ breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it? 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. And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly. Now no man at the table knew for what intent he spake this unto him. For some of them thought, because Judas had the bag, that Jesus had said unto him, Buy those things that we have need of against the feast; or, that he should give something to the poor. He then having received the sop went immediately out: and it was night. (John 13:21-30, KJV)
First, Jesus here doesn’t use the sop as an allusion to Scripture. It simply is a means of designating to one of his closest disciples who is betrayer is: “He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it.”
Second, Jesus’ remark about the sop isn’t spoken to everyone at table but only to John. Peter’s need to signal John suggests that not everyone can hear everything. Peter’s signaling also suggests that, if Peter has his way, only he and John will know who the betrayer is. We know that no one but John hears the sop remark since “no man at the table knew” why Jesus says, “That thou doest, do quickly.” The sop remark would have made the meaning of Jesus’ remark to Judas evident. It’s not clear if Peter learns the significance of Jesus’ remark to Judas, but I like to think John makes it clear to him after supper.
Peter and John have a special role with respect to the Seder in Mark’s and Luke’s gospels, too. Mark says that Jesus sent “two of his disciples” to secure a room for the Seder (Mark 14:13). Luke makes clear that the two disciples sent are Peter and John (Luke 22:8). Mark and Luke therefore designate Peter and John as intimates by what they do. Consistent with the rest of his gospel, however, John designates Peter and John as intimates by what they know.
[I’m reading John’s gospel. My reactions here vacillate between notes — a list of impressions — and something less sketchy. A note on nomenclature: the note number in my post’s title indicates the chapter of John’s material I’m reacting to. A title’s letter, though, differentiates the post from earlier posts about that chapter. “John field note 2c,” then, is my third post concerning John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]