Question: When Jesus was giving the Last Supper, it says He dipped the bread in the bowl before serving His disciples. What was in the bowl?
Answer: When Jesus gathered with His disciples in the upper room for that ﬁnal Passover meal, He told them that one of them would betray Him. The announcement set off a cascade of voices asking, “Is it I?” Jesus told them that His betrayer would be the one who dipped his hand with Him in the dish (Matthew 26:20-23). At that point, though, you can imagine each of the disciples starting to wonder if he was the one who had dipped with Jesus in the dish. John in his gospel relates how, at Peter’s urging, he leaned over and quietly asked Jesus who it was. Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give a piece of bread when I have dipped it.” John then goes on to say that Jesus dipped his unleavened bread and gave it to Judas Iscariot (John 13:26).
It was an ironic way for Jesus to reveal His betrayer. Few things express faithfulness and friendship more than sharing your bread and your dipping bowl. For Judas to betray Jesus after dipping his bread in the same bowl was the height of treachery.
Yet the Gospels don’t tell us absolutely everything. They tell us what we need to know to be saved—about Jesus’ betrayal, for example. But they don’t directly tell us the answer to your question: What was in the bowl?
The most likely possibility is that the bowl contained bitter herbs. During the ﬁrst Passover, when the Israelites were still slaves in Egypt, the Lord had given speciﬁc instructions to Moses regarding how this meal was to be eaten. In addition to dining with robe and sandals on, according to Exodus 12:8 the people were to eat the Passover lamb “roasted in ﬁre, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs” (NKJV). According to rabbinic tradition, these bitter herbs symbolized the bitterness of the Israelites’ hard labor in Egypt and included things like endives, romaine lettuce, or horseradish—talk about eye-watering bitterness!
These herbs did not merely serve as a dressing for the lamb; they were meant to be eaten. And the best way to consume these herbs? Chop up the herbs into a sauce into which one could dip a piece of unleavened bread and sop them up. In Ruth 2:14, Boaz asks Ruth to do something similar when he invites her to join the harvesters, dipping their bread in bitter wine vinegar. The practice of dipping bread in olive oil or vinegar infused with various herbs is still around today in several Mediterranean cultures.
Of course, other things might have been in the bowl. According to rabbinic tradition, one of the elements of a Passover meal was the “charoseth,” “a sweet mixture of chopped apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon.” It is not difficult to imagine dipping a piece of unleavened bread into that tasty-sounding mixture. The charoseth, however, is not mentioned in Exodus 12:8. Since Scripture is silent about what was in that bowl, in the end all answers are going to be somewhat speculative.
While we can’t be certain what Jesus dipped His bread in, we can be certain of lots of other things. Like Judas, how many times have we betrayed our Savior by ignoring His will? Yet look at the way Jesus treated Judas. Though He allowed Judas to betray Him, Jesus also continued to give him opportunities to repent. That’s partly why Jesus gave the dipped bread to Judas. He loved Judas, right up to the end. In the same way, Jesus loves us sinners, too, calling us to repent with His holy Word. He died and rose again so that we can break bread with Him for all eternity.
Rev. Piet Van Kampen
Christ The King Lutheran Church
Green Bay, WI