Did Jesus really eat jelly at the Last Supper?
The idea that Jesus and his disciples may have eaten jelly at the Last Supper may sound rather outlandish, even disrespectful – but as we shall see, it is neither. Jelly is a simple, inexpensive and humble food that has been enjoyed in one form or another for thousands of year, by humans all over the world. As we shall discover below, it was as popular with pharaohs of Ancient Egypt as it was with humble peasants in the Middle Ages, and as it is with children of all ages to this day.
As children, we come to associate it with times of happiness and celebration – such as birthday parties – but also with times of illness and pain, such as when sick or in hospital. Like Jesus, jelly is there for us at the best of times but also, importantly, during the very worst of times.
If you think about it, does any food more represent everything Jesus stands for, than jelly? Simple yet heartening, available to all, bringing joy to all who accept it – if God came to Earth as a dessert rather than as a carpenter, would it surely not be jelly?
So put aside for a moment your associations with student parties and vodka jelly cakes, and remember that jelly is a food beloved of innocent children, of the sick and the poor, as well as princes, poets and sages. Why wouldn’t Jesus have eaten it? Indeed, there is a fair amount of historical evidence that he really did. Read on…
Food of the sick, food of the poor
If you’ve never eaten jelly (or what the Americans refer to as jello; jelly to them is what we know as jam) then you are an unusual person indeed. It is estimated that at least 94 per cent of all humans in developed nations have eaten jelly at some point in their lives – and those that haven’t are likely from strict vegan families or those that avoid animal products on religious grounds. And even for them, there are vegetarian versions of jelly (although like most vegetarian versions of animal-derived foods, they aren’t quite as nice).
It is cheap and cheerful (one of the few foodstuffs where that phrase can be used without irony) and endlessly versatile, both for kids and grown-ups; for while it is served almost as standard at children’s birthday parties, there can’t be many students or music festival attendees who haven’t knocked back a few vodka jelly shots.
Jelly is the go-to food for children – and many adults – who are ill, particularly those with sore throats, and with good reason too. Does any food, with the possible exception of ice cream, slip down quite as easily if you’re feeling a bit below par? Plus it’s actually surprisingly good for you.
Obviously there’s the fact that it is an efficient and non-abrasive method of delivering calories to a child who may not have much appetite or who finds eating difficult, for instance due to tonsillitis – but it has additional health benefits as well. We’ll come to this in more detail later, but for now it’s worth noting that products derived from gelatine are a source of protein, and that the collagen it contains is thought to help strengthen nails, make hair shiny and boost the memory.
That much you probably already know – but did you know that jelly has also played a role in the development of human civilisation, going as far back as Ancient Egypt, and had been enjoyed by such key figures in history as Jesus Christ, Joan of Arc and Winston Churchill?
A brief digression
This is a digression, but Churchill by the way was so fond of jelly that he went to great lengths to try and stop the rationing of jelly babies during the war. He believed that jelly in general and jelly babies in particular was good for morale. Hitler on the other hand didn’t eat jelly because of his vegetarianism. Jelly: enjoyed by Churchill, Richard the Lionheart, David Attenborough, Doctor Who and very likely, as we are about to see, by Jesus; spurned by Hitler. Do you need any further evidence that jelly is on the side of the righteous and the good?
Although thinking about it, Ghandi would also not have eaten jelly due to his strict vegetarianism, so it’s not an absolutely cast iron rule that people who eat jelly are all good and/or heroic, whereas people who shun jelly are all evil. But as a very rough rule of thumb, it is worth bearing in mind. But anyway, we are getting off topic here. Back to the history of jelly and how it may or may not pertain to the Last Supper.
Jelly of the pharaohs
Before we get to the fascinating question of whether Jesus really did eat jelly at the Last Supper, it might be worth taking a quick look at the surprisingly long history of what many of us wrongly think of as a somewhat modern dessert.
Jelly is actually one of the most ancient of foods. As far back as humans were able to make fire and boil meat and animal bones, they would have noticed that the leftover water from the cooking of certain, particularly cartilaginous, joints would, once cooled, form a sort of jelly.
We know that the Ancient Egyptians enjoyed jelly, as there are depictions of the making and serving of jelly in some hieroglyphics. It was often served as a savoury dish, as the primary sweetener of the day – honey – was a prized and expensive resource, generally consumed only by the more wealthy and powerful Egyptians. Commoners would have jelly sometimes just as it came, that is, as a cooled and meaty tasting animal stock, seasoned with whatever herbs and spices were available, perhaps eaten with bread or grains. However a variant of modern dessert jelly was almost certainly enjoyed, as the banks of the Nile provided a rich source of all kinds of fruit, which could be crushed and added to gelatine to make a form of fruit jelly.
It was not just vegetables, herbs or fruit that were added to jelly. While of course there is no record of an Ancient Egyptian vodka jelly recipe, they certainly knew how to ferment grains and fruits to make alcoholic beverages, and it is perfectly possible that they would add this to jelly, either as a “fun” dish at festivals, or simply because it was known that adding alcohol to many foods was a good method of slowing perishing in the desert heat.
But the real dessert jelly similar to how we know it, sweetened with expensive honey and served wobbling on a plate, could only really be enjoyed by Egyptian royalty and perhaps by particularly wealthy citizens. It is very likely that “the boy king” Tutankhamen had wobbly jelly at his birthday parties. When his tomb was unearthed by Howard Carter in 1922, among the riches and treasure he found was a beautiful inlaid golden bowl filled with intricately moulded jelly which, thanks to the cool, dry atmosphere inside the tomb, had been desiccated and preserved – that is, mummified. Interestingly, the jelly had been moulded into a pyramid shape, which would have been the preferred shape for wobbly jelly in Ancient Egypt.
The fact that jelly was placed in the pharaoh’s tomb suggests strongly that it was a highly prized food item, and also that the boy king himself – just like all children to this day – would have been a big fan of it.
Jelly for Jesus
Moving forward from Ancient Egypt, jelly was inevitably created wherever it was that humans boiled up animal bones – that is, pretty much everywhere in all of human civilisation. Of particular importance for our investigations, we should note that in the time of Jesus it was most commonly consumed by poorer people, of which he and his disciples most definitely were. Richer diners could afford to cook their meat and throw away the bones, or feed them to animals. But the less wealthy, for whom any meat at all was a rare treat, would quite rightly try to extract every last bit of nutrition from the animal. Therefore they would boil up bones, sometimes several times, to make a kind of thin broth, into which they might put spices, grains or vegetables. If this broth had been made with very cartilaginous joints of meat, it would form a jelly as it cooled. This jelly could then be eaten another day, perhaps flavoured with herbs or with fruits.
Thus Jesus and his disciples, like most poor people of the time, would almost certainly have eaten some form of jelly from time to time. It is not actually known exactly what was eaten at the Last Supper, as the Bible only gives a few details, but a number of scholars have made informed speculations based both on biblical record as well as what we know was commonly eaten at the time in that part of the world.
Drinking wine, breaking bread
Let’s look at what we actually know about the menu at the Last Supper (taking, for the purpose of this discussion, the Bible as a factual historical record). First, we know that Jesus and his friends ate bread. This would likely be flat, unleavened bread. Having said that, the process of adding yeast to bread so as to make it rise was not unknown in Jesus’ day (the practise having been around, like jelly making, in Ancient Egypt). Sometimes this would happen by accident, when spores of yeast suspended in desert winds would alight on dough, which would then be left in the sun. But other times people would quite deliberately add yeast (which was known about from wine production) to dough in order to produce a delicious, risen loaf.
Perhaps then the bread was partially leavened, maybe similar to modern day pita bread. Either way, Jesus broke it and shared it around the table, telling his friends that it represented his body. Actually, whether the bread represented his body or actually was his body is a subject of theological debate that is beyond the scope of an article about jelly. But it’s certainly something we may return to on another day.
Secondly, we know he drank wine. Similarly as with the bread, he told the assembled diners that it represented his blood (or actually was his blood, see above) him. To this day drinking wine is an important part of a number of Christian ceremonies.
Mint jelly for the Lamb of God?
Thirdly, there is a mention in the Bible of lamb at the Last Supper. Scholars though are divided as to whether this was literally lamb, or rather a metaphor for Jesus himself. The next day Jesus was to be sentenced to meet his maker, so some speculate that this reference to lamb was alluding him as the sacrificial lamb, the “Lamb of God”. As with the wine and the bread – and indeed, much of the Bible – debate rages between those who take it all literally, and those who believe it was only intended as metaphor.
Nevertheless, it is certainly possible that they ate lamb. It was widely consumed at the time, and would have gone quite nicely with the pita bread if you think about it. Sort of an early Judean kebab. To this day, kebabs are a popular dish in that part of the world, and it is pleasing – and fitting – to think that for his Last Supper Jesus and his disciples may have eaten something as honest and humble as a tasty kebab.
And if they did eat lamb at the Last Supper, then as was standard practice among poor people of the time (see above), they very likely would have boiled up the carcass to extract maximum nutrition from the animal. After all, it would be out of character if Jesus had behaved wastefully, with food or with anything else.
Even if they didn’t boil up the bones at the supper itself, it is quite possible they would have had some stock left from a previous supper (the last-but-one supper, as it were), which could well have become jelly-like as it cooled, due to the presence of gelatine. And a gelatinous lamb broth was likely a popular and fairly standard menu item in those times.
What Jesus and his disciples might have flavoured this “jelly” with we can only speculate, but it is known that olives, mint, honey, dates and figs were very commonly consumed by ordinary people in those days.
While we can never know in what order they ate their food, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the gelatinous dish was eaten at the end of the meal. Thus we can ponder the possibly – and it is of course only a possibility – the very last thing Jesus ate before his crucifixion was a wobbly fig jelly. Which you must agree is a lovely and comforting thought.
Wine jelly shots
Obviously the disciples did not have vodka jelly shots – as people might do today at a sort of laddish gathering – but it is not at all an outlandish or sacrilegious notion to speculate that they may have had wine jelly. After all, we know Jesus liked his wine, and there are numerous references to this in the Bible. Indeed, he liked it so much that he famously even turned water into wine.
It is also known that people in those days would sometimes add wine to foodstuffs as a method of short-term preservation. Food would go off quite quickly in the heat and of course there was no refrigeration back. So if you were saving some food (such as the above discussed gelatinous lamb broth) for the next day or two, adding some wine would inhibit, or at least slow, the formation of harmful bacteria. While this wouldn’t be a long-term method of preservation, it would certainly extend the edible life of the food, both its safety and its flavour, meaning you could come back to the next day or even later.
So yes, if we follow all this through logically then Jesus and his disciples might well have consumed a gelatinous meat broth into which some wine had been added. Maybe it is a bit of a stretch to call this “wine jelly”, and it is admittedly only very distantly related to the aforementioned vodka jelly shots – but it is nevertheless related.
WWJD? Eat some jelly!
So as we can see, it is not at all beyond the realms of possibility that Jesus, like Tutankhamen before him and like Winston Churchill after him, and like millions of people, rich and poor, throughout all history, was fond of a spot of jelly. If ever you see an American (it’s usually Americans) wearing a badge emblazoned with “WWJD?” or “What Would Jesus Do?”, you can say to them without a hint of disrespect or blasphemy – and very possibly with a fair amount of factual accuracy – that what he would do is eat some jelly.
The next time your are tucking into some strawberry wobbly jelly at a child’s birthday party, or mixing up your favourite vodka jelly recipe for your mate’s summer barbecue, just think of the famous and noble footsteps you are following in. Eat jelly with humility but always with joy – it’s what Jesus would have wanted.