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The hospitality of the present day in the east exactly resembles that of the remotest antiquity. The parable of the "great supper" is in those countries literally realized. And such was the hospitality of ancient Greece and Rome. When a person provided an entertainment for his friends or neighbours, he sent round a number of servants to invite the guests; these were called vocatores by the Romans, and κλητωρες by the Greeks. The day when the entertainment is to be given is fixed some considerable time before; and in the evening of the day appointed, a messenger comes to bid the guests to the feast. The custom is thus introduced in Luke: "A certain man made a great supper, and bade many; and sent his servant at supper time to say to them that were bidden, Come, for all things are now ready." They were not now asked for the first time; but had already accepted the invitation, when the day was appointed, and were therefore already pledged to attend at the hour when they might be summoned. They were not taken unprepared, and could not in consistency and decency plead any prior engagement. They could not now refuse, without violating their word, and insulting the master of the feast, and, therefore justly subjected themselves to punishment. The terms of the parable exactly accord with established custom. The Jews did not always follow the same method; sometimes they sent a number of servants different ways among the friends they meant to invite; and at other times, a single male domestic.

The Persians send a deputation to meet their guests: this deputation are called openers of the way; and the more distinguished the persons sent, and the greater the distance to which they go, so much greater is the honour.

So it is proclaimed, "Go forth and behold king Solomon, with the crown wherewith his mother crowned him." "The bridegroom cometh, go ye forth to meet him." The names of the persons to be invited were inscribed upon tablets, and the gate was set open to receive those who had obtained them; but to prevent any getting in that had no ticket, only one leaf of the door was left open; and that was strictly guarded by the servants of the family.

Those who were admitted had to go along a narrow passage to the room; and after all who had received tickets of admission were assembled, the master of the house rose and shut to the door; and then the entertainment began. The first ceremony, after the guests arrived at the house of entertainment, was the salutation performed by the master of the house, or one appointed in his place. Among the Greeks, this was sometimes done by embracing with arms around; but the most common salutation was by the conjunction of their right hands, the right hand being reckoned a pledge of fidelity and friendship. Sometimes they kissed the lips, hands, knees, or feet, as the person deserved more or less respect. The Jews welcomed a stranger to their house in the same way; for our Lord complains to Simon, that he had given him no kiss, had welcomed him to his table with none of the accustomed tokens of respect.

The custom of reclining was introduced from the nations of the east, and particularly from Persia, where it seems to have been adopted at a very remote period. The Old Testament Scriptures allude to both customs; but they furnish undeniable proofs of the antiquity of sitting. As this is undoubtedly the most natural and dignified posture, so it seems to save been universally adopted by the first generations of men; and it was not till after the lapse of many ages, and when degenerate man and lost much of the firmness of his primitive character, that he began to recline.

The tables were constructed of three different parts or separate tables, making but one in the whole. One was placed at the upper end crossways, and the two others joined to its ends, one on each side, so as to leave an open space between, by which the attendants could readily wait at all the three. Round these tables were placed beds or couches, one to each table; each of these beds were called clinium; and three of these being united, to surround the three tables, made the triclinium. At the end of each clinium was a footstool, for the convenience of mounting up to it. These beds were formed of mattresses, and supported on frames of wood, often highly ornamented; the mattresses were covered with cloth or tapestry, according to the quality of the entertainer. At the splendid feast which Ahasuerus made for the nobles of his kingdom, beds of silver and gold were placed round the tables; according to a custom in the east of naming a thing from its principal ornament, these must have been couches profusely ornamented with the precious metals. Each guest inclined the superior part of his body upon his left arm, the lower part being stretched out at length, or a little bent; his head was raised up, and his back sometimes supported with pillows. In conversation, those who spoke raised themselves almost upright, supported by cushions. When they ate, they raised themselves on their elbow, and made use of the right hand; which is the reason our Lord mentions the hand of Judas in the singular number: "He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me," Matthew 26:23 . See ACCUBATION .

When a Persian comes into an assembly, and has saluted the house, he then measures with his eye the place to which his degree of rank entitles him; he straightway wedges himself into the line of guests, without offering any apology for the general disturbance which he produces. It often happens that persons take a higher seat than that to which they are entitled. The Persian scribes are remarkable for their arrogance in this respect, in which they seem to bear a striking resemblance to the Jews of the same profession in the days of our Lord. The master of the entertainment has, however, the privilege of placing any one as high in the rank of the assembly as he may choose. And Mr. Morier saw an instance of it at a public entertainment to which he was invited. When the assembly was nearly full, the governor of Kashan, a man of humble mien, although of considerable rank, came in and seated himself at the lowest place; when the master of the house, after numerous expressions of welcome, pointed with his hand to an upper seat in the assembly, to which he desired him to move, and which he accordingly did. These circumstances furnish a beautiful and striking illustration of the parable which our Lord uttered, when he saw how those that were invited chose the highest places.

Before the Greeks went to an entertainment, they washed and anointed themselves; for it was thought very indecent to appear on such an occasion, defiled with sweat and dust; but they who came off a journey were washed, and clothed with suitable apparel, in the house of the entertainer, before they were admitted to the feast. When Telemachus and Pisistratus arrived at the palace of Menelaus, in the course of their wanderings, they were immediately supplied with water to wash, and with oil to anoint themselves, before they took their seats by the side of the king. The oil used on such occasions, in the palaces of nobles and princes, was perfumed with roses and other odoriferous herbs. They also washed their hands before they sat down to meat. To these customary marks of respect, to which a traveller, or one who had no house of his own, was entitled, our Lord alludes in his defence of Mary: "And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house; thou gavest me no water for my feet, but she hath washed my feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss; but this woman, since the time I came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint; but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment," Luke 7:44 . Homer mentions it as a custom quite common in those days, for daughters to wash and afterward to anoint the feet of their parents. Our Saviour was in the circumstances of a traveller; he had no home to wash and anoint himself in, before he went to Simon's house; and, therefore, had a right to complain that his entertainer had failed in the respect that was due to him as a stranger, at a distance from the usual place of his residence. The Jews regularly washed their hands and their feet before dinner; they considered this ceremony as essential, which discovers the reason of their astonishment, when they observed the disciples of Christ sit down at table without having observed this ceremony: "Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread," Matthew 15:2 . After meals they wash them again; for, says the evangelist, "the Pharisees and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders," Mark 7:3-4 . When they washed their hands themselves, they plunged them into the water up to the wrists; but when others performed this office for them, it was done by pouring it upon their hands. The same custom prevailed in Greece, for Homer says, the attendants poured water on the hands of their chiefs. This was a part of the service which Elisha performed for his master Elijah; and in every instance under the law where water was applied to the body by another, it was done, not by plunging, but by pouring or sprinkling. To wash the feet was a mean and servile office, and, therefore, generally performed by the female servants of the family. It was occasionally performed, however, by females of the highest rank; for the daughter of Cleobulus, one of the Grecian sages, and king of Lindus, a city on the southeast part of Rhodes, was not ashamed to wash the feet of her father's guests. And it was customary for them to kiss the feet of those to whom they thought a more than common respect was due; for the daughter of Philocleon, in Aristophanes, washed her father, anointed his feet, and, stooping down, kissed them. The towel which was used to wipe the feet after washing, was considered through all the east as a badge of servitude. Suetonius mentions it as a sure mark of the intolerable pride of Caligula, the Roman emperor, that when at supper he suffered senators of the highest rank, sometimes to stand by his couch, sometimes at his feet, girt with a towel. Hence it appears that this honour was a token of humiliation, which was not, however, absolutely degrading and inconsistent with all regard to rank. Yet our blessed Redeemer did not refuse to give his disciples, and Judas Iscariot himself, that proof of his love and humility.

The entertainment was conducted by a symposiarch, or governor of the feast. He was, says Plutarch, one chosen among the guests, the most pleasant and diverting in the company, that would not get drunk, and yet would drink freely; he was to rule over the rest, to forbid any disorder, but to encourage their mirth. He observed the temper of the guests, and how the wine worked upon them; how every one could bear his wine, and to endeavour accordingly to keep them all in harmony, and in an even composure, that there might be no disquiet nor disturbance. To do this effectually, he first proclaimed liberty to every one to drink what he thought proper, and then observing who among them was most ready to be disordered, mixed more water with his wine, to keep him equally sober with the rest of the company; so that this officer took care that none should be forced to drink, and that none, though left to their own choice, should get intoxicated. Such, we have reason to believe, was the governor of the feast at the marriage in Cana of Galilee, which our Lord honoured with his presence. The term αρχιτρικλινος literally signifies the governor of a place furnished with three beds; and he acted as one having authority; for he tasted the wine before he distributed it to the company, which, it is universally admitted, was one of the duties of a symposiarch. Neither the name nor the act accords with the character and situation of a guest; he must, therefore, have been the symposiarch, or governor of the feast. The existence of such an officer among the Jews is placed beyond a doubt, by a passage in the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus, where his office is thus described: "If thou be made the master of a feast, lift not thyself up, but be among them as one of the rest; take diligent care of them, and so sit down. And when thou hast done all thine office, take thy place, that thou mayest be merry with them, and receive a crown for the well-ordering of the feast," Sir_32:1 . See ARCHITRICLINUS .

Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Banquet'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary.​dictionaries/​eng/​wtd/​b/banquet.html. 1831-2.