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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature
Festive meetings among the Jews were held only towards the close of the day, as it was not till business was over that the Jews freely indulged in the pleasures of the table; and although in the days of Christ these meals were, after the Roman fashion, called suppers, they corresponded exactly to the dinners of modern times, the hour fixed for them varying from five to six o'clock p.m., or sometimes later.
On occasions of ceremony the company were invited a considerable time previous to the celebration of the feast; and on the day and at the hour appointed, an express by one or more servants, according to the number and distance of the expected guests, was dispatched to announce that the preparations were completed, and that their presence was looked for immediately (Matthew 22:8; Luke 14:17). This custom obtains in the East at the present day; and the second invitation, which is sent to none but such as have been already invited, and have declared their acceptance, is always verbal, and is delivered by the messenger in his master's name, and frequently in the very language of Scripture.
At the small entrance door a servant was stationed to receive the tablets or cards of those who were expected; and as curiosity usually collected a crowd of troublesome spectators, anxious to press forward into the scene of gaiety, the gate was opened only so far as was necessary for the admission of a single person at a time, who, on presenting his invitation ticket, was conducted through a long and narrow passage into the receiving-room; and then, after the whole company were assembled, the master of the house shut the door with his own hands—a signal to the servant to allow himself to be prevailed on neither by noise nor by importunities, however loud and long continued, to admit the bystanders. To this custom there is a manifest reference in Luke 13:24, and Matthew 25:10.
One of the first marks of courtesy shown to the guests, after saluting the host, was the refreshment of water and fragrant oil or perfumes; and hence we find our Lord complaining of Simon's omission of these customary civilities (Luke 7:44; see also Mark 7:4) [ANOINTING]. But a far higher, though necessarily less frequent attention paid to their friends by the great, was the custom of furnishing each of the company with a magnificent habit of a light and showy color and richly embroidered, to be worn during the festivity (Ecclesiastes 9:8; Revelation 3:4-5). The loose and flowing style of this gorgeous mantle made it equally suitable for all; and it is almost incredible what a variety of such sumptuous garments the wardrobes of some great men could supply to equip a numerous party. In a large company, even of respectable persons, some might appear in a plainer and humbler garb than accorded with the taste of the entertainer; and where this arose from necessity or limited means, it would have been harsh and unreasonable in the extreme to attach blame, or to command the instant and ignominious expulsion of the guest from the banquet-room. But where a well-appointed and sumptuous wardrobe was opened for the use of every guest—to refuse the gay and splendid costume which the munificence of the host provided, and to persist in appearing in one's own habiliments, implied a contempt both for the master of the house and his entertainment, which could not fail to provoke resentment—and our Lord therefore spoke in accordance with a well-known custom of his country, when, in the parable of the marriage of the king's son, he describes the stern displeasure of the king on discovering one of the guests without a wedding-garment, and his instant command to thrust him out (Matthew 22:11). At private banquets the master of the house of course presided, and did the honors of the occasion; but in large and mixed companies it was anciently customary to elect a governor of the feast (John 2:8; see also Sirach 32:1), who should not merely perform the office of chairman, in preserving order and decorum, but take upon himself the general management of the festivities. As this office was considered a post of great responsibility and delicacy, as well as honor, the choice which among the Greeks and Romans was left to the decision of dice, was more wisely made by the Jews to fall upon him who was known to be possessed of the requisite qualities—a ready wit and convivial turn, and at the same time firmness of character and habits of temperance. The guests were scrupulously arranged according to their respective ranks. This was done either by the host or governor, who, in the case of a family, placed them according to seniority (Genesis 43:33), and in the case of others, assigned the most honorable a place near his own person; or it was done by the party themselves, on their successive arrivals, and after surveying the company, taking up the position which it appeared fittest for each according to their respective claims to occupy. It might be expected that among the Orientals, by whom the laws of etiquette in these matters are strictly observed, many absurd and ludicrous contests for precedence must take place, from the arrogance of some and the determined perseverance of others to wedge themselves into the seat they deem themselves entitled to. Accordingly Morier informs us, that, in Persia, 'it is easy to observe by the countenances of those present, when any one has taken a higher place than he ought.' 'On one occasion' he adds, 'when an assembly was nearly full, the governor of Kashan, a man of humble mien, came in, and had seated himself at the lowest place, when the host, after having testified his particular attentions to him by numerous expressions of welcome, pointed with his hand to an upper seat, which he desired him to take' (Second Journey). As a counterpart to this, Dr. Clarke states that 'at a wedding feast he attended in the house of a rich merchant at St. Jean d'Acre, two persons who had seated themselves at the top were noticed by the master of ceremonies, and obliged to move lower down.' The knowledge of these peculiarities serves to illustrate several passages of Scripture (Proverbs 25:6-7; Matthew 23:6; and especially Luke 14:7, where we find Jesus making the unseemly ambition of the Pharisees the subject of severe and merited animadversion).
It would be difficult within a short compass to describe the form and arrangements of the table, as the entertainments spoken of in Scripture were not all conducted in a uniform style. In ancient Egypt, as in Persia, the tables were ranged along the sides of the room, and the guests were placed with their faces towards the walls. Persons of high official station were honored with a table apart for themselves at the head of the room; and in these particulars every reader of the Bible will trace an exact correspondence to the arrangements of Joseph's entertainment to his brethren. According to Lightfoot, the tables of the Jews were either wholly uncovered, or two-thirds were spread with a cloth, while the remaining third was left bare for the dishes and vegetables. In the days of our Lord the prevailing form was the triclinium, the mode of reclining at which is described elsewhere [ACCUBATION]. This effeminate practice was not introduced until near the close of the Old Testament history, for the ancient Israelites sat round a low table, cross-legged, like the Orientals of the present day.
The convenience of knives and forks being unknown in the East, or, where known, being a modern innovation, the hand is the only instrument used in conveying food to the mouth, and the common practice, their food being chiefly prepared in a liquid form, is to dip their thin wafer-like bread into the dish, and folding it between their thumb and two fingers, enclose a portion of the contents. It is not uncommon to see several hands plunged into one dish at the same time. But where the party is numerous, the two persons near or opposite are commonly joined in one dish; and accordingly, at the last Passover, Judas, being close to his master, was pointed out as the traitor by being designated as the person 'dipping his hand with Jesus in the dish.' The Apostle John, whose advantageous situation enabled him to hear the minutest parts of the conversation, has recorded the fact of our Lord, in reply to the question 'Who is it?' answering it by 'giving a sop to Judas when he had dipped' (John 13:26); and this leads us to mention it as not the least among the peculiarities of Oriental manners, that a host often dips his hand into a dish, and lifting a handful of what he considers a dainty, offers the sop to one of his friends. In earlier ages, a double or a more liberal portion, or a choice piece of cookery, was the form in which a landlord showed his respect for the individual he delighted to honor (Genesis 43:34; 1 Samuel 1:4; 1 Samuel 10:23; Proverbs 31:15).
In the course of the entertainment servants are frequently employed in sprinkling the head and person of the guests with odoriferous perfumes, which, probably to counteract the effects of too copious perspiration, they use in great profusion, and the fragrance of which, though generally too strong for Europeans, is deemed an agreeable refreshment (see Psalms 45:8; Psalms 23:5; Psalms 133:2).
The various items of which an Oriental entertainment consists, bread, flesh, fish, fowls, melted butter, honey, and fruits, are in many places set on the table at once, in defiance of all taste. They are brought in upon trays—one, containing several dishes, being assigned to a group of two or at most three persons, and the number and quality of the dishes being regulated according to the rank and consideration of the party seated before it. In ordinary cases four or five dishes constitute the portion allotted to a guest; but if he be a person of consequence, or one to whom the host is desirous of showing more than ordinary marks of attention, other viands are successively brought in, until, if every vacant corner of the tray is occupied, the bowls are piled one above another. The object of this rude but liberal hospitality is, not that the individual thus honored is expected to surfeit himself by an excess of indulgence in order to testify his sense of the entertainer's kindness, but that he may enjoy the means of gratifying his palate with greater variety; and hence we read of Joseph's displaying his partiality for Benjamin by making his 'mess five times so much as any of theirs' (Genesis 43:34). The shoulder of a lamb, roasted, and plentifully besmeared with butter and milk, is regarded as a great delicacy still, as it was also in the days of Samuel. But according to the favorite cookery of the Orientals, their animal food is for the most part cut into small pieces, stewed, or prepared in a liquid state, such as seems to have been the 'broth' presented by Gideon to the angel (Judges 6:19). The made-up dishes are 'savory meat,' being highly seasoned, and bring to remembrance the marrow and fatness which were esteemed as the most choice morsels in ancient times. As to drink, when particular attention was intended to be shown to a guest, his cup was filled with wine till it ran over (Psalms 23:5), and it is said that the ancient Persians began their feasts with wine, whence it was called 'a banquet of wine' (Esther 5:6).
The hands, for occasionally both were required, besmeared with grease during the process of eating, were anciently cleaned by rubbing them with the soft part of the bread, the crumbs of which, being allowed to fall, became the portion of dogs (Matthew 15:27; Luke 16:21). But the most common way now at the conclusion of a feast is for a servant to go round to each guest with water to wash, a service which is performed by the menial pouring a stream over their hands, which is received into a strainer at the bottom of the basin. This humble office Elisha performed to his master (2 Kings 3:11).
People of rank and opulence in the East frequently give public entertainments to the poor. The rich man in the parable, whose guests disappointed him, dispatched his servants on the instant to invite those that might be found sitting by the hedges and the highways—a measure which, in the circumstances, was absolutely necessary, as the heat of the climate would spoil the meats long before they could be consumed by the members of his own household. But many of the great, from benevolence or ostentation, are in the habit of proclaiming set days for giving feasts to the poor; and then, at the time appointed, may be seen crowds of the blind, the halt, and the maimed bending their steps to the scene of entertainment. This species of charity claims a venerable antiquity. Our Lord recommended his wealthy hearers to practice it rather than spend their fortunes, as they did, on luxurious living (Luke 14:12); and as such invitations to the poor are of necessity given by public proclamation, and female messengers are employed to publish them, it is probably to the same venerable practice that Solomon alludes in Proverbs 9:3.
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Banquets'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/b/banquets.html.