Clergy friends tell me that the size of scones and cakes offered to them on pastoral visits is increasing in line with inflation. By that, I mean the inflation in the size of platefuls in restaurants these days. In my days at the parish coalface, I ate more scones for the Lord than was good for any human digestive system. Some of them were like cannon balls; now, it seems, they are more like beach balls.
All this raises the question – well it doesn’t, actually, but it suits the purposes of this column – of the size of portions at the Last Supper. Were they meager, or were they, as we say nowadays, “super-sized?”
I can say with confidence that the food for the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples wouldn’t have been a carryout from the Jerusalem McDonald’s; it would have been a carefully prepared Jewish Passover meal with unleavened bread and herbs. (After all, Jesus and his mates weren’t Christians.)
While we don’t know the size of the original portions, we now know how they have grown in size in 52 of the most famous artistic representations of the Last Supper.
Brian Wansink, a food behavior scientist at Cornell University, conducted a study with his brother, Craig, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College. They solemnly report that between the years 1000 and 2000, the size of the main dish grew 69%, the size of the plate 66% and the bread 23%. Their findings will be published in the April issue of the splendidly named International Journal of Obesity. (Did Jesus know He would end up there?)
Apparently computer technology allowed the brothers to scan, rotate, and calculate images, judging the size of the portions against the size of the heads of the disciples. No, I’m not making this up.
Reflecting on the more recent phenomenon of huge helpings, Brian Wansink said that this might simply be a more noticeable part of a very long trend. “We think that, as art imitates life, these changes have been reflected in paintings of history’s most famous dinner.”
But there’s a wee flaw here, isn’t there? Take your Romans and your Greeks. Didn’t your Romans go in for gargantuan meals? Mine certainly did. At every major banquet, each guest would scoff a complete pig’s heid, or something like that. And that was just the starter… .
This column’s simple but elegant thesis is that wherever there has been big money, there have been big helpings. Toffs in togas had huge platefuls; poor punters cleaned up the puke and took residual bits home for their starving weans. A model of our world, in fact.
In more recent times, there has been a big increase in disposable income, and the punters have been able to join the super-sized feast. Gluttony has been democratized. Hence an exponential increase in waist sizes of, shall we say, Biblical proportions.
In my days in the dog collar, I once asked a bunch of kids in church what John the Baptist ate in the wilderness.
One hand shot up. “Beef burgers,” he asserted with confidence.
Nothing like a Big Mac in the wilderness when you’re doing a spot of baptizing, eh?
Wrong answer: it was locusts and wild honey. My research team tells me that in successive paintings of John – who wasn’t a Christian either – the helpings of locusts gradually get bigger.
There’s a Christian food fad in America at the moment, called What Would Jesus Eat? (I’m not making this up either.) Some believers are living on what they call “Biblical food.”
Here’s a suggestion from Scotland for a healthy Biblical diet: deep-fried locusts with chips. What more could a true Christian want?
RON FERGUSON is a former pastor and leader of The Iona Community now living on Orkney Island (Scotland) as a writer and broadcaster. The column first appeared in The Glasgow Herald and is used by permission.