This article was originally published in March 2013. It has been updated.—Ed.
Few activities in life are as seemingly mundane yet vitally important as eating. Food is one of the bare necessities of life, and everyone—man or woman, young or old, king or servant—must eat. Thus it is perhaps not so surprising that many of the Biblical stories are set within the context of a meal. From the Hebrew Bible’s accounts of the food Abraham prepares for his divine visitors (Genesis 18:1–8), the stew with which Jacob deceives his aged father, Isaac (Genesis 27), and the all-important Passover meal (Exodus 12) to the New Testament’s miraculous wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1–11), the celebration for the return of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32), and even the Last Supper (Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; John 13), the Biblical texts provide countless examples of how ancient life was centered around meals. Ritual feasts and banquets in the Biblical world and beyond were particularly important occasions for showing devotion to a deity, solidifying social relationships and ranks, as well as teaching lessons.
In antiquity, even the gods had to eat. Temple officials in ancient Babylon and Egypt were tasked with the daily feeding of their deities. The statues of these deities were more than just depictions for their worshipers; they were themselves divine, and they needed to be fed, bathed, clothed and cared for. An elaborate ritual known as the Opening of the Mouth transformed manmade cult statues into “living” deities.1 The ritual included offering choice meats, honey, fruit and beer for the god’s statue to eat and drink, and even water to wash with after the meal.
In the religious practice of ancient Babylon and Egypt, the gods depended on their worshipers to provide sustenance. Thus in the Book of Zephaniah, the prophet warns that “The Lord will be against them; he will shrivel all the gods of the earth” (Zephaniah 2:11). The root of the Hebrew word translated as “shrivel” means “to make lean” or “to famish,” suggesting that Yahweh could cause rival deities to starve by cutting off their supply of food and drink.
The Israelites, too, made offerings of food and drink to their god, but since Yahweh was not represented by a statue or in any visual form, these sacrifices were burnt up or poured out on the altar. The Book of Numbers records the precise offerings of meat, grain and drink that were required by God twice each day, and more on the Sabbath and Passover festivals (Numbers 28).
Ritual feasts and banquets proved to be important social and political tools throughout Israel’s history. This was especially true in the early years of the Israelite monarchy. As one scholar has noted, “The king’s table was very important for creating and maintaining political support amongst the emerging elite. To be admitted to the table would have been an important marker of social status and influence.”2 Thus was David invited to dine at Saul’s table (1 Samuel 20), and later David invites Uriah the Hittite to eat and drink at his own table in an attempt to cover the king’s affair with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11). According to the Bible, King Solomon’s daily provisions from the district governors of flour, grain, meat and fowl (1 Kings 4:22–23, 26–28) were on a scale large enough to provide sumptuous meals for thousands of people. Likewise, lavish Persian feasts feature prominently at important points in the Book of Esther (1:11, 2:18, 5:4–8, 7:1–8, 9:18–23).3In later Judaism, meals had become familiar expressions of common identity, social unity and communal celebration.4 The community associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls came together at banquets, as did the Pharisees with others of their kind to partake of pure food and company. Even the weekly Sabbath meal was an occasion for families to come together and enjoy a night of festive fellowship unique to their own heritage.
So great were these celebratory communal meals that the afterlife came to be viewed as a great banquet at the end of time.5 The Hebrew Bible and extrabiblical Jewish writings describe the great messianic feast on the mountain of the Lord: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines” (Isaiah 25:6ff.). It will be an “unfailing table” (4 Ezra 9:19) where “the righteous and elect ones…shall eat and rest and rise with that Son of Man forever and ever” (1 Enoch 62:12–14). This theme was later picked up by the authors of the New Testament.
Perhaps the oldest and most important feast celebrated by the Israelites and later by Jews is the Passover. With its roots in the Exodus account, the original feast consisted of a sacrificial lamb, bitter herbs and unleavened bread eaten by each family at home (Exodus 12). The blood of the lamb was brushed on the doorposts so that the angel of the Lord would spare the lives of each Israelite household. After the Passover, the next seven days constituted the Feast of Unleavened Bread. (Today both of these feasts are celebrated together under the name Passover.)
Under the Israelite monarchy and the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem, the sacrifice and celebration of Passover became a centralized affair. It was now a national pilgrimage festival, bringing families to Jerusalem from all over Israel.6 The sacrificial lambs—still a crucial part of the feast’s observance—were brought to the Temple to be slaughtered and offered by the priests. Families who were able ate the Passover meal together there in Jerusalem.
A team from the Tell Halif archaeological excavation made their own tannur, a traditional oven referenced in the Hebrew Bible, and baked bread in it. Read all about the experiment in “Biblical Bread: Baking Like the Ancient Israelites.”
Jews who could not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer the Passover sacrifice were still able to recognize the holiday by holding a special meal, discussing the significance of the day and observing the Feast of Unleavened Bread. After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., the traditional Passover celebration evolved to look more like this feast. The sacrifice of the lamb was no longer central without the priests and a Temple. The rabbis of the Mishnah (which was edited around 200 C.E.) elevated the non-sacrificial aspects of the feast—including the unleavened bread and bitter herbs—to allow for continued observance. Thus, the Passover seder was born. This structured meal of special foods, questions, teaching and singing—now located once again entirely in the domestic sphere—is still the central feature of Jewish Passover celebrations today.
Some have speculated that the Last Supper, recounted in some form in all four of the Gospels, might have been a Passover seder. However, this is clearly not the case in the Gospel of John. For theological reasons the author put the Last Supper before the Passover feast (John 13:1); Jesus is killed at the same moment the lambs are sacrificed in the Temple—in effect making him the new Passover sacrifice (John 19:28–37). In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels, the Last Supper is explicitly identified as the Passover meal (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7), but since Jesus and his disciples were celebrating in Jerusalem, decades before the destruction of the Temple, it would not yet have taken the form of a seder. Their feast was a traditional sacrificial Passover meal.
These meals did not develop in a vacuum, however. Just as the early Israelites had adopted the practice of offering food and drink to their god from their ancient Near Eastern neighbors, so too did later Passover feasts and seders (including the Last Supper) take on the form of traditional Greco-Roman banquets, albeit with their own particular Jewish influences and meaning.
A typical Greco-Roman feast featured diners reclining on couches—propped up on their left elbows—around a central table or a few smaller tables in a dining room (called an andron in Greek and triclinium or stibadium in Latin).7 Among the Greeks, usually only men reclined at these banquets; respectable women (such as the wives of the diners), if present, sat upright at the foot of the couches where the men reclined (cf. Luke 10:39) and usually left before the less wholesome entertainment of the evening began (which often included less-respectable women). Roman women, however, often attended banquets and reclined with the men. Food was generally served in a few communal dishes, in which diners would dip their bread or eat with their hands. Wine flowed freely and was served in bowls. Music, poetry, dancers, debate and even sexual play were all common forms of entertainment at these events.
As in the Israelite monarchy, Greco-Roman feasts functioned as important social and political tools. Scholar Dennis E. Smith noted that “meals were a means of creating and solidifying social bonds.”8 Where a person was positioned at a banquet made it quite clear where he fell in the pecking order among the attendees. The place of honor was immediately to the right of the host and then continued around the table in decreasing order, leaving the lowest guest at the far end. It was not uncommon for the lower guests to receive different (i.e., lower quality) food from what was being served to the host and honored guests.
Understanding this social order and dining structure is important for properly interpreting several passages in the New Testament. Jesus often used the meal setting as a teaching opportunity. Rather than dining only with the elite, he shared his meals with sinners, tax collectors and other social outcasts (Matthew 9:10; Mark 2:15; Luke 5:29).9 Instead of letting the lowest guest at a meal serve the others, he set an example of service by washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1–17).10 He taught them humility by telling them always to take the lowest place at a table, rather than endure the potential shame of being displaced by a higher-ranking guest (Luke 14:7–10). The Gospel of John says that at the Last Supper the beloved disciple was reclining in the bosom of Jesus, which means that he was seated next to him in the position of honor (John 13:23). The fact that Judas was close enough to accept a piece of bread “dipped in the dish” from Jesus suggests that he, too, may have been reclining nearby. And of course commemoration of this Last Supper developed into the Eucharist—an important ritual and communal meal for all Christians.
The Last Supper is history’s most famous meal. Read Jonathan Klawans’s full article “Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder? for FREE in Bible History Daily.
Community meals were also an important teaching tool for Paul—especially with the first Christians at Corinth. Ritual feasts of sacrificial meat offered to the gods at pagan temples were an extremely common occurrence in Corinth, but they posed a conflict of interest for some of these early Christians.11 For Paul, the problem was not really the consumption of idol meat per se (because “we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’” 1 Corinthians 8:4), but rather the effect that such temple feasts could have on the Christian community. Meals were all about whom you socialized with, so rather than associating with the drunkenness and debauchery of the usual Greco-Roman feasts, and potentially causing a fellow believer to “stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:9–13), Paul preferred private meals shared in common with other Christians—to help build and strengthen the community.
The early Christians also combined another traditional Greco-Roman meal, the funerary banquet, with their own interpretation of the Jewish messianic banquet.12 Roman tombs and sarcophagi depict scenes of the deceased feasting with this family. It was also common for family members and friends to hold a banquet in honor of the deceased in special dining rooms constructed nearby for these memorial meals (called refrigeria in Latin). Christian burials in Roman catacombs show evidence of this practice as well, but for them it meant something more than simply remembering the deceased.
Jesus recalled the tradition of the messianic banquet at the Last Supper: “I tell you that I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink of it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29). Dennis Smith sees another connection in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–21): “The poor man, who once longed for a crumb from the rich man’s table, is now ’in the bosom of Abraham’ (Luke 16:23), that is to say, reclining just to the right of Abraham himself, in a position of honor, at the banquet of the afterlife.”13 Paintings on the walls of the catacombs depict this heavenly banquet and represent a wish for the deceased to enjoy a sumptuous feast in the society of all the blessed in paradise.14
Read Andrew McGowan’s article “The Hungry Jesus,” in which he challenges the tradition that Jesus was a welcoming host at meals, in Bible History Daily.
Dorothy Resig Willette, formerly the managing editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, is now contributing editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society.
2. See Nathan MacDonald, Not Bread Alone: The Uses of Food in the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008) p. 157. MacDonald, p. 203.
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