The Hungry Jesus

Andrew McGowan on Jesus eating and drinking in the Biblical tradition

In this blog post, Andrew McGowan, McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School and Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, challenges the tradition that Jesus was a welcoming host at meals. A version of this post was originally published on McGowan’s blog Saint Ronan Street Diary.


 
jesus-last-supper

This late-15th-century painting by the Spanish artist known only as the Master of Perea depicts Jesus eating and drinking in the Last Supper. Photo: Christie’s Images/Superstock.

Across the spectrum of theological and historical opinion, one thing most pictures of the historical Jesus share is that he was a good eater, participating in meals with diverse company and with a lack of ascetic restraint. But the same variety of portraits, liberal or conservative, tends to share the more specific and curious claim that Jesus was somehow a radical and inclusive host. One well-known authority suffices as a representative of this view, as well as confirmation of the consensus:

“The tradition of festive meals at which Jesus welcomed all and sundry is one of the most securely established features of almost all recent scholarly portraits.”1

There is, however, a problem here: Jesus is not actually depicted as welcoming diverse guests to festive meals. Such a tradition is a fantasy, not just for those skeptical about the historicity of much of the Gospel material, but even at the canonical or literary level of the Biblical text.

Since I may seem to have just uttered nonsense (or heresy, or both) relative to the consensus, let me explain: Jesus is indeed depicted, at least in reports attributed to his enemies, as an indiscriminate eater, both with regard to company, and in a lack of restraint about some kinds of food and drink. He is also depicted as providing meals on a miraculous scale, and sharing some significant meals with his followers.
 


 
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None of these, however, amounts to “Jesus welcoming all and sundry to festive meals,” certainly not in terms of the scholarly reconstruction of a historical reality behind the Gospel accounts. The supposed consensus actually reflects unexamined assumptions and especially some degree of conflation of quite different aspects of how Jesus is depicted as eating. Dealing with the different elements of Gospel tradition in turn can assist in assembling a more careful picture.

jesus-ravenna

In the Gospels, Jesus was accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus is shown in this sixth-century A.D. mosaic from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.

Jesus was accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:16; Matthew 10:3, 11:19/Luke 7:34, Matthew 21:31–2, Luke 15:1–2). This single repeated accusation of guilt by association is found in simple narrative in Mark 2, elaborated in particular in Luke 19 (the story of Zacchaeus). The identification of one of the twelve disciples as a tax collector may be a separate and solid historical tradition. Scholars generally acknowledge a likely core of fact underneath this accusation, not least because it is uncomplimentary to Jesus. The specific stories that convey it (especially the more elaborate ones in Luke) are, however, artful compositions that reflect the popular ancient literary genre of the symposium—compare the famous banquets of Plato—and not mere historical reminiscence.2

Jesus is also accused of being a “glutton and a drunkard” in a saying from the “Q” material common to Matthew and Luke (Matthew 11:19/Luke 7:34), linked there with the first accusation, and serving to contrast Jesus and his ascetic contemporary John the Baptist. This admittedly reads like a stock piece of abuse, echoing Deuteronomy 21:20. Whatever it tells us about Jesus’ eating habits, the slur is itself again unlikely to have been invented by later Christians, just because it is so awkward. There is, however, no reason to think Jesus emulated John’s dietary constraint.

The question of just what Jesus ate can also be difficult, relative to Jewish food laws. Mark 7:23 sometimes viewed this as a sort of crux: “In saying this, he declared all foods clean.” This is, however, an explicitly editorial comment, and does not allow even the most credulous commentator to think Jesus rejected Jewish dietary laws in his teaching, let alone that he ate in disregard of them.3

So we can still accept that the historical Jesus was neither discriminating about company, nor ascetic about food choices. But all this material has to do with his acceptance of invitations, not his “welcoming” anyone. This is a hungry Jesus, not a hospitable one.

Whence the welcoming Jesus then? Here we need to consider at least four other sorts of meal stories or traditions, also interesting but more problematic, as evidence of a historical Jesus who could be agreed upon by the usual standards of critical scholarship.

First, Jesus could be read into the role of host in parabolic or eschatological banquets attributed to him as teacher—not as literal eater. Is he referring to himself as the king and/or host of Matthew 22:1–14 or Luke 14:15–23? If so, he is not a very inclusive host—but in any case, he is a literary or imagined one.

More promising for the welcoming Jesus, but problematic for historians, are the miraculous feeding stories found in all four Gospels (Mark 6:34–44, etc.). Here Jesus does take the role of a host, blessing and feeding the multitudes. But these are not presented as typical or characteristic events, whatever we make of them historically. They point to an eschatological reality more than a present one; and while the size of the crowds suggests festivity and perhaps, implicitly, some sort of inclusiveness, these stories are not connected with Jesus’ problematic associations with sinners. They depict Jesus as an impressive caterer, not as inclusive host.

Third, there is the most famous meal story, the Last Supper. Here again we can acknowledge Jesus as host. Is this an inclusive meal, however? While traditional assumptions about the specific exclusion of women are dubious, the makeup of the twelve—including the tax collector and a zealot—is a clearer form of inclusivity here, but amounts to a representative rather than the “all and sundry” picture of the supposed consensus.
 


 
For more on the Last Supper, read Jonathan Klawans’s Bible Review article “Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?” and his updated article “Jesus’ Last Supper Still Wasn’t a Passover Seder Meal.”
 

 
Such issues are moot, of course, for the critical scholars who doubt the historicity of the supper, at least in the familiar terms. Some of us, however, think that the existence of quite distinct versions of the so-called “institution narrative” in Paul (and Luke) as well as Mark (and Matthew) makes a case for the authenticity of something close to the familiar tradition. Yet this does not make the supper a sign of festive inclusion.

Last, there are resurrection meal scenes where Jesus can be host (and even cook— John 21:9). Despite formal blessings in one case (Luke 24:13–35), these are not really festive, and not at all inclusive. And it must go without saying that whatever their force for Christian readers, these stories will not serve to establish the practice of the historical Jesus to a wider audience of scholars.

So the welcoming, inclusive, festive Jesus may be a common feature of many scholarly portraits; he is not, however, a strongly-based historical one. Jesus was most clearly someone willing to eat with diverse company, less an inclusive host than an undiscriminating guest. Jesus appears as host only in quite different and more historically contentious material, relative to that where he is depicted as keeping bad company or being a wine-bibber. The “guest” traditions about him are generally defensible; the “host” traditions tend to be more influenced by later reflection than material that scholars in general would actually attribute to the historical Jesus.

The inclusive, welcoming Jesus is thus not so historically obvious at all, but the product of creative theological reflection, some in the Gospels and the ancient Church, but a certain amount of it modern fantasy, another instance of how picturing Jesus tends to evoke wishful thinking. Why so many scholars have assumed this hospitable historical Jesus is curious, but there have been other similar cases where the obvious has turned out to be false. What was once thought obvious about Paul’s attitude to Judaism, or about Jesus and issues of Jewish purity, have had to be deconstructed and rebuilt in recent times; this may be another case.

roman-feast

Mosaic of a Roman banquet, now in the Château de Boudry in Switzerland. The center of the mosaic shows remnants of the feast scattered all over the floor—a theme in Roman art called the “unswept floor” (Greek: asaraton).

Does this different historical Jesus tell us anything new about his own food and meals, or ours?

Meals were important to ancient Mediterranean society, Jewish and Greco-Roman alike, as venues for the expression and creation of social relationships—not just among families, but for professional guilds, interest groups and, of course, for religious purposes, too. Meals were venues for politics as well as piety, business as well as pleasure.

It is hardly surprising that we find Jesus actively participating in this meal-culture. It was the most obvious means for many types of social interaction, and the carefully-crafted Gospel pictures of Jesus sharing others’ tables certainly have a reliable core.

Nor should we forget the even more basic reality of physical need. Jesus was apparently an itinerant without direct means of support, and his willingness or even desire to be included indiscriminately is not really so surprising in itself. Hunger makes for interesting and diverse table fellowship. That reality was also remembered in the early Christians’ reflection on Jesus’ ethical demands on his followers:

“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
 


 
Read Andrew McGowan’s popular Bible Review article “How December 25 Became Christmas” for free in Bible History Daily.
 

 
andrew-mcgowanAndrew McGowan is Dean and President of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School. Formerly, he was Warden and President of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, and Joan Munro Professor of Historical Theology in Trinity’s Theological School within the University of Divinity. His work on early Christian thought and history includes Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christan Ritual Meals (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999) and Ancient Christian Worship (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2014).
 

 

Notes:

1. N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was & Is (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p. 45.

2. See especially Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

3. Paula Fredriksen, “Did Jesus Oppose Purity Laws?” Bible Review, June 1995.
 


 

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  1. Danny says

    From my perspective, McGowan’s argument about Jesus being a hungry guy is better than his argument about the miraculous feeding stories. McGowan is right to point out that the claims against Jesus as someone who eats with tax collectors and sinners reflects more on which invitations a hungry Jesus accepted than how inclusive/accepting the itinerant Galilean was. But still, I think the feeding stories suggest something about the earliest memories of Jesus and, by proxy, the historical Jesus himself. Even if a historian judges them as made up stories meant to illustrate a future/eschatological reality, they still suggest that early Jesus followers remembered Jesus as the kind of guy who would plausibly offer hospitality to thousands of strangers. It fits with the character they remembered and, in remembering, constructed. So, while I appreciate the critique of modern visions of an “inclusive” Jesus, I think there’s still some grist for the mill in the miraculous feeding stories.

    Cheers,
    Danny

  2. Suzanna says

    So what are we saying here….that Jesus was an unwelcoming guy? That he had just as many human attributes as he had godly? Or more than?

  3. Jeanne says

    That Jesus would show up at the behest of a party interested in his message or his notoriety just for the free eats is a bit too outlandish to make sense. Jesus was smart, and he was a campaign pro. He knew that accepting a banquet invitation from an influential citizen of Galilee or Judea (or as in many cases suggested by the gospels, boldly inviting himself to a feast) would further his agenda to spread the word of the kingdom to not only the host and his peers, but beyond, to the common people.

    Everyone would benefit from the feast – and in more ways than one – and not just for the free food. Just like today, guests who attended such lavish banquets were the celebrities of their time, and by mingling and supping with the elite of society, Jesus would have bolstered his popularity among the rich and commoners alike. I see the banquet invitation and his acceptance as a mutually beneficial association for: the host (who gains a “featured speaker” in the form of Jesus), his guests (who are afforded the opportunity to meet someone who is controversial and potentially gaining religious and political power in the region – or what some might consider an amusing Galilean magician – namely Jesus), and for Jesus (who gains a greater audience to spread his word among society’s rich and famous).

    I will concede to Professor McGowan’s opinion on one point: certainly there was one group who did benefit from all that free food and entertainment – those disciples to whom the invitation was extended. Jesus himself however, knew exactly why he was there and he purposefully got his message across each and every time.
    JB Richards
    Author of “Miriamne the Magdala-The First Chapter in the Yeshua and Miri Novel Series” and Content Creator for The Miriamne Page
    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Miriamne-the-Magdala-First-in-the-Series-of-the-Yeshua-Miri-Novels/206903979347028

  4. Daniel says

    They will never find the historical Jesus until they accept the supernatural aspects of the Son of God! After all, the one who created the world could also multiply the loaves and the fishes!

  5. Krzysztof says

    V.good to understand better NT+do not forget Devil does tricks (2thes2:9) with Eucharist replacing “soma”/body by “sarx”/flesh in miracles for ex.recently at Sokolka Podlaska, the diocese of Bialystok.
    Sure, the picture of Jesus as a philosopher, revolutionary not bending at Cesar, High Priest and his family is tooo abstract for a lazy scholarship who does not understand the role of (divine) logic in trinitarian controversies
    Happy Easter!

  6. Kurt says

    Memorial of Jesus’ Death
    Millions Will Attend—Will You?
    On the night before he died, Jesus met with his apostles. At that time, he introduced a simple ceremony, and he told them: “Keep doing this in remembrance of me.” They were to do so in remembrance of the sacrifice he was about to make in behalf of mankind.—Luke 22:19, 20.
    The Memorial of Christ’s death will be held on Friday, April 3, 2015, after sundown.
    Bible Questions Answered
    Why should we remember Jesus’ death?God showed outstanding love by sending his Son to earth to die for us. (1 John 4:9, 10) Jesus told his followers to remember his death by means of a simple ceremony involving bread and wine. Doing so each year is a way of expressing our appreciation for the love shown by God and by Jesus.—Read Luke 22:19, 20.

    Is Easter Really a Christian Celebration?
    The Bible’s answer
    The celebration of Easter is not based on the Bible. If you look into its history, though, you will see the true meaning of Easter—it is a tradition based on ancient fertility rites. Consider the following.Find the answer:
    http://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/wp20150301/jesus-saves/

  7. Kurt says

    Why We Observe the Lord’s Evening Meal
    How can you know whether God has given you a heavenly hope or an earthly one?
    Night has fallen, but a full moon bathes Jerusalem in soft light. It is the evening of Nisan 14, 33 C.E. Jesus and his apostles have celebrated the Passover, commemorating Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage 15 centuries earlier. With 11 loyal apostles, Jesus now institutes a special meal—one that will memorialize the death he will experience before this day ends. *—Matt. 26:1, 2.
    Jesus says a blessing and passes unleavened bread to the apostles, saying: “Take, eat.” He takes a cup of wine, again offers thanks, and says: “Drink out of it, all of you.” (Matt. 26:26, 27) Jesus will not pass other food items to them, but he will have much more to tell his faithful followers on this momentous night.
    So it was that Jesus instituted the Memorial of his death, also called “the Lord’s Evening Meal.” (1 Cor. 11:20)
    http://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/w20150115/why-observe-lords-evening-meal/

  8. Ann says

    9. Obviously the professor has not read the Bible because Jesus answered these charges to the Pharisees over 2,000 years ago

  9. R.S. says

    “…that he was a good eater, participating in meals with diverse company and with a lack of ascetic restraint. But the same variety of portraits, liberal or conservative, tends to share the more specific and curious claim that Jesus was somehow a radical and inclusive host. One well-known authority suffices as a representative of this view, as well as confirmation of the consensus”

    Very vague major premise here. Are we using “portraits” literally or as a figure of speech? Literal Portraits depict a European Yeshua. Not useful for any historical purpose directly related to the real person. Figurative portraits occur in the “gospel” accounts and early letters of Church Fathers. Do they say he ate with gusto? “a good eater” or lacked or possessed aesthetic restraint? I am having a hard time recalling any Yeshua hosted dinning events depicted except the out of doors “feeding of the 5000″ and “feeding of the 4000″. He is not even mentioned as eating at all in these descriptions. Also, he had compassion on them, but there was no invitation sent out. The more closed circle at the “Last Supper” is conceivably restricted due to the purpose and timing of the event.

    What really amazes me is how much time is spent analysing details about a life and person the author and others seems to relegate to near or actual mythological status.

    One well known authority does not suffice.

  10. Peter says

    I do agree to some degree with this claim, Jesus not the inclusive host that many Christians believe him to be or non believers feel he and his church should be. The most meaningful meal event stemming from the last supper comes from John 6 where he challenges his disciples to eat bread as his flesh and drink the wine as his blood and many could not accept this saying and walked away. Jesus invites all to partake. He asks Peter if he too will leave and Peter responds with, Where Will We go? John 6:51-71.A commitment is required with this invitation that not many will accept. A parable is told in which a king invites many to an elaborate banquet but none of the invited persons came. Many are rounded up to attend a great feast and a guest is found not wearing the proper attire and is bound and thrown out. Jesus’ invitation to dine comes with a commitment not many are willing to make. He calls all by name and to some he will say “i never knew you. Depart from me you evil doers.’, after they have claimed to prophesy, do mighty deeds and drive out demons in his name. Matt 7:21. Throughout the scriptures from the OT to the NT, humanity is invited to a heavenly banquet, but the banquet has a strict dress code, a dress code many would love to change that would make it inclusive and diverse by our culture’s current standards of social modernity. Consider this perspective on the claim, Jesus the not so inclusive host.

  11. T.B. says

    “… popular ancient literary genre of the symposium – compare the famous banquets of Plato”

    It must be a long time since the author read any Plato, or he hopes it is a long time since we have. Dining customs in 1st century Palestine may have taken on some Hellenic customs, or the Gentile evangelist may have depicted dining customs to reflect Hellenic customs, but to suggest some literary genre in which Plato and the Gospels partake is far fetched.

    The “miraculous feeding stories … are not presented as typical or characteristic events”

    Except that Mark and Matthew both present two miraculous feeding stories. They clearly don’t want us to imagine these shared meals in the wilderness as unique events. The author is over playing his hand.

  12. Daniel says

    Is what I learned in seminary in error? That the reason the wedding feast imagery is so important to Jesus’ message is that this was the one feast (in the culture of first century Galilee) that was all-inclusive? That usually the rich ate with the rich and the holy with the holy, the poor with the poor and the unholy with the unholy, but for a wedding everybody was welcome. All ate the same food. All shared the same joy. And that it is significant that the first miracle was at Cana’s wedding feast? It was exactly because of the implicit universal welcome that the Kingdom of God may be compared to a wedding feast.
    Our have we revised our understanding of the real history of the wedding feasts?

  13. Gary says

    If someone invites you to a meal, and it is prepared properly, would you refuse? Is it not a teachable moment? No one had their separate noses buried in their iPads. Mealtime was preceded and followed by discussion times.

    If you drink, does it mean that you drink too much? Not everyone eschewed the grape, like John did. Yeshua was a Nazarene; it has been said that John was a Nazirite.

    “The son of man comes eating and drinking” was a reference to the detractors of Yeshuas’ contrasting between their preferred Prophet John and the newcomer Yeshua; Yeshua did not eat the restricted diet that the Nazirite was restricted to by oath, as John did. This was viewed as a fault. But it does not make Yeshua a glutton.

    Still, if you are unsure when you will be invited in to your next meal, you eat your fill, if it is offered to you. But Yeshua could never have eaten more than offered; and a good host does not force food on a guest who is already full.

  14. Stevan says

    Dear Andrew, Christ is Vegan. Please, inform yourself better.

  15. David says

    Stevan: What scripture indicates that jesus was vegan? Luke explicitly writes that jesus ate fish.

  16. Marian says

    I think Andrew makes a reasonable point. That point being that the bible does not include many instances of Jesus actually inviting people to meals. Jesus was not a rich man in the monetary sense. I wonder if Jesus would have invited many to feasts if he were rich, ie as when Jesus gets into His Kingdom and invites many to the marriage feast as per the parable.

    In relation to Kurt’s comment on Easter, I suggest that every celebration is commercialized for profit. Many people both spiritual and not acknowledge this. I think it was Paul, in reflection of Jesus’s principles that stated one would hold certain days as special and others would not and that followers were to behave in ways that did not turn people off the message being taught. As long as the behavior did not breach the 2 commandments we are under in the new covenant we are to be accepting, forgiving, loving and should even modify our behavior on occasion. IOW Jesus gave many examples of how mankind will have much freedom compared to being under the law.

    As stated in the OP, meals are a way of bringing people together for various reasons. Jesus loved his followers and fed them, made wine for guests invited by another, and ate with those not accepted by Israel. I have not thought about Jesus being a great host or not all that much, but I suggest Andrew has made his point well. In hoping to find new and creative ways to get people to really ‘hear’ the message of the Kingdom within my parish, I will be giving the OP some thought.

    .

  17. Marisa says

    In Italy, where I live, priests have a long history of buying anything in their, so called studies. That is, what the Catholic church has made of a historical figure. With this new pope, such a captivating person, there a return to churches unimaginable. Today I walked to the centre of Modena to do some shopping. I was astounded to find in the main square police cars of various kinds. The first shop I went to I asked what was happening. The women there replied that there was the opening o the “sacred door” in every church: a woman gor to the shop and said that the cathedral was so full that she couldn’t get in. I’m an atheist , though I am the only one to have the Bible on the left to where I usually sit together with the Gospels that have not been accepted by the church. This pope, I’m afraid won’t have a long life, Though he’s the only one I like. Marisa Galli (MODENA, ITALY)

Continuing the Discussion

  1. March Biblical Studies Carnival | Pursuing Veritas linked to this post on April 1, 2015

    […] McGowan challenges the tradition that Jesus was a welcoming host at the meals recorded in the […]


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