A Feast for the Senses … and the Soul

Dating to the third millennium BC.E, this limestone plaque, discovered at Nippur depicts a well-sated goddess (center) holding a cup in one hand and a fish in the other as she relaxes on her duck-shaped throne. Behind her a male figure leads a worshiper, who is taking a small horned animal to the goddess. Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum (NEG S8-21978).

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.

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

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).3

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1495-1498) depicts a Western European dining style instead of the reclining position that was common at Greco-Roman banquets of the ancient world. Art Resource, NY.

In 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.

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.”

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.

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.

This lavishly decorated triclinium was part of a Roman home in Herculaneum.

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.

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.

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.

The dinner entertainment at Greek and Roman banquets often included prostitutes and musicians, both shown in the banquet scene decorating a Greek red figure vase, probably made in southern Italy or Sicily in the fifth or fourth century B.C.E. Scala/Art Resource, NY.

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.

Reconstruction of a banquet in a typical triclinium, based on a mosaic floor design from a Roman villa. Ancient diners reclined on their left elbows and ate with their right hands. Drawing by Romney Oualline Nesbitt/©Romney Oualline Nesbitt and Dennis E. Smith.

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 Bible Review article “Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?” and his updated article “Jesus’ Last Supper Still Wasn’t a Passover Seder Meal” 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.

In this first-century painted marble tomb carving from Trier, Germany, formally dressed diners lie on a couch and sit on chairs around a table with a meal of cakes, fruit and wine. These scenes likely depict past meals with the deceased. Erich Lessing.

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.

Seven young men are pictured enjoying a lively repast in frescoes from burial chambers in the Catacomb of Callistus in Rome. The third-century catacomb contains some of the earliest known Christian art, including several similar paintings of banquets meant to represent the afterlife. Scala/Art Resource, NY.

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

The Bible History Daily article “A Feast for the Senses … and the Soul” was originally published in March 2013.

Dorothy Resig Willette was the managing editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.



1. See Dominic Rudman, “When Gods Go Hungry,” Bible Review, June 2002.

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.

3. See Bruce Chilton, “The Eucharist—Exploring Its Origins,” Bible Review, December 1994.

4. See Dennis E. Smith, “Dinner with Jesus & Paul,” Bible Review, August 2004.

5. See Baruch M. Bokser, “Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder?” Bible Review, Spring 1987.

6. See Smith, “Dinner with Jesus & Paul.”

7. See Smith, “Dinner with Jesus & Paul.”

8. See Chilton, “The Eucharist—Exploring Its Origins.”

9. See Smith, “Dinner with Jesus & Paul.”

10. See Ben Witherington, “Why Not Idol Meat?” Bible Review, June 1994.

11. See Robin A. Jensen, “Dining in Heaven,” Bible Review, October 1998.

12. See also “The Death of Midas: An Eternal Feast,” Archaeology Odyssey, November/December 2001.

13. See Smith, “Dinner with Jesus & Paul.”

14. See Jensen, “Dining in Heaven.”

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  • Dale says

    I found the article to be interesting. However, I will respectfully disagree with the comments that Paul was speaking of meat offered to idols. I was raised with that idea, but with a little research, I’ve come to a different conclusion.
    Veganism/Vegetarianism started in Thrace roughly 500BC, and it’s idea was the based on the morality and ethics of using any part of an animal without its permission.
    We get a hint of this in Paul’s writings when he speaks of “judgement”, “giving offense”, and other things when speaking of eating meat.
    But, it’s a good article.

  • REV says

    Dr. Willette, Excellent. Many thanks. The historical record is the record of the upper class. Jesus and his followers were Galilean peasants, no triclinium, just seated on the floor in circles around the food bowls. The Seder accounts we have come from later and higher. How accurate would we be, if we determined an 1860 rural Iowa Christmas from the account of the Harvard faculty in 1980? It is very hard to be sure what it was like, but there are hints. For a different view see

  • Richard says

    BAR wrote: “…the Biblical texts provide countless examples of how ancient life was centered around meals.” I keep reading in BAR the phrase centered around. You can’t center around something. You can revolve around something or center on something

  • Kurt says

    Why did Jesus institute the Memorial with only the apostles and not other disciples who would be taken into the new covenant?
    This question seems to be based on the mistaken thought that Jesus gathered with his apostles that evening to institute the Lord’s Evening Meal with the Christian congregation of anointed ones already in the new covenant. Rather, on Nisan 14, 33 C.E., the Christian congregation had not yet been formed, and Jesus came together with his apostles for the annual Jewish Passover meal.
    Of course, Jesus had disciples other than the 12 known as apostles. The year before his death, he sent out 70 disciples on a preaching tour. After his resurrection, “he appeared to upward of five hundred brothers at one time.” And there were “about one hundred and twenty” disciples gathered on the day of Pentecost. (1 Corinthians 15:6; Acts 1:15, 16, 23; Luke 10:1-24) But let us consider the group with Jesus when he instituted the annual celebration known as the Lord’s Evening Meal.
    Luke 22:7, 8 gives the time frame, saying: “The day of the unfermented cakes now arrived, on which the passover victim must be sacrificed; and he dispatched Peter and John, saying: ‘Go and get the passover ready for us to eat.’” The account goes on: “You must say to the landlord of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you: “Where is the guest room in which I may eat the passover with my disciples?”’” So that evening Jesus was with the 12 for a Jewish celebration. He told them: “I have greatly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer.”—Luke 22:11, 15.
    From its start in Egypt, the Passover was a family celebration. In instituting the Passover, God told Moses that a sheep was to be slaughtered for each household. If the family was too small to consume an entire sheep, a neighboring family could be invited to share the meal. Thus, it is logical that for the Passover of 33 C.E., most of Jesus’ disciples would normally have gathered with their own families for this meal.
    But Jesus “greatly desired” to share what was to be the FINAL VALID Passover, and the final night before his death, with his closest followers, who had traveled with him during much of his ministry. At the end of that Passover meal, Jesus told them of a new celebration that was to be held by all his followers in the future. The wine of that yet future Christian celebration would represent the blood of “the new covenant” that was to replace the Law covenant.—Luke 22:20.
    On the evening of Nisan 14, 33 C.E., however, the new covenant was not in effect, for the validating sacrifice—Jesus—had not been offered. The Law covenant was still in force. It had not yet been nailed to the stake. Furthermore, it would not be evident until the day of Pentecost that the old covenant with natural Israel had been replaced by the new covenant with spiritual Israel.—Galatians 6:16; Colossians 2:14.
    Hence, neither the 11 faithful apostles nor any of the other disciples were in the new covenant that evening. And Jesus was not showing any disapproval of the other Jewish disciples by letting them gather with their families to celebrate the Passover.
    Should We Celebrate Holidays?
    THE Bible is not the source of popular religious and secular holidays that are celebrated in many parts of the world today. What, then, is the origin of such celebrations? If you have access to a library, you will find it interesting to note what reference books say about holidays that are popular where you live. Consider a few examples.
    Easter. “There is no indication of the observance of the Easter festival in the New Testament,” states The Encyclopædia Britannica. How did Easter get started? It is rooted in pagan worship. While this holiday is supposed to commemorate Jesus’ resurrection, the customs associated with the Easter season are not Christian. For instance, concerning the popular “Easter bunny,” The Catholic Encyclopedia says: “The rabbit is a pagan symbol and has always been an emblem of fertility.”
    New Year’s Celebrations. The date and customs associated with New Year’s celebrations vary from one country to another. Regarding the origin of this celebration, The World Book Encyclopedia states: “The Roman ruler Julius Caesar established January 1 as New Year’s Day in 46 B.C. The Romans dedicated this day to Janus, the god of gates, doors, and beginnings. The month of January was named after Janus, who had two faces—one looking forward and the other looking backward.” So New Year’s celebrations are founded on pagan traditions.
    Halloween. The Encyclopedia Americana says: “Elements of the customs connected with Halloween can be traced to a Druid [ancient Celtic priesthood] ceremony in pre-Christian times. The Celts had festivals for two major gods—a sun god and a god of the dead . . . , whose festival was held on November 1, the beginning of the Celtic New Year. The festival of the dead was gradually incorporated into Christian ritual.”
    Other Holidays. It is not possible to discuss all the observances held throughout the world. However, holidays that exalt humans or human organizations are not acceptable to Jehovah. (Jeremiah 17:5-7; Acts 10:25, 26) Keep in mind, too, that the origin of religious celebrations has a bearing on whether they please God or not. (Isaiah 52:11; Revelation 18:4)

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