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. “The Hungry Jesus” was first republished in Bible History Daily on March 18, 2015.
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 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.
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 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).
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).
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