Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Deciphering an Ancient Meal: Food and Identity in Early Eucharistic Practice

It can be tempting to think that Christians did not have distinctive culinary habits, or were distinguished from Jews precisely by a lack of particular concerns or rules.

There are at least two reasons for viewing such assumptions critically. One is that literary evidence makes clear a variety of preferences and avoidances among the general diversity of early Christian eating practices - even if some NT texts seem to prescribe omnivorism, it obviously wasn't that simple in reality.

The other is that nobody eats everything all the time. Or to attempt a more sophisticated rendering of the same point, note Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s observation that “where there is culture there is asceticism.” Cultures and communities do make choices about what to eat and not to eat, as well as when, where and with whom, that both reflect and create identity.

There are different scholarly understandings about the relationship between specific ritual actions, specific sacral foods and the whole of ancient Christian banquets in which these were initially set. Many have assumed there were always two distinct sorts of Christian meal ritual, a token or sacramental meal typically referred to as Eucharist, and a substantial communal meal known as an Agape. My own position, along with an increasing number of other scholars, is that attempts at distinguishing a sacramental ritual from a substantial meal at the earliest point fail because of mistaken assumptions, drawn not from the ancient texts but from later understandings of the Eucharist itself. There is no discernible difference between the communal banquets of early Christian communities and the rituals which came to be known as the Eucharist, at least in the first century or so, and the emergence of the sacramental liturgy as a distinct event is somewhat later than traditionally assumed.

Each of these views about Eucharistic development, traditional and revisionist, has at least an implied complementary position about the role food and drink themselves play in the commensal formation of identity. Accompanying the traditional view is the assumption that ancient Christians were quite unconstrained in, and hence undefined by, issues of dietary preference or avoidance in their general eating, but highly constrained in and defined by the elements of their token sacred meal, always taken to be bread and wine.

Where however the Eucharist is taken actually to be the banquet and vice versa, or at least where their relationship is seen to be organic rather than merely being joined together, then these two spheres of culinary signification, sacramental/ritual and communal/commensal are superimposed or identified, and the choice of right foods and avoidance of wrong ones is relevant both to a communal supper and/or a sacramental ritual.

Yet such an approach, considering these aspects together more than separately, may be useful even where a more traditional account of Eucharistic origins is assumed. As Mary Douglas put it in her famous study focusing on the meals of the 20th century English bourgeoisie, “the smallest, meanest meal metonymically figures the structure of the grandest, and each unit of the grand meal figures again the whole meal—or the meanest meal”.

In the case of Christian Eucharistic meals, even the most stylized medieval Mass continues to replicate the fundamental structure of the Greco-Roman symposium in its sequence of bread and cup, and to reflect ancient Mediterranean staple diet in its focus on bread and wine. So from either perspective, in Christian Eucharistic meals just as in the Greco-Roman dining tradition generally, the morphology of the meal is closely bound up with its food and drink via the expected sequence of deipnon (solid food with prominence of bread) and symposion or drinking session focused on wine. This sequence of δ + σ is the first of a number of expressions that could be used express the structural relations of food and drinks in the ancient meal but which also imply certain things about foods themselves….

[An extract from a paper given at the SBL Annual Meeting in the "Meals in the Greco-Roman World" Group, San Francisco, Nov 20 2011. This is part of a longer study applying some of Mary Douglas' ideas about meals to the ancient meal tradition and Christian eucharistic meals in particular, part of a new book project.
For further reading:

Geoffrey Galt Harpham, The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Andrew B. McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999).

Mary Douglas, “Deciphering a Meal,” Daedalus 101 (1972): 61-81.]


  1. Andrew,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response here. Wishing I was able to catch your session at SBL (Was there, but missed your session sadly.) My understanding of meal-eating in first century Judaism was that, in essence, class life was distinguished by whom one ate with. That there were almost Google-like circles that clearly demarcated who could eat with who. Is this true?

    I guess this would add a profound depth to the eating narratives of the gospels (i.e. Jesus with Pharisees, tax collectors)

    Keep up your great work.

    A.J. Swoboda

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