Reading and Ancient Meals: A Report from the 2019 SBL Annual Meeting

Meal scene, Pompeii. Museo Arcaeologico Nazionale, Naples

In Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited the narrator Charles Ryder describes a deeply unpleasant vacation period during his Oxford studies spent at home with his father, who had a habit - clearly an uncivil one in this setting - of reading at the table, silently of course. This habit was part of the father’s usual solitary life, and he persists in it as a sort of passive-aggressive response to his son’s presence. He reads, but not aloud; and Charles takes up a conflict of sorts by bringing his own book to dinner, to underline or contest his father’s rudeness.

“The dinner table was our battlefield. On the second evening I took my book with me to the dining-room. His mild and wandering eye fastened on it with sudden attention, and as we passed through the hall he surreptitiously left his own on a side table. When we sat down, he said plaintively: ‘I do think, Charles, you might talk to me. I’ve had a very exhausting day. I was looking forward to a little conversation.’"

With wry humor Waugh presents the modern view; reading is an alternative to sociability, not a form of it.

Acts of reading did take place at some ancient meals. Yet a problem of teleology haunts early Christian and early Jewish studies of reading and the communal settings in which it took place, a problem whose ghost takes slightly different avatars in these two cases.

For Christian studies this specter comes in the form of the NT works themselves; for Jewish studies, in the history of the synagogue and its reading practices. The place where, interestingly, they seem to meet not just as parallel problems (in the two papers discussed in this session [Heilmann, Leipziger]), even perhaps as historically related ones, is in the issue of extended readings. Lectio continua or extended course readings across days and weeks in synagogues, or in Christian settings the presumed reading of long portions of scriptural reading or whole works, are often assumed to be the normal fare of symposiastic reading in these contexts. Both papers we have heard question these assumptions, on the basis of careful re-reading of primary texts.

The problem has slightly different significance for the two parallel topics. Regarding NT studies, the existence of works of scripture has been treated not just a starting point in exegetical research, but also a sort of monstrous historical presence, distorting the reconstruction of those practices and institutions which are then invoked to make sense of the texts themselves. The imagined structure and nature of early Christian gatherings themselves thus suffers from being conjured as whatever is conveniently imagined to produce and read these texts as literary works.

This problem arguably goes back, if in a different way, as far as classic form criticism, then transformed under types of redaction and more recently narrative criticism and other constructs. In each case we find the Christian gathering imagined primarily in terms of its suitability for the production of whatever the NT scholar is interested in: formerly the utterance of units of story or saying in the era of form criticism, more recently something like a whole passion narrative or Gospel, in more recent forms emphasizing the complete literary whole. Jan Heilmann offers rich comparative evidence to show how unlikely is the last and current version, the assumption of long readings such as of a whole Gospel, relative to what we know about ancient reading practices.

There is a different but complementary problem which could apply to early Judaism as well as to early Christianity; namely where the teleological tendency is couched not (just) in terms of the canonical work as a literary whole demanding a ritual that can explain it, but in terms of the later and well-documented liturgical reading practices that demand not just a genealogy (which could be a worthwhile line of inquiry itself) but specifically as prototypes, imagined evolutionary predecessors that already bear the marks of their descendants.

Jan Heilmann's crucial contribution in what we have heard is the ancient practice of the recitatio (a sort of public presentation of the literary work) which is rarely connected with meals. He also points out that there were acts of reading at meals that were not communal (recall Waugh!). Letters might well arrive during a meal and be read, but for them to be shared was at least notable and perhaps exceptional. Other instances of reading aloud at meals seem typically to be have been shorter. Overall, Heilmann provides a convincing picture of reading as something done in small amounts, variously combined with other forms of discourse, rather than as a full-blown literary course in the meal.

Where does this leave us for the early Christian meal and the practices that accompanied it? Heilmann convinces that the starting point for considering the relationship between texts and meal should shift from explaining the texts to considering the setting itself and how this was likely to work.

Jonas Leipziger (discussing 3 Macc, Philo, Josephus) demonstrates that there is a Jewish sympotic tradition of discussing Torah. It is clearer however that Torah was a common topic of conversation than that literal acts of reading often took place. He suggests that these sympotic "readings" belong to the pre-history of much later synagogal readings but is sceptical of suggestions that synagogal course readings were established early. Not every hearer will be convinced however that these meal "readings" are a direct antecedent of the later practices.

Neither paper is able to give much attention to the materiality of reading itself, or put more simply, to the book. Heilmann’s research may connect further with other work about the popularity of the Codex, which might both support and challenge his conclusions, and Leipziger might consider how the materiality of the Torah and the sacralization both of the reading and of the Scroll may actually have limited its suitability, to be not just talked about at the symposium but actually present.

Both these papers have important implications for thinking about the origins of reading in their respective liturgical traditions. Heilmann's suggestions in particular are fairly explosive for NT studies and liturgical historians, who are often dependent (in different ways and for different reasons) in thinking about the early Christian gathering as a sort of "worship service" with readings suitable to wider agendas already noted.

To return to Waugh then, while we tend to consider meals overall as a way of expressing and forming sociability, and the reading and interpretation of texts likewise, there is an underlying theme here of the unsociability of texts; these two papers have both given us some insights into the tensions between reading early Christian and Jewish texts and meal practice, as well as to their deep connections.

[This post originated as a response to two papers at the Society of Biblical Literature's 2019 Annual Meeting, from Jan Heilmann (Technische Universität Dresden) on Ancient Literary Culture and Meals in the Greco-Roman World: The Role of Reading during Ancient Symposiaand from Jonas Leipziger (Hochschule für Jüdische Studien Heidelberg) on Ancient Jewish Reading Practices and the Greco-Roman Meal Tradition.]


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