Ascetic Eucharists Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals

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A Kosher Meal?

The question of the relationship between these meals of bread and water and the traditions and practices of Judaism is a particularly important one which crosses boundaries between questions of origin and ongoing meaning. We need to consider further the common suggestion that the bread-and-water tradition had specifically Jewish origins and inspiration, as well as questions of the relationships between Jewish and Christian communities in the early centuries and the ways in which diet may have come up as an issue of self-definition.

At least some of the instances of the ascetic eucharistic meal do belong to communities which might be described as 'Jewish-Christian'. Yet as has already been indicated, the exclusion of meat and of wine from diet does not represent the Mosaic law as presented in the Pentateuch and/or as interpreted by the rabbis. Neither do what seem to be our best or most important examples of Jewish asceticism from the first centuries of the common era, the Qumran community and/or Essenes, provide indications of the immediate origins of such practices. The Therapeutae described by Philo of Alexandria do represent something very similar to the bread-and-water tradition, but remain a mysterious or even dubious group, perhaps more in keeping with Philo's Hellenism than with actually existing Judaism in any case. Whether real or fictional, their ascetic meals seem likely to be modelled on those of philosophical groups such as Pythagoreans, rather than those of earlier Jewish models such as Rechabites or Nazirites. Nevertheless, the example of the Therapeutae indicates that, as in the questions of banquets and their appropriate procedures, one may have to exercise caution in separating Jewish and pagan models too radically.

Some similar concerns to those of the ascetic Christians emerge in Judaism when we have to do with issues of Jewish-Gentile commensality. 6 It is arguable that under certain circumstances, Jews might have adopted forms of diet more ascetic than otherwise required, specifically in terms of removal of meat and wine, in order to keep kosher under circumstances where the provision of appropriate food was problematic. Such an explanation has been invoked to explain both the refusal of the hero of the book of Daniel and his companions to eat the King's food or drink his wine ( Dan. 1:5-16) and the vegetarian diet of priests undertaking a mission to Rome ( Josephus, Life, 14).



Segal, Paul the Convert, 228-36.


Jews living in Gentile cities could perhaps have resorted to bread, water, and other vegetable foods as a diet less difficult to maintain in purity than one involving meat and wine, both not only tainted by association with sacrifice but prepared in ways not in keeping with the dietary laws. 7 Yet it is hard to imagine that these measures would really have been necessary in a city like Rome where a Jewish community was well-established. It is more plausible that the scrupulous priests of Josephus' story might have been understood to have taken special provisions out of uncertainty as to what they would find, than that all the Jews in ancient Rome resorted to figs and nuts for their diet. In these cases a diet of vegetables alone might possibly have helped the eaters avoid problems specific to slaughter under kašrut, but the association between meat and idolatry, i.e. the same concern found in the bread-andwater tradition of eucharistic meals, seems likely to have been more important. In the same context, that of dealings with Gentiles, comes the statement of tractate ' Aboda Zara (2: 3) of the Mishna that there is a prohibition on 'wine, vinegar of the gentiles which to begin with was wine' and that 'meat . . . which comes out [from being offered to an idol] is prohibited because it is like sacrifices of the dead'. 8 This text seems to confirm the association between this food and drink and idolatry for Jews as well as others. The stories of Daniel's diet ( Dan. 1:8-16) and the meat- and wine-avoiding pērushim indicate that there was at the very least a Jewish aspect or version of the anti-sacrificial pattern. The fact that these examples are rather late and are conceivably linked with concern about cultus and sacrifice seem to suggest that this ascesis was either derived from pagan models or at least a response to pagan pressure. This means that in these cases we are dealing not merely with a question of commensality, but with one of idolatry and the cuisine of sacrifice.

There are some further possible points of contact between Judaism and the bread-and-water tradition in Christian circles. It is true that the avoidance of wine can be linked to the Nazirite tradition and to John the Baptist. We saw that there was some evidence for use of that tradition by such as Tatian. There are other indications that forms of Nazirite vow were current in the first century, given Paul's use of something similar ( Acts 18:18), although the specific provisions may have been too varied



Stuhlmacher, Paul's Letter to the Romans, 222-9; Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, 364-9. See also the discussion on Romans above, Ch. 7.


Cf. m. 'Abod. Zar. 2:5 'Grape pits and grape skins belonging to the gentiles are prohibited . . . And sages say, "[If] they are moist, they are forbidden. If they are dry, they are permitted."'


for us to be clear on a specific diet connected with such vows. 9 The clearest instance of this sort of asceticism in Judaism, apart from the awkward Therapeutae, is that of the just as historically troublesome meat- and wine-avoiding pērushim (b. B. Bat. 60b), who do in fact take a vow of abstinence, and the more straightforward but historically dislocated picture of Daniel, also apparently binding himself with a vow ( Dan. 1:8). If avoidance of meat had become a typical part of Nazirite vows by the Hellenistic period, that would only serve to underline further the amalgamation of specifically Jewish concerns with the pagan ones suggested by the cuisine of sacrifice and opposition to it.

Avoidance of meat could have been linked in certain cases to the destruction of the Temple and the consequent end of sacrifice, which is the narrative occasion for the vow of those pērushim. The removal of the paschal lamb from the Seder has already been noted, but this action does not seem to have led to, or reflected, wholesale rejection of meat. If we were to accept, for the sake of argument, that there might have been Jews who advocated such a diet as an appropriate response to the disaster of the conquest of Judea, it is again hard to avoid the likelihood that their actions would have been somewhat informed or influenced by the earlier pagan models in which avoidance of these foods is determined by their importance in sacrifice and cultic meals.

Two aspects of this Jewish form of the bread-and-water pattern are more distinctive perhaps: one is the connection with mourning attested both in Daniel (10:3) and in the Talmud; the other is the link between avoidance of meat and wine and the avoidance of all commensality. Of these, the former leaves no very clear trace in the bread-and-water tradition. If renunciation of bread and wine was a sign of refusal to celebrate, whether because of the destruction of the Temple or for any other reason, it has lost this significance for the Christian communities discussed above, although I have already suggested this parallel should warn us not to characterize the meals as joyful. It seems more likely that both versions reflect a choice involving voluntary poverty as a sign of disengagement and protest. The other aspect, that of commensality, seems to be a significant link between Jewish and Christian manifestations of the ascetic meal; the picture of eating provided in the radical pseudepigrapha includes some strong, if not altogether consistent, indications that avoidance of eating with pagans was important.



See Segal, Paul the Convert, 238-9, 346 n. 23.


There were, therefore, Jewish versions of this form of ascesis, and the likelihood these provided the beginnings of such practices in Christianity has been acknowledged. This connection must, however, be qualified. If we should see the bread-and-water tradition in Christianity as an offshoot of specifically Jewish opposition to pagan foods, it would seem to be on the basis of literary models or the practice of extraordinary figures, rather than of common custom. Second, the suggestion that these forms of avoidance are characteristically Jewish rather than pagan, and serve to identify either Jews or Jewish Christianity when we find them in early Christian literature, is fallacious.

One further suggestion that has been made regarding a connection with Judaism ought to be acknowledged, less a matter of asceticism than of historical accident. Felix Cirlot's analysis of the bread-and-water tradition made use of the discussion of the Sabbath meal by Ismar Elbogen, who had analysed the Talmudic sources to suggest that wine was scarce in Babylonia and therefore that 'wineless kiddushes' might have been introduced in Jewish meal gatherings in that region. 10 The link between the qidduš blessing and early eucharistic practice is of interest to some liturgical scholars, as we have already seen. These 'wineless kiddushes', however, seem to have used not water but other substitutes for wine (such as juice) that might still have been seen as festal. There is, then, no real parallel between the bread-and-water tradition and the 'wineless kiddush' either in motivation or the actual form of modification of a festal cup. Further, a specifically Babylonian origin for the breadand-water tradition seems unlikely, given the continued use of wine in the Palestinian Jewish sources, which ought to be closer to some or even most of the Christian texts discussed.

To summarize, the particular forms of dietary concern visible in the bread-and-water tradition have some resemblance to, and were also probably derived from, attested Jewish ones of the same period, but both need also to be related to earlier and continuing pagan dissident patterns of eating. Where concern about meat and wine as idolatrous food emerges, it is in the specific context of commensality with Gentiles. The bread-and-water tradition is largely attested for Christian commu-



Felix Cirlot, The Early Eucharist ( London: SPCK, 1939), 1-14, 232-5; Ismar Elbogen , "'Eingang und Ausgang des Sabbats nach talmudischen Quellen'", in M. Brann and J. Elbogen (eds.), Festschrift zu Israel Lewy's siebzigstem Geburtstag ( 2 vols.; Breslau: M. & H. Marcus, 1911), i. 173-87, esp. 181-2; and Der jüdische Gottesdienst in seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung, 4th edn. (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1962), 111-12. Elbogen linked the difficulty in obtaining wine to the transfer of the Sabbath qidduš from home to synagogue, where pooled resources made the purchase easier.


nities who seem to have avoided all commensality with non-members, and regarded all instances of these foods as to be avoided, not just some that were ritually problematic. In these ascetic Christian groups, biblical materials regarding some meat are used to bolster avoidance of all meat, and biblical materials supporting avoidance of wine by some are used to support avoidance of wine by all; but the sense that emerges is of a tradition that mines the Hebrew Bible, rather than one which stands firmly upon it and proceeds directly out of it.

The resort to Judaism as a form of explanation of these Christian dietary and ritual practices arguably has more to do with the assumption that dietary oddness and Judaism go hand in hand than with solid evidence of a self-definition based on Jewish identity among the groups assembled here as the bread-and-water tradition. It is only one form of 'peculiar' diet that can be linked to Judaism; all cultures have their exclusions and fetishes. The issues which are of most concern to the early Christian ascetics of the bread-and-water tradition are also related to Gentile culture and religion; and while we might expect opposition to those to be real in Jewish circles, the models of opposition seem ultimately to owe more to earlier Graeco-Roman forms of asceticism than to Jewish ones. The logic of avoidance of the cuisine of sacrifice has already been discussed, but these specific models deserve some further consideration.

A Cynic Mystery 11

The issues for the Christians (and Jews) who avoided meat and wine ultimately came largely, it has been argued, from Graeco-Roman sacrifice as the constitutive ritual of the city and of the Empire, and the continuation of the classical Greek view of animal, human, and divine worlds recognized and re-established by the offering of one by the other to the third. It remains to be seen just how important the earlier forms of dietary dissent, such as the Pythagorean and Cynic tendencies to avoid meat, were in the construction of an ascetic Christian self-understanding, or to what extent the similarities and differences are otherwise illuminating.

The question of a relationship between at least some of the ascetic Christians of the bread-and-water tradition and Cynicism was raised in antiquity by heresiologists anxious to label the dissenting groups as deviant, as well as more recently by scholars with an interest in the



Filastrius, Div. Haer. Lib.49.


possible use of Cynic tradition by Jesus and/or early Christians. Some assessment will have to be made of these Cynic-hypothesis suggestions, at least as they apply to the second- and third-century evidence, but this discussion will not proceed on the basis that Cynicism or any other movement or tradition is likely to explain the ritual and ascetic practices being discussed. This does not mean that there are no connections, whether those of genesis (i.e. that some aspect of the bread-and-water use was taken over from models linked with Cynicism) or for that matter of structural similarity (i.e. that Cynics and Christians responded similarly to dominant ritual and meal practice by avoiding similar food and drink). But the relevant question is not 'Is this a Cynic practice?', but 'What light do comparisons with Cynic practice shed?' 12

Two ancient authors noted above accused those who refused wine in the eucharistic cup of being Cynics rather than Christians. Hippolytus used this as a term of reproach for Encratites, and rather later Filastrius applied the same label to Montanists. In both cases this accusation was made in specific connection with the use of bread and water in the eucharist. Hippolytus gives a brief description of the Encratites in his Refutation of all Heresies (8. 13) where they are distinguished from other Christians mainly in their asceticism: 'They suppose that by meats they magnify themselves, while abstaining from animal food, being waterdrinkers, and forbidding to marry, and devoting themselves during the remainder of life to habits of asceticism. But persons of this description are estimated Cynics rather than Christians . . .' Apparently Hippolytus thinks that any or all of these things are Cynic; in fact none of them are quite a perfect fit for what we could say was typical of Cynics, despite the difficulty in establishing just what that might have been! Yet the Cynic concern for autonomy and freedom has already been noted as having led to an ascetic, rather than a luxurious or debauched, lifestyle. Meat was often rejected or avoided, and water-drinking was certainly a feature used before then to distinguish Cynics from others. 13 Hippolytus drew a reasonable comparison between Encratite practice and Cynic ideals, but



In this respect I have no quarrel at all with the method of comparison (and avoidance of the question of origins as an all-consuming end) suggested by Leif Vaage in Galilean Upstarts: Jesus' First Followers According to Q (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1994), 10-15. While I have no intention to assess here the Cynic hypothesis in terms of the Q. document or the historical Jesus, it will be evident from the discussion below that I think Vaage and its other exponents exaggerate the coherence and selfconsciousness of the Cynic tradition.


Water: Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 6. 2. 3 1 (Diogenes); 6. 5. 90 (Crates); cf. 6. 9. 104; Lucian, Fugitivi, 14; Ps.-Lucian, The Cynic, 5. The Cynic might also feel called to forsake conventional marital relations: see Downing, Cynics and Christian Origins, 140 n. 119.


important differences must still be accounted for in just how the different ascetics reached their goals.

Filastrius' use of the label 'Cynic' for Montanist eucharistic meals ('mysterium cynicon') should probably be understood in the same terms, and especially with reference to the distinctive use of water. His report is accompanied by the accusation of ritual infanticide, another possible link with Cynics, although the association can and has been exaggerated. 14 In any case, Filastrius certainly presents the two charges as quite different things.

But these instances of the more accommodating heresiologists calling ascetic Christians 'Cynics' reflect on more than just diet. The Cynic label is appropriate, not merely because the objects of the taunt might resemble certain philosophically minded pagans in dress, speech, or conduct, but because it was a term of abuse. Just as at one point Christians had been called cannibals by pagans and then began to trade the insult among themselves, so too now 'Cynic' became a way for those Christians who were working hard to assimilate themselves to the wider society to distinguish themselves from those who sought, by means including use of foods, to mark themselves off more clearly. This designation is therefore to be understood as an exercise in labelling or ritual insult as much or more than as an accurate descriptive term. 15

Unlike the cannibal accusations perhaps, the Cynic comparison has a more helpful or suggestive side as well. There probably were some instances where aspects of Christian identity were related, directly or indirectly, to Cynic tradition. The attempts of F. Gerald Downing and others to pursue the nexus between Cynic and Christian into the second and third centuries are not without interest here. The Christian philosopher could at times perhaps have been taken for a Cynic, whether in terms of teaching or of lifestyle, emphasizing simplicity of dress and diet. 16 Yet the use of commonplace attacks on other philosophical schools is a passing resemblance rather than a matter of substance; if Christians used arguments also used by Cynics, this identifies common enemies rather than common ground. 17

Among the candidates Downing introduces as possible indicators of



See the discussion in Ch. 2 above.


See Bruce J. Malina and Jerome H. Neyrey, "'Conflict in Luke-Acts: Labelling and Deviance Theory'", in Neyrey (ed.), The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation, 97-122.


Justin suggests that his attacker Crescens is trying to make the differences between them clearer ( 2 Apol. 3). See Downing, Cynics and Christian Origins, 170-1, 179-80.


Downing, Cynics and Christian Origins, 175-94, makes rather more of such similarities.


ongoing Cynic influence, the rather conformist positions of the anonymous Letter to Diognetus or the Shepherd of Hermas do not seem promising for identifying Cynic lifestyle, whatever rhetorical influences may be identified. Tatian, and perhaps Justin, are better contenders for positive comparison because we know in these cases that their ascetic practice, as well as their rhetoric, was not dissimilar to that of Cynics. 18 Tatian is also happy to depict Christianity in terms of rejection of social norms ( Orat. 11; 32-4). The Pseudo-Clementines have Peter adopting a diet and mode of dress that could well have been those of a Cynic ( Hom. 12. 6; Recog. 7. 6. 4). The apostolic heroes of the apocryphal Acts also dress and eat in ways that could owe something to Cynic tradition ( Acts of Thomas, 20). Tertullian, too, uses arguments reminiscent of Cynicism ( De Pallio). 19

The bread-and-water tradition is certainly well represented among the Christians who have been assembled in the attempt to pursue the Cynic hypothesis into the third century. Yet one might wonder whether the persistence of these ideas, or even of a Cynic stereotype, really suggests a clear ongoing Cynic identity and tradition so much as the reuse of these practices in different contexts, such as for the construction of the identity of the sophist or as general expressions of social dissent.

Further, as soon as we begin to acknowledge some similarity of diet among the possible evidence of Cynic influence, a most important difference has to be acknowledged: we know of no clear case where the use of bread and water in the Christian meal is. presented as part of a lifestyle free from constraint. The picture is always one of a more restrained diet than the norm, imposed by the community's rejection of idolatry and dissipation, rather than of freedom to ignore the social norms of sacrificial cuisine. Peregrinus' strife with the Christians ( Lucian, De Morte Pereg. 16) is a neat vignette that illustrates the difference; he was acceptable to them for a while, observing the same dietary ascesis as they did, but was ultimately not willing or able to accept the prohibition of some forbidden food (probably meat, one must say, after the evidence already presented). In eating rather than refusing, Lucian's Peregrinus did act as a Cynic ought to have done; and by rejecting him for this reason, the Christians of the story certainly showed themselves something other than Cynic in inspiration.

The similarity, then, is real but ultimately superficial. 20 There may be



Ibid. 179 -90


Barnes, Tertullian, 229-31.


In this matter at least Clement of Alexandria sees the point, comparing the diet of Christian and Cynic; the Christian ought to eat the way Diogenes did, and is equally free to eat anything within the constraints of moderation ( Paed. 2. 1. 16. 3).


some elements derived from Cynic tradition in use in the lifestyle and theological argument of various Christian groups, but they are not overwhelming and do not explain the 'Cynic mystery' of bread and water in the eucharist. More generally, the quest for a substantial and specific Cynic influence in Christianity is probably misconceived. In many of the cases discussed, the conflation of various traditions in sophistry is more than enough to account for the use of Cynic-sounding arguments. 21 The resemblances between Cynic and radical Christian diet derive from the similar structure of sacrificial ritual and diet that they reject; this structure suggests its own opposition, and some similarity of practice between dissenters of different kinds is to be expected.
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