Bloomsbury Food Library - Eucharistic Eating, and Why Many Early Christians Preferred Fish
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Eating and Believing
Eating and Believing

David Grumett

Dr David Grumett is Research Fellow in Theology in the University of Exeter, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Rachel Muers

Dr Rachel Muers is Lecturer in Theology in the University of Leeds, UK. She is author of Keeping God’s Silence: Towards a Theological Ethics of Communication (Blackwell, 2004). She also edited The Modern Theologians (Blackwells) together with David Ford. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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(eds)

A Continuum, 2008

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Content type:

Book chapter

Period:

1-499

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Eucharistic Eating, and Why Many Early Christians Preferred Fish

DOI: 10.5040/9780567678140-ch-015
Page Range: 232–246

We were walking along the coast near Tyninghame in East Lothian last summer when we were forced by a modest river estuary to go inland to continue. As we did so, we found our way down a track to a bridge which took us around a group of farm buildings. It was a Saturday afternoon and there were no farm workers around, but we could hear coming from a large shed the cries and sounds of animals suffering. It was a small, enclosed pig facility, and the pigs were evidently on their own for the weekend inside this hot shed with automatic feeders and bars to restrain them.

The industrialization of meat has opened the most cruel and exploitative chapter in the history of humanity’s relationship with other animals. It began in the 1920s in North America with the development of indoor chicken rearing facilities. Along with this grew the cruel practice of transporting chickens over long distances to provide fresh meat to industrial cities such as Chicago. The new way of keeping chickens meant they could not hunt or peck for insects or scraps, and had to be fed on industrially produced feeds enhanced with fish oil, and more recently, antibiotics—the fish oil to substitute for sunlight, and the antibiotics to promote growth.[1]

In the 1960s, the practices of indoor husbandry, long distance transportation and industrial feeds were developed for pigs and cows. The standard industrial setup for rearing pigs indoors restrains the animal, for most of its life, in gestation crates designed so that it can do nothing more than stand up or lie down. As well as restraining the animal in a position where it can be conveniently fed and watered and its excreta removed, these cages prevent the adult pig from trampling on its piglets in the cramped conditions of the shed. Pigs in these facilities have no opportunity of rooting for their own food, walking around, rolling on the ground, or for normal interaction with other pigs except, through their teats, with their piglets. This also means that they cannot nurture their offspring in natural ways through affectionate or playful touching. Furthermore, they never see the outdoors, grass or soil. And they are routinely artificially inseminated, and thus denied a normal sex life.

The extent of mass cruelty to animals in industrial society is directly connected with the dietary turn to meat that has occurred in the last seventy years. Before the twentieth century, meat was regarded as a luxury in Caucasian societies in Europe and North America, and was only eaten on a daily basis, and as a main course (rather than as supplemental to vegetables and cereals), by the very wealthy. Yet industrial food corporations and advertisers purvey and promote meat, and animal fat, as core components of the diet of modern ‘consumers’.At the same time, farming and food technologists have persuaded farmers that it is possible to treat animals as economic units rather than as named individuals. As a result, the price of beef and edible oils has fallen by three-quarters in real terms in the last seventy years. And so, individuals are drawn into eating on a regular basis quantities of meat which were eaten only on feast days and holidays by pre-industrial Caucasian Europeans and North Americans. Consequently, the average American consumes twice their body weight in meat in one year, with the average European not far behind.

The cost in terms of cruelty to animals has been immense, and has been well documented by Peter Singer, Tom Regan and others, in the discourses of the animal liberation and animal rights movements. The costs to human health and to the earth system have also been immense. Obesity has become a major health problem in countries that have adopted a meat-based diet, and is no longer confined to traditionally affluent countries.[2] The meat-based diet is now rapidly growing in China, India and parts of Africa. And in these regions too, problems of obesity among middle class people are growing. At the same time, a range of pathogens are now emerging from factory farms which not only present problems to farmers, but pose a growing threat to human beings. Among the most widespread is E. coli 157, which has frequently infected the human food chain in recent years in Britain. A grass diet restrains the growth of E. coli in a cow’s stomach, but a grain diet encourages it.[3] One recent outbreak in Lanarkshire led to dozens of people becoming seriously ill, and four deaths. A new virus, the Nipah virus, was discovered in a Malaysian pig farm in 1997, and led to the deaths of more than one hundred people from an outbreak of a virulent strain of encephalitis caused by this pathogen. Avian flu is the latest pathogen to have escaped from factory farms. It emerged first in a chicken farm in Vietnam, and has cropped up in factory farms in India, Nigeria, Hungary, Britain and many other countries. Media reports and industry representatives have suggested that the virus is primarily spread by ‘wild birds’. But, in reality, the virus originated among industrial chickens, and its movements have also frequently followed the vehicular transportation routes used to move chickens, alive or dead, between regions and countries.[4] The paradox in the case of avian flu is that few people associated this virus with industrial farming until the discovery at the Bernard Matthews factory in England that the infection had probably come from a slaughter house in Hungary used by the same company, and where much of its ‘Norfolk turkey’ was being reared and slaughtered.

Despite the obvious animal, ecological and health costs of the industrial meat system, criticism of the iniquities of factory farming has come not from dieticians, medics, veterinarians or virologists, but from animal rights protestors. The animal rights movement has, since the 1970s, witnessed to the deep immorality of the industrial meat-based diet, reliant as it is on systematic cruelty towards animals and their complete instrumentalization. Thus Peter Singer argues that it is entirely wrong for human life to depend upon the use of animals in any way, and that animal suffering is as morally significant as human suffering for species which manifest what Singer argues are capacities for pleasure and pain equivalent to those of human beings. And those who refuse this moral position, Singer argues, are guilty of ‘speciesism’.[5]

There is, however, a deep irony in Singer’s stance, since his advocacy of animal liberation rests upon the self-same utilitarian frame which is so deeply implicated in the instrumentalization of animals, and of creation more generally.[6] As Hannah Arendt argues, Jeremy Bentham’s and John Stuart Mill’s novel attempts to found human morality on accounts of ‘values’ was the philosophical handmaiden to the value theory of classical economics.[7] Benthamism, as Charles Dickens also knew, simply affirmed the ‘original sin’ of capitalism, which was to transform all that it touched into exchange value. This included animals, cruelly instrumentalized precisely because of the modern loss of a sense of the intrinsic worth of the physical cosmos. As Arendt puts it, ‘nothing any longer ever possesses an “objective” value independent of the ever-changing estimations of supply and demand’ which are ‘inherent in the very concept of value itself ’.[8] So powerful is the economic conception of value that it becomes hard for modern philosophers to speak about beauty or goodness or worth without using this word ‘value’. But to adopt a utilitarian perspective, as Singer does, in order to redeem animals from instrumentalization, is just to confound the problem, valorizing rather than healing the alienation between humans and other animals that the industrial economy has promoted.

Another quixotic feature of Singer’s perspective is that he regards the campaign to liberate animals from their cruel subjection in factory farms as evidence of the modern moral progress of the human species. And hence the Christian tradition, for most of its history, is said to have ‘put non-human animals outside its sphere of concern.’[9] Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. It is only in modernity that humans have systematically instrumentalized animals and turned them into little more than meat machines in industrial sheds. Christians have, throughout their history, given extensive moral consideration to their treatment of animals. It is modern secular reason in the forms of economic rationality and instrumental utilitarianism which has advanced the loss of respect and care towards other animals.[10]

From the opening creation narratives in Genesis it is clear that for the God of Israel, the life of warm-blooded animals was understood to be precious. This preciousness is evidenced in the fact that animals are Adam’s first companions in the Garden of Eden, and that Adam’s first task on earth is to name them. No killing of animals was permitted in the Garden, and a diet which included meat was only formally permitted after the Flood in the Noachide covenant, where it is presented as a divine concession to human sinfulness. The preciousness of animals in the Old Testament is also connected with the ancient idea that the lifeblood is a spiritual force in the animal which is indicative of the breath of God, hence the Hebrew word nephesh, which means both ‘lifeblood’ and ‘spirit’. The shedding of blood is consequently a dangerous act which threatens society but also carries grave cosmological and spiritual risks. It is, therefore, only to be undertaken in a way that sets apart the activity of killing from the rest of human and nonhuman life, and in a way that shows respect and restraint for each animal and animal species.

The terms under which the Hebrews could eat meat were carefully circumscribed by the sacrificial system, which preserved the people from the infection of killing by reserving this dangerous activity to the tribe of the Levites, the priestly group, who were set apart from the other tribes to perform animal slaughter and to lead the worship of the people.[11] Careful slaughter was most clearly manifested in the ordinance that the blood had to be drained from the animal and returned to the earth, and due regard given to the life force, before the meat was consumed. Dietary and hygiene laws also specifically excluded wild animals, including reptiles and certain birds, from being eaten. The sacrificial system also restrained the number of animals that could be killed. It thus enjoined a sacred respect for the lives of animals, which might otherwise have been regarded as the property of Israelites to dispose of at will, while at the same time ensuring that wild animals were preserved from being hunted.

As Mary Douglas argues, the way in which dietary laws—what it was permitted to eat and not eat—map on to the rules and procedures for Temple sacrifice indicates a degree of restraint in the killing and eating of animals, and hence respect for animals, that was closer to religious asceticism than to the disregard for the intrinsic moral significance of animals found in modern attitudes to animal husbandry and slaughter.[12] Douglas suggests that the turn of the prophets and psalmists against ritual sacrifice was indicative of the growing influence in the ancient world of ideas of animal rights, and of Buddhist ideals imported from the East into Babylon and other urban centres where the Israelites lived in the exilic period. Douglas also argues that this turn is already anticipated in the central place given to cereal offerings in the Book of Leviticus. The cereal offering is not merely an offering given by those who could not afford sacrifice, but actually replaces animal sacrifice on most occasions, and is said to be ‘the most holy portion out of the offerings by fire to the Lord’ (Lev. 24.9).[13]

Douglas also suggests that there is a significant connection between the cereal offering in Leviticus and the paradigmatic Eucharistic practice of breaking bread. When Christ breaks the bread at the Last Supper, he tells his disciples ‘this is my body’, and hence turns the cereal offering from a Temple-based vegetarian sacrifice into a Messianic meal and foretaste of the Kingdom. Significantly, none of the Gospels records that the disciples ate lamb at this final meal. It is possible that Christ and the disciples were adopting the practice of other Rabbis, and the Essenes, in using unleavened bread in place of the lamb in the Passover meal.[14] It is certainly the case that, in the theology of the evangelists and St Paul, the sacrifice of Christ and the shedding of his blood are represented as the final and most perfect form of the Passover lamb. And as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews makes explicit, Christ’s sacrifice ends all animal sacrifice once and for all.

The Christian rejection of the Temple-based sacrificial system may also be said to emanate more directly from the teachings and actions of Jesus. Not only is there no evidence that Christ ever made a sacrifice, but his interactions with the Temple are consistently critical. The Temple treasury was the place where the hated tribute and taxes on the product of the land were all paid, alongside the tithes required under Jewish law. Because of these taxes, many of the smallholders in Israel’s agrarian economy fell into debt and went hungry. Palestine was a marginal province in the Roman Empire whose function in its economy of extraction was the provision of agricultural surplus. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of this role in the imperial economy in the remains of large wine and olive presses, and of bunk houses suitable for large groups of farm workers to sleep in, to the south of the Sea of Galilee. They have also identified the remains of drying and bottling facilities for fish near Tyre, the deep Mediterranean seaport, where products such as fish paste, olive oil and wine, would have been exported to Rome.[15]

The parables of Christ concerning the growing and harvesting of food take on new significance when set in the context of the threats to Israelite smallholder agrarianism from the combined effects of the imperial taxation system, and an imperial food economy which relied on the extraction of surplus food from its colonial holdings to maintain Rome’s growing armies and cities. Christ’s parable of the rich landowner, who had acquired so much land that he needed to build bigger barns to store all his surplus, is indicative of the way in which wealthy Jewish landowners were cleaning up as small farmers went to the wall in first-century Palestine (Lk 12.13-22). Christ characterizes the landowner as a rather self-satisfied and self-concerned individual who plans, having stored his surplus, to rest from his labours, secure in the knowledge that, while others fall into debt bondage and lose their lands, he has a large surplus laid up. But, as the parable indicates, his life will be required of him before he gets to build his barns. He is quite literally storing up judgement for himself in his plans for his unjustly gotten surplus.

In Luke, this parable is immediately followed by the paradigmatic story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Landlessness and food poverty are closely related in agrarian cultures, and as Dominic Crossan points out, many who were drawn to Christ’s preaching and ministry were ill from sickness and diseases associated with malnutrition.[16] The food economy Jesus inaugurates challenges the economy of want and scarcity which international and imperial trade had brought to Palestine. It is therefore described by Luke as a redemptive meal, analogous to the meal of manna that the Israelites ate in the wilderness after their delivery from Egypt. The disciples wanted to solve the problem of food shortage through the market: ‘Send the crowd away, to go into the villages and country round about, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a lonely place’ (Lk 9.12). Jesus teaches them to resolve the problem through a community of production and sharing, however, and commands the disciples to share what they have with them by sitting the people down in community groups ‘of about fifty’. He then blesses and breaks the loaves and the fish that are available, and there is more than enough for all to eat. The divine blessing and breaking create the miracle of sharing, and at the same time this miracle of plenitude breaks the distorted money economy of hoarding and possession, enacting a new reality of relational giftedness and redeemed abundance. In the setting of the impoverishing extractive economy of Roman imperial occupation, an act of blessing, breaking and sharing on this scale, created a meal which turned eating itself into an act of resistance to empire.

Christ also challenges the power relations implicit in imperial meals. At dinner in the house of a ruling Pharisee, he observes how the guests ‘chose the places of honour’. He counsels his own disciples to take the lowest place in the event that they may be invited higher, ‘for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted’ (Lk 14.11). During the courses of the meal, Christ heals a man with dropsy, a diet-related illness, and because it is the Sabbath, his Pharisee host takes offence. But for Christ, the moral economy of food also involves a challenge to the poor diet and disease to which the landless and poor were consigned by the imperial economy, and hence the politics of eating challenges and offends religious and imperial authority.

The meals in which Christ regularly participates in the Gospels, and which take centre stage in the Gospel of Luke, represent paradigmatic acts of resistance to the Roman imperial economy, with its deleterious effects on subsistence farmers and labourers, and to the central role of the Jewish Temple in the organization of this economy in Palestine. Christ’s practice of the banquet, and his association of the Kingdom of God with the messianic banquets, enacted a subversive recovery of the traditional moral economy of people and land. These meals also recalled the egalitarian moral economy of the ancient Israelites because they refused the distinctions between righteous and sinner, and clean and unclean, sustained by Second Temple Judaism. Just as Christ announces, in a pivotal saying, that ‘many will come from East and West and will eat with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Lk 13.28-29), so in his own acts of eating he chooses to eat with those who were considered far from grace, including not only tax collectors and sinners but prostitutes, Samaritans and the sick. In these meals, the proclamation of the Kingdom of God becomes a lived reality; those who are outside the orbit of grace are invited in, and through their participation in table fellowship with Christ are offered forgiveness and redemption.[17]

Christ’s choice to eat with those whom debt, poverty, prejudice, illness or association with the Romans, had placed outside the sphere of the righteous, causes embarrassment to his own disciples and outrage among the Pharisees and other rabbis. This outrage is more deeply provoked by Christ’s final challenge to the sacrificial system in his cleansing of the Temple. When he overturns the tables of the moneychangers and declares ‘my house shall be a house of prayer’, he definitively and publicly denounces the sacrificial system which the moneychangers were there to service. While Tissa Balasuriya and N. T. Wright suggest that the main target of Christ’s actions in the Temple on this Passover day was the imperial economy, in which the Temple and the money changers were implicated, Stephen Webb suggests that we do better to focus our attention on the animals to be sacrificed.[18] The business of the Temple was intricately tied up with the business of killing animals, and so by attacking the means of business—the moneychangers— Christ challenged the core business. For the Temple was not only a Treasury and imperial tax collection centre: it was the principal slaughterhouse of Israel. Since the reforms of Josiah, animals were only supposed to be slaughtered in the Temple, and in Second Temple Judaism this centralized system of ritual slaughter was reconstructed. The prayers of Israel were therefore constantly accompanied by the sounds and smells of animal suffering and slaughter.

That the Temple cleansing constituted a paradigmatic challenge to the sacrificial system is affirmed by its setting in the Synoptic Gospels immediately before the Passover meal. At this meal, Christ announces a new covenantal system in which his body stands in place of all the sacrifices of the Temple and enacts a more perfect form of atonement and forgiveness. Dennis Smith, in a significant revisionist study, argues that the Eucharist as practised by Christians in the first century was the regularization of the many meals that Jesus shared with tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees and disciples throughout his ministry.[19] Seeing the Eucharist through the lens of the missionary and messianic meals of Christ, as well as in relation to the Last Supper narrative, significantly shifts the focus away from the medieval emphasis on penance and sacrifice in Eucharistic theology and towards the Eucharist as a microcosmic meal in which the Church is constituted as the ‘new creation’ inaugurated by Christ’s resurrection.[20] It also suggests that the Eucharist in the early church was intricately associated with redressing the wrongs committed against the poor, animals and the land, that were implicit in the social conditions of food production of the kind sustained by imperial Rome.[21] Just as the table fellowship of Christ was the means to redemption for sinners, so Christian eating becomes an acted parable of a moral economy which recalls the idealized moral economy of the Mosaic covenant and which was enacted in the community of the Kingdom that Christ in his earthly life established around him. In the Kingdom, and hence at the Eucharist, the poor no longer have their land expropriated from them for the benefit of the tables of the wealthy, but instead are welcomed to the messianic banquet alongside the rich, where they find not only a place, but a voice in the gathering around the breaking of bread.[22] And in the Eucharist, animals are no longer sacrificed or eaten, since sacrificial slaughter has come to an end on the cross of Christ.

In this perspective, it makes sense to see the early Eucharist as in effect a vegetarian meal. And this is likely how it was practised in Jerusalem, where the prominent apostle James was very publicly a vegetarian. But it is not how things are presented in St Paul’s foundational discussion of the Gentile Eucharist in 1 Corinthians. His description of the Eucharistic tradition is preceded by an extensive discussion of the issue of meat-eating and the problem of meat offered to idols, and as N. T. Wright suggests, this discussion is not epiphenomenal to his account of the Eucharist. On the contrary, it provides the crucial context. The economy of eating was problematic in Corinth because it was a pagan economy in which meat was butchered at pagan temples.[23] How to eat meat without the infection of idolatry was the pressing moral question that St Paul addressed in this letter, immediately before his description of the Eucharist itself. Paul was also concerned with the class context, because in imperial cities the rich ate meat and drank wine while bread and water were the staples of the poor. The problem Paul had with the church at Corinth was that its imperial pattern of eating had also begun to infect Eucharistic practices, such that the rich enjoyed meat and wine during Eucharistic worship, while the poor ate only bread and water. The Christians at Corinth had in effect turned the Eucharist into a pagan Symposium in which the rich ate first and had their fill of luxury foods, while the servants cleaned up on the crumbs when the wealthy were done.[24] This was not the practice of the common meal as Jesus had shared it with his disciples before and after his death.

Paul begins his corrective account of a Christian moral economy of food by recounting the story of manna in the wilderness, a feeding which initially went wrong because the people of Israel neglected the two rules that God had established for receiving the manna, which were: first, that the people should gather only sufficient for their needs; and second, that they should not hoard or try to store up the manna. The Corinthians were doing anything but this in their practice of the common meal—instead of sharing together equally, some had luxury foods while others went hungry.

Paul resolves the issue of meat-eating not by an absolute prohibition of the practice, but rather by suggesting that meat should only be eaten at home and not at worship. Christians were to enact a different polity in their worship from the imperial one of division between rich and poor, slave and free. All were to eat of the one loaf and the one cup as a sign that they had been made members one of another in and by the body of Christ which they shared in the Eucharist. This common meal tradition established a foundational connection in Christian worship between the moral economy of food, and divine grace, a connection first enacted in the Messianic meals of Christ.

A key phrase in Paul’s account of the Eucharist is the language of ‘discerning the body’. Christian theologians since the Middle Ages have tended to read these words individualistically. As Tissa Balasuriya argues, the clericalization of the Mass in the Medieval Church effectively turned the Eucharist from a Church-constituting shared meal into a priestly performance.[25] The laity were largely excluded from participation in this performance, at best receiving the host once a year at Easter. The clericalization of the Mass in the Middle Ages consequently trained Christians to focus their reading of the words of the Eucharist in terms of their participation in the system of penance, and hence on their own individual states of sin and grace, since there was no embodied and communal participation in the meal itself. And hence the words ‘discerning the body’, and the threat of judgement which Paul associates with wrongly discerning the body, come in medieval theology and spirituality to indicate personal sinful desires which, if unconfessed, were said to lead to the communicant being condemned when she received the sacrament.

The meaning of the words ‘discerning the body’ to the first readers of Paul’s epistle would have been very different. The body of Christ was an alternative political order to the imperial polity of Rome, and this is why Paul uses the Roman political metaphor of the body to describe the Church. And so, to discern the body is to discern the significance of the way of Christ, which was the way of common sharing in which the weak are respected alongside the strong, and the rich eat and drink the same food as the poor; discerning the body refers to the alternative moral economy inaugurated by Christ. The body of Christ, as Paul goes on to explain in 1 Corinthians 12–14, realizes this moral economy on earth in the common meal, in the acts of love and the sharing of charisms that follow, when the strong give honour to the weak, and when those with less respect in society are given a voice in the gathering of the redeemed.

Modern Christians have two economies in mind when they hear or read this earliest narrative of the Christian Eucharist: the economy of salvation, which is taken to be the sacrifice of Christ through which sins are said to be forgiven; and the economy of food, which is subject to secular political and economic arrangements. But for Paul there is no such distinction between politics and religion, nor indeed between nature and culture. To confess that Christ is Lord is to confess that Caesar is not: it is a far more profoundly political confession than it is for Christians after the conversion of Constantine. Similarly, to break bread blessed in the name of Christ was a profoundly political event. In their first communities, the Christians modelled a different economy from the imperial pagan economy of Rome.

Paul’s narrative of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians, like other accounts of meals in the New Testament and the early fathers, indicates that the early Christians did not make a ritualistic demarcation between the Eucharist and other forms of eating. It also makes clear that early Christian worship was analogous, in some respects, to the public symposia which their Gentile neighbours also practised; that it was, in other words, a real meal, organized around a common table, during which scripture, a homily, testimony, prayers and hymns, were said and sung. Other early Christian descriptions—textual and visual—of these early ritual meals attest to a great variety of elements consumed, including not only bread and wine, but bread and water; bread and fish; bread, water and grapes; and vegetables. What these meals all have in common in material terms is not that they directly mirror all those kinds of food and drink that were used at the Last Supper. Rather, it is what they exclude from what was included in the Last Supper that unites them. Early Christian worship was organized around meals which excluded meat. It was vegetarian worship. What set Eucharistic meals apart from pagan meals was that the foods offered and consumed were seen as the fruits of the restored creation realized in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whom they also came to perceive and worship as Creator of the universe. Eucharistic eating enacted a new society and a new creation in which class division was absent, and the violence and killing involved in meat-eating were no longer necessary. The meal became a microcosm for the divine plan to redeem the whole creation from the effects of sin: physical food became spiritual food as bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ, and through this transformation the Church was said to be constituted, and the world redeemed from sin and violence.

The freedom that Paul claims for Christians in eating foods that Jewish dietary law proscribed did not mean that the reverential eating mandated by the old covenant was simply set aside or supplanted. On the contrary, it finds a new and perfected form, as one of the most extensive treatments of Jewish dietary laws in the early fathers, Novatian’s essay On Jewish Foods, makes clear. Novatian treats the dietary laws as allegories of the moral and spiritual life, so that for Christians, the true meaning of the proscription of certain foods as unclean is that they represent human vices, while restraint from eating such foods represents the virtue of temperance.[26] For Novatian, the ‘consummation of the law’ which Christ realizes means that, as Paul says,‘to all who are pure themselves, everything is pure’, and that ‘every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be rejected that is accepted with thanksgiving’.[27] This indicates that all foods can be enjoyed by Christians who enjoy ‘evangelical liberty’ as blessings received from creation. But it also indicates that Christians should avoid eating with an excess of sensuality, and must, in particular, guard against greed and gluttony. Moreover, gluttony is particularly associated with meat-eating, which therefore needed to be restrained. Hence for Novatian, the Jewish dietary laws of the Old Testament are a continuing reminder that food remains a source of temptation, and that human desires are still prone to corruption even for those who are in Christ. Christian eating is subject to Christian virtue, and the one who eats and drinks in moderation and with a clean conscience ‘eats with Christ’. Christians must not be drunkards or gluttons, because Christian eating is subject to ‘the law of frugality and moderation’ that Paul commends to Timothy.[28] There is one more rule that Christians share with Jews: the prohibition of eating food offered to idols. Such food, since it has been offered to demons, ‘nourishes the one who partakes of it for the devil, and not for God, and makes him a table-companion of an idol, not of Christ, as the Jews also rightly hold’.[29]

We have, then, a picture of diversity in relation to meat-eating in the early church, and at the same time a clear sense that meat-eating was a matter of particular moral deliberation for the early Christians. The Eucharist was a vegetarian meal. Christians were not to eat meat in Church after the Corinthian episode. Some Gentile Christians, and no doubt some Jewish Christians, continued to eat meat at home. But even these domestic meals were still within the moral and religious domain, and hence meat-eating continued to be a source of controversy, particularly between the apostles in Jerusalem and Paul. To resolve the problem, the Jerusalem Church issued an apostolic ordinance according to which Gentile Christians should adopt the Jewish practice of only eating meat from which the blood had been drained (Acts 15.29)—an ordinance that many Christians followed for centuries, as David Grumett shows elsewhere in this collection.

Not only was meat eschewed in Eucharistic eating, but wine was avoided in many cases as well.Wine, like meat, was indicative in imperial Rome of wealth. The meals of the poor were typically constituted of bread and water. As Andrew McGowan has shown, the adoption by a significant number of early Christians of more ascetic Eucharistic practice centred around bread and water is indicative of the sense in which the meal traditions of the early Christians enacted the radical subordination and anti-imperialist ethic which Christ also enacted in his ministry.[30] It was only after Constantine, in the fifth century, when Christianity was turning into a religion of empire, that the two traditions were merged, and it became customary to mix water with the wine. But this merging obscured the ascetic and vegetarian connotations of earlier Eucharistic traditions, and their anti-imperial associations. It also anticipated the medieval turning of theEucharist into a token and clerically enacted ritual performance, instead of a Church-constituting and world transforming feast.

Susan Power Bratton suggests that further evidence of the avoidance of meateating among early Christians may be found in the artistic images left by the Christians on the walls of the Catacombs in Rome, in early Christian mosaics, and in statuary and other artefacts. The Catacombs display an array of nature imagery analogous to Roman Homeric motifs, including extensive use of vines, songbirds, sheep and grapes. But they also reveal a distinctive shaping of Roman motifs away from depictions of heroic hunting and killing towards Christian motifs such as the Good Shepherd, which is the favoured image of Christ in early Christian art.[31] The Good Shepherd is always dressed in simple peasant clothes, carrying a sheep on his shoulders, and often accompanied by a dog. If there is a background, it is composed of trees, herbs and birds, rather than the angelic or human servants who would have accompanied an imperial prince. The Good Shepherd rescues animals and cares for them, instead of hunting and killing them. As Bratton suggests, ‘the Good Shepherd is a reversal of the realms of earthly and, particularly, military power and authority’ characteristic of imperial Rome.[32]

Depictions of food in early Christian art are also indicative of this anti-imperial attitude. Milk from sheep serves as an analogy for Christ feeding his lambs with spiritual nourishment. Fish, clusters of grapes, sheaves of wheat, fruiting trees and bread loaves marked with the sign of the cross, are the forms of food evidenced in early Christian art. Wild animals are depicted, but are not shown being hunted, as is frequently the case in Roman art. Instead, early Christian art depicts a postresurrection creation in which humans enjoy a new peaceable relationship with other creatures, and where killing is no more. Peacocks feast on grapes, songbirds carry twigs or branches, sheep drink from streams, and in fourth-century Basilicas, deer are often represented drinking from the Rivers of Paradise.[33] The emphasis throughout is on a metaphorical association between the harmony and regeneration of the natural world and the Resurrection of Christ, who is the source of living water, the true vine and the Good Shepherd.

From the fourth century onwards, nativity scenes are also increasingly depicted, with an emphasis on companionship between the animals around which the Christ child is born. Again, the association is anti-imperial, suggesting that instead of the human courtiers and princes who would attend the birth of an imperial prince, Christ as King of the Cosmos is attended by the creatures that were also companions of Adam in the Garden of Eden. They welcome the coming of Christ because he is the one who will re-establish peace between the sons of Adam and the other animals.[34]

Frequent images of fish and fish-eating provide further evidence that many early Christians avoided meat-eating by preferring fish. The Greek word for fish— ichthys—was an acronym for the first letters of the Greek phrase ‘Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour’. The fish symbol was widely used among early Christians, and remains a Christian symbol to this day. In early Christian art, fish represented the souls of believers, while fishermen imaged the apostles as founders of the Church and thus fishers of souls.[35] But, paradoxically, the ‘saved’ fish are the ones caught in the net of the fisherman.[36] As Jerome puts it: ‘The apostles have fished for us and have drawn us out of the sea of this world that, from dead, we might become alive.’[37] The analogy here is with the baptismal waters through which pass the bodies and souls of Christians who therein enact the death of Christ, and are reborn through the power of the risen Lord. And hence it is fish caught on the hook or in the net of the fisherman, or on the plate or table, which are the visual metaphors of salvation, not living fish in the water.[38] Hence in the depiction of a heavenly sacramental feast in the Cubiculum of the Velatio, dishes of two or three fish are placed in front of the diners, along with plentiful supplies of bread.[39] Fish, along with bread, are the creatures with which God provides a sacred feast for the faithful.

The ubiquity of the fish symbol in early Christianity indicates that fish, above all other creatures, were an allegory for the Gospel in early Christian art.[40] As Gabriele Finaldi suggests:‘In the fish, the initials of a declaration of faith become a word, the word a sign, the sign an image that recalls entire texts, giving rise to a host of allegorical interpretations.’[41] But whereas it is dead fish out of water that perform this function, exactly the contrary is true of other animals, and in particular, of the paradigmatic sacrificial animal, the lamb. After the resurrection, lambs are saved from slaughter while fish continue to be eaten.

The association of meat-eating with Jewish sacrifice and imperial wealth, and of fish-eating with Christ and the apostles, indicates a widespread preference among early Christians for fish over meat. They also make a connection between an ascetic and holy life, and abstention from meat—an association which is deepened by the Desert Fathers in the third and fourth centuries, and remembered vestigially in the Roman Catholic practice of fasting from meat on Fridays, and then eating only fish. The Eucharistic meals of the early Christians were not only token foretastes of the provision of heaven. They were real meals in which the early Christians were trained to perceive food and farming as identity-shaping interactions with other creatures. Creation care and respectful use in acts of food consumption are fruits of the life of holiness which the redemptive events of Christ’s life, death and resurrection make possible among believers. By contrast, the Eucharist has become almost exclusively a token meal in Christian practice since the Middle Ages, which helps to explain the paucity of connection between the Eucharist and the larger moral economy of food and farming in theology and ethics in the present day. Moreover, as Nancy Jay argues, the strong distinction between sacred and profane that the sacerdotal sacrifice of the Mass introduced into Western Christian culture in the late Middle Ages is also implicated in the subsequent emergence of secular instrumental reason and its alliance with technological power—an alliance which sustains the modern sacrifices of billions of animals in the cruel and degrading factories of industrial agronomy.[42]

In sum, the industrial meat economy is as clear an exemplar of imperial idolatry as were the pagan sacrifices of imperial Rome. Recovering the anti-imperial asceticism of the early Christians by rediscovering the Eucharist as a real vegetarian meal, and not just a token meal, will provide opportunities for contemporary Christians, in their worship and homes, to resist and repair the sinful alienation between humans and other animals promoted by the modern imperial food economy. And given that industrial corporations have now turned their destructive powers, and farming technologies, on fish, it may be that the association of Eucharistic eating and the eschewal of industrial meat-eating ought now also to include fish.[43]



[1] Danielle Nierenberg, Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, 2005), pp. 14–15 .

[2] B. A. Swinburn, I. Caterson, J. C. Seidell, and W. P. T. James, ‘Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Excess Weight Gain and Obesity’, Public Health Nutrition 7 (2004), pp. 123–46 ; and Tim Lang and Geof Rayner, ‘Obesity: A Growing Issue for European Health Policy?’, Journal of European Social Policy 15 (2005), pp. 301–27 .

[3] Nierenberg, Happier Meals, p. 25.

[4] Danielle Nierenberg, ‘ A fowl plague’, World Watch Magazine , January–February 2007 , at http://www.worldwatch.org/node/4779 ; and ‘Bird flu crisis: small farms are the solution not the problem’, Grain, July 2006, pp. 24–28, at http://www.grain.org/seedling_files/seed-06-07-11.pdf

[5] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (London: Jonathan Cape, 2nd edn, 1990), pp. 20–24 .

[6] See further Michael Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 93–97 .

[7] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1959) .

[8] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 166.

[9] Singer, Animal Liberation, p. 3.

[10] Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2002) .

[11] Klaus Eder, The Social Construction of Nature (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996), pp. 58–96 .

[12] Mary Douglas, ‘The Eucharist: Its Continuity with the Bread Sacrifice of Leviticus’, Modern Theology 15 (1999), pp. 209–24 .

[13] Douglas, ‘Eucharist’, p. 213.

[14] Stephen Webb, Good Eating (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2001), p. 150 .

[15] Sean Freyne, ‘Herodian economics in Galilee: searching for a suitable model’, in Modelling Early Christianity: Social Scientific Studies of the New Testament in its Context , ed. Philip F. Esler (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 23–46 .

[16] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), pp. 122–26 .

[17] This is the central claim of John Koenig, The Feast of the World’s Redemption: Eucharistic Origins and Christian Mission (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 2000) . See also Eugene LaVerdiere, Dining in the Kingdom of God: The Origins of the Eucharist According to Luke (Collegeville, MN: Liturgy Training, 1994) .

[18] Tissa Balasuriya, The Eucharist and Human Liberation (London: SCM, 1977), pp. 18–20 ; N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996) ; Webb, Good Eating, pp. 95–97.

[19] Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003), p. 2 .

[20] Paul McPartlan, The Eucharist Makes the Church: Henri de Lubac and John Zizioulas in Dialogue (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2003) .

[21] In addition to Crossan and Smith, Richard Horsley, Marcus Borg, Gerd Theissen, N. T. Wright and William Herzog offer interpretations of the meals of Christ which are analogous to this approach.

[22] Balasuriya, Eucharist (London: SCM, 1977); and Timothy Gorringe, The Sign of Love: Reflections on the Eucharist (London: SPCK, 1997) .

[23] N. T. Wright, ‘One God, One Lord, One People: Incarnational Christology for a Church in a Pagan Environment’, Ex Auditu 7 (1991), pp. 45–58 .

[24] Ched Myers made this insightful comparison in an unpublished expository address at the Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, England, in August 2004.

[25] Balasuriya, Eucharist, pp. 29–32.

[26] Novatian, On Jewish Foods, 3 and 4, in The Trinity. The Spectacles. Jewish foods. In Praise of Purity. Letters (trans. Russell DeSimone; Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1974), pp. 147–51 .

[27] Titus 1.15 and 1 Tim. 4.4, cited in Novatian, On Jewish Foods, 5.

[28] 1 Tim. 6.10, cited in Novatian, Jewish Foods, 6.

[29] Novatian, Jewish Foods, 7.

[30] Andrew McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998) .

[31] Robin Margaret Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 32–33 .

[32] Susan Power Bratton, ‘Anti-imperial themes and care for living nature in early Christian art’, in Diversity and Dominion: Religion, Science, and the Conservation of Nature , eds Kyle Van Houtan and Michael S. Northcott (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming) .

[33] Bratton, ‘Anti-imperial themes’, forthcoming.

[34] Bratton, ‘Anti-imperial themes’, forthcoming.

[35] James A. Francis, ‘Clement of Alexandria on Signet Rings: Reading an Image at the Dawn of Christian Art’, Classical Philology 98 (2003), pp. 179–83 .

[36] Lois Drewer, ‘Fisherman and Fish Pond: From the Sea of Sin to the Living Waters’, The Art Bulletin 63 (1981), pp. 533–47 .

[37] Jerome, Homily 92, ‘On Psalm 41 (42): To the Neophytes’, cited in Drewer, ‘Fisherman and Fish Pond’, p. 535.

[38] Drewer, ‘Fisherman and Fish Pond’. See also R. M. Grant, Early Christians and Animals (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 29–30 .

[39] Antonio Baruffa, The Catacombs of St. Callixtus: History, Archaeology, Faith (Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2000), pp. 79–84 , cited in Bratton, ‘Anti-imperial themes’.

[40] Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, pp. 47–56.

[41] Gabriele Finaldi, The Image of Christ (London: National Gallery, 2000), p. 10 .

[42] Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992) .

[43] See further Michael Northcott, ‘Farmed salmon and the sacramental feast: how Christian worship resists global capitalism’, in Public Theology for the 21st Century: Essays in Honour of Duncan B. Forrester , eds William F. Storrar and Andrew Morton (London: T&T Clark, 2004), pp. 213–30 .