Jewish meals and meal customs (Matthew 9)

Illustration: The Last Supper – Leonardo da Vinci

The Origin of New Testament dietary practices

The reference to dining and meals in the New Testament, and especially in the Gospels, combine features of Greco-Roman practice with Jewish religious tradition. From Greco-Roman customs we see the following:

* Communal meals, or banquets, provided an important social and religious venue for defining and experiencing fellowship (Matthew 9:10,11:19).

* The meal was followed by a period of music or extended conversation.

* The normal posture for eating was reclining on one’s side (Luke 7:36, 22:14).

The majority of the dietary practices we see in the Gospels, however, were derived from Judaism. From Jewish religious teachings we see the following:

* The holiness of meals within Judaism was extended through interpretation to the complex system of the kosher laws.

Acceptable animals were those that both chewed the cud and had cloven hoofs.

Fish possessing scales and fins, as well as certain types of birds, were also permitted.

The Bible prohibited certain types of food deemed to be pagan or acquired by cruel means. This included the consumption of meat taken from a still living animal or from one found dead, the drinking of blood or the boiling of a kid in its mothers milk.

* The Biblical injunction against fellowship with sinners (Psalm 1:1, Proverbs 13:20, 14:7) was developed in Jewish tradition as a warning against improper or excessively intimate association with the wicked, especially at mealtimes. (1 Corinthians 15:33, Sirach 6:7-12, 12:13-18)1.

* The demands of the Levitical system of dietary purity greatly restricted the possibility of shared meals between Jews an Gentiles (Acts 10:28, Galatians 2:12).

* The Pharisees, known for their exacting interpretation of Scripture, applied the even higher purity restrictions of the temple to their own table fellowship. In this way they attempted to eat their meals in a state of ritual purity appropriate for priests as a way of sanctifying all of life to God.

The Significance of the New Testament dietary practices

Interpreters have given a variety of explanations for Jewish dietary laws. Some contend that they were primarily intended for hygiene and good health, while others argue that the avoidance of idolatrous practices was the main reason for kosher laws. Still others simply suggest that these laws functioned as an artificial boundary to remind Jews that they were different from Gentiles. Most Jews seem to have believed these elaborate restrictions to have been a concrete, daily expression of holiness (Leviticus 11:44-45), which was also expressed in Jewish meals through the act of tithing all means of sustenance, the recitation of blessings before and after each meal (Deuteronomy 8:10, John 6:11, 1 Corinthians 11:24) and the marking of each festival on the liturgical calendar through the eating of distinctive foods prepared in a distinctive manner.

The observance of the dietary laws acquired new significance during the Maccabean era when “many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant” (1 Maccabees 1:62-63)2. This historical reality, together with inherited prophetic imagery, led to the notion of a great Messianic banquet in which the righteous would enjoy the hospitality of God in the age to come (Isaiah 25:6-8, Matthew 22:1-10, Revelation 19:9-17).

1. Sirach is an Apocryphal book
2. 1 Maccabees is an Apocryphal book

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