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So, what did Jesus eat?

by
25 November 2016

Susan Weingarten uses historical evidence to uncover the Jesus diet

Battered not grilled: Jesus probably would have eaten fried tilapia, also known as St Peter’s fish

Battered not grilled: Jesus probably would have eaten fried tilapia, also known as St Peter’s fish

THERE is a trend, particularly in the United States, for applying the “What Would Jesus Do?” motto in the kitchen. The idea is that if one truly wants to follow Jesus in every area of life, one cannot ignore eating habits. The challenge, however, is to find enough evidence of what Jesus actually ate. The New Testament mentions a number of foodstuffs in connection with Jesus, and in other contexts, but does not go into detail.

To get a better picture of the food eaten in first-century Galilee, we can look to the Mishnah and Tosefta — compilations of Jewish laws from the third and fourth centuries, which draw on earlier sources, often contemporary with Jesus, and contain many culinary details besides examining archaeological evidence.

It appears that some of the suggestions of the Jesus diet movement for eating like Jesus are, unfortunately, anachronistic. Jesus could not have eaten fresh tomatoes, for example, as tomatoes were brought to Europe and the Middle East from the New World only after Columbus’s voyage. Other suggestions clearly say more about their proposer’s world-view than about Jesus’s diet: there is no evidence, for instance, that Jesus was vegetarian, or did not drink alcohol.

 

DON COLBERT’s What would Jesus eat? The ultimate program for eating well, feeling great, and living longer, one of the earliest Jesus diet books, states that bread was “the food that Jesus ate most often”. This is likely. Colbert notes that the breads of Jesus’s time were coarse wholegrain breads, which would be likely to go rancid and mouldy if not eaten daily. Therefore: “Eating a freshly baked loaf of wholegrain bread a day was and is a healthy way to live.”

The reality in first-century Palestine, how­ever, was less pleasant. Bread was made by grinding flour in stone mills. Roman cities had large bakeries containing mills the height of a man, but, in the countryside, grinding grain was a back-breaking task usually carried out by women at home, using small hand-mills made of coarse stone, or primitive saddle-querns.

”These are the works which the wife must perform for her husband,” the Mishnah says, “grinding flour and baking bread and washing clothes and cooking food and nursing her child and making his bed and working in wool. If she brought him a maid she need not grind or bake or wash.”

These mills normally left a residue of grit in the bread. The regulations in the Mishnah allow a minimum level of ten-per-cent impurity in bought goods; so we can assume that there was often more than this left in the flour. Indeed, skeletons of people from this period show teeth ground down by years of eating gritty bread.

Colbert, in his book, notes quite rightly that wheat bread was considered better than barley bread, which was the food of the poor, as seen in the miracle of feeding the five thousand. There was also another way of grading bread, according to the fineness of the flour: there was “clean” bread — effectively white bread, made with fine, sifted flour; and coarse bread, made with lots of bran, and grit. The Mishnah and contemporary Greek papyri from Roman Egypt mention different grades of bread for masters and slaves.

It is unlikely that Jesus ate fresh bread every day. It would have taken many hours to forage for enough fuel to bake daily, and fuel was expensive to buy. The Tosefta states that ordinary people baked once a week; pro­fessional bakers in villages baked once every three days; and only bakers in cities baked more often. Bread was often dried in the sun to stop it going bad. To make it edible, it was dipped into a liquid — water, wine, vinegar, fish-sauce, oil, or stew — or crumbled into liquid for children. In spite of careful drying, the bread could still go mouldy, but it was often eaten all the same.

 

WE LEARN in the New Testament that Jesus ate fish from the Sea of Galilee, and, after the resurrection, that he even cooked fish and bread over coals for himself and his disciples (John 21.9). “We certainly know that Jesus ate clean unpolluted fish almost every day of his life,” Colbert concludes. It is certainly true that freshwater fish such as carp, St Peter’s fish (tilapia), and catfish could be caught in the Sea of Galilee in the first century, because fish bones have been identified in local archaeological excavations.

But there is evidence in the New Testament that the supply was not always plentiful: in John 21, the disciples fish all night but catch nothing. There would also have been prob­lems in transporting fish without modern refrigeration: how far could it be brought from the sea without going bad in the Middle Eastern heat? Would fresh fish have been available in Nazareth, 30km from the Sea of Galilee? And would the cost of transport have added prohibitively to the cost of the fish? Fresh fish every day seems unlikely after all.

The simplest way to cook fish would have been over charcoal. The Mishnah talks of preparing it with leeks, to improve the taste, and it also seems to imply that fish was some­times fried. There is a discussion about whether “fish with egg on top of it is one food or two”, which can be interpreted as meaning an egg batter — perhaps not as healthy as the advocates of the Jesus diet would wish, but presumably very tasty.

Of course, Jesus may well have eaten other fish products rather than fresh fish. Fish could be dried, smoked, or salted, and this would have solved problems of availability, as large catches could be saved for times of scarcity. The first-century Roman author Strabo tells us that there was a salting industry on the shores of the Sea of Galilee at Tarichaeae (which means “salt fish” in Greek), or Migdal Nunia (”the tower of the fish”). Archae­ologists excavating at Migdal have found what they think are signs of fish-salting.

In the Mishnah, salted fish is listed as a common food, and the salty fish-flavoured liquid left over from the salting process, tzir, was often used as a dip for bread. The Roman fish-sauce garum, however, seems to have been a luxury that was out of reach of the poor. Remains of labelled ceramic garum jars were found in excavations at King Herod’s palace at Masada, which would have been specially imported from Spain.

 

THOSE who recommend eating like Jesus reasonably assume that he would have eaten only kosher meat, and rarely at that: lamb at Passover, perhaps, and at the occasional wedding and other feasts. Cer­tainly, meat was very costly. In one passage in the Mishnah, the text discusses whether people need to look for the owner of goods that are found lying in the street. It rules that certain unidentifiable items belong to the finder: “Scattered fruit, scattered money, cakes of figs, bakers’ loaves, strings of fish, pieces of meat.” In other words, people were often so poor that they were prepared to eat meat picked up off the ground, which was unlikely to be still fresh, but was clearly too valuable to be discarded.

One “meat” Jesus may well have eaten, but is not recommended in the Jesus diet, is locusts. Leviticus forbids the consumption of most “creeping things”, but an exception is made for locusts. If locusts have destroyed all your crops, eating the culprits may have made the difference between life and death. John the Baptist is recorded as eating the insects in Mark 1.6; these were later inter­preted as carobs, still known as Johannesbrot in German, but the Greek text of the New Testament is clear that he ate akrides, the word for locusts.

The desert locust which Jews were allowed to eat existed in two forms: the Schistocerca solitaris was endemic, and could certainly have been eaten by John in the desert. It is only in certain climatic conditions that the common variety changes colour to become Schistocerca gregaris, the flocking desert locust responsible for the invasions we read about in scripture.

The Mishnah also men­tions them fre­quently, and the laws about eating locusts are similar to regulations about fish. In the second century, however, Rabbi Judah bar Ilai said: “Anything which is a kind of curse, don’t say grace over it.”

 

EGGS are barely mentioned in the New Testament, but we can probably assume that these were part of Jesus’s diet, as the Mishnah frequently refers to the eggs of domestic birds — hens, geese, pigeons — as well as the eggs of small wild birds which the poor would have foraged.

Proponents of the Jesus diet also assume that he would have eaten plenty of vegetables, beans, and pulses. Modern diners might, however, want to prepare them rather differently. Bean and/or lentil stew, known as miqpeh, was a common dish at the time, but the word refers to a solidified mass, which is what happens to cooked lentils when left to cool.

Solid lumps of food were easier to scoop up by hand for poor families who would not have owned many eating utensils. Miqpeh was often flavoured with garlic, and other veget­ables were added, such as cabbage. As for
other flavourings, mustard was widely cultiv­ated in Roman Galilee, as we know from Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4.31).

Dill, cumin, and mint are all mentioned in the New Testament as herbs that the Pharisees tithe.

 

ANOTHER question might be: what would Jesus drink? He certainly drank water and red wine. Colbert claims that he may also have drunk various “juices and herbal teas”, and that “we can follow Jesus’ example by making sure our water is pure, filtered, or distilled.”

Pure water, however, was hard to come by in first-century Palestine. Natural water sources were liable to contam­ina­tion from dead animals, washing, industry, and sewage. Piped water was supplied to large Roman cities — but through lead pipes.

Water was often collected in uncovered cisterns, which could have all sorts of pollutants dropped into them; if covered over, they could grow algae. The Sea of Galilee was a source of relatively pure water, but in Nazar­eth, situated on a hill, the people would have had to rely on springs and cisterns, with all the accompanying problems. Water was so pre­cious that it was often reused: the Mishnah mentions recycling fermented water that has been used by a baker.

Even before the discovery of germs, people were aware that polluted water could kill. One common solution was to rely on the antiseptic properties of wine, which was often added to water. But the idea that Jesus drank plenty of wine is not, understandably, popular among dieticians who advocate following Jesus’s diet.

Some have suggested that he drank only unfermented wine, but there is no evidence for this. Fermentation was crucial for preserving the grape juice for as long as possible, and even then there was a risk that the wine would go sour — as we see from the sour wine offered to Jesus on the cross (Mark 15.23), the kind generally consumed by the poorest in society.

It is, after all, difficult to recreate the food eaten in first-century Galilee. Indeed, given what it is shown by Jewish sources and archae­ological evidence, it is not altogether clear why anyone would want to.

 

Susan Weingarten is an archaeologist and food historian who lives in Galilee.

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