|Asaraton mosaic, Chateau de Boudry|
Across the spectrum of theological and historical opinion, one thing most pictures of the historical Jesus share is that he was a good eater, participating in meals with diverse company and a lack of ascetic restraint. But the same variety of portraits, from N. T. Wright to John Dominic Crossan, tend to share a more specific and curious claim, namely that Jesus was somehow a radical and inclusive host. One of the above-named authorities may suffice as a representative, as well as confirmation of the consensus:
“The tradition of festive meals at which Jesus welcomed all and sundry is one of the most securely established features of almost all recent scholarly portraits.”
There is really just one, quite large problem: such meals are a fantasy, not (or not only) for those who are sceptical about the historicity of much of the Gospel meal material, but even at the canonical, literary level. Jesus is simply not depicted as welcoming diverse guests to festive meals.
Since I may seem to have just uttered nonsense or heresy or both, let me explain. Jesus is indeed depicted, at least in reports attributed to his enemies, as an indiscriminate eater, both with regard to company and to quantity, and perhaps also as playing fast and loose regarding different kinds of foods. None of these however amounts to “Jesus welcoming all and sundry to festive meals."
Jesus was accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:16 etc; Matt 10:3, 11:19/Luke 7:34, Matt 21:31-2, Luke 15:1-2). This single repeated accusation of guilt by association has its simplest narrative form in Mark 2, and its most elaborate in Luke 19 (the story of Zacchaeus), although the identification of one of the twelve as a tax collector may be a separate and solid tradition. Historical critics generally, if not universally, acknowledge a core of likely fact underneath these narratives, although the stories (especially in Luke) are artful compositions that reflect the literary genre of the symposium rather than mere historical reminiscence. Note however that Jesus is always the guest in these stories, not the host. He is welcomed, not welcomer.
Jesus is also accused of being a “glutton and a drunkard” in a Q saying (11:19/Luke 7:34) linked there with the first accusation, and which serves to contrast Jesus and John. This reads like a stock piece of abuse, echoing Deut 21:20, but the slur is itself unlikely to have been invented by later Christians, just because it is so awkward. How much it tells us about Jesus’ real eating and drinking habits practice is another question; but there is no reason to think Jesus emulated John’s asceticism.
The question of just what he ate can also be difficult, with Mark 7:23 as a sort of crux: “in saying this, he declared all foods clean.” This is however an explicitly editorial interpretive comment, and does not allow even the most conservative or credulous commentator to think Jesus himself rejected Jewish dietary laws in his teaching, let alone that he ate in disregard of them.
So we can still accept that Jesus was neither discriminating about company nor ascetic about food choices. But all this material has to do with his acceptance of invitations, not his welcoming anyone. This is a hungry Jesus, not a hospitable one.
Whence the welcoming Jesus then? From at least four other sorts of meal story or tradition, also interesting but more problematic as evidence of a historical Jesus who could be agreed upon by the usual standards of critical scholarship.
First, Jesus could be read into the role of host in parabolic or eschatological banquets attributed to him as teacher - not as literal eater. Is he the King and/or host of Matt 22 or Luke 14? If so, he is not a very inclusive host – but in any case he is a literary or imagined one.
More promising for the welcoming Jesus, but problematic for historians, are the miraculous feeding stories found in all four Gospels (Mark 6:34-44 etc.). Here Jesus does take the role of a host, blessing and feeding the multitudes. But these are not presented as typical or characteristic events, whatever we make of them historically. They point to an eschatological reality more than a present one; and while the size of the crowds suggests some sort of inclusiveness, bread and fish are not really festive (where's the wine?), and these stories are not connected with Jesus’ problematic associations with sinners. They depict Jesus as an impressive caterer, not as inclusive host.
Third there is the most famous meal story, the last supper. Here again we can acknowledge Jesus as host. Is this an inclusive meal? While assumptions about the exclusion of women from the meal can be challenged, the makeup of the twelve - including the tax collector and the zealot - is the clearest form of inclusivity here, but amounts to a representative rather than an “all and sundry” selection. There are of course many scholars who doubt the historicity of the supper at least in the familiar terms, although some of us think that the existence of quite distinct versions of the so-called “institution narrative” in Paul (and Luke) as well as Mark (and Matthew) makes a case for its authenticity.
Last, there are resurrection meal scenes where Jesus is host (and cook - John 21). Despite formal blessings in one case (Luke 24:13-35), these are not really festive, and not at all inclusive. And it must go without saying that whatever their force for readers with eyes to see, they will not serve to establish the practice of the historical Jesus.
This sort of hospitable Jesus may well be a common feature of many scholarly portraits, but is not, despite that, a strongly-based historical one. Jesus appears as host in quite different material from that where he is depicted as keeping bad company and being a wine-bibber. The “host” material tends to be the product of later reflection rather than the best-attested traditions that scholars would attribute to the historical Jesus.
So the inclusive welcoming Jesus is the product of creative theological reflection, some in the Gospels and the ancient Church to be sure, but a remarkable amount of it simply modern fantasy. It is yet another instance of how picturing Jesus, we seem to picture ourselves or our wishful thinking. Theologizing is not, I hasten to add, a bad thing - but it is bad to confuse history and theology precisely when one is supposedly in the act of distinguishing them to assess their relative roles and functions.
Why so many scholars believe or assume this Jesus suggests a problem of the social psychology of knowledge as much as of historical criticism, but there have been other similar cases where the obvious has turned out to be false, in NT studies and elsewhere. What was thought obvious about Paul’s attitude to Judaism, or about Jesus and Jewish purity, have had to be deconstructed and rebuilt in recent times; this may be another case.
What, if anything, does the historical Jesus really offer for further reflection on food and meals? Jesus was apparently an itinerant without direct means of support, and his willingness or even desire to be included indiscriminately is not really so surprising in itself. He will have been hungry from time to time, and hunger makes for interesting and diverse table fellowship. So his willingness (or need) to be included, rather than to include others, is the most striking and most overlooked aspect of Jesus’ life as an eater.
Perhaps the Christian rush to do good in Jesus’ name, taking him as a supposed moral example, has fueled a stampede past this simple and I think fairly solid historical reality. Perhaps it is too hard for some Christians to think of a hungry Jesus making himself dependent on others, when we would rather use him as a model for acts of “radical welcome” that assume we are privileged host and not the needy guest. But this hungry Jesus also has his more explicitly theological and eschatological place in the tradition too: "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).