The Last Supper, at which Jesus Christ established the main sacrament – the Eucharist, was also a special solemn feast, followed by the main Jewish holiday – Pesach (Passover). And ancient Christians, like Christ and his apostles, loved to get together for prayer and a spiritual holiday, which was accompanied by a joint meal. What could the first Christians eat during it?
Taste and preferences of the peoples of the Roman Empire
The development of the Christian gastronomic tradition in the first centuries of the history of the Church proceeded in many respects in line with the customs of the countries adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea (historiography traditionally calls this whole region the Mediterranean). After all, it was here that the first Christian communities were formed. The diet of believers, although it possessed some features, was nevertheless determined by the realities in which they lived. Therefore, it is worth saying a few words about the taste and preferences of the peoples of the Roman Empire.
In the first century of the Christian era, the entire Mediterranean area came under the rule of a Roman power. The establishment of the civil world of Emperor Augustus made it possible to unify the lives of the many tribes inhabiting the borders of the empire. In the western provinces of the Roman state, similar processes took place in line with the perception by local peoples (Celtic, Germanic, Iberian and Berber tribes) of the political and cultural traditions of Rome. In the east, the same trends manifested themselves in the form of increased Hellenization, which began after the conquest of Alexander the Great (334–325 BC) penetration of Greek traditions, language, and culture into the local population.
The influence of Greco-Roman culture affected the change in everyday life, including the daily diet of the inhabitants of the provinces of the empire. Roman colonists accustomed the upper and middle layers of the provincial population to the gastronomic traditions of the metropolis (that is, to the traditions of the Roman state itself), and contributed to the spread of new crops and livestock breeds. In fact, in the first centuries of our era, culinary tradition, which today we call the Mediterranean diet, was being formed.
It was based on three indispensable elements: bread, olive oil and wine, as well as various cereals, fish, meat and poultry, vegetables (cucumbers, celery, onions, lettuce), fruits (figs, apples, pears , plums, cherries), legumes, dairy products. Of the combinations of these products, Roman culinary specialists composed dishes for rich gourmets that impressed contemporaries (and descendants) with their extravagance and exquisiteness.
Of course, one should not assume that the “fashion” for everything Roman and Greek completely suppressed the local culinary traditions – the poor continued to eat the same food as their ancestors ate before the assertion of Roman authority. But one should not underestimate the Roman influence on local gastronomy. For example, by the end of the III century, Egyptian peasants almost completely abandoned their national drink – beer in favor of grape wine.
Longer than in other regions, local culinary habits persisted in those provinces where they were supported by the authority of a religious tradition, which sometimes strictly taboo the use of certain foods. Probably the most severe were the gastronomic bans that the Jews, who made up the majority of the inhabitants of the province of Judea, adhered to. The law forbade believing Jews to consume pork, camel, hare, some types of fish, and mix meat and dairy dishes.
Christian meal in the first centuries
Many Christians of the 1st century AD continued to consider themselves Jews and therefore adhered to the everyday traditions of their fathers. The success of the preaching of the Gospel soon raised the acute question: is following Kashrut (the Jewish tradition that regulated the permissibility of the consumption of a particular food – hence the familiar term “kosher”) necessary for pagan converts and generally for Christians. The problem was resolved already in apostolic times. Almost all of the first Christian communities recognized the follow-up of in Judaism gastronomic prohibitions as optional. The rationale for breaking with the previous culinary tradition was the moment with the vision of the apostle Peter. He saw a vessel with various forbidden for Jews food. Then a mysterious voice ordered the apostle to eat it, but Peter refused, citing the religious inadmissibility of eating such a meal. “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common,” a voice answered him then. This momemt from the book of Acts was then interpreted as allowing Christians to eat any food, even unclean, forbidden by Jewish law. Although some Christian apologists continued to argue that the rejection of products prohibited by law for a Christian believer, is not required, but desirable. So, even in the III century, Clement of Alexandria urged his readers not to eat pork and some types of fish as unhealthy foods.
Ban on eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols
The only gastronomic taboo that was strictly enforced in most early Christian communities was the ban on those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols. The practice of making bloody sacrifices was common among almost all Mediterranean peoples. After the slaughter, part of the carcass was usually ritually burned, while the other was handed out to the poor or sold in favor of the flamen in the shambles along with ordinary meat.
The Apostle Paul in the First Epistle to the Corinthians spoke about the fact that Christians should neither participate in the ritual feasts of the Gentiles, at which those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols were consumed, nor buy such meat. It is important to note that Paul urged his flock to refuse such a meal because it could hurt the conscience of weak in the faith Christians. However, this prohibition was valid only if the origin of the meat was intentionally told. The sacrificial meat bought in the shambles was quite suitable for food, if the Christian did not know that it was dedicated to pagan gods: Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake (1 Corinthians 10:25). However, apparently, many Christians preferred not to tempt fate, and nevertheless sought to find out about the origin of the purchased meat. This is particularly indicated by Pliny the Younger (ancient Roman politician; c. 61–113). In his letter to Emperor Trajan, he noted with displeasure that, due to the spread of Christianity in the province of Bithynia, sacrificial meat almost did not find buyers there.
In fact, the dishes on the table of the members of most of the early Christian communities were similar to those of their pagan neighbors. The anonymous author of the “Letter to Diognetus” – one of the first Christian texts that reached us, said: “As for excessive daintiness of Jews in food … – all this is so ridiculous and not worth a word … (Christians) living in Hellenic and barbarian cities follow the customs of those inhabitants … in food and in everything else. ” Tertullian (an early Christian apologist) echoed him: “… (Christians) live with you, … use the same food, the same clothes, they have the same household and the same everyday needs.”
A particularly important part of the life of early Christian communities was the so-called agapas – evening or night gatherings of believers, which were accompanied by prayers, the sacrament of the Eucharist and a joint meal. In the I – II centuries Christian communities usually spent suppers once a week. Often such meetings were organized with the money of the community or its most rich members in order to support the poorest Christians, lonely widows, old people and orphans. As Justin the Philosopher wrote in the 2nd century: “the rich of us help all the poor, and we always live together with one accord.” Tertullian mentioned that “no matter what the cost of our supper, it’s good to spend in the name of love, because we help all the poor on these suppers … because God especially cares for the poor.”
Usually, simple, but satisfying dishes of vegetables, fruits, and meat were tasted during the agapa (however, many Christians of the 1st – 2nd centuries refused meat at all). Very often a fish appeared on the table, which was considered the most decent food for a Christian due to its repeated mention in the Gospels. Of the drinks, wine and water were consumed. Sometimes the community members could take home part of the food.
The hidden nature of Christian meals, their suspicious for pagans name, led to the appearance among them false rumors of these Christian meetings (even to accusation of Christians of making bloody human sacrifice). However, most of the writings of the authors of the 1st – 3rd centuries, both pagans and Christians, indicated the falsity of such assumptions. The above-mentioned Pliny the Younger, who specifically investigated the case of the spread of Christianity in Bithynia, at the beginning of the II century informed Emperor Trajan that “… their fault … consisted in the fact that on certain days, early in the morning, they got together and sang a song to Christ as God, that in the name of religion they pledged not to commit any crime, not to steal, rob, commit adultery, but honestly keep their word and return the debts, after that they go home and then gathered again to eat food, however, ordinary and innocent one… “