Jesus’ eating transgressions and social impropriety in the gospel of Mark: a social scientific approach

Jesus’ eating transgressions and social impropriety in the gospel of Mark: a social scientific approach

Dietmar Neufeld


Food events are an integral feature of the Markan narrative. Frequently they provide the occasion during which serious controversy erupts over certain, significant religious practices in Judean society. This article seeks to interpret these food incidences and the debate they generate from the perspective of social-scientific categories. Accordingly, the themes of food, eating, and household are set into the dynamic context of an anthropology of eating, honor/shame, and kinship/household. Eating and food in the world of antiquity furnish a menu in which to debate and redefine intensely held beliefs concerning holiness/purity, gender, and group identity, where honor and shame, their loss and gain, were at stake. Food events provide an opportunity for Mark to portray Jesus in fierce debate with the religious elite from which he emerges an honorable man but for which he is eventually executed. Eating and food are occasions for Mark to present Jesus, not only as popular hero, but also as subversive sage.


There is a remarkable degree of consensus in scholarship that food, eating and table etiquette play a significant role in the unfolding drama of Jesus’ life. In the words of D. Smith, the significance of meals and fellowship “in scholarly reconstructions of the historical Jesus can be seen by the fact that a wide variety of scholars who disagree on virtually everything else include this motif in their respective pictures of the historical Jesus” (466). M. Borg argues that “one of the most conspicuous and controversial aspects of the Jesus movement … was its table fellowship … that was perhaps the central feature of his work” (78-79) J. D. Crossan observes that “meals, shared table fellowship, and commensality play an important role in the life of the historical Jesus (Crossan: 341; Klosinski: 3; Bartchy: 796-800). More recently, in a series of articles on meals, food and table fellowship, J. H. Neyrey remarks, “meals, food, table etiquette, and commensality remained a constant problem in the traditions ascribed to Jesus (Neyrey 1996:159).

The following collection of data indicates that Mark paid particular attention to issues of food, eating and table fellowship. Afros (bread) appears eighteen times, scattered evenly throughout the narrative of Mark (Mk 2:26; 3:20; 6:8, 37, 38, 41, 44; 6:52; 7:2, 27; 8:4, 5, 6, 14, 16, 17, 19; 14:22). Oikos (house) appears twelve times (Mk 2:1; 11, 26; 3:20; 5:19, 38; 7:17, 30; 8:3, 26; 9:28; 11:17; 14:14). Esthio (I eat) is mentioned on twenty-five occasions (Mk 1:6; 2:16, 26; 3:20; 5:43; 6:31, 36, 37, 42, 44; 7:2, 3, 4, 5, 28; 8:1, 2; 11:14, 12; 14:12, 14, 18, 22), and deipnon (meal) on two (Mk 6:21; 12:39). Of note is that the themes of food, eating and house arouse considerable passion. These themes instigate fierce debates about questions related to the issues of purity and the Sabbath (Mk 2:23-28; 7:1-6, 17-23). They evoke laughter and ridicule on occasions of healing (Mk 5:35-43). The eating habits of Jesus provoke accusations of sorcery, gluttony and madness (Mk 3:20-30–see Neufeld: 152-62). During the feeding of the crowds the misunderstanding and thickheaded incomprehension of the disciples emerge to the shame of Jesus (Mk 6:30-44; 8:14-21). The themes give rise to expressions of incredulity and astonishment from the hometown folk: “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom that has been given to him? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us? And they took offense at him” (Mk 6:1-3). Ultimately, while Jesus is seated at table in a setting of intimacy and trust, betrayal takes place (Mk 14: 17-21). The responses run the whole gamut from amazement to open hostility and treachery (accusations of madness, rejection, misunderstanding, betrayal and execution). In contrast to Jesus’ family, the crowds, the religious elite, and the socially sanctioned eating etiquette they support, the eating behavior of Jesus and his associates constantly lands them in circumstances of conflict.

The author of Mark uses the medium of eating habits, food sharing, and the household to dispute conventional displays of honor in areas such as religious tradition, practices of piety, communal identity, gender, and holiness. At stake is one’s honor. The religious elite, therefore, puts to Jesus aggressive public challenges designed to undermine his rising fame, which when unstoppable, eventually leads some of them, on grounds of envy (phthonos), to plot his death and hand him over to the authorities for trial and execution (Mk 15:10).

Food, Eating, and Meals

From an anthropological perspective, the relation between food, food consumption, and domicile is a cross-cultural given. As a growing body of anthropological research shows, preparations and customs regarding food and meals connect to and imitate patterns and conventions of both social systems and familial institutions (Douglas 1997, Goody, Hinz). Food is integrated into all aspects of life, C. Counihan and P. Esterik write; “food touches everything. Food is the foundation of every economy. It is a central pawn in political strategies of states and households. Food marks social differences, boundaries, bonds, and contradictions. Eating is an endlessly evolving enactment of gender, family, and community relationships…. Food sharing creates solidarity … food is life” (1).

Many studies of Greco-Roman and Jewish meals, eating habits, types of foods consumed, and specific types of meals (Symposium, associations and collegia, Passover meals, funerary meals) have been undertaken (Freedman, Murray, Dobson). Both anthropologists and social scientists conclude that food and meals are not simply occasions for individuals to consume nourishment but are highly complex social events utilized to reinforce social values, boundaries, statuses, and hierarchies. Meals are occasions for festivities, teaching, hospitality, commensality, friendship, reconciliation, and potential hostility. Food and commensality in the Greco-Roman context function as mechanisms for social formation and organization. Some anthropologists speak of meals as code that communicates a multi-layered message. Douglas, for example, states that

if food is treated as a code, the message it encodes will be found in the

pattern of social relations being expressed. The message is about different

degrees of hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, boundaries and transactions

across boundaries. Like sex, the taking of food has a social component, as

well as biological one. Food categories therefore encode social events

[Douglas 1997: 361.

Food codes symbolize and imitate social codes. Food, eating, and meals, therefore, embed within them a range of social capacities. Food plays a key role in creating communal solidarity, determining and maintaining social ranking, shaping gender definitions, defining power relations, determining the kinship network to which a person belongs, and revealing the values, norms, attitudes and worldview of groups.

In Judean society, food and feasting are an integral part of Torah and the temple cult and serve to delineate core beliefs and values that symbolize bonds of social cohesion. Deuteronomy 14:23-27 enjoins the people: “In the presence of the Lord your God … you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock … spend the money for whatever you wish–oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your GOd, you and your household rejoicing together.” Judaic writers also regard meal festivities as an extremely important feature of cult (Lev 23:2-44). Philo of Alexandria notes that priests and people, by eating the allotted portion of the sacrificial food, share in God’s food and thus enter a sacred “partnership” (SPEC. LEG. 1.221). These festivities also strengthen the bonds of cohesion by forging a union of mind between family members, friends and strangers alike. Philo observes that the sacrifices, libations and feasts associated with the festivals are occasions of reciprocity of feeling and constitute a certain guarantee that all are of one mind (SPEC. LEG. 1.70). Josephus likewise is of the opinion that feasts associated with the festivals perform the important social function of maintaining and creating group cohesiveness (ANTIQUITIES 4.8.7). Feasting and conversation bring about relational bonding. The act of eating together, whether with kin or stranger, implies a bond of trust and intimacy. He writes:

Let those that live as remote as the bounds of the land which the Hebrews

shall possess, come to that city where the temple shall be, and this three

times in a year, that they may give thanks to God for his former benefits

… and, let them, by this means, maintain a friendly correspondence with

one another by such meeting and feasting together, for it is a good thing

for those that are of the same stock and under the same institutions of

laws, not to be unacquainted with each other; which acquaintance will be

maintained by thus conversing together, and by seeing and talking with one

another, and so renewing the memorials of this union; for if they do not

thus converse together continually they will appear like mere strangers to

one another.

Feasting makes available the opportunity for conversation and seeing one another, both of which, according to Josephus, are vital components for social cohesion. Feasting has the positive transforming power of improving conviviality, renewing and reinforcing loyalty to “the institutions of laws,” and involving people in matrices of reciprocity and mutuality. Feasting and conversation mitigate the alienating forces of time and distance among strangers of the same stock.

These festive meals have both a ceremony and a ritual component. In the words of Neyrey, “ceremony refers to rites that confirm roles and statuses and ritual refers to rites of status transformation, such as baptism, marriage, consecration [foot washing], in which individuals change status and role” (Neyrey 1995: 188; McVann: 333-60). Moreover, meals as ceremony are highly predictable, occur regularly, are determined, called for, and presided over by officials (Neyrey 1991: 362). Ceremony celebrates the way things are by confirming the values and structures in the institutions of society (kinship, politics, religion, temple, economics, etc.). Thus ceremonial feasts serve to validate and reinforce mutual solidarity and oneness.

Ritual celebrates status transformation. Important transitions in a person’s life on such occasions as birth, circumcision, birthday, wedding, death, rite of inclusion, etc., are often commemorated by a festive meal. This meal marks some person’s or group’s transition or transformation that gives honor to the individual or group undergoing a fundamental social change. For example, the ritual element of a practiced hospitality may signify the transformation of an enemy into an equal and of an alien into a guest–status renewal (Pilch & Malina: 77). Those excluded from certain features of social life because of illness or scandalous behavior, such as sinners, toll collectors, or prostitutes, may be brought back into the main stream of social life by being invited to a meal that signals their status reversal–from ill to well, sinners to forgiven, impure to pure, outsider to insider, etc. The ritual component of a practiced, inclusive commensality may signify the redefinition of what and who count as honorable in the kingdom of God. Marginalized people may take on new and better roles that signal their status elevation–“how honorable are those poor in spirit, for they …” (Hanson: 81-111; Neyrey 1998: 164-212).

G. Feeley-Harnik observes that Jesus’ many culinary disasters along with his gluttony probably paved the way for his condemnation and eventual crucifixion. She asks, “why should it have been such a powerful means of exalting Jesus as well as condemning him?” (72). As noted earlier, food and feasting are one of the most significant languages used by Judeans to express a variety of social relationships (Feeley-Harnik: 19, 72). These social relationships are partially dictated and defined by Israel’s attitude and stance toward ethical, practical, and ethnic purity matters. These matters, in turn, are replicated in the dietary and commensality practices. Feeley-Harnik writes, “food, articulated in terms of who eats what with whom under which circumstances, had long been one of the most important languages in which Israelites conceived and conducted social relations among human beings and between human beings and God. Food was a way of talking about law and lawlessness. Food was identified with God’s word as the foundation of the covenant relationship in scripture … eventually when God’s word became identified with the law; food law came to represent the whole law. The violation of dietary rules became equivalent to apostasy” (19). Thus, to flout deliberately the conventions of appropriate eating conduct at meals by disregarding the reputation of table companions, altering the contours of group identity, and challenging the customs concerning purity, would swiftly arouse the ire of the religious elite, family members, strangers, and friends.

Food events within the Markan community, therefore, constitute a powerfully concentrated language that communicates meaning. The language embedded in food habits and eating rituals is one of the idioms through which Jesus is portrayed as expressing himself–a peformative that demonstrated his message.

Household, Kinship Family and the Honor of Jesus

The house or the household is the centre for a group of people (Osiek & Balch: 45). The family is an integral part of the household: a group of people bound in relationships of mutual reciprocity through kinship, both living and working together. It is also the dominant social institution in the lives of ancients, providing a source of identity, religion, education and nurture. The household is a component of the larger social structure in which members produce and consume collectively in the context of socio-economic conditions that are often negative (Moxnes 1997). People come into the picture of the household as immediate family, relatives, neighbors and friends, each participating in the other’s lives. Furthermore, the household serves as the primary group of identification for individual members. Kinship plays a significant role, both culturally and socially, in defining a collective identity. This collective group with a common history helps forge a link between the individual members of a household, the larger community, and the country and its people. In Mark 6:4, Jesus is explicitly associated with three distinct groups: “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” A person is understood to belong to all three of these groups permanently (Malina 1993: 117-48).

The reference to honor, esteem, or recognition in this passage places Jesus squarely in the midst of the Mediterranean milieu of honor and shame (Moxnes 1996: 23-24). Jesus lives in an agonisti: society, in which every social interaction that takes place outside of one’s household or circle of friends is perceived as a challenge to honor. An honor challenge is an occasion to accumulate honor from one’s social equals or superiors by performing some service or deed. Invitations to parties, hosting parties, arranging marriages, teaching with authority, healing, mass feedings, and gift giving are all occasions by which one may gain higher honor ratings for one’s family. Virtually every public activity turns out to be some kind of competition for honor and praise.

Given that honor is a primary value and social commodity, it is the object of continuous competition. Honor is in limited supply, moreover, so that competition for it is stiff. Every honor challenge involves winners and losers. There can be only one winner in any particular struggle. Not only is everyone seeking to get what is coming to him; he is also seeking to rise in status and to gain a larger share in the limited good–honor. Males thus participate in strategies designed to maintain honor and protect it. The loser’s hostility toward the winner is an inevitable result. A serious loss may set in motion a whole series of enmity conventions (slapping, name calling, deviance labeling, defaming, spitting, rebuking, stealth, false charges, etc.).

Honor may be either ascribed or acquired. Ascribed honor is the honor that befalls someone by virtue of one’s birth into an honorable family. In view of the fact that the household is the “repository of the honor of past illustrious ancestors and their accumulated acquired honor,” birth into such a family ascribes honor” (Malina 1993: 32). Status is directly related to one’s birth origins and birth place–generation (parents, genealogy) and geography (city, country). Genealogies set out lines of honor and socially situate an individual on the status ladder of the community. For example, questions are raised about Jesus’ generation: “Is this not the son of the carpenter? Is he not the son of Mary …? And are not his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?” (Mk 6:3; Matt 13:55-56). Jesus’ origins and family background are loaded with social information that provides a basis for social interaction as well as social assessment. One of the primary functions of the household (kinship) and genealogies is to create structure. In a household, everyone occupies a place in a social hierarchy. This system replicates other social and religious systems like pure/impure, inside/outside, friend/alien, etc. Questions about birth and origin, therefore, become an issue of social control. Jesus is regarded first and foremost as part of a household with a lineage, either honorable or dishonorable.

Acquired honor is procured through the never-ending game of verbal challenge and riposte. In the words of Malina, “acquired honor is the socially recognized claim to worth that a person acquires by excelling over others in the social interaction … called challenge and response” (1993: 34). Challenge and response is a kind of social game, a game of push and shove, a social tug-of-war played according to socially defined rules designed to secure one’s own honor or gain the honor of another. Since honor is a limited good, it is protected by those who have it and coveted by those who do not. A challenge may consist of almost any remark, gesticulation or action that seeks to undermine the honor of another person and a response “of equal measure or that ups the ante” (Malina & Rohrbaugh: 185). Rhetorical cleverness is a highly prized value in ancient Mediterranean societies. These challenges may be positive (praise, compliment, gift) or negative (insult, dare, threat). They may not remain unanswered but must be countered in order to avoid serious loss of face.

Mark portrays Jesus as having considerable skill at challenge and riposte. According to the social conventions of ancient Mediterranean society, he is, therefore, an honorable man capable of defending his own honor, God’s honor, his group’s honor, and the honor of the marginalized. Food events associated with bread, house and eating are the media through which the themes of honor and conflict find their development in the Markan narrative.

Meals and Honor Contests in Mark

Immediately evident in Mark is the meteoric rise of Jesus’ honor (Mk 1:21-34). Almost straight away his teaching is recognized as authoritative and one which stimulates considerable astonishment. Indeed, the crowd is so amazed as to be practically overwhelmed. They are incredulous that a carpenter’s son from Nazareth with no worth or status in their eyes has the audacity to show up at the synagogue and engage in a teaching challenge with the scribes that undermines their honorable status as teachers (Mk 1:22). Yet, Jesus has acted with prowess in public speech before a crowd, as his enemies scrutinize his every word and move. In the struggle for public recognition in the synagogue, Jesus wins the battle and gains honor–his teaching engenders shock and admiration with a public verdict that it is authoritative while, presumably, the teaching of the scribes is not (Mk 1:22, 27).

Even the exorcism Jesus performs promptly catapults him into the public eye (Mk 1:23-27). This time, rather than simply engaging in a competition for honor with humans, he combats with demons–a new honor competition of cosmic proportions. This encounter reinforces Jesus’ status as a powerful and authoritative person in Capernaum. Through his ability to control the demon, Jesus clearly demonstrates his superior power to the onlookers–a power that is sufficient to preserve himself as well as weaken the power of unclean spirits (Pilch & Malina: 139-142). This power is subsequently given public acknowledgement, not only by those in attendance in the synagogue but also by the demon. Both the crowds and the demon consequently take on a subservient demeanor. The humble origins of Jesus notwithstanding, they appear, for the time being at least, to accord him respect after this contest. They are surprised by his power; even the demons obey his command, and by implication so will they. This reaction of awe, admiration, fear, or surprise is in fact a public verdict that bestows honor upon Jesus.

The unclean spirit shouting out to Jesus represents both a verbal challenge and the demon’s enmity toward him. Although the demon is inferior to Jesus and of lesser power, the challenge issued is nevertheless something Jesus must not avoid or ignore. Jesus’ response rather than merely leveling the playing field ups the ante. Using the enmity strategy of rebuke, Jesus commands the demon to be silent and to vacate the man. The success of the censure strengthens the perception that Jesus’ power is superior to the demon’s and confirms the honorable standing accorded him by the crowd in the synagogue. With this comeback, Jesus not only elicits a shocked reaction–“they were all amazed and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching, with authority?” (Mk 1:27), but also reports about him begin to circulate through the gossip network–his fame spreads throughout the surrounding region of Galilee (Mk 1:28). Indeed, his reputation escalates so rapidly that while he is at the house of Simon large crowds press at the door clamoring for cures from Jesus (Mk 1:29-34).

Meanwhile, however, all is not well. While Jesus’ fame as a healer continues to spread, Mark informs us that he is no longer able to go about the towns openly but has to confine himself to the country (Mk 2: 45). Is this perhaps the first indication that Jesus’ standing is being damaged? Jesus has violated the social conventions regarding a leper by touching him, rendering himself unclean and, perhaps because of this, the gossip network triggers a backlash that cuts Jesus down to size (Malina & Rohrbaugh: 185). Gossip informs the community about the ongoing gains and losses of Jesus’ standing and in this way provides a guide to proper social interaction. The effects of gossip may either be positive by confirming, spreading and shaping the honor status of Jesus or negative by undermining that status (rebuking, name calling, forceful public retrieval, questioning origins, etc.). Gossip functions as a type of social control.

Whatever the case, Jesus’ honor status continues to receive public validation through the gossip network (Mk 1:21-34). Upon his return home to Capernaum so many people have gathered around the house and the front door that there is no longer room for them (Mk 2:1). A paralytic is lowered through the roof of the house because of the press of the crowd around Jesus. Once again, controversy and hostility erupt over a statement that Jesus made to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2:5). The scribes, perhaps those who had earlier lost face and are by now smitten with envy, aggressively confront Jesus about his right to offer forgiveness to the paralytic. What justification did he have to make such an audacious claim? Justifiably they may have understood Jesus’ offer of forgiveness to be beyond an entitlement rightfully his to bestow. It is a blasphemous insult to God and a vain claim of power that does not belong to Jesus. The scribes have no desire to recognize the status that may have accrued to Jesus because of such an offer. At stake is the status of Jesus’ word in terms of both power and authority. A word, which merely pronounces forgiveness without visible proof of its effectiveness, is useless and subject to ridicule. A word with an immediate and dramatic result such that it produces healing would credit Jesus with authority and power. Therefore, Jesus says the harder thing by commanding the man to take up his bed and go home.

Furthermore, the greater the reputation of Jesus the more vulnerable he is to the envy of the religious elite. Being envied brings honor to Jesus and shame to his adversaries. Jesus is successful in both word and deed, and success occasions envy. Envy is the distress aroused in the religious elite at Jesus’ apparent success in attaining the good things with the accompanying desire to harm Jesus and cut him down to size (Neyrey 1998: 18-20). Thus, they accuse him of blasphemy–an enmity strategy designed to undermine his reputation. Sensing what they are thinking, Jesus meets the challenge head on by a powerful verbal riposte and by performing a deed successfully–the paralytic is healed. Acting as God’s broker, he heals the paralytic–i.e., restors him physically, returns him to self-sufficiency, and forgives him, returning him to his place in the community. Predictably, everyone is amazed and praises God saying, “We have never seen anything like this” (Mk 2:12).

It is within this dynamic context of honor contests that Mark records the first of many references to food, eating and meals (Mk 2:15-17). Jesus is making his way alongside the sea, a large crowd in tow, teaching them. While doing so, he is also recruiting members for his group (Mk 2:13-14). The reputation of Jesus is sufficiently known by now, that a simple command, “follow me” to Levi, elicits an immediate response of obedience from him: “He arose and followed him” (Mk 2:13). Mark makes no comment about the surprising invitation but simply reports that the story carries on with a meal. Levi is probably fully aware of the implications of Jesus sitting at his table along with the toll collectors and sinners, a group with whom he is in solidarity.

Jesus is pictured reclining at dinner, not only with his disciples, but also with many of the social outcasts of his day. Upon observing his table conduct, the scribes and Pharisees question the disciples of Jesus about eating with the toll collectors and sinners (Mk 2:16). Although this comment is directed to those within the ingroup, it is clearly a verbal challenge that Jesus cannot afford to ignore. Jesus responds to the question with a proverb: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2:17). A rhetorically clever, proverbial riposte is highly prized in the world of antiquity. This forceful rebuttal provides yet another occasion for Jesus to enhance his honor at the expense of his social equals by a clever response.

The recruitment of Levi with the subsequent table fellowship at his house is significant for a number of reasons. Had recruitment only taken place, it might hardly have been noticed. But in the context of a meal, it raises the question of association and its dangers and of what Jesus is up to. Why is he mixing socially undesirable types with his household and friends? The ancients tended to structure their world by classifying objects, persons and things to bring meaning and order to what would otherwise be chaotic (Rohrbaugh: 80-104). Very prominent in that structure were the purity rules marking the boundary between inside and outside and between ingroup and outgroup. Meals in particular are classified. Cohen remarks, “In no society are people permitted to eat everything, everywhere, with everyone, and in all situations” (Cohen: 508). In the Hebrew Bible food regulations related to issues of purity and diet are well known. Provisions of ritual purity are clearly established and are required when earing food. Purity rules are intended to distinguish between inside and outside and simply replicate the rules that distinguished ingroup from outgroup. Jesus, nevertheless, disregards these distinctions and recklessly violates any sense of decorum through his choice of table companions.

In this instance, table fellowship functions as a mechanism for social formation, i.e., what appears to be the formation of a new group but more, the formation of a new kind of group. Eating, food, and table fellowship mark the transformation of social relations. The question of who ate with whom, normally a significant issue since like ate with like, no longer seems to count. Table fellowship here symbolizes the establishment of relationships based not so much on the conventions of social stratification as on a radically inclusive companionship in which boundaries between people are being broken down. Exclusion from the table implies a lack or loss of status, whereas invitation to the table implies reconciliation, i.e., full restoration within the community. Thus, Jesus issues a call to the ill and not to the well. The ones excluded from social intercourse with Jesus because of impurity issues and scandalous behavior experience a status reversal–they are no longer the impure or the outsider. These marginalized people may also take on for themselves new and honorable roles in the kingdom of god–invitation to the meal signals their status elevation.

No sooner has Jesus dealt with one eating controversy then another one erupts. People note that John’s disciples and the Pharisees fast while the disciples of Jesus do not and pose a question, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Mk 2:18). As pointed out earlier, people use food to convey meaning. Just as eating certain types of foods conveys meaning, so also non-consumption of food communicates meaning (Brumber: 159-70; Grimm; Dugan: 539-48; Malina 1986). Fasting is a ritualized behavior that has both a vertical dimension, directed to God, and horizontal one, directed to members within one’s group (Malina 1986). Fasting may serve to convey the depth of one’s mourning and grief, depict self-humiliation (Job), bolster an oath, and, significantly for this context, signal a defensiveness about boundaries. As we have argued, self-definition derives from group affiliation and careful maintenance of the boundary within which that definition takes place. Hence, whenever members of a group perceive its boundaries as under threat, or as too permeable, they use fasting as a manipulative technique to consolidate group loyalty. Fasting then is a form of communication directed vertically to God to maintain boundaries and horizontally to the group members to symbolize group affiliation (Malina 1986: 192-204).

Mark presents John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees as fasting; this indicates their shared support of common values and that they are holy and observant people. Perhaps at some point while a member of John’s group, Jesus had fasted with the expectation that he would continue the practice in his own group. It is clear, however, that the Jesus group does not. Hence, the question is posed: did Jesus and his disciples not have the need for boundary maintenance, as did every other significant group of the time? That Jesus and his disciples reject the practice of fasting indicates that they had no concern about upholding existing boundaries. This lack of concern is in keeping with the previous pericope; Jesus eats with a socially mixed group of people–if boundaries are being redrawn, why fast?

Jesus’ response to the challenge posed in the question supports this conclusion–“the wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them” (Mk 2:19). The wedding is a time of celebration and feasting and is, in this instance, hosted by the powerful benefactor, God. In this new economy, fasting implies the refusal to participate fully in the wedding feast. Thus, Jesus does not fast because it is insulting to God and implies disapproval of a marriage that is uniting disparate groups of people. Fasting is to take place on the day when the bridegroom has been taken away from them (Mk 2:20). When that day arrives, people will mourn the loss of the bridegroom by fasting. But now is the time for feasting and celebration.

Jesus’ brilliant illustration of using new, unshrunk cloth to patch an old cloak and pouring new, fermenting wine in old wineskins illustrates the point well. The cloak will shred and the old wine skins will burst (Mk 2:21-22). Indeed, it represents an aggressive response that ups the ante. The old conventions of group affiliation no longer count in the kingdom of God–the old code of belonging and definitions of group solidarity cannot incorporate the new rules of engagement without bursting along the seams of communal identity markers. The clever picture reverses the conventional code of familial solidarity in two ways: with its injunction to unite with the socially undesirable, and with its concomitant rejection of aggressive boundary maintenance measures. Openness is the rule during the time of the Jesus movement.

Mark 2:23-28 introduces the next dispute in the context of a food event. Mark pictures Jesus and his disciples making their way through grain fields on the Sabbath. Hunger overtakes the disciples, and they begin to pluck heads of grain. The observant Pharisees ask, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mk 2:24). The Sabbath–the seventh day–is devoted to the worship of God and is therefore marked by a cessation of work and a strict observance of religious ceremony. While what constituted work on the Sabbath is a contested issue, the legal experts nevertheless attempt to spell out the terms and limits of God’s commands concerning work on the Sabbath. To help the faithful discern what constitutes work, lists are drawn up that provide guidelines. In these lists, along with other prohibitions, is a clear injunction that prohibits sowing and reaping (Exod 34:21; 16:25-30). The symbolic issues are purity and piety. In this incident, the activity of plucking ears of corn on the Sabbath breaches the ban of Sabbath reaping–that is, the conduct of the disciples on that day contravenes the conventions of piety and dishonors God.

The query about fasting posed to the disciples is an honor challenge designed to impugn the reputation of Jesus. Jesus’ counter question, “Have you never read what David did?” (Mk 2:25) is insulting and calculated to shame the inquisitors. The point is, hunger and the desire to assuage it had little, if anything, to do with honoring or dishonoring God on the Sabbath. Against those who preserve rigid, duty bound notions of piety to the exclusion of compassion for human need, Jesus argues for a renewed enjoyment of the Sabbath that permits hunger to be satisfied (Neyrey 1998: 122). Mark portrays Jesus as the consummate boundary transgressor–“The Sabbath is made for humankind …” (Mk 2:27).

The next challenge-riposte dynamic surfaces immediately upon Jesus’ return to his house–his kinship group (Mk 3:19). His reputation has preceded him to such an extent that upon his homecoming, Jesus finds a large crowd gathered around his house. Indeed, the crowd prevents him from eating. Family members hear through the gossip network something about Jesus’ conduct that may impugn their reputation. Thus, immediately they restrain him. It suggests their perception that family honor is threatened. The scribes from Jerusalem, whose prestige is diminishing in proportion to Jesus’ escalating honor, challenge him in the presence of the crowd by accusing him of being in league with Satan–“He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (Mk 3:22). To accuse Jesus of being in association with Beelzebul is a negative label calculated to undermine Jesus’ career and place in society. Labels are potent social weapons in the challenge-riposte exchange.

Of interest in this pericope, is that Jesus either cannot eat or chooses, for whatever reason, not to eat. Exorcists were known to abstain periodically from food for reasons of vision causation, purgation, and divine encounter. For the most part, Jesus is portrayed as a successful exorcist, possessed by the Spirit of God. When Jesus chooses not to eat, some of his enemies may have seen his non-consumption as a sign that he was in league with Satan and the demons. His eating behavior is open to public scrutiny. In the public struggle for honor, the scribes seek to undercut Jesus’ honor by seizing on his eating habits and popularity as exorcist. Their public verdict is that he is nothing more than a sorcerer (Neufeld: 160). Jesus rejects this label with a counter question: “How can Satan cast out Satan?” (Mk 3:23). The rhetorical thrust of the query is clear: inner division is destructive and impossible. Moreover, he indicts his accusers for blaspheming against the Holy Spirit (Mk 3:28-30). These repeated ripostes give Jesus the last word in the conflict. He successfully defends his claims and delivers a shameful riposte to his challengers.

The choreography of challenge-riposte exchanges continues to play itself out in the milieu of Jesus’ fame. In Mark 4:1, while Jesus is by the sea, his authority as a teacher is once more acknowledged. An exceedingly large crowd gathers around him so “that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there.” On another occasion, Jesus, forced to leave the country of the Gerasenes, moves on to the Decapolis and then over to the other side of the sea in a boat (Mk 5:1-21). He continues to enjoy a good reputation by virtue of the great crowd that is assembled around him. A leader of the synagogue, Jairus, approaches Jesus, falls at his feet, and begs him repeatedly to heal his daughter. Falling at the feet of Jesus in front of a crowd is a telling gesture signifying social inferiority. The large crowd will gossip the news abroad further enhancing Jesus’ fame and status. Jesus eventually ends up at the house of Jairus and is greeted with commotion, people weeping and wailing (Mk 5:38). He immediately subjects himself to ridicule and laughter with his claim that the daughter is not dead but merely sleeping (Mk 5:39). The laughter suggests that Jesus’ honor is in jeopardy. Jesus responds to this honor challenge with the potent riposte of healing the girl. Mark vividly portrays the twelve year old getting up and walking. Once again, his honor is vindicated. Upon healing her, Jesus explicitly commands that she be given something to eat (Mk 5:43). The order suggests that her illness has disrupted her place in the family system. Hence, the instruction to eat with her family restores her to a valued state of being and reincorporates her into the family system (Malina & Rohrbaugh: 210).

Mark’s narrative continues to flow along, chronicling the words and deeds of Jesus in the key of honor and shame. For the most part Jesus’ reputation and fame continue to spread via the gossip network. A serious setback occurs in Mark 6. Returning to his own country, Jesus teaches in the synagogue on the Sabbath and immediately astounds the crowd: “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” (Mk 6:1-3). Quickly, however, the initial enthusiasm turns to hostility; “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters with us?” (Mk 6:3). The synagogue participants, scandalized by his humble origins, question how such astonishing teaching could come from an itinerant artisan. The riposte he offers, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, kin, and own house,” insults the hometown folk by suggesting the possibility that it is outsiders who are best able to judge the honor of a prophet and not those most familiar with him (Mk 6:4).

Jesus and his apostles withdraw in due course to a deserted place to rest a while. So many people have been coming and going that they have no leisure even to eat (Mk 6:30-31). This statement sets the stage for an outdoor meal of fish and bread. Even a deserted place cannot protect Jesus from the crowds. As people recognize him, the news of his presence spreads like wildfire so that soon a large crowd has gathered. He has great compassion for them: because it is late in the day in a deserted place and the crowd has had nothing to eat, Jesus feeds them with five loaves and two fishes.

The setting is noteworthy: a deserted place. Deserted places are considered places of chaos where meals are not consumed. In such a setting, attention cannot be given to the proper preparation of food or the requirements of ritual purity. Yet it is in this desolate place that the crowd’s hunger is satiated. As a broker of God’s gifts, Jesus demonstrates his prowess by bestowing great benefactions upon the crowd (Neyrey 1991: 373-74). He provides superabundant food for thousands of people. Such benefaction earns him fame and honor. The crowd acknowledges Jesus as God’s agent and dispenser of God’s treasury of blessings (Neyrey 1998: 42).

An exceptionally bitter controversy erupts over the issue of eating meals with defiled hands (Mk 7:1-23). It is one of the longest reports of such a controversy in Mark. Mark sandwiches it between the two accounts of the feeding of the crowds and directly before Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman. Jesus’ conversation with her also concerns eating (Mk 6:30; 8:1-10). Jesus and his disciples are once more under public scrutiny by the Pharisees and some scribes who have made their way to them from Jerusalem. They note that some of his disciples are eating with defiled hands and pass a public verdict on this conduct by asking, “Why do your disciples not live according to the traditions of the elders, but eat with defiled hands? (Mk 7:1-3; 5). The question clearly represents a hostile challenge meant to damage the honor of Jesus. The symbolic issue is purity.

Judeans tend to make sense of a chaotic world by structuring that world in terms of maps of persons, places, and things. A map of persons as regards meals will typically mean unease about sharing food with those with whom there is no common system of values. A map of places with regard to meals will typically mean a concern about proper diet, the proper preparation of food, and proper serving utensils along with washing them (they observe the tradition of washing cups, pots, and bronze kettles–Mk 7:4). A map of things pertaining to meals will typically manifest itself in a concern about which foods are proscribed and prescribed. Issues related to holiness and purity and pollution and defilement are open to fierce intramural debate and disagreement. Disagreement on what constitutes purity divides the Pharisees from Sadducees, Judean from Samaritan, the Qumran community from the rest of society, and the Jesus group from the religious elite. The desire to regulate purity and holiness is driven by a concern to maintain the values and meanings that support a specific way of life of a group or society. Purity practices and distinctions embody the values of groups and ultimately define a way of life, draw lines that mark out boundaries, and mark off relationships with outsiders. These boundaries determine who is in and out, pure and impure, and loyal and disloyal to the group ethos. Failure to follow the so-called traditions of the elders would have raised serious questions about how faithful Jesus and his disciples were to the God of Israel. Hence the question, why do your disciples flout the rule concerning ritual washing?

Jesus’ response to the challenge posed by the religious elite is particularly harsh and aggressive. Before an acutely observing audience, Jesus rebuts the challenge in detail. He accuses the elite of hypocrisy, of setting aside the commandments of God in favor of holding fast to human tradition, and of invalidating the Word of God with their own tradition (Mk 7: 6, 8, 13). These accusations are enmity strategies designed to defeat the scribes and Pharisees and put them to shame. Since the challenge contests the conduct of his disciples before an observing crowd, Jesus turns to the crowd and declares that nothing external is unclean because what is ingested, whether clean or unclean, comes out as excrement (Mk 7:14-15). Once more, Mark depicts Jesus as maintaining his honor and gaining more of it in the face of its loss by his challengers. Moreover, Jesus is portrayed as redrawing the traditional maps concerning food and purity by rejecting time-honored regulations governing these issues. Contrary to the map of things, Jesus’ disciples ignore washing rites. What counts as purity in God’s economy is different from what counts as purity in the traditions of the elders. Jesus, as an insider’s insider, comments on the regulations governing holiness and purity and declares them wanting.

Jesus continues to enjoy a reputation that spreads beyond his hometown into the surrounding regions. In the district of Tyre he enters a house in order to remain incognito–“yet he could not escape notice” (Mk 7:24). Suddenly, a woman whose daughter has an unclean spirit appears before him and falls at his feet. Falling at his feet is an appropriate sign of respect before someone whose reputation has preceded him–her posture acknowledges his honor and status as a powerful healer. He is an honorable man whose power to heal is able benefit her. She petitions him for a favor–“she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter” (Mk 7:26). An exterior evil power has invaded her daughter. She suffers from spiritual aggression.

Mark reports that the woman is Greek and by race a Syro-Phoenician. (The ancients used such information to determine status and degrees of social interaction.) She is a woman of dubious status; Mark locates her alone in an open space, perhaps cut off from typical household and kinship ties, and without the support for herself and her daughter normally available in a family system (Corley 1993; 1989: 487-512). The woman crosses two boundaries, the Jew/Gentile, and male/female to seek help from an Israelite whose power could benefit her. Mark reports frequently that Jesus’ healing benefactions are highly prized so that friends, kin, and strangers regularly carry the ill to him.

Initially her request is harshly rebuffed by Jesus–“let the children be fed first, since it isn’t good to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs” (Mk 7:27). Jesus probably construes her request as aggressive and so responds harshly. Given that she is an unattached gentile woman of questionable status, her request puts him in a delicate position and encroaches on his resources. He is after all trying to remain incognito. The eating metaphor suggests that divine favors should first go to the house of Israel and then perhaps to the “dogs.” The word dogs is a strong insult in the Mediterranean world since dogs are generally regarded as scavengers. Not put off by the insult, the woman persists with witty repartee–“Sir, even the dogs under the table get to eat scraps dropped by children” (Mk 7:28). Her rejoinder suggests enormous trust in Jesus as God’s broker. In a negative way, Jesus enhances his honor by her persistence and responds positively by exclaiming, “For that retort, you may go–the demon has left your daughter” (Mk 7:29). Mark uses food imagery in this witty repartee to upset prevailing judgments concerning women and gentiles.

Mark continues to embellish the honor of Jesus in a second mass feeding (Mk 8: 1-10). Jesus’ power of benefaction once more expresses itself in his ability to provide superabundant food for about 4000 people, recalling Jesus’ role as a broker of God’s benefaction to the people in the previous feeding. Whereas earlier Jesus’ compassion arises because the crowds are like sheep without a shepherd, now it arises because they have kept vigil with him for three days with nothing to eat. Jesus acts in response to feed the peasant crowds, and the enormity of the benefaction is summed up with the words, “they ate and were filled … with the broken pieces, when collected, adding up to several baskets full (Mk 8:8). The abundance of food reconfirms Jesus’ access to God’s storehouse of treasures. Food is a gift from God that is not to be hoarded–his willingness to share exposes a deportment of great magnanimity (Neyrey 1998: 124-25). Jesus declares by an inclusive feeding strategy that God extends his benefactions to covenant members and to non-members alike. Moreover, Jesus also reveals his attitude towards the disenfranchised–the meal opens the way to reconciliation, to status elevation.

Commentators note the frequency with which the disciples are portrayed as dull and uncomprehending (Mk 8:17-18). Following the mass feeding, the disciples of Jesus admit that they have forgotten to bring bread. The narrator notes incidentally that they have one loaf in the boat with them (Mk 8:14). The one loaf represents an interesting contrast to the enormous bounty of leftovers they have just collected based on meager supplies. Surely, the one small loaf should not have presented them with a problem. Jesus is portrayed as continuing to undermine the honorable status and position of the Pharisees and Herodians by presenting them as leavening agents–their influence, while insidiously pervasive and corrupting, is now no longer in force (Mk 8:15). The disciples take the statement to be a criticism of their forgetfulness. The incomprehension of the disciples heaps shame upon Jesus. Honor is given to a teacher whose students understand both spoken word and symbolic action, yet they fail to do so. Jesus rebukes them for their lack of understanding–a rebuke designed to shame them into comprehension.

The Markan narrative continues to be choreographed in the key of honor and shame. Large crowds press upon Jesus, and the exchange of insults with the religious elite over the issues of authority (11:27-33), taxes (12:13-17), resurrection (12:18-27), and the greatest commandment (12:28-34) becomes increasingly sharp. Eventually, the chief priest and scribes seek ways to arrest him by stealth and kill him (Mk 10:1, 17, 32, 46; 11:27-33; 12:18, 28, 38; 14:1). Yet, they are worried that their action might instigate a riot among the people. This implies that among the people, Jesus’ honor status and reputation is extremely high–hence, the stealth. Elites have a number of means at their disposal to cut people of rising honor down to size: stealth, bribery, false witnesses, and trumped up charges. His success leads to envy and eventually his dishonorable death.

A significant rite involving eating sets the stage for the final insult–an insider betrays Jesus. Jesus is distressed by the thought of betrayal by an insider, partially driven no doubt by the thought of how this treachery dishonors him in the public eye. Eating bread and drinking from a cup of wine constitute a symbol of social cohesion, but also the moment at which the announcement of betrayal takes place. Treachery in the context of table fellowship is a particularly reprehensible act.

Table fellowship fittingly both begins and ends the Markan narrative in what is a grand inclusio. Jesus performs his last symbolic action through eating bread and drinking wine. The mystery of the bread in the feeding stories is now cleared up. The bread is really the body of Jesus given for many (10:45) and the cup is the blood of the covenant poured out for many; that is, full restoration into the community of God.


In this paper, I have demonstrated how food and eating events have played themselves out in the key honor and shame. Each of these food events occurred at a critical juncture in the Markan narrative. The medium of food and eating was used to debate important issues related to belonging and social solidarity, purity and holiness, defilement and pollution, honor and shame, and the traditions of the fathers. Mark recorded a subversion of the code whereby honor was attached to upholding new regulations of purity and holiness, of communal identity and gender, and of what counted as honorable in the kingdom of God.

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Dietmar Neufeld (Ph.D., McGill University, Montreal, Quebec) is the author of RECONCEIVING TEXTS AS SPEECH ACTS: AN ANALYSIS OF I JOHN (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994) and several articles including Eating, Ecstasy, and Exorcism (Mk 3:21) (BTB 26 [1996], 152-62). He is Assistant Professor of Christian Origins in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., Canada. E-mail:

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