US Catholic Faith in Real Life

USC Book Club: The Food and Feasts of Jesus

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May 2014:

The Food and Feasts of Jesus

By Douglas E. Neel and Joel A. Pugh

Review: There’s no doubt that food plays a big part in the most important moments of our lives. But have you ever wondered how the meals you share with family and friends today would compare to the food commonly found on the tables where Jesus once dined?

In The Food and Feasts of Jesus, Douglas Neel and Joel Pugh open a delicious doorway into first-century kitchens, examining the basic ingredients of the day and serving up mouthwatering recipes for dishes commonly served at both special celebrations and ordinary meals. The authors reveal how preparing and sharing a feast became a key ingredient in defining culture and developing community—and how a return to cooking traditions of the past can bring us closer together in the present.

—Scott Alessi, Managing Editor, U.S. Catholic

Rowman & Littlefield says: From feasts to field lunches, this book explores various meals from Jesus’ time, and offers accessible recipes for readers to make their own tastes of the first century.

Paperback: $19.95
eBook: $18.99

Available at bookstores or from Rowman & Littlefield: 800-462-6420 or shop online at

Order now from Rowman & Littlefield.

General Book Club guides


Questions for Discussion

We hope these questions will help readers dig a little deeper into the book, either in personal reflection or group discussion.  Many of the questions compare and contrast life today with the culture of Jesus’ day to offer greater insight to both. For some questions, potential answers are offered in parenthesis to aid the discussion leader.

Chapter 1—Why Eat the Food of Jesus and His Followers?

1. Why should we care what Jesus ate?

2.  Are these recipes authentic? (Who knows? No one has found an ancient Jewish recipe book. All of the ingredients are authentic, as well as the cooking techniques and storage techniques. Good cooks in the first century likely combined these ingredients just as the book describes—bad cooks simply threw together what food they could find)

3. Describe a time when special food and a distinctive meal help build a sense of community.

4. The authors end chapter one with a philosophy of food and dining. Do you have a personal viewpoint regarding food and feasts?

5. Do you agree with the authors’ attitude toward prepackaged and fast foods (page 10)?

Chapter 2—The Bounty of the First-Century Kitchen

1. What ingredients that are common today are missing in the first century?

2. The authors were often asked why they would want to study a diet of gruel and lentils. 

3. Are you surprised by the wide variety of foods and flavorings available in the first century? What ingredients are you surprised to see on the lists and what did you expect to see that was not available?

4. What was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden?

5. The first-century diet is comparable to the modern Mediterranean diet. What are some similarities and differences? If a family only ate fish or poultry once a week and meat only occasionally, did they get enough protein from foods like legumes (the lentil stew), cheese, and eggs? 

Chapter 3—Our Daily Bread

1. What percentage of people in first-century Galilee were directly involved in agricultural work? (80 percent)

2. A first-century worker was paid what daily wage? (denarius) How much does that translate to today? (In Dallas, today it is about $80-100.)

3. Was bread served at every meal? How did that bread differ from our bread today? Was the bread of the poor different from the bread of the rich?

4. Bread was an extremely central part of the first-century diet. In addition, it had significant symbolic meaning. With this in mind, why do you think bread played such a central role in Christian worship?

5. What are some of the ways that a first-century meal with family differed from a 21st-century dinner?

Chapter 4—The Farmer, Food, and Social Responsibility

1. How many generations had the 'family warehouse and neighbor loan program' been in place? How many centuries? (Josephus dates 'David and Goliath' at about 1050 BCE so about a thousand years.)

2. If a neighbor had no grain left to lend, what did the borrower do? (They borrowed silver from the rich in Jerusalem to by grain for seed, risking foreclosure if the crop was poor.)

3. Did the poor/landless have the right to go onto the farmers land or did they have to wait for permission? (Mosaic law gave the poor rights to take what they needed from the fields.)

4. If the poor HAD THE RIGHTS BY LAW TO TAKE FOOD in Jesus’ day, are 'Food Stamp' programs (now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program SNP and Woman, Infant, Children Nutritional Services WIC) the modern day biblical equivalent?

5. If we reduce those 'food stamp' programs, is leaving these people hungry what Jesus preached against 2000 years ago? In the parable about paying each worker a full days’ wage, including those who only worked the afternoon, could this have been so that every family could eat?

6. 'Forgive seven times' or "70 x seven times"? When a neighbor could not repay the years’ worth of food that they borrowed for their family (think $30,000 today), Pharisees said that the farmer had to forgive seven times. What did Jesus say? Why would Jesus make this outrageous statement?

Chapter 5—The Sabbath Feast

1. Describe a Sabbath feast on a Friday night at a farmhouse in Galilee.

2. According to Mark and Luke, Jesus was criticized by Rabbis for eating grain from farms that didn't belong to him, or for doing it on the Sabbath?

3. How did the Sabbath feast compare to the daily meal? Do you enjoy a weekly meal with family and friends that compares to the biblical Sabbath feast?

4. Why do you think that the Sabbath was important in the first century and continues to be significant for modern Jews?

5. There is renewed interest Jews and non-Jews for Sabbath time, realizing that media and other distractions keep us from time with family and God. Is this a helpful concept for 21st century people? Would group members be willing to set aside Sabbath time for such a celebration? What would they be willing to stop doing in order to spend time with God? Give up television? E-mail? Social networking?

6. Why do you think Palestine was called a land of milk and honey? Is it still perceived as such?

Chapter 6—The Banquet

1. Were first-century banquets typically husband and wife, or male-only?

2. When Jesus visited Mary and Martha at his friend Lazarus' house, did he follow the male-only custom? What do you remember about this story? This chapter contains the first of several discussions of the roles of women in first-century life. Reflect on this description of women and the banquet (pages 95-96) and compare this to what you know of the teachings of Jesus and the Apostle Paul regarding women.

3. Describe a special meal with family and friends that might compare to a first-century banquet. Did your feast have entertainment that might compare to some aspect of the symposium?

4. Modern scholars continue to research the influence of the Greco-Roman banquet on many aspects of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern life. After reading this chapter, do you think that the banquet might have influenced the shape of early Christian worship? Why or why not?

5. In the first century, hospitality was as important as the food that was served. Have you enjoyed the degree of hospitality described in this chapter?

6. This chapter includes a description of misuses of the banquet in the Greco-Roman world. Have you experienced abuses of special meals and feasts? What were the circumstances?

Chapter 7—The Wedding Feast

1. From the wedding covenant and betrothal to the actual feast a year later, first-century unions were significantly different than their modern counterparts. Discuss these differences. Which do you find most surprising?

2. Why was the wedding feast such an important occasion, not just for bride, groom and their families, but for the entire community?

3. This chapter continues the discussion of women in first-century Palestine. Once again, compare societal expectations with the teachings of Jesus and writings of the Apostle Paul. Reflect on the possible conflicts involved when incorporating a young bride into the groom’s extended family.

4. The wedding feast was steeped in religious symbolic significance. Discuss both Old and New Testament use of the wedding feast as a symbol and why it was an image used by Jesus in his teachings.

5. Along with bread and olive oil, wine was considered part of the “Trinity” of important foods. Why was wine so significant? Why was it so important to add water to wine?

Chapter 8—The Feast of the Passover

1. Each food has a symbol—what do these food stand for?

LAMB—the lamb’s life was sacrificed for blood on the door so the angle would PASS OVER the house—hence the lamb was God's presence and redemptive purpose

BITTER HERBS—lettuces and other herbs were eaten at Passover to remind the Jews of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt.

UNLEAVEN BREAD—a symbol that the Jews were a people who were unexpectedly leaving their homes to travel through the wilderness without time to let their bread rise.

2. Passover is still an extremely important feast for all Jews. Describe some of the ways the festival has changed over the two thousand years since the life of Jesus. What is most surprising about the celebration of Passover in the first century?

3. Passover was a multitiered feast that was religious, nationalistic, and cultural. It also contained elements of a harvest feast and provided families with opportunities to teach their children. Do we similar celebrations today? Are there celebrations like the Passover in other countries?

4. What influence does Passover have on Christian belief?

5. Animal sacrifice is discussed here and in more detail in a later chapter.  Describe the visual image of experiencing the sacrifice of thousands of lambs in the temple.  Is it possible for us, with our twenty-first century sensibilities, to see the excitement and joy that must have been experienced in the first-century?

6. The poorest members of society were to celebrate Passover in the same manner as the richest. Have you ever experienced dining and feasting with those who were considered the poorest in your communities? Would you invite a street person to share Thanksgiving dinner with you?

Chapter 9—The Harvest Feast

1. What has our society lost by being so separated from growing and harvesting our food? 

2. Does the Sabbath rest make more sense after reading a description of the cycle of work required of the farmer and his family? (pages 176-180)

3. Pentecost was a celebration of the wheat harvest. Why do you think the Book of Ruth was read as part of the celebration? Can you think of a modern example of a feast or holiday that expresses a “bond of communal responsibility”? (page 181)

4. The festival of Booths (Tabernacles) which celebrated the grape harvest was a much more unusual feast with worship services, processions and all-night dances. Can you think of any modern celebrations that might compare to Booths?

5. Grain was not only an important food, it was also a power symbol. Look at 1 Corinthians 15, especially Verses 35-37 and reflect on grain as a symbol for new life and resurrection.

Chapter 10—Eating with God—The Todah Feast

1. What is a Todah Feast, and how does it differ from the other great feasts? (The Todah was a celebration of thanksgiving for something that already happened. In contrast with the other great feasts, the person hosting the feast came to the temple already experiencing shalom, or peace, not seeking it in the future.) 

2. Does the Bible tell of Todah Feasts? (Yes, Luke tells that Mary’s purification and the presentation of Jesus as the firstborn, Joseph and she offered two turtle-doves or pigeons instead of a lamb. (Luke 2:22-24) Additionally Psalm 116 is one of the Todah Psalms—a personal thanksgiving Psalm.)

3. The celebration of the Todah feast has been overlooked by most scholars and yet the theme of Thanksgiving is important for Christian theology and worship. In fact, the Hebrew word todah is often translated into Greek with the word eucharist. Should more attention be paid on the connection of the Todah feast with Christian theology and worsihp? Why or why not?

4. Why is the Todah Feast described by the authors as “eating with God”?

5. Shalom was one of the elements of the Todah feast.  What is your understanding of shalom and can you describe how it might be connected to the Todah feast? Does your experience of modern Christian worship give you shalom?

6. Meat was eaten very rarely in the ancient world. Could you follow a first-century diet and eat meat only on special occasions, four or five times a year?

Chapter 11—Picnic at the Beach

1. The letters in the Greek word for fish, ichthus, is an acronym for what phrase? (“Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”) The Fish was the symbol for Christians 300 years before the cross became the common symbol.

2. St. Peter's Fish, the primary fish caught in the Sea of Galilee is today known as what? (Tilapia)

3. Most North Americans love to complain about paying taxes. Compare our tax system with that of first-century Palestine. Does the development of an underground economy based on barter make sense in that setting?

4. At some in his life, Jesus left Nazareth and moved to Capernaum, which was in part a fishing community. Because of which, ministry to and among fishermen was important to Jesus. So too was the symbolism of fishing. Discuss Jesus’ relationship with fishermen and fishing.

5. Fish was an extremely important food in the Mediterranean and Middle East. The Mediterranean Sea and lakes like the Sea of Galilee guaranteed that most people had access to fresh or dried fish. What role does fish play in your diet? Do you eat fish daily? Weekly? Once a month? Never?

6. Salt was an extremely important seasoning and is necessary for health and life. We have access to a ready supply of cheap salt. This was not the case in the ancient world. What is our relationship with salt? How was it used as a symbol by Jesus in his teachings?

Chapter 12—What We have Learned and Why We have Joined the Feast

1. What have you learned by reading this book and celebrating some or all of the feasts? Are your conclusions similar to those described by the authors?

2. There is a strong connection between the food choices we make, the way we eat, and the culture we live in. Discuss your diet, how you prepare and eat food, and what that might say about our culture.

3. There was great disparity between the diets of the rich and poor in the first century. The disparity may not be quite as great; most people have access to affordable chicken, milk, bread, beans, and many other foods. Yet there is a very large gap in the availability of healthy food to the richest and the poorest members of our society. In many urban areas, the poorest have no access to fresh fruits, vegetables, or whole grains. What does this say to you about our food culture?

4. Discuss the elements of the feast as described on pages 230-231. Does it make sense that these characteristics are also elements of worship?