“What Are We to Eat?”
FOOD and drink—the topic cropped up time and again during Jesus’ ministry. His first miracle was to turn water into wine, and on two occasions he fed multitudes with a few loaves and fish. (Matthew 16:7-10; John 2:3-11) Jesus was known not only for eating with the poor but also for feasting with the rich. In fact, enemies of Jesus accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard. (Matthew 11:18, 19) Of course, Jesus was neither. However, he knew that food and drink were of vital concern to people, and he masterfully used these items to illustrate deep spiritual lessons.—Luke 22:14-20; John 6:35-40.
What food and drink were common in Jesus’ day? How was food produced? And how much effort went into preparing it? The answers to those questions will help you better understand some of the events and expressions mentioned in the Gospels.
Give Us “Our Bread for This Day”
When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he revealed that it was proper to ask God to provide the necessities of life—the “bread for this day.” (Matthew 6:11) Bread was such an important part of the diet that in both Hebrew and Greek, the expression to “eat a meal” literally meant to “eat bread.” Cereals used to make bread, such as wheat and barley, as well as others, such as oats, spelt, and millet, made up a large portion of the first-century Jewish diet. Researchers estimate that a person would consume about 500 pounds [200 kg] of cereals a year, providing about half the calories the individual needed.
Bread could be bought in the marketplace. But most families baked their own—a task involving a considerable amount of labor. The book Bread, Wine, Walls and Scrolls explains: “As it is difficult to keep flour for a long time, the milling was done by the housewife every day.” How long would this process take? “In an hour of hard labor using a handmill,” states the author, “no more than 0.8 kg [almost two pounds] of flour is produced from 1 kg [more than two pounds] of wheat. As the daily per capita consumption of wheat was about 1/2 kg [a pound], in order to provide for a family of five or six, the homemaker needed to do three hours of milling.”
Now think about Mary, Jesus’ mother. In addition to her other household chores, she had to provide enough bread to feed a husband, five sons, and at least two daughters. (Matthew 13:55, 56) Without a doubt, Mary, like other Jewish women, worked hard to help prepare the “bread for this day.”
“Come, Take Your Breakfast”
After Jesus was resurrected, he appeared to some of his disciples early one morning. The disciples had been fishing all night, without success. “Come, take your breakfast,” Jesus called to his tired friends. He then served them fresh fish and bread. (John 21:9-13) Although this is the only mention in the Gospels of a breakfast meal, it was common for people to begin their day with a meal of bread, nuts, and raisins or olives.
What about the midday meal? What would the working class eat? The book Life in Biblical Israel says: “The midday meal was light, composed of bread, grain, olives, and figs.” Those were the items that the disciples may well have been carrying when they returned from Sychar to find Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman at the well. The hour “was about the sixth,” or midday, and the disciples had “gone off into the city to buy foodstuffs.”—John 4:5-8.
In the evening, families assembled for the main meal of the day. Describing this meal, the book Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, First Three Centuries C.E. says: “Most people ate bread or porridges made of barley, various cereals and legumes, or more rarely wheat. They supplemented them usually with salt and oil or olives, occasionally a strong sauce, honey, or sweet fruit juices.” Milk, cheese, vegetables, and fresh or dried fruits may also have been on the menu. About 30 kinds of vegetables were available at the time—onions, garlic, radishes, carrots, and cabbage, to name a few—and more than 25 varieties of fruits, such as (1) figs, (2) dates, and (3) pomegranates, were grown in the area.
Can you visualize some of these ingredients on the table when Jesus shared an evening meal with Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary? Now imagine the aroma that filled the room as Mary greased Jesus’ feet with “genuine nard”—the smell of food mingling with the scent of the costly perfumed oil.—John 12:1-3.
“When You Spread a Feast”
On another occasion, while eating a meal in “the house of a certain one of the rulers of the Pharisees,” Jesus taught those present a valuable lesson. He said: “When you spread a feast, invite poor people, crippled, lame, blind; and you will be happy, because they have nothing with which to repay you. For you will be repaid in the resurrection of the righteous ones.” (Luke 14:1-14) If the Pharisee followed Jesus’ advice, what food might he have served at such a feast?
A rich man may have offered fancy bread, baked in various shapes and enhanced with wine, honey, milk, and spices. Butter and hard cheese would likely be on the table. Fresh olives, preserved olives, or olive oil would no doubt be featured. According to the book Food in Antiquity, “every person consumed twenty kilos [40 pounds] of olive oil per year as food, and an additional quantity for cosmetics and for illumination.”
If the Pharisee lived near the sea, he and his guests would likely eat freshly caught fish. Those living inland usually ate fish that was preserved by being pickled or salted. The host may also have offered meat—a rare treat for a poor guest. A more familiar sight would have been an egg dish of some sort. (Luke 11:12) The flavor of these ingredients may have been enhanced with herbs and spices, such as mint, dill, cumin, and mustard. (Matthew 13:31; 23:23; Luke 11:42) Later, the guests may have enjoyed a dessert of roasted wheat prepared with almonds, honey, and spices.
Those at a feast would likely have been offered grapes—fresh, dried, or in the form of wine. Thousands of winepresses have been found in Palestine, testifying to the popularity of the drink. At one location in Gibeon, archaeologists discovered 63 cellars cut into the rock that could store about 25,000 gallons [100,000 L] of wine.
“Never Be Anxious”
As you read the Gospels, note how many times Jesus mentions food or drink in his illustrations or the way he teaches some important lesson while at a meal. Certainly, Jesus and his disciples enjoyed eating and drinking, especially when in the company of good associates, but they did not make these things the main pursuit in life.
Jesus helped his disciples to maintain a balanced view of food and drink when he said: “Never be anxious and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or, ‘What are we to drink?’ or, ‘What are we to put on?’ For all these are the things the nations are eagerly pursuing. For your heavenly Father knows you need all these things.” (Matthew 6:31, 32) The disciples took this lesson to heart, and God cared for their needs. (2 Corinthians 9:8) True, your diet may be different from that of those who lived in the first century. But you can be sure that God will care for you if you put his interests first in life.—Matthew 6:33, 34.