Dissertation Spotlight: John Penniman

by John Penniman in


Penniman, John David. Lacte Christiano Educatus: The Symbolic Power of Nourishment in Early Christianity. PhD Dissertation, Fordham University, 2015.

“Man is what he eats.” Or so argued Ludwig Feuerbach. He continued: “From this we also see the ethical and political significance of the study of nourishment for society. Food turns into blood, blood turns into heart and brain, into thoughts and character. Human food is the basis for human formation and for character. If you want to improve society, give the people better food rather than declamations against sin.” And so Feuerbach’s now-famous aphorism was not merely a provocative metaphor. It was bound up with a deeper assumption about the power of food and the transformative essence it deposits within the one being fed. The function of meals as markers of social identity has recently developed into an important new avenue of research among scholars of ancient Judaism and Christianity (such as Hal Taussig, Andrew McGowan, and Jordan Rosenblum to name only a few). My dissertation builds upon this invigorated focus on food while taking cues from Feuerbach’s provocative materialism.

The project started out as a clumsy hunch. I had spent the summer between my first and second years as a doctoral student adrift in an ocean of ancient source material on education and imitation. I was trying to decipher how these two concepts related to the formation of the soul. The scope of my research quickly proved to be too unwieldy, too vast. Three month’s worth of research seemed to be heading into a dead end. Toward the very end of the summer, however, I started to notice a peculiar trend: food, nourishment, and especially breastfeeding were prominent themes within the discourse concerning proper intellectual formation. This clarified an exciting line of inquiry that I had not initially set out to answer: what if food functioned as more than just a marker of social identity in antiquity? What if feeding and being fed was itself the process in which the “stuff” of identity is transmitted from one person to the next? In what ways was physical nourishment and the growth of the soul viewed as a single developmental process? And how might ancient Jews and Christians have understood this process as a means for realizing a program for ethno-religious formation?

My dissertation argues that, for ancient Jews and Christians, nourishment symbolized a transformative process, a transfer of essential qualities and characteristics that could mold the one being fed into the likeness of the one doing the feeding. I take as my point of departure the apostle Paul’s reference to breastfeeding in 1 Corinthians 3. While there has been much work on this particular passage in New Testament scholarship, I seek to situate it within a broader “discourse of formation” that was operative within the medical, moral, and educational literature of the broader Greek and Roman worlds. This discourse presumed that intellectual formation, social legitimacy, and even bonds of kinship or ethnicity were achieved first and foremost at the breast. I argue against classic interpretations, like that of Hans Conzelmann and Werner Jaeger, that view appeals to nourishment in general and breastfeeding specifically as mere metaphors. Leveraging the insights of post-structural linguistic theory, my dissertation destabilizes the clean-cut division of “literal” and “metaphoric” language, demonstrating instead that the symbolic power of milk and solid food represents a potent conjuncture of cultural values and embodied practices surrounding human formation that were prominent throughout Greco-Roman antiquity.

In the first two chapters, I outline the pervasive nature of this discourse of formation and trace how it is expressed in a variety of historical, cultural, and intellectual contexts. Chapter 1 surveys how the power of food was connected to various ideologies about human development described within a wide range of literature. These include medical texts stretching from the Hippocratic corpus to Galen; the prominent place of nutritive language in educational handbooks like that of Quintilian and Ps. Plutarch; the moralizing and politicizing of motherhood in texts like Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights and in material culture such as the Ara Pacis; and also to the social history of wet-nursing and the ideologies surrounding slavery, the embodied politics of the female body, and the regulating of mother’s milk in the Roman Empire. I pay particular attention to how the “Roman family values” inaugurated by the Augustan era included a deep concern for the proper nurturance of infants, resulting in wide-ranging discussions about the power of breast milk to damage or to perfect the soul of an infant. The dominant political and social concerns of the early Roman Empire thus involved an intensified focus on the role of food in the psychic and moral development of children that had already been latent within Classical and Hellenistic sources.

Turning toward texts like 2 Maccabees and the work of Philo of Alexandria in Chapter 2, I argue that Greek-speaking Jews made strategic use of nourishment’s symbolic power as a framework for ethno-religious formation. Philo, in his Life of Moses, interprets the nurturing of Moses by his biological mother as significant because the milk on which he was fed came from a “legitimate” (γνήσιος) source. This subtle expansion on the Biblical narrative adapts the broader Roman concern for the role of breastfeeding in the proper formation of an infant, but incorporates it into a paradigm for regulating a person’s familial and religious belonging within the Jewish community. I conclude Chapter 2 by arguing that it is within this discursive framework that the apostle Paul’s appeal to breast milk must be understood. Likewise, I argue that when Paul’s early interpreters appealed to 1 Corinthians 3 or to the symbolic power of milk and nourishment more generally, they inevitably pulled up with it this tangled web of ideologies and embodied practices.

In Chapters 3 through 6, I explore how early Christian authors used nourishment and breastfeeding to construct diverse models of education, maturity, and social legitimacy. Yet, as I argue, appeals to the power of nourishment were in no way deployed consistently. In the precise places where early Christians attempted to secure the transmission of “true” knowledge and “orthodox” faith at the level of biology, the movement from milk to solid food proved to be a malleable—and thus unstable—concept, allowing for a wide range of beliefs about what constitutes proper Christian formation. The authors surveyed throughout my dissertation do not all wield this symbolic power in the same way or toward the same ends. Each chapter demonstrates the iterative nature of milk and solid food as a structuring paradigm: it could be readily employed to reclaim Christian infancy as a positive status from which all Christians must mature (Irenaeus of Lyon and Clement of Alexandria); it could be expanded to harmonize Paul’s broader anthropological categories, thus providing a system of classification for various developmental states of the soul (Origen); it could serve as a mystical roadmap, charting the soul’s ongoing progress in perfection through an extended network of feeders and eaters (Gregory of Nyssa); and, lastly, it could be used to prevent the arrogances of perfection, promoting instead a humbler vision of the Christian life as one of perpetual suckling (Augustine of Hippo).

In this way, the symbolic power of food took on a surprisingly eclectic range of meanings among early Christian authors. Despite this diversity of meaning, nourishment broadly functioned as a regulatory system. Its symbolic power was located in ancient biological and development theories that described how food contains a powerful essence that transforms those being fed from the inside out. Christians appealed regularly to breastfeeding because of this power and, in so doing, articulated a mechanism for transferring the elemental matter of social legitimacy, individual character, and even doctrinal orthodoxy.  According to the literature of late antiquity, Christians are what they eat. Or, better still, Christians become like those on whom they are fed. It is little wonder, then, that Paul’s enigmatic reference to milk and solid food would prompt sustained consideration among early Christians about what it means to eat well. By what criteria are the well-fed identified within the Christian community? And how does food come to sanction certain kinds of identifying characteristics over and against others? I conclude the dissertation with a meditation on the vexed implications of the imperative to “eat well.” Drawing upon the interventions of Jacques Derrida and Donna Haraway, I ask whether a new Pauline gastronomy might be possible—one in which difference is left undigested and unassimilated. How might the movement from milk to solid food be repurposed so as to nurture the ongoing formation of the soul without enforcing a single, dietary model of cultural replication?


John David Penniman is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA. You can find him on Twitter: @historiographos.

follow us in feedly