John David Penniman. Raised on Christian Milk: Food and the Formation of the Soul in Early Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.
What does it mean to “eat well”? The phrase evokes authenticity, social belonging, and moral superiority as much as physical nourishment. In Raised on Christian Milk, John Penniman poses this question to ancient Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian thinkers and finds an answer located in mother’s milk. Two intellectual gastronomies are at work: the Greco-Roman discourse of milk as a union of nature and nurture, and the Pauline trope of milk and solid food as a model of Christian formation. Central to both is the ability of milk to convey essence, identity, legitimacy, and wisdom to soul and body alike.
Chapter one lays the conceptual groundwork in the Greco-Roman discourse of food and education. Penniman challenges a scholarly tendency going back to Werner Jaeger and Henri Marrou’s groundbreaking work on ancient education that undervalues the provocative force of ancient metaphors for education as “feeding the soul.” Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the symbolic power of language to express social relations and “embodied politics,” Penniman argues that paideia is more than a static transmission of social values through intellectual training (p. 17). He shows how feeding children is a political act in antiquity, uniting Greek medicine and philosophy with Roman family values and imperial ideology. Ancient thinkers believed that the mother’s essence, her pneuma, is conveyed to the child in the act of breastfeeding. Thus milk is a domestic and a political symbol, a bodily paideia that supports the processes of intellectual maturity and social integration. Penniman repeats the refrain “same food, same essence” throughout the book to evoke this set of concepts.
The second chapter turns to Greek-speaking Jewish authors who subvert these concepts to express a unique ethno-religious identity. The mother of the Maccabean martyrs insists that the Jewish identity of her sons stems from her bodily nurturance of them in pregnancy and breastfeeding. Philo associates breastfeeding “pervasively, if not coherently” with legitimacy and divine wisdom in the nurturance of the spirit (p. 67). In light of such texts, Paul’s famous critique of the immature Corinthians invokes all the “formative power” of milk to convey growth, identity, and social location (pp. 75-76).
These social, educational, and ethno-religious values complicate any model of Christian formation expressed in terms of milk and bodily nourishment. Two basic problems arise for later users of Pauline categories: Is milk an inferior food for the spiritually immature or the distilled essence of universal Christian identity? Does the model of milk and solid food imply a developmental process, available to anyone, or does it imply a hierarchy of people with fixed or innate capacities? The remaining four chapters sketch a chronological account of five early Christian theologians who use this language to work out their own preoccupations. For Penniman, these figures are “particularly illustrative” of how metaphors of nourishment could be used “to produce diverse and at times conflicting accounts of Christian identity and its transmission.” There is no simple model of Pauline reception or development here. Rather, these authors expand and intensify the paradoxes of body and soul, nature and nurture, equality and hierarchy embedded in Paul’s language.
For Christian apologists Irenaeus of Lyon and Clement of Alexandria, polemical engagement with second-century Gnosticizing tendencies motivates their creative attempts to rehabilitate infancy as a positive condition. For Irenaeus, infancy is the collective developmental state of human beings as material creatures; God is the nurse whose milky food communicates a shared essence to all. Clement’s strategy is both more pedagogical and less consistent; he persistently uses milk and the physiology of nourishment to emphasize human materiality and social belonging, but leaves unresolved the question of status difference within the family of God.
From the “troublesome category of infancy” in a religious milieu that privileged spiritual maturity, third-century theologians move to the “problem of perfection “(p. 136). Even in Origen, that most spiritualizing of early Christian theologians, Penniman finds meaningful echoes of the physiological discourse of food and bodily nurture. Origen’s vision of human progress from physical to spiritual beings is informed by the concept that bodily food feeds the soul. The spiritual body has its own senses and even processes of digestion, ingesting the word of God as real food. But Origen retains a sense of fixed status differences between eaters– “meals materialized the blending of one’s social status and spiritual capacity” (p. 136).
In the last two chapters, Penniman juxtaposes Gregory of Nyssa with Augustine, figures who represent two very different views on Christian potential at the “end of antiquity.” Gregory produces the most complete synthesis of Greek paideia, Roman family values, and Christian perfection. With particularly high emphasis on motherhood and breastfeeding, Gregory “maternalizes” the church as the source of paideia and perfection. Her well-fed children grow to become breast-feeders of others, a sort of gender-bending that comes with spiritual maturity.
With Augustine, however, we see a final breakdown of classical notions of education and the possibilities of human nurture. Penniman’s analysis of Augustine’s use of the milk and solid food trope confirms the consensus view of his increasing pessimism over the course of his career. Augustine comes to believe that Christians are perpetual infants who will never outgrow the milky nurture of the Church. This metaphorical shift to a concept of “milk without growth” shows the real distance that Christian late antiquity has traveled in its engagement with the classical past (p.165).
Elegantly written and carefully theorized, Penniman’s study speaks to the power of “dead” metaphors to come back to life when their material side is taken seriously. As the arguments unfold, traditional hermeneutic categories like “literal” and “figural” or “spiritual” meanings begin to lose their conceptual integrity. Indeed, Penniman hints that the whole Christian discourse of identity and spiritual maturity lies in the blurred area where body and soul meet.
Now as then, the proper care and feeding of children is a topic laden with the baggage of class, gender, and imperialist ideologies. Penniman concludes with a reflection on the possibility of a “new Pauline gastronomy” that allows for communities of inclusion and difference, that embraces the “radical vulnerability” of nurture (p. 210). Attention to the ways that the apparently natural is harnessed to specific cultural ideologies through our most basic metaphors of food is the first step in redefining what it means to “eat well.”
Dana Robinson has an M.A. in Classics and a Ph.D. in Early Christian Studies from Catholic University of America. She is currently employed as a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow for the Honors Program at Creighton University, and finishing her book, The Common Table: Food, Virtue, and Community in Early Christianity. Contact her at email@example.com