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About us Faculty of Religion, Culture and Society Organization Staff PhD Research Jewish, Christian and Islamic Origins

Peter Shirokov

Meals Between Jews and non-Jews in the Late Hellenistic and Early Roman Era.

There is a considerable amount of evidence from antiquity that testifies to Jewish practice avoiding meals with non-Jewish neighbors. Jews were known not only for avoiding biblically-forbidden food items but also shunning meals prepared by the non-Jews, and even choosing not to share food at common table and in the company of non-Jews.

Greco-Roman writers noted that Jews deliberately refuse to share the table with those of other nations; (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 5.33 LCL) They hate other nations, do not mix with them, never eat with them and generally wish them ill (Diodorus Siculus, Book 34, frag 1-2). The author of Jubilees intentionally instructs Jews not to eat with non-Jews and not to associate with them in general (Jub. 22:1).

In Tobit, the hero insists that he did not eat “gentile food” in his captivity (Tob. 1:10-11). In Flavius Josephus, some Jews went as far as to object to the use of ‘Gentile olive oil’ (War 2. 591-92, Life 13-14). In one instance, the members of Jewish community were even supposed to be compensated by the local authorities because of such practice (Ant. 12. 119-20)

“Pompeii Family Feast”, Naples National Archaeological Museum, a fresco painted prior to 79 CE
“Pompeii Family Feast”, Naples National Archaeological Museum, a fresco painted prior to 79 CE

But how strict and universal was Jewish avoidance of sharing meals with non-Jews in that period? What was the state (nature) of sharing meals (commensality) between Jews and non-Jews in the late Hellenistic and Early Roman periods? The aim of my research is to examine any evidence of such meal interactions diachronically, empirically and comparatively in order to gain a more accurate understanding of human social behavior within the given era.

The is no dispute that Jewish abstinence from meals with non-Jews in antiquity was a widespread practice. My research does not focus on avoidance, but rather on the rare evidence of the opposite. There is a number of ancient sources, which suggest that in some cases, and in certain circumstances some Jews made decisions to share meals with non-Jews.

In Judith 12 the heroine eats with a pagan general before she kills him. Joseph eats with Aseneth and her whole family when she renounces idolatry (Jos. Asen. 7). In Acts 10:-11:18 Gal 2:11-14 Jews and Gentiles also eat meals together. Jewish translators dine with king Ptolemy in the Letter of Aristeas 181-185 and in Antiquities 12:94-98 as well. Scenarios like these are rare in literature, but never the less, they deserve an explanation.
Pompeii Fresco of Fish and Muscles, Casa dei Casti Amanti
Pompeii Fresco of Fish and Muscles, Casa dei Casti Amanti

Perhaps it is not entirely accurate to state that Jews never ate with non-Jews. The abstinence from meals with outsiders could not have been absolute, it could not have been always consistent and a completely universal behavior for all Jews of that era. Though generally expected and normal, the Jewish praxis of separation from non-Jews at meals depended on the exact circumstances and also on the individuals involved in the given scenario.

The rare literary occurrences of even limited table interaction between Jews and non-Jews are a reflection of certain historical reality. It testifies to the flexibility of human culturally-driven behavior. All of such reports cannot be fictional, or merely imagined. There are too many instances to dismiss them all. Some Jews indeed did eat with non-Jews, perhaps in rare situations, but they did. Those who intentionally crossed the line had their reasons and these reasons were substantive enough to put aside the usual avoidance and make an exception.

The reports of intercultural table interaction between Jews and non-Jews of the late Hellenistic and early Roman period, as scarce as they may have been, need to be considered in natural context. Examining such interpretations could help with reconstructing a fuller and more realistic picture of Jewish-Gentile social engagement in that era.

Last modified:10 August 2023 10.05 a.m.