(Excerpt) Raised on Christian Milk: Food and the Formation of the Soul in Early Christianity

An excerpt from Raised on Christian Milk: Food and the Formation of the Soul in Early Christianity by John David Penniman, published by Yale University Press in June 2017. Reproduced by permission. 

Human nourishment takes place at the intersection of biology and culture. A complex combination of creaturely instinct and social habit, the physical materials and social settings of our nourishment reveal much about our biological constitution and our cultural formation. Food implies both a state of being—we eat in order to survive—and a process of becoming—we eat (especially in earlier years) in order to grow into something more. At once fundamental to our nature and yet intricately involved in every stage of human social development, the relationship between what we eat and who we are slips easily between the literal and the symbolic.

Perhaps no food is more charged with symbolic meaning than mother’s milk—a form of nourishment that often also demarcates health, purity, ethnicity, peoplehood as well as the forces that threaten these categories. And so today’s debates surrounding whether an infant should be breast- or bottle-fed displace society’s deeper anxieties and values about who we are as a people onto women, their bodies, and their infants

Raised on Christian Milk: Food and the Formation of the Soul in Early Christianity explores the ways in which food—especially mother’s milk—was used as an index for evaluating and categorizing the spiritual health of Christians. The book argues that Christians found milk to be a potent symbol precisely because it had already been invested with significant moral, political, and philosophical meaning across a wide range of literature in the early Roman Empire. In Roman antiquity, the food on which you were fed—and the one who fed it to you—had the power to determine your social status, your bonds of kinship, your intellectual capacity, and even the health of your soul. Milk, according to this imperial ideology of nourishment, was essential in strengthening Rome by first and foremost strengthening the sons of its future—but only if they were fed properly. Much like today, ancient Christians subjected mothers and their milk to a reign of expertise (to use Joan B. Wolf’s phrase) at the service of larger and anxiously-guarded social values. Exploring several prominent examples, the book shows how early Christians widely drew upon this symbolic power of milk in order to construct their own accounts of a properly-fed and properly-formed church.  In so doing, Raised on Christian Milk considers how discourses surrounding maternity and nurturance served as resources in the establishment of a Christian cultural essence that could be passed from one generation to the next, as milk passed from mother to child.


“You are what you eat.” 
It is a phrase so worn down by use that its origin remains, for most, hidden beneath the dulling repetition of cliché. But every cliché has a past. And this particular cliché beckons us into the deep rabbit hole of history, into a story about the power of food to determine who we are as people.

It was Ludwig Feuerbach who insisted that “Man is what he eats.”[1] And as a result he was mocked by his contemporaries, many of whom viewed the saying as evidence of an absurdly reductive materialism. The full context of the quote draws out the force of its sense for Feuerbach: “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. Man is what he eats.”[2]


Feuerbach’s famous aphorism that we become what we eat was, in fact, grounded in the assumption that milk mediates the substance of the mother (her person, her character, her very nature) into the pliable dough of the child. Her food is the material realization of her character and her culture, transferring her inward essence in the quotidian act of feeding. This eccentric thesis regarding the connection between food and essence not only anticipates a burgeoning contemporary interest in food as a site for moral, philosophical, and theological significance but also crucially reflects widespread traditions from antiquity surrounding nourishment and human formation. The provocative suggestion that our natures can be perfected by our food has roots that stretch back into the literature of Greco-Roman antiquity and is echoed within the writings of the early Christian communities who inherited and transformed that cultural legacy. In ways that even Feuerbach’s suggestive hypothesis did not fully realize, the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome were deeply invested in the notion that humans become what they consume. And ancient Christians were no exception.


In recent years, scholars of early Christianity have given increasing attention to the function of meals as markers of cultural identity or as sites for the traversing of those identities.[3]  Hal Taussig has offered a clear account of this when he suggests that “specific foods were considered important in social experimentation around interethnicity at meals. What one ate (both at the community meals and most likely at other times) had come to represent by the time of Acts’ composition major social markers.”[4] For Taussig, as for many other scholars of meals in early Christianity, the sharing of food offers a crucial site for tracing the formation of Christian identity in the ancient world.

But what about food as more than a marker of social identity? That is to say, what about food as a mechanism for cultivating and perfecting human nature? To borrow from Feuerbach’s framing, in what ways and to what extent was shared nourishment imbued with the power to share essence? Echoes of this question can be heard in the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul’s pronouncements about “the social effect of eating particular foods” have long been a focal point of New Testament scholarship and, more recently, of interest in the study of early Christian meals.[5]  Paul’s ambivalence about food and its impact on human transformation is best exemplified in the juxtaposition of 1 Corinthians 8:8 (“Food will not draw you close to God”) and the emphatic language about nourishment and human growth in 1 Corinthians 3:1–3: “I was not able to speak to you as people of the spirit but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, for you were not able [to eat solid food]. In fact, even now you are not able to eat, for you are fleshy people. Since there is quarreling and rivalry among you, are you not fleshy people who live in the manner of people?” On the one hand, it would seem that 1 Corinthians 8 reflects Paul’s “literal” understanding of the essence of food and its relationship to human nature, while 1 Corinthians 3 provides a “metaphoric” description of spiritual maturity and immaturity that is symbolically mapped onto particular forms of nourishment. On the other hand, the direct appeal to the nourishment of breast milk offered by the apostle himself seems to suggest a more complex dynamic between symbolic language and the proper formation of human persons—between what Christians ate and who they were thought to be. As I will demonstrate, ancient theories of intellectual formation depended upon corresponding theories of the power of material food to shape both body and mind. These theories show little investment in a stark distinction between literal and metaphoric nourishment.


This partition between the growth of the body and that of the soul, and the food apportioned to each, is rendered increasingly porous upon closer examination. For early Christian engagement with the ideals of paideia involved complex appeals to nourishment and breast-feeding as a regulatory symbol—a symbol with such structuring power, such capaciousness of meaning, that it could be put to work on behalf of quite divergent configurations of social identity. One crucial factor contributing to the vexed relationship between nourishment and education in antiquity is the terminology employed. The very grammar through which that relationship was articulated reveals a fundamental ambivalence or, at least, ambiguity of sense.

Both the Greek noun paideia and the Latin verb educare contain bodily as well as psychic resonances within their lexical scope. The rearing of children—of paides—did not simply imply physical nourishment by analogy. It required it by practical necessity. It is for this reason that Sophocles refers to a mother’s “care of nourishment” (paideios trophe) in Antigone.[6]  The correlation between nourishment and formation cannot be relegated to the realm of mere metaphor because the semantic slippage that the relationship implies necessarily entails a conceptual slippage. The proper education and formation of children was, throughout antiquity, wrapped up in the material provision of food and the ways in which that provision was theorized and regulated. To be well-born and well-bred and well-formed, one first and foremost had to be well-fed.

The extent of this semantic and conceptual slippage, especially within the context of early Christian literature, is revealed in a brief comment made by Tertullian in To Scapula. In a text that seeks to persuade a “pagan” audience against the persecution of Christians, Tertullian offers evidence for the positive contribution Christians have made to Roman society. As Geoffrey Dunn has observed, the treatise tries to demonstrate how “there are those, from pagan officials to the former emperor himself, who could attest the physical benefits Christians have brought them.”[7] As a striking example of these benefits, Tertullian points to the emperor Severus’s son Antoninus (Caracalla). Tertullian notes with pride that this man was “raised on Christian milk” (lacte Christiano educatus) by his attendants in the imperial court.[8] In light of Tertullian’s rhetorical strategy, the implication of this phrase can be understood as both plainly literal and highly symbolic: Caracalla was nourished as an infant on the milk of a Christian wet nurse, but also benefited from the material-nurture and soul-formation provided by Christian child-minders in general. The two processes of nourishment and nurture are, in fact, collapsed within this one phrase: lacte Christiano educatus.


As it developed out of classical medical and philosophical discussions, the “power of nourishment” served to amplify broader ideologies at the service of Roman family values. This was, after all, a sociopolitical system that had emphasized a mythos of milk at its very origins. And so the transformative role that classical texts ascribed to nourishment within human psychic development was reactivated and reformulated with particular force in the early centuries of the Roman Empire. In that period, the power assigned to food focused specifically on milk’s capacity to transmit the stuff of identity—be it biological, ethnic, social, moral, or pedagogical— from one person to the next. At the intersection of these medical theories, legal sanctions, moral prescriptions, and educational protocols, the quotidian act of breast-feeding was laden with symbolic freight at the service of Roman imperial ideology. The breast-feeding woman—or, more precisely, her body—became the arbiter of the child’s familial identity, intellectual potential, and social legitimacy. Lactation, whether actual or figural, was used to locate one’s place in Rome’s imperium. If meals are values quoted on the stock exchange of history, then the currency of milk was significant enough during the Roman Empire to designate a person as slave or free, subject or elite, malformed or well-born.


What I am proposing, then, is not merely a re-situating of Paul’s appeal to milk and solid food within a broader embodied politics of food, breast-feeding, and human formation in early Roman antiquity. In addition to that, I seek to chart the ways in which a variety of early Christian authors reactivated the symbolic meaning of food in order to fashion modalities of formation, categories of Christian development, and networks of kinship. In attending to the “movement” of meaning within the symbol of nourishment in early Christian literature, the very fact of that movement indicates shifting conceptions of how social relations could be articulated and regulated within these ancient communities precisely according to food types.58 I trace the various strategies whereby early Christians pulled the conventional meaning of nourishment—especially mother’s milk—from its culturally specific, early Roman educational context and repurposed the trope as a means for constructing and transmitting a Christian cultural essence. The embodied politic of feeding and being fed provided a potent symbolic resource for establishing a framework for proper growth and kinship among those considered “infants in Christ.” Yet, the symbolic power of nourishment was 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 diverse understandings of who was (and who was not) properly formed as a Christian.


[1] Ludwig Feuerbach, “Die Naturwissenschaft und die Revolution” [Natural Science and the Revolution] Sämtliche Werke X, 22.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Jason König, Saints and Symposiasts: The Literature of Food and the Symposium in Greco-Roman and Early Christian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Dennis E. Smith and Hal Taussig, eds., Meals in the Early Christian World: Social Formation, Experimentation, and Conflict at the Table (New York: Palgrave, 2012); Hal Taussig, In the Beginning was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early Christian Identity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009); Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in Early Christian World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003); Andrew McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Matthias Klinghardt, Gemeinschaftsmahl und Mahlgemeinschaft: Soziologie und Liturgie fruhchristlicher Mahlfeiern (Basel: Francke Verlag, 1996).

[4] Taussig, In the Beginning was the Meal, 170.

[5] In addition to the studies already mentioned, see also Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

[6] Sophocles, Antigone 918. The Loeb translation curiously renders the phrase as “the joys of motherhood.”

[7] Geoffrey D. Dunn, “Rhetorical Structure in Tertullian’s ‘Ad Scapulam’,” Vigiliae Christianae 56.1 (2002): 54.

[8] Tertullian, To Scapula IV.5. (In retrospect, Caracalla was perhaps not the best example of the positive effects of Christian milk.) Elsewhere, in On Monogamy 11.9, Tertullian employs the same combination of “lac” and “educare” in reference to Paul: “…the youth of a fresh and newborn church, which [the apostle] was raising on milk [quam lacte scilicet educabat], not yet the solid food of stronger doctrine.”


John David Penniman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Bucknell University. His research explores the development of early Christianity within the cultural worlds of Greece and Rome and he teaches courses on religion in late antiquity, the history of biblical interpretation, the so-called “Abrahamic religions,” and theories of religion, among others. His first book, Raised on Christian Milk: Food and the Formation of the Soul in Early Christianity (excerpted here), was published by Yale University Press in 2017. His writing has appeared in the Journal of Early Christian Studies, Church History, Marginalia Review of Books, and Sacred Matters. His next book, tentatively titled Christ’s Pharmacy: Early Christian Ritual and the Making of an Ancient Drug Culture, analyzes the medicinal and psychotropic effects attributed to ritual substances (e.g. oil, wine, incense, bread, water) in light of ancient pharmacology and drug lore.

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