Raised on Christian Milk

Food and the Formation of the Soul of Early Christianity

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John David Penniman
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , June
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In one enchanting poem, Emily Dickinson writes,

A word is dead

When it is said

Some say.


I say it just

Begins to live

That day.


To follow how Paul’s words on milk and solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-3) just begin to live is precisely what John David Penniman performs in Raised on Christian Milk. With an agreeable prose flowing with crystal clear precision, he succeeds in an exquisite account of what it means to “eat well” (24). The early Christian discourse about food serves the formation of Christian essence. Extorting Ludwig Feuerbach’s saying “man is what he eats” from the dullness of cliché, Penniman demonstrates the importance of dietary regimens to transform the person, fashion moral qualities, and foster intellectual growth and spiritual ascent toward God. As conceived by the ancients, the development of a child and the life of the soul depend on nourishment both physical and spiritual. From the Hippocratics, Plato, and Aristotle who “viewed eating as a mechanism for promoting intellectual development” (33) to Augustine conferring spiritual value to Monica’s milk, the book offers no less than a gastronomy of the mind.

Penniman’s main interlocutors are historians of ancient education, while (surprisingly) little mention is made of the cultural history of food. The preface captures the quintessence of his methodological choice: “Words have weight. They contain complex histories. The ghosts of their previous uses lurk behind the senses they acquire in the present” (xi). As the following chapters soon reveal, one should read the “senses” in both a material and a spiritual manner. For what Penniman suggests is precisely the porosity of the border between literal and metaphorical, body and soul, nourishment as a biological act and nurture. The early Christian discourse on food does not presuppose any firm separation between these categories.

On the contrary, theorizing the power of a mother’s milk to instill in her suckling infant her very essence, thrives on taking seriously the embodiment of the ancient soul.

Instrumental to the book is Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the symbolic power of language “to suggest a more complex dynamic between symbolic language and the proper formation of human persons” (4). This may run the risk of reducing theological stances to relations of power and indicators of one’s social dispositions. But Penniman escapes the temptation. On the contrary, the force of Christian spirituality emerges from an embodied reading of texts and liturgy: in a fascinating blend, the milk of Christ springs from the synthesis of body and blood in the Eucharist (186). Penniman renews our trust in language—in the relation of body and words. In the embodiment of language and the textualization of the (especially female) body, new avenues of research arise. Early Christian studies benefit from superb interdisciplinary conversations with evolutionary biology (232), epigenetics and evolutionary developmental psychology (215n31).

Reminiscent of Clifford Geertz, who envisioned symbols beneath symbols, Penniman undertakes an archaeology of metaphor. Metaphors are never transparent. They do not reveal the density of historical sedimentation and entangled meanings as through the clarity of one’s looking glass. It is necessary to excavate “what historical, rhetorical, and ideological dynamics supplied it with the force to articulate a program of identity formation—a force that early Christians readily and regularly employed to realize a Christian cultural essence” (15).

Shaped by Greek paideia, Augustan ideology, and the values of the Roman familia, the logic of “same essence, same food” (51) stands at the core of the symbolic power of food, especially breast-feeding for the sustenance of the empire (chapter 1). The same (subverted) logic operates within the Maccabean martyr tales, Philo’s writings, and Paul’s letters to rethink their own “Jewishness.” To Penniman, “the symbolic power of milk is fully at work within these provincial texts as a strategy for realizing a Jewish essence within—and sometimes against—the dominant imperium” (54).

As Penniman pursues his gastronomic tour, he deploys the savors of the relationship between physical nourishment and spiritual growth with a brilliant theological menu: Irenaeus and Origen (chapters 3-4) and Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine who both imagined themselves as preachers/mothers/nourishers (chapters 5-6). These Christian writers elaborate on how dietary habits fashion Christian orthodoxy, the attainment of human perfection, redefined anthropology, social belonging, the eschatological destiny of the Church, scriptural interpretation, sacraments, and pastoral concerns.

Rather than a reception history of 1 Corinthians 3 per se (18), the analysis highlights iconic moments in the historical trajectory of how “growth ‘in Christ’ requires that one eat well” (204). The linguistic/symbolic coherence remains. As Penniman concludes, “Christian authors articulated distinct visions of a well-fed, properly formed, and harmonious family system. Such systems were realized through the language of gastronomy. And through that milk bond, they imagined Christian instruction in gastronomic terms” (204). As such, they would have agreed with Virginia Woolf, who stated that there is nothing better than fine dining to think (and write) well. They offer their audiences a form of what Paul Veyne names a “symbolic satisfaction” in Bread and Circuses (The Penguin Press, 1990).

Penniman has adorned the act of eating with theological significance, Christian instruction with culinary exercises, while asserting an embodied philosophy of the soul. Including marginal voices, those of nurturing mothers and of children growing up, could foster his intention to “follow the lead of recent works in early Christian studies that seeks to draw the methods of social history and rhetorical analysis closer together” (17-8). A history of the early Christian discourse on food might benefit from a history of the audiences’ hunger. How do eaters negotiate the ways mother church instructs them? Do audiences digest, savor or (perhaps) vomit the food they are given in view of their moral instruction and spiritual formation? This question touches upon the limits of the (un)catchable for the historian.

Yet Penniman’s conclusion and forthcoming project on milk in early Christian ritual show his sensibility to tackling eating within the lived religious experience of the lay masses (277n120). With methodological finesse, he successfully affirms the symbiosis of food and spirit. The book not only keeps its promises: it outlines a threshold from where to envision new ones.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marie-Ange Rakotoniaina is a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
September 20, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John David Penniman is assistant professor of religious studies at Bucknell University. He has published articles in Church History, Marginalia Review of Books, and the Journal of Early Christian Studies. He lives in Lewisburg, PA.


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