SBL 2020: Meals and Water Rites/Meals, Affect, and Religious Experience – Response by Susan Marks

This response was held during the 2020 Annual Meetings of the SBL on Zoom. (The program of the session could be found here.)

Let me first say that you three made my job easy. Each paper offered new and fascinating insights. You offered the only kind of feast we can share virtually and it’s a pleasure to dine with you. Further you share some of the tables set in Luke and John, so your papers speak to each other, giving us much to reflect upon as we move from one stage of our meal to the next.

Society of Biblical Literature International Meeting -  05-06-07-08-09/07/2020, Adelaide (Australia)

Nils, you bring a new approach to a question that has long interested this group, were there women at Meals? Which meals? How did that work? You are wonderfully clear in the way you ask the question: “What happens if a female takes part” in a symposium? Applying your exploration to the gender conflicts in Luke 7:36-52, as a woman shows up and washes the feet of Jesus. You considered narrative schemes in light of Propp and Eco and offered fruitful intertexts of women entering (or not entering) banquets, in the banquets of Xenophron by Demonsthenes (4th c BCE), Philodamos by Cicero (1st c BCE) and Lysimachos by Diogenes Laertios (3rd c CE), as well as naming the rarity of the phenomenon. No one wishes for longer papers in virtual formats, but I did wish there was more time to spend on your findings. Your wonderfully succinct list of functions “in at least two” of the sources begs to be really explored, and I trust you will do that in another format.

But even in such a condensed form you give us much to think about. There were roles for both females and males when a female enters (or is asked to enter). You write that the “male guests were insecure about how to handle the situation.” In particular you drew our attention to “a woman enters the scene who does not want to subordinate under males desire for pleasure” and the male roles of responding by showing “violent behavior” or “the woman can be saved” by a “male rescuer.” The “not wishing to subordinate” struck me at this particular moment in time, as, in America, we are just beginning to come to terms with systemic racism, and seeing such a dynamic over and over again, that violence flares when people of color step beyond the narrow roles assigned to them. The extent of racism more than a century and a half after the end of slavery vividly demonstrates the slowness of change. Your own anecdotal chronology whispered of something similar, as the Hypatia character herself becomes the rescuer, staying calm and demonstrating self-sufficiency, although we know from our own experience that these dynamics did not end in the 3rd century.

Your placing Luke in this pattern of narratives serves our understanding of meals, and I would only urge you not to stop too soon. For instance, you point out that Jesus functions as the rescuer, and that it’s “unparalleled in the non-biblical symposia” for there to be “a dialogue between the opponent and the rescuer.” I would suggest that this is true, unless we say that Hypatia rescues herself, in which case you might think about what the parallel of the Hypatia character and Jesus suggests.

You write of the transformation that occurs only in Luke, where the woman enters as sinner rather than virtuous person, and in receiving “forgiveness of sins leaves as a virtuous woman.” This outcome certainly offers an interesting contrast with the other narratives, but I would also encourage you to think further about transformations in meals. Hal Taussig, building on the work of Dennis Smith and Matthias Klinghardt, emphasizes the way the patterned nature of meal customs include change, as yes, ritual allows a fixity, but also room for exploration. It seems, as you lay out this narrative, with the woman’s actions exceeding “Simon’s hospitality” (v. 44-46), we see this room for play, and might even ask whether she becomes the symposiast? The exploration of violence and resolution certainly becomes the symposiastic feast.

And here is an example of where the three papers together serve all of us so well.

Henrike, you have so deftly reminded us of the order of the meal, building upon the work done by this group over the years. I loved your answer to the scholarly mystery of why the foot-washing in John “interrupts” the meal. You explain that it doesn’t interrupt. It comes with the move from deipnon to symposium that we should expect. So simple and so right.

I also appreciate your wrestling with the question of how the washing relates to the libation, complete with your reminder of different ways of performing it. Again, an important insight about ritual, that “fixed” allows for variation and change.

And as if this was not meal enough, you remind us that Jesus goes back to the table and does not leave it until John 18, we have our symposium on foot-washing. As you put it, foot-washing is “the act through which the disciples receive a share in Jesus.” You serve us important new ideas, leading my thought to leap far afield, perhaps too far, but perhaps not. It is certainly the mark of great scholarship that you get people to think about new ideas.

I wonder if John is holding a dialogue—writing of ritual practice, not only in response to an inner logic, but also engaging contemporaneous questions. There is a wonderful piece by Judith Hauptman wherein she argues that Mishnah for Passover represents a response to an earlier Tosefta. She explains that the Tosefta has the symposiastic discussion after the deipnon, where we would expect it, but the Mishnah introduces a change, beginning the symposiastic discussion early, perhaps in response to the requirement to teach about Passover to the children, and the challenge in doing this if they have all fallen asleep, as seen between the lines in the Tosefta.

The Mishnah is later than your John narrative, but John introduces, if not a new practice, a new emphasis. John’s narrative engages intertexts, other Gospels, that emphasize different practices. Especially in your conclusion I am struck by your argument that washing is receiving a share in Jesus. This idea seems strong enough to stand up to other texts which emphasize bread and a cup. Are you pushing us to think larger about how meals symbolize?

And, of course, talk of a cup must bring us to you, Paul, as you build on the work of Andrew McGowan on a variety of foods and beverages for the eucharist. You are wonderfully insistent that we consider the word “cup” and not to jump to conclusions that it contains wine. You also make us reflect on the anxiety surrounding wine, recalling Jordan Rosenblum’s reminder of Jewish concern that gentile wines might have been used for idolatrous worship.

I think you are spot on to reflect about the anxiety and different perspectives surrounding wine, but I urge you to employ at lighter hand in describing Jewish ambivalence. Anxiety or ambivalence suggests some who worried concerning wine, while other voices emphasized it. I am fascinated by the cup you waive before us like a magician, and keep us guessing concerning what it contains. Yet your quotes from Philo do not tell the whole Jewish story, nor does the Jewish anxiety of idolators that Rosenblum discusses, which comes from rabbinic sources. After all, in another rabbinic source, the Mishnah for Passover, the Mishnah speaks of cups, but also of wine. And how could they not? How could the rabbis, who carefully name which blessings for which foods, not name the substance that aroused their blessing?

So maybe this pushes you to dig deeper into this ambivalence. One question that concerns origins of Christianity concerns which Jews followed Jesus and which did not. Perhaps your explorations give another productive way of thinking about this larger question. Were there some groups of Jews, who later became rabbis, who insisted on naming wine, and others more negatively moved by such practices?

One final direction you might be interested in exploring: In a 2019 book, edited by Rosenblum and a couple of colleagues, I wrote about wine—so you see I am very sympathetic with your research. I found wine a very slip-slidey topic, moving in a different direction each time I looked at it! One understudied area I happily stumbled on, however, was that of a young scholar, Jason Lundock, who examines material culture. He looked at trends in archaeologically unearthed Roman vessels. He relied particularly on the work of Nicholas Hudson. This allowed me to think about mixed or unmixed wine, because the assumption has always been that Roman practice was to libate unmixed and therefore Jews in response blessed mixed wine. I wrote there:

It also appears possible that this practice [of mixed wine] shared by Jews and Christians was shared by other Romans. Recent archaeological evidence suggests a possible change from elite Roman dining practice to a more convivial, subelite, group practice in the late third and fourth centuries and thereafter. An evaluation of the vessels found in ancient Eastern Roman archaeological sites uncovers a noticeable shift to larger vessels that would have been shared by diners and away from smaller, individual sizes.[note 43] This vision finds support in Plutarch and Pliny, who reflect the wish for conviviality. (p.181)

Although I wrote about the 3rd-4th centuries where possibly other Romans participated in the Jewish and Christian practice of mixed wine and thus shared vessels, and you are thinking about the 1st century, I think it suggestive for your research, both in the kind of social debates that take place around the drinking vessels, but also in your insistence upon the metonymical power of the vessel itself.

Was the “cup” that interests you a smaller individual vessel or a larger shared one? If a larger, shared one, does its very shape mean more than its contents? In your insistence on the metonymical use of the cup, like your colleagues in this panel, you insist that we read what the text says and wrestle with its implications without leaping to premature conclusions!

Susan Marks, New College of Florida

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