Last Christmas, we looked at why most celebrate the birth of Jesus with foods more closely associated with Bethlehem, Pennsylvania than the Bethlehem Jesus was born in. The popularity of Christmas in nineteenth century England and the influence of Charles Dickens' short story, A Christmas Carol, contributed to current Christmas cuisine. There may be one more factor--it could be that dishes that would be authentic to the first Noel may not be worth repeating. (And if British fare is better option, that must realllllly be saying something.)
When asked about foods served at the birth of Jesus, Lecturer in Hebrew Bible at Oxford and author of What did the Ancient Israelites Eat? Diet in Biblical Times, Nathan MacDonald says, "It’s hard to imagine that this would make for an appealing feast: either in the first century or in our own!"
Much has been made of The Nativity, but not all of it may be entirely accurate. “With all due respect to the Christian tradition, some of the essentials of the extended Christmas complex are a thousand miles from fact and reality,” wrote Geza Vermes. Vermes was an Oxford don but may as well have been the academic godfather when it came to God’s son. In his book, The Nativity: History and Legend, Vermes attempted to disentangle its history from the hype and hoopla.
Of the four Gospels, only Matthew and Luke provide Nativity narratives, but the two offer conflicting accounts of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Before getting to the contradictory, Vermes notes their few consistencies--the protagonists’ names are the same, as are the birth date and location, along with the family’s permanent address, and the observation that Mary’s pregnancy was unusual.
Everything else differs--beginning in the beginning with the accounts of the conception of Jesus. In Luke’s narrative, it is Mary that learns from the angel Gabriel that she will give birth to the future heir to “the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32). According to Matthew, however, Joseph is shocked to learn about his betrothed’s pregnancy. Since he does not view himself as responsible for her condition, Joseph considers canceling the marital arrangements until he, not Mary, is visited by an angel who revealed how Mary conceived.
It’s also unclear which way Mary was like a virgin; it may have simply been a way of describing her as pre-pubescent. In Hebrew, betulah explicitly means "virgin" whereas ‘almah is a neutral term meaning “young woman.” Rather than betulah, the Hebrew Isaiah 7:14, uses ‘almah, meaning the passage could merely be an indication of Mary’s age, since it was standard for girls to be married by the age of twelve. Vermes theorizes the notion of a virgin conception may have been by sheer accident during a Greek translation of Matthew’s gospel, and it held throughout the ages.
Anyone who struggled with the Buendía family tree in One Hundred Years of Solitude might want to avoid attempts at biblical genealogy. It’s Jewish tradition for the King-Messiah to be a descendant of King David proven through patrilineage. Although Joseph was from the house of David, affirming his ancestry was no easy task since Jesus was an immaculate conception. Matthew and Luke attempt to assert the lineage of Jesus in their biblical begats, though they do so on divergent paths--Matthew’s register is considerably shorter and curiously includes the names of four women, a departure from traditional scriptural genealogy.
There are several other discrepancies between the two accounts--Matthew doesn’t include the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem (but it also may be unlikely that it happened). Luke makes no mention of Herod, the Magi, or the star they followed. Although biblical scholars and astronomers have tried to explain the star that led the Magi as a comet, supernova, or the rare appearance of the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, Vermes attempts to squelch all these possibilities. He also gives the Three Kings a serious downgrade, believing that instead of “wise men,” magoi may more accurately refer to “magicians,” a term which often had a pejorative connotation.
With all the speculation surrounding the actual events of The Nativity, it should come as no surprise that the same is true regarding what may have been eaten. “It is rather difficult to say what would have been consumed at the birth of a child,” says MacDonald.
The Last Supper might be the most epochal meal of all times--the event has inspired numerous famous paintings, debates, and conspiracies. Conversely, little is known about the first. It’s said to ask and ye shall receive. Luckily, that’s exactly what happened when I asked MacDonald to attempt to piece the biblical culinary puzzle together and imagine what the first supper may have been.
He begins by looking at the offering. “The account in Luke portrays Mary and Joseph attending the temple to make the mandatory sacrifices for purification: a burnt offering and a reparation offering. The first was entirely burnt by fire, and the second was either burnt on the altar or consumed by the priest. It may have been that the event was celebrated by offering other voluntary sacrifices, such as the fellowship offering, which would have been consumed by the offerers, i.e. Joseph and Mary.”
MacDonald doubts this occurred, given their humble background. “However, that seems unlikely in view of the fact that Luke indicates they offered two doves or two pigeons (Luke 2.24), the required offering for those who could not afford to offer an entire lamb. This, together with other evidence of Jesus’ modest background, suggests that any meals, including celebrations, would have been pretty modest affairs.”
Therefore, he believes the meal would have included little to no meat. Instead, the majority of dinner would have been grains--either mixed with water to create a thin porridge or in the form of bread. MacDonald estimates that bread and other grain-based foods probably provided over half to three-fourths of caloric intake during biblical times. Hard or durum wheat is suited to Palestine’s dry and warm climate and was the primary kind of wheat cultivated in ancient Israel. The other staple crop, barley, was perceived inferior, as evidenced by it’s usage alongside straw as horse feed during the reign of Soloman and the distinction made by Josephus that those who were wealthy ate wheat bread and the poor ate barley bread during the Roman period.
Wheat and barley could be consumed in a variety of forms--fresh, roasted, or most laboriously, processed to make bread. In order to provide for a family of five or six, processing could take an estimated three hours a day and would have been done by women and servants. If it had been served, celebrating Mary’s bun being out of the oven may have been celebrated by buns in the oven as ovens (tannur) were known to be used in biblical times. However, a more common preparation method would be mixing flour, salt, and water and cooking it on a flat hot stone to make an unleavened cake similar to a chapati.
MacDonald believes pulses, some vegetables, and perhaps a little fruit would have provided the remainder of the meal’s nutrition. He notes that it’s difficult to assess the extent of their usage since they rot easily and didn’t really require any special utensils, meaning they didn’t leave behind many archaeological clues. In biblical culinary hierarchy, vegetables were probably on the lowest tier. Meat was most preferred but due to cost, pulses were likely to have been the main source of protein for the majority of people.
Pulses offered an advantage since they could be dried and stored and also were beneficial for soil since wheat and barley depleted its nitrogen supply. Both broad beans and lentils are mentioned in the Bible. Lentils are native to Palestine and if broad beans had been served, it would have been fitting because Jesus and favas go together like two beans in a pod--the bean has traditionally been baked inside a King’s Cake to symbolize Jesus.
According to Genesis, humanity’s origins were in a garden filled with numerous fruit trees. The most significant fruits of the time were grapes, olives, figs. Other fruits, such as dates and pomegranates, were also cultivated but not as significant. MacDonald notes their contribution was obscured “because fruit had emotional and symbolic resonances in the Old Testament that tend to exaggerate its importance.” He adds that fruit trees were representative of a divine gift that didn’t require human labor. (Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Jesus.)
Of the more common fruits, olives were cured and also turned into oil. Grapes were mainly used to make wine but could eaten fresh or dried as raisins. Figs weren’t just a biblical fashion statement; they could be consumed fresh or dried. Both figs and raisins were also known to be mashed into cake. If such a cake was at the birth of Jesus, it would be the first of many dried fruit cakes to be associated with his arrival on Earth.
With all the speculation surrounding The Nativity, the aspect with the most certainty might be the birthday boy’s supper: milk from his mother Mary, of course.