Jews and non-Jews eating and not eating together...
…does not necessarily have much do with circumcision…
Or at least this isn’t a view that doesn’t come through in some of the key literary sources.
Mike Bird has some texts on Jewish and non-Jewish table fellowship. Mike doesn’t really add any comments but Loren Rosson does in the comments section:
The problem of mixed table fellowship (to which circumcision was the remedy) was ubiquitous, which is why I often emphasize in the context of Paul's Gentile mission that it's impossible to think about the question of "no circumcision" without direct and immediate implications for mixed table fellowship..
I don’t think this is right, certainly not the heavy emphasis on circumcision as the remedy. But first let’s look at some of the sources. As E. P. Sanders (who is still one of the best to read on this topic) pointed out years ago, the non-Jewish texts have to be treated with some scepticism (or whatever the right word is) because they are often hostile. They are also the generalising views of outsiders which are not wholly informed (indeed why would they really care) and really ought to be combined with Jewish texts which give inside explanations. And after scepticism about non-Jews generalising, to generalise: early Jewish texts (I leave rabbinic literature to one side for now) have a clear tendency to explain the problem in terms of food and/or idolatry. Circumcision doesn’t really come into it. Purity probably wasn’t an issue because it seems very unlikely that so-called gentile impurity was defiling in the sense that Jews with the various impurities described in the Bible were.
So let’s look at a few. Daniel 1 has Daniel and his companions eating their own food because they did not want to defile themselves with the royal food. The foreign food is quite explicitly the problem, though quite why is another question. Note that the translation for what they will eat is usually given as something like ‘vegetables’ but the Hebrew is the plural of zr‘, literally ‘seeds’. I’m not sure of the significance of this but it is worth speculating that we might have an early example of a strict concern for intra-Jewish table purity given that seeds are not as susceptible to impurity according to Leviticus 11. But in terms of the main point it seems that foreign food is the problem.
Next, Judith 12:
So Holofernes said to her [Judith], “Have a drink and be merry with us!” Judith said, “I will gladly drink, my lord, because today is the greatest day in my whole life.” *Then she took what her maid had prepared and ate and drank before him.* Holofernes was greatly pleased with her, and drank a great quantity of wine, much more than he had ever drunk in any one day since he was born. (Judith 12.17-19)
Judith had different food made for her. Clearly table fellowship is made possible having kosher food made especially available. There are plenty of modern analogies to observant Jewish people eating with gentiles by having food prepared.
Next, some additions to Esther:
‘And your servant has not eaten at Haman’s table, and I have not honoured the king’s feast or drunk the wine of libations’ (Add. Esther C 14.17)
Here we have Esther avoiding eating at the table which may or may not be due to foods prohibited in the Torah. Still, the food is the centre of the issue. But clearly significant is avoiding of the wine of libation and thus idolatry. Important to note: there are specific circumstances given and there is NOT a blanket ban on eating with gentiles.
More food centred problems:
‘After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, everyone of my kindred and my people ate the food of the gentiles, but I kept myself from eating the food of the gentiles.’ (Tobit 1.10-11).
Again, food is the problem and why would a Jew eat pork etc? Again, note that eating with gentiles as such isn’t the problem.
One of the most entertaining – and a little unclear – is retained in Joseph and Aseneth:
Joseph said…‘It is not right for a man who worships God, who with his mouth blesses the living God, and eats the blessed bread of life, and drinks the blessed cup of immortality…to kiss a strange woman, who with her mouth blesses dead and dumb idols, and eats of their table the bread of strangulation, and drinks of their libations the cup of treachery…it is not right for a woman who worships God to kiss a strange man, because this is an abomination in God’s eyes…’ (Joseph and Aseneth 8.5-8)
Whatever the provenance of the story, the context of idolatry is very strong here. Perhaps the ‘abomination’ refers to both idolatry and banned food (bdelugma certainly can refer to both). Again, no blanket ban: reasons are given.
Now you may notice how I keep talking about the reasons being given (food and idolatry) rather than a blanket ban. In this context, a sometimes misread text is particularly important, namely Aristeas 181 and the banquet between Egyptian king and his Jewish hosts:
“Everything of which you partake,” he [the Egyptian king] said, “will be served in compliance with your habits; *it will be served to me as well as to you*.” They expressed their pleasure and the king ordered the finest apartments to be given to them near the citadel, and the preparations for the banquet were made. (Letter of Aristeas 181)
The food is central and following the assumed logic of the previous texts comes to the fore here, i.e. when the conditions for the food are acceptable table fellowship is possible. Contrary to some uses of Aristeas, it is quite clear that the Jews and non-Jew will eat the same food and thus problem solved. Table fellowship is possible if the circumstances are right. Notice that circumcision is not mentioned here.
Of course, who knows how things varied on the ground, away from these texts…?
But let’s finally look at the famous extreme example from Jubilees and the following patriarchal advice:
‘Keep yourself separate from the nations, and do not eat with them; and do not imitate their rites, nor associate with them; for their rites are unclean and their practices polluted, an abomination and unclean. They offer sacrifices to the dead and worship demons and they eat among the graves; yet all their rites are worthless and to no purpose.’ (Jubilees 22.16-17)
As Sanders pointed out, this is sectarian so should be taken on its own terms and it may tell us little about how Jews throughout the ancient world behaved. However, note again, even in this extreme example, the reasons for separation and not eating with them is because of the naughty practices of non-Jews, including their idols etc. It isn’t that far removed from the logic underlying the other Jewish texts.
For this reason and several others I suspect the same kinds of issues underlying the Antioch incident recorded in Gal. 2. But that’s another story….
Anyway, I’ve discussed this and the scholarship in lots more detail in Date of Mark’s Gospel, ch. 5. And, believe it or not, though obviously in less detail, in the new Bird and Crossley book…