The Historical Jesus
and Honor Reversal at the Table
S. Scott Bartchy
One distinctive feature of the historical Jesus’ public life was his practice of a radically inclusive, status-leveling, and honor-sharing fellowship at table as a central strategy in his announcement and redefinition of the in-breaking ruling of Israel’s God. In so doing, Jesus of Nazareth presented a living parable and model of his vision of a renewed Israel. His actions profoundly challenged the inherent exclusivism and status consciousness sustained by the prevailing cultural values and social codes. In this essay, I argue that by deed and word the historical Jesus sought to undermine traditional meal practices that provided easy opportunities for males in his culture to seek honor and display their acquired or ascribed honor.
Jesus’ vision of human relationships submitted to the rule of God required a reversal of expectations regarding the giving and receiving of honor.
It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of table fellowship for the cultures of the Mediterranean basin in the first century of our era. Mealtimes were laden with meanings that greatly exceeded individuals’ consumption of food. Biblical exegetes owe a debt of gratitude to cultural anthropologists who have discerned that eating practices encode far-reaching messages about appropriate patterns of social relations among participants. In the words of conceptual pathbreaker Mary Douglas: “The message is about different degrees of hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, boundaries and transactions across the boundaries” (1972:61).