When Father Doug Neel set out to answer the question, “What would Jesus eat?” he was met with skepticism from friends who figured a book on the typical first-century Holy Land diet would never fly.
Most of us, when we think of food in ancient times, we think of gruel,” says Father Doug. “My friends said, ‘How many recipes for gruel can you come up with?’”
As it turned out, not a single one. Father Doug, with his co-author Joel A. Pugh, discovered that mealtimes in the Palestine of Jesus’ time were occasions for homely culinary creativity using a great variety of foods, spices and home-grown staples, the result of which was a diet that was unusually nourishing, healthy, fresh, extremely low in fat and that could range from simple daily fare to a lavish banquet table.
“The Food and Feasts of Jesus: The Original Mediterranean Diet, with Menus and Recipes” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013) addresses just what the title promises, inviting the reader not only to come to a greater and more intimate understanding of the society of Jesus’ time, but to actually try it out in a 21st century kitchen.
Those inspired to whip up a typical New Testament dinner might have to make a trip to the supermarket, however. The ancients, it turns out, had a lot to work with.
“In the first century they actually had a lot of access to different kinds of foods, different kinds of vegetables and fruits and even herbs and spices to make their meals taste a lot better,” says Father Doug, an Episcopal priest and the pastor of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Pagosa Springs, Colo. “They would have had huge amounts of grains and legumes and beans. The biggest part of the diet of everyone, from the poorest people to the wealthiest people, were things having to do with grains, especially barley, wheat and legumes, and all those things can be stored for a very, very long period of time. Beans, chick peas, garden peas, lentils…all these things can be dried and stored and used all year long, and into second and third years if necessary.”
And that’s just the pantry.
“The common person in the first century also would have had a garden, a kitchen garden where vegetables were grown,” says Father Doug. “Some vegetables could have been stored, like garlic and onions, but from late spring and into the fall they would have had all kinds of fresh vegetables. Likewise with fruits. Throughout the summer, different fruits would have been available to them—apricots, apples, figs, dates. Some of those could be dried, but a lot of those were eaten fresh.”
If things are starting to look pretty vegetarian, Father Doug says that’s no accident. About 80 percent of the people living in first-century Palestine were involved in agriculture. “Mainly, they ate what they grew,” he says. “We would call it today subsistence farming. And for six days out of the week, people throughout the Mediterranean area, but particularly in the Holy Land, would have been vegetarians.”
Once a week, however, the Sabbath meal often called for something special. Often this meant fish, and fish meant tilapia, a species that is almost as popular in the America of today as it was 2,000 years ago in Palestine (according to the National Fisheries Institute, tilapia is the fourth most eaten seafood in the U.S., behind shrimp, salmon and canned tuna).
Referred today in the Holy Land as “Peter’s fish” (where it’s still caught and eaten regularly), tilapia was fished primarily in the Sea of Galilee, says Father Doug, “which would have been the primary access for fish pretty much throughout the Holy Land. All the towns around the Sea of Galilee were primarily involved in fishing or fish production in some way. Fisherman had to have a special license to fish on the Sea of Galilee. There were people who had licenses, once the fish were caught, to clean them and dry them and salt them and prepare them for export to cities like Jerusalem.”
Meat on the table was a rarity. “Meat pretty much had to be eaten fresh,” says Father Doug. “It would have been very difficult to have kept meat, and animals that produced meat—goats, lambs, sheep—they were extremely valuable. So the common person would have had meat only four or five times a year. For a special meal they would have had poultry and fish.”
And what about the fatted calf? Was beef reserved only for such lavish blowouts as the return of the prodigal son? “Beef would have been extremely rare because cows were so expensive,” says Father Doug. “The price of a young cow and a bride were almost exactly the same.”
The more plentiful and inexpensive goats, however, were put to work producing milk that was made into yogurt and cheese, both diet staples of the time.
All food could be high in flavor, thanks to the availability of herbs, spices and salt. Most households maintained a varied herb garden, salt was plentiful because of the proximity of the saline Dead Sea and, says Father Doug, “in the time of Jesus, there were two primary spice routes that brought spices to the Mediterranean area. An ancient route came through Babylon and Syria and through the Holy Land to the Mediterranean, and it came right by the Sea of Galilee. So even people of modest means had spices like pepper. It made the food taste pretty good.”
And the food made the people pretty lean. With most of their dietary fat coming from olive oil, the Galileans of Jesus’ time were rarely overweight.
“Typically, the land most people owned and farmed was two or three miles away from their homes,” says Father Doug. “So apart from working all day, they’d have to walk two or three miles to get to work and then at the end of the day walk two or three miles to get back home. This was not a time in which there were a lot of obese people. Typically, they were in very good shape.”
Not that they were above a bit of indulgence from time to time. Wine grapes were grown everywhere and were the occasion for celebrations on several levels, says Father Doug.
“There were a lot of different varieties of grapes back then and a lot of different types of wine. Grapes were harvested all over the Holy Land and even a lot of Romans had acquired a taste for Jewish wine.” At harvest time, grape stomping meant party time. “Winemaking was a big, special time,” says Father Doug. “Wine was about the last thing to be harvested every year and led to a product that everybody in the community enjoyed.”
Cooking first-century cuisine in a modern American kitchen isn’t difficult, and eating it can become a true adventure, says Father Doug.
“Absolutely,” he affirms, “especially if you cook the recipes and try eating as they did in the first century, maybe sitting with cushions on the floor and eating off a coffee table. Or, if you’re really adventurous, eating with your hands like they did in the first century. It puts you in the same room with Jesus and his disciples.”