Lacte Christiano educatus: The symbolic power of nourishment in early Christianity

John David Penniman, Fordham University


In the early Roman Empire, food (and especially breast milk) was invested with the power to transfer characteristics, improve intellect, and establish bonds of kinship. By situating the symbolic power of food in its moral, medical, legal, and social contexts within Roman world, I argue that the apostle Paul's appeal to breast milk and solid food in 1 Corinthians 3 must be read within this broader discourse of formation. From this orientation, early Christian citations of 1 Corinthians 3—and their invocations of nourishment more generally—employed food as a tactile symbol for imagining the material bonds of Christian kinship, the processes of proper formation, and the safeguarding of "orthodox" faith. But this symbol was in no way deployed consistently. By analyzing its function in Irenaeus of Lyon, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine of Hippo, I demonstrate how the connection between "eating well" and "being well" could be deployed toward disparate visions of growth, education, and identity.

Subject Area

Religion|Theology|Ancient history

Recommended Citation

Penniman, John David, "Lacte Christiano educatus: The symbolic power of nourishment in early Christianity" (2015). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3715393.