Competing for the Gods’ Portion

One feature of many early Christian ritualized meals is the glaring absence of a physical portion incinerated for the deity. This paper focuses on the missing "gods' portion" as a way of analyzing ritualized meals in traditional Mediterranean religion and early Christianity. Ritualized meals do not require complex theologies, doctrines, or written texts, they arise intuitively from belief in the existence of superhuman agents who are interested in human affairs. Complex theologies, doctrines, and texts about ritual come from a particular class of religious experts in the ancient Mediterranean. This paper analyzes the interaction between intuitive ideas about ritual meals and complex doctrines of religious experts. It focuses on the question of whether or not gods physically eat portions of sacrifices, an issue that frequently recurs in Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian texts. Understanding these texts as the products of a particular kind of expert explains why the answer to this question, in the texts, is almost always no. Denigrating the ideas of intuitive religion was one key strategy of literate experts. The model also suggests that for many people, the answer was yes. This has implications for understanding the religious practices of the majority of ancient Mediterraneans. It also suggests an explanation for the odd fact that in the paradigmatic Christian ritual meal, the eucharist, no portion of the bread or wine is offered to the deity. To find a Christian ritual where gods get a share we must get away from the churches, run by literate experts, and go to the tombs where the divine dinner guests are not God or Jesus, but the Christian dead.