Not by Bread Alone, but by Every Word from the Mouth of the Lord—The Confluence of Eating and Teaching in the Ancient Mediterranean

The conceptual combination of food/eating with learning is both ancient and common to many cultural groups. To be “hungry” or “thirsty” to learn, to “digest” information—these are commonplaces. This paper considers the ways in which conventional metaphors of consumptive learning may be examined as embodied phenomena. Integrating the Cognitive Linguistic notion of conceptual metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson) with Ritual Studies (anthropologist Clifford Geertz), we examine how abstract ideals are actualized within the ritualized, consumptive experiences across a number of different Greco-Roman banquets. Our analysis will focus specifically on the place and function of bread, since this food-stuff has ritualized uses that are attested in ancient Judaism, early Christianity, and Greco-Roman religion(s) more generally. The central question that guides our analysis is as follows: How does bread and its ritualized consumption serve a teaching function? In part one of the paper we explore the embodied foundations of the Learning is Eating metaphor, both illuminating the conceptual connections between “learning” and “eating,” and integrating these into the Geertzian “model of/for reality” pattern of ritual. In part two we bring these insights to bear on a selection of ancient meal contexts, specifically noting two aspects of didactic, ritualized consumption: (1) Bread serves a social and rhetorical function that unites hosts with guests; dining partners learn not only how to relate to one another, but also how to answer questions such as, “What do we have in common? What binds us as a group?” (2) Many ancient accounts of bread take on a cultic function, focusing specifically on patterns of ritual and worship within communal contexts; the richness and complexity of these connections demonstrate not only the utility of the Learning is Eating metaphor, but also just how natural the confluence of bread and learning can be.