Friday, August 16, 2019


John David Penniman, Raised on Christian Milk. Food and the Formation of the Soul in Early Christianity. Synkrisis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. Pp. xvii, 328. ISBN 9780300222760. $85.00.

Reviewed by Lennart Lehmhaus, Freie Universität Berlin (

Version at BMCR home site


Tracing the formation history and the afterlife of the Pauline distinction between milk and solid food (1 Corinthians 3:2), John Penniman in Raised on Christian Milk outlines masterfully the multi-tiered symbolic power of breastfeeding, nourishment, and education. Drawing on the work of Jaeger on Christian paideia and recent studies on the complex embeddedness of early Christian traditions, he aims to connect the modern philosophical and ancient ideological notions of the transformative power of food with the socio-cultural nexus between nurture and education in the Graeco-Roman context of early Christian traditions.

The first chapter develops a thorough back-story for Christian engagement with the idea of bodily and spiritual nurture and education ("soul-tuning", p. 35). Proceeding from Plato and Hippocratic works to Aristotle and Galen, Penniman demonstrates the complexity of Graeco-Roman ideas about human formation as the realm where corporeal and intellectual nourishment merge. Moreover, ancient Roman authors understood and praised breast-feeding as an important educational 'channel' for the transmission and preservation of Roman cultural identity and the social order of the empire. While Greek paideia, Graeco-Roman culture, science and ideology aptly served as the benchmark for these traditions, the argument would have benefitted from a brief discussion of other, possibly likewise influential, cultural conceptions of breast-feeding, nourishment and (religious) education, such as kourotrophoi, mythological accounts of nursing, divine nursing and temple practices, that circulated in their Ancient Near Eastern, Italian, Egyptian or North African contexts.1

Different ethno-religious appropriations of the symbolic discourse on identity and spiritual formation through nursing and education in Jewish traditions dominate the second chapter. Philo's model interpreting the "milk of Greek paideia [as] a prerequisite for the solid food of Jewish wisdom" (p. 66) seems particularly important and influential, not only for the Pauline distinction but also for the late antique emergence of a Christian paideia. Philo depicts nursing from a legitimate source of a Hebrew woman (his mother) as the foundation of Moses' future greatness and leadership. The narrative about the seven martyrs (2 Maccabees 7; 4 Maccabees 17; cf. Babylonian Talmud Gittin 57b) portrays them as immunized against idolatry by their mother's milk, in which the essence of Torah and Jewish identity was dissolved. This brings us to Paul who in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 draws on the symbolic power of breast-milk for his early Christian identity discourse as it had developed in Greek philosophy, ideology of the Roman family and the ethno- religious appropriations in early Jewish traditions. The apostle staged himself simultaneously in the paternal role—as the fatherly model for imitation—and as the nursing mother from whom the Corinthians received through his teaching the nutritious, "pneuma-laden milk […] that will cause spiritual growth" (p.72).

Penniman draws on the Maccabean martyr traditions, Philo and Paul as examples for subversive retooling of the spiritual and bodily nourishment trope from the perspective of an ethno-religious minority. Yet, one could say that this label would aptly describe also most of the other authors dealt with in the book, at least until the fourth century. And, while the self-confinement to a very particular set of Greek-writing Jews is reasonable, this choice excludes a structural comparison with non-Greek, earlier Jewish (Qumran/Apocrypha) and later rabbinic traditions, contemporary with most of the texts discussed in this study. Especially the "rabbis as Romans" (Lapin)—a male, urban and learned sub-elite comparable to the Christian authors—would have had much to offer as interlocutors. Many rabbinic traditions deploy the imagery of breastfeeding as an educational and formative process for the individual and the community in astonishingly similar ways.2

After setting the stage, Penniman re-evaluates the complex engagement with the Pauline model (milk vs. solid food) in regionally diverse Christian writers between the second and the fifth centuries. The first two witnesses (chapter three) come from the Northern and Southern shores of the Mediterranean in the second century. Irenaeus of Lyon, clearly appreciated, or even favored, the milk-drinking infancy of humanity because it is precisely at this stage that Christian faith transmission and identity formation takes place. Clement of Alexandria, whose in-depth medical knowledge has been emphasized recently by Dawn LaValle, Matyáš Havrda, and Matthew Chalmers, develops the dual trope into Christian education. Milk, "laden with […] pedagogical, moral, and even familial identity" (p. 108), functions as a socio-religious unifier and boundary marker for the early Christian community as a "milk-fed kin" (p. 107).

Moving roughly a century forward, in the fourth chapter, we find Origen of Alexandria harmonizing the Pauline model with other parts of scripture, while struggling with the problematic question of the relation of improvement—from one food to the other—with innate perfection. Penniman convincingly scrutinizes Origen's rather complex taxonomy of anthropological and dietetic stages of development that mirror each other (carnal/soulish/spiritual = milk/vegetable/solid). While there is still some room for human spiritual progress, Origen clearly emphasizes the static difference between classes of eaters/souls bound to a specific 'noetic' diet.

Gregory of Nyssa's works (chapter five) from fourth-century Anatolia focused much on the transfer of essential Christian traits and values through the maternal breast milk of the 'nursing" church and its clergy providing for both, paideia and spiritual maturity. His thinking leaves ample room and hope for broader human transformation and chances for everyone to be "fed to perfection".

By contrast, the North-African bishop Augustine (chapter six) exhaustively deployed the Pauline discourse of milk, breast-feeding, and solid food, while almost completely bidding farewell to the idea of spiritual perfection. Since all Christians remain in their 'milky' spiritual infancy, the church's leaders now become more central in their role to provide and (pre)digest the Christian nourishment of divine wisdom.

One may notice a development in the discussed works from a more individual digestion of the mother's milk towards a process of organized nursing provided largely on the communal level (of the church). This might be an interesting point for comparison with processes of increasing institutionalization within early Christianity (and Judaism), especially in fields such as organized healthcare and welfare, where material and corporeal aspects merged with the spiritual and theological dimensions.3

The epilogue functions almost as an independent essay weaving together elegantly the main threads of the twin strategies of formation and instruction through which "early Christian authors bound together as kin under one household a sprawling network of nonbiological relations" (p. 204). Referring to Foucault's notion of "bio-power" and Bourdieu's "embodied politic", Penniman highlights the Christian (and Jewish) writers' male appropriation of female bodily functions and roles (breast milk/nursing) "for the purposes of their own pastoral or theological projects" (p. 209). Moreover, he also points to the relevance of this discourse for Christian ethics in general and our own understandings of formation and essence, inclusiveness and difference, in particular.

In general, the careful analysis relates mainly to the intertextual realm where texts speak with texts, while historical-biographical contexts, although aptly presented, take a back seat. The book interrogates an important feature of Graeco-Roman, Jewish und early Christian discourse shared and re-iterated by an educated, elite group of philosophical, medical, and religious male authors. It is also important to ask how this discourse, its symbols and messages gained traction also among broader circles through visual images, inscriptions, and in performative contexts (including prayer, liturgy, scripture-reading, fasting, baptism) that were more accessible and open to re-enactment for religious laypeople than learned writings were. Mainly because of restricted space and resources (p. 219, n. 62), this study does not touch upon rituals like the Eucharist and meal-practices that involved tropes of divine milk and spiritual nourishment, which the author plans to focus on in his future project.4

This is a splendidly written book about an exciting and intricate topic that opens further avenues for future studies. Penniman's work is a very important contribution to the growing number of carefully constructed, comparative studies that engage with the complex fabric of (late) antique religious cultures by posing fresh questions and using new methodological and theoretical tools. Moreover, the book blends in well with the steadily growing subfield interrogating the nexus between ancient religions or cultures and the body, health, disability, and medicine.5 I recommend this book to a broad readership interested in a learned and accessible study that re-examines and challenges time-honored assumptions about early Christian views of Greek paideia, theology, spiritual education, and the human body, while reminding us as how closely intertwined those realms have been and, possibly, continue to be understood.


1.   Backgrounds could include religious, legal texts, rituals, narratives, or depictions. Cf. Stephanie L. Budin, Images of Woman and Child from the Bronze Age: Reconsidering Fertility, Maternity, and Gender in the Ancient World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011; Marten Stol, Women in the Ancient Near East, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2015, chapters 16.2.1, 18.9, 22.2, 27.2.2; Cynthia R. Chapman, "Breast Milk as a Kinship-Forging Substance," Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 12,7 (2012): 1-41; Giulia Pedrucci, "Breastfeeding Animals and Other Wild "Nurses" in Greek and Roman Mythology," Gerion 34 (2016): 307-323; Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, "Nursing Mothers in Classical Art," in: Naked Truths: Women, Sexuality, and Gender in Classical Art and Archaeology, ed. by Ann O. Koloski-Ostrow and Claire L. Lyons, London: Routledge, 1997, pp. 174-196.
2.   Hayim Lapin, Rabbis as Romans. The Rabbinic Movement in Palestine 100–400 CE, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Cf. Jacob Cherian, "The Moses at Qumran: The מורה הצדק as the Nursing Father of the יחד," in: The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Volume 2: The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumran Community, ed. by James H. Charlesworth, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2006, pp. 351-361. For Talmudic approaches to breastfeeding, see Jordan Rosenblum, "'Blessings of the Breasts': Breastfeeding in Rabbinic Literature," Hebrew Union College Annual 87 (2017): 145-177. The Palestinian Talmud Berakhot 9:8 (14d), Bab.Talmud Eruvin 54b, Num.Rabbah 4,20; Pes.Rabbati 7,9; Ex.Rabbah 30,9 elaborate on life-sustaining power of breast-milk and Torah(-study). Cf. Ellen D. Haskell, Suckling at My Mother's Breasts: The Image of a Nursing God in Jewish Mysticism, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012, pp. 30-37. On breastmilk conveying Jewish ethno-religious essence, see Gen.Rabbah 30:8; 53:9; Bab.Tamud Shabbat 53b; Bava Metziah 87a; Gwynn Kessler, "Let's Cross That Body When We Get to It: Gender and Ethnicity in Rabbinic Literature," Journal for the American Academy of Religion 73,2 (2005): 329-359; and Haskell, Suckling, pp. 17-30.
3.   Cf. Andrew T. Crislip, From monastery to hospital. Christian monasticism and the transformation of health care in late antiquity, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005 (for the beginnings of organized healthcare). On ancient Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philanthropy, see Miriam Frenkel and Yaacov Lev (eds.), Charity and Giving in Monotheistic Religions, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009; Gregg Gardner, The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
4.   Cf. Reidar Hvalvik and Karl Olav Sandnes (eds.), Early Christian Prayer and Identity Formation, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014; Michael P. Penn, Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. See also John Penniman, "The Health-Giving Cup: Cyprian's Ep. 63 and the Medicinal Power of Eucharistic Wine." Journal of Early Christian Studies 23,2 (2015): 189-211; Edward Engelbrecht, "God's Milk: An Orthodox Confession of the Eucharist," Journal of Early Christian Studies 7 (1999): 509–26.
5.   Cf. two recent special issues: "Religion, Medicine, Disability and Health in Late Antiquity," Journal of Late Antiquity 8, 2 (2015); "Health, Medicine, and Christianity in Late Antiquity," Studia Patristica 81,7 (2017). See also Charlotte E. Fonrobert, Menstrual Purity. Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000; Julia K. Lillies, Virgin Territory: Configuring Female Virginity in Early Christianity, Doctoral Dissertation, Duke University, 2016; Lennart Lehmhaus, "'Curiosity Cures the Reb': Studying Talmudic Medical Discourses in Context," Ancient Jew Review, 11 October 2017 Ancient Jew Review.

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