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In the fourth and fifth centuries c.e., food provides a dense and value-laden web of meaning which lay and monastic Christians use to negotiate their identity with the culture at large, but also vis-à-vis each other. The works of Shenoute of Atripe are a valuable source of insight into the workings of this discourse in a Christian community, since they embrace both internal monastic instruction (the Canons) and public sermons (the Discourses). The first half of this paper constructs Shenoute’s ideology of the Christian meal in terms of the larger discourse of food in which it participates. He draws on traditional Greco-Roman values of hospitality and patronage, communal assembly and ritual eating, and food production and distribution to create a holistic definition of the Christian meal as one that embodies charity, social mutuality, gratitude to God, ritual correctness, obedience to spiritual authority, and transparent labor practices. The second half of the paper looks at Christian festivals, martyr feasts, and lay-sponsored Eucharists, of which Shenoute is invariably critical, through the lens of this definition. Although Shenoute tries to use his authority and sense of monastic uniqueness to enforce distinctions between lay and monastic meals and between ritual and social meals, the discourse of food on which his ideology depends resists tidy division along such lines.


Originally published in Journal of Early Christian Studies. 2017. Volume 25. Issue 4. Pages 581-604.