I doubt that most of today’s Easter celebration foods were actually eaten on that first Easter, when Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, rose from the tomb. Chocolate candy eggs? No. And certainly no baked ham, since eating pork was forbidden under Mosaic law.
Chocolate eggs aside, many foods eaten in Biblical times became teaching tools during Jesus’ ministry. Some food-related sayings are still widely used today — “Man shall not live by bread alone,” “Eat, drink, and be merry,” and “Salt of the earth,” for instance.
Most people wouldn’t consider the Bible a cookbook, but perhaps its food symbolism provides spiritual recipes for life.
Christ’s miracles included turning water into wine, and feeding 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish. His parables included fig trees, mustard seeds, vineyards and feasting on fatted calf to celebrate a prodigal son’s return. In addition, important teaching moments took place around meals — including the Last Supper, where apostles were given bread and wine in remembrance of His body and blood that would be given.
Why so many food references in the Bible? I spoke with pastors of different Christian denominations, and most agreed that food was a great common denominator, something that people could relate to.
Back then, people spent more time in raising, hunting and preparing their food than most of us do today. How many modern-day Americans grow and harvest our own grain, then grind it into flour and make our own bread? Or grow grapes and press them into wine, or raise animals and slaughter them? But these endeavors were part of survival in Jesus’ day.
Ancient foods that are still around today include bread (both leavened and unleavened), legumes, olives, garlic, leeks, lentils, beans, cucumbers, melons, grapes, pomegranates, figs, dates and almonds. Here are how some of those foods figure into Jesus’ teachings:
Bread was truly the staff of life for ancient Hebrews, writes Kitty Morse, author of “A Biblical Feast: Foods From The Holy Land.” Made from wheat, spelt or barley, it was the staple food of the general population, who rarely could afford to eat meat. In light of this, Christ’s “The Bread of Life” sermon tells us that He is essential to our spiritual life. This sermon wasn’t well-accepted by the hangers-on who showed up after his miraculous feeding of 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. When they asked Jesus for bread, he tells them “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
These folks were expecting him to provide for their physical needs, and Jesus was talking about their spiritual needs. In John 6:27, He advises, “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”
Meat was mainly reserved for special occasions — such as the “fatted calf” in the parable of the Prodigal Son. In the Old Testament, Hebrews demonstrated obedience to Mosaic law through meat offerings — firstborn lambs, rams, bulls, doves and pigeons.
Lambs and sheep: Lambs and shepherds are powerful metaphors of the mission and Atonement of Jesus Christ, as he was known both as the Good Shepherd and the sacrificial Lamb of God. Sheep were valued for their wool and their milk, as well as for their meat. Lambs were slaughtered to honor a guest or mark a special religious event. Unblemished lambs being used for sacrifice as a way to remember Christ’s ultimate sacrifice of his life.
Honey was the main sweetener of the time, although syrups were also made from grapes, pomegranates, figs and dates. In the Book of Luke, the resurrected Christ ate honeycomb and broiled fish.
Salt was the main seasoning, hence such references to salt losing its savor in Matthew 5:16. “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good. for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.” Other flavorings included cinnamon, coriander, cumin, garlic and saffron.
Fish and fishing come up often in the New Testament. Jesus fed the multitudes with five loaves and two fish; on another occasion, he did it with seven loaves and two fish. After being resurrected, he ate broiled fish and honeycomb in front of his astonished apostles. In the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus told Peter and Andrew where to let down their nets to catch fish, he invited them to become “fishers of men.” And they did it.
Grapes, vineyards and wine are also prominent in New Testament stories. Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine. In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, the point is that any ‘laborer” who accepts the invitation to work in the Kingdom of Heaven, no matter how late in the day, will receive and equal reward with those who have been faithful the longest.
Olives are one of the oldest and most important fruits of the Holy Land. Ancient Hebrews crushed the ripe fruit to extract oil, which they used for cooking, as sacred anointment in temple ceremonies, and as fuel for lamps. In the parable of the Ten Virgins, the foolish virgins didn’t fill their lamps with oil and thus weren’t prepared when the bridegroom came.
LDS Church president Spencer W. Kimball gave an LDS perspective on the difference between the wise and the foolish virgins, and why they could not share the oil: “This was not selfishness or unkindness. The kind of oil that is needed to illuminate the way and light up the darkness is not shareable. How can one share obedience to the principle of tithing; a mind at peace from righteous living; an accumulation of knowledge? How can one share faith or testimony? How can one share attitudes or chastity…. Each must obtain that kind of oil for himself …. In the parable, oil can be purchased at the market. In our lives the oil of preparedness is accumulated drop by drop in righteous living.”
Figs. The fig tree is the third tree to be mentioned by name in the Hebrew Bible (after the Tree of life and the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil.) Adam and Eve used the leaves of the fig tree to sew garments for themselves after the Fall, when they realized that they were naked (Genesis 3:7). Christ shared parables of both a budding fig tree and a barren fig tree, and also cursed a fig tree that withered (Mark 11:12–20).
Knowing more about the foods of Christ’s day helps us better understand His message to us, and his great love for us. And yes, it provides a spiritual recipe for our lives.