SBL 1999
Papers Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature
Boston, MA - November 20-23, 1999

Gift-Giving Across the Sacred-Profane Divide: 
A Maussian Analysis of Heavenly Versus Earthly Food in Gnosticism and John’s Gospel

Dr. Horace Jeffery Hodges

[Revised version of a paper first presented to the AAR's "Comparative Religions Section"]
[Copyright 1999-2001, by Horace Jeffery Hodges. All rights reserved. Please do not copy or cite anything from this paper without explicit permission of the author.]

The border between the profane and the sacred serves to demarcate that region where the ordinary gives way to the extraordinary. This metaphor ‘border’ presupposes a geography of profane and sacred space, but one could reconceptualize it as distinguishing between spiritual powerlessness and spiritual power. The profane realm thus exists as an empty space into which sacred power can pour like molten iron into a mold (perhaps eventually cooling down to routinized relics).[1] This metaphor of container and contained, however, misses the sense in which the profane often has a power of its own. Particularly in Gnosticism, due to its radical substance dualism, the profane realm has a significant power at odds with that of the sacred realm. Similarly, albeit in a more nuanced sense, early Christianity (drawing upon and transforming concepts in early Judaism) also presupposes a power within the profane realm. In all three of these religious traditions, this power exists in opposition to the power of the sacred. The presence of this force within the profane opposing the force of the sacred poses enormous problems for anyone or anything moving across the sacred-profane border. Thus, an earthly descent or a heavenly journey constitutes a precarious excursion, and an encounter with earthly or heavenly food and drink presents special dangers—especially when these come presented as gifts[2].

To understand this danger, one needs to recall the crucial social role that food and drink play.[3] In an anthropological study of the role of drinking, Mary Douglas notes[4] how drinks can “act as markers of personal identity and of boundaries of inclusion and exclusion”[5] and, for the insiders, can serve to construct “an intelligible, bearable world which is much more how an ideal world should be than the painful chaos threatening all the time”[6]. Much the same holds for food, which, as Douglas notes, “actually delivers good fellowship”[7]—for insiders, at least. Robertson Smith also expressed this distinction in his discussion of meals in ancient Semitic religion: “[T]he very act of eating and drinking [together]…was a symbol and a confirmation of fellowship and mutual social obligation…. Those who sit at meal together are united for all social effects; those who do not eat together are aliens to one another, without fellowship in religion and without reciprocal social duties”.[8]

Food and drink understood as gifts increase the force of such bonding[9] and reciprocity, and when the giving of food crosses the sacred-profane border (from either direction), there follow some very interesting consequences that depend, variously, upon the nature of the difference between the sacred and the profane and upon the intention of the giver or recipient. In Gnostic systems, which presuppose a substance dualism of good spirit and evil matter, no genuine gift-giving can take place, for neither true bonding nor actual reciprocity can exist between two realms locked in unyielding conflict. Such gifts amount to pseudo-gifts presented to subvert the power of the recipient. This contrasts with systems based upon an ethical dualism of good and evil, where genuine gift-giving across the sacred-profane divide can take place. To illustrate this difference, the following paper will focus upon the descent of heavenly figures in Gnostic texts and The Gospel of John, their encounter with gifts of earthly nourishment, and their own gifts of heavenly nourishment.


Generally speaking, Gnostics presupposed a substance dualism of matter and spirit.[11] One should not imagine matter as inert, however. Gnostics conceived of it as the active principle of evil, just as they thought of spirit as the active principle of good. Classical Gnosticism[12] of the second century C.E. often portrayed this power as an “erotic lust to possess the divine”[13]—a form of rape, actually—and understood the material universe as “the darkness” that, in the form of the body, had sufficient power to trap and fetter fragments of the spiritual realm.[14]

In Classical Gnosticism, the primeval movement of spirit across the sacred-profane divide to the realm of matter had resulted from an error on the part of a subordinate spiritual entity, sometimes identified as Sophia[15]. The Secret Book According to John (21,16–22,2) describes this spiritual element, trapped in the material bodies of human beings, encountering food offered by the rulers of the material realm:

[T]he rulers brought… [Adam] and put him in the garden…. And they said, “Eat”—namely, at leisure. For in fact their food is bitter, …their trees are impiety, their fruit is incurable poison, and their promise is death.[16]

This passage and the wording of the text following it might suggest to a modern reader a purely metaphorical use of “food”—as though the Gnostic reinterpretation of the Genesis myth had dispensed with the concrete signified of the linguistic signifier. I think that such an understanding would constitute a mistake of enormous significance.

One should keep in mind that for the Gnostics, the material world’s physicality—even if less ontologically grounded than the spiritual realm’s existence[17]—constituted a real and effective danger for the spiritual element trapped within it. This danger gets explicitly spelled out in a couple of Gnostic texts from nonclassical Gnosticism. The Kephalaia, a synopsis of Manichaean teachings, describes the effect of impure[18], material food upon a typical Gnostic:

[W]rath becomes greater in him, and desire multiplies[,]…and sadness and grief [also,] because of the food…he has eaten and the water…he has drunk….[19]

The Manichaeans recognized the problematic of material food and attributed a typical Gnostic’s lowered spiritual state to the food eaten and the water drunk. Similarly, the author of the Pistis Sophia denigrates material food and drink, exhorting one to

Renounce the whole world and all the matter in it, for he who…eats and drinks of its matter…gathers to himself still further matter.[20]

A Gnostic partaking of food and drink thus fetters ever more deeply within matter that spirit that has crossed the boundary into the profane material realm.

The passages above describe the danger posed by food and drink for the typical Gnostic. This danger also exists for envoys from the spiritual realm who cross the boundary from the sacred to the profane by descending to oppose the denizens of the material realm. Two examples show this, the first by implication, the second explicitly. In the Ginza, the Mandaean revealer Hibil-Ziwa makes a pre-cosmic descent into the dark underworld to spy upon the machinations of the children of darkness, who are planning to attack the realm of light. While in the underworld, Hibil-Ziwa is offered food by the children of darkness:

Sie rühren einen Brei ein, bringen ihn vor mich, halten ihn und sprechen: “Herr, iß und trink Wein”…. Ich sprach zu ihnen: “Fürwahr, ich habe gegessen und getrunken.”[21]

They prepare a brew, bring it to me, hold it, and say, “Sir: eat, and drink wine”…. I spoke to them, “Indeed, I have eaten and drunk”.[22]

This passage does not explain why Hibil-Ziwa declines to eat the food offered, but the second Gnostic text specifies the corrupting effect of material food. In “The Hymn of the Pearl”[23], a Gnostic revealer descends to release a ‘pearl’ (i.e., a spirit) from its imprisonment within the material world. However, something goes terribly wrong when the denizens of the material world sense the revealer’s difference:

They perceived that I was not one of them,
And they mingled with me in their guile.
Moreover, they made me eat of their food.

And by the weight of their food,
I fell into a deep sleep (vv. 31-36).

Unlike Hibil-Ziwa in the Mandaean passage above, the Gnostic revealer here mistakenly[26] accepts earthly food and dies as a result—what Gnostic terminology refers to as a deep sleep. In effect, his ‘somnolent’ state parallels that of the spiritual particles that the Gnostics described as lost, scattered, and trapped within bodies in this material world.

To understand the significance of these passages describing material food and drink being offered to typical Gnostics and to envoys from the spiritual realm, one should note that these offerings of material sustenance constitute ‘gifts’ of a very special category. Marcel Mauss notes that two things (among others) characterize normal gift-giving: 1) reciprocity[27] and 2) ambiguity[28]. The former refers to the economy of gift-giving, namely, that the gift must circulate. The latter refers to the promise and danger of a gift, namely, that a gift can bring either life or death.[29]

Mauss implies that almost any sort of gift can become poisonous, even bringing death—if the recipient does not ultimately return the gift to the economy of gift-giving or if the giver presented it with ill intentions—but gifts of food pose the greatest danger[30], for in the process of food’s incorporation, it crosses the border between the world and the self, between “outside” and “inside” our body, such that, both literally and figuratively, we become what we eat.[31] The gift of food thus binds one to life or to death—the life or death both in the food itself and in the intention of the giver[32]. The material food offered by the cosmic rulers to human beings and to spiritual envoys brings death through its materiality and through the intention of those giving it[33], for by forging an intimate bond to the material world and its material rulers, this food corrupts the spiritual essence of humans and the envoys. Such a ‘poisonous’ gift also subverts the cycle of gift-giving and steals the life of the recipient. The poisonous gift thus constitutes a pseudo-gift intended to mask a grasp for power.

The envoys from the spiritual realm must also sometimes play this power game. In the Manichaean myth of origins, the divine Primal Man and his five sons descend to do battle with the material forces of darkness, only to lose and become food for the rulers of the material realm. Though seemingly a setback, this loss of divine substance initiates the process that will end in matter’s ultimate defeat. The loss, therefore, sometimes gets portrayed as a kind of Trojan Horse ‘gift’:

 [T]hen Primal Man gave himself and his five sons as food to the five sons of Darkness, just as a man who has an enemy mixes deadly poison in a cake (and) gives (it) to him.[34]

In effect, this ‘gift’ of food acts upon matter like a slow-working poison.

One might well wonder why spirit, the source of genuine life in the Manichaean system of Gnosis, should bring death.[35] I suggest that the gift acts as a poison because it serves not to bring spirit and matter into communion but to ensure their ultimate separation. As such, this act of giving—as with that of the material rulers’ to humans and spiritual envoys—subverts the economy of gift-giving by ensuring that the cycle never genuinely begins.[36] Yet, a gift seeks to return to its giver[37]—if not by bringing the recipient into the cycle of gift-giving, to the mutual advantage of giver and receiver, then by wreaking havoc upon the recipient[38] and forcefully returning to its rightful owner.

John’s Gospel

Johannine thought, like Gnosticism, exhibits dualism, but unlike Gnosticism, it presupposes ethical dualism rather than substance dualism. The fourth evangelist divides everything into flesh and spirit[39], earthly and heavenly[40], darkness and light[41], death and life[42], and below and above[43], respectively. Although such a list of binary oppositions can reflect Gnostic substance dualism, it does not do so in John’s Gospel. Note that the fourth evangelist does not specify a matter-spirit dualism. Indeed, he never once mentions matter in his gospel. Rather, he puts forward a flesh-spirit dualism. One might imagine that “flesh” stands for “matter” here, but this would constitute a misunderstanding. Gnostic “matter” is essentially evil; Johannine “flesh” is essentially neutral. John’s Gospel presents Jesus as having a body of flesh[44] filled with the holy spirit[45]. If flesh were inherently evil, the incarnation would be impossible. Nevertheless, John’s Gospel presents a world filled with evil[46] and sin[47], an impure[48] world.

Consequently, the Johannine redeemer’s movement across the sacred-profane divide poses a situation structurally similar to that in Gnosticism, namely, the sacred comes into dangerously close proximity to the profane. As in Gnostic texts, the world attempts to exert control over the emissary from the realm of the spirit[49]—a desire for control that the prologue to John’s Gospel traces even to the time of origins[50]. The world’s attempts to gain control over Jesus assume various forms[51], but I will focus solely upon food.

Twice, Jesus is explicitly offered food, in John 4:31–34 and John 19:28–30, which provide intriguing parallels to the passages from the Ginza and The Hymn of the Pearl, respectively. In John 4:31–34, the disciples, bearing food from a nearby Samaritan village, confront Jesus shortly after he has revealed his messianic role to a Samaritan woman:

4:31 In the meantime, the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat”. 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know”. 33 Therefore, the disciples said to one another, “Surely, no one has brought food to him”. 34 Jesus says to them, “My food is that I might do the will of the one who sent me and (that I might) complete his work”.

In John 19:28–30, Jesus has just relinquished his responsibility for his mother to the beloved disciple and now readies himself for death:

19:28 After this, Jesus—knowing that everything had now been completed—in order that scripture might be fulfilled, says, “I am thirsty”. 29 A jar was standing (there) full of vinegar. Thus having put a sponge full of the vinegar on a hyssop, they brought (it) to his mouth. 30 Then, when Jesus received the vinegar, he said, “It has been completed”, and bowing (his) head, he handed over the spirit.

In 4:31–34, Jesus resembles Hibil-Ziwa in declining food; in 19:28–30, he resembles the prince in accepting food and dying. The resemblances, however, are superficial for two reasons. First, by resembling both Hibil-Ziwa and the prince, Jesus actually resembles neither. Second, and more significantly, Jesus willingly accepts the vinegar during his crucifixion, unlike the prince, whom the ‘guileful’ denizens of the world trick into accepting worldly food and drink.

What is going on? Why does the Johannine Jesus reject the gift of worldly food in John 4:31–34 but accept it in John19:28–30? Maussian (and Mauss-inspired) theory implies that accepting a gift of food signifies the recipient’s acceptance of communion with the giver. If so, then by rejecting food in John 4:31–34, Jesus rejects communion not only with his disciples but with the world that is the source of the food, and by accepting food in John 19:28–30, Jesus accepts communion both with those crucifying him and with the world that is the source of the food. Moreover, by taking in food, he takes in the world.[52] In Johannine terms, this means that Jesus is accepting communion with death, for the world can offer him nothing else. Indeed, from the world’s perspective, the gift could only have been intended as a trick gift proffered for the purpose of trapping Jesus in the world by profaning his sacred nature.[53]

In a sense, the gift does its work, for Jesus dies.[54] He has allowed the profane in to mix with the sacred, and he ‘suffers’ the consequences. However, a very important form of Johannine irony is working its effect here. Recall from John 4:34 that Jesus’s food is to do the will and complete the work of the one who sent him, then note from John 19:28 that Jesus has now completed all that he was intended to do except for one last thing, namely, proclaiming his thirst and accepting the vinegar (verses 29–30). This means that Jesus is simultaneously receiving profane and sacred nourishment.

While this might seem peculiar since it exacerbates the mixing of the profane with the sacred, the fact that it constitutes the will of the one who sent him and that it is willingly sought by Jesus means that something significant is occurring through this mixing here that could not occur through such mixing in a Gnostic system. What is this significant thing? I argue that it is the redemption of the cosmos. The Johannine Jesus accepts the profane into himself in order to transform this profane realm.[55]

To understand how this can take place, one needs to know the Jewish background to Johannine thinking about the sacred and the profane.[56] Second temple Judaism distinguished between the sacred and the common and the impure and the pure.[57] As I understand biblical and early Jewish thinking on this, the common is the inherently pure substance of the world, and the sacred and the impure are forces locked in dynamic opposition to one another.[58] This opposition between the two manifests itself in conflict over the realm of the common, with both forces seeking to extend their influence and control over it.[59]

Early Christians seem to have used the terms “common” and “impure” as synonyms.[60] This suggests that they saw the impure as having completely extended its influence and control over the entirety of the common.[61] This means that the boundary between the sacred and the profane that the Johannine redeemer must cross is a border between the sacred and the impure. This border, however, is a moveable one, for the force of the impure can be pushed back, and the common realm can regain its normal state of purity and even come to be imbued by the power of the sacred.

This, I argue, is what the Johannine Jesus is doing when he accepts the vinegar, for by taking the impurity of the world into himself, he internalizes the conflict between the sacred and the impure in a way that determines the defeat of the impure and its purging from the realm of the common. He can win because he has been sanctified by God prior to coming into the world[62] and because he is the sacred one of God acting in the world[63]. In other words, the Johannine Jesus is a being of extraordinary sacredness, which means that he is a being of extraordinary power.[64]

The defeat of the force of impurity does not come automatically, however. What Jesus performs within himself, he also performs outside of himself within the world—through those who accept him. Again, this takes place through gifts of sustenance. Two great miracles of nourishment occur in John’s Gospel: the wine at Cana (John 2:1–11) and the bread on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1–14). The latter miracle—and perhaps the former, too—receives an interpretive gloss in John 6:51–58[65]:

6:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone should eat from this bread, he will live forever, and the bread, moreover, that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. 52 Therefore, the Jews disputed among themselves, saying, “How is this one able to give us his flesh to eat?” 53 Therefore, Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if you do not eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves. 54 The one gnawing my flesh and drinking my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day, 55 for my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 The one gnawing my flesh and drinking my blood remains in me and I in him. 57 As the living father sent me, and I live through the father, so also that one gnawing me will live through me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; the one gnawing this bread will live forever.”

This eucharistic passage explicitly interprets the bread miracle—and given the reference to drinking blood, implicitly interprets the wine miracle[66]. The Johannine Jesus identifies himself as the gift[67] of bread come down from heaven[68]—more specifically, his flesh as this bread, the eating of which brings eternal life.[69]

 Note how this works: Jesus is sent by and lives through the father, and anyone “gnawing” Jesus will live through Jesus. I think that the passage alludes here to John 4:34, i.e., Jesus’s food being the doing of the will of the one who sent him. Since Jesus is constantly doing the will of the one who sent him, then he is constantly receiving nourishment, which makes Jesus himself an inexhaustible source of true nourishment. Thus, when Jesus offers sacred food to the world, he is inviting the world into communion with him and with God, who sent him.[70] This gift of sacred food also effects reciprocity, for by accepting this gift from the divine, one gives oneself to the divine in return. Thus, by effecting the bonding and reciprocity characteristic of genuine gift-giving, the Johannine Jesus is breaking down the barrier between the sacred and the profane and allowing the sacred to infuse the realm of the common. Such can only occur at the expense of impurity, which retreats from the common.

Once again, this defeat of the force of impurity does not come automatically. Belief also plays a role. In Johannine terms, belief presupposes a special receptivity to Jesus and the one who sent him. Without this receptivity, no genuine communion exists. Consequently, Jesus’s offer of nourishment comes as an ambiguous gift, for it can bring either life or destruction. Let us look at an instance of this. In John 13:21–30, Jesus offers nourishment to his betrayer:

13:21 Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you that one of you will betray me”. 22 The disciples looked at one another, being in doubt of whom he spoke. 23 One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to Jesus. 24 Simon Peter therefore nods to this one to inquire who it might be of whom he speaks. 25 So leaning back thus to Jesus’s breast, he says to him, “Lord, who is it?” 26 Jesus answers, “It is he for whom I will dip the morsel[71] and give to him”. Having dipped the morsel, he takes and gives it to Judas (son of) Simon Iscariot. 27 And after the morsel, then Satan entered into him. Therefore, Jesus says to him, “What you do, do quickly”…. 30 Thus, having received the morsel, he immediately went out. And it was night.

Jesus offers Judas a eucharistic morsel[72], and Judas accepts it[73], but because Judas has already chosen to stand in the camp of God’s adversary, thereby refusing the bonding of communion with the sacred and the reciprocal giving of himself to the divine, then the otherwise life-giving gift[74] becomes a poisonous gift. The sacred power, consequently, does not purify and sanctify Judas but, instead, leaves him to possession by the most impure spirit of all, Satan. Judas’s subsequent status as a “son of destruction”[75] shows the result of his external acceptance of a gift that he inwardly rejects. 


In contrast to a Gnostic dualism of substances, John’s Gospel presents an ethical dualism. Because evil does not essentially inhere in the world but, rather, has contrived to imbue it, then bonding and reciprocity can still come to characterize the relations of the divine and the world. For this to occur, however, the impurity of evil must retreat from the world. The Johannine Jesus causes evil’s retreat by taking into himself what the evil-imbued world could only have intended as a pseudo-gift, i.e., the vinegar, and transforming it into a genuine gift by overcoming the impurity of evil through his own holiness.

He carries this process further by offering himself in the form of the eucharistic bread and wine. In this case, however, the ambiguity characteristic of the true gift means that the eucharist’s effect depends upon the intention of the recipient. For those who accept it, the eucharist effects bonding to the sacred and reciprocity with the divine, i.e., eternal life. For Judas, who inwardly rejects what the eucharistic morsel signifies, the eucharist becomes a poisonous gift, leaving him in the impurity of evil and cut off from eternal life.

In systems presupposing an ontologically grounded binarism of good and evil as substances, ‘gift-giving’ crossing the boundary between the sacred and the profane can only serve the ulterior purpose of diminishing or destroying the power of the recipient. Gift-giving here constitutes a zero-sum game that characterizes the extreme limiting case of gift-giving, namely, giving in order to retain the gift without forging bonds of communion. In systems presupposing an ethically grounded binarism of good and evil as moral choices, gift-giving crossing the boundary between the sacred and the profane opens the possibility of drawing the recipient into the life-giving power of the divine. Gift-giving here, rather than being a zero-sum game, characterizes the ideal case of gift-giving, namely, giving in order to forge bonds of communion and a reciprocity of giving where the sacred gives itself to the profane in order for the profane to give itself to the sacred.

*  I presented an earlier version of this paper at the 1999 AAR/SBL Conference in Boston as part of a panel discussion that I organized for the Comparative Religions section: “Crossing the Sacred-Profane Divide: Food and Boundaries in Heavenly Journeys, Earthly Descents, and Similar Excursions”. I especially want to thank panel respondent Lionel M. Jensen and fellow panelist Seth L. Sanders for their close readings of that earlier version and their bibliographical, organizational, and hermeneutical suggestions. I also want to thank the other panelists—Emma Jane Anderson, Eric H. Jarow, Rebecca Lesses, and Andrea Lieber—for their participation in what proved to be a very stimulating (if all-too-brief) encounter. Thanks are due as well to section organizer William R. Darrow and panel presider Kay Read. Finally, I wish to thank both the Australian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Golda Meir Foundation for my research year (1998–99) as a Golda Meir Fellow in Hebrew University’s Comparative Religions Department.

[1] Cf. Mary Douglas, “Sacred Contagion”, in Reading Leviticus: A Conversation with Mary Douglas (Sheffield, 1996), edited by John F. A. Sawyer, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 227, editors David J. A. Clines & John Jarick. Douglas notes that this universal (power-in-nature) model of sacred contagion was worked out by the 19th century French scholars in the Section V of the École Pratique des Hautes Études—termed “universal” because it was developed to serve as a basis for comparison of Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism: “The fixed parts of the universal model are two worlds, a secular one for the humans, and a sacred one, a source of unlimited power for good or ill; in between the two lies a dangerous liminal area, the interface with both worlds; the fourth element in the model is sacred contagion” (p. 91). Despite some limitations (noted above), I find this model useful for conceptualizing the relations between the sacred and the profane.

[2] On the category of “the gift”, cf. James G. Carrier, Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism since 1700 (London/New York, Routledge: 1995): “‘Gift’ is likely to call up images of presents wrapped and tied with a bow, or more broadly of objects given from one person to another consciously and with some degree of ceremony as ‘a present’…. While almost all presents are gifts in the Maussian sense, ‘gift’ is much broader, for it includes all things transacted as part of social…relations, and it includes…immaterial things…as well as physical objects…. A few examples will illustrate the breadth of ‘gift’. If I invite friends to my house for a meal, I am giving them a gift of food and drink. I do not put the meal in a box, wrap it and tie it with a ribbon, but it is a gift none the less…. If a pair of office-mates stops for a drink after work and if one of them buys a round of drinks for both, then that one is giving a gift to the other…. The point of these examples is to show that it is not the form and ceremony of the giving and getting that make a transaction a gift. Instead, it is the relationship that exists between the transactors and the relationship between them and what is transacted” (pp. 18–19).

[3] For a helpful summary of some of what follows, see Stephen Mennell, Anne Murcott, and Anneke H. van Otterloo, The Sociology of Food: Eating, Diet and Culture (London, Sage Publications: 1992), especially the introduction (pp. 1–19), for its survey of the broad theoretical orientations of sociologists, and the conclusion (pp. 115–119), for its focus upon the “commensality” forged through eating and drinking.

[4] Douglas is not, of course, the only scholar who has noted that signifiers can be used to exclude or include. In itself, this is a banal fact about signifiers, which perforce both include and exclude. Important here is that the signified itself includes and excludes, such that we are not merely in the symbolic realm of signifiers; we are in the synecdochical realm, where the signifier is actually part of the signified.

[5] Mary Douglas, “A Distinctive Anthropological Perspective”, in Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology (Cambridge/New York, Cambridge University Press: 1987) edited by Mary Douglas, p. 8.

[6] Douglas, “Distinctive Anthropological Perspective”, p. 11.

[7] Douglas, “Standard Social Uses of Food: Introduction”, Food in the Social Order: Studies of Food and Festivities in Three American Communities, Russell Sage Foundation (New York, 1984), p. 12.

[8] W. Robertson Smith, The Religion of the Semites: The Fundamental Institutions (New York, Schocken Books: 1972 [1889]), p. 269. Further on nourishment’s role in bonding, cf. Elizabeth Telfer, Food for Thought: Philosophy and Food (London and New York, Routledge: 1996), who notes that “giving, receiving and sharing food is a symbol of the bond of trust and interdependency set up between host and guest. In some cultures this bond is a permanent one: for example, traditional Bedouin will not fight anyone with whom they have eaten salt” (p. 83). (On this custom of Bedouin, cf. again Smith, Religion of the Semites, pp. 268–269.) Similarly, Toussaint-Samat, A History of Food, notes: “Sharing bread in the course of ceremonies or simply at ordinary meals forges bonds which, in principle, will never be loosed or forgotten” (p. 231).

[9] Cf. Telfer, Food for Thought, “[G]iving food is a gesture of friendliness. Any gift can have this role, but several things distinguish food as a gift. One is that its literally vital importance gives it a special symbolic significance” (p. 84).

[10] I have some sympathy for the views of Michael Allen Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton: Princeton University Press, DATE?) in wishing to dismantle and disgard the term “Gnosticism” because of the overly broad construal of this term to include everything from Neoplatonism to Communism (cf. pp. 3–4). Yet, Williams himself agrees that as for the late-antique religious groups generally called
Gnostic”, there are “striking resemblances or patterns … justify[ing] the creation of common categories” (p. 3). I would argue that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s metaphor of “family resemblance” is helpful here, for it allows for some flexibility in assigning the label “Gnosticism” to various religious movements in late antiquity. A particular religious group could be termed a variety of “Gnosticism” even without exhibiting all of the characteristics generally understood to be the case for “Gnosticism”. Some characteristics, naturally, would be more significant than others. I would suggest that Williams’s category “biblical demiurgy”—i.e., “a distinction between the creator(s) and controllers of the material world and the most transcendent divine being” as elaborated through making “use of Jewish or Christian scriptural traditions”—is a “genuinely defining feature of ‘gnosticism’” (p. 265). Two other genuinely defining features would be the following: (1) a radically dualistic exaltation of spirit and denigration of matter and (2) the soteriological value of the knowledge of one’s essence. My focus in this article will be upon the Gnostics’ radical dualism and its implications for the sacred and the profane.

[11] Some Gnostic groups allowed for a third category, “soul”, but its use in Gnostic texts suggests that Gnostics understood it as a subcategory of either “matter” or “spirit”, depending upon the cosmic or extracosmic source of the particular soul in question and the negative or positive valence, respectively, placed upon it.

[12] The terminology comes from Bently Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (Garden City, Doubleday & Company, Inc.: 1987), and refers to what Layton understands a Sethan Gnosticism (p. xv).

[13] Layton, Gnostic Scriptures, p. 16. Although the chief ruler (Ialdabaoth) of the material realm has great spiritual power that he has stolen (The Secret Book According to John 10,20 and 13,21, in Layton, Gnostic Scriptures, pp. 36 and 38), he also has a power inherent to matter, which accounts for the fact that even purely material lesser rulers possess power, a power perhaps signified by the “fire” that the chief ruler shares with them (Secret Book According to John [=Apocryphon of John] 11,8, in Layton, Gnostic Scriptures, p. 36).

[14] Layton, Gnostic Scriptures, p. 18.

[15] Cf. Secret Book According to John 9,25ff., in Layton, Gnostic Scriptures, p. 35. Also on Sophia, cf. Pistis Sophia, Books I and II; The Untitled Text in the Bruce Codex, Chapter 22; The Hypostasis of the Archons 87ff. (in James M. Robinson, editor, The Nag Hammadi Library in English (Leiden, Brill: 1988), pp. 162–163); On the Origin of the World 100 etc. (in Robinson, Nag Hammadi Library, pp. 173ff.); and Eugnostos the Blessed 81ff. (in Robinson, Nag Hammadi Library, pp. 232ff.).

[16] Secret Book According to John 21,16–22,2, in Layton, Gnostic Scriptures, p. 45.

[17] For instance, Gnostic myth often describes the material realm coming into existence due to an absence rather than to a fullness. Cf. Secret Book According to John 9,25–10,6, in Layton, Gnostic Scriptures, p. 35.

[18] Manichaeans believed that some foods were relatively pure due to the concentrated amounts of light/spirit contained within them; other foods had very little light and thus decreased the Gnostic’s consciousness of Gnostic truths.

[19] Kephalaia 215,13–17; with thanks to Professor Dr. Alexander Böhlig for help in translating.

[20] Pistis Sophia 251,4–10, my translation, following the translation by Carl Schmidt and Violet MacDermot, Pistis Sophia (Leiden, E. J. Brill: 1978), pp. 502–503.

[21] Mark Lidzbarski, tr., Ginza: Der Schatz, Oder Das Grosse Buch der Mandäer, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (Göttingen, 1925), p. 161,1-8.

[22] My translation from Lidzbarski’s German.

[23] Although often called “The Hymn of the Soul,” the poem appears in the Acts of Saint Thomas as “The Hymn of Judas Thomas the Apostle in the Country of the Indians”; however, because the text says nothing explicitly about a ‘soul’ and because Judas Thomas actually had nothing to do with its composition, one could better call it “The Hymn of the Prince,” for its central figure, a “prince” descends to earth to carry out his father’s mission. This chapter, though, will refer to the poem as “The Hymn of the Pearl,” a title also often used of it—moreover, it does concern the recovery, from the world, of a “pearl” (which, incidentally, probably does represent a “soul”; but because some scholars interpret the “prince” in the poem as signifying a “soul,” it seems better to use the term “pearl” here).

[24] Perhaps one should also compare the fallen redeemer’s fate here with that of the fallen Sophia as described in the Pistis Sophia 50,2-5 and 54,22-23.

[25] Here, the Syriac text, though surely using the Greek term for food (trofÆ), reads as the Sryiac term Nwhyprwf—“their troubles, vexations”; perhaps it should read Nwhypwrf—“their foods,” but note also the possibilty of a wordplay here similar to the one often found in Greek: trofÆ/trufÆ [“food”/“luxury” {in the negative sense of ‘luxury’—‘indulgence’ or ‘revelling’}], for the context fits—their ‘food’ constitutes ‘trouble’—and such a pun would reinforce the synecdochical use of food one finds in Gnostic texts); cf. “Das Lied von der Erlösung,” in Zwei Gnostische Hymnen, E. Preuschen, J. Ricker’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung [Alfred Töpelmann (Giessen, 1904)], p. 35, n, 35a; for evidence that the primary reference refers to “food,” see also the Greek parallels to this in E codice parisino graeco 1516, collatis codicibus Collegii novi Oxoniensis C 149, Bibliothecae publicae leningradensis 95 et Athonense Pantocatoris 21, Hymn of the Pearl, O 73 v 45 (32)-—-S 197 v 50 (35), and in E codice Bibliothecae Vallicellanae Romanae B35, Hymn of the Pearl 124ra: 32-35, both of which use Greek words for “food,” the former using br«siw, the latter using trofÆ.

[26] Such an acceptance of earthly nourishment by a Gnostic revealor could only occur as a mistake on the part of the revealer. The Nag Hammadi tractate “Melchizedek”, often considered a Gnostic text, also has Jesus eating and drinking (in 5,2ff.), but the consistently Gnostic character of this tractate appears doubtful. Birger A. Pearson argues for the tractate’s originally having been a non-Gnostic text that underwent a degree of Gnostic editing (Birger A. Pearson, “Melchizedek”, in The Nag Hammadi Library in English (Leiden, Brill: 1988), p.439).

[27] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, translated by Ian Cunnison (London, Cohen & West Ltd.: 1954), p. 1. In an interesting book, Annette B. Weiner, Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving (Berkeley, University of California Press: 1992), appears to derive this reciprocity from the inalienability of certain prized possessions: “What motivates reciprocity is its reverse—the desire to keep something back from the pressures of give and take. This something is a possession that speaks to and for an individual’s or a group’s social identity and, in so doing, affirms the difference between one person or group and another” (p. 43). Further on this, Weiner notes: “A possession like a feathered cloak or a jeweled crown can affirm rank, authority, power, and even divine rule because it stands symbolically as the representative of a group’s historical or mythical origins. The classicist Louis Gernet suggests this point when he notes that, among the ancient Greeks, it is in the association of certain objects with magical powers that we find ‘the earliest social understandings of the different aspects of authority’. The absolute value of an inalienable possession is this authenticity, its foundation in its sacred origins which pervades its unique existence in the present” (p. 51).

[28] Cf. Mauss, The Gift, pp. 58–62. This ambiguity is distinct from a related type of ambiguity in gift-giving, i.e., that gift-giving presents itself as disinterested generosity but always retains awareness of its expectation of reciprocity. On this, cf. Pierre Bourdieu, “Marginalia—Some  Additional Notes on the Gift”, in The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity (New York/London, Routledge: 1997), edited by Alan D. Schrift, p. 231.

[29] Cf. Marcel Mauss, “Gift, Gift” in The Logic of the Gift:  Mauss notes the etymology of the word for “gift” in a number of Indo-European languages, remarking upon the dual meaning of “present” and “poison” in the etymological development of several of these (pp. 30–31). One can find a residue of this ambiguity in standard Dutch, where “gift” means “present” and “gif” means “poison”—the latter term having the adjective form “giftig”, i.e., “poisonous”, thereby allowing for ironic wordplays. Additionally, colloquial Dutch has assimilated the German word “Gift”, such that “gift” in spoken Dutch can mean either “present” or “gift”—allowing for even better puns. (I am indebted to Piet van Veldhuizen for this information on the Dutch language.) English and German, on the other hand, have completely diverged, leaving “gift” to mean solely “present” in English and solely “poison” in German.

[30] Mauss, The Gift, citing Brahman reluctance to accept gifts: “The gift is…something that must be given, that must be received and that is, at the same time, dangerous to accept. The gift itself constitutes an irrevocable link especially when it is a gift of food” (p. 125).

[31] Cf. Pat Caplan, “Approaches to the Study of Food, Health, and Identity”,

in Food, Health and Identity, edited by Pat Caplan (London, Routledge: 1997), [citing Fischler (1998, p. 279)], p. 9.

[32] Indeed, as Mauss, “Gift, Gift”, notes, according to the ideology of gift-giving in many societies, the gift puts the recipient into the power of the giver: “[E]changes and gifts of objects…function on the basis of a common fund of ideas: the object received as a gift, the received object in general, engages, links magically, religiously, morally, juridically, the giver and the receiver. Coming from one person, made or appropriated by him, being from him, it gives him power over the other who accepts it. In the case where the prestation provided is not rendered in the prescribed juridical, economical, or ritual form, the giver obtains power over the person who has participated in the feast and has taken in its substances” (pp. 29–30). The poison gift thus acts as a special case of this.

[33] Cf. Kephalaia 26,18–20, which identifies matter with the “thought of death” that supplies the rulers of the material realm with their strength against the spiritual realm.

[34] Theodore bar Konai, Scholion mimra 11, apud H. Pognon, Inscriptions mandaites des coupes de Khouabir (Paris, 1898; reprinted, Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1970) 127 lines 24-27 (text) and/or Theodore bar Konai, Liber Scholiorum (CSCO scrip. syri, ser. II, t. 66; ed. A. Scher; Paris: Carolus Poussielgue, 1912) 314 lines 6-10 (text); translation taken from John C. Reeves, Jewish Lore in Manichaean Cosmogony: Studies in the Book of the Giants Traditions, (Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College Press: 1992), p. 190. Cf. also Ephrem, "Third Discourse to Hypatius Against the Heretics," in S. Ephraem's Prose Refutations of Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan (2 vols.; ed. C.W. Mitchell, et al.; London: Williams and Norgate, 1912-21) 1.81 line 43 - 82 line 7 (text); excerpted and translated by Reeves, “Citations from Ephrem”, in Emerging from Darkness: Studies in the Recovery of Manichaean Sources, edited by Paul Mirecki and Jason BeDuhn (Leiden, Brill: 1997), p. 275, n. 49. Cf. as well Abraham Yohanan, tr. “Theodore bar Khoni (c. 800 A.D.): On Mani’s Teachings Concerning the Beginning of the World”, in A. V. Williams Jackson, Researches in Manichaeism (New York, Columbia University Press: 1932), p. 226.

[35] Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China (Tübingen, J. C. B. Mohr: 1992), notes that the evil, material rulers “had…become dependent on the life-giving Light Elements for their existence”, which suggests Lieu’s awareness of the implicit irony of life bringing death.

[36] This plays upon the stigma attached to one-sided gift-giving: “The lopsided gift loads the recipient’s status with demeaning signs. If no reciprocity is allowed, the gift is outright alms and the receiver is labeled a beggar”, Mary Douglas, “Standard Social Uses of Food: Introduction”, in Food in the Social Order: Studies of Food and Festivities in Three American Communities, Russell Sage Foundation (New York, 1984), edited by Mary Douglas (p. 10).

[37] Cf. Rodolphe Gasché, “Heliocentric Exchange” in The Logic of the Gift, p. 109.

[38] Cf. Mauss, The Gift, p. 8.

[39] John 3:6.

[40] John 3:12.

[41] John 3:19.

[42] John 5:24.

[43] John 8:23.

[44] John 1:14; cf. John 6:51c–58.

[45] John 1:32–33 and John 6:69.

[46] John 7:7.

[47] John 1:29 and 16:8–9.

[48] Note that John 13:10–11 refers to the purity of the disciples and that John 15:3 refers to Jesus as having purified the disciples, which implies that they previously existed in a state of impurity (presumably, the impurity characteristic of the world—a point elaborated upon later in this article). Only Judas remains in a state of impurity (John 13:10–11), an impurity stemming from his association with the devil/Satan (John 6:70–71 and John 13:2; cf. John 13:27). Note that the synoptic gospels explicitly refer to demons/devils/Satan as impure spirits: Matthew 10:1; 12:43; Mark 1:23, 26, 27; 3:11, 30; 5:2, 8, 13; 6:7; 7:25; 9:25; Luke 4:33, 36; 6:18; 8:29; 9:42; and 11:24.

[49] John 14:30 (which implies that the ruler of the world seeks power over Jesus even though this ruler does not actually have such power). Generally in John’s Gospel, “the world” acts as a character with agency—as can be seen by the manner in which the fourth evangelist plays upon the equivocation between “world” as the human realm and “world” as the physical cosmos. For rather clear references to “world” as meaning those opposed to God, cf. John 7:4, 7; 8:26; 12:19; 14:17, 19, 27, 31; 15:18–19; 16:20; 17:9, 14, 18, 21, 23, 25; and 18:20. Some of these references to “world” as those opposed to God occur in contexts where “world” also refers to the physical world. For rather clear references to the physical world, cf. John 1:9–10; 3:16–17, 19; 6:14; 8:23; 9:5, 39; 10:36; 11:9, 27; 12:25, 46; 13:1; 16:21, 28; 17:5, 15, 18, 24; and 18:37. Some of these references to the physical world occur in contexts where “world” also refers to unbelievers.

[50] John 1:5.

[51] Cf., e.g., John 5:16–18; 8:59; 10:39; and 11:57.

[52] My paraphrase of Deborah Lupton’s felicitous expression in Food, the Body and the Self (London, Sage Publications: 1966): “At the simplest, biological level, by the act of eating and absorption of food, we become what we eat. By taking food into the body, we take in the world (p. 16). Lupton, drawing upon Kristeva, also notes: “Food is potentially polluting because it passes through the oral boundary of the ‘clean and proper body’…. Julia Kristeva argues that ‘all food is liable to defile’, for it signifies the natural entering the cultured body” (p. 113). Replace “cultured” with “sacred”, and we have a statement perfectly applicable to Johannine Christology. “At the simplest, biological level, by the act of eating and absorption of food, we become what we eat. By taking food into the body, we take in the world

[53] Cf. a parallel in Hinduism, where the impurity of the one providing food taints the food with bad karma and thereby traps in the world the one eating this food. On this, see R. S. Khare, “Introduction”, in The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists (Albany, State University of New York Press: 1992), edited by R. S. Khare: “[The] close and intense relationship of food to self (and its spiritual welfare) makes food a subject of ‘heightened intersubjectivity’ among the Hindus, where they routinely take into account the moral backgrounds and powers of those who handle food. Food readily absorbs the qualities of its ‘carriers’ or ‘feeders’…. If a saint renders food auspicious and blessed, an ordinary person’s covetousness, accumulated karmas, ignorance, and moral lapses surely taint it.” (p. 7).

[54] On the role of the vinegar in effecting the Johannine Jesus’s death, see chapter 5 of my doctoral dissertation (unpublished, but available from UMI): Horace Jeffery Hodges, “Food as Synecdoche in John’s Gospel and Gnostic Texts” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1995). I have also explored this theme in a paper read at the 1999 AAR/SBL Conference in Boston: Horace Jeffery Hodges, “‘Ethical’ Dualism of Food in The Gospel of John” (paper presented at the annual AAR/SBL meeting, Boston, Mass., 19­–23 November 1999).

[55] Again, see Hodges, “Food as Synecdoche” (chapter 5) and Hodges, “‘Ethical’ Dualism of Food”.

[56] I am currently working on an article (“Jesus as the Holy One of God: The Healing of the Zavah in Mark 5:24b–34”) that develops my views on the shift in early Christianity from a Jewish to Christian understanding of sacred-profane relations.

[57] The basis for this lies in Leviticus 10:10, a paradigmatic verse, which states that one should “distinguish between the holy and the common and between the impure and the pure” (i.e., holy [vdq] vs. common [lj] and impure [amf] vs. pure [rwhf]).

[58] This is my own interpretation, but I rely upon Jacob Milgrom’s astute analysis in his Leviticus 1–16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, (New York: Doubleday, 1991), especially p. 732.

[59] Cf. Milgrom, Leviticus, p. 732.

[60] Cf. L. E. Toombs, “Common”, Interpreter’s Dictionary, Vol. 1: “In OT priestly literature ‘common’ is the opposite of ‘holy’…the unconsecrated rather than the consecrated…. Although in the OT the common is ritually neutral, and may be either clean or unclean, in the NT koinÒw is synonymous with ‘unclean’” (p. 663b).  On this, cf. also Franz Georg Untergassmair, “koinÒw, ktl.”, in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: 1991), p. 302b, who notes: “The adj. koinÒw appears in the NT 4 times with its basic meaning common/shared (Acts 2:44; 4:32; Titus 1:4; Jude 3) and 10 times with the derived meaning common/ordinary/profane/impure (Mark 7:2, 5; Acts 10:14, 28; 11:8; Rom 14:14a, b, c; Heb 10:29; Rev 21:27). The vb. koinÒv is used in all 14 occurrences in the sense of pollute/profane/desecrate”.

[61] This may have to do with the role of impure spirits, especially the primary impure spirit, Satan.

[62] John 10:36

[63] John 6:69

[64] For the fuller significance of this statement about Jesus’s extraordinary sacredness, see Hodges, “Food as Synecdoche” and Hodges, “‘Ethical’ Dualism of Food”. My article in progress, “Jesus as the Holy One of God: The Healing of the Zavah in Mark 5:24b–34”, also develops the fuller significance of this statement.

[65] Many scholars have argued that this passage largely stems from the hand of a redactor; many others, perhaps the majority, consider it original to the Johannine text. I agree with the latter scholars. First, as Eugen Ruckstuhl, Die Literarische Einheit des Johannesevangeliums (Freiburg in der Schweiz, 1951), pp. 243–245 and 266, has rigorously argued, this passage does not differ from the usual Johannine literary style. Second, those scholars who think that a later redactor inserted the passage need to find an explanation for why the redactor placed it in chapter 6 rather than in chapter 13, where it ‘belongs’. Third, the anti-docetic character of the passage fits both the incarnational theology presented in the Johannine prologue and Jesus’s acceptance of the vinegar in the crucifixion scene. Fourth, the passage’s emphasis upon eating and drinking coheres with the emphasis upon food throughout the Gospel and resolves a tension lingering due to the rigorous Johannine dualism by providing pure, holy nourishment in an impure world.

[66] Some scholars have seen a Dionysian influence on the portrayal of the Cana wine miracle in John 2:1­–11: cf., e.g., Rudolf Bultmann, Das Evangelium des Johannes (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht: 1950); Martin Hengel, “The Interpretation of the Wine Miracle at Cana: John 2:1–11”, The Glory of Christ in the New Testament, edited by L. D. Hurst and N. T. Wright (Oxford, Clarendon: 1987), pp. 84–112; and Edmund Little, Echoes of the Old Testament in the Wine at Cana in Galilee (John 2:1–11) and The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish (John 6:1–15): Towards an Appreciation (Paris: J. Gabalda et Cie Éditeurs: 1998). If there is a Dionysian influence upon the Cana wine miracle, then understanding Jesus as offering himself through the miraculous wine is a reasonable deduction, for Dionysius entered into his devotees in the wine that they drank ritually in his cult. Cf. Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New York, Vintage Books: 1983), both on the importance of wine as a symbol of eternal life and on its significance in the Dionysian myth. Hyde holds that in the myth of Dionysos, wine is a symbol of zoe, “the life that endures” (cf. John 6:27) (rather than bios, “limited life”), and that drinking the ritual wine enacts “the sacrament of reconstituting the god” (pp. 32–33). Cf. also Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, A History of Food (Cambridge, Blackwell Publishers: 1992), who argues that ritual intoxication was often regarded by the ancient world “as an act of religion in the literal sense…, creating a bond between man and God…. The Greek term for ritual intoxication was enthousisamos, divine possession”. Toussaint-Samat then adds: “The veneration of Dionysus went hand in hand with a slyly indulgent attitude” towards intoxication (p. 253). Similarly, Jesus provided the guests at Cana with enormous quantities of wine—even after they had already drunk a great deal!—which thus implies that intoxication was no troubling issue here, thereby further suggesting a Dionysian connection. If the wine at Cana was sacramental, then the Johannine Jesus’s eucharistic reference in 6:53–56 to his blood as true drink surely refers back to the miraculous wine—the blood and the wine therefore both being symbols of the eternal life offered. On the general link between blood and wine as symbols of life, Toussaint-Samat notes: “[Wine’s] usual red colour suggests an association with blood; it is regarded as the blood of the vine. Like blood, it is a symbol of life…. Eternal life is the prerogative of the immortal gods; drinking wine makes man temporarily their equal” (p. 258). The Johannine Jesus, however, goes beyond this offering a drink of genuine immortality.

[67] John 6:27, 32–33, and 51 all speak of Jesus (and/or God) giving extraordinary nourishment that provides eternal life. These verses use the Greek verb d€dvmi for “giving”, but John 4:10 uses the noun form dvreån (“gift”) in the expression “gift of God” (dvreån toË yeoË) to refer to the living water that provides eternal life. Thus, one can justifiably understand the extraordinary food given by Jesus as a “gift”. In his insightful essay on gift-giving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Gifts”, in The Logic of the Gift, p. 26, notes that the only true gift is a portion of oneself. Mauss, The Gift, pp. 8–9, argues, more generally, that something of the giver remains in the gift, and he cites the Polynesian belief in hau (a kind of spiritual force) as an inalienable portion of the giver in the gift. Against this interpretation, Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (London, Tanistock Publications: 1974), pp. 157–162, demythologizes the hau, arguing that it signifies not “spirit” but merely “return on” or “product of” (p. 157)—something like the “profit” (p. 160) that one might make by exchanging for some other article a gift that one has received. In Polynesian culture, keeping such a profit would be immoral and thus must be handed over to the giver of the gift (p. 162). Note, however, the Maori assumption here that the giver of the gift continues to have some claim to it. Moreover, Sahlins later notes that the hau does have a spiritual quality—it is the spiritual power of fecundity inhering in a gift and in what the gift produces, this latter of which must be handed over to the gift-giver (pp. 165–168). More recently, Weiner, Inalienable Possessions (1992), has argued for an understanding of hau that comes close to Mauss’s understanding: “The hau as a life force embedded in the person is transmitted to the person’s possessions…. The hau is permeable in that it must be replaced in people and things, instilling people with a creative force that creates a bond between them” (p. 63). Cf. Yunxiang Yan, The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and Social Networks in a Chinese Village (Stanford, Stanford University Press: 1996), who quotes Weiner on this point, noting that it “suggests Mauss is right about the Maorie hau”, and then paraphrases Weiner’s main point, i.e., that this “adds inalienable value to the objects” (p. 11). On the inalienable quality of gifts, cf. also James G. Carrier, Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism since 1700 (London/New York, Routledge: 1995), p. 24. Further on the hau as a transmissible spiritual force, see Rodolphe Gasché, “Heliocentric Exchange” in The Logic of the Gift, pp. 109–110, who interprets Mauss’s argument in terms of mana: “[T]he donor, who is initially the receptacle of the mana proper to him, gives the donee an object laden with his mana. He separates himself from what is proper to him, his property [propriété] or propriety [propreté], to transfer it into the receptacle that the donee is” (pp. 109–110).

[68] The belief that a gift of food from the divine realm can impart immortality (see following footnote) extends across many cultures. For example, Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology: I (London, Jonathan Cape: 1964), recounts a myth of the Tucuna Indians of South America (M84. Tucuna. ‘The drink of immortality’): “An immortal god appeared…, carried off … [a] young girl, and married her. Much later she reappeared [to her family] .… with her husband. The latter brought with him a little of the drink of the immortals and offered a sip to each …. When they were all drunk, they went off with the young couple to take up their abode in the dwelling of the gods” (p. 159).

[69] The identification of certain foods with the body of gods and goddesses also extends across cultures and can therefore provide an external frame of reference for help in interpreting John 6:51–58. Cf. Margaret Visser, Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos, of an Ordinary Meal (Toronto, McClelland: 1987), who relates the mythic origins of maize and rice, noting that they come from the divine bodies of gods/goddesses. According to the Ojibway Indians, maize came from a Spirit Guide who allowed himself to be defeated by a warrior and left lying upon the ground—his body disappeared, but his head dress of green feathers grew into plants that reached the height of a man (p. 35). According to the Indonesians, rice came from the slain body of Samyam Sri, the daughter of the minor god Anta (p. 166). In both cases, the food in question comes from the spirit world as mediated by the slain body of a god or goddess. The Johannine Jesus’s offer of his flesh as bread would seem to fit this paradigm, yet the offer goes futher by promising eternal life. This seems especially strongly connected to the Johannine Jesus’s offer of his flesh and blood as nourishment. In this respect, it is significant that another belief extending across cultures is that by eating the flesh and drinking the blood of a being, one can obtain the qualities of that being. Cf. Frederick J. Simoons, Eat Not this Flesh: Food Avoidances from Prehistory to the Present (Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press: 1994): “Flesh… [and] blood… of animals… may be deliberately consumed to obtain their desirable qualities. …[A]mong various groups in eastern Africa[,] people eat the flesh… or blood of a lion or leopard to make them strong and brave like those animals” (p. 306).( Simoons is citing James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, A Study in Magic and Religion (New York, Macmillan: 1935), Volume 8, pp. 141–142.) One of the Johannine Jesus’s primary qualities is the possession of eternal life, which his flesh and blood convey to those accept them as food.

[70] Veronika E. Grimm, From Feasting to Fasting, The Evolution of a Sin: Attitudes to Food in Late Antiquity (London/New York, Routledge: 1996), notes that Jewish views on feasting during religious festivals presupposed the presence of God at the meal (cf. Deuteronomy 14:23–27), and she cites Philo of Alexandria, who, in “writing about the Temple cult in Jerusalem, observed that by eating their portion of the sacrificial feast the people shared in God’s own food and thus entered a holy ‘partnership’” (pp. 18–19). Cf. Philo, “On the Special Laws (De Specialibus Legibus)”, in Philo, with an English Translation by F. H. Colson (London, William Heinemann Ltd: 1937), in The Loeb Classical Library, “The Special Laws, I. 221”, p. 229: “[T]he sacrificial meals should not be hoarded, but be free and open to all who have need, for they are now the property not of him by whom but of Him to Whom the victim has been sacrificed, He the benefactor, the bountiful, Who has made the convivial company of those who carry out the sacrifices partners of the altar whose board they share. And he bids them not think of themselves as the entertainers, for they are the stewards of the good cheer, not the hosts. The Host is He to Whom the material provided for the feast has come to belong”.

[71] As Bordieu, “Selections from The Logic of Practice”, in The Logic of the Gift, p. 200, notes, even the giving of small, seemingly insignificant gifts acts (ideally) to “ensure the continuity of interpersonal relations” and to “bind in friendship”. Thus the small size of the morsel does not imply its insignificance as a gift. Indeed, the morsel’s very significance as a gift serves, by virtue of Judas’s inner rejection of its meaning (in the sense of interpersonal bonding) as a gift, to identify and condemn Judas as a traitor. Emerson, “Gifts”, writing about the more general difficulty of accepting gifts, implies that the rejection of a gift finds its origin in the “wish to be self-sustained” (p. 26). To this, Emerson adds, “The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten” (p. 26). The fourth evangelist may intend something like this as his theological point, namely, that the world aggressively rejects that which can truly sustain it in favor of (the illusion of) being self-sustained.

[72] I argue for a eucharistic understanding of the morsel on two grounds. First, and more generally, the morsel, by virtue of its being a gift, functions as an extension of Jesus’s being. Second, and more specific to a textual argument, the morsel serves as a fulfullment of the prophecy given in John 13:18, which states that the one “gnawing” Jesus’s bread will betray him. The prophecy uses the word tr≈gvn, the same term used in the eucharistic passage already discussed (John 6:51c–58), and since this term is used only in these two places in John’s Gospel, it strongly suggests a link between the two. (Note that the evangelist could have used §sy€vn, for he is quoting LXX Psalm 41:10 as a prophecy.) Moreover, Judas being turned over completely to Satan for having eaten the eucharist in an unworthy state fits very well Paul’s warning in I Corinthians 11:27-32 against eating the eucharist unworthily.

[73] Ernst Käsemann, Die letzter Wille nach Johannes 17 (Tübingen, 1980), has interpreted John 17 as presenting Jesus’s last will and testament given to his disciples on the night before his death. Moreover, Jesus’s act of washing the feet of his disciples on this night before his death is explained by John 13:8 as necessary for “having a part/portion with” Jesus, which may very well mean “having an inheritance with” Jesus (cf. Hodges, “Food as Synecdoche”, Chapter 4, Part 1.). Perhaps, then, one is also justified in interpreting Jesus’s offer of the morsel to Judas in John 13:26–27 as a gift offered by Jesus in contemplation of his own death. Such an interpretation receives further support by the fact that this morsel, by virtue of its being eucharistic, is in fact a profoundly significant gift offered by Jesus in contemplation of his death. Because Judas does not explicitly refuse the gift of the morsel in either deed or word (though he implicitly rejects the communion with Jesus that it offers), then according to Jewish law (as recorded in later rabbinical works), he has formally accepted this gift. On this cf. Reuven Yaron, Gifts in Contemplation of Death in Jewish and Roman Law (London, Oxford University Press: 1960): “It is obvious that nobody should be forced to accept gifts against his wishes. But since usually the donee profits by the gift, even his silence will be interpreted as consent to accept…. To prove repudiation of the gift by the donee clear evidence is necessary. If he is silent but subsequently objects to the gift, this is of no direct effect; he can only alienate or discard it” (p. 135). This legal aspect, if genuinely applicable here, increases the tension inherent in the contradiction between Judas’s formal, external acceptance of the gift and his inward, substantive rejection of it.

[74] Recall the literature on bonding effected by the gift of life-giving nourishment: Telfer, Food for Thought, pp. 83–84; Smith, Religion of the Semites, pp. 268–269; Toussaint-Samat, A History of Food, p. 231; Mennell, Murcott, and Otterloo, Sociology of Food, pp. 1–19 and 115–119; Douglas, “Anthropological Perspective”, pp. 8–11 and “Social Uses of Food, p. 12. Of course, in Johannine thought, the bonding and life-giving qualities of food as a gift carry even more significance due to the divine status of the giver.

[75] John 17:12. This identification of Judas with destruction implies the judgement of the holy against the impure, for in encounters between the two, the holy (eventually if not instantly) destroys the impure. Seth Sanders (private correspondence, March 14, 2000) points out that the Hebrew and Aramaic behind the expression “son of destruction” (John 17:12: oJ uiJo;" th'" ajpwleiva") simply means “doomed person”. However, the New Testament uses the expression in an extended, theological sense to mean “Those destined to destruction” (William F. Arndt and F. Wilber Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 1968), p. 103); cf. Barclay Newman, Jr., ed., A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (Stuttgart, United Bible Societies, 1971): “one bound to be lost” or “one destined for hell” (p. 24a); Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Rome, Biblical Institute Press: 1981): “son of perdition, one destined to be lost” (p. 337). Cf. 2 Thessalionians 2:3, where the oJ uiJo;" th'" ajpwleiva" refers to the antichrist. Note also that the fourth evangelist several times employs the verbal form of the noun ajpwvleia, i.e., ajpovllumi, to mean perish eternally, for he uses it in contrast to eternal life (cf. John 3:16, 6:39–40, 10:28, and 12:25).


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[Copyright 2001, by Horace Jeffery Hodges.  All rights reserved. This is a draft version of a work still in progress; please do not copy or cite anything from this paper without explicit permission of the author.]

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