Biblical cooking: breakfast, lunch and the Last Supper

For the faithful, the Bible offers a wealth of wisdom, including nutritional advice

Julia McKinnell
Praise the Lord and pass the olives

Photograph by Reena Newman

Praise the Lord and pass the olives
Photograph by Reena Newman

Christine Andrew, a nutritionist from Vacaville, Calif., has a pet peeve: obese preachers who rail against the sin of adultery while ignoring the sin of gluttony. “They’re quick to talk about licentiousness and alcoholism,” Andrew said in an interview on the phone. “But how come they don’t talk about food and health? Churches want you to pray for [parishioners’] kidney disease and diabetes complications—and they continue to eat their cakes, cookies and pies. I think they’re in denial. That’s why I wrote the book.”

Andrew, who was raised Presbyterian, is a devout churchgoer and author of a new diet book for Christians called Food Isn’t What It Used to Be: A Biblical Approach to Health. Gluttony, lack of self-control and junk food are the main reasons people are getting sick, she says. “The Bible says to deny yourself. Gluttony brings consequences.”

In 2008, Andrew began researching her book by sifting through the Old and New Testaments for references to food and teachings on self-control. “Christians are to bear the failings of the weak,” she writes. “If someone who is overweight eats at our table, we shouldn’t put soda and doughnuts before them any more than putting wine in front of someone who is struggling with alcoholism.” There are examples in scripture of those who go astray, she points out. Samson in Judges 13:24-25 gave in to his weakness, lust, leading to his downfall. “If doughnuts or soda are your downfall and you know this, apply the principle of self-control.”

The Bible offers helpful suggestions, not just admonitions, Andrew notes: a typical Roman diet consisted of salted bread, dried fruit, eggs, raw milk, cheese, fish, dates, figs and unpasteurized honey. Hebrew meals included lamb, poultry and olives—all healthful foods. As for what not to eat, she turns to Leviticus: avoid pig, camel, winged insects, rodents, lizards, lobsters and crayfish. “Lobsters and crayfish are scavengers that feed on dead organisms that can transmit disease,” she says, but Prof. Nathan MacDonald, a New Testament scholar from University of St. Andrews in Scotland, demurs.

“The idea that hygiene lay behind the laws has long been abandoned by scholars,” he said, though it remains popular in Bible-diet books. Rather, dietary prohibitions reflect early Jewish classifications of the natural world, MacDonald explained. “Clean animals fit the domain where they live. Thus, fish have to have scales and fins; land animals have to have cloven hooves and chew the cud.” Still, the whole, unprocessed foods that scripture recommends are healthier than many foods in the modern diet, and Andrew advocates eating them in organic, natural forms.

Wine is another permissible option. “Wine was commonly used in Biblical times for blessings, medicinal purposes and for joyous occasions,” writes Andrew. The Romans even drank wine at breakfast, she notes, but today’s wine is higher in alcohol content. That last point is confirmed by James Steinbach, a Ph.D. student of New Testament interpretation at Bob Jones University. “Ancient wine was naturally fermented,” he said, “and usually watered down. Jewish rules often required between two and five parts of water for every part wine.” Andrew suggests a similar approach. “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities,” she writes, quoting from 1 Timothy 5:23. With drink, as with food, moderation is key. Andrew includes a warning from Proverbs: “Do not mix with winebibbers or with gluttonous eaters of meat; for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty.”

Andrew argues that today’s culture revels in feasting but ignores the Bible’s directions on fasting—a fixture in many religious traditions. She gives the example of Esther, who fasted for three days for deliverance and divine favour. “Esther could have given in to despair and turned to the comfort of food and drink, but instead she chose God’s directive with humility.” Andrew fasts once a year. “It’s important to do,” she says. “It has to be supervised and done correctly with a nutritionist. It was originally done to deny yourself and draw you closer to God.”