Eating With Sinners

Jesus Eating

The Supper at Emmaus, Pedro de Orrente, 1620s

We will now look at some passages that indicate that Jesus broke other boundaries as well, choosing to eat with transgressors and others who for ritual reasons were shunned. Mk 2:15-17//Mt 9:9-13//Lk 5:29-32 described the confrontation in which Pharisees (and scribes in Mark and Luke) accuse Jesus of eating with sinners and tax collectors. The latter, as we know also from rabbinic sources, were a specific group of transgressors who collected taxes on behalf of the Romans as minor tax farmers, often overtaxing the poor to increase their own incomes. When confronted on this issue, Jesus defends himself by asserting that it is the sick that need a physician, not the healthy. In other words, religious leadership is obligated to mix with the common people, even the transgressors, in order to bring them back to the path of God.

This notion is made explicit in Luke 15:1-7 where, again, Pharisees and scribes are seen as complaining about Jesus’s eating with publicans and sinners.  Here he explicitly explains that he does so in order to bring them back to repentance, as the owner of sheep might search for lost sheep, leaving the rest of his flock unaccompanied. This passage appears to be an expansion of Mt 18:12-14, where the parable of the lost sheep appears independently. In Luke it has been quoted as an explanation for the behavior of Jesus described in the passages we have analyzed above from Mk 2//Mt 9//Lk 5.


We have attempted to show here that the Dead Sea sectarians and early Christians took diametrically different views to the role of laws of ritual purity and impurity pertaining to food, especially in constructing the boundaries of society.  For the Qumran sectarians, the entire process of entry to the sect, status within it, the Penal Code and daily life was structured on the attempt to extend Temple purity to the life of the individual to community. While beyond the subject of this paper, we can observe that the entire raison d’être for the Dead Sea sect and its physical separation was to attain a life of purity and perfection, a process that was seen as necessitating both physical and spiritual separation from the rest of the Jewish community. This decision seems to have been led by the Teacher of Righteousness in the early days of the history of the sect. The aspirations for the End of Days described in the Rule of the Congregation reflect the very same understanding transferred to the eschatological context. Put simply, purity was a separator, designed to guarantee sectarian purity in the face of a society that in their view had gone astray from the way of the Torah.

Early Christianity, on the other hand, at least as reflected in stories told about its teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, took the opposite approach. It disputed entirely the notion that Temple purity should be extended into daily life, seeing such an approach is creating a separator that fundamentally prevented people from attaining greater closeness to God. It set aside ritual purity laws pertaining to food and apparently took lenient views regarding other purity regulations. This was intended to break down boundaries in order to make possible winning the estranged and the transgressors to what it saw as the path of God as mediated by Jesus.

Put simply, these approaches are diametrically opposed to one another and constitute another example of how oversimplified even scholarly comparisons between the Dead Sea sectarians and the early Christians often are. While there are certain similarities, the attitude to ritual purity and impurity is certainly not one of them.

We should note there is a post-history in both Judaism and Christianity to the issues under discussion. For Christianity, these issues became irrelevant as time progressed. Already in Acts and in the Pauline Epistles not only issues of purity and impurity of food, but also the basic biblical requirements regarding kashrut, were set aside as Christianity became Gentile and observance of the law was questioned, even for Jews.  Here the polemic against separation was advanced constantly. In the rabbinic context, tendencies similar to those observable in early Christianity, opposing the use of food purity as an internal barrier of separation, together with the destruction of the Temple and the ending of the sacrificial ritual, led to the gradual abatement of observance of purity and impurity of foods among followers of the rabbinic leadership. Even though Talmudic and mystical texts often interpreted non-sacral acts as if they were equivalent to Temple ritual, the use of food purity as an internal Jewish separator was discontinued. Sectarianism gave way to the concept of a united Jewish people.

One Response to Eating With Sinners

  • Kevan Bowkett says:

    Dear Dr. Schiffman,

    Thank you for your post. I am curious about whether Jesus “ate with sinners.” Dr. Robert Eisenman says emphatically NOT, regarding Jesus and “James the brother of Jesus” as belonging to the Qumran tradition of Nazirite/Rechabite purity. He seems to view the “eating with sinners”/open commensality of the Gospels as Pauline overwrites, and seems not to regard Q or other texts lying behind the NT Gospels as containing substantive info about the historical Jesus. So I am puzzled whether this “eating with sinners” really does go back to Jesus the man.

    I am biased because, like Marcus Borg or Dom Crossan, I “want” Jesus to be more like he is in the NT Gospels in this respect. However, I hope I will go where facts and inferences lead, regardless of my preferences.

    Thanks again and best wishes,

    Kevan Bowkett
    Winnipeg, Canada

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