Breast was Best for Jesus

As the husband of a lactation consultant, I am drawn to Anthony Le Donne’s post, “Of Memory and Mother’s Milk.” Anthony asks, “Was Jesus breastfed?” The question serves as an illustration in “historiography and memory.” After a fairly lengthy investigation (for a blog post), Anthony concludes:

We should imagine that all first-century, Galilean children who survived infancy were breastfed unless we have reason to think otherwise.

In other words: duh. What the heck else was he going tjesusbreastbesto do? (I’m sure that Nestlé would love to be able to claim that Good Start was Jesus’ formula. That’s advertising gold.) This illustration, for me, gets to the heart of the problem with historical Jesus research—a problem that Anthony, Chris Keith, and Dale Allison are all underscoring. The texts only get us so far. And the traditional approaches to interpreting those texts fail us. None of the standard criteria (e.g., double dissimilarity, multiple attestation, embarrassment) really have anything to say on this. As Anthony notes, “our earliest and best sources do not convince us of any fact specific to Jesus” when it comes to whether or not he was breastfed. But it is historically plausible. Okay, so, we can say that Jesus, like nearly all other babies at the time, was probably breastfed. What does that do for us? (Perhaps WIC should use it in their advertising? “Breast was best for Jesus!”)

Instead of looking for nuggets of historical facts, I find it more interesting and productive to look to the texts for attitudes and assumptions of those who upheld Jesus as their ultimate prototype, the exemplum extraordinaire. What sorts of cultural messages do we find in the brave proclamation by an unnamed woman, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” (Luke 11:27). And what discursive strategies do we find in Jesus’ rather coarse retort, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:28). Not exactly the sort of thing one might want on a Hallmark card for Mother’s Day. So, instead of digging up historical details, let’s talk a bit more about the gendered discourse of nursing as it relates, for example, to the construction of group boundaries and ideals.

Folks like Anthony and Dale, in my humble opinion, are pretty much doing what can possibly be done for the “historical Jesus” in terms of painting a picture of Jesus (and doing it well!), while they also highlight how problematic it is to paint a picture of Jesus. It is the latter that I hope will wake us up to find more interesting things to say about early Christian texts.

Update (4/22/2013): In response to James McGrath’s critique on this post and another, I’ve explored the issue a little more fully in another post. Brian LePort commented on the discussion as well.

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Posted in Breastfeeding, Historical Jesus, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, New Testament Studies