Baker Academic

Friday, April 19, 2013

Of Memory and Mother's Milk - Le Donne

Every now and again I like to remind my readers that I grew up in the hippie capital of the world (that's right Ibiza, Spain; you just got told!). In my bra-optional part of the planet, we're quite fond of the topic of breastfeeding.  Next to conversations about medicinal garlic oil, we talk about mother's milk more often than anything else.  How often should we protest applesauce?  How often should preachers breastfeed from the pulpit?  Should grade-schoolers nurse at recess or lunch time?  All these topics and more are hotly debated in most unisex bathrooms in Sebastopol, California.

So it was only a matter of time before I used this here blog as a platform for the topic.  (Chris opened this door when he posted about the defensive prowess of the Louisville Basketball team).

While the nursing Madonna became prominent in fourteenth-century Italy (cf. Marilyn Yalom, History of the Breast, p. 5), recent portraits of the Holy Mother and Child have shied away from this image.  But with the groundswell of interest in historiography and memory, the question "was Jesus breastfed?" becomes illustrative.

Jesus historians are sometimes divided into two camps: (1) minimalists who build a skeletal framework for the life of Jesus and then fill in the gaps with cultural/sociological study and (2) maximalists who affirm the historicity of the Gospels wherever possible and appeal to cultural/sociological study to create a backdrop for their portraits.  Needless to say, these two categories are caricatures. But with both tendencies (as with all story-telling) historical memory is always in the business of gap-filling and shifting.  The more we learn about the cultures of Galilee, Israel, Rome, and Hellenism at large, the more Jesus' narrative will act like a twister, drawing data to itself, assimilating new readings of old data, and reshaping itself accordingly.  

New cultural and sociological data is never a bad thing.  It can, however, be misused.  And because historical memory is always in the gap-filling business, it is important that we are aware how and why we're doing it.  (After all, if we don't actively pursue better historical understanding, we'll unwittingly fill in the gaps with our own cultural biases.)  Here we arrive at the heart of the matter: the entire notion of "gap-filling" presupposes the problem of silence.  Our earliest and best sources for the life of Jesus are simply silent on most biographical topics related to Jesus' life (hat tip to Bultmann).  But this silence isn't as debilitating as some scholars would lead you to believe.

Was Jesus breastfed?  Historians have very little data on this particular point of fact that is specific to Jesus.  The Proto-Gospel of James 19 portrays the infant Jesus breastfeeding.  In this narrative, Jesus “went and took the breast from his mother Mary.”   But, of course, this second-century text is a historical fiction.  The Gospel of Luke contains this exchange between Jesus and a woman who called out from his audience:

One of the women in the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed.” But He said, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:27-28). 
The Gospel of Thomas conveys a related conversation:
In the crowd a woman says to him: “Blessed is the womb which bore thee and the breast which fed thee!” He said to her: “Blessed are those who have heard the word of the Father and keep it! In truth, days are coming when you will say: Happy is the womb that has not brought forth and those breasts which have not given suck!” (Thom. 79).
In my view, this saying very plausibly reflects Jesus’ downplay of blood relationships and biological progeny.  In other words, this conversation cannot be reduced to mere fiction; it reflects history.  Here the anonymous woman assumes that Jesus was breastfed and (indirectly) blesses Mary, his mother.  Even so, assumptions do not always represent historical facts.  Jesus does not confirm or deny her assumption.  Even if he did, should we imagine that Jesus remembered his own infancy?

In the case of the question “was Jesus breastfed?” our earliest and best sources do not convince us of any fact specific to Jesus.  We are confronted, as with so many questions about Jesus, with the problem of silence.

But we can conclude that Jesus was, in fact, breastfed on other grounds.  This we can claim as historical fact for the simple reason that socio-typical study tells us so.  We should imagine that all first-century, Galilean children who survived infancy were breastfed unless we have reason to think otherwise.  A variety of practices were discussed in the ancient world relating to wet-nurses and emergency use of animal milk, but the common practice of breast feeding was not questioned.  There is no reason to think that Jesus was an exception to the rule in this case.

It is then ironic that the fictional portrait of Jesus being nursed in the Proto-Gospel of James conveys a historical probability.  In spite of its fiction, it corroborates what we know to be true about Jesus' culture.  In short, one does not need to argue for the historicity of Proto-Gospel of James 19, Luke 11:27, or Thom. 79 to conclude that they betray historical data about Jesus.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go purchase a bottle of medicinal garlic oil to treat my son's ear-infection.  And if they don't have the organic kind, I will break out my djembe and occupy the joint.  Namaste.

1 comment:

  1. Of course(!), Jesus was breastfed. This is my expertly uninformed (apart from Anthony's essay above) opinion. But then, I grew up and still live in St. Augustine, Florida...the city that hosts the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche.

    Got Milk?