Fishers of Men

Archeologists have compared bones from a Roman catacomb that was used for the burial of Christians to bones from other catacombs. The finding? The early Christians ate a lot of freshwater fish, whereas most Romans didn’t.

Comparing the catacomb results with those from other sites in Italy and in the western Mediterranean, the higher nitrogen and lower carbon figures indicate the consumption of freshwater fish. The contribution of such fish to the diet of the early Christians in Rome ranges from 18 to 43 per cent, averaging at around 30 per cent. . . .

“While distancing themselves from Jewish food taboos and generally avoiding meat derived from pagan sacrifices, the early Christians are normally hypothesised to have eaten the same food as their non-Christian Roman contemporaries,” the team says. “Within the larger context of what is currently known about Roman dietary habits, the inclusion of freshwater fish therefore comes as unexpected and raises questions about the social origins of Christianity as well.”

“When Romans ate fish at all, they are normally believed to have consumed sea fish. Freshwater fish has not been considered as an essential ingredient in the classical Roman diet.” In AD301, the Emperor Diocletian’s Edict on Prices tried to fix the cost of freshwater fish at around a half to a third of its marine equivalent, so that even the poor could eat it. Roman fish probably came from the Tiber, and would have been a free or cheap source of protein.

On this basis, Rutgers and his colleagues conclude “that at least the small selection of early Christians analysed were all simple folk, suggesting that the inclusion of freshwater fish is indicative of a relative lack of wealth rather than of religiously motivated ascetic behaviour”.

It sounds like the early Christians caught their own fish. Can we draw any other conclusions from this odd fact?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Bruce Gee

    Probably too small a selection to "draw conclusions", but we know that Christianity resonated with slaves and poorer people. Still does. Onesimus comes to mind. Of course, we like the allusion to "fishers of men".

  • Bruce Gee

    Probably too small a selection to "draw conclusions", but we know that Christianity resonated with slaves and poorer people. Still does. Onesimus comes to mind. Of course, we like the allusion to "fishers of men".

  • Bryan Lindemood

    That I should definitely try to offset the family protein budget a little this spring and summer by fishing a whole lot more than usual. Let's go fishing!

  • Bryan Lindemood

    That I should definitely try to offset the family protein budget a little this spring and summer by fishing a whole lot more than usual. Let's go fishing!

  • Carl Vehse

    The British news article's reference to "the higher nitrogen and lower carbon figures indicate the consumption of freshwater fish," should be clarified. The "figures" actually refer to ratio differences involving 15N and 14N stable isotopes and ratio differences involving 13C and 12C stable isotopes, compared to respective standards.

    The statement, ”The contribution of such fish to the diet of the early Christians in Rome ranges from 18 to 43 per cent, averaging at around 30 per cent….” is much more speculative in the original Journal of Archaeological Science paper:

    “In an attempt to calculate the relative proportion of aquatic food to a given diet, Cook et al. (2001) propose a simple linear model that operates on the notion of a completely terrestrial diet with a δ15N [delta 15N] value of 8‰ [8 permil] and a completely aquatic diet in the range of 17‰ [17 permil].” [Emphases added]

  • Carl Vehse

    The British news article's reference to "the higher nitrogen and lower carbon figures indicate the consumption of freshwater fish," should be clarified. The "figures" actually refer to ratio differences involving 15N and 14N stable isotopes and ratio differences involving 13C and 12C stable isotopes, compared to respective standards.

    The statement, ”The contribution of such fish to the diet of the early Christians in Rome ranges from 18 to 43 per cent, averaging at around 30 per cent….” is much more speculative in the original Journal of Archaeological Science paper:

    “In an attempt to calculate the relative proportion of aquatic food to a given diet, Cook et al. (2001) propose a simple linear model that operates on the notion of a completely terrestrial diet with a δ15N [delta 15N] value of 8‰ [8 permil] and a completely aquatic diet in the range of 17‰ [17 permil].” [Emphases added]

  • Carl Vehse

    After admitting that the fish making up the diet could have been either caught or purchased cheaply in the marketplace, Rutgers, et al. (Journal of Archaeological Science 36 [2009] 1127–1134) bring up the issue of fasting by early Christians and whether such fasting excluded all meats or allowed fish (this indeed was debated by Church hierarchy for centuries). Rutgers then makes this interesting conjecture:

    “[T]he regular consumption of fish that does not seem to have cost too much, as well as the absence of a fully and uniformly developed ecclesiastical ideology on fasting, prompts the conclusion that in the case of this particular population pragmatic considerations are likely to have outweighed religious ones in the choice of diet: Rome’s early Christians ate fish, first and foremost, because it was freely available.

  • Carl Vehse

    After admitting that the fish making up the diet could have been either caught or purchased cheaply in the marketplace, Rutgers, et al. (Journal of Archaeological Science 36 [2009] 1127–1134) bring up the issue of fasting by early Christians and whether such fasting excluded all meats or allowed fish (this indeed was debated by Church hierarchy for centuries). Rutgers then makes this interesting conjecture:

    “[T]he regular consumption of fish that does not seem to have cost too much, as well as the absence of a fully and uniformly developed ecclesiastical ideology on fasting, prompts the conclusion that in the case of this particular population pragmatic considerations are likely to have outweighed religious ones in the choice of diet: Rome’s early Christians ate fish, first and foremost, because it was freely available.

  • Bruce Gee

    More academic guesswork.

  • Bruce Gee

    More academic guesswork.

  • Carl Vehse

    Leonard Rutgers' bio.

    And for what it's worth, an academic quote from a theoretical physicist:

    "We all know the real reason universities have students is in order to educate the professors." – John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008), 1976.

  • Carl Vehse

    Leonard Rutgers' bio.

    And for what it's worth, an academic quote from a theoretical physicist:

    "We all know the real reason universities have students is in order to educate the professors." – John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008), 1976.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Amen, Bryan!

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Amen, Bryan!


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