According to the writers of Matthew and Luke, Jesus reports the following,

For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luke 7:33-34; cf. Matthew 11:18-19)

What, if anything, does this tell us about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, reportedly from his own words? On the surface it would seem that at the least, John and Jesus had different eating and drinking habits. John was apparently the more ascetic and Jesus was perhaps a bit less disciplined of diet. Is this what the text seeks to convey? Are we to assume that Jesus ate and drank too much, earning him a reputation as a glutton and a drunkard? Certainly this is not the way his modern day followers think of him! Some would admit that he probably tasted of the fruit of the vine, but would never go so far as to suggest that he ever over indulged. In the well-known gospel account of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12), it is recorded that Jesus performed a miracle in which he changed water into wine, but many have debated on whether or not the wine was fermented. Did Jesus either miraculously produce or consume fermented drink? And why, we might ask, would his enemies call him a glutton and a drunkard?

Perhaps the charge had nothing at all to do with his diet. The source of the name-calling can be shown to be the Torah of Moses and has more to do with a charge of rebellion against authority than with having too much to eat and drink.

Deuteronomy chapter twenty-one contains a passage that sheds light on our understanding of the charge against Jesus contained in the gospel accounts.

RSV Deuteronomy 21:18 “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, `This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard (zolel v’soveh).’ 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

We do not possess evidence from the gospels that his mother or father ever brought him before the elders of ‘his city’ with this claim. We do however meet from time to time with family confrontations in the gospels, most of which are explained as examples of hyper dedication on the part of Jesus to perform his father’s business[1].

The passage in question, according to the Hebrew text of Shem Tob’s Matthew[2] as well as the Du Tillet’s Hebrew Matthew[3] both read zolel v’soveh in accordance with Deuteronomy 21:20. It is preserved in such a way that it hardly remains noticeable as a direct link to the charge indicated in the Torah. Rather, we are inclined to take the charge of the unidentified ‘some’ as a scornful reference to Jesus’ eating habits. While the eating habits of Jesus were unlike those of his ascetic cousin John, the text in Matthew 11:19 is more likely referring to the prevalent view of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day that he was a rebel.

Perhaps there are other sayings preserved within the New Testament corpus that are yet to be uncovered that will shed new light on the views of the religious authorities concerning Jesus. While blasphemy is normally understood to be the motivator of several attempted ‘stonings’ of Jesus (Mark 16:64; Matthew 26:65-66; John 19:7; John 8:59; 10:31-33) perhaps there were other factors such as rebellion against religious authority that led the Jews to a negative appraisal of his self-proclaimed task.


[1] Luke records how Jesus remained in Jerusalem while his parents were returning home. This apparently caused some dispute with the young lad, who retorted, “Don’t you know that I am about my Father’s business?” One could also include various accounts scattered throughout the texts that show some disparity between Jesus and his close kin. Examples would include Mark 3:30-35 and similar texts such as John 2:4 etc.

[2] Howard, G. (1995). Hebrew gospel of Matthew (2nd ed.). Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

[3] Trimm, J.S. (1990). B’sorot Matti, the good news according to Matthew from an old Hebrew manuscript. Hurst, TX: Hebrew / Aramaic New Testament Research Institute.