The Bread Demanded by Nature: Gregory of Nyssa’s Interpretation of the ‘Daily Bread’ in the Context of Greco-Roman Moral Instruction

Siri Toiviainen, University of Helsinki

“Ask for bread because life needs it, and you owe it to the body because of your nature.” Or. dom. 4 Unlike Origen who rejects a material interpretation of the ‘daily bread’, Gregory of Nyssa affirms that the petition in the Lord’s Prayer refers to our bodily sustenance in this life. He argues that physical needs are an inherent feature of the embodied human existence and may thus be legitimately satisfied without compromising the purity of the soul. In this paper, I will argue that Gregory’s interpretation of the ‘daily bread’ can be fruitfully read in the context of Greco-Roman moral instruction in which bread frequently stands as the symbol of legitimate bodily needs. I will first comment briefly on the central place of bread in the ancient Mediterranean diet. Then I will point out how the centrality of bread makes it a popular metaphor for all bodily sustenance, drawing parallels between Or. dom. 4 and the works of Seneca, Plutarch, and Clement of Alexandria. By bringing Gregory into dialogue with prominent texts of Greco-Roman moral instruction, I will show how Or. dom. 4 incorporates many common ideas and expressions that centre on bread as daily nourishment. I will draw attention, for example, to the widespread notion that nature demands only bread, and the contrast between ‘bread’ and ‘relish’ (ὄψον) as metaphors for appropriate and excessive nutrition.