My interest has recently been rekindled in thinking about “breaking bread” in several ways. Recently, I have received several emails asking questions, seeking more information and wanting deeper reflection on the exegetical as well as theological dimensions of what Luke describes as “breaking bread.”
More specifically, in recent months I have read Justin Rogers’ piece in the 2008 Freed-Hardeman Lectureship book (pp. 418-426; get a pdf file of all the published lectureships from 1953-2009 here for $25). Justin is currently a Ph.D. student at Hebrew Union College and serves the “Church of Christ that meets at Loveland Heights, Ohio” as Youth Minister. I do not know Justin but would enjoy getting to know him. His work is a substantial piece; it is a credible piece and deserves attention. I shall give it some.
What intrigued–and, to be honest, perlexed–me is a statement that “Hicks assumes that the breaking of bread is the Lord’s Supper without laboring to prove his case. Throughout the work, he seems to be more interested in a theological rather than a textual point of view” (p. 421). While I do not recognize myself in that statement since I want to think theologically on the basis of exegesis and not without it, I will not quibble here about it other than to leave it to readers of my Come to the Table to assess whether Justin is correct or not. To the extent that he is (which I honestly don’t think is very much ), I will remedy this in a few posts in this series.
In this initial post I will summarize his argument and conclusions as fairly as I am able.
He correctly notes that describing a meal by “breaking bread” is rather novel in the first century as it only occurs three times in the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 58:7; Jeremiah 16:7; Lamentations 4:4). It is a Hebraic expression as evidenced by its absence in Greek and Latin texts. Yet, as Rogers notes, Luke and other NT authors (Matthew, Mark, and Paul) used this peculiar phrase rather than the more normal “eat.” Indeed, I might add, Luke uses “eat bread” on several occasions (e.g., Luke 14:1). So it raises the interesting question of why Luke (in particular) uses “break” at times and “eat” at other times. Does he have something special or unique in mind when he uses “break bread”? I think so…but I digress.
Justin outlines three positions (p. 419): (1) Breaking bread is always a common meal; (2) Breaking bread is always the Lord’s Supper; and (3) Breaking bread may mean a common meal at times and the Lord’s Supper at other times. I would add a fourth possibility (4) Breaking bread is the Lord’s meal (it is both food–a meal–and embodies the special meaning of proclaiming the gospel; it is the Lord’s Supper as a meal with festive food). Justin recognizes this as a position at the bottom of page 420.
Concerning common meal (1), Justin notes that many read Acts 2:46 and the feedings in the Gospel (Matthew 14:19; 15:36; Mark 6:41; 8:6, 19; Luke 9:16) this way as well as the post-resurrection meal in Luke 24:35. But he responds that the “breaking bread” is certainly sometimes something more or different than a mere common meal as 1 Corinthians 10:16 evidences (there it is the bread by which we commune with the body of Christ). He does not think the evidence of the feedings is germane to the Lord’s Supper because “they occur before the crucifixion, and thus prior to the institution of the Lord’s Supper” (p. 420). [That is a piece of dispensational hermeneutics which I think is flawed.]
Concerning the identification (2), Justin does not think we can say “breaking bread” is always the Lord’s Supper, that is, the Supper as bread and wine, not as a meal. One of the primary reasons, it seems, is that 1 Corinthians 11 is “serious and somber” in mood while Acts 2:46 is “rather joyous and jubilant” (p. 421). This reflects, as Justin notes, the distinction Lietzmann made between the “Jerusalem” type of supper and the “Pauline” type of supper. [Oscar Cullmann, I believe, effectively countered this absolute distinction in his Essays on the Lord's Supper, but that is for another time.]
But Justin’s denial of “always” for (2) is rooted in further details. First, the absence of wine in the phrase “breaking bread” indicates that it was not probably part of the practice of these meals due to its expense [but it was part of the Passover where Jesus broke bread]. Thus, the daily breaking of bread is probably not the Lord’s Supper which needs wine. Second, if “breaking bread” was the technical term for the Lord’s Supper, “why did thanksgiving (eucharistia) become the primary technical term for the Supper in the early second century?” (p. 422). [Primary, yes, but certainly not the only technical phrase used to describe it and "breaking bread" was one that was used.] Third, why would starving sailors “celebrate the Lord’s Supper” when they had not eaten for fourteen days in Acts 27:33-38? [Perhaps because it was a meal.]
Concerning the “breaking of bread as Both Common Meal and the Lord’s Supper” (3), sometimes breaking bread is the Lord’s Supper and sometimes it is a common meal; only context can determine. Here Justin describes his own perspective by looking at each text in Acts. Acts 2:42 is “ambiguous, and any reference to the Lord’s Supper must be imposed on it” (p. 422) since the definitive description “the bread” is not determinative as illustrated by the article in Luke 24:35 also. [This is an important point often overlooked by those who wish to make the article in 2:42 the critical point, and many of those advocates would ignore the article in Acts 20:11 as well and think it a common meal rather than the Lord's Supper.] Acts 2:46 is “also ambiguous” since “food” does not necessarily entail a meal (e.g., Justin Martyr refers to the Eucharistic bread as “food”). So, both Acts 2 texts are ambiguous and do “not leave us with enough evidence to draw a firm conclusion” (p. 423). [I find this a courageous conclusion in a FHU lectureship book, and I admire Justin's willingess to go where the evidence leads him.]
Acts 20:7, however, is often regarded as the Lord’s Supper “because the text specifically mentions the ‘first day of the week'” but we also know early Christians ate the Agape meal on Sundays too (p. 423). Even the custom of gathering on the first day of the week to eat a meal was an established custom for a common meal, according to Justin, as seen in Luke 24:41-43; John 20:19, 26. So, perhaps the church at Troas come together to simply “eat a common meal with their beloved Paul” (p. 424). Justin, however, does think Acts 20:7 is the Lord’s Supper eaten on Sunday but a “firm conclusion is questionable” (p. 425). [Again, an amazingly courageous and honest statement.]
So, his conclusion is that breaking bread is not always the Lord’s Supper and was not a “technical term for the Supper” (contra my book). The prhase sometimes describes the Lord’s Supper and sometimes a meal, but never both at the same time. “Ultimately,” he writes, “to achieve clarity, we must sumon the voices of the early second century fathers, who observed the Lord’s Supper on Sunday, and referrred to the meal as the Eucharist” (p. 425).
Consequently, it is most likely that Acts 20:7, 11 refer to the Lord’s Supper but “to prove from the Bible alone that this is the case is difficult. Any Eucharsitic reading of the phrase ‘breaking bread’ must be considered theoretical” (p. 425, emphases mine). History must decide. “The uniform practice of celebrating the Supper on Sunday alone was likely a tradition with the direct stamp of apostolic approval. It is thus entirely consistent with our evidence to conclude that at least Acts 20:7, 11 is an example of the Lord’s Supper being described as ‘the breaking of bread'” (p. 426).
In appreciation, I do honor Justin’s attention to the sources–both historical and biblical. It is evident that he has read significantly in the literature. His open investigation is welcome and he is not boxed in by traditional interpretation (as his reading of Acts 2:42 and 2:46 illustrate). So, I truly appreciate the article.
However, I do think it flawed. I will offer details in coming posts (I don’t know how many at this time). But permit me to introduce some broad perspectives at this point.
- At one level, I do not think he sufficiently accounts for the narratival context of Luke’s language. Reading Luke as a narrative whole with a plot thread about “breaking bread” is more holistic and contextual than the atmoistic dissection of specific texts. (I will say more about this in my next post).
- At another level, his reliance on the second century (with an astounding statement–though it may be true–that the “Bible alone” is not sufficient to establish with certainty a Sunday only practice of the Lord’s Supper) is flawed, that is, the second century was not “Sunday alone” and the early second century was meal-based. (But more on that later).
- At another level, his basic assumption seems to be–ruled out presuppositionally it appears to me, but I may be wrong–that “breaking of bread” could never refer to the Lord’s Supper as a meal with bread, wine and food because the Lord’s Supper is only bread and wine. This presupposition seems to lurk underneath his argument about the meaning of specific texts (e.g., the comment about Acts 27 assumes that breaking bread could not be the Lord’s Supper because they were hungry and needed a meal).
Nevertheless, I welcome the dialogue and I appreciate his work. It is thorough in many ways–as much as space would permit in a crowded lectureship book–and it surveys some of the ground quite nicely. It deserves engagement which I am happy to do in a few posts to come.
Thanks for your work, brother Rogers. It is a welcome addition to the discussion.