My first post in this series summarized and lightly critiqued a piece by Justin Rogers at the FHU lectureship in 2008. Here I turn my attention to the flow of Luke’s narrative which offers us the “big picture.” With Justin I recognize some level of ambiguity, especially in terms of the specific texts themselves. However, I believe that a narrative approach illuminates Luke’s plot in a way that reduces that ambiguity. If we suspend the presuppositions that the Lord’s Supper is only bread and wine, only on Sunday and closed to everyone but believers, I think the narrative speaks with a fairly clear voice.
While each occasion of “breaking bread” must be considered in the context of its specific pericope, the larger–and perhaps more formative as it should shape how we read each speicific text–context is Luke’s whole two-volume narrative. This is my starting point. What is the narrative context, plot and meaning of “breaking of bread” in the Luke-Acts narrative? In other words, what is the narrative’s big picture?
Of course, there is a reciprocal relationship between a specific pericope and the larger narrative. One will contextualize the other. At the same time, the narrative develops its plot and chooses its words in order to connect the whole with the part. Consequently, as we read something late in the narrative we should we aware that the author may have alerted us to its meaning and function by something earlier in the narrative. Or, another way of putting that, the narrative plot developed in the previous narrative is a lens through which we read the remaing narrative. Or, more specifically, can it be that the Gospel of Luke is the lens through which we read the history in Acts? I think so.
Breaking bread is a rather rare Hebraic expression. It is not found in ancient Greek and Latin texts and it only appears three times (Isaiah 58:7; Jeremiah 16:7; Lamentations 4:4). It probably derives from the first ritual act of a meal–the act of blessing or thanksgiving (analogous to “saying grace” but with some concrete act regarding the food). Consequently, “breaking bread” is a part for the whole; it is a reference to the whole meal by noting the first act of the meal itself.
Luke distinguishes between “eat bread” (Luke 7:33; 14:1, 15) and “break bread.” Why does Luke use this different language? It may be stylistic, but it may also reflect some theological intentionality. That is, Luke intends to convey something with “breaking bread” that is more Christological, more Messianic. This is apparent, it seems to me, when “breaking bread” is only used in redemptive contexts–they are meals pregnant with soteriological meaning.
Luke uses “bread” as a metaphor for “food” (cf. Luke 4:3; 9:3; 11:3, 11; 15:17). To “break bread,” then, for Luke is to eat a meal. The only time Luke uses “bread” in Acts is in the phrase ”breaking bread.” In Acts he focuses on this meal that the new community of disciples ate together which, in the narrative plot of Luke-Acts, is rooted in the Messianic table of Jesus.
The Breaking Bread Texts
The fourfold formula occurs in three of the six pericopes in Luke’s narrative–all of them in his Gospel: (1) he took or taking (a from of lambano), (2) he blessed (eulogeo) or gave thanks (eucharisteo), (3) he broke (katakleo, klao, klasis), and (4) gave (didomi). The fourfold expression is repeated in liturgical literature in the second and third centuries as part of the words of institution and liturgically re-enacted.
Below are the “breaking bread” texts in the literal translation of the 1901 ASV:
- Luke 9:16 – “And he took (labon) the five loaves and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed (eulogesen) them, and brake (kateklasen); and gave (edidou) to the disciples to set before the multitude.”
- Luke 22:19 – “And he took (labon) bread, and when he had given thanks (eucharistesas), he brake (eklasen) it, and gave (edoken) to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.”
- Luke 24:30 – ”And it came to pass, when he had sat down with them to meat, he took (labon) the bread and blessed (eulogesen); and breaking (klasas) it he gave (epedidou) to them.”
- Luke 24:35 – “And they rehearsed the things that happened in the way, and how he was known of them in the breaking (klasei) of the bread.”
- Acts 2:42 – “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking (klasei) of [the] bread and the prayers.”
- Acts 2:46 – ” And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking (klontes) bread at home, they took (metelambanon) their food (trophes) with gladness and singleness of heart,”
- Acts 20:7 – “And upon the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break (klasai) [the] bread, Paul discoursed with them, intending to depart on the morrow; and prolonged his speech until midnight.”
- Acts 20:11 – “And when he was gone up, and had broken (klasas) the bread, and eaten (geusamenos), and had talked with them a long while, even till break of day, so he departed.”
- Acts 27:35-38 – “And when he had said this, and had taken (labon) bread, he gave thanks (eucharistesen) to God in the presence of all; and he brake (klasas) it, and began to eat (esthiein). Then were they all of good cheer, and themselves also took (proseabonto) food (trophes). And we were in all in the ship two hundred threescore and sixteen souls. And when they had eaten enough (trophes), they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea.”
I think it is significant that the fourfold formula appears in the Gospel but does not appear in Acts. I suggest that the Acts usage of “breaking bread” depends on the Gospel. Since Luke has already narrated the theological meaning of “breaking bread” through the feeding in the wilderness, the Passover meal and the post-resurrection meals, there is no need to repeat that in Acts. It is assumed.
When we encounter “breaking bread” in Acts 2:42 and throughout the Acts narrative, Luke intends us to use theological lens he gave us in his Gospel for understanding what that is. It does not appear in Acts ex nihilo; rather, it appears out of the matrix of what Luke did with that language in the significant Messianic contexts of Luke 9, 22, and 24.
It is analogous to reading the triology Lord of the Rings. While the first volume The Fellowship of the Ring gives lots of attention to the Hobbits’ Shire, the second volume–Two Towers–does not. Why? It is assumed that the reader of the second volume already understands the significance of the Shire from the first volume. Consequently, Tolkien can use “Shire” in the second volume without explanation.
I think this is what Luke does. He narrates the theological significance of “breaking bread” in his Gospel, but only uses shorthand in Acts. He simply refers to the “breaking of bread” with the confidence that the reader should understand its meaning from his Gospel.
The Plot Line
So, what is the narrative plot line regarding “breaking bread”? The below chart pictures the flow itself as the Gospel and Acts are hinged by the significant theological statement that Jesus is revealed in the Breaking of the Bread (Luke 24:35). This is the theological meaning of breaking bread. In this meal the risen Christ is recognized, revealed, made known, seen or experienced.
- Luke 9: A Messianic Event–Feeding Israel in the Wilderness
- Luke 22: A Messianic Event–The Passover Fulfilled
- Luke 24: A Messianic Event–A Resurrection Meal
- Luke 22: A Messianic Event–The Passover Fulfilled
Luke 24:35–Hinge Text: Jesus is Revealed in the Breaking of the Bread
- Acts 2: Messianic Community Devoted to the Breaking of Bread
- Acts 20: Messianic Community Gathered to Break Bread
- Acts 27: Messianic Community Breaks Bread with Others for Hope
- Acts 20: Messianic Community Gathered to Break Bread
The Gospel narrates the meaning in terms of Jesus’ Messianic function in Luke 9. He is the Christ; he feeds his people manna in the wilderness. He serves his people and redeems their hunger, which is symbolic of much more than mere physical hunger. The Gospel narrates the Passover meal in which Jesus announces the coming kingdom–the next time he eats and drinks with them at Passover it will be in the kingdom of God. The “breaking of bread” is the experience of Passover in the kingdom of God. The Gospel narrates the post-resurrection meals with the disciples. They eat and drink with the risen Christ. Significantly, Jesus is the host of each of these meals; he breaks the bread and gives thanks. These are the only times he actually hosts in the Gospel.
Acts continues the story but with abbreviated language. The new Messianic community devotes itself to breaking bread, that is, eating with the risen Christ in community. Acts 2 pictures a community daily gathering to break bread. Acts 20 is the experience of the risen Christ through the rising of Eutyches. When the disciples came together to break bread on the first day of the week, they experienced resurrection. Acts 27 is a parable or symbolic of the mission of Christ to include the Gentiles as the sailors and soldiers are invited to share in the breaking of bread as an assurance of their salvation from death in the coming shipwreck.
The hinge between the Gospel and Acts is Luke 24:35. It announces what “breaking bread” does–it reveals the living Christ; it is an experience of the living Christ. In each of the pericopes–Luke 9, 22, 24; Acts 2, 20, 27–God gives life both in the present and with hope for the future.
First, every occasion for “breaking bread” was hopeful and redemptive; God was present in a redemptive way.
- Luke 9: the Messiah feeds his hungry people in the wilderness.
- Luke 22: the Messiah announces the coming of the kingdom with eating and drinking at the Passover, anticipating eating and drinking with them in the future kindom.
- Luke 24: the resurrected Messiah breaks bread and eats with his disciples as he commissions them to take up his mission.
- Acts 2: the newly baptized community is devoted to the breaking of bread as they eat together every day with joy and praise
- Acts 20: the community gathered to break bread and celebrated the resurrection of Jesus in the presence of the resurrected Eutyches.
- Acts 27: sailors, soldiers and prisoners break bread in the hope of salvation from death in the coming shipwreck.
Second, every occasion involves food or a meal.
- Luke 9: after the breaking of bread, it is a meal of bread and fish.
- Luke 22: after the breaking of bread, it is a Passover meal.
- Luke 24: they sat down to eat a meal which began with the breaking of bread
- Act 2: breaking bread involved eating food (trophes).
- Acts 20: breaking bread involved eating (literally, tasting) food.
- Acts 27: breaking bread involved eathing foor (trophes).
It seems to me, at least, that we should presume that Luke uses his language consistently, that is, with the same meaning, unless he gives us some clear reason to think otherwise. Having set up the meaning of “breaking bread” in his Gospel, he assumes it in the Acts of the Apostles. The presumption is that he uses the language with the same meaning throughout. Only the specific and narrow context of the Acts passages could contravene the narrative’s presumption. Consequently, we must look closely at each text in coming posts. In future posts I will take up the specific texts and their contexts. More to come….