Breaking Bread in Luke-Acts II: Narratival Context

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. 

General Observations

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 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

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.

Reflections

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….



12 Responses to “Breaking Bread in Luke-Acts II: Narratival Context”

  1.   Terrell Lee Says:

    JMH: “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.” TL: Isn’t this almost identical to what has been taught in the C of C regarding baptism, that there’s no need to give the full details of conversion in every episode since Acts 2 somewhat establishes the “pattern?”

    Excellent post. But I promise you…there is tremendous resistance to this out in the pew. But that’s were our job comes in, right?

  2. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Good question, Terrell….your insight is on target, I think. It is exactly what we have said about “patternism” in conversion. I imagine the difference here is that the Gospel of Luke is before Pentecost and, therefore, is not applicable, etc.

    And, yes, it is your job, not mine. :-) Just kidding, of course.

  3.   Terrell Lee Says:

    Regarding Acts 27…I may have noted this in a previous response, can’t remember…at the risk of repeating I’ll share (again) anyway.

    My daughter and granddaughter recently worshiped with us. The bread was passed and my 3+ year old g’daughter took her piece and held it while her mom talked with her; same with the wine. It was obvious this wasn’t her first time to break bread. Her mom was explaining/reminding her of the significance of the bread and wine. It was a beautiful sight but was it scriptural? No, not entirely. But consider this. During the OT feasts, were the children left out? Were outcasts, unbelievers, non-Jews ever included? In Luke’s writings (who could hardly write a paragraph w/o including food in it) was the intent to exclude or include people from the table of God? Will unimmersed children be served by God at the great eschatalogical banquet? Sure, the eucharist carries a special significance for believers (no one questions this), but does that mean unbelievers should be excluded? Luke and Paul didn’t think so. I see Acts 27 to be in the context of food from the God who will save those threatened by the storm. Shouldn’t sailors praise such a God as that?

    Your thoughts, John Mark?

  4. Profile photo of johnnymelton  Johnny Melton Says:

    Regarding the notion that a child participating in the Supper may not be entirely scriptural, may I suggest the following? I find nothing in any of the texts regarding the Lord’s Supper that suggests that anyone present for the meal should not participate in it. Even the text that calls for self-examination is not intended to exclude. The NRSV comes close, but even it, ultimately, contains the call to eat. “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” The RSV has simply, “Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” It was not Paul’s intent to stifle eating and drinking, but it was his intent to regulate the eating and drinking so that the meal did not become one’s own private meal, instead of what it was intended to be: the Lord’s Supper, a fellowship (koinonia) or communal (communion) meal, where everyone is included (therefore the exhotation, “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat wait for one another”). And if we are to learn anything from OT covenant meals, (and I think we should, it was written for our learning, after all, and the Lord’s Supper was instituted during the celebration of one of those meals), then children have a place at the table. I suggest that a mother explaining the significance of the bread and the cup to a child as they eat together meets Paul’s challenge to eat reflectively and communally. Therefore, I believe it to be quite scriptural.

    •   Charlie Harrison Says:

      I am not yet convinced that the conclusion (children welcome at the table) is supported by the evidence presented.

      • Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

        I can appreicate that, Charlie. Many are not convinced and that is okay as long as we are not divisive about our opinions on this question. Blessings, John Mark

  5.   Terrell Lee Says:

    Good thoughts on your “Children at the Table” piece. Thanks for sharing that.

    Two briefies: (1) I didn’t mean to lead your blog off the main topic, but only to illustrate how the Supper could or even should include children, in perhaps the same way that Acts 27 could include sailors. (2) When I wrote that it is not entirely “scriptural” for a child to participate in the Supper, I didn’t mean that in the sense of “sinful” but more in the sense of there is no specific NT example of children eating the supper.

    Johnny, thanks.

  6. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    No problem…it is relevant, especially as we see the table as a Supper, uh, a meal. Table, meal, supper: they sound like synonyms to me. :-)

    I always appreciate your comments, Terrell, and your insights.

    •   Clyde Hopson Says:

      Brother Hicks how does your congregation accomplish the Lord’s Supper every Sunday? Do you wait til after the worship service and then go to individual homes? Do you have a large room to accommodate the entire congregation? It seems a bit tricky to organize. Also do you offer the Lord’s Supper Sunday evening? I appreciate your thoughts and your wrtings.

  7.   rich constant Says:

    the words that paul uses john mark,”as often as you do it”????
    I think 2cor. no bible handy…
    assembly two or more. yes?
    family meal together with the host(lord)as we comune with our god any time…
    not only sunday? i have thought about this a little bit and find service very impersonial not at all what i feel is best or better for a true family gathering
    with our transcendent Father.
    to me as our understanding through psycology of a peer group structure and how important the group is to development of the person.
    we as a church do not congragate with our father as intended because of the leagle heranutic also the historical transitions that have come about.
    that in my thinking has comprised the intent of the Spirit in a lot of ways on this subject….
    A LOT OF THE TIMEi think we focus a bit to much on SIN and not the freedom from that by grace through faith and have become a distant assembly to one another on a personial level as a result.
    a good old family getogether every sundy would be rather refreshing dusscings the past week and the atta boys and the it will be alright’s helping one another cope in the world a little more like the lord would have us to rom. 12 also rom.16

    not that i am comfused any more than i normalaly am…
    but thanks john mark for the three books that you and your friends wrote.
    :-)
    blessings
    rich

  8.   rich constant Says:

    another thought
    is it not christ in us…
    and should we not break bread with our brothers…
    a lot..in a theological way…
    as christ did with his friends…
    to god’s glory…
    anyway my fellow partispants in a work of faith
    BLESSINGS…
    :-)

  9. Profile photo of johnnymelton  Johnny Melton Says:

    Terrell,
    I think that understanding the Lord’s Supper in the narrative context of God’s covenant relationship with Israel justifies the conclusions that you have reached in your first “briefies.” But in the CEI paradigm that we cut our teeth on, I believe that from the texts dealing with “breaking bread” it can be inferred that children, when present, participated in the meal. So even without a direct command, or an example, I believe we can still argue that it is scriptural.

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