Acts 27:35 is the last use of “breaking bread” in Acts.There is a broad consensus in the history of interpretation that this text cannot refer to the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. The reasons have generally been two-fold. (1) The meal involves the consumption of “food” (trophes) and therefore it cannot be the Lord’s Supper because the Lord’s Supper is not a meal. (2) Paul invites unbelievers to participate in this meal and therefore it cannot be the Lord’s Supper because it is exclusively for baptized believers.
Both of those reasons are imported into the Luke-Acts narrative. They are presuppositions that limit the meaning of Luke’s text. (1) is problematic because Luke has already used the language of eating a meal and food with prior references to “breaking bread” (cf. Acts 2:46 and 20:11). Extending the breaking bread language back into the narrative of Luke’s Gospel, it is clearly a meal every time it is used there. In fact, we might argue that the fact that Acts 27 is a meal context is not only consistent with Luke’s usage but exactly his point–it is a redemptive meal, and part of why we should identify it with Lord’s Supper in Luke-Acts.
(2) is a more substantial reason but it is still imported into the context. In fact, the first breaking of bread in Luke’s narrative (Luke 9:16) is the feeding of thousands–a number that probably included disciples, skeptics and seekers. At bottom, however, it seems to me that the text–read on Luke’s on narrative terms–should reshape that presupposition if indeed the language supports a Eucharistic reading. So, in the final analysis it is about what the text says within the context of Luke’s narrative.
Text: Acts 27:21-26, 30-36 (ESV)
Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we must run aground on some island”….And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the ship’s boat into the sea under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go. As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves.
This “breaking bread” story is the most difficult of Luke’s narrative for construing as a religious or Christological meal. One cannot be absolutely certain about its meaning, but it is likely, given the language used, that the first Christian readers would have used the Lord’s Supper as a frame of reference for understanding this meal on the ship and that the narrative use of “breaking bread” has led us to this point. Paul used the meal as a means of encouragement and assurance. Eating represented hope: all would be saved, so all ate. If this is a eucharsitic breaking of bread, it teaches the church that the Supper is about hope and inclusivism, that is, that all are invited to share in the salvation of God, even pagan Roman soldiers. All are invited to the table to hear and taste the mercy of God.
That is my basic understading of the text. Below are the arguments that, to me, suggest this meaning. In Come to the Table, I did not deal with this text except through an extended footnote because I thought it would be distracting and I thought I could make my case in the book however one interpreted this text. Acts 2 and Acts 20 within their own contexts mean what they mean irrespective of how we understand Acts 27. Now, however, I offer here a fuller account of why I think this text contributes to our understanding of “breaking bread” in Luke-Acts.
Redemptive Significance of the Meal. The language surrounding the text is filled with soteriological imagery: not a soul will be lost, v.22; “do not be afraid,” v.24; God’s graciousness, v.24; faith in God, v.25; salvation, v.31; brought safely through, v.44/28:1; everyone was encouraged, v.36. Nothing is ordinary about this meal, especially in the light of Luke’s portrayal of Paul on this journey. It is a meal promising salvation; a meal of hope and encouragement. The meal is a concrete witness to the coming salvation of God. I think that sounds familiar in terms of the Lord’s Supper.
Gospel and Acts Travelogue. The parallel structures of Luke and Acts: turning the face toward a destination, trials, imprisonment, climatic events, etc. give this meal a parallel with the Last Supper in Luke 22 Luke intentionally parallels the events of Jesus’ life at the end of Luke and with the events of Paul’s life at the end of Acts (Cf. M. D. Goulder, Type and History in Acts [London: S.P.C.K., 1964] and C. Talbert, Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts [Missoula: Scholars Press, 1974]). Just as Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem (Luke 9-19), so Paul is travelling to Rome (Acts 19). Just as Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem (Luke 22), so was Paul (Acts 21). Just as Jesus had two trials (Luke 22-23), so did Paul (Acts 24-25). Just as Jesus ate a meal with his companions before facing the darkness of Friday (Luke 22), so Paul ate a meal with his companions before facing the darkness of the shipwreck (Acts 27). This meal on the ship is Paul’s “Last Supper” within the narrative. Describing that meal, Luke uses what the early church recognized as a eucharistic formula. Early Christians would not have missed the association since they heard that language in their communities; it was the language of Jesus’ “Last Supper.”
Jew-Gentile Table Fellowship. The story also fits Luke’s emphasis on Jew-Gentile table fellowship as the symbol of the new Christian community (cf. Philip Francis Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987], 102ff). The “table” here in Acts 27 is a continuation and, in some ways, a climatic representation of the goal of the kingdom of God to invite all to sit at the table–Jew or Gentile, slave or soldier, prisoner or free. It is a continuation of the function of the table in the ministry of Jesus. In particular, it is the inclusion of the Gentiles at the table (reminding us of the Cornelius narratives in Acts 10-11).
Eucharistic Language. The text has the most eucharistic language in Acts; it is the text that most linguistically parallels Luke 22:19 and Luke 24:30. Only here does “give thanks,” “take” and “break bread” occur in Acts in a way that parallels Luke 22:19 and Luke 24:30. The text has three of the four features of the fourfold formula of take, break bread, give thanks and give (distribution is implied; the Western text of Acts adds “giving also to us”). Why does Luke recall this specific language from earlier in his narrative if not to connect the reader with those events? Luke uses the very language that would give Eucharistic significance to the meal. He could have avoided that if he desired. Instead, he is quite intentional about connecting us back to his Gospel.
Summary. The narrative flow, the redemptive setting, the use of climatic themes, and the eucharistic language convince me that this is, in fact, an occasion when Paul invited unbelieving Gentiles to experience the grace of God through a meal in light of God’s redemptive act for them on the next day. It was a witness to God’s salvation–not only in the shipwreck, but in Christ. It was a promissory meal; a proleptic experience of the coming day of salvation. The meal was an invitation to trust in God’s saving work. That is, in fact, part of the dynamic and meaning of the Lord’s Supper itself.
I think C. K. Barrett nails the point quite well when we writes (“Paul Shipwrecked,” in Scripture: Meaning and Method, ed. Barry P. Thompson [North Yorkshire: Hull University Press, 1987], 60): “It seems unthinkable that Luke should have forgotten that he had written at significant points in his gospel the words that he uses here, and very improbable that the words were not used, and were not known by him to be used, by the church of which he was a member at its regular meeting for Supper.”
Perhaps, at the very least, as Bonz suggests, the language could be seen as “another example of Luke’s propensity to suggest a theme without insisting upon it” (Marianne Palmer Bonz,The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic [Fortress, 2000] 179, n.28).
Resource Note: Others who have argued this position include Clayton Raymond Bowen, ” The Emmaus Disciples and the Purposes of Luke,” Biblical World 35 (April 1910) 234-245; J. Dupont, “The Meal at Emmaus,” in The Eucharist in the New Testament, ed. J. Delorme, P. Benoit, and M. E. Boismard and trans. by E. M. Stewart (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1965), 105-21; Geoffrey Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology (London: Epworth Press, 1971), 130-31; Susan Marie Praeder, “Sea Voyages in Ancient Literature and the Theology of Luke-Acts,” CBQ 46 (1984) 683-706; R. D. Richardson, “The Place of Luke in the Eucharistic Tradition,” Studia Evangelica, TU 73 (Berlin: Akadamie-Verlag, 1959), 671-72; P. H. Menoud, “Les Actes des Apôtres et l’Eucharistie,” Revue d’Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuses 33 (1953), 21-36; Bo Reicke, “Die Mahlzeit mit Paulus auf den Wellen des Mittelmeers, Acta 27:33-38,” Theologische Zeitschrift 4 (1948), 401-10; and P. W. Walaskay, ‘And So We Came to Rome': The Political Perspective of St. Luke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). The eary third century author Tertullian apparently interpreted it in this manner when he used the Latin technical phrase eucharistiam fecit (“celebrate the eucharist”) in On Prayer, 24. One could also suggest that the Western text’s addition “giving also to us” is an interpolation intended to clarify that only Christians (“us”) ate this meal in the light of Paul’s eucharistic prayer. Thus, an early understanding of this text in the second and third centuries was Eucharistic. Other supporters include the commentaries by Barrett, Belser, Blass, Chance, Olshausen, Ehrhardt, Ewald and Schneider among others.