Breaking Bread in Luke-Acts I

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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.

10 Responses to “Breaking Bread in Luke-Acts I”

  1.   Terrell Lee Says:

    I find it exciting that “breaking bread” is receiving such fresh looks from so many of us. Thanks to everyone contributing to this important discussion.

  2.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I don’t want to see a return to the era of debates but I do wish there would be some forums for taking on subjects, texts, etc… where there could be several different perspectives presented not to prove one over the other but to bring awareness to the differences and then allow the audience to do their own discerning. At HUGSR, they would have the “brown-bag lunches” which was nice. I am thinking of something like that but on a little more formal level but still at a level that serves the church rather than the scholarly academy.

    Grace and peace,


  3.   rich constant Says:

    thanks john mark
    it is very interesting , to me, to see you respond to pointed questions.
    you reinforce the the intrinsic aspect of charactor that each of us should exibit in a very serious disscussion of a very interesting ambuguity of scripture,giving glory to our father through the SON by way of the Spirit through teaching and the open descussion of how we all my in one conceptional idea or another receprocate the love of god in christ that is shed upon our harts through our brother jesus.


  4.   Keith Brenton Says:

    Interesting … but somehow not terribly crucial to my understanding of the paschal meal for Christians.

    I’m not advocating lazy scholarship, but it has always seemed to me that God made important things explicitly clear in the Old Testament … and in the New. If something isn’t explicitly clear, maybe it’s just not that important.

    The important instruction regarding our communing together seems to be that we remember and proclaim Christ through the meal … not how often, on what day, and whether we do so as part of a larger meal. Remembering and proclaiming is explicitly clear as what God wants for us.

  5.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I agree that ambiguity and unclarity perhaps indicates that we not attach too much to the question.

    At the same time, the exegetical detail of what Luke means by “breaking bread” will lead us to a theology of breaking bread for Luke. That theology, then, shapes how we understand and practice the meal. It is something that Luke thought significant enough to emphasize and note that the early disciples were devoted to it. My assumption–as the next post indicates–is that Luke thought he had told us enough in the Gospel to understand his references in Acts to the practice of the early church.

    I think the theology of eating with the risen Christ is explicitly clear in terms of theological meaning. Where I want to consider what Justin writes is how Luke plays out that theme in the narrative of the early church in Acts.

    So, I think it can be crucial to understanding the paschal meal as Luke does tell us something significant through his language of “breaking bread.” It was, at least, significant to his readers and the early Christian community in Jerusalem and Troas.

    Thanks for the reflection, Keith.

  6.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    I would like to see a form for that as well. Perhaps bloggers should arise. (1) Set a blog for preparatory discussion. (2) Offer a forum for discussion at different congregations on a regional basis which are webcast or at least the audio is downloadable. (3) Perhaps have a national forum at one place for concluding disussion. (4) Restrict the annual (?) to one focused topic of significance.

    I don’t know…thinking out loud.

  7.   Rex Says:

    Perhaps sometime in the future. There would be little interest in supporting and forum where I serve now, as most are not interested in the issues because they are just so far removed from the bible-belt and the Tennessee vs. Texas traditions which have given shape to them (consequently, they would fit in the Tennessee tradition more so than the Texas).

    Grace and peace,


  8.   rich constant Says:

    let me think on that a bit….
    yep thats it …
    that word is not in my voculary john mark…

  9.   Luther Garcia Says:

    I just would like to thank you for the discussion because it enlighten my view on the Breaking of bread



  1. Breaking Bread in Luke-Acts II: Narratival Context « John Mark Hicks Ministries

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