Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Christian Supper: Better Understanding James 2:1-6; 1 Cor. 11:17-34 & Eph. 5:3-20

*With specialized research interests in the social world of early Christianity, Dennis E. Smith is a recognized authority on ancient Greco-Roman meal customs. He has maintained throughout his career an active research interest in various aspects of the study of Christian origins.

B.A., Abilene Christian University
M.A., Abilene Christian University
M.Div., Princeton Theological Seminary
Th.D., Harvard University Divinity School 

Dennis E. Smith writes,

"Whenever they met as a church, early Christians regularly ate a meal together. In this they were no different from other religious people in their world: for when any group of people in the ancient Mediterranean world met for social or religious purposes, their gatherings tended to be centered on a common meal or banquet."

"It did not matter whether it was a social or religious occasion; nor what the ethnic group might be, whether Jewish or Greek or some other ethnic group; nor what the social class might be. If it were a special occasion, whether religious, social, or political, more often than not a formalized meal functioned as a centerpiece of the gathering." [see Luke 22:14-29; Acts 20:7; cf. 1 Cor. 11:17-34, sp].

"Scholarship on early Christian meal traditions has tended to concentrate on the issue of the origins of the Eucharist [Lord's Supper, sp] and to define that issue in a deceptively narrow way. It is a perspective that does not develop naturally out of the ancient evidence, but rather represents a retrojection onto the ancient sources of the form taken by the Eucharist in the later "orthodox" church."

"Models are constructed for analyzing the ancient data based on the form of the Eucharist in the later church. The ancient data is not studied in its own right and on its own terms. Early Christianity was made up of varied groups, however, who adapted the common banquet tradition to their own situations [see Romans 14-15; 1 Cor. 10-11, sp]. This proposal fits the form of our data, which witnesses to a variety of ways in which early Christians practiced communal meals. The process eventually led to the collapsing of all these traditions into one orthodox form and liturgy."

"Many studies of early Christian meals attempt to compare them with forms of meals in their pagan environment. Invariably, however, what is compared is the assumed essence of the early Christian Eucharist, namely, its nature as a 'sacramental' meal. The larger category into which the 'sacramental' meal is generally placed is that of the 'sacred' meal. But the category of sacred meal also lacks clarity. There is an assumption that it has little relation to the form of an ordinary banquet. Indeed, scholars in history of religions studies typically see sacred and secular as existing in two different realms. They then analyze the data based on this model."

"To be sure, they base this idea on foundational premises of the sociology of religion. Emile Durkheim, for example, defined the sacred and the profane as two separate realms of human existence. It is my contention, however, that the sacred versus secular model is not appropriate for ancient meals. Instead I consider meals to have an integrative function in ancient society in which they combine the sacred and the secular into one ritual event."

Smith continues,

"Here I use the terms sacred and secular to refer to the degree to which meals might exhibit a religious purpose or might lack any religious emphasis at all. Most Greco-Roman meals would fall into a middle category in which they exhibit characteristics of both sacred and secular. Indeed, in ancient Mediterranean culture in general sacred and secular are interwoven and tend to be indistinct.

"To be sure, there are surely degrees of secularity or sacredness. On the one hand, in a normal formal meal, or banquet, it was customary to offer libations or prayers to the gods no matter how 'secular' was the overall situation. On the other hand, there were varying degrees in which a meal might have religious connotations, depending on whether it was connected with a sacrifice, a sanctuary, or a religious association. Nevertheless, what is common to all such examples is that the meal itself was of the same form, that of the ancient banquet."

"Another significant feature of ancient banquets was the always-prominent idea of social ranking. The banquet provided a significant means for one's status in society to be formally recognized and acknowledged. Two aspects of the banquet especially carried this symbolism: the custom of reclining and the custom of ranking places at table. The act of reclining in itself was a mark of one's rank in society: only free citizens were allowed to recline. Notably excluded were women, children, and slaves. If they were present at the banquet, they would sit.”

JAMES 2:1-6

James 2:1-6 is more reasonable in the above context rather than at a building full of pews:
"My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor."
 1 CORINTHIANS 11:17-34

Especially, Paul's comments in 1 Cor. 11:17-34 make better sense in the context of a first century banquet meal than at a school-house lecture hall:
“In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!"

"For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves..."

"So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions" (1 Cor. 11:17-34).
Paul is not contrasting homes with a public church building. There were no public church buildings until the early fourth century when Constantine patterned them after the Roman basilica which was the government auditorium. The context of Paul’s comments describes a first century banquet setting. Some were not sharing their "private suppers" with others and were told to eat at home if they could not wait on their brethren, and as a result of not being able to control themselves because of their hunger, were shaming those who had nothing.

This context has nothing to do with repeating weekly an inward examination while only eating a small piece of bread and drinking a small portion of juice in a sacred (really morbid) manner. In Paul's context, the "body of Christ" that some were "not discerning" is the other members of the church. Those who had food to eat were not caring for "weaker" body "parts," or poorer brethren, who were also part of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:17; cf. 12:20-27). The sacred or sacramental meal (limited to only bread and juice) comes from later in church history--not first century Christianity.

The following quote seems to describe what Paul and James hope the church avoids:

Dennis Smith continues:

"The defining of boundaries is primary to the social code of banquets. That is to say, whom one dines with defines one's placement in a larger set of social networks. Because of the clear boundary-defining symbolism of table fellowship in the ancient world, banquets became a significant feature of various identifiable social groups. The social code of the banquet represents a confirmation and ritualization of the boundaries that exist in a social situation."

The following quote from Smith grasps what Paul (1 Cor. 11:17-34) and James (2:1-6) wanted all Christians to enjoy on a equal basis:

"The act of dining together is considered to create a bond between the diners. In the ancient world this symbolism was carried by various elements of the banquet, such as the sharing of common food or sharing from a common table or dish. But above all it simply derived from the fact that the diners shared the event together. To be sure, the diners were normally already bonded into some sort of social network that existed before they gathered for dining. Thus the most common banquets were those of a family, a host and his close friends, or the members of a formally organized club or religious group. The banquet could also create ties that did not previously exist."

"Those who dined [reclined, sp] together were to be treated equally. [Remember women, children, and slaves were told to "stand" or "sit" (James 2:1-6), sp]. This was a standard feature of ancient dining protocol. It functioned as an elaboration of the concept of social bonding at the meal and was a strong feature of banquet ideology at all levels of the data. The idea was that a meal that was shared in common and that created a sense of community among the participants should be one in which all could share equally and with full participation. In essence, then, a meal conceived in this way had the potential to break down social barriers and allow for a sense of social ordering internal to the group."

Paul and James' contexts describe their work of bringing Jew and Gentile, rich and poor together in the way Smith has just described.

Reading Romans chapters 14, 15 & 16 in the context of Jews and Gentiles gathering for a meal, and the natural problems of dietary restrictions, racial tensions, and social status that would cause divisions (Romans 16:17), rather than a compartmentalized fellowship meal after worship, makes better sense, as well. "Mark them which cause divisions" (KJV) in Paul's context is not 5 acts of worship doctrine that one is to be branded for violating. It is "take note of them causing divisions" based on dietary restrictions, racial tensions, and social status.

The common (equal to all--not sacrilegious) meal was separated from the bread and juice at the beginning of Medieval Christianity, so today we compartmentalize a fellowship meal with sinners after worship, but we do not include them in our worship, because we assume a “sacred—secular” dichotomy between life and worship that Smith noted was not true of first century Christianity.

The above information makes far more sense than the modern interpretation that says Paul was condemning a common meal and telling the Corinthians just to use only a piece of bread and cup of juice. Jesus took bread “while eating” a meal (Matt. 26:26). “After the supper (deipnon, the common evening meal), He took the cup” (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:22-25).

Smith continues,

"A banquet was an occasion of 'good cheer' or 'pleasure,' viewed here as values that governed the proper meal. Another term for the good cheer of the banquet was festive joy (euphrosyn), which was seen as an essential component of the 'proper' banquet. As such, it was spoken of as the gift of the god(s), and often associated with the wine. Festive joy was viewed not as an individual experience but as a social experience inherent to the overall communal function of the banquet. Indeed, a proper banquet could be judged by how well it promoted festive joy. Consequently, festive joy could also function as a category governing social obligation at the banquet."

"The ancient banquet presupposed entertainment as part of the event. This could vary from party games to dramatic presentations to music to philosophical conversation [see Luke 22:14-29 and Matthew 26:30, sp]. It developed elaborate and specific variations according to the different settings and circumstances in which the banquet would be held. But no banquet would be complete as a social event without some form of entertainment.”

Smith's comments provide a different viewpoint to interpret Paul in 1 Corinthians chps. 11:17--14:29 and Eph. 5:19:
"What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said." (1 Cor. 14:26ff).

“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:15-21).
Does Ephesians 5:19: “Do not get drunk on wine...instead be filled with the Spirit, sing and make music in your heart” make sense to you in the "worship setting" of sitting in a pew wearing your Sunday best and listening to a preacher? But what if you were attending a banquet in the first century where the evening meal (deipnon, Luke 22:20; cf. 1 Cor. 11:20) was followed by a symposium (entertainment, conversation) that for pagans often included getting drunk and behaving immorally?

Why read a "sacred vs. secular" interpretation into the Bible that did not exist in the first-century Mediterranean world and that has come from the Catholic-Protestant historical changes we inherited and modified when such great joy comes from understanding our Bibles better?


Dennis E. Smith. From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World. Kindle Edition.

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