…or, the Biblical precedent for breaking bread together round a table
Today, many churches are adopting table fellowship – or the practice of sharing food and drink round a table – as a way of attracting people to explore faith in Jesus. One example is how this ideas is impacting the church is the Eating Together book in the Holy Habits series by Andrew Roberts.
Far from being a novel idea, this practice models that of the first century Jesus-believers and earliest Christian communities. I would like to suggest that the close relationship between eating together and the formation of early Christian identity referred to in the Bible, makes a compelling argument for adopting eating together as a way of forging Christian community in the twenty first century.
Banqueting, or more particularly sharing food and drink, is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. According to the writer of John’s Gospel Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding banquet (John 2.1-10); he is invited to a ‘great banquet’ by Levi , where tax collectors and others are reclining with him (Luke 5.29-32); and John sets the Last Supper within the context of banquet (John 13.1-26). By combining scriptural accounts with archaeological and other written evidence, Biblical scholars have suggested that sharing meals was a key aspect of the worship life of first century Christians.
First century banquets – a model for early Christian gatherings
From Symposion to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (2003), Dennis Smith’s exhaustive study of Greco-Roman banquet practice in the first century CE, demonstrates that sharing food and drink in a social and religious context played an important role in both Jewish and Gentile communities. Archaeological evidence suggests that synagogue architecture of the first century was based on the Greco Roman dining model, and many Jewish festival practices followed the same pattern.
Banquets held in the first century followed a model detected in Assyria as early as the sixth century BCE and adopted by the Hellenics 300 years later. As great admirers of Hellenistic culture, the Romans could to see for themselves the benefit of encouraging a banqueting model which built a sense of community at a time when traditional tribal and ethnic groupings were being challenged. Through the medium of eating together, individuals were able to reinforce social status whilst enabling social mobility and, in one to of the earliest examples of charitable fundraising, banqueting provided a means for poorer members of the community to organise and pay for their own funeral.
Banquets were held in temples, hired rooms or in individual people’s homes. In the first half of the century they were small in size, with dining rooms holding between seven and 11 people. Archaeological evidence shows that alterations were made to both houses and public buildings in the latter part of the first century CE to facilitate larger numbers of diners.
Only people who could afford to host them held banquets, although there is evidence that the nature of some associations enabled people from lower classes to participate. Hosts tended to invite people of a similar status similar to their own, and there would be a guest of honour, seated to the right of the host, whose role was to direct the proceedings. There is evidence that women attended as guests, but only infrequently and always at a low ranking place. When they arrived guests were placed in rank order on couches around the walls of the dining hall, reclining to reflect their status as being able to afford leisure time. Slaves served food, washed guests’ hands between courses, and dealt with any drunken behaviour between guests. Dogs and uninvited guests might be tolerated, but arriving late was a taboo. Once the banquet started, no invited guest was permitted to enter.
Whether it was a religious festival, collegial gathering, association of tradespeople or funerary organisation, the format was always the same: a meal (deipnon) followed by entertainment (symposion), which often included a philosophical debate. In addition the Emperor Augustus had instituted an obligatory toast to be made to the Emperor, to reinforce his divine status and to promote cultural self-understanding as a subject of the Roman world.
During the deipnon the host would often provide food and drink, but sometimes guests would bring their own, to be distributed by servants. Portion sizes varied according to status, reinforcing the rank of each individual guest. During the symposion the guests would continue to drink and there was usually some form of musical entertainment. Often a flute girl would play, although in reality she would often double up as a courtesan. Discussions would take place on various themes, the participants would sing, and fellowship would be shared.
Radical practices for a radical new faith
Dennis Smith’s suggestion, that worship within the earliest Jesus believing communities was in the form of a symposion, has merit. At the Last Supper Jesus is the host, while the beloved disciple reclines next to him, and they share food and drink together, followed by a long period of discourse (John 13.1-26). Although this account may be more reflective of the experience of the writer than Jesus himself, that the banqueting model used in the narrative shows a familiarity with, and acceptance of, this form of commensality. Paul’s suggestion to the Corinthians that each person contribute “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” for the upbuilding of the community, also suggests this might be the case in the earliest churches (I Cor. 14.26).
Although on the face of it the common banquet pattern was followed, in Paul’s letters we find a model of table fellowship which radically challenged accepted norms. From fragments of information a picture emerges of myriad groups in a number of different places, each struggling to make sense of their new faith, and work out how to practice it in their own community/ies through their eating policies and practices.
Paul is clear that in the community of Jesus believers there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, or male and female. All are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3.28). This in itself is a radical statement, for of course the Romans maintained strict control on social stratification, reinforced by banqueting practices.
When Paul challenges the Corinthian Jesus believers to wait until all are present before they begin to eat (I Cor. 11.33-34), it implies that members who are slaves and would finish work much later than the free, would miss out on the start of the meal unless it was delayed. Although Paul’s reference to the women in Corinth talking too much is not nice (and possibly a later addition), it does at least demonstrate that they were included as full members of the eating community (I Cor. 14.34-36).
Generally Jews would not share meals with Gentiles (non-Jews), even if they were liberal enough to attend banquets at which Gentiles were present. In defining themselves as members of the ekklesia (church), the Jewish members were released from strict observance of the Torah regarding food. However, Paul asks them to be courteous to those for whom this is an issue: “if your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died (Rom. 14.2-15). Similarly he writes to the Corinthians,”All things are lawful,” but not all things beneficial. “All things are lawful, but not all things build up… Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (I Cor. 10.23,31).
These differences were about more than demonstrating equality among members. For in reality those who arrived as slaves left as slaves, and those who were wealthy and had hosted the meals remained so after their guests had left. Jews remained Jewish and Gentiles remained Gentile. My suggestion is that these practices reflected an eschatological understanding of what participants were entering into by becoming part of the fellowship of believers. This was no future ideal – it was a reality they saw very much in the present. Where Greco-Roman society promoted inequality and maintained allegiance to Rome through table fellowship, the churches did the opposite; and by so doing created and performed rituals that reinforced that identity.
Worship round the table: its relevance for today
Fast forward two thousand years, and we find worship among most Christian communities very different. Fifteen hundred years of Christendom Church practice has, in many ways, caused a sanitised version of that radical existence, with services having more in common with assemblies or public meetings than times of deep, identity-forming fellowship. Congregations might share a cuppa before or after their service – and indeed it is an important aspect of relationship formation – but I would argue that the format of traditional Sunday morning worship reflects very little of the reality of worship as described in the Bible.
As Christendom fades and a new era as yet un-named begins, that assembly-style way of receiving and taking in information feels less and less relevant as a way of attracting people and forging community. In response to this congregations up and down the country are exploring new ways of worship – or perhaps it might be said they are returning to ancient ones.
Today’s missiologists (such as Jim Belcher and Kester Brewin for example) suggest that ‘successful’ churches are ones which offer the opportunity to form a deep relationships with God; modelling lifestyles on the example and teachings of Jesus; and allow the Holy Spirit to fire and inspire every aspect of daily lives. What’s more, commensality is a particularly effective way to achieve this.
My experience is that table fellowship – gathering together round a table to share food and learn more about Jesus – is an exceptionally good way to do this. Through eating and spending time together, engaging in deep conversation, and even sharing bread and wine in Remembrance of Jesus, community is formed, identity emerges, and people are literally fed, both physically and spiritually, to lead lives modelled on Jesus himself.
Andrew Roberts, Holy Habits: Eating Together (London, Bible Reading Fellowship)
Dennis Smith, 2003, From Symposion to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World, (Kindle version from Amazon)
Wayne Meeks, 2003, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (Yale University Press)
Hal Taussig, 2009, In the Beginning Was The Meal (Minneapolis, Fortress)
Mary Douglas, “Deciphering a Meal” in Clifford Geertz, 1971, Myth, Symbol and Culture (New York, Norton)
Jim Belcher, 2009, Deep Church (Downers Grove, IVP)
Kester Brewin, Signs of Emergence (London, Baker Books)