Outline

I. Like other ancient groups, the first Christians shared meals that had special significance; this practice also presents special problems for analysis.

A. The basic problem is determining the precise religious significance of meals.

1. Meals are a part of everyday life, unlike baptism (a once-for-all ritual) and glossolalia (a powerful individual experience).

2. Meals can have so many kinds and levels of significance that determining the exact meaning attached to a meal by a specific group in antiquity is difficult.

B. The subject of meals is a case study for the application of different perspectives and methods to the analysis of earliest Christianity: the theologically interested historical approach, the reductionistic and revisionist historical approach, and the phenomenological approach.

II. The evidence concerning Christian meals is extensive both in canonical and non-canonical sources.

A. The Gospel narratives contain several kinds of meal scenes (the feeding stories, the Last Supper, meals with followers after the Resurrection) that reflect the perceptions of the believing community (e.g., Mark 6:35-44; 14:12-25; Luke 24:13-49).

B. The Acts of the Apostles and the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles refer to common meals frequently (Acts 2:42, 46; Acts of John 84, 108; Acts of Thomas 27, 50), as do other second-century writings (The Didache, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Letters of Ignatius, Justin, Apology I).

C. Paul touches on issues pertaining to meals in several passages of 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:6-8; 10:14-22; 11:17-34).

1. Paul emphasizes the need for Christians to avoid sharing meals with unbelievers or immoral people.

2. He connects the meal with the Passover of Jesus ("Christ, Our Passover has been sacrificed").

3. He is deeply concerned that Corinthian community members do not eat meat that has been offered as a sacrifice to idols. He does not want Christians to attend pagan shrines or eat meals at pagan events, which he calls "the table of demons."

4. He rebukes the fortunate for despising the poor at Christian celebratory meals (that Paul calls "the Lord's Supper").

III. The study of early Christian meals in the classic historical paradigm is concerned with origins and development.

A. Attention is given almost exclusively to "the Eucharist," its history, its connections with the historical Jesus, and its links to meals in Judaism and Greco-Roman culture.

1. The classic study of Hans Lietzmann, Mass and Lord's Supper, traces the developed liturgies of the fourth and fifth centuries back to the New Testament.

2. Lietzmann hypothesizes two primitive meals: a simple fellowship meal shared by Jesus and his followers and "the Lord's Supper" in memory of Jesus's death.

B. This approach reveals anxieties of a theological character: Do the developed liturgies really derive from Jesus, and if there are similarities to Greco-Roman or Jewish fellowship meals, does this detract from Christianity's uniqueness?

IV. The study of early Christian meals in the revisionist paradigm, in contrast, reduces the Christian meal to its surrounding environment.

A. J. Z. Smith's Drudgery Divine suggests that a strict comparison between Christian meals and those of the Greco-Roman world eliminates any distinctive dimension to the Christian meals.

B. Relying on two popular presuppositions, Smith seeks first to dissolve the Christian practice and second to eliminate a distinctive Christian symbolism.

1. The first presupposition is that Christianity was so diverse in the beginning that it had no unity of experience, conviction, or practice.

2. The second presupposition is that archaeological evidence from the third and fourth centuries should be interpreted apart from Christian literary evidence and read within the code of Greco-Roman culture.

C. In this interpretation, Christian fellowship meals are a version of the widespread practice of meals in memory of the dead.

V. A phenomenological approach to the evidence yields a different interpretation of early Christian meals.

A. Although recognizing diversity in earliest Christianity, this approach does not ignore equally strong evidence suggesting communication and cooperation in the first generations.

B. It insists that archaeological evidence must be read together with literary evidence, especially because, in the case of Christianity, the literary precedes the archaeological by two hundred years.

C. When all the literary and artistic evidence is read together, the overwhelming weight of the evidence suggests that Christian meals were not in memory of a dead person but a celebration of the presence of the powerful resurrected Lord Jesus.

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