The Eucharist and Greco-Roman Banquets

In Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective, Andrew B. McGowan describes the early church’s Eucharist as a Greco-Roman banquet.

A deipnon (or in Latin, a cena or convivium) was an evening meal with certain expected formalities and a tradition of proper conduct; as an institution, the ancient Greco-Roman banquet includes and defies modern categories of secular and sacred, familial and public, celebratory and solemn. Ancient banquets were relatively formal and purposeful events, held often but nonetheless distinguished from merely incidental eating. They could be large or small, ostentatious or austere, civic or familial. They were also an integral part of Greco-Roman (including Jewish) sacrifices, since the flesh of animal victims was often consumed straight after ritual slaughter in a festive atmosphere. Groups bound by kinship and by professional, social, religious, or ethnic ties celebrated such meals together to create and express their identity and their beliefs when need or opportunity for celebration arose. . . .

There were expected features of ancient formal dining, although much variety in detail. We hear of participants gathering in a dining room, or triclinium, often reclining on couches arranged around the room as three sides of a rectangle like an angular U. In some places, and especially in later antiquity, diners might form their party around a C- or crescent-shaped table, or stibadium; the earliest surviving depictions of Christian meal scenes, such as those in the Roman catacombs, present such curved assemblies, as do the oldest images depicting Jesus’ Last Supper. . . .

Preliminaries for the banquet could include washing of hands, offering of an opening prayer or hymn, and libations. The meal proper followed, with the variety and quality of foods depending on the means of the host or group and on the nature of the occasion. After eating, tables were removed and wine was brought and mixed with water, typically in a large bowl, or kratēr, and then shared by the diners in individual cups after further prayers or libations to the relevant deity. A number of such large bowls of mixed wine might be prepared over the evening—three was regarded as ideal. Entertainment and/or conversation was expected during this time, its form depending on the group. Such diversions ranged from the subdued conversations of philosophers to more raucous events involving flute girls and courtesans. . . .

McGowan envisions early Christian assemblies as taking the form of an evening banquet held in the homes of wealthy patrons or in other facilities suitable for such an occasion. Participants reclined at the table. After the introductory rites and blessings, a simple but filling meal of bread and wine (mixed with water) – and perhaps some vegetable side dishes –  would follow. McGowan believes that both the bread and the wine would have helped supply the caloric requirements of the poorest among the assembly. Meat was probably not commonly served for two reasons. First, meat was expensive; only the wealthy members of the assembly could afford it. Serving meat would have been socially divisive. Second, most of the meat in the market came from animals slaughtered in pagan temples. Meat was too closely associated with idol worship to be welcome in a Christian assembly.

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Moral Exhortations in Hebrews 13

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Hebrews 13:1

When interpreting the moral exhortations of New Testament letters, I try to keep these principles in mind:

  • they flow from the letter’s theological teaching about Jesus and the saving work of God
  • they are directed at Christians, not the world
  • they are primarily concerned with life within Christ’s own community of faith (i.e., the church)

Chapter 13 of the Letter to the Hebrews contains a number of admonitions that are best read within this framework. The author often couches many of his instruction in the themes and liturgical language that he has used throughout his letter.

Welcoming Christians from Other Places – Verse 2 directs Christians to welcome their brothers and sisters from other places: missionaries on their journeys, Christians traveling from other cities, or perhaps even believers fleeing from persecution. Endurance in persecution is a major theme of this epistle. The various parts of Christ’s one worldwide church are connected to each other. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

Christian Solidarity in Persecution – Verse 3 directs Christians to care for their brothers and sisters suffering at the hands of a pagan imperial or civic power. The outside world is not friendly to Christ and his people. When one of Christ’s family suffers persecution, all suffer. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (See also 10:32-34)

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Leeman: Two Ages, Not Two Kingdoms

Jonathan Leeman at TGC: Not Two Kingdoms, But Two Ages.

For centuries Christians have considered different ways of relating the church and the world, particularly with respect to the God-established authorities in each domain. Well-known proposals include Augustine’s “two cities,” Gelasius’s “two swords,” Luther’s “two kingdoms,” and Kuyper’s ideas about sphere sovereignty, which operate inside of what might be called a “one-kingdom” framework.

I would like to offer an alternative that learns from each of these, but that also draws on the last half-century of New Testament theology. In a nutshell, I would propose that the Spirit-given power of the new covenant requires a doctrine of two ages. A doctrine of two ages or inaugurated eschatology is a popular way among New Testament theologians for characterizing how creation history and redemptive history bifurcated when Christ’s kingdom was inaugurated but not consummated through the giving of the new covenant. The history of new creation began even while the history of the old creation continued.

I think Leeman offers a helpful perspective. Read the whole thing.

Israel’s Changing Economy in the 8th Century BCE

What shall I say about the homes of the wicked filled with treasures gained by cheating? What about the disgusting practice of measuring out grain with dishonest measures? How can I tolerate your merchants who use dishonest scales and weights? Micah 6:10-11 NLT

The Torah envisions life in the promised land as a subsistence economy in which every family farms perpetually on the plot allocated to it by God. God promised Abraham a multitude of descendants and land on which to live. Israel’s occupation of Canaan following the Exodus was the fulfillment of that promise. Each family was allocated a plot of land – its inheritance – by lot. The land was entrusted to each family as a gift from God and would never be sold in perpetuity. Families would subsist on the bountiful fruits of their own farms and share with those in need.

The message of the prophets, however, seems to assume a different kind of economy. They speak of weights and measures used in buying and selling. They condemn those who complain about the lack of commerce on Israel’s Sabbaths and holy days. They write about the use of dishonesty and pretext in the courts to confiscate the land of the poor. They address the enslavement of the vulnerable to provide labor for the fields. This does not look like an economy primarily built on the produce of one’s own flocks and fields.

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For a Daughter of Abraham, Freedom on the Sabbath

When I was stationed in Korea in the early 90’s, it was common to see short, elderly Korean women bent at the waist, walking down the street with large burdens on their backs. They were carrying merchandise to market or produce from their fields and I wondered how such a small, frail person could bear such a load.

And often you would see them without their burdens as well. Many of them were still bent at the waist, unable to stand erect, suffering from decades of hard labor, poverty and the nutritional deficits they had suffered in the early post-war years. The Korean War and the years that followed were extremely hard on the Korean people. I’m sure that if I listened to these bent-over ladies describe their lives, I would hear stories of both great strength and great suffering.

In our reading from the gospel, Luke tells us about a woman who suffered from a similar ailment.

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. Luke 13:10-11

Jesus has two ways of describing her condition. In verse 12, Jesus spoke about her weakness – which might also be translated as her illness or her disability. In verse 16, he described her as being in Satan’s bondage. And to complicate matters a little more, in verse 11, Luke says that she had a spirit of weakness.

What is the relationship here between her physical ailment and her spiritual condition?  Is Luke telling us that physical ailments are caused by demonic attacks?  Or is he telling us that Satan uses physical suffering as an opportunity to cause spiritual suffering?

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