by Al Maxey

Issue #168 ------- January 14, 2005
I may stand alone, but would not
change my free thoughts for a throne.

Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Breaking Bread
Meal or Memorial?

A dear brother in Christ, who serves as an elder and minister in the beautiful state of New Jersey (I spent about six months at the Naval Training Center in Lakehurst, NJ during the winter of '68-'69 at the Navy/USMC Aircrew Survival -- Parachute school), wrote me recently about a rendering he found in the New Living Translation. It appears that the NLT promotes the view that "breaking bread" in Acts 2:42, 46 and 20:7, 11 all have reference to the Lord's Supper, rather than the more traditional interpretation that one reference in each chapter refers to the Lord's Supper, with the other reference being to a common meal. Traditionally, especially among Churches of Christ, "breaking bread" in Acts 2:42 and 20:7 is said to refer to the Lord's Supper, while "breaking bread" in Acts 2:46 and 20:11 is said to be a reference to a more common meal. The NLT, however, has clearly broken with this understanding, and declares all four occasions where bread is broken to be a reference to the meal shared among disciples in remembrance of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. Notice these four verses as they appear in the NLT:

Obviously, the NLT has taken some liberties here, both in translation and interpretation. The phrase "Lord's Supper" only appears one time in the whole Bible -- 1 Cor. 11:20. The four passages in Acts listed above speak of breaking bread, a phrase which may or may not have reference to the Lord's Supper. In reality, the reference to people "breaking bread" may have any number of differing meanings. The inquiring brother from New Jersey wrote, "The Expositor's Bible Commentary suggests that Acts 20:7 specifically refers to the Lord's Supper, while Acts 20:11 specifically refers to a common meal. In your expert opinion, is the Greek really that clear?! A Greek friend of mine (he immigrated from Greece) suggests that even today the term 'break bread' is a common Greek idiom for any meal. Thus, are we reading back into the text what we want it to say, or need it to say, in order to fit our practice?!"

The debate over these four verses in these two chapters in the book of Acts has been waged among disciples of Christ for centuries, with one's traditional practice and preference often having an impact upon one's interpretation. For example, those who argue that the Lord's Supper must be observed every first day of the week (Sunday), and only on the first day of the week (with it being a sin to observe it any other time), will invariably denounce Acts 2:46 as a reference to the Lord's Supper. Why? Because the passage can much too easily lend itself to an argument for daily observance. Thus, these folk will never acknowledge even the possibility that "breaking bread" in that verse could be a reference to the Lord's Supper. To do so would pose a grave threat to their "pattern." That can never be allowed. The same is true of Acts 20:11, where there is some evidence to suggest the "breaking of bread" occurred the day after "the first day of the week." I can absolutely guarantee, therefore, that among the ultra-conservative, patternistic, legalistic elements of the church, the NLT will be universally and unequivocally condemned for its rendering of these four verses in Acts.

Breaking Bread in the Bible

"Breaking bread" was an idiomatic phrase among the people of Israel. Indeed, it is an idiomatic phrase among a great many peoples of the world, both primitive and modern, both biblical and non-biblical. It is a phrase fraught with richness of meaning, both spiritually and culturally. Yet, at the same time, we must not overlook the reality that originally, and in its most common and frequent usage, it simply referred to people eating a meal. Any deeper significance to be associated with the partaking of food would come from the depth of relationship of the participants and the motivation underlying the meal itself.

For example, at the feeding of the 4000 (Matt. 15:36; Mark 8:6) we see that Jesus "directed the multitude to sit down on the ground; and taking the seven loaves, He gave thanks and broke them, and started giving them to His disciples to serve to them." We also see the same at the feeding of the 5000 (Matt. 14:19; Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16), where "He blessed the food and broke the loaves ... and they all ate and were satisfied." At the town of Emmaus, following His resurrection, Jesus dined with a couple of disciples, and "it came about that when He had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them" (Luke 24:30). Later on they came to realize that they had been dining with the Lord. They went to Jerusalem, found the eleven and some of the other disciples, and "began to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread" (vs. 35).

Another incident of "breaking bread" is seen when Paul was aboard a ship that was in danger of being driven upon the rocks (Acts 27). The crew was becoming disheartened, and Paul encouraged them to eat. So, "he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of all; and he broke it and began to eat. And all of them were encouraged, and they themselves also took food" (vs. 35-36). Most regard this as a common consumption of food; nothing sacred. However, not all feel that way. Again, some believe this to be the Lord's Supper. "It would appear as if the apostle had also partaken of the Lord's Supper, together with his Christian companions, on board the ship toward the close of his fateful trip on the Adriatic" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia).

All of this confusion just illustrates the problem! When exactly do we know for sure that the concept of "breaking bread" has reference to the Lord's Supper? It might surprise some disciples to discover that nowhere in the New Covenant writings is the specific phrase "breaking bread" ever directly linked to the Lord's Supper commemoration. Brother John W. Wood wrote, "There is no place in the Scripture that identifies 'breaking bread' as specifically being the Lord's Supper. It has become a tradition originating out of the minds of men as far back as the third century, and has since been accepted by all men as truth" (The Examiner, vol. 4, no. 5, September, 1989). The reality is that, at best, we are simply making an educated guess; each passage is a judgment call, and disciples have differed over those judgments for centuries. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible declares the phrase "could designate a common meal or the Eucharist" (p. 199), and this "has been vigorously debated" for well over fifteen hundred years (Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 289).

God's people have gathered around a table together, and broken bread, from distant ages past. Sometimes these were special occasions, with spiritual significance, and sometimes they were simply occasions to satisfy one's hunger. The phrase "breaking bread" itself is not all that helpful in determining which is which; more helpful is the context. Thus, to assume that "breaking bread" must signify the Lord's Supper, certainly assumes too much. It may, but it just as easily may not. Even the use of a definite article in the phrase ("breaking the bread") is not determinative, as the Emmaus meal demonstrates. Again, the solution really lies in the context, IF the context even suggests one over the other. The danger is that we too frequently impose our perception and practice UPON the text, rather than drawing our perception and practice FROM the text. This, of course, is the concern of the reader from New Jersey -- "Are we reading back into the text what we want it to say, or need it to say, in order to fit our practice?!" That is indeed a distinct possibility.

There is absolutely no question among biblical scholars but what many of the meals depicted in the Bible had far deeper significance than the mere consumption of food to appease one's hunger. "Eating together had been a common religious activity of the Jews for centuries" (Ted H. Waller, Worship That Leads Men Upward, p. 52). "In ancient times the sharing of a common meal was a deeply significant act. The fellowship aspect of these meals is of real importance ... they represented what the participants had in common" (Wendell Willis, Worship, p. 38-39). For example, notice just a few from the Old Covenant writings:

  1. The priests eating, as part of their own common meals, portions of the sacrifices brought to God (Lev. 7:28-36).

  2. Melchizedek and Abram sharing bread and wine as the former blessed the latter (Gen. 14:18).

  3. The Passover meal was also a family meal in which all the food was to be consumed (Exodus 12).

  4. Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and 70 of the elders of Israel "ate and drank" as they worshiped God on the mountain (Ex. 24:1-11).

  5. Isaiah's prophecy of a feast prepared by the Lord (Is. 25:6).

  6. The feast prepared by "Wisdom" (Prov. 9:1-6).

Breaking Bread in Acts 2 and Acts 20

But, let's narrow our focus somewhat, and return to an examination of the early church and the question of the extent of the association of the phrase "breaking bread" with the Lord's Supper. There is no question in anyone's mind that when Jesus instituted this memorial meal on the night of His betrayal and arrest, in the context of the last Passover meal eaten with His disciples in the upper room, and "while they were eating," He took some of the bread that was present on the table, and after a blessing, "He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is My body'" (Matt. 26:26; cf. Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:23-24). Thus, at the institution of this memorial meal we find Jesus breaking bread. However, this was common practice at any meal, as we have already noted in other NT passages, thus the phrase itself does not suggest something unusual was taking place.

But, what about the four passages in Acts 2 and Acts 20 in which "breaking bread" is mentioned? Do all four have reference to the Lord's Supper? Only two of them? None of them? Let's take each passage in turn and examine it in some depth to determine authorial intent on this matter, if indeed such can be determined.

Acts 2:42 --- "And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." (NASB)

The Easy-to-Read Version translates this last phrase: "They ate together and prayed together." The Message reads: "They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers." The Living Bible gives the following rendering: "They joined with the other believers in regular attendance at the apostles' teaching sessions and at the Communion services and prayer meetings." The New World Translation suggests the last phrase in the verse should read: " taking of meals and to prayers." As one can see, several translations have chosen to do a bit of interpreting. Most, however, are content to simply translate the original text, although even here there is some "smoothing over" of the phrase.

As one can quickly see, there is some scholarly debate as to whether this breaking of bread in vs. 42 was a common meal or the Lord's Supper. Scholars have been divided over this issue for centuries. "Whether this means the Holy Eucharist, or their common meal, is difficult to say" (Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 700). "To 'break bread' could designate a common meal or the Eucharist, which included bread as an element" (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 199). The Expositor's Bible Commentary observes, "The matter is somewhat difficult to determine. ... Yet it is difficult to believe that Luke had in mind here an ordinary meal" (vol. 9, p. 289-290). Most scholars feel, given the context within which the phrase is placed, that something far more than a common meal is intended. Whether this was a Jewish Haburah, a type of fellowship meal with sacred overtones, or the Lord's Supper, is also debated. Some who favor the latter, attempt to "prove" their position by noting the use of the definite article before "bread." However, these same people will fervently denounce the assertion that the "breaking of the bread" at the home in Emmaus (Luke 24:35) was also an observance of the Lord's Supper, even though the phrase is exactly the same in the Greek. Thus, there is an obvious inconsistency here in their theology, which leaves one to suspect they are applying a "pick and choose" hermeneutic.

My own personal opinion, for what it may be worth, is that the Lord's Supper is most likely in view in Acts 2:42. Since it is listed together with devotion to apostolic teaching, fellowship and prayer, the tendency is to attribute a much deeper spiritual significance to this breaking of bread than just appeasing one's hunger. At the very least I believe it could refer to the customary Agape Feast of the early church, during which some of the bread and wine from the meal would be taken and shared together in commemoration of the Lord's sacrifice. "There can be no doubt that the Eucharist at this period was preceded uniformly by a common repast, as was the case when the ordinance was instituted. Most scholars hold that this was the prevailing usage in the first centuries after Christ" (Dr. Alvah Hovey, An American Commentary on the New Testament: Acts, p. 55).

Acts 2:46 --- "And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart." (NASB)

The Message reads, "They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God." The New American Bible (St. Joseph edition) translates this verse as follows: "They went to the temple area together every day, while in their homes they broke bread. With exultant and sincere hearts they took their meals in common." The NIV reads, "They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts." The Living Bible states, "They met in small groups in homes for Communion." And, of course, as noted earlier, the NLT says, "They met in homes for the Lord's Supper."

Once again, there is diversity of conviction among biblical scholars as to the meaning of this breaking of bread. Dr. Tony Ash declared this phrase to be "problematic" (The Acts of the Apostles, vol. 1, p. 59). Was it a common meal, or was it something far more? I believe the text conveys something far more than the mere fact that these early Christians ate in their homes. Most families do eat their meals in their own homes, so to make such an acknowledgement here would be ridiculous. Something more is obviously intended. That distinction is made clear when we perceive that they broke bread together, and that these meals were thus times of fellowship with one another in their homes. It was during such times of breaking bread together in gladness and sincerity of heart that the Lord's Supper would often be observed in the early years of the church's existence.

This, in part, would be a celebration of community; they partook of one bread because they were one body. "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor. 10:16-17). The disciples in the city of Corinth had lost sight of this spiritual reality, thus Paul rebuked them for their abuse of this meal, even suggesting, "you come together not for the better but for the worse .... therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper" (1 Cor. 11:17,20; see also: Jude 12; 2 Peter 2:13). They had turned something special into nothing more than an opportunity to stuff their faces. In so doing, they lost sight of their unity in One Body. Thus, Paul told them in their future "coming together to eat" that they be more spiritually-minded and cognizant of one another and their oneness. Paul did not forbid the continuance of observing the Lord's Supper in connection with a meal (as was the rather common practice of the early Christians), rather he urged them to elevate it once again to the spiritually rich event it was intended to be.

It is quite likely that the "breaking bread from house to house," in which they "took their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart," was the type of event Paul alluded to in his first epistle to the saints in Corinth (in which he sought to correct abuses which had arisen with regard to this special meal together). Thus, Acts 2:46 may very well refer to special Agape meals at which the Lord's Supper was observed. "The link of connection is the Agape or love-feast, which formed an important part of the koinonia, or common life, of the early Christians. The whole description is a beautiful picture of Christian unity, piety, love, and joy" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18). Dr. F.F. Bruce makes the following observation, "Day by day, then, in the weeks that followed the first Christian Pentecost, the believers met regularly in the temple precincts for public worship and public witness, while they took their fellowship meals in each other's homes and 'broke the bread' in accordance with their Master's ordinance" (The Book of the Acts, p. 81). Dr. Bruce leaves no doubt that he believes this to have been an observance of the Lord's Supper, which would have been associated with their fellowship meals together (the Agape Feast). Again, for what it is worth, it is my conviction that Dr. Bruce is correct.

Dr. B.W. Johnson, in his People's NT with Explanatory Notes, suggests this breaking of bread in Acts 2:46 may very well "refer to observing the Lord's Supper in private residences" (vol. 1, p. 425). Such a view is vehemently opposed by many ultra-conservatives, however. Why? Because there is a very strong suggestion in the wording of this passage that this breaking of bread together in homes was "day by day" (which most interpret to mean daily). This, obviously, does not fit with the "pattern" they perceive and promote of Sunday ONLY observance. Thus, to preserve their tradition they must declare vs. 46 to be nothing more than a common meal. To suggest any possibility that it might also be an observance of the Lord's Supper would herald the death of their dogma! One cannot help but think of the words of Jesus to the legalistic Pharisees of His own day, "You invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition!" (Matt. 15:6).

Acts 20:7 --- "And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to depart the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight."

The above passage is again worded according to the New American Standard Bible. Other versions and translations have a somewhat different rendering. The Easy-to-Read Version says, "On Sunday, we all met together to eat the Lord's Supper." The Message reads, "We met on Sunday to worship and celebrate the Master's Supper." Brother Hugo McCord, in his translation of the NT, wrote, "On Sunday we assembled to break the loaf." The New English Bible has, "On Saturday night, in our assembly for the breaking of bread..." The Living Bible -- "On Sunday, we gathered for a communion service, with Paul preaching." The Contemporary English Version -- "On the first day of the week we met to break bread together."

As one can quickly perceive, there are several areas about which there is the potential for disagreement. Was this Jewish or Roman reckoning of time? This has led to heated debate down through the ages. Was this breaking of bread the Lord's Supper? A common meal? An Agape Feast? Or, were there elements of all to be found in this breaking of bread? Was this their practice every first day of the week, or was this something done because Paul was with them? Was this a "Sunday ONLY" breaking of bread, or did they break bread "day by day" as well? What was the practice in other cities throughout the Empire? The honest answer to all of these questions is: We just don't know! We all have our opinions, assumptions, deductions, and convictions, but none of us have sufficient objective data to be dogmatic.

Dr. F.F. Bruce writes, "The breaking of the bread probably denotes a fellowship meal in the course of which the Eucharist was celebrated" (Commentary on the Book of the Acts, p. 408). In a footnote, Dr. Bruce clarifies that this was "Sunday evening, not Saturday evening; Luke is not using the Jewish reckoning from sunset to sunset, but the Roman reckoning from midnight to midnight" (ibid). I agree with this analysis, and believe this was indeed a reference to a "fellowship meal" during which some of the elements would have been employed to observe the Lord's Supper.

Interestingly, Acts 20:7 only indicates this was their intent. Nowhere in the text is the actual observance of that memorial meal ever mentioned .... unless vs. 11 is that reference, where it is actually stated that they broke bread. The patternists, however, refuse to allow for this because this would mean the Lord's Supper was observed in the early morning hours of Monday, and that deals a fatal blow to their "pattern" of Sunday ONLY observance. And yet, vs. 11 does use the definite article ("broke the bread"), which they argue elsewhere suggests the Lord's Supper. In Acts 20:7, however, the definite article is NOT used, which they argue elsewhere indicates a common meal. So, go figure! Consistency, thy name is NOT "Conservatism."

Acts 20:11 --- "And when he had gone back up, and had broken the bread and eaten, he talked with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed." (NASB)

The Easy-to-Read Version says, "Paul went upstairs again. He divided the bread and ate." The Message reads, "Then Paul got up and served the Master's Supper." Brother Hugo McCord clearly seems to link the intent of vs. 7 with the application of vs. 11 --- in vs. 7 he translates, "we assembled to break the loaf," and then in vs. 11 we find: "he went up, broke the loaf, and ate." They assembled in order to break the loaf, and then we later see them doing just that! "They all went back upstairs and ate the Lord's Supper together" --- The Living Bible.

"They returned to their third-story room where they had a midnight snack" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 509). There is an aversion by some to even hint that this might be something other than a "midnight snack." Again, part of the reason is that it obviously took place after the first day of the week, which patternists simply cannot allow!! Nevertheless, there is strong indication in the original Greek construction that vs. 11 may indeed be the meal intended in vs. 7. "It was probably past midnight (and therefore properly Monday morning) when they 'broke the bread' and took their fellowship meal; then Paul continued to talk to them until daybreak" (Dr. F.F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts, p. 409). In a footnote, Dr. Bruce points out that "in vs. 11 klasas ton arton (where the article points back to klasai arton in vs. 7) refers to the eucharistic breaking of the bread, while geusamenos refers to the fellowship meal" during which the former was observed (ibid). Thus, in the early hours of Monday morning, the assembled disciples, who had been spending the bulk of the time dialoguing with Paul (vs. 7 -- the Greek: dialegomai), finally broke to break bread (as vs. 7 indicates was their intent for assembling). Then they continued their fellowship and discussions until time for Paul to leave in the morning.

"Commentators are not agreed as to whether the Lord's Supper was meant by 'had broken the bread' or a common meal. If this was the Lord's Supper, and if they counted the day from midnight to midnight as we count it, then they ate the Lord's Supper on Monday" (H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, p. 319). Bro. Boles simply can't abide the notion that some day other than Sunday could possibly have witnessed the observance of the Lord's Supper, therefore he concludes that Paul and the saints from Troas MUST have observed it earlier, and Luke simply failed to make mention of the fact. The great American Restoration leader J.W. McGarvey wrote, "The whole night was spent in religious discourse and conversation, interrupted at midnight by a death and a resurrection, and this followed by the commemoration of the Lord's death which brings hope of a resurrection far better" (New Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, vol. 2, p. 181). Thus, he believes vs. 11 refers to the Lord's Supper, although he speculates it must have been Jewish time that Luke used in the passage, because, once again, one has to make the Lord's Supper fit into a Sunday ONLY time frame to fit the so-called "pattern."


All of this leads us back to the comment by the elder/minister from New Jersey -- "Thus, are we reading back into the text what we want it to say, or need it to say, in order to fit our practice?!" Sadly, I think that is very often exactly what is taking place. This is known as eisegesis, rather than the more noble exegesis -- i.e., we impose our theology upon the text, rather than drawing our theology from the text. This is very poor hermeneutics; indeed, it is the hermeneutics of dogmatism.

The blunt reality is -- and many seem very reluctant to face this -- we simply have insufficient data with regard to the phrase "breaking bread" to insist upon any one interpretation or practice over another. Yes, we all have our personal convictions, and that is good. We have also embraced certain traditional practices based upon those shared convictions, and that also is fine. What we must never do, however, is assume that all those who differ with us are godless wretches with dishonest motives and darkened hearts who are bound straight for the torments of hell. This is the perspective of militant factionists and sectarians, and does not reflect the spirit of Christ Jesus. We need to rise above such ignorance and ignominy. We are children of God ... we can do better than that! Love demands it; Unity demands it; our Witness to the world demands it. May God help us all to live and love outside the guarded gates of our dogma, for when we do so we enjoy the blessings of the expanded parameters of God's household of faith. "Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor. 10:17).

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Missouri:

Al, as I read the response from the reader in Utah, it broke my heart! When will we STOP running over our fellow brethren and badgering them at every turn?! I can not tell you how tempted I have been over the last few years to leave the Church of Christ group for something else. I know every group has its own problems. Yet, I often wonder -- is every group as negative as we are? Before coming back to God, after being away 14 years, I do not remember hearing even one time, in other church groups I visited, the harsh bashing of everyone and everything else ... not like we do. Can we not see we are slowly destroying ourselves? I personally assemble with brethren to be edified and uplifted, and hopefully I do that for my fellow brethren, and to hear God's word. Not harsh opinions and judgments concerning everyone else. Thanks so much for this issue of Reflections! I will print this one and read it a few more times to remind myself.

From a Minister in Mississippi:

Al, Thanks for your article "How Love Behaves." We'll be using this as our Sunday School class for the next few weeks!

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Thank you, brother Al. You got right to the heart of the matter with your article "How Love Behaves." In my opinion, it is your best Reflections ever! Even the critics will have a hard time finding error in this one! "God IS Love" ... literally. Imagine if we really all loved with His love?! Wouldn't everything else be so simple? Few, if any, unanswered questions would remain. I pray that your love and your light will continue to shine brightly in the desert!

From a Reader in Texas:

The "love chapter" (1 Cor. 13) falls in the middle of the longest portion of Scripture dealing with our public assemblies. Yet, it is with regard to these -- because of what happens, or doesn't happen, in these assemblies -- that most of the hostilities break out among brothers and sisters in Christ. You state that our love applications (or the lack thereof) are a salvation issue -- a fact I don't personally believe most within the warring factions of Christianity have ever understood. Jesus said Love would be our distinguishing mark by which all (not most, many or some ... but all) men would recognize us (John 13:34-35). If that love is not present, we are not His disciples, and if we are not His disciples, then all hope is lost for heaven (John 14:6). Keep up the good work, brother!

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