Saturday 6 December 2008

The Meaning of “the Breaking of Bread”

The Meaning of “the Breaking of Bread”

The expression “the breaking of bread” occurs five times in Acts (2:42, 46; 20:7,11; 27:35). This is quite frequently interpreted to refer to the rite of the Lord’s Supper: indeed, some expositors take this meaning for granted, as self-evident. If it does, it gives us no real information at all about it: except that it would testify to an early date for its observance.

However, how confident can we be, on the evidence, that any of the references to the “breaking of bread” do in fact refer to an observance of the Lord’s Supper/the Holy Communion/the Holy Eucharist? The easy confidence that that is its meaning should be more carefully examined - we shall consider further the relevance, for our understanding, of the passages about the breaking of bread.

All the New Testament references to the breaking of bread (including Gospel parallels) are (NIV):

(a) Mark 6:41 (cf. Matthew 14:9 and Luke 9:16) Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.

(b) Mark 8:6 (cf. Matthew 15:36) He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people, and they did so.

(c) Luke 24:30,35 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. ... Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

(d) Acts 2:42,46 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. ... Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.

(e) Acts 20:7,11 On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. ... Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left.

(f) Acts 27:35 After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat.

Is the expression “the breaking of bread” being used in the New T­e­s­­­t­ament with reference to the Lord’s Supper? Let us examine this widely-held assumption.

The “breaking of bread” is in fact a standard Jewish expression from pre-Christian times which refers specifically to the action of “breaking bread” at the commencement of a meal, and then, by extension, to the meal itself. The act of breaking the bread was performed by the head of a household or by the host presiding at the meal.

The form of blessing used by the Jews for the bread was: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who bringest forth bread from the earth.”

The breaking of bread was thus associated with the prayer of thanksgiving, and had a religious significance of joint ­fellow­ship in sharing and enjoying the blessings of God. A.B. MacDonald, in his Christian Worship in the Primitive Church (125), points out:

“The taking of food was accompanied, or rather, preceded, by a certain formal and conspicuous action, namely, the pronouncing of a blessing over the bread that was to be eaten, followed by the breaking of the loaf in two, preparatory to its distribution around the table. This was an old Jewish custom, corresponding to our grace before meals, but conveying far deeper suggestions of religious fellowship, and carried through with greater solemnity and ceremony, and reserved for certain meals of a pronouncedly religious character.”

The blessing pronounced over the bread applied to the other food eaten in conjunction with the bread; A. Edersheim, in his The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. II, 206, writes:

“Bread was regarded as the mainstay of life, without which no entertainment was considered as a meal. For the blessing was spoken over the bread, and this was supposed to cover all the rest of the food which followed, such as the meat, fish or vegetables - in short, all that made up the dinner, but not the dessert.”

Similarly we read, in the IVF Bible Dictionary, 750: “‘To break bread’ was a common Jewish expression for the sharing of a meal.”

All of the New Testament usages of this expression are set out above. The three Gospel references to the breaking of bread, in ­accord with normal use, are clearly to the com­­­­mence­ment of a hunger-satisfying meal (the feeding of the five thousand, the feeding of the four thousand, the two dis­­ciples at Emmaus).

The first two of these are particularly so, for the hunger of the crowd was the motivation behind the feed­ing taking place, and it is equally clear that the two disciples were inviting the unrecognized Christ to an ordinary meal at Emmaus, for they expected him to stay the night with them.

Occasionally we encounter some fanciful interpretation of these accounts (e.g. Schweitzer in Quest for the Historical Jesus, 374, held that at the feeding of the five thousand Jesus administered an “eschatological sacrament”, giving a minute portion to everyone, much as we would today in a celebration of the Lord’s Supper); but the accounts in each case make it clear that the “breaking of bread” marked the commencement of a meal intended to feed the recipients.

In each of these three incidents the breaking of bread is coupled with giving thanks to God for the bread. It is interesting to note that in John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand he mentions our Lord giving thanks (John 6:11) but not his breaking of the bread, though this is implied.

It is readily recognized that Paul’s breaking of bread and giving thanks during the storm at sea (Acts 27:35) falls into the same category with the other three passages that I have mentioned. Thus these passages all illustrate the current Jewish custom of commencing a fellowship meal with the giving of thanks and the breaking of bread, thereby investing the meal with a religious significance of conscious joint participation in enjoying the blessings of God.

The circumstances of Jesus’s life with his disciples made it inevitable that they often ate together, sometimes on their own and sometimes as a guest in the house of others (e.g. at the home of Mary and Martha at Bethany). On many of these occasions Jesus would preside, and thus would be the one who broke bread and gave thanks. It would seem that he had a unique and distinctive way of doing so; certainly it was through his breaking of the bread that the two at Emmaus recognized him (Luke 24:30, 35).

It is clear that after the resurrection of Jesus the disciples began to meet together in fellowship assemblies and that they shared meals together. The risen Christ on occasions joined in eating common meals with them (Luke 24:29-31; 24:41-43; John 21:9-15; [Mark 16:14]). After the Lord’s ascension and the events of the day of Pentecost, the disciples continued their fellowship together. Their common meals would now also be a conscious remembrance of the meals they had shared with the Lord during his physical presence among them, and as they broke bread and gave thanks they would be reminded of the times he did this in their midst and they would be conscious of his continued presence with them through the Holy Spirit.

There is absolutely no reason at all for doubting that they would continue the pattern of their years of association with Jesus (and in fact the pattern of all pious Jews) by beginning their ordinary hunger-satisfying meals with the breaking of bread and thanksgiving. The question is, is this all that is meant when Luke speaks (Acts 2:42,46) of the breaking of bread? Certainly it is possible that this exhausts the meaning of the expression “breaking of bread” in these verses.

However, it is claimed by some that after the crucifixion and resurrection the disciples would have in their minds one particular occasion when Jesus broke bread: the Last Supper. Moreover, as the remembrance of that occasion would fill their minds whenever they broke bread together, so the ­signi­ficance which Jesus placed upon the broken bread (“This is my body which is [given] for you”) would be primary in their thoughts. Thus they would be consciously remembering the death of Christ and its significance when they broke bread together, and thus the expression “breaking of bread” must refer to a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

But is it to be maintained that every main meal which the disciples had (on which occasions bread would be broken at the commencement) is to be regarded not only as a meal per se, but as a celebration of the Lord’s Supper? It could be answered that only at one meal a day, the main meal, would bread be ceremoniously broken, and that this meal was also a celebration of the Lord’s Supper, this meal being seen as the meaning of Acts 2:46, “And day by day, attending the temple together, and breaking bread in their homes ...”

But if the custom of a daily observance of the Lord’s­ ­Supper was ever followed, it clearly was not long continued. After it became weekly (which in the view of many commentators is what shortly happened), was the term “breaking of bread” to be then used for the observance of the Lord’s ­Supper alone and no longer to be used for the breaking of bread which Christian Jews would still observe at the beginning of their regular daily meals? Or are we to assume that Christian Jews discontinued the practice of breaking of bread at the beginning of their main daily meals?

It is much more likely that in Acts 2 and also in Acts 20 (Paul at Troas), Luke uses the expression “breaking of bread” or “to break bread” in exactly the same way he has used it in his Gospel, and in accordance with the regular usage of the day, to denote the preliminary act at the commencement of a fellowship meal in which God’s gracious gift of food is gratefully accepted.

If so, then the meals referred to in Acts would indeed have a definite religious significance and would doubtless be regarded as a remembrance of Jesus and a conscious participation in fellowship with the risen Lord, and may well therefore have been invested with a special significance for Christians - but they would not be comprised of the six characteristics which (as we shall see) were features of an observance of the Lord’s Supper as Paul sets it forth in 1 Corinthians. So what the ­disciples did when “breaking bread together” could not be called an observance of the Lord’s Supper.

To summarize:

The expression “the breaking of bread” found in Acts 2 was commonly used amongst the Jews to refer to the sharing of a meal in conscious religious fellowship, and this usage is found in the New Testament, not least in the Gospel by the same author as Acts and even elsewhere in the Acts.

The significance of the religious aspect of the breaking of bread would be greatly heightened for the disciples in the light of the Last Supper, but this is not the same as saying that they held a ritual meal deliberately re-enacting the Last Supper in ­conscious obedience to the command of Christ, commemorating his death through eating bread and drinking a cup; and these features would be necessary if we are to regard the “breaking of bread” as equating with the Lord’s Supper.

Rather, the evidence indicates that in the New Testament the expression “the breaking of bread” or “broke bread” refers to the usual Jewish practice of prayer with which a hunger-satisfying meal commenced. When we recognize that references to the breaking of bread are not references to the Lord’s Supper, we see the significance of what we learn from Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians.

(This is one of the “Practical and Pastoral Reflections” upon Paul’s Epistle, taken from
B Ward Powers’ First Corinthians - An Exegetical and Explanatory Commentary.)



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Kevin & Olga said...

As a missionary in Spain, I have come across several instances in which older people remember how their grandparents would make the sign of the cross on a loaf of bread before breaking it...this is the northeast of Spain, which received a lot of immigrants back in the 12th century from Occitania in the midst of the killings of the Inquisition. I do think that "breaking bread", a simple act, was transformed into something of great significance for the followers of Christ. Though swiftly institutionalized, the breaking of the bread was supposed to be a constant reminder of the Presence of Christ in His Body, the Church. It is a challenge to the conscience to be at one with Christ and with one´s brother.

gilbert m. gutierrez said...

You have given good meaning of the breaking of bread. But according to your summary, some verses in the Acts you've cited refers only to the simple Jewish religious tradition and nothing could be implied to the Lord's Last supper (day to day they break the bread from house to house). The question is, Jesus had shown this ritual to his disciples while he was with them,(the 4000 and 5000 people and the emmaus - was the Jewish ritual), this was highlighted in the Last supper which was different from the previous. After Jesus, and as the disciples were all alone, and whenever it is written in the book of Acts how they've broke the bread from house to house is not meant as ordinary meal anymore, or regarded they were doing a regular Jewish tradition of hunger-satisfying meals. It is not. Because it is unworthy to write them in the book of Acts if it is not meant for Christ (if it is for consuming meal alone). They pursue the practice of breaking the bread day by day from house to house and to write them is to establish the faith through that act. I believe that in the time of the apostles whenever they broke the bread is not a simple meal, it must be the celebration, on what we call today the Holy sacrifice of the Mass. Ofcourse they also practice their own hunger satisfying meal via a Jewish tradition but they have no thought of writing their dinners in a book, it is the celebration of the Lord's Supper and not the tradtion. That is the mind of the writers of the book of Acts.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the article very much.

Our family is of mixed background and study and I have come to understand the Lord's Supper much differently and much more completely that I have ever seen it in church. Every year we celebrate Christ's fulfillment of the Passover. We observe and remember the old stories told and also how important Jesus role was in the Passover. Now we no longer look back and remember and expect a Messiah, we look back remember that our Messiah came and showed us a tool to remember. "As often as you do this,( eat the Passover ), do this in remembrance of me". He broke/blessed the bread, the unleavened bread (remember leaven represents sin) and shared the cup (the third cup in the meal is the cup of redemption). He didn't simply make something up arbitrarily during some meal together. He was completing this tradition that they knew so well. He became our ultimate "Passover lamb" and changed the focus of the Seder itself! The next time you celebrate the Lord's Supper or the eucharist, know that there is much more significance to the practice no matter how hard people try to separate Jesus from the Jews. I believe that is the aim - to remove all Jewishness from Christianity. Don't follow man but follow the way of Christ

Anonymous said...

Oh and they did write about the simple hunger satisfying meals in Acts. It is a description of how they lived together, completely sharing with one another.

roy thomas said...

It is quite possible to see the act of eating bread as a hunger satisfying act, and it is a way of increasing blood glucose. I would like to see in it though, a thankful way of seeing it as a gift from Christ the living bread who says,
take, eat, this is my body, broken for you. The physical and spiritual are satisfied in Christ. The eating and giving thanks is much more than Jewish. This is LIVING bread for ALL.

George Koshy said...

haveshDear Dr. Ward, Thank you very much for the right exegesis of 'breaking bread'. This answers many of my questions regarding 'Sabbath' also. Paul, at two places broke bread and started eating it rather than sharing it as in Lord's supper. At Emmaus however, they recognized Jesus by seeing the nail scar on the hands of Jesus as He broke the bread.
I totally disagree with Gilbert who calls it 'Mass' and with Roy Thomas who tries to equate with Lord's Supper. Even the word 'Mass' is a no, no for Lord's Supper which has one more name in the bible; Lord's Table.
Pr. George Koshy

nivlem said...

As I understood from text provided, in some events in the Bible mentioning the breaking of the bread, whether it suggest a simple fellowship meal or a commemoration of the Last Supper will be suggestive and not conclusive, unless it specifically mention it just in 1 Corinthians 11:26.Unless we are omniscient we cannot really read what is on my mind of Luke when he wrote Acts. There is no real issue here, whether it is normal meal or commemoration of the last supper, unless you make a doctrine out of this suggestive events and preach as gospel truth as if you are 100% sure. Many Christians use Acts 20:7 to prove the Bible is endorsing Sunday worship, while nowhere in original text can you find the word worship and again whether it was a normal meal or commemoration of the last supper, the text does not mention. The question is, is the event worth mentioning if it was only a common meal?Yes it is, one of the listener fell and died and Paul brought him back to life.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your thoughts on this matter and enjoyed the read. However, I couldn't help but notice that your focus on Jesus' breaking of the bread was more on the feeding of the multitudes and then the meal at Emmaus and seemed to toss the Last Supper to the side as an anomaly. I think doing so is a mistake because as we read through the gospels, we see that Jesus fulfills many Jewish traditions. Especially when we bring into the discussion John 6, where Jesus calls himself "the bread of life" it would certainly seem that this last supper in which he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them would come to take on a greater significance. Not only does this seem like a moment in which Jesus fulfills the Passover (which at the time the disciples admittedly probably didn't think about it in this way), but the Jewish tradition of breaking bread. Just as Jesus would take up the bread, bless it, break it, and give it to those around the table, Jesus took his life into his hands in leaving his Father's side in heaven, blessed it by perfect humble submission to the Father, broke it by sacrificing himself on the cross, and gave life to those who follow him. I don't believe it is possible to toss the last supper account to the side when trying to determine the meaning of breaking of the bread. Especially since Jesus so often gave a greater meaning to the Jewish customs and traditions by fulfilling those very customs and traditions in his time on earth. I appreciate your time that you put into this, it has definitely helped me grow and challenged me and I learned something new about Jewish customs of those days.

Josephine said...

if we agree that Jesus Christ is the word of God and the bible is the word of God then simply the bible is Jesus in Print. Throughout John 6, Jesus refereed to himself as the bread of life. Eating his flesh and drinking his blood as a remembrance as in the last supper event can only have one spiritual meaning that is studying, hearing and sharing the word of God (Jesus) with each other, that is how faith can come and that is life. The physical sharing of bread without discerning the body of Christ or having the rightly divided word of truth do nothing for our spirit being ad can not keep us in constant reminder of his death. It is the understanding of who God is through Christ that give us life (John 17:3-4) and that can keep us in a state of remembering Christ death always. So taken it physically is a sign/symbol of the spiritual eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood. Lets do it more of a spiritual act(II Tim 22:15) - rightly dividing the word of truth.

Seeker said...

An interesting discussion to stumble upon... John 6 reads that Jesus be the living or life giving bread and that those eating of His flesh and drinking of His blood would be part of His eternal fellowship. This read in line with the great commission in Matthews. would imply for me that we are talking about a different activity than the traditional Jews why to bless the food or start a fellowship.

For me this implies we are in fellowship furthering the works Jesus did as the desciples did... no rite or religious sacrament but a specific way of living building each others faith and when needed being grateful when food was avilable...


Anonymous said...

Like so many Jewish customs, Ģod intended that all should point to Jesus and him the centre of it but then it became a tradition in itself.

Stephen said...

It was a celebration of Life for they whom were in Christ. Common Union, community. They were his body was this in remembrance of Me ..he did not say.. 'eat this in remembrance of me"....and pouring out the wine, 'my blood poured out for you for the forgiveness of sin'..we are to pour our selves out for Him. It was all in a foreshadowing of the Reality that would not be understood until after the Spirit of Truth was Given after his ascension. The washing of the feet too can be traced back to the Old Testament to the Holy Priesthood and being not of the world though in the world. We know it was some kind of meal in some cases of a 'gathering' of they who were now 'In Christ"....for some were getting drunk and others were over-eating...He is The Bread of Life..and his Body is 'One Loaf"...eating of the bread and drinking of the wine I do not think are SIGNS or SYMBOLS..they representations of the REALITY which is in Christ..we 'Feed off Him' for Meaning. "My Food is to do the Will of He Who sent Me"...HE is Real Spiritual food and Real Spiritual Drink. which is needed to Grow Strong in The Faith of God that is in Christ Jesus...eating of them doesn't 'cause' something to happen or 'put Him in us" as some think.To do so is a Testimony before The Father that we Know his worth, and our utter worthless apart from Him. 'Apart from Me you can do nothing"....otherwise : "Remain in Me as I remain in You" makes not sense.....come to Me they who thirst. Blessed are they who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness. The LORD is The Righteousness of God.

Unknown said...

It's the truth