“When you come together to eat”
Some New Testament Texts: Jude 12; 2 Peter 2:13 (in some manuscripts); 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
XI.1IGNATIUS: It is not lawful either to baptize or to have a love feast apart from the bishop. (Smymoeans 8)
2CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA: If some using unchecked language dare to call some sorry meal giving forth the odor of roast meat and sauces an agapē, they insult with pots and the flow of sauce the good and saving work of the Word, the sanctified agapē, and they blaspheme this name with drink and food and smoke. They are deceived by their thinking when they expect to buy the promise of God with dinners. For if we designate festive gatherings as either dinners, luncheons, or receptions, we would properly name this kind of meeting and would imitate the Lord who has not called such banquets agapēs,. . . .
Agapē is truly heavenly food, a rational banquet.
If “you shall love the Lord your God and your neighbor,” this is the celestial feast in the heavens, but the earthly feast is called a meal, as has been shown from the Scripture. The meal occurs because of love, not love because of the meal, which is a proof of a generous and shared good will. . . . The person who eats of this meal shall obtain the best of the things which pertain to reality, the kingdom of God, since he has had a care here for the holy assembly of love, the heavenly church. Love then is a pure thing and worthy of God, and its work is generosity. . . . Love is not a meal, but let the banquet depend on love. . . .
It is admirable then to lift up our eyes to the true, to depend on the divine food from above, and be filled with the contemplation of him who truly exists, so tasting of the only pure and sure delight. The food which comes from Christ shows this to be the agapē, which we must attain. (Instructor 2.1.4,3-4; 5,3; 6,1-7,1; 9,3)
3TERTULLIAN: Our feast shows its motive by its name. It is called by the Greek word for love. Whatever is reckoned the cost, money spent in the name of piety is gain, since with that refreshment we benefit the needy. . . . As is so with God, there is a greater consideration for the lowly. If the reason for our common meal is honorable, appraise the subsequent order of procedure by its purpose. Since it is a religious duty, it permits nothing vile, nothing immodest. We do not recline at the table before prayer to God is first tasted. We eat the amount that satisfies the hungry; we drink as much as is beneficial to the modest. We satisfy ourselves as those who remember that even during the night we must worship God; we converse as those who know that the Lord listens. After the washing of hands and lighting of lamps, each one who is able is called into the center to chant praise to God either from the holy Scriptures or from his own talents. This is a proof of how much is drunk. Prayer in like manner concludes the meal. (Apology 39.16-18)
4HIPPOLYTUS: Widows and virgins shall fast often and pray on behalf of the Church. The presbyters when they wish and the laity likewise shall fast.
The bishop cannot fast except when all the people also [fast].
For often some one wishes to bring an offering, and he cannot be denied and [the bishop] having broken [the bread] shall always taste of it, and eat with such of the faithful as are present.
And they shall take from the hand of the bishop one piece of a loaf before each takes his own bread, for this is “blessed [bread]”; but it is not the eucharist as is the Body of the Lord.
And before they drink let each of those of you who are present take a cup and give thanks and drink, and so take your meal being purified in this way.
But to the catechumens let exorcised bread be given; and they shall each offer a cup.
A catechumen shall not sit at table at the Lord’s Supper.
And at every act of offering let him who offers remember him who invited him, for to this end he [i.e. the host] petitioned that they might come under his roof.
But when you eat and drink do it in good order and not unto drunkenness, and not so that any one may mock you, or that he who invites you may be grieved by your disorder, but [rather] so that he may pray [to be made worthy] that the Saints may come in unto him. For He said, Ye are the salt of the earth.
If you are all assembled [and] offered [what is called in Greek] an apophoretum [i.e. something to be taken away] accept it from him [i.e. the giver] [and depart] and eat thy portion alone.
But if [you are invited] all to eat [together], eat sufficiently but so that there may remain something over that your host may send it to whomsoever he wills as the superfluity of the Saints, and he [to whom it is sent] may rejoice with what is left over.
And let the guests when they eat partake in silence without arguing. But [let them hearken] to any exhortation the bishop may make, and if any one ask any question, let an answer be given him. And when the bishop has given the explanation let every one quietly offering praise [to him] be silent until he [?the bishop] be asked again.
And if the faithful should be present at a supper without the bishop, but with a presbyter or deacon present, let them similarly partake in orderly fashion. But let every one be careful to receive the blessed bread from the hand of the presbyter or deacon. Similarly a catechumen shall receive the [same bread], [but] exorcised.
If laymen [only] are met together without the clergy let them act with understanding. For the layman cannot make a blessing [or, make the blessed bread].
And having given thanks let each one eat in the Name of the Lord. For this is pleasing to God that we should be jealous [?for his Name] even among the heathen, all of us sober alike. . . .
If at any time any one wishes to invite those widows who are advanced in years let him feed them and send them away before sunset.
But if he cannot entertain them at his house because of the circumstances, let him give them food and wine and send them away, and they shall partake of it at home as they please. (Apostolic Tradition 25-27)1
Jesus instituted the memorial of himself at the last supper in the context of a meal.2 It seems that a meal provided the most convenient context in which the Lord’s supper was observed by early Christians. At least this was the case at Corinth3 and provided the occasion for the abuses which developed there. The Didache also sets the eucharist in the context of a common religious meal (VIII.3). The Roman governor Pliny places the Christian gathering for a common meal at a separate time from their “stated” religious assembly (VII.1). By this time in Bithynia, it would seem, the Lord’s supper was separated from the meal. Even where an ordinary meal provided the setting for the Lord’s supper, there is no reason to think the latter was not distinct in its observance and meaning.
The Greek word for love, agapē, was used by Christians in reference to certain of their religious meals together. Thus one specialized meaning for agapē was “love feast,” the shared meal which was an expression of and proof of brotherly feeling and mutual concern. These meals were correctly named, for they were manifestations of brotherly love, as we shall see below. In addition to the passages cited, there are several other early occurrences of agapē in the sense of “love feast.” Origen refers to Celsus’ criticism of the Christians’ love feasts as belonging in the same class with pagan secret associations.4 The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas relates how the martyrs in their last meal on the day before their martyrdom partook of an agapē “so far as they could.”5
A close connection is indicated between the Lord’s supper and the agapē by an apparent interchange of the terms. Ignatius (XI.1) mentions agapē immediately following a parallel reference to the eucharist (VIII.2). The importance he gives to the bishop’s presence for an agapē as well as for a baptism suggests that he has an important religious gathering of the community in mind. It appears that the term agapē could be used for, or at least to include, the Lord’s supper.6 On the other hand, Hippolytus uses “Lord’s supper” to refer to the agapē (XI.4). Apparently agapē was used for the meal, and eucharist for the memorial of the Lord. As they were separated in time, and perhaps in location, the love feast continued to be an important social and religious function of the Christian community.
Clement of Alexandria seems almost to protest against the designation agapē for the social meal (XI.2). He thereby attests the common word usage. Perhaps it is the almost exclusive use of agapē for the feast by some that concerns him. Clement typically emphasizes a spiritual interpretation of outward Christian observances. In view of this, he is very likely here not rejecting the agapē, either in name or in fact, but calling attention to its true motive and using it to direct attention to the true meaning of love. The meal itself is not love but exists because of love. It is one earthly expression of that higher spiritual reality which is “to love God and one’s neighbor.”
For many of the average Christians the central point of their Christian experience was the common meal. This importance, which seems indicated by our literary sources, may be confirmed by the early Christian catacomb paintings. These visual representations of what was most meaningful in their faith to the ordinary believers contain many depictions of a meal.7 It is often difficult to know whether the last supper, a Lord’s supper, a funeral meal, the heavenly banquet, a feeding miracle from the Gospels, or a love feast is indicated. Some would seem clearly to be the love feast, and the experience of these shared dinners has likely influenced the representation of other scenes.
The love feasts were clearly church activities, hence the importance placed on the presence of the bishop or another member of the clergy (XI.1, 4). It was a “church dinner,” although held in a private home. As gatherings of small groups out of the community they were an important potential source of divisiveness and means for the spread of false teachings. It was important that these gatherings be tied to the whole church and integrated into its total life. A definite religious atmosphere and deportment characterizes the surviving accounts (XI.3, 4).
The love feast served functions of fellowship and charity for the early Christians. It was the social, convivial aspect which perhaps especially attracted many persons. The sharing of food by the wealthier with the poorer was an important means of charity. The host provided food for those chosen who sometimes did not eat at his house but received the food at home or accepted it to take home. The recipients were expected to pray for their benefactor, so sharing spiritual blessings in return for material ones (XI.4; cf. Ch. XVII). Clement (XI.2) appears to have the host in mind when he speaks of buying “the promise of God with dinners.” Widows, the sick, or any of the poorer and needy members of the church might be invited. Any church-sponsored gathering would have been an occasion for sharing in which in the nature of the case the better off would have contributed more. This benevolent function of the agapē was what came to predominate, and it was with this purpose that vestiges of the agapē continued in the later centuries of the church.
The concerns in our sources about proper conduct are an indication that the social aspect was what counted for most of the participants in the second century. Moral disorders at the love feasts of some Gnostic groups were a source of slander against Christians.8 Tertullian himself, after identifying with the Montanists, implies moral laxity at some love feasts in the great church.9 The language of Clement suggests too much attention by some to the material side of the love feast at the expense of the spiritual side (XI.2). The prescriptions of Hippolytus would not have been necessary unless there was a need for tight regulation.
It is only at the end of the second century that we get detailed descriptions of what was done at a Christian love feast. It occurred in the late afternoon or early evening, the time of the principal meal in the day. Tertullian, rebutting pagan slanders, lays stress on the sober religious character of the gathering. It is an agapē because it benefits the needy; special consideration is shown for the lowly. There is prayer before all take their places at the table. The eating and drinking are moderate. After the meal hands are washed and the lights are lit, according to custom. Hymns provide the evening’s entertainment.10 The company is dismissed with prayer.
Hippolytus devotes the longest space of any of our sources to the agapē, but the variations in our textual authorities place much of the detail in his testimony in doubt. Nevertheless, the main lines of his evidence are sure and coincide with other information. Since the bishop is expected to be present and participate whenever some member of the church wants to hold a love feast, he can fast only when the whole church does so. A presbyter or deacon can preside, but laymen alone are not to have a love feast. This gives a definite “churchly” tone to the occasion. Perhaps, like Ignatius, Hippolytus was concerned to preserve the unity of the community; or his regulations may be designed to enhance the religious character of the agapē and especially to provide a safeguard against the disorders which had caused so much mischief. The bishop functioned in the way the head of the household or honored guest at Jewish religious meals did in pronouncing the blessing and distributing the bread with which the meal began. The similarity of Hippolytus’ regulations to the religious character of Jewish meals indicates the primitive character of much that he says and points to the origins of these Christian practices in the Judaism from which the church had sprung.11 The author distinguishes between the eucharistic bread and the “blessed bread.” His use of the word “offer” throughout shows what connotation is to be given to this language in connection with the eucharist (Ch.X). “To offer” was to dedicate by prayer to a religious purpose. In the case of the agapē, that purpose was the relief of the poor. Since the love feast was a fellowship meal of Christians, those who were not baptized did not recline at table with the full members of the church, nor did they eat of the bread over which the blessing was said (an expression of brotherly unity) but were given bread over which an exorcism had been pronounced in order to deliver it from the sphere of demons. Each person apparently spoke his own blessing over the cup of wine and was expected to remember the host (benefactor) in his prayer. Hippolytus, like Tertullian, was concerned that the conversation and conduct not become rowdy.
These instructions for the beginning of the meal with prayer and conduct during the meal are well attested in the documents based on the original Apostolic Tradition. Some of the documents also give directions for distribution of the food to the poor, widows, and sick. The Ethiopic version, in a confused text, contains further information which may very well go back to Hippolytus or his time concerning the conclusion of the agapē.12 It provides for the deacon to bring in a light and gives a prayer of thanksgiving for the close of the day and the gift of light to be pronounced by the bishop. When all rise from the meal, they sing psalms (cf. Tertullian in XI.3). Then a cup of mixed wine and water is held while a hallelujah psalm is recited. This coincides with Jewish meals, at which the formal conclusion is a blessing pronounced over a cup of wine.
The agreements of Tertullian and Hippolytus give us a good description of what the love feast was, or was intended to be, at the end of the second century. A clearer picture of its relation to the Lord’s supper in earlier times is dependent on the discovery of new sources.
Cole, R. Lee. Love-Feasts: A History of the Christian Agape. London: Charles H. Kelly, 1916.
Ferguson, Everett. “Agapē Meal.” Anchor Bible Dictionary. Ed. David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Vol. 1, pp. 90-91.
Keating, J. F. The Agape and the Eucharist in the Early Church. London: Methuen and Co., 1901. Reprint New York: AMS Press, 1969.
Reicke, Bo. Diakonie. Festfreude, und Zelos. Uppsala, 1951.
1 Quoted from Gregory Dix, The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome (Reissued with Corrections; London: S.P.C.K., 1968). The witnesses to the text show the greatest variety in this section, and I have not attempted to copy Dix’s textual signs. Brackets have been used both for editorial explanations and for some words having attestation in the sources but probably not part of the original. In the edition by Bernard Botte, La tradition apostolique de saint Hippolyte (Münster, 1963), the quoted materials are sections 23, 26-30, which is the numbering followed also in Geoffrey J. Cuming, Hippolytus: A Text for Students (Bramcote: Grove, 1976).
2 Matthew 26:20-30 and parallels.
3 1 Corinthians 11:20-34.
4 Against Celsus 1.1.
5 17 (5.4). The use of agapē in Acts of Paul and Thecla 25 is debatable and is not translated as love feast in the English edition of Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, Revised Edition (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), Vol. II, p. 243; there is an unclear reference in a Coptic fragment of the Acts of Paul (Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha II, p. 264). A clearer reference occurs in the Acts of John 84.).
6 Cf. Epistle of the Apostles 15, where the agapē is closely associated with the remembrance of Jesus’ death but may be regarded as distinct in significance, although occurring in the same setting.
7 J. Wilpert, Die Malereien der Katakomben Roms (Freiburg, 1903), plates 15,27,41,62,65,133,157,167,184,265,267; Pierre du Bourguet, Early Christian Painting (New York: Viking Press, 1965), plates 2, 75, 87, 89, 100; André Grabar, The Beginnings of Christian Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1967), pp. 107, 112, 135. See our Plate IV.
8 Jude 12; Justin, Apology I, 26; Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 3.2.10; 7.16.98; Minucius Felix 9; 30-31; Eusebius, Church History 4.7.11 says it was the conduct of certain Gnostics that gave rise to slander against Christians.
9 Fasting 17.
10 Tertullian’s Montanist tract Fasting 13 makes derisive reference to singing a psalm at what is presumably an agapē.
11 Felix L. Cirlot, The Early Eucharist (London: S.P.C.K., 1939), Chapter I and Appendix 1.2. See our Chapter VIII for the main outlines of Jewish fellowship meals: each person giving thanks for his own cup, the blessing and breaking of bread by the one presiding, the meal, a final “food blessing” over a cup of wine at the end of the meal.
12 Botte, op. cit., places the Ethiopic addition at the first. Its location depends on whether the meal began before or after dark. It appears that the versions have misunderstood Hippolytus, and confusion is the result. Specifically, has the Ethiopic duplicated instructions for the beginning or the end of the meal?