From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World

01.01.03 | Denver Journal, New Testament, Craig L. Blomberg | by Dennis E. Smith

    A review of Dennis Smith's, "From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World," by Dr. Craig Blomberg.

    Smith, Dennis E. From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World. Minneapolis: Fortress. 2003 $ 25.00. Pap. xi + 411 pp. ISBN 0-8006-3489-6

    No New Testament scholar has so persisted in studying and publishing on meals in the ancient Mediterranean world as has Dennis Smith, professor at Phillips Seminary in Tulsa. After more than twenty years, the fruit of his Harvard dissertation and numerous subsequent articles is now conveniently and fully combined in this volume.

    Smith's central thesis is that the symposium--a formal evening meal for guests, with drinking, entertainment and conversation leisurely following the consumption of the food itself--proved so pervasive in Greek, Roman and Jewish culture from 300 B.C. to A.D. 300 that no single manifestation of this meal may be deemed the origin of the Christian Eucharist.

    By far the most valuable chapters of Smith's work are those that survey the relevant customs in the cultures into which Christianity was birthed. Features of the Greco-Roman banquet in general included restricting invitations to intimate friends, reclining rather than merely sitting at table, a leisurely progression over several hours through the various courses of food and stages of the symposium, rules for orderly conversation (with frequent violations due to excessive drinking), and entertainment by flute girls and courtesans. Occasions for such celebrations included birthdays, weddings and funerals.

    Specific types of banquets developed, however, for more regular and definable gatherings. The philosophical banquet, written about at length by Plato and Xenophon, more consistently involved restrained symposia that discussed informative and pleasant topics. Fellowship, friendship and pleasure comprised its three central objectives. The sacrificial banquet took place after ritually slaughtered animals were cooked for their meat and contained a more overtly religious element of devotion to God or the gods. The club banquet accompanied the often monthly meetings of various trade guilds and dining societies, with religious elements present but more muted. Roman collegia, modeled in part on the Eastern mystery cults, took the form of a club banquet but with a greater element of explicit worship. One little-studied second-century Athenian society called the Iobakchoi, in honor of Bacchus the god of wine, comes under particular scrutiny because of its detailed rules and regulations, which have been preserved. Among them, we find partial parallels to the Judeo-Christian concepts of the "sermon."

    Greco-Roman influences had increasingly penetrated Israel, from the days of Alexander the Great onward, to such a degree that Jewish banqueting in this period closely resembled its Hellenistic counterparts. Smith samples "early" (Sirach) and "late" (Rabbinic) representatives of this period, showing comparatively stable patterns. But as early as Amos, Jews also recognized the dangers of the luxury and lasciviousness that could accompany the symposium. (The Greeks did too, though not as often, and by means of ridiculing satire rather than threats of God's judgment.) Even the haggadah or liturgy for the Passover seder, despite its firm theological grounding in the Exodus narrative, takes on discernible elements of the Greco-Roman banquet. The Pharisees and Haverim stressed the boundaries between who could and could not participate in their communal meals, a preoccupation taken to an even greater extreme among the Essenes at Qumran. But the mere presence of the distinctive Jewish dietary laws made all Jewish banqueting somewhat more closed than its Greco-Roman counterpart, though uninvited guests seemed to frequent both milieus. Jews also had provision for fellowshipping with Gentiles while not eating their unclean food, despite the claims of many to the contrary. A somewhat distinctive Jewish subcategory of symposium was the Messianic banquet, classically depicted in Isaiah 25:6-8, and mythologically (as Smith argues) imagining a coming age of intimate table fellowship between God and his people when Messiah would arrive.

    With this background material in hand, Smith turns to the letters of Paul and the Gospels' portraits of Jesus. He is convinced that the Lord's Supper, as described in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, need not have been terribly influenced by one special last meal of Jesus, given its parallels with the general Greco-Roman model of symposium. Granted, but if there are good reasons for believing Jesus celebrated such a meal, it would still take pride of place among originating influences. Smith, nevertheless, does make a suggestive case for imagining the Corinthian worship to include a full meal, the goal of social equality that had not been adequately pursued, worship taking place around the table and the meal, believers exercising their diverse spiritual gifts including preaching in the place of the symposium and debates over idol meat centering on its use in these banquets. With Meeks and others, the closest analogy which may have allowed Rome to legitimize these Christian gatherings for a time may have been funerary societies, given the centrality of the memorial meal for believers. Partially against Theissen and his many followers, however, the abuses in Corinth may not point to huge disparities between rich and poor, since similar abuses are documented in Greco-Roman banquets even among those who are mostly the social equals of each other. Finally, the kind of orderliness for which Paul repeatedly calls may hark back to the various Hellenistic symposium rules.

    Smith's weakest chapter deals with the historical Jesus. Much of this section follows the logic that if a broader cultural background for something in the Gospels can be found, or if a theme or form clearly serves a literary or narrative purpose for a given evangelist, then it is not likely to reflect what Jesus actually said or did. Smith is still functioning with the oft-debunked negative use of the dissimilarity criterion here, without taking into account the more nuanced criteria of Wright (double similarity and dissimilarity) or Theissen and Merz (historical plausibility). Indeed, Jesus' table fellowship with sinners, breaking down conventional boundaries, could be established as even more securely anchored in the "database" of what we can know about the historical Jesus precisely in light of Smith's background studies, and precisely contra the use he makes of them. On the other hand, Smith does show how important the symposium theme is for the evangelists, especially Luke, but also, to a degree not normally recognized, for Mark and John as well.

    The abiding theological insights of Smith's work are the emphases on the ubiquity of the banquet model and its probable influence on Jesus and Paul. Even in our quite different cultures today, there are ways, often precisely within the context of leisurely meals, to recover the intimacy, fellowship, friendship, worship, instruction, and the social equality that early Christianity stressed at table. It is important to recognize how much of these values were lost when the Christian Eucharist, already by the second century, began to be divorced from its original context of the agape meal or love feast, as Jude depicts it. Few branches of Christianity today anywhere on the theological spectrum come close to embracing the rich significance of apostolic dining practice. Our churches desperately need creative change in this arena.

    Craig L. Blomberg
    Distinguished Professor of New Testament
    Denver Seminary

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