Communal Banqueting Practice in Early Christ Group in Corinth

The Last Supper was highly performative because Jesus imparted a new meaning to the bread and the wine as his body and blood, respectively.  These were not simply items of food and drink to be consumed at the table, but, indeed, they were given in order to prefigure the covenantal life that would be accomplished by his sacrificial death. Upon the commandment from Jesus himself, disciples were to partake of the bread and the wine in remembrance of Jesus’ accomplishment, whenever they partook in a communal meal in the name of the Lord.

See Also: The Lord’s Supper in Corinth in the Context of Greco-Roman Private Associations (Fortress Academic, 2018).

By Jin Hwan Lee
Wycliffe College, University of Toronto
January 2019

       Current scholarship on ancient meals generally agrees that all ancient meals shared the so-called banquet customs and ideologies. What this means, exactly, is that when people attend a banquet, whoever they are, whatever the purpose of it is, or whatever types of meetings are held, participants of a banquet share the same cultural codes, expecting the same customs and rules. On such a view, contributions from Dennis Smith, Matthias Klinghart, and Hal Taussig are huge.[1]

       Communal banquet in early Christ group in Corinth attested in 1 Cor 11:17-34, what we often call the Eucharist in Corinth or the Corinthian Lord’s Supper, belongs to the so-called Greco-Roman meal tradition.[2] To understand early Christ movement meals in Corinth, scholars have paid much attention to the so-called symposium literature produced by Plato, Xenophon, Plutarch, Lucian, and so forth.[3] The study affected a positive impact on interpreting 1 Cor 11:17-34 where we find Paul’s polemics on the communal meal practices of the Corinthian Christ group members and his edification to it. Benefitting from the symposium literature, scholars were able to discuss the way in which the early Christ group prepared meals; menu items; meeting place; common ideologies that the early Christ group shared at the table, and so forth. Adding to these, scholars paid attention to social conflicts (schismata; 1 Cor 11:17) that the group members faced, reaching to the point of reconstructing the nature of σχίσματα. A pivotal discussion has to do with an understanding of prolambanō in v. 21 and ekdechomai in v. 33, whether they should be read temporally (“take in advance” and “wait for,” respectively) or not (“take” and “receive,” respectively).[4] The conclusion reached in both conjectures is that the poorer members were neglected and humiliated, especially by not receiving any food besides bread and wine at the Corinthian Lord’s Supper.

       However, I would like to raise a question whether the banquet model that scholars extracted from the symposium literature provide a good fit for understanding the early Christ movement meals, including the Corinthian Lord’s Supper. The Supper was a group meal where its membership is quite determined and required; whereas the banqueting model that the symposium literature provides is everyday, ad-hoc banquets, that is, familial banquets or friendship-based banquets, where neither membership nor group identity was required. Instead, I would like to suggest banqueting practice in Greco-Roman private associations so as to think with the early Christ movement meals in general, including the Corinthian Lord’s Supper. Association meal was basically a group meal required membership. Certain communal obligations and table rules were expected whenever holding a communal meal, and they were strictly controlled with penalties, mostly levying fines. In what follows, I will briefly propose a new scenario regarding the conflict at the Corinthian Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17-34) in light of association meals.[5] This is an excerpt from the conclusion chapter of my recent book.


       While Paul was staying in Ephesus, Chloe sent her people to inform him that the community he had founded in Corinth was suffering from severe factions.[6] The factions basically revolved around leadership problems and their pertinent issues,[7] but the group was facing disunity in other matters as well, which had the potential to lead to an identity crisis in the group.[8] Some were going astray[9] and others had shown indifference to the resurrection of the Christ.[10] Ethical life also collapsed.[11] Each member was seeking his or her own interest and not that of the Christ who gave his life for them. The group was facing a challenge to its communal solidarity, and what was worse was that this challenge happened even during its communal and periodic meeting called the Lord’s Supper.[12]

       The Corinthian Lord’s Supper shared the banquet customs and ideology of its social world. It was neither a ceremony that was quickly done before or after an ordinary meal nor was it a part of a Greco-Roman dinner party. Rather, the Supper itself was a full meal comprised of first and second courses, involving the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine, respectively.[13] The Christ group in Corinth sent out an invitation, probably in a verbal form, to the group members for the Lord’s Supper. Place and time were obviously included in the invitation along with other features. Since the group had no temple, either an elite house or a place like a rented hall called a hestiatorion was a good option to hold the Lord’s Supper. Yet, unlike other locations where some Christ group members were able to accommodate their group members,[14] there were no members in Corinth who could accommodate their group. Accordingly, the group had decided to meet outside of members’ houses, in spaces like hestiatoria where the environment was semi-public, or in tabernae, warehouses or triclinia along the street that were easily accessible from the street.[15] The Corinthian Lord’s Supper was probably held at the ninth hour of the day, a typical time for many other groups to have their banquets.[16] A person’s social status did not really affect his or her ability to arrive on time at the Supper since most people in the first century were having their banquets around this time no matter whether they were private or public. However, since the banqueting practice was a social institution, conflicts among diners often occurred as a natural social phenomenon. The most frequent and difficult form of conflict was over seating practice[17] since diners received different quality and quantity of food depending on where they reclined, with better and more food obviously allocated to the diner in a better seat. Because the issue over seating was quite intense and difficult to control, interruption to a banquet by coming late was considered dishonorable. In particular, this was quite observable in an ordinary banquet which was offered by a host.[18] However, in a private group banquet where membership and dues for meals were required, absenteeism was regarded as a much more dishonorable form of conduct than late arrival, even if the conflict over seating was still the most notable issue.[19] This was because such a meal served a particularly functional purpose, as a way to bolster group solidarity presumably for the purpose of recruiting new members. The ‘performance-oriented banquet’ was quite commonly practised in communal and periodic banquet meetings in private associations, which were ubiquitous in the Greco-Roman world. The Corinthian Lord’s Supper belonged to this type of a meal, which basically required membership and dues for each meeting. The Supper had an important function and needed to operate flawlessly. The Corinthian Lord’s Supper was to be held in remembrance of Jesus Christ, particularly as a way to build up group solidarity by uniting each member to one another in the proclamation of Jesus’ death.[20]

       Because the main purpose of having such a performance meal was not to be fed but to enhance group identity, the Corinthian Lord’s Supper was held with simple menus consisting of bread and wine, just as the custom of many other associations at their communal banquet meetings.[21] Each member was to fulfill his or her dues for the Lord’s Supper and take his or her assigned, portioned meal.[22] The majority of the Corinthian Christ group members were non-elite, and only a few members were wealthier.[23] To prevent the group from developing any form of disunity, a system of flat hierarchy was brought into the group from private associations. The Corinthian members elected group functionaries periodically so that a member’s real social status might not display either power or weakness, at least in the group meetings. A member who was in charge of distributing meals apportioned food according to the total number of diners, and allotted an additional portion for functionaries. Sometimes the group invited guests but normally the main diners were determined by the membership. Food was fairly distributed so that no one could expect to be humiliated by the lack of food at the Supper as long as he or she attended the Supper and had paid the assigned dues. As a token for honorary services or benefactions provided, however, important functionaries of the group reclined on seats of honor and received more and better portions of food than other ordinary members at the table, in accordance with the customary practices of banqueting in society at large.[24]

       Such a procedure of geometric distribution, however, had negative potential in practice because divisions occurred at the Corinthian Lord’s Supper through the conflict over seating. To some extent, Paul seemed to have already anticipated the situation when he heard the news from Chloe’s people that the Corinthian Christ group had leadership issues.[25] Those who were serving as leaders were generally poor at keeping many kinds of factions from forming in the group,[26] so when the time came to elect new leadership, other ordinary members elected new leaders whom they approved as good candidates.[27] The main cause of the divisions came from the old leadership, especially from those who were socially higher than the newly elected leaders. As socially weaker members assumed the more honorable seats due to the election result, those wealthier members from the old leadership became reluctant to step down to the less honorable seats where poorer quality and quantity of food was allocated. Disregarding the newly elected leaders due to their weakness in real social status, the wealthier, old leaders took up the more honorable seats where they used to recline and enjoy better quality and quantity of food both in communal meetings and in their private banquet meetings. In consequence, the wealthier members eventually became drunk, or, at least, were claimed to have become drunk.[28]

       After hearing about such conflict over seating between the old and the new leadership in the Corinthian Christ group, Paul took the divisions quite seriously since the Supper was not meant to operate in the same way as an ordinary banquet meeting that often resulted in drunkenness. He could not tolerate misconduct by the wealthier, old leaders[29] because their misbehavior could result in desecration of the performance aspect of the Corinthian Lord’s Supper,[30] putting the group’s solidarity at stake.[31] Paul could not help but be concerned about group unity, since the Corinthian Christ group members quite openly interacted with local non-believers.[32] Moreover, the fact that the group had its communal gatherings in a semi-public meeting place somewhere like a hestiatorion exacerbated his concern even more, because any kind of problem that occurred at the Corinthian Lord’s Supper could destroy the communal purpose of the Supper and send a contradictory message to outsiders.[33]

       In order to resolve the problem and reinforce the functionality of the Supper, Paul, therefore, reminded the group of the Last Supper tradition that he had handed on to them as a model to follow.[34] The Last Supper was highly performative because Jesus imparted a new meaning to the bread and the wine as his body and blood, respectively.[35] These were not simply items of food and drink to be consumed at the table, but, indeed, they were given in order to prefigure the covenantal life that would be accomplished by his sacrificial death. Upon the commandment from Jesus himself, disciples were to partake of the bread and the wine in remembrance of Jesus’ accomplishment, whenever they partook in a communal meal in the name of the Lord.[36] A confessional dimension was involved so that the meal itself became a proclamation of the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ.[37] This was also true for the Corinthian Lord’s Supper. As the meal defined the group’s identity - who they were, whom they served, and what they commemorated - its functionality was regarded as more important than satisfying hunger. The wealthier members’ social privileges that accompanied their status should not be insisted, at least in the context of the communal gathering convened especially for the remembrance of the Lord. By reminding them that the group itself is God’s community[38] and that the performance of the Corinthian Lord’s Supper is more crucial than eating it (especially because the Supper was held in a semi-public environment),[39] Paul urged them to welcome those newly elected leaders for the group’s sake.[40] He penned off a final exhortation to them to eat and drink in their homes, if they wanted to be satiated.[41]


[1] Dennis E. Smith and Hal E. Taussig, Many Tables: the Eucharist in the New Testament and Liturgy Today (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990); Matthias Klinghardt, Gemeinschaftsmahl und Mahlgemeinschaft: Soziologie und Liturgie frühchristlicher Mahlfeiern (Basel: Francke Verlag, 1996); Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: the Banquet in the Early Christian World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003); Hal Taussig, In the Beginning Was the Meal: Social Experimentation & Early Christian Identity (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009).

[2] Hereafter, I will use “the Corinthian Lord’s Supper.”

[3] Cf. Plato, Symposium; Xenophon, Symposium; Plutarch, Quaestiones Convivales; Lucian, Symposium; Homer, Odyssey, Iliad; Martial, Epigrams; Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists.

[4] For proponents of temporal reading of the two verbs, see Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth, trans. by John H. Schütz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982); Murphy-O’Conner, St. Paul’s Corinth: Texts and Archaeology, 3rd ed. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2002); Hans Josef Klauck, Herrenmahl und hellenistischer Kult: eine religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung zum ersten Korintherbrief (Münster: Aschendorff, 1982); Panayotis Coutsoumpos, Paul and the Lord's Supper: A Socio-Historical Investigation (New York: University Press of America, 2006); Peter Lampe, “The Eucharist: Identifying with Christ on the Cross,” Interpretation 48, no.1 (1994): 36-49; Howard Marshall, Last Supper and Lord's Supper (Exeter: Paternoster, 1980); Joseph Fitzmyer, First Corinthians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible 32 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). For non-temporal readings, see Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2001); Richard A. Horsley, 1 Corinthians, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998); Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997); Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2000); John S. Kloppenborg, “Precedence at the Communal Meal in Corinth,” Novum Testamentum 57 (2016): 167-203.

[5] For detailed discussions on the topic, see Jin Hwan Lee, The Lord’s Supper in Corinth in the Context of Greco-Roman Private Associations (New York: Fortress Academic, 2018).

[6] Cf. 1 Cor 1:11.

[7] 1 Cor 1:12; chs. 1-4, 9.

[8] Chs. 5-8, 10, 12, 14, 15.

[9] Cf. ch. 10.

[10] Ch. 15.

[11] Ch. 5.

[12] 1 Cor 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34: ‘when you come together.’

[13] Cf. 1 Cor 11:25: ‘after the supper.’

[14] Cf. Asia and later in Rome: Prisca and Aquila - 1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3; Colosae: Philemon - Philemon 2; Thessalonikē: Jason - Acts 17:5.

[15] Cf. 1 Cor 14:23.

[16] Cf. P.Oxy. 31.2592; P.Oxy. 1.110; P.Oxy. 3.523; P.Oxy. 3.524; SB 5.7745; P.Fouad 76; P.Yale 1.85; P.Oxy. 14.1755; P.Oxy. 1.111; P.Oxy. 6.926; P.Oxy. 6.927; P.Oxy. 33.2678; P.Fay. 132; P.Oxy. 66.4543; SB 16.12511; P.Oxy. 52.3693; P.Coll.Youtie 1.51; P.Coll.Youtie 1.52; P.Oxy. 62.4339; P.Oxy. 66.4539; P.Oxy. 75.5056; P.Oxy. 75.5057; PSI 15.1543; SB 18.13875; SB 16.12596; P.Oxy. 4.747; O.Medin.Madi 31; P.Köln 1.57; P.Oxy. 36.2792; P.Oxy. 49.3501; P.Oxy. 66.4541; P.Oxy. 66.4542; P.Oxy. 66.4540.

[17] For example, IG II2 1368; IG IX/12 670; IG II2 1369; SEG 31:122; P.Mich. V 243.

[18] Lucian, Symp. 13; Plutarch, Quaes. Conv. 8.6.1-2

[19] For example, IG II2 1368; IG II2 1361; IG IX/12 670; IG II2 1339; P.Mich. V 243.

[20] 1 Cor 11:24-26.

[21] Cf. 11:27-28; ‘the bread and drink the cup.’

[22] 1 Cor 11:21: ‘each takes his or her own meal’; 1 Cor 16:2.

[23] Cf. 1 Cor 1:26.

[24] Cf. CIL 14.2112, Agora 16:161, SEG 31:122, SEG 40:688, IEph 4337, IDelta I 446; CIL 6.33885; SEG 58:1640.

[25] 1 Cor 11:18.

[26] Cf. chs. 5-6.

[27] 1 Cor 11:19.

[28] 1 Cor 11:21.

[29] 1 Cor 11:17: ‘I do not commend you;’ 22: ‘should I commend you?’

[30] 1 Cor 11:22: ‘do you despise the community of God?’

[31] 1 Cor 11:22: ‘do you humiliate those who have not (houses)?’

[32] Cf. 1 Cor 8:10-13, 10:27-28.

[33] Cf. 1 Cor 14:23; 10:10-13.

[34] 1 Cor 11:23.

[35] 1 Cor 11:24-25.

[36] 1 Cor 11:25.

[37] 1 Cor 11:26.

[38] 1 Cor 11:22.

[39] Cf. 1 Cor 14:23; 8:10-13.

[40] 1 Cor 11:33.

[41] 1 Cor 11:34: ‘if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home;’ 22: ‘do you not have homes to eat and drink in?’

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