Major controversies over early Christian interpretations of the Lord’s Supper provide the background for this discussion. However, there is much more to this text. Recent scholarship has focused on what Paul seeks to achieve here, which is a restructuring of social relationships in the Corinthian community by means of altering the way in which they celebrate their meal. The bottom line seems to be that Paul wants the Corinthians to behave in a much more egalitarian manner at the table and, therefore, in their lives together, than they would have been used to in their hierarchical society. The point of having a meal together is to form a community; behavior at the table that underlines differences and distinctions in a group goes against the very nature of a meal, at least in Paul’s understanding.
See Also: T&T Clark Handbook to Early Christian Meals in the Greco-Roman World (T&T Clark, 2019).
By Peter-Ben Smit
Professor of Contextual Biblical Interpretation (Dom Hélder Câmara Chair)
Vrije Universiteit, Netherlands
When I first wrote my doctoral dissertation on meals in the New Testament, I often had to explain myself. Why focus on something as mundane as meals? Couldn’t I instead write about the Eucharist? My response to this was that I wasn’t writing about meals as such, but about meals that symbolized the kingdom of God, or “heaven.” I really wanted to know what I was going to have for dinner there – assuming I’d be admitted. I still don’t know what things will be like in heaven, but what I’ve learned about meals, especially those in the New Testament, is that they play a significant role in shaping the ways in which human beings live together. Even imaginary meals such as those in parables or those that occur in texts about the afterlife or the kingdom of God often suggest how people should live together here and now. Focusing on meals has also changed my perspective of what mattered most in early Christianity. The body, action, and ritual appear much more important to me while “beliefs” appear comparatively less important (though still significant).
When people share a meal, group dynamics such as inclusion, exclusion, and organization will always be relevant factors. Who may eat with whom and who receives what kind of portion, for example, shapes relationships. Common etiquette and the sort of food being eaten influence the identity of a group and the extent to which it can relate to other groups in various important ways. Questions involving physical bodily matters such as gender also arise. Which actions are appropriate, and which are taboo? Which sort of food or way of eating is considered appropriate for men as opposed to women and children? All this may sound terribly mundane, but it is within these contexts that the “sacred” takes shape. An overly strict distinction between the “sacred” and “profane” may be relativized by studying meals in an early Christian context.
These claims can be illustrated by discussing a few pertinent segments from Paul of Tarsus’ First Letter to the Corinthians in which Paul discusses meals at length. I will proceed to argue that these are a starting point for this theologizing, even to such an extent that Paul may be considered a theologian of the belly, a “gastro-theologian.”
Paul as a Theologian of the Belly
The first text in which Paul talks about food is 1 Cor. 8, which discusses food that has been offered to “idols” and whether or not such food should be consumed by followers of Christ (see v. 4: “Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols…”). His discussion of the reality or non-reality of “idols,” which follows his introduction of the topic, has drawn much attention and inspired a great deal of debate (vv. 4-6), but seldom noted is the fact that Paul’s thinking begins and ends with the belly. His solution to the tension between the “weak” and “strong” in the community – the “weak,” those who consider idols to be real and therefore consider the consumption of food offered to them to be idolatry, compared to the “strong,” those who do not believe in idols and therefore eat whatever they fancy with a clear conscience – is a solution that pertains to the belly. He writes in 1 Cor. 8.13: “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” In other words, it is through food, especially meat, offered to idols or not, that Paul’s relationship to others is shaped. Doctrine, over which he would seem to claim to have a superior grasp than the “weak” (Paul does not think that idols are real in any metaphysical sense, even if they may be experienced as real – see vv. 7.10-11), takes a secondary position. The belly takes precedence over the mind.
Paul focuses his attention on meals once again a couple chapters later. In 1 Cor. 10, the topic arises after a longer argument concerning idolatry (vv. 1-13). In this case, the idolatry in question appears to be the idolatry of the belly:
14Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols. 15I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? 17Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? 19What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. 21You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.
Again, the physical actions of eating and drinking provoke Paul’s reflections. His starting point is the meal and what the meal and the foodstuffs involved in it produce – relationships between humans as well as dangerous relationships between humans and “demons.” A meal is much more than just a meal: it is the shape of one’s faith. A meal is ultimately an embodiment of social and spiritual relationships and values – these hardly exist without such embodiment. Once again, Paul is very much a theologian of the body, even one of the belly, a true gastro-theologian.
A third text from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is 1 Cor. 11:17-34, in which Paul addresses questions of meals and food from yet another perspective. Much scholarly attention has been devoted to the “words of institution” that Paul quotes there:
23For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 27Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.
Major controversies over early Christian interpretations of the Lord’s Supper provide the background for this discussion. However, there is much more to this text. Recent scholarship has focused on what Paul seeks to achieve here, which is a restructuring of social relationships in the Corinthian community by means of altering the way in which they celebrate their meal. The bottom line seems to be that Paul wants the Corinthians to behave in a much more egalitarian manner at the table and, therefore, in their lives together, than they would have been used to in their hierarchical society. The point of having a meal together is to form a community; behavior at the table that underlines differences and distinctions in a group goes against the very nature of a meal, at least in Paul’s understanding. That seems to be the gist of an earlier part of his argument:
18For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. 19Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. 20When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?
Paul’s socially oriented perspective in 1 Cor. 11 is very fruitful, but it does not discuss the body yet. An often-overlooked aspect of his argument, which again indicates the extent to which he is a “gastro-theologian,” is the starting point of Paul’s argument that has to do with physical experiences:
21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.
Hunger and drunkenness may appear rather mundane states of being, but through hunger and thirst the actual divisions in the Corinthian community exist, contrasting the ethos of a meal as something that ought to be characterized by the performance of community (cf. v. 20: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper.”). The situation also must be remedied by means of a different way of physical behavior in order to arrive at a way of making the body of Christ present at the Lord’s Supper in a manner that is recognizable again (for Paul, that is) and that does justice to Christ’s body as it was given for the community (the point of the quotation in vv. 23-26): “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” Paul is likely implying that all present should be served at the same time; serving the higher-ranking guests and making the lower-ranking guests wait was a common way of expressing social hierarchies at a meal. This reading also implies that Paul mocks the actions of the higher-ranking guests, who receive their food first and subsequently eat first, by interpreting their behavior as proof of their lack of self-control, a key aspect of (male) elite identity in antiquity. Their physical behavior – in particular, the role their bellies play in their lives – is therefore precisely what discredits them in the eyes of Paul. Once again, Paul is a gastro-theologian; the belly is the pivot of his entire argument here!
The above outline indicates why meals matter in early Christianity; they are key vehicles for social and religious identity. Pushing the analysis of three Pauline texts a bit further also shows how meals make one aware of a key dimension of Pauline thought that is often overlooked: the extent to which he is, in fact, a theologian of the body, specifically of the belly. Paul has often been considered a thinker who had little interest in the body; however, studying his discussions of meals shows he is a true gastro-theologian.
Most relevant research on New Testament meals has been covered by a new handbook: Soham Al-Suadi and Peter-Ben Smit (ed.), T&T Clark Handbook to Early Christian Meals in the Greco-Roman World (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).
Key works on meals in the New Testament and early Christianity, as published in recent years and to which the above is indebted, include:
Matthias Klinghardt, Gemeinschaftsmahl und Mahlgemeinschaft (Francke, Tübingen 1996).
Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).
Dennis Smith and Hal Taussig (ed.), Meals in the Early Christian World: Social Formation, Experimentation, and Conflict at Table (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
Hal Taussig and Susan Marks (ed.), Meals in Early Judaism: Social Formation at the Table (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
Hal Taussig, In the Beginning Was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early Christian Identity (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009).
On 1 Corinthians, in particular ch. 11, see more recently also:
John S. Kloppenborg, “Precedence at the Communal Meal in Corinth,” Novum Testamentum 58 (2016), 167-203.
Rachel McRae, “Eating with Honor: The Corinthian Lord’s Supper in Light of Voluntary Association Meal Practices,” Journal of Biblical Literature 130 (2011), 165-181.
This paper utilizes and further develops research that was published in the course of my career so far as:
Food and Fellowship in the Kingdom: Studies in the Eschatological Meal and Scenes of Nutritional Abundance in the New Testament, WUNT II.234 (Mohr Siebeck: Tübingen, 2008).
“Het lichaam van Christus aan tafel. Paulus van Tarsus en Judith Butler in Korinthe,” in: Mirella Klomp, Peter-Ben Smit and Iris Speckmann (red.), Rond de tafel. Maaltijd vieren in liturgische contexten (Berne: Berne Media, 2018). (ed.), Tafel, 47-59.
“Ritual Failure, Ritual Negotiation, and Paul’s Argument in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34,” Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters 3.2 (2013), 165-195.
“Die Geburtstagsfeier des Herodes als Anti-Symposium (Mk 6,17-29),” Biblische Zeitschrift 53 (2009), 29-46.
A bibliography has been provided at the end of this contribution; here, I wish to thank Mr. Martin Wolgen, Amsterdam, for his kind proofreading of this essay.