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.
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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