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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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The history of the Agapae or Love-Feasts of the Christian Church is beset with peculiar difficulties, and has given rise to grave differences of opinion among scholars. It has even been maintained by Batiffol* [Note: Études d’histoire et de théologie positive5, Paris, 1907.] that they were absolutely non-existent in the Apostolic Age; and, though this view has not found general acceptance, it certainly deserves to be treated with respect. The name is indeed found only in the Epistle of Jude (v. 12; cf. also 2 Peter 2:13), the date of which is quite uncertain; and it is probable that in the earliest days the name was unknown. Still there is reason to believe that the common meals, which afterwards gained the name of Agapae, were held by Christians from the beginning. These common meals were an external expression of the sense of brotherhood which was characteristic of the primitive Christian churches, and they were no doubt suggested by similar institutions, which seem to have been common among both Jews and Gentiles. It is also probable that the recollection of the Last Supper of our Lord with His disciples was an additional cause of the holding of these meals.

1. In the Acts.-The Acts of the Apostles gives us a picture of the life of the primitive Church at Jerusalem.* [Note: See art. Eucharist.] In Acts 2:42 we read that the converts ‘continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ In Acts 2:46 we read that ‘day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they did take their food with gladness and singleness of heart.’ These passages are patient of an interpretation which excludes anything like an Agape. ‘Breaking bread’ may refer only to the Eucharist; and the reference to the taking of food may be merely an expression denoting their joyous manner of life. So it is understood by Batiffol.† [Note: cit. p. 285.] But the view of Leclercq‡ [Note: ‘Agape’ in Cabrol’s Dict. d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, vol. i., Paris, 1907.] seems more probable-that the breaking of bread was accompanied by a meal. For we know that that was the case at Corinth, and it is exceedingly probable that the communism of the Church at Jerusalem would involve common meals. Indeed, something of the kind seems to be indicated by Acts 6:1. That this included the Eucharist there can be very little doubt, though it is unlikely that it was identical with the Eucharist. The ‘breaking of the bread’ is an unusual phrase, and as it seems clear that in Corinth the Eucharist took place during or at the end of a supper, so it probably did in Jerusalem. But the evidence is not sufficient to make any conclusion certain. In Acts 20:7-11 we read that at Troas on the first day of the week the Christians were gathered together to break bread. St. Paul spoke to them till midnight, broke bread and tasted it. Here the object of the meeting was the breaking of bread. And the whole context points to its having been a religious rite. There is no hint of a meal in the ordinary sense. The word γευσάμενος certainly does not necessarily imply it. It is, however, possible, though it seems unlikely, that such a meal took place.

2. In 1 Corinthians.-We now come to the account given in 1 Corinthians 11:18-34 of the Eucharist at Corinth: ‘When ye assemble yourselves together, it is not possible to eat the Lord’s supper: for in your eating each one taketh before other his own supper; and one is hungry, and another is drunken. What? have ye not houses to eat and drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and put them to shame that have not?… When ye come together to eat, wait one for another. If any man is hungry, let him eat at home; that your coming together be not unto judgment.’ The most probable interpretation of the passage is that St. Paul blames the Corinthians for misbehaviour at the supper, which should be the Lord’s Supper, but cannot be so regarded in view of their behaviour. It seems that the rich men brought their own food, and immediately on arrival formed groups, and began to eat their supper without waiting to see whether there were any poor men present who had nothing to eat. St. Paul suggests that if they are hungry, they had better have something to eat before they come. The whole supper is the Lord’s, for He is the host. And St. Paul reminds them of the significance of what takes place at the supper, namely the Eucharist-a real Communion with the Body and Blood of Christ, and a memorial of His Death.

Batiffol, on the other hand, maintains that St. Paul blames them for associating the Eucharist with a meal at all, and the same view was previously taken by John Lightfoot.§ [Note: Works, ed. Pitman, London, 1822-26, vol. vi. p. 232 ff.] It must be admitted that his language in 1 Corinthians 11:22, ‘Have ye not houses to eat and to drink in?’ seems logically to imply that the assembly of Christians is not a suitable occasion for a meal. But his exhortation to them to ‘wait one for another’ seems to have no point unless there is to be, a meal. While the considerations adduced by St. Paul no doubt were ultimately operative in bringing about a separation of the Eucharist from the Agape, yet it is highly probable that they were not carried to their logical conclusion at once, nor indeed intended to be so carried. There is no doubt that there was a supper at Corinth at the time when St. Paul wrote; that all the members of the Church came together to it, bringing their own contributions. This was apparently a sort of funeral memorial feast, sacred in its associations, but especially sacred because in the course of it the Eucharist was celebrated. This meal was desecrated by the Corinthians, who ignored its sacred character, making it no longer an expression of the brotherhood of the community, but an ordinary meal, and an occasion for display and gluttony.

3. In Jude and 2 Peter.-The writer of the Epistle of Jude speaks (Judges 1:12) of certain heretics who are ‘hidden rocks in your love-feasts when they feast with you.’ In the parallel passage in 2 Peter 2:13 the bulk of the Manuscripts read ἀπάταις for ἀγάπαις. J. B. Lightfoot* [Note: Apostolic Fathers, pt. ii. 2 vol. ii., London, 1889, p. 313.] regards ἀπάταις as an obvious error for ἀγάπαις, and Bigg† [Note: on Epp. of Peter and Judges 1:2 (ICC, Edinburgh, 1902).] follows him in this view. The matter is of no importance for our purpose, as it is the opinion of the majority of scholars that 2 Peter is dependent on Jude, and there can be no reasonable doubt that in Jude ἀγάπαις is the right reading. Batiffol maintains that Jude is in the habit of using plurals instead of singulars, and understands him here to mean ‘love’ with no reference to the Agape. But this translation of the word does not seem possible; and we are clearly driven to the conclusion that, among the people to whom Jude wrote, the Agape was an established institution, and the name had already been given to it. But the destination of the Epistle is very doubtful. M. R. James‡ [Note: on 2 Peter and Jude (Cambridge Greek Testament, Cambridge, 1912), p. xxxviii.] writes: ‘We may place the community to which he writes very much where we please: Dr. Chase’s conjecture§ [Note: HDB, art. ‘Jude, Epistle of.’] that it was at or near the Syrian Antioch is as good as any.’ There is nothing to indicate the relation of the Agape mentioned by Jude to the Eucharist. It seems most probable that, as in Corinth, the Eucharist took place at or near the end of the supper. St. Paul’s words μετὰ τὸ δειπνῆσαι in 1 Corinthians 11:25 make it fairly certain that Chrysostom is wrong in his statement that the Eucharist was followed by a meal. No doubt Chrysostom based his view on the customs of his own time, when fasting communion was the rule.

4. Analogies with Love-Feast.-A great deal of information has been collected by Leclercq|| [Note: | Loc. cit.] about the prevalence of funeral banquets all round the Mediterranean. These banquets were originally for the benefit of the dead, though later they became simply memorial meals. These supply us with an analogy to the Agape. But it is probable that even more operative was the example of the common meals of the various gilds which were a prominent feature of social life in Greek cities. It would be most natural that converts to Christianity should welcome a Christian common meal, on the lines of those to which they were accustomed. Parallels are also to be found among the Jews.¶ [Note: Josephus, Ant. xiv. x. 8; Jeremiah 16:7.] Unfortunately, our evidence is not sufficient to enable us to draw a clear picture of what the Christian Agape was like. It was not purely a charity-supper, though the evidence of the Corinthians shows us that it was intended that this characteristic should not be wholly absent. It seems to have been primarily an expression of the sense of brotherhood which Christians felt. The fact that the Eucharist was associated with it gave it a specially sacred character, and makes it certain that it must have been connected in the minds of those who took part in it with the Last Supper. But abuses arose in connexion with it both in Corinth and-apparently-among those to whom the Epistle of Jude was written. The evidence which we have suggests plenty of reasons for the separation of the Eucharist from the Agape, which seems to have taken place at an early date.

Literature.-Besides books and articles already mentioned, see J. F. Keating, The Agape and the Eucharist, London, 1901; A. J. Maclean, article ‘Agape’ in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics ; J. B. Mayor, Appendix C in Hort and Mayor’s Clement of Alexandria, Seventh Book of the Stromateis, London, 1902; also books and articles mentioned in article Eucharist.

G. H. Clayton.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Love-Feast'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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