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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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It is Godwin's opinion, that the agapae, or love-feasts, of the primitive Christians, were derived from the חגים or feasts upon the sacrifices, at which the Jews entertained their friends, and fed the poor; Deuteronomy 12:18; Deuteronomy 26:12 . There were also feasts of much the same kind in use among the Greeks and Romans. The former were wont to offer certain sacrifices to their gods, which were afterward given to the poor. They had likewise public feasts for certain districts, suppose for a town or a city, toward which all who could afford it, contributed, in proportion to their different abilities, and all partook of it in common. Of this sort were the συσσιτια of the Cretans; and the φιδιτια of the Lacedaemonians, instituted by Lycurgus, and so called παρα της φιλιας , (the λ being changed into δ according to their usual orthography,) as denoting that love and friendship which they were intended to promote among neighbours and fellow citizens. The Romans likewise had a feast of the same kind, called charistia; which was a meeting only of those who were akin to each other; and the design of it was, that if any quarrel or misunderstanding had happened among any of them, they might there be reconciled. To this Ovid alludes in the second book of his Fasti:—

Proxima cognati dixere charistia cari, Et venit ad socios turba propinqua deos.

Deuteronomy 26:617 .

[The feasts next in order beloved relatives called charistia, at which the kindred throng assembled under their family household gods.] In imitation either of these Jewish or Gentile love-feasts, or probably of both, the primitive Christians, in each particular church, had likewise their love- feasts, which were supplied by the contribution of the members, according to their several abilities, and partaken of by all in common. And whether they were converts from among the Jews or Gentiles, they retained their old custom with very little alteration, and as their αγαπαι had been commonly annexed to their sacrifices, so they were now annexed to the commemoration of the sacrifice of Christ at the Lord's Supper; and were therefore held on the Lord's day before or after the celebration of that ordinance. It would seem at Corinth, in the Apostles' days, they were ordinarily held before; for when the Corinthians are blamed for unworthily receiving the Lord's Supper, it is partly charged upon this, that some of them came drunk to that ordinance, having indulged to excess at the preceding love-feast: "Every one taketh before, προλαμβανει , his own supper, and one is hungry, and another is drunken," 1 Corinthians 11:21 . This shows, says Dr. Whitby, that this banquet, namely, the love- feast, was celebrated before the Lord's Supper. But Chrysostom gives an account of it, as being in his time kept after it. It is commonly supposed, that when St. Jude mentions certain persons, who were spots in the feasts of charity, εν ταις αγαπαις , 1 Corinthians 11:12 , he means in the Christian love- feasts; though Dr. Lightfoot and Dr. Whitby apprehend the reference in this passage is rather a custom of the Jews, who, on the evening of their Sabbath, had their κοινωνια , or communion, when the inhabitants of the same city met in a common place to eat together. However that be, all antiquity bears testimony to the reality of the Christian αγαπαι , or love- feasts.

The most circumstantial account, says Dr. Townley, of the manner in which the ancient agapae were celebrated, is given by Tertullian, in his "Apology," written in the second century: "Our supper," says he, "which you accuse of luxury, shows its reason in its very name, for it as called αγαπη , that is, love. Whatever charge we are at, it is gain to be at expense upon the account of piety. For we therewith relieve and refresh the poor. There is nothing vile or immodest committed in it. For we do not sit down before we have first offered up prayer to God. We eat only to satisfy hunger, and drink only so much as becomes modest persons. We fill ourselves in such a manner, as that we remember still that we are to worship God by night. We discourse as in the presence of God, knowing that he hears us. Then, after water to wash our hands, and lights brought in, every one is moved to sing some hymn to God, either out of Scripture, or, as he is able, of his own composing, and by this we judge whether he has observed the rules of temperance in drinking. Prayer again concludes our feast; and thence we depart, not to fight and quarrel; not to run about and abuse all we meet; not to give up ourselves to lascivious pastime; but to pursue the same care of modesty and chastity, as men that have fed at a supper of philosophy and discipline, rather than a corporeal feast." Ignatius, in his epistle to the church of Smyrna, in the first century, affords us the additional information, "that it was not lawful to baptize, or celebrate the love-feasts, without the bishop, or minister." Lucian, the epicurean, has also a passage which seems to refer to the agapae. He tells us that when Peregrinus, a Christian, was in prison, "you might have seen, early in the morning, old women, some widows, and orphans, waiting at the prison. Their presidents bribed the guards, and lodged in the prison with him. Afterward (that is, in the evening) various suppers (that is, suppers consisting of various dishes, and various kinds of meat, brought thither by various persons of the company) were brought in, and they held their sacred conversations, ιεροι λαγοι , or their sacred discourses were delivered." Pliny, in his celebrated epistle to Trajan, mentions the "cibus promiscuus et innoxius,"— "common and harmless meal" of the Christians, which they ate together after the celebration of the eucharist. This primitive practice, though under a simpler form, and more expressly religious, is retained in modern times, only by the Moravians, and by the Wesleyan Methodists.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Love-Feasts'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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