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The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Greco-Roman Culture

It Is Not The Lord’s Supper That You Eat: The Socio-Historical Context of 1 Corinthians 11.17-34


The Corinthian church of the first century has a notorious reputation as a dysfunctional group that was riddled with a wide variety of problems. That reputation stems from Paul’s correspondence with the young congregation in which he addresses and seeks to correct a host of Corinthian beliefs and practices including lawsuits within the church, sexual behavior, the consumption of meat that had been offered to idols, worship practices, and more. Although these issues cover a wide range of topics, they all can be explained to some degree by attitudes and practices of first-century Greco-Roman culture. In other words, the Corinthian Christians were so influenced by the surrounding culture that they frequently imported cultural practices into the church, not realizing that such practices were inappropriate in the new way of life to which they had been converted.[1] When they did this, Paul attempted to correct the problem.

One area in which the Corinthians receive some of Paul’s most stinging rebuke is in regard to their practice of the Lord’s Supper, recorded in 1 Corinthians 11.17-34. This is a well-known passage, largely because it has been mined countless times throughout the centuries in order to extract Paul’s theology of the Lord’s Supper. While such efforts may have some value, they tend to ignore the original context of the situation that Paul addresses and the fact that he was trying to correct a specific problem.[2]

This paper will pursue a different course by seeking to explain the abuses within the Corinthian church’s practice of Communion against the backdrop of common Greco-Roman banqueting customs. Also, we will consider Paul’s instructions for how these abuses should be corrected, and then conclude by briefly considering some of the implications of those instructions for the church today.

Banquets in the Greco-Roman World

The Corinthian church’s Lord’s Supper practices that Paul critiques in 1 Corinthians 11.17-34 make more sense when considered in light of the general dining customs of voluntary associations in Greco-Roman culture.

Voluntary associations were a widespread social phenomenon in the Greco-Roman world.[3] These associations were social clubs where members formed groups based on common interests, occupation, or devotion to a deity. Although these associations varied from one another in many ways, they shared several general features. Voluntary associations were formally organized, with rules for how one could become a member and regulations for how members were required to behave when they met together.[4] Also, they were typically local organizations, with only loose connections to a larger network,[5] and were fairly small in size, generally consisting of thirty to forty members.[6] Furthermore, even associations that were built upon a shared occupation were still essentially religious in nature, and would involve invocations and sacrifices to deities.[7] Finally, communal eating and drinking played a major part in the life of associations, and as time went on, the social dynamics of the groups increasingly came to supplant any religious emphasis.[8]

An ancient mosaic depicting Jesus and His disciples at the Last Supper, reclining at table in accordance with common dining practices of the ancient Mediterranean world.

For the sake of this study, the communal eating and drinking practices of associations and indeed, Greco-Roman society in general, need to be considered more closely. On the whole, “the peoples of the Mediterranean world of the period circa 300 B.C.E. to circa 300 C.E. tended to share the same dining customs.”[9] At Greco-Roman banquets, diners typically reclined at table for a formal meal and drinking party. During the banquet, there would generally be time for conversation and also some sort of entertainment, including rhetorical performances or pantomimic dances.[10]

Food for banquets could be provided by the patron who was hosting the meal, or, in the popular eranos dinner, the cost for the meal was shared by those who took part in it.[11] The eranos was similar to a modern picnic or potluck dinner where everyone brings some food, but had a broader definition in that each participant could have consumed his or her own food, or the participants could pool their food on a common table and share it accordingly.[12]

Banquets would carefully reflect the established social hierarchy, as table seats were assigned by social rank, and also the quality and quantity of food that a diner received depended on his or her social status.[13] A wide array of ancient texts spanning hundreds of years reveal that although this sort of disparity was the common and generally-accepted practice, it was also criticized by some. Writing in the first century AD, the Roman poet Martial complains about the lack of fairness:

Since I am no longer invited to dinner at a price as formerly, why don’t I get the same dinner as you? You take oysters fattened in the Lucrine pool, I cut my mouth sucking a mussel. You have mushrooms, I take pig fungi. You set to with turbot, I with bream. A golden turtle dove fills you up with its outsize rump, I am served with a magpie that died in its cage. Why do I dine without you, Ponticus, when I’m dining with you? Let the disappearance of the dole count for something; let’s eat the same meal.[14]

In the late first and early second centuries, the Roman satirist Juvenal also criticizes the inequity in the quality and quantity of food, and furthermore, complains that the practice of giving inferior food to lower class individuals is not an attempt to save money, but instead, is a forceful intention to keep those of lower social status firmly in their places.[15]

Sometimes those of higher class also sought to reform these inequitable practices. Xenophon, a Greek historian and student of Socrates writing in the 4th century B.C., states:

Whenever some of the members of a dining club brought more appetizers than others, Socrates would tell the waiter either to put the small contribution into the common stock or to portion it out equally among the diners. So the high contributors felt obliged not only to take their share of the pool, but to pool their own supplies in return; and so they put their own supplies also into the common stock. And since they got no more that way than those who brought little with them, they gave up spending a lot on appetizers.[16]

Here, Xenophon describes Socrates’ efforts to bring fairness to an eranos dinner where wealthier diners were bringing more food and not sharing it with others. Writing in the first century AD but reflecting a similar attitude, Pliny the Younger recounts his experience at a banquet where he and a few others received the best dishes while everyone else received cheap scraps of food. The host had even divided the wine into three flasks of varying quality to reflect the different social levels of the diners:

My neighbour at table noticed this and asked me if I approved. I said I did not. “So what do you do?” he asked. “I serve the same to everyone, for when I invite guests it is for a meal, not to make class distinctions; I have brought them as equals to the same table, so I give them the same treatment in everything.” “Even the freedmen?” “Of course, for then they are my fellow-diners, not freedmen.” “That must cost you a lot.” “On the contrary.” “How is that?” “Because my freedmen do not drink the sort of wine I do, but I drink theirs.”[17]

Greco-Roman associations and their banquets were also criticized because they were notorious for drunkenness and gluttony.[18] Philo strongly rebukes this behavior:

In the city there are clubs with a large membership, whose fellowship is founded on no sound principle but on strong liquor and drunkenness and sottish carousing and their offspring, wantonness.[19]

These drunken excesses were common, but unlike the practice of differentiating between different social classes at banquets, were not considered to be proper table behavior.[20]

All of this information is vital for understanding the context of 1 Corinthians 11.17-34. As a Roman colony in the middle of Greece, first century Corinth was firmly planted in Greco-Roman society. The church at Corinth was largely made up of Gentile converts, and it is unthinkable that their Greco-Roman backgrounds would not have influenced their behavior, even after conversion. Furthermore, in light of the widespread voluntary association participation in Greco-Roman culture, many pagans and some Christians as well likely would have seen Christian worship gatherings as some sort of association, and as a result, would have felt very comfortable importing Greco-Roman dining customs into their Christian fellowship meals.[21] In fact, it seems that this practice directly led to the abuses that Paul criticizes so sharply.[22]

Paul’s Critique of the Corinthian Situation

In 1 Corinthians 11.17-22, Paul sternly rebukes the Corinthians for the way they have been practicing the Lord’s Supper. Paul introduces his thoughts in this section by telling the Christians at Corinth that he cannot commend them because “when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse (v. 17).”[23] Their practice of the Lord’s Supper was so riddled with abuse that it would have been better if they had not observed it at all. In fact, Paul is so appalled by their behavior that he can hardly believe what he has been told about them (v. 18b).[24]

First, Paul criticizes the Corinthian Christians because of the divisions that characterize their assembly (v. 18). Factionalism and infighting are problems that Paul discusses in various contexts throughout 1 Corinthians, but here, instead of referencing the rival parties of 1 Corinthians 1.10, he is addressing the divide between the rich and the poor.[25] His further comment that “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (v. 19) is probably best understood as irony; Paul is displeased with the divisions, but they do make clear which of the Corinthians are pleasing God with their behavior and which are not.[26] The consequences of these divisions are significant: the Corinthians’ practice of Communion is so antithetical to its purpose that, regardless of their intentions, it is fundamentally impossible for the ritual in which they take part to truly be the Lord’s Supper (v. 20).[27]

Second, Paul criticizes their self-centered eating practices where “each one goes ahead with his own meal” with the result that “one goes hungry” while “another gets drunk” (v. 21).[28] Paul then proceeds with a series of rhetorical questions which indicate that the selfish behavior of the wealthy is inappropriate in the church assembly and is humiliating those who have nothing (v. 22). For this, he will not commend them.[29]

To better understand these criticisms, it is necessary that we attempt to reconstruct what the Corinthians were doing in their observance of the Eucharist.

First, there is widespread agreement among scholars that the Corinthians observed the Eucharist in the context of a fellowship (agapē) meal.[30] Indeed, Jesus instituted the ritual in the context of a meal, and the indication of 1 Corinthians 11.20 is that the Corinthians retained the meal context.[31] The specific relationship of the agapē meal and the Lord’s Supper is less clear, and it is possible that the blessing of the bread and cup surrounded the meal or that the meal occurred first and was followed by the Lord’s Supper.[32] In later practice, the agapē meal was separated from the Lord’s Supper,[33] and that practice has continued up until the present day for the vast majority of Christians.[34] However, Paul does not oppose the community meal and the Lord’s Supper occurring in the same context; rather, he rejects a selfish, individualistic meal that runs counter to everything the Lord’s Supper stands for.[35]

When we allow that the Corinthians were observing a full meal in the context of the Lord’s Supper, in light of Greco-Roman dining customs described above, it is not at all surprising that they were dividing themselves according to social class with the wealthy receiving better treatment than the poor.[36] The church at Corinth was made up of a variety of social classes, and the church would have met in the homes of the wealthier members.[37] Based on 1 Corinthians 11.21-22, it is clear that some were overindulging in the meal while others got nothing, but it is less clear exactly how this came about. The host likely would have provided the bread and wine for Communion, while the rest of the food would have been brought by the other Christians, in an eranos style.[38] The wealthier Christians would have been able to bring superior food and more of it than their poorer brothers and sisters (who may not have been able to bring anything at all), and this food was apparently not distributed equally.

Some scholars argue for a temporal reconstruction of the situation based on the verb prolambanei in 1 Corinthians 11.21, which can mean “to do something before the usual time, anticipate something.”[39] In this view, wealthier Christians were arriving first and consuming the food they brought themselves without waiting for others. Poorer Christians, who may have been slaves with no control over their personal schedules or tradesmen had to work late, would not be able to join the Christian assembly until later. By this time, the food of the agapē meal had already been consumed and these have-nots were left with nothing to eat.[40] This view is also reinforced by translating the verb ekdexesthe (v. 33) in a temporal sense: in response to some going ahead and eating before everyone arrives, Paul tells them to “wait for one another.”[41]

Other scholars argue instead that the problem is not that wealthy Christians are showing bad manners by not waiting for the have-nots, but rather that they are eating their own food in the presence of those who have nothing without sharing. Bruce D. Winter argues forcefully that the verbs prolambanei and ekdesxesthe do not require a temporal translation, and that instead Paul describes those who “devour” their own dinner in the presence of the have-nots (v. 21), and in response to this reprehensible practice, urges them to “receive” or “welcome” one another instead (v. 33), with the implication that this will involve the sharing of their food.[42]

Rendering of a typical Greco-Roman triclinium.

Compatible with either the temporal or non-temporal perspectives, J. Murphy-O’Connor also argues that there was a spatial element to the division and inequality that was being practiced in the Corinthian Eucharist. Based on the names of Corinthian Christians listed in Paul’s letters and extrapolations for unnamed spouses, children, slaves, and others who are not mentioned, Murphy-O’Connor estimates a Corinthian church of at least fifty persons in size.[43] Combining that figure with archaeological research that indicates that a Corinthian triclinium (dining room) could only accommodate nine people, he concludes that only a few Corinthian Christians would be able to recline in the triclinium to eat while the rest would have to squeeze into the atrium. Against the widely-accepted practice of social stratification in Greco-Roman society, it would only have been natural for the wealthier Corinthian Christians to get the better seats and a correspondingly better meal, while the majority was physically divided from them.[44]

It is difficult to make a clear decision based on the limited data that Paul provides,[45] but ultimately, an exact reconstruction of the situation at Corinth is immaterial. Whether the wealthy in Corinth were callously indifferent to the schedules of the poorer in their midst and ate before their arrival, or whether they devoured their own food in the presence of those who had nothing, or whether they ate better food in the triclinium while others were left outside, the same result was achieved: the have-nots were left physically hungry and socially humiliated, and the church was divided.

Paul’s Response to the Corinthian Situation

Having thoroughly rebuked the Corinthians for the manner in which they were observing the Lord’s Supper, Paul now seeks to correct their perspective and practice. He begins by recounting the Words of Institution, the words of Jesus at the Last Supper where he shares the bread and the cup with his disciples and gives this act special meaning (vv. 23-25).[46] Paul says he received these words from the Lord and then delivered them to the Corinthians (v. 23).[47] This means that this was not the first time that Paul taught the Corinthian Christians about the Lord’s Supper, and emphasizes that in this passage he is seeking to correct their practice rather than examine the theology of Communion in detail. Paul goes on to say that when the Supper is observed, the Lord’s death is proclaimed until he comes (v. 26), and this commentary, combined with his reminder of Jesus’ practice at the Last Supper serves as a corrective for the Corinthians. Jesus shared the bread and the cup with his disciples to represent his sacrificial death on the cross, and it is that sacrificial love that Christians are to exhibit. Paul’s point is that it is impossible for the Corinthians to proclaim the death of Christ and the sacrificial love it represents in a Communion practice where the rich humiliate the poor.[48]

In the next section, Paul teaches that improper observance of the Lord’s Supper leads to judgment from God (vv. 27-32). These verses have been scrutinized for centuries, but again, it is important to keep them in context of the abuses of the Lord’s Supper at Corinth. Paul speaks of those who partake of Communion in an “unworthy manner” (v. 27), urges the Corinthians to examine themselves when they partake (v. 28), and says that those who eat and drink “without discerning the body” bring judgment upon themselves (v. 29). Interpreting these admonitions depends greatly upon what “body” in 1 Corinthians 11.29 refers to, but given the context of the passage, Paul must be referring to both Christ himself and the church, which is his corporate body.[49] In other words, the Lord’s Supper has both vertical and horizontal dimensions. The Corinthians need to reflect on the body of Jesus which was offered on the cross on their behalf (vertical), but the implications of that sacrificial death should lead them to treat one another–the body of Christ–in loving ways (horizontal). When either of these dimensions is ignored, the Lord’s Supper is taken in an unworthy manner, and judgment is the result.[50] In fact, judgment was already apparent in the Christian community in Corinth, as some were “weak and ill, and some have died” (v. 30).[51]

Paul then goes on to give some practical advice to resolve the problems of inequitable dining that he addressed earlier. First, he tells them to “wait for one another” when they gather together to eat in order to avoid condemnation (v. 33). The verb used here is ekdesxesthe, and as discussed above, can mean “wait”, but does not have to have a temporal sense and can also mean “receive” or “welcome”.[52] Either way, whether Paul is telling the Corinthians to wait for one another before they begin to eat or to welcome and show hospitality to one another, the idea is that they must share their food with each other.[53]

Next, Paul says that “if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home” in order that their assembly will not be in judgment (v. 34a). Paul is not saying here that the Lord’s Supper must be separated from the agapē meal; on the contrary, in the previous verse, he advocates that they share a meal together and the entire passage takes this combined setting for granted. As argued above, Paul does not oppose the community meal and the Lord’s Supper occurring in the same context; he merely seeks to correct the abuses in the Corinthians’ practice of it.[54] Instead, Paul is speaking here to those who are indifferent to others and are only concerned about themselves. If they care only about indulging their appetites rather than fellowshipping with their Christian brothers and sisters, then it would be better for them to stay at home (v. 17).[55] Paul then concludes by saying he will give more instructions when he arrives in Corinth in person (v. 34b).


Many of the problems Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians stem from the fact that the Christians at Corinth continued to be greatly influenced by the values and practices of their surrounding culture. This lingering influence is clearly seen in their practice of the Lord’s Supper, which they apparently observed in the context of a full meal that was governed by Greco-Roman dining practices: class distinctions were upheld with the wealthier Christians receiving better treatment than the poor, who are left hungry and humiliated.

Paul is outraged by this behavior, and responds to it by calling their attention to the attitude and actions of Jesus Christ, who in his initiation of the Lord’s Supper and his death on the cross showed a sacrificial love for others that the Corinthians are failing to imitate. They need to be more mindful of the connection between the Eucharist and the death of Christ, and of the implications for the way they treat one another lest they come under judgment. Practically, this means that they need to show hospitality toward one another by sharing their food with each other.

The study of 1 Cor. 11:17-24 in its original context yields at least two important implications for modern Christian practice. First, the removal of the Lord’s Supper from a meal context is a historical development that Scripture does not require and, perhaps, does not endorse.[56] Especially for those of a Restorationist perspective who desire to imitate the practice of the first-century church, this realization should prompt serious reflection.

Second, this passage reminds us that the Lord’s Supper contains both vertical and horizontal dimensions. We cannot be in proper fellowship with the Father if our actions destroy fellowship with our Christian brothers and sisters. We must be careful to examine ourselves and properly address both dimensions, or we run the risk of partaking in something that is “not the Lord’s Supper.”

[1]Panayotis Coutsoumpos, Paul and the Lord’s Supper: A Socio-Historical Investigation (New York: Peter Lang, 2005), 110, “Often the Corinthian Christians simply continued being a part of the Graeco-Roman society to which they belonged before their conversion.” See also Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 147.

[2]J. Murphy-O’Connor, Keys to First Corinthians: Revisiting the Major Issues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 194.

[3]S. G. Wilson, S. G. “Voluntary Associations: An Overview,” in Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World, ed. John S. Kloppenborg and S. G. Wilson (New York: Routledge, 1996), 1-15; Ferguson, 142-47.

[4]Wilson, 9.

[5]Ibid., 3.

[6]Wayne O. McCready, Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World (London: Routledge, 1996), 61, gives the range cited above and says that membership rarely exceeded one hundred. Ferguson, 143, reports a similar range.

[7]Markus Öhler, “Cultic Meals in Associations and the Early Christian Eucharist,” Early Christianity 5, no. 4 (2014): 477; Wilson, 7.

[8]Wilson, 12; Ferguson, 143. Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 87: “In virtually every case where we have documented records of club activities, we find that the banquet emerges as one of their primary reasons for gathering.”

[9]Smith, 14. This is not to suggest that there were no differences in dining customs during this timespan. Coutsoumpos, 39-55, offers a helpful overview of the Greek Deipnon Symposium meal, the Roman Cena or Convivium, and the Greco-Roman Eranos meal.

[10]Smith, 124.

[11]Coutsoumpos, 46.

[12]Ibid., 46; Peter Lampe, “The Eucharist: Identifying with Christ on the Cross,” Interpretation 48, no. 1 (January 1994): 38.

[13]Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 158; Smith, 124; Coutsoumpos, 48.

[14]Martial, Epigram 3.60.

[15]Juvenal, Satire 5.

[16]Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.14.

[17]Pliny the Younger, Letters 2.6.

[18]Coutsoumpos, 46.

[19]Philo, Against Flaccus 17.136.

[20]Coutsoumpos, 46

[21]Ben Witherington, “‘Making a Meal of It’: The Lord’s Supper in Its First-Century Social Setting,” in The Lord’s Supper: Believers Church Perspectives, ed. Dale R. Stoffer (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1997), 97; Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 243; Ferguson, 147. Öhler, 497, goes too far in saying, “It is quite justified to say that early Christian meals were nothing else than association meals,” but certainly the abuses in the practice of the Lord’s Supper at Corinth had significantly blurred any distinction between the two.

[22]Richard E. Oster, 1 Corinthians, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995), 276, “As the ancient literary and archaeological record makes abundantly clear, the very abuses which the apostle Paul addressed and censured in this section were widespread in Greco-Roman culture and practice.”

[23]The text of 1 Cor. 11:17-34 which is cited in this paper comes from the English Standard Version.

[24]Bruce W. Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 2001), 159-63, is bothered by the notion that Paul only partly believes the report about divisions in the church at Corinth after so vigorously rejecting the factions in the church earlier in the letter. Because of this, Winter translates the last part of 1 Cor. 11:18 as, “And I believe a certain report.” Winter’s argument seems unconvincing to me, and also unnecessary. Just like we say, “I can’t believe it!” about things that we do actually believe but that surprise or disappoint us, Paul is using mock disbelief here. See Witherington, Conflict and Community, 247; Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 195.

[25]Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 228. Among commentators, there is widespread support for the view that the divisions here are distinct from those mentioned in 1 Cor. 1:10, and that the problem instead is the divide between rich and poor. See Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 537; Robin Dowling, “The Lord’s Supper: An Exposition of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34,” Evangel 12 (Autumn 1994): 69. C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 261, also suggests that Jewish Christians may have separated themselves from the Gentiles because of their insistence on kosher food, but this suggestion seems foreign to the context of 1 Cor. 11:17-34.

[26]Oster, 277; Blomberg, 228; Marion L. Soards, 1 Corinthians, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 233. Commentators agree that 1 Corinthians 11:19 is a difficult verse. Some degree of irony or sarcasm seems necessary in Paul’s statement here, as it would be difficult to take it at face value since he speaks against division so frequently in 1 Corinthians. Others, such as Fee, 358-59; Dowling, 69; Barrett, 262, argue that this is a reference to eschatological divisions, where God will separate true believers from those who are unfaithful. Murphy-O’Connor, 218-221, argues that this verse is actually a Corinthian slogan that Paul rejects. Alastair R. Campbell, “Does Paul Acquiesce In Divisions at the Lord’s Supper?” Novum Testamentum 33, no. 1 (January 1991): 61-70, may be correct in arguing that in this verse Paul is making a further charge against the divisive spirit of some of the Corinthians, and that the verse should actually be translated, “For there actually has to be discrimination in your meetings, so that if you please the elite may stand out from the rest.” In other words, the wealthy elite enforced divisions in their meetings in order to stand out from lower class Christians. Others such as George May, “The Lord’s Supper: Ritual or Relationship? Making a Meal of it in Corinth Part 2: Meals at Corinth,” The Reformed Theological Review 61, no. 1 (April 2002): 4; Rachel M. McRae, “Eating with Honor: The Corinthian Lord’s Supper in Light of Voluntary Association Meal Practices,” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 1 (2011): 178-79, agree with Campbell’s perspective.

[27]Hays, 195; Victor Paul Furnish, The Theology of the First Letter to the Corinthians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 79; Nathan Mitchell, “Paul’s Eucharistic Theology,” Worship 83, no. 3 (May 2009): 260. Hans Conzelman, 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 194, states that the Corinthians destroyed the character of the Lord’s Supper by their conduct.

[28]Although Fee, 531, n. 4, is correct that the drunken behavior of some of the Corinthians is not the primary focus of Paul’s criticisms, considering Paul’s condemnation of drunkards in 1 Cor. 5:11; 6:10 and the common association of drunkenness with Greco-Roman banquets, Paul would have viewed drunkenness in the meetings of the church at Corinth to be absolutely unacceptable.

[29]James C. Walters, “Paul and the Politics of Meals in Roman Corinth,” in Corinth in Context: Comparative Studies on Religion and Society, ed. Steven J. Friesen, Daniel N. Schowalter, and James C. Walters (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 343-64, argues that Paul writes to correct Corinthian practice primarily to limit the power that his rivals could exert through community meals. This to me seems to be reading too much of the situation of 2 Corinthians back into 1 Corinthians.

[30]See Witherington, Conflict & Community, 241; Hays, 193; Dowling, 69; Barrett, 262; James Custer, “When is Communion Communion?” Grace Theological Journal 6, no. 2 (September 1985): 403; Donald Farner, “The Lord’s Supper Until He Comes,” Grace Theological Journal 6, no. 2 (September 1985): 395; Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 261.

[31]Edward J. Kilmartin, “The Eucharistic Cup in the Primitive Liturgy,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 24, no. 1 (January 1962): 33, n. 10, “This fact does not prove that the Eucharist was always and everywhere associated with a meal in the primitive Church, but there is no clear evidence for the separation of the Eucharist from the agape at this time.”

[32]For those claiming that the community meal came first and was followed by the Lord’s Supper, see Coutsoumpos, 104; Kilmartin, 34; J. Timothy Coyle, “The Agape/Eucharist Relationship in 1 Corinthians 11,” Grace Theological Journal 6, no. 2 (September 1985): 415.

For those who argue that the fellowship meal was bracketed by the blessing of the bread and the cup, see Lampe, 37; G. C. Nicholson, “Houses for Hospitality: 1 Cor 11:17-34,” Colloquium 19, no. 1 (October 1986): 4; Theissen, 151-52.

Ultimately, there is not enough evidence to draw a firm conclusion on the relative sequence of the agapē meal and the Lord’s Supper, Nigel Watson, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 2nd rev. ed., Epworth Commentaries (London: Epworth, 2005), 115; Jeffrey A. Gibbs, “An Exegetical Case for Close(d) Communion: 1 Corinthians 10:4-22; 11:17-34,” Concordia Journal 21, no. 2 (April 1995): 156, n. 20.

[33]L. Michael White, “Regulating Fellowship in the Communal Meal: Early Jewish and Christian Evidence,” in Meals in a Social Context: Aspects of the Communal Meal in the Hellenistic and Roman World, ed. Inge Nielsen and Hanne Nielsen (Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1998), 178-81; Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1999), 126-32; Ferguson, The Church of Christ, 261, all discuss the separation of the agapē meal from the Lord’s Supper over time.

[34]A. Andrew Das, “1 Corinthians 11:17-34 Revisited,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 62, no. 3 (July 1998): 188, “The very idea of a congregational or fellowship meal in the midst of the service may seem novel to most. Yet to the Corinthian congregation, the idea of a Sacrament without a community meal might have seemed equally strange.”

[35]See Oster, 279; Dowling, 69; Fee, 541; Sharon H. Ringe, “Hospitality, Justice, and Community: Paul’s Teaching on the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34,” Prism 1, no. 2 (September 1986): 62.

Alan Dan Orme, “The Agape Feast and 1 Corinthians 11,” Evangelical Theological Society papers, ETS-1025 (Portland, OR: Theological Research Exchange Network, 1987), microfiche, 3, disagrees with the scholarly consensus, arguing that Paul forever “prohibits the combination of the agape…with the communion.”

[36]Oster, 276.

[37]Abraham J. Malherbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1983), 31, discusses an emerging consensus among scholars that the social status of early Christians was higher than had previously been thought. Referring to 1 Cor. 1:26, Ringe, 60, points out that some of the Corinthians were apparently of the social elite, and these would have been the ones with large enough houses to host church gatherings. Coutsoumpos, 67: “The Corinthian church was not homogenous, but included a fairly wealthy and high-class minority in its membership.”

Most likely, there were multiple house churches in Corinth that met together regularly and then all combined less often, perhaps to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. After all, Paul seems to make a distinction in his terminology between “the church in the home of ___” (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15) and the “whole church” (Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 14:23). See Murphy O’Connor, 183-84; McRae, 178.

[38]The wealthier members of the Corinthian church likely would have thought that they were behaving charitably toward the poorer members by providing both the house and the bread and wine for the Communion observance. See Coutsoumpos, 51; Ringe, 62.

[39]Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd rev. ed., ed. Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 872.

[40]Lampe, 37-41, suggests that the Corinthians were closely following the Greco-Roman dinner party custom of “First Tables” and “Second Tables”, which were separated by a break. In Lampe’s reconstruction, the richer Corinthians were showing up at “First Tables” to consume a meal, and then the rest would arrive during the break. “Second Tables” would consist of the Lord’s Supper of bread and wine, with those who had arrived late remaining hungry because they had missed the main meal. For other scholars who hold to a temporal interpretation, see Coutsoumpos, 40-41, 113; Thiessen, 153; Murphy O’Connor, 186;

[41]BDAG, 300.

[42]Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 142-52; Winter, “The Lord’s Supper at Corinth: An Alternative Reconstruction,” The Reformed Theological Review 37, no. 3 (September 1978), 73-82. Winter and Bradley B. Blue, “The House Church at Corinth and the Lord’s Supper: Famine, Food Supply, and the Present Distress,” Criswell Theological Review 5 (1991): 221-39, argue that this problem of the wealthy devouring their food in the presence of the have-nots was particularly relevant because Corinth was experiencing a famine at the time. For other scholars who reject the temporal reconstruction of the situation at Corinth, see David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 540-43; Hays, 197; Nicholson, 3-5; Das, 192, argues that the linguistic data is indecisive but that the temporal view makes no sense in the context: “Verse 20 is explicit that this is all happening not while the Corinthians were apart but when they were ‘coming together.’”

[43]Murphy-O’Connor, 183.

[44]Ibid., 182-86. Murphy-O’Connor’s views are widely accepted by other scholars, but David G. Horrell, “Domestic Space and Christian Meetings at Corinth: Imagining New Contexts and the Buildings East of the Theatre,” New Testament Studies 50, no. 3 (July 2004): 349-69, critiques them as implausible, stating that Murphy-O’Connor over-generalizes his findings and glosses over the difficulties of identifying which room functioned as a triclinium in a given archaeological site. Based on other archaeological finds, Horrell instead suggests the possibility that the Corinthian church met in large upper rooms, but acknowledges that this does not neatly explain the problems of 1 Cor. 11.

[45]Fee, 542, “In this case the lack of further description by Paul makes a clear-cut decision impossible.”

[46]The issue of the different versions and traditions of the Words of Institution which are found here and in the various gospels is beyond the scope of this paper. See Fee, 546; Witherington, Conflict & Community, 250; Watson, 120; Calvin L. Porter, “An Interpretation of Paul’s Lord’s Supper Texts: 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 and 11:17-34,” Encounter 50, no. 1 (Winter 1989): 31-32.

[47]Scholars debate what Paul means when he says that he received this tradition “from the Lord.” Most likely, Paul simply means that the practice of the Lord’s Supper originated with Jesus himself. See Witherington, Making a Meal of It, 99; Hays, 197; Garland, 545; Fee 548; Coutsoumpos, 117-19; Blomberg, 229. Others claim that Paul is saying he received the tradition from the Christian community. See Murphy-O’Connor, 207-08; Conzelmann, 196; Ringe, 67, n. 7; William R. Farmer, “Peter and Paul, and the Tradition Concerning ‘The Lord’s Supper’ in 1 Cor 11:23-26,” Criswell Theological Review 2 (September 1987): 119-40. Finally, some argue that Paul received this tradition directly from Jesus through specific revelation, perhaps similar to his Damascus road experience. See Hyam Maccoby, “Paul and the Eucharist,” New Testament 37, no. 2 (April 1991): 247-69; Coyle, 416.

[48]Lampe, 45, “In the Eucharist, Christ’s death is also proclaimed and made present by means of our giving ourselves up to others. Our love for others represents Christ’s death to other human beings.” See also Winter, 154; May, 8.

[49]May, 10, provides a survey of different views of “discerning the body” in 1 Cor. 11:29. Views that Paul is talking about (1) distinguishing between bread and wine that had been set aside for the Lord’s Supper and common food, or (2) recognizing the actual presence of Christ in the bread and wine seem foreign to the context. Others suggest that Paul talks about (3) reflecting on the Lord’s death, (4) refers to the Body of Christ, those who have assembled as the church. Several commentators take the route I have, arguing that Paul emphasizes both of the latter perspectives. See Furnish, 84-86; Watson, 122-23; Porter, 39-40: “Eating and drinking without making the connection between the death of the Lord and the church is to eat and drink judgment on oneself.”

[50]It is only natural that such people would be judged, since they are “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (v. 27). Thus, Fee, 561, “To ‘profane’ the meal as they are doing is to place themselves under the same liability as those responsible for that death in the first place.”

[51]The divisive actions of some in the observance of the Lord’s Supper apparently affect the whole community. See Hays, 201; Fee, 565.

[52]For scholars who argue for temporal and non-temporal translations, see n. 41 and n. 43 above.

[53]After all, it would make no sense for the wealthier Christians to wait for those arriving later if that waiting did not have the result of involving the latecomers in the communal meal. May, 12, “The Corinthians are to show normal Christian hospitality towards one another, either by waiting until all are assembled before they begin their meal or by sharing what they have each brought, so that none go hungry and their unity in Christ is demonstrated.

[54]Dowling, 72; Coutsoumpos, 51; Barrett 277. This same reasoning would also apply to Christians who oppose the practice of eating in a church building. Not only is the practice of having “church buildings” completely foreign to the context of 1 Corinthians 11, but Paul believes the church should eat when they come together, as long as they do it in a way that shows love and hospitality toward one another.

[55]Garland, 555.

[56]Witherington, Making a Meal of It, 173.

Slavery and the Bible

Last semester I was blessed to take a graduate course on 1-2 Corinthians, and as part of that, I had the opportunity to read literally thousands of pages on those two epistles. I came across a lot of good material in that reading, and one of the biggest benefits I received is that I am now much better informed about the historical setting of the Greco-Roman world, which has significant implications for not just the Corinthian letters, but the rest of the New Testament as well.

One particular issue that I learned more about was the practice of slavery in the Greco-Roman world, and the purpose of this post is to share some of that information. The issue of slavery in the Bible is important, because one consistent criticism that has been made against the Bible and Christianity is the claim that it supports the practice of slavery.

This is a significant question, and one that should not be brushed aside. The practice of slavery represents a reprehensible stain on American history. The morally repugnant practice led to an increasingly bitter debate in the mid-19th century, and ultimately, became a significant cause of the American Civil War. In the course of that debate, there were many Christians who fought for abolition, but, unfortunately, many other Christians also supported slavery, and claimed that they were biblically justified in doing so.

Now, I don’t think they were correct in using biblical texts to justify slavery as it was practiced in the United States, but that doesn’t change the historical fact that they did exactly that. And it is absolutely undeniable that when Christians do horrible things and use Scripture to justify those things, it is very damaging to the cause of Christ.

In this post, I am not going to try to completely solve what is an admittedly complex issue, but I do plan to offer some preliminary thoughts in order to help you, dear reader, better examine what Scripture says about slavery in its historical context.

The Historical Context of “Slavery”

As American citizens, when we hear the word “slavery,” without exception we think of slavery as it was practiced in the United States in the 1800s.[1] That’s only natural, because it is the history of our country and what we are most familiar with, but “we must resist the temptation to equate ancient slavery with the antebellum slavery in nineteenth-century America.”[2] In other words, in some important ways, slavery in the ancient world was different from what we are familiar with in our own history.

Before I get into that, it’s also worth pointing out that it is an oversimplification to talk about “ancient cultures” or “ancient practices” in such a way as to imply that all “ancient” peoples did things in precisely the same ways. Looking just at the Bible, we have descriptions of a variety of different cultures spanning a period of over 2,000 years. Just as it would be historically anachronistic for us to take practices from today and impose them upon a first century context, it would also be historically inappropriate to remove practices from a Greco-Roman context and impose them upon the Israelites when they were wandering in the wilderness.

Sometimes we talk about “Bible times”, but it is worth emphasizing that the Bible covers a lot of time, and depending on where you are reading, you are going to get a different picture in certain respects.

Slavery in the Old Testament

I am not even going to try to discuss all of the verses about slavery in the Old Testament, and in fact, this post will focus more on slavery in the Greco-Roman world (i.e. the world in which Paul lived and wrote), but I did want to make a few brief statements about slavery in the Old Testament.

Admittedly, the Old Testament does assume the practice of slavery and provides guidelines to regulate it, but we should observe some key differences between this practice and the slavery that was practiced in the United States:

  • This was a form of economic slavery rather than racial slavery. Old Testament slavery was not based on race, but was more related to economics. People generally sold themselves into slavery in order to pay off debts or provide for their families. To put it in the context of American history, it was more like indentured servitude than slavery.
  • Biblical law made provision for the freeing of slaves under certain conditions. On the other hand, as time went on in the US, slave codes actively prohibited the process of freeing slaves.
  • Biblical law forbade the practice of “man-stealing”:

    “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death” (Exodus 21.16).

  • Contrary to this, the African slave trade was based significantly on this very practice of rounding up native Africans, tearing them from their homes, and shipping them across the Atlantic.[3]

Slavery in the Greco-Roman World

Paul lived and wrote in the Greco-Roman world and touched upon slavery in various places (Colossians 3.11, 4.1; 1 Timothy 6.1-3, Galatians 3.28), including multiple places in 1 Corinthians and significantly, in Philemon. Much of what has been said above also applies to Greco-Roman slavery, but to reiterate and further expound upon the differences between Greco-Roman slavery and slavery in the antebellum United States:

  • Slavery was an incredibly common practice in the Roman Empire. Certainly it was common in the United States as well, with slaves comprising approximately 1/3 of the population of slave states from 1750-1860.[4] But it was even more common in the Roman Empire:  estimates suggest that up to half of the population of the city of Rome itself were slaves.[5]
  • Another difference is that slaves were often highly educated in the Greco-Roman world. Some of the most educated people in the Roman Empire and some of the most successful businessmen were or at one point had been slaves. They served in a wide variety of roles ranging from stewards, shipmasters, farm managers, custodians of children, teachers, and money-lenders.[6] This is distinguished from the general practice of slavery in the US, where African slaves were, generally speaking, systematically denied education as a means of keeping them subjugated.
  • Often, these people became slaves when they were captured in some sort of Roman conquest. Rome was frequently engaged in warfare, and this is where most Roman slaves came from. Others sold themselves into slavery out of economic necessity, because there was often better possibility for economoic security and social advancement as a slave operating under the protection of a wealthy patron than as a free poor person.[7] Again, this differs greatly from the practice of stealing people of a certain race from their homes and forcibly enslaving them.
  • Manumission was the Greco-Roman vehicle for a slave to buy freedom from his or her master. Slaves were allowed to accumulate both property and money in the course of their work, and after earning enough, if the master approved, could buy their freedom.[8] Masters were not legally compelled to approve, but they often did: manumission was so common in the first century that Augustus actually set up laws to limit the practice. Interestingly, there is also evidence that some early Christian congregations purchased the freedom of some of their slave members![9] Again, all of this should be contrasted with the slavery of the American South, where it was not feasible and in many places, not even legal for slaves to seek manumission.
  • Finally, in the Greco-Roman world, “no one, not even the slaves who led slave revolts, was arguing for the abolition of slavery in the Empire.”[10] There are even inscriptions from slaves that read, “slavery was never unkind to me.”[11] Instead, slaves sought to limit and protest abuses, and to be treated fairly. This fact may be hard for us to imagine given our own historical practice of slavery, which led to vigorous debates about abolition, but again this just points to the reality that slavery in the ancient world was fundamentally different from more modern forms of race-based slavery. That is not to say that slavery was a good thing (it was not), but simply that it cannot be equated with the practice of slavery that we are more familiar with. With that in mind, when biblical texts regulate slavery and protect against certain abuses, they are actually in line with the most revolutionary voices of the time.

The Epistle to Philemon

Familiar with the practice of slavery as described above, Paul was not a modern revolutionary who was seeking to overthrow the social order and bring about abolition for all slaves. Instead, Paul’s agenda was to set up an alternative—the church—and to guide relationships within that society. His feelings on slavery are made clearer in the Epistle to Philemon, where Paul writes to a Christian slave owner, Philemon, and pleads for the manumission of Onesimus, his slave,  based on their shared identity in Christ.

As Witherington points out:

It will be noted that Paul is no revolutionary here. He is not arguing for a slave revolt, only that one slave be freed. Paul’s principle is that all Christians, of whatever background or status, are brothers and sisters in Christ, led eventually to a situation in which it was clear that slavery and Christianity, with its views of human dignity, freedom, and complete availability to only one Master, are basically incompatible.[12]


All of this brings us back to the original issue: were 19th century American Christians correct to use the Bible to justify their practice of slavery? No. The simple truth of the matter is that even if American Christians equated their practice of slavery with what they read about in the Bible (which, as this post as made clear, they should not have; the two practices were fundamentally different), if they had paid attention to Paul’s admonitions to Philemon, the practice of slavery would have been stopped dead in its tracks. Paul’s message to Christian slave owners is that they should view their slaves as Christian brothers and sisters (or at least, as potential brothers and sisters) in the family of God, and to treat them accordingly. In such a family where all are equally servants of God, there is no place for slavery.

Alas, Paul’s words to Philemon went unheeded or overlooked by too many who considered themselves to be Christians and supported the abhorrent practice of slavery. It is their interpretation and application of Scripture and their practice of Christianity that must be condemned; not Scripture nor Christianity themselves.

[1] I am using “1800s” here simply as a form of shorthand; the practice of slavery certainly existed in the American colonies dating back to the 1600s.

[2] Ben Witherington III, A Week in the Life of Corinth (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 9.



[5] Witherington, ibid.

[6] Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 & 2 Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1995), 99.

[7] Witherington, Conflict & Community, ibid.

[8] Witherington, A Week in the Life of Corinth, 9-10.

[9] Witherington, Conflict & Community, 184.

[10] Witherington, A Week in the Life of Corinth, 9.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Witherington, Conflict & Community, 185.

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