Chapter 4. What Does “Break Bread” Mean?

Some claim “breaking bread” means Communion/Lord’s Supper; Does it?

NOTE: This is an attempt to organize previous articles and other material into a searchable online reference.  This blog post will eventually become a static page after sufficient editing.

7 And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.

~ Ac 20:7

Previously, we saw that the seventh day Sabbath was established at Creation Week, and when ancient Israel came out of Egypt, they were told to “remember” the Sabbath day.  We then saw that Jesus kept the seventh day Sabbath as well, He upheld it, and He stated that the Law would stand as long as Heaven and Earth stand.  In other words, it was in force during and after His life.  Not only that He was the OT God Who thundered out “Remember the Sabbath day” from Mt Sinai.  The apostles after His death can be shown to have kept the Sabbath 85 times.  They even assumed that Gentile converts would attend regularly on “every Sabbath day” to hear the Law!  Not only did Paul not say the Law was nailed to the cross, but he kept the Sabbath day in a customary manner just as Jesus did during His life.

I then said we would start looking at some “difficult” Scriptures, which for the most part are not difficult at all.  In every case, the most “difficult” part is that people want to engage in eisegesis rather than exegesis.  They want to validate preconceived notions based upon Scripture rather than letting the Bible inform their beliefs and actions.

Breaking Bread = Sharing a Meal

I had an interesting conversation with a Mormon not long ago, and I mentioned that “breaking bread” simply mean sharing a meal.  The only thing that was more surprising than this revelation to him was the fact that he was surprised about it at all.  In fact, “breaking bread” is somewhat archaic but not unknown even in today’s culture.

Even the Urban Dictionary, which can have some rough language, gives a current definition of break bread as “to share ones belongings or assets with another person”.  While somewhat broader than the original term, its meaning still makes sense, and it is clear it does not have to be some sort of religious setting.  It also goes on, however, making it clearer:

A. To engage in a comfortable, friendly interaction. Originally, the term was literal, meaning that a loaf of bread would be broken to share and eat; a casual meal among associates.

B. The term later came to be more figurative, but referred to the same situation: a shared meal. Used as a colloquialism to describe any meal that did or did not involve bread.

C.Today, the term is used to describe a social interaction where something is shared. This could be food, money, commodities, assets, or other various items.

Even Wiktionary has an annotation on “bread bread”:

  1. To eat a meal, especially to eat a shared meal with friends.
  2. (Christianity) To take part in Holy Communion.

It is true that breaking bread is part of what some call “Communion” or “the Lord’s Supper”.  However, where did that custom come from?  It is still sharing food, pure and simple.  Whether or not it is intended for an entire meal is beside the point.  Yet, some will go to great pains to still make it sound like it is always in reference to some type of Communion service in the NT.

Admittedly, to “break bread” in Bible times often referred to the eating of common meals. God once warned His prophet Jeremiah not to “break bread for the mourner” (Jeremiah 16:7, RSV). Jesus “took bread…and broke it” with the disciples to whom He appeared on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:30,35). The early Christians are said to have continued daily “breaking bread from house to house” eating “food with gladness and simplicity of heart” (Acts 2:46). Paul once “took bread and…broke it” and instructed his 275 companions on board a ship to Italy to eat it for their “preservation” (Acts 27:34-35, NASB). In ancient times, to “break bread” was a figure of speech known as synecdoche where a part (to break bread) was put for the whole (to eat a common meal, regardless of the kind of food and drink consumed).

In New Testament times, however, the phrase “to break bread” was also used to describe the partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus instituted this special supper while celebrating the Feast of Unleavened Bread with His disciples shortly before His death.

~ Apologetics Press, “’Breaking Bread’ on the ‘First Day’ of the Week

In spite of all the caveats throughout the article, it is obvious that the author isn’t about to give up their bias!  Incredible!

I sometimes think some theologians sit up in an ivory tower (where the air is thin) and are so isolated from the real world that they begin to lose touch with reality.  This is a clear case where the reasoning of some not only contradicts Scripture, but contradicts common sense.

One example of a modern blogger using the term “break bread” is on the blog Thoughtful Cyn in Cynthia Thomet’s article “PeaceMeal: Baking Bread to Break Bread, Building Communities from the Inside Out”.

The recent floods washed through Pakistan as I was coincidentally wrapping up a book calledThree Cups of Tea,” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. It is a non-fiction account of Greg Mortenson’s commitment and travels to build schools for girls and youth in the most rural areas of Northern Pakistan following a troublesome K2 climb. Throughout the book are scenes of poor families and struggling villages preparing feasts from what little they have to create a lifelong bond with Greg, and to secure a commitment from him to build another school for their children.

People who break bread together can develop a deeper understanding for meeting basic needs to build better communities.

The acknowledgement that the idea of breaking bread meant to “share food” originally should not be at all surprising, as that is literally what the Online Etymology Dictionary says when you search for “break bread”.  It can be traced to the late fourteenth century.

However, most people believe it entered into the English vernacular through the expression in the Bible.  On the Jewish Virtual Library site, “Jewish Foods of the World” backs up the idea that the Jews used the expression long before English came onto the scene.

When people speak today of “breaking bread”, their meaning is clear: they are talking about dining. However, the original meaning of this seemingly simple phrase, which dates back to Biblical times, actually referred to the physical act of breaking bread. Even in antiquity, bread was considered so essential to the maintenance of human life that there was no act more social than sharing one’s bread with others. In those days, people did not use forks and knives, but ate with their fingers. Thus, bread was never sliced, it was literally “broken” – or torn apart – to be shared.

Apparently, it became quite an elaborate affair with additional customs that accompanied a feast in the Middle East.  At Santa Clara University’s website Markkula Center for Applied Ethics has in the article “The Extra Mile”, an article about hospitality in the Middle East:

But hospitality also involves responsibilities on the part of guests. Rabbinic literature outlines many of these duties, including showing gratitude and not giving food to others without the host’s consent.

Just as the host is gracious, the guest is also obliged to be gracious. Whether an invitation to break bread is accepted or rejected is fraught with social implications. Accepting an invitation to eat with someone speaks to trust—that you won’t be poisoned, for example. It also has to do with social status. A person of higher rank can gift the host with his or her presence by agreeing to break bread together. The action implies recognition that, at least in basic needs, both parties are equally human and must eat to survive.

All this evidence should be rather convincing, one would think.  Yet, there is more.  The Bible itself uses the term in the OT to describe a time so dire that no one can “break bread” to their children.

4 The tongue of the sucking child cleaveth to the roof of his mouth for thirst: the young children ask bread, and no man breaketh it unto them.

~ Lam 4:4

Compare to the HCSB:

4 The nursing infant’s tongue
clings to the roof of his mouth from thirst.
Little children beg for bread,
but no one gives them any.

Bread and Wine How Often?

However, there is a more important reason that weekly (or daily in Acts 2:46).  That’s because Jesus and His disciples were observing the Passover.  Passover comes once a year, not weekly and not daily.

14 And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him.

15 And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer:

16 For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God.

17 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves:

18 For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come.

19 And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.

~ Lk 22:14-19

When people get married, when do they observe the remembrance of the event?  A birth?  A death?  Yearly, of course!

23 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:

24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.

25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.

~ 1Co 11:23-25

The above should make it clear that this is an annual observance, even as 9/11, Martin Luther King Day, Independence Day or various other events are remembered on or about their anniversaries.  We must let the Bible interpret the Bible and not read our preconceptions into it.  That’s why taking the next verse and plucking it completely out of context is doing an injustice to the text.

26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.

How oft will we eat this bread?  Annually!  Each time we do it, we “proclaim” (HCSB) Jesus’ death.

Not Even Worship Services

We can say with confidence that these few occasions where we see the disciples breaking bread together on the first day of the week are obviously because that’s what people do when they gather together.  The Super Bowl will be in a few days.  Will you invite people over and not offer snacks?  What of Thanksgiving?  Would you not serve a meal if inviting people over?  How many churches have potlucks throughout the year?  Are those sharing of meals during a potluck a Communion service?  I don’t think so!

In fact, we will see in the next chapter that these are not even religious services as we think of worship services to begin with.  At most, the above one was a Bible study!  Again, we see advocates of Sunday keeping who will pick and choose verses, plucking them out of context and engaging in eisegesis instead of letting God’s Word do the talking.