The Genesis of “Subversive Meals”

“THE THESIS OF THIS book is that the Lord’s Supper of the first-century CE was an anti-imperial [practice]. Whenever early Christians met for a communal meal they saw themselves as participating in subversive non-violent acts against the Roman Empire.”
Streett, R. Alan  Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century

To date I have made two postings on the book Subversive Meals by R Alan Streett. Now I would like to put his book in context to show that his thesis is within the framework of current Biblical scholarship. It builds upon and popularizes recent research that has been produced by the international professional academy of Biblical scholars, the Society of Biblical Literature ( SBL includes over 8500 scholars from 80 countries. As indicated below, the society established a sub grouping, a seminar, to look at the celebrative meals which were part of the Greco-Roman world for over 800 years.

Street’s book covers the banquet meals which served as both the glue for the people and as a propaganda discipline for the Empire. But he went beyond this to show how the early Christians took advantage of these monthly or more often gatherings not to celebrate Caesar, but to subtly undercut the power of the domination of the Roman Empire. They did it with the Good News of Jesus’ message of God’s kingship. They would have had to do this with caution and cleverness of language not to end up crucified as their Lord had.

But for now, let’s look at the structure of those meal gatherings, which must have played a significant social role to last for eight centuries.

MEALS IN THE EARLY CHRISTIAN WORLD: Social Formation, Experimentation, and Conflict at the Table   Edited by Dennis E Smith and Hal Taussig,  2012

From Taussig’s Introduction to the book:

The product of the Society of Biblical Literature Seminar on Meals in the Greco-Roman World from 2002 to 2010, this set of studies critically examines a wide range of social settings and implications for the Mediterranean-wide practice of festive meals. This critical examination results in a clear set of theses about the social significance of Greco-Roman festive meals.

The SBL Seminar was founded in response to a confluence of research on Greco-Roman meals by two New Testament scholars working independently on two different continents. Matthias Klinghardt’s “Gemeinschaftsmahl und Mahlgemeinschaft” and Dennis Smith’s “From Symposium to Eucharist” proposed and thoroughly documented separately the same integrative thesis. They proposed that there was a common meal tradition throughout the Greco-Roman Mediterranean that lay at the basis of all active meals of the Greco-Roman era, whether they be gentile, Jewish, or Christian. This new paradigm for the study of the Greco-Roman Meal, as proposed in the combined work of Smith and Klinghardt, can be applied to a broad range of literature and social settings from the first century BCE to the fourth century CE.

The integrating lenses of this book are primarily the interest in meals relative to the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Convinced of the applicability of the meal paradigm, the writers in this volume use the meal paradigm to press unanswered questions about what the Greco-Roman meal had to do with how Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity began. In many ways, this book represents that commitment to building a meal-related knowledge base that can play a significant role in understanding early Christian and rabbinic formation, especially social formation. That is, this collection of essays does not represent a disinterested accumulation of facts and analyses of meals. Rather the matter of relating such Greco-Roman meals to rabbinic and early Christian formation drives much of the book.

From Chapter 1 “A Typology of the Communal Meal” Matthias Klinghardt

The Form of the Communal Meal

The culture of the ancient meal was formed by political and social shifts in the Greek polis from the end of the sixth century onward. Reclining during meals, originally a privilege of nobility, became an expression of civic freedom and equality among free men, and quickly spread vertically through society. The banquet mirrored the androcentric polis-community and served as a guarded space within which acceptable political behavior could be learned and transmitted. The decline of the political importance of the polis and of citizens’ political participation in the third century resulted in a depoliticization of the meal. Gradually, the banquet became open to women and slaves.…it absorbed the social functions of the polis, primarily in the many voluntary associations that represented public life. This development can hardly be overestimated: the central event in the many associations coming into being in early Hellenism, as well as in the early Principate, was the communal banquet meal.

The meal proper (δεῖπνον or συσσίτιον in Greek sources, cena in Latin) was always followed by a drinking party, the symposium proper (συμπόσιον; convivium). Furthermore, the social importance of the “constructive drinking” during the symposium exceeds that of eating together as demonstrated by the vast sympotic literature. The ubiquitous twofold structure provides needed context for understanding Christian meals within the first two centuries of the Common Era. They were not “sacramental meals” in token form but real meals. Citations of “bread” and “wine” refer to the two main parts of any communal meal rather than to the sacramental aspects of a token meal, which first appears during the third century CE.

Eating Before the third century, Christian meals were— like all meals in the Hellenistic-Roman world— real meals in which the participants ate their fill. Most of the population during the Greco-Roman era primarily had diets of grains and vegetables. Meats were served as side dishes (ὄψον) accompanied by cereal flat cakes or bread. The latter was indispensible for scooping up the side dishes since silverware was unknown. Breaking (and handing out) bread is, therefore, not a Christian trait but rather the routine gesture with which any meal would begin. The structural distinction between the eating and the drinking parts of a meal implies that drinks were not served during the dinner.

Libation The libation followed the dinner proper and marked the opening of the symposium. This religious ceremony, which could take different forms, was typical and well established. It is well attested not only for meals with a religious background but also for meals that appear to be completely “secular” in a modern sense. Consequently, any form of community within the setting of a communal meal carried at least rudimentary aspects of religion: The experience of community could not be envisioned without some connection with the transcendent.

The libation could be performed in different ways, among which two are prominent: The cup of unmixed wine could either be poured out on the floor or into the hearth, or it could be drunk by all. These two forms for performing the libation are also attested for Jesus’ Last Supper: Mark 14: 23 and Matthew 26: 27 directly mention that Jesus had the disciples drink from the one cup he handed out; on the other hand, Luke 22: 20 clearly states that the cup “after dinner” was “poured out.” Reciting the libation prayer in unison is also attested by other references about the grace after dinner.

Among the well-known examples are the thanksgiving prayer “after the full meal” in Didache 10: 2– 631 as well as the mishnaic formularies for the prayers at the table or the grace after dinner, the birkat ha-mazon.

From the Didache: (Christian)
9:2 First, as regards the cup:
9:3 We give Thee thanks, O our Father, for the holy vine of Thy son David, which Thou madest known unto us through Thy Son Jesus; 9:4 Thine is the glory for ever and ever.
9:5 Then as regards the broken bread:
9:6 We give Thee thanks, O our Father, for the life and knowledge which Thou didst make known unto us through Thy Son Jesus; 9:7 Thine is the glory for ever and ever.

Birkat HaMazon (Blessing after the Meal) Jewish

Blessed are You, Adonai, our G-d, King of the universe, who sustains the entire universe with Your goodness, grace, and mercy. You provide for all, and prepare the food for each of Your creations that You have created. Blessed are You Adonai, who sustains all.

In light of this evidence there can be no doubt that “the cup of blessing which we bless” (τὸ ποτήριον τῆς εὐλογίας ὃ εὐλογοῦμεν: 1 Cor. 10: 16) refers to the libation cup and the accompanying prayer.


Entertainment After the libations were poured or drunk, the wine was mixed with water, dessert could be served, and the symposium proper began. The most important feature of the symposium, highlighted by the literary descriptions, is the entertainment.

A great variety is reported: presentations of music and dance, of mimus and pantomimus; performances of skolia; dexterity competitions and juggling; sundry drinking games (including the famous kottabos), as well as many different codes for drinking behavior. But first of all was table talk. Conversation among the symposiasts was central and gave birth to a whole literary genre, the symposion-literature that flourished for nearly 800 years. (B C E 600 to C E 200)

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