Does the phrase "breaking bread" refer to the Lord's Supper? Most people know that the phrase is an idiom that refers to eating food. In a religious context, most people think that it refers to communion.
What is an idiom?
The dictionary defines an idiom as:
an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements, as kick the bucket or hang one's head, or from the general grammatical rules of a language, as the table round for the round table, and that is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics.
Simply put, an idiom is a figure of speech that is defined by one's culture. For example, an "ace up one's sleeve" is a surprise advantage of which others are not aware. An "act of congress" is an authorization that is extremely difficult to get, especially in a timely fashion. A "bad egg" is someone whose behaviour is reprehensible or irresponsible.
There are estimated to be at least 25,000 idiomatic-like expressions in American English. It is interesting to note that the phrase "Lord's Supper" is also an idiom which refers to the communion ceremony! Does the phrase "breaking bread" refer to a normal meal or to communion? Lets start by listing a few passages which use idioms representing the eating of a meal, passages where breaking bread was literal, and then contrast them with passages that undoubtedly refer to communion.
An idiom which represents the eating of food
Lets list some verses which use "break bread" and undeniably refers to food or eating food.
- Nor shall men break bread in mourning for them... [No one will offer food to comfort those -NIV] - Jeremiah 16:7
- The tongue of the infant clings To the roof of its mouth for thirst; The young children ask for bread, But no one breaks it for them [the children beg for bread, but no one gives it to them - NIV]. - Lamentations 4:4
- ...He was known to them in the breaking of bread. - Luke 24:35 (Note: it is difficult to discern if "the breaking of bread" in this verse is an idiom or literal)
- ...breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart - Acts 2:46
- Now when he had come up, had broken bread and eaten, and talked a long while, even till daybreak, he departed. - Acts 20:11
- ...And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?” They said to Him, “Twelve.” “Also, when I broke the seven for the four thousand... - Mark 8:18-20
In the last passage from Mark 8:18-20, Jesus referred to the feeding of the five thousand and the seven thousand. Regarding these two events, Jesus says nothing about the fish they ate, only the breaking of the loaves. Is He not using the idiom "breaking bread" to refer to the meals He had miraculously provided which included fish? Clearly, from this passage and the others above, "breaking bread" was used as an idiom that meant to eat food.
Literally breaking bread
It doesn't appear that an idiomatic expression is used in the passages below, but rather a literal narrative of an event. It seems clear in the following verses that someone was actually taking a piece of bread and breaking it.
- And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is My body. - Matthew 26:26
- And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." - Mark 14:22
- And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me." - Luke 22:19
- Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. - Luke 24:30
- ...he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of them all; and when he had broken it he began to eat. - Acts 27:35
The first three passages above are taken from the Gospels where Jesus instituted the memorial of the Lord's Supper. Everyone recognizes that these three passages are referring to the institution of the communion memorial, but they are included in this list because Jesus was literally breaking a piece of bread. Take note that these passages do not say that someone was "breaking bread" but that they took bread and broke it.
Passages that undoubtedly refer to communion
As is noted above, Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22 & Luke 22:19 without a doubt refer to the Lord's Supper. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 deals extensively with the topic of communion. An finally, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 21 refers to the Lord's Supper:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.
You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons.
There are three very important things to notice about these passages.
- First, the phrase "breaking bread" doesn't appear in any of these passages.
- Second, every time bread is mentioned the cup is also mentioned leaving us no doubt about the topic of discussion. The bread is never mentioned apart from the cup.
- Third, there are only two idiomatic expressions that refer to communion. In 1 Corinthians 11:20, Paul speaks of the "Lord's Supper". As is noted at the beginning of this article, the phrase "Lord's Supper" is itself an idiom which refers to the bread and the fruit of the vine. 1 Corinthians 10:21 also uses the idiom "Lord's table" to refer to communion.
Some may object and say that the words "break" and "bread" are present. They appear in the Gospels but it has already been noted the words are used literally. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, the phrase "the bread which we break" is also literal because bread is broken during communion.
What about Acts 2:42 and 20:7?
There are two remaining passages that use the phrase "break bread" or "breaking bread". Acts 2:42 and 20:7 are almost universally regarded to be referring to the "Lord's Supper". Lets look at each of them.
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. - Acts 2:42
In the context of Acts 2:42, many take note of the fact that the "breaking of bread" is mentioned directly in connection with spiritual activities of the early church. Specifically, the apostle's teaching, fellowship, and prayers are all mentioned with the breaking of bread right in the middle. Most people conclude that this bread breaking was not a mere common meal or else it wouldn't be mentioned in the midst of spiritual activities. This is a reasonable explanation, but it is not the only possible conclusion.
Breaking bread, in Acts 2:42, is traditionally interpreted to refer to the Lord's Supper. But then just a few verses later (vs 46), breaking bread is said to refer to something very different (i.e. a common meal). Is there a compelling reason to say that the same phrase refers to two entirely different activities when there is little in the text that would require such a change in meaning? The point about the breaking of bread being mentioned in the context of spiritual activities is a good one. But, how do we know that some of the prayer, fellowship and apostle's doctrine didn't take place around a table where a meal was taking place? It is almost certain that Christians in the first century did not "assemble" just like we do. It seems to me that many of these gatherings were informal and personal especially in light of vs 44-47. Yes, some of this activity took place in the temple but much of it was also in people's homes. I doubt that the apostles ceased teaching and praying just because they ended their "service" in the temple and then went to spend time with their brethren house to house. Just as it is today, it was common for discussions and prayers to take place around a table where food was being served. Several such instances are recorded in the Gospels.
In light of the above analysis regarding idiomatic and literal usage along with undisputed instances of communion, isn't it more consistent to conclude that "breaking bread" in this passage also refers to eating a regular meal?
Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight. - Acts 20:7
There is much to be analyzed in Acts 20:7 regarding this subject which is covered elsewhere on this website in the article "The Lord's Supper: What Day, How Often?". Suffice it to say that as with Acts 2:42, tradition says that "break bread" means communion in verse 7 but means a common meal in verse 11. As with Acts 2:42, it must be assumed that "break bread" is referring to the Lord's Supper for there is nothing in the rest of the New Testament which demands it. In fact, there are a great many assumptions made about Acts 20:7 that have developed into dogma which rest on very questionable interpretations of the evidence.
Figures of Speech Used in the Bible
E. W. Bullinger, in his classic book "Figures of Speech Used in the Bible" (first published in 1898), identifies over 200 distinct figures of speech in the Bible. Regarding the idiom "breaking bread" he has this to say.
Bread is put for all kinds of food, including fish. Hence to "to break bread" or to "eat bread" means to partake of a meal. It is the common Hebrew idiom to this day.
(Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, page 627)
“To break bread” (klasai arton), is the literal rendering of the Hebrew idiom (paras lechem), and it means to partake of food, and is used of eating as in a meal. The figure (or idiom) arose from the fact that among the Hebrews bread was made, not in loaves as with us, but with round cakes about as thick as the thumb. These were always broken, and not cut. Hence the origin of the phrase "to break bread".
(Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, page 839)
After citing a number of Old and New Testament passages containing the phrase "breaking bread" (including many of those listed above), he offers these comments:
So "to break bread" means not to partake of the Lord's supper, but to partake of an ordinary meal with others.
(Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, page 627)
It is perfectly clear that in all these cases the "breaking of bread" is the ordinary Hebrew idiom for eating as in a meal. The bread could not be eaten till it was broken, hence the idiom is used by Hebrews down to the present day.
It is incredible, therefore, that in Acts 20:7, the idiomatic expression can mean in any sense the Lord's supper, as is clear also from verse 11.
(Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, page 840)
If it were possible to approach this question without the baggage of preconceptions, would anyone conclude that the words "break bread" referred to communion? I think only those who have been educated to see communion in the phrase could arrive at such a conclusion. Is there sufficient evidence to conclude that the phrase "breaking bread" is an idiom for communion? If you answer yes, then you will also have the burden of developing a means of distinguishing between when "breaking bread" refers to a common meal and when "breaking bread" means communion.
Only the two passages in Acts are said to be speaking of communion where "breaking bread" is mentioned. Is it reasonable to conclude that these are the only two exceptions to the normal usage of the idiom? There is no compelling reason to conclude that "breaking bread" means anything other than a common meal. There is simply nothing in these two Bible passages which requires such an interpretation. It is obvious that the idiom refers to a meal everywhere else it is used. To conclude that it refers to anything else requires compelling evidence. Since there is no such overpowering evidence that "breaking bread" means anything other than eating a meal, we must conclude that it refers to a meal everywhere it is used. Consistency demands it.
Consider carefully what we learned above...
- The passages that clearly deal with communion nowhere equate the communion memorial with the phrase "breaking bread".
- The passages which are clearly idiomatic never reference the Lord's Supper but instead are equated to a common meal.
- The literal passages are just that; the actual breaking of a piece of bread with no figurative or veiled implications.
The only idioms the Bible uses for communion are "Lord's Supper" and "Lord's Table". Lets be content to leave it at that.