Eating with Honor: The Corinthian Lord's Supper in Light of Voluntary Association Meal Practices

By McRae, Rachel M. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Eating with Honor: The Corinthian Lord's Supper in Light of Voluntary Association Meal Practices


McRae, Rachel M., Journal of Biblical Literature


There has been increasing recognition by scholars studying the Greco-Roman world of the first century that a larger database of meal practices is desirable for understanding the social banqueting practices behind Paul's words concerning the Corinthian banquet of 1 Cor 11:17-33. Scholars such as Gerd Theissen, Wayne A. Meeks, Matthias Klinghardt, and Dennis E. Smith have mined the elite commensality literature of the ancients and have established that a standard form of the Greco-Roman banquet underlies practices of the time.1 Rituals varied, however, and Andrew McGowan reminds us that "various groups seem to have had different explicit understandings and purposes in mind and to have used eating and drinking together in a variety of ritual forms."2 Gerard Rouwhorst points out, citing Mary Douglas's work, that when a group constructs a ritual tradition, it is constructing a social identity: "Every meal-especially when taken together by more than one person-encodes significant messages about social and hierarchical patterns." 3

A study of banqueting traditions of Greco-Roman voluntary associations helps to clarify the role that the Mediterranean code of honor and shame played in establishing their social identity. As Jewish and Christian groups both saw themselves and were seen by others as voluntary associations, I suggest that similar social and hierarchical patterns based on the code of honor and shame of the Mediterranean world are evidenced in the banqueting traditions of the Corinthian community.4 These social patterns, rather than the economic patterns of wealth and poverty, explain the divisions in the Corinthian community. Because the honor/ shame code is a changeable value system rather than a fixed economic situation, I suggest that Paul is therefore able to propose radical changes to the Corinthian meal ritual in order to establish new social and behavioral patterns that reflect the values of humility, mutual upbuilding, and love that Jesus taught. In effect, Paul uses the meal ritual to create a new Christian social identity.

Gerd Theissen first analyzed the social problems of the Corinthian community, demonstrating that there was a "marked internal stratification" within the community, attributing the factions to economic divisions. The verb ... in 1 Cor 11:21 is understood to describe the few wealthy Corinthians who begin their private meal before the communal meal and receive larger portions owing to their rank.5 Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, drawing on the archaeological evidence of remains around Corinth of several wealthy villas with a triclinium (dining room) and an atrium, further speculates that the villa at Anaploga represents the type of home owned by a wealthy Corinthian patron of the Jesus community.6 He reasons that the host (perhaps Gaius) entertained the eight wealthiest members of the community in the triclinium of his villa (which seats nine) relegating the rest of the Corinthian group to inferior dining in his villa's atrium.7 Gregory Linton agrees with this suggestion, estimating that there were perhaps six smaller church groups in Corinth who would join together to celebrate the Lord's Supper.8 Perhaps more than thirty-five participants were dining.9

Peter Lampe, too, suggests that the wealthy Corinthians participated in "First Tables," a dinner attended by the leisured elite, and that the poorer people arrived later for the "Second Tables," which was the symposium, and received lesser portions consisting of sweet desserts and fruit, or perhaps spicy dishes, seafood, and bread.10 This explanation was accepted by a number of other scholars.11 Never- theless, there have been recent challenges to this theory by L. Michael White, David G. Horrell, and J. J. Meggitt, producing "a somewhat revised, more cautious" attitude concerning the economic status of the Corinthians and the cause of their social divisions.12

Here, inscriptions of the voluntary association banqueting customs may be engaged in the discussion, for they contain much evidence for divisions within a dining group-divisions predicated not on wealth but on the honor/shame code of the Mediterranean region. …

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