From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World
Countryman, L. William, Anglican Theological Review
From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World. By Dennis E. Smith. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. xi + 411 pp. $25.00 (paper).
What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What does an ancient Greek drinking party have to do with our most sacred rite? A good deal, as it turns out. In this model of interdisciplinary research, Dennis Smith shows us one way in which first-century Greeks, Jews, and Christians shared the same basic cultural presuppositions.
From Symposium to Eucharist gives the reader a good introduction to the practice of banqueting among the ancient Greeks, to the literature founded on it, and, most important, to the ideology that summed up its ideals. The symposium inculcated an ethic of euphrosyne (translated nicely here as "festive joy"), friendship, community, and equality. For that reason, among others, common feasting played a central role in philosophical societies and in the social and religious clubs of the Roman era, which provided the main structural model for the earliest Christian congregations.
Smith also demonstrates that Jews practiced festive dining in essentially the same form with a dinner (deipnon) followed by the symposium proper, where guests drank wine and enjoyed entertainment or conversation. There were, to be sure, cultic differences, such as a berachah over the wine cup instead of the Greeks' libation to Dionysus. But eating together was a central activity for Jewish religious groups such as Pharisees and Essenes.
Chapters on Paul and the gospels (mainly Mark and Luke) bring all this to bear on the New Testament, showing that the festive meal was more central for the earliest Christians than most of us had previously imagined. …