Was the “breaking of bread” – mentioned in Acts 2:42, 2:46 and Acts 20:7, 20:11 – the Lord’s Supper or a shared meal?
The phrase “breaking of bread” is used in the New Testament to refer both to the Lord’s Supper and to eating an ordinary meal. The meaning in a particular case should be determined from the context. The Greek word artos means “bread” or “loaf”; the word klao means “to break” or “to break off pieces”; and klasis refers to the act of breaking. So, “breaking of bread” signified the dividing of bread cakes or loaves into pieces.
Some instances of “breaking bread” clearly refer to the Lord’s Supper which was instituted by Christ on the night He was betrayed (Mt. 26:26; Mk. 14:22; Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:23-24). Another passage refers to the cup as well as the bread and explains the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:16-17 NIV).
Other instances of “breaking bread” clearly refer to an ordinary meal. It was the duty of the host providing the meal to divide the bread into pieces and give thanks. For example, Christ miraculously used a few fish and loaves of bread to feed large crowds (Mt. 14:19; 15:36; Mk. 8:6,19). After the Resurrection, He ate a meal with two people at Emmaus (Lk. 24:30, 35). When Paul was about to be shipwrecked, he shared a meal with the 275 people on board (Acts 27:35). In each of these instances, God was thanked before the bread was broken and the meal eaten.
The interpretation of the other instances of “breaking bread” in the New Testament is not so clear. After the day of Pentecost, the early believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). As it is unlikely they “devoted themselves” to a meal, this breaking of bread was probably the Lord’s Supper. And the context suggests that this prayer is more likely associated with the Lord’s Supper than with a meal.
The early believers also “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46). As most Greek–English interlinear Bibles place a comma between these two clauses in the Greek language instead of “and”, they seem to refer to the same event, a shared meal. This means that a better translation may be that they “broke bread in their homes, eating together with glad and sincere hearts.” But the New Living Translation believes it refers to meeting in homes for both the Lord’s Supper and sharing meals.
Paul stayed in Troas for seven days in order to break bread on the first day of the week: “But we … joined the others at Troas, where we stayed seven days. On the first day of the week we came together to break bread” (Acts 20:6-7). Was this the Lord’s Supper or a shared meal? After Eutychus was miraculously brought back to life, Paul “went upstairs again and broke bread and ate” (Acts 20:11). As most interlinear Bibles have the word “and” between “broke bread” and “ate” in the Greek language, this would imply two meals during the same evening if the breaking of bread meant a shared meal. Therefore, the best interpretation would be that after Paul took part in the Lord’s Supper he ate a meal. According to the NLT, “Then they all went back upstairs, shared in the Lord’s Supper, and ate together” (Acts 20:11). So, in both Acts 20:7 and 11 the writer Luke refers to the Lord’s Supper.
It should also be noted that in the early Church a fellowship meal was often held with the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20-22, 33-34; 2 Pet. 2:13; Jude 12). So, the answer to the question is that the context tells us that the “breaking of bread” is the Lord’s Supper in Acts 2:42 and 20:7 and 11, but a meal in Acts 2:46.
Published, July 2008