Barry Newman's Blog

November 24, 2011

The Agape [Feasts] (part II)

Filed under: Agape meals,Christian Community Meals,Love Feasts — barrynewman @ 9:50 pm

The Agape Meal in Later Writings

“You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ (followed) the Father and (follow) the presbytery as the apostles; respect the deacons as the commandment of God.  Let no one do anything apart from the bishop that has to do with the church.  Let that be regarded as a valid eucharist [euxaristia] which is held under the bishop or to whomever he entrusts it. Where the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the whole [katholike] church.  It is not permissible apart from the bishop either to baptize [baptizein] or celebrate [poiein] the love-feast [agapen]; but whatever he approves is also pleasing to God, that everything you do may be sure and valid.”[1]

So wrote Ignatius early in the 2nd century A.D. in his letter to the Smyrnaeans.  One of the intriguing questions concerning this very early reference to the “love-feast” outside of the New Testament is in what way were the “eucharist” and the “love-feast” related. Is the “feast” to be identified with the “eucharist”? Was one contained within the other or where they in some other way related? Certainly eucharistic celebrations and “love-feasts” are referred to as different entities in later writings, but was that the case with respect to Ignatius and the Smyrnaeans?

Tertullian writing in Latin towards the end of the 2nd century A.D. or at the beginning of the 3rd seemed to refer to them as separate practices when he wrote:

“We take also, in meetings before daybreak, and from the hand of none but the presidents, the sacrament of the Eucharist [eucharistiae sacramentum], which the Lord both commanded to be eaten at meal-times [in tempore uictus], and enjoined to be taken by all (alike).”[2] And:

“Our dinner [coena] shows its idea in its name; it is called by the Greek name for love [dilectio penes Graecos].  Whatever the cost, it is gain to spend in piety’s name, for with the refreshment we help the needy … We do not take our places at table until we have first tasted prayer to God.  Only so much is eaten as satisfies hunger; only so much drunk as meets the need of the modest.  They satisfy themselves only so far as men will who recall that even during the night they must worship God; they talk as those would who know the Lord listens.  After water for the hands come the lights; and then each from what he knows of the Holy Scriptures, or from his own heart, is called before the rest to sing to God; so that is a test of how much he has drunk.  Prayer in like manner ends the banquet [convivium].”[3]

Though in the second passage he doesn’t actually use the word “agape” it would appear that he had “agape” in mind.  The descriptions he gives of the “sacrament of the Eucharist” and the “dinner” mark them out as distinctively different practices.

The apocryphal work, “The Epistle of the Apostles” possibly written sometime in the 2nd century A.D. also seems to indicate that “agape” meals were to be distinguished from whatever “celebration” was held that had its roots in the Last Passover meal. In the text, Jesus speaks of one of his apostles being thrown into prison then being released and then he says, “And when you have accomplished the memorial which is made of me, and the Agape (love-feast), he shall again be cast into prison.”[4]  What is not clear however is the relationship between the two.

However what some called “agape meals, at least in some places, were not above reproach.  Clement of Alexandria writing around the same time as Tertullian is scathing in his comments on how some apply the word “agape” to their special meals. “Some, speaking with unbridled tongue, dare to apply the name agape, to pitiful suppers, redolent of savour and sauces. Dishonouring the good and saving work of the Word, the consecrated agape, with pots and pouring of sauce; and by drink and delicacies and smoke desecrating that name, they are deceived in their idea, having expected that the promise of God might be bought with suppers.”[5]  And in another place he writes against the practices of the Carpocratians and their feasts [Latin: coenas] making references to “agape” as he does so. “These, so they say, and certain other enthusiasts for the same wickednesses, gather together for feasts (I would not call their meeting an Agape), men and women together. After they have sated their appetites (“on repletion Cypris, the goddess of love, enters,” as it is said), then they overturn the lamps and so extinguish the light that the shame of their adulterous “righteousness” is hidden, and they have intercourse where they will and with whom they will. After they have practiced [sic] community of use in this love-feast [agape], they demand by daylight of whatever women they wish.”[6]

Origen however, writing in the first half of the 3rd century A.D., rises to the defence of the “love feast” in his dispute with Celsus, though from a legal point of view.[7] “The first point which Celsus brings forward, in his desire to throw discredit upon Christianity, is, that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law, saying, that ‘of associations some are public, and that these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws.’ And his wish is to bring into disrepute what are termed the “love-feasts” of the Christians, as if they had their origin in the common danger, and were more binding than any oaths.  Since, then, he babbles about the public law, alleging that the associations of the Christians are in violation of it.”  And a Canon of the Council of Gangra held between 325 and 381 AD, stated, “If anyone shall despise those who out of faith make love-feasts and invite the brethren in honour of the Lord, and is not willing to accept these invitations because he despises what is done, let him be anathema”[8]

However, having love-feasts in church buildings was soon outlawed.  It would appear that the buildings having taken on a special religious character were regarded as inappropriate for holding meals which were probably being seen as more and more secular in character.  The Synod of Hippo (393 A.D.): “It is not permitted to hold love feasts, as they are called, in the Lord’s Houses, or Churches, nor to eat and to spread couches in the house of God.”[9] And much later, the Trullian Council (692 A.D.): “It is not permitted to hold what are called Agapae, that is love-feasts, in the Lord’s houses or churches, nor to eat within the house, nor to spread couches.  If any dare to do so let him cease therefrom or be cut off.”[10]


[1] Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans, 8.1,2 in Ignatius of Antioch: A commentary on the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, Schoedel, W.R., (ed.), Hermeneia – a critical and historical commentary on the Bible, Fortress, Philadelphia, PA, 1985, p. 238

[2] Tertullian, On the soldier’s crown, 3.3,4 in A New Eusebius, , Stevenson, J. (ed.), S.P.C.K., London, 1965,, p. 183

[3] Tertullian, Apologeticus, XXXIX. 16 – 18 in Tertullian Apology de Spectaculis Minucius Felix Octavius, Glover, T.R. and Rendall, G.H. (trans.), Loeb Classical Library, No. 250, Heinemann, London, 1966, p. 181

[4] the Epistle of the Apostles 15, see http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/apostolorum.html

[5] Clement of Alexandria Paedagogus 2, see http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/02092.htm

[7] Origen, Against Celsus, Book I, Ch. I, see http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf04.vi.ix.i.ii.html

[9] Synod of Hippo, Canon XXIX, see note in http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.xv.iv.iv.xliii.htm1

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