Barry Newman's Blog

April 27, 2012

A Table of the Lord (part VIII)

                     1 Corinthians 10: 16 and 17

I recognise that verses 16 and 17 of chapter 10 may contain some notions reflective of the Last Passover Meal but the following should be noted:

* The phrase, “the cup of blessing” is not known in the Greek or Mishnaic Hebrew (the language used in the Passover meals) literature before Paul’s letter.  It is found only once before the 4th century (in a letter by Irenaeus) and the full phrase, “the cup of blessing which we bless” is not found in any of the Greek literature until the same century – the 4th. Hence the phrase should not automatically be understood as coming from some traditional liturgy.

*Wine was a feature of formal (and informal) Graeco-Roman meals. It is sometimes referred to as though it were the only part of such meals! Small quantities were consumed during the first part of formal meals but more copious quantities during the second part in which the drinking of wine was often the main feature. This would perhaps explain why Paul refers to “the cup” before “the bread”.  If the Last Passover Meal is meant to form a fundamental background to this section of chapter 10, then one would expect the bread to be mentioned first.

*Bread was a common element of almost all meals and sometimes the only solid food at a meal (see a previous blog series).  The word “arton” (bread) might even have been used, from time to time, as a general way of referring to the solid food aspects of a meal. The bread used in a Passover Meal was special but it was not at all special to have bread in such a meal or any meal.

*Paul is concerned with the believers not contaminating their formal meals (or any meals) in any way with pagan attributes. That is, Paul undoubtedly writes against the background of what happened in the formal meals of unbelieving Corinthians.

In a previous blog series I concluded that a suitable expanded paraphrase of 10: 16 and 17 could be:

“(When together we drink our wine with thanks it is not offered as a shared toast to the gods.) Is not our thanksgiving cup drunk with thanks by us who share in the Christ who shed his blood for us?  (When we share our meal it is not because we share an allegiance to the gods.)  Is not our breaking of bread, our sharing, a oneness in Christ?  Though many, we are one because we share in the one who is our bread, our sustenance.”

I suspect that the setting Paul has in mind in 10: 16 and 17 is that where the Corinthians came together to have a formal meal as believers. But it was a genuine meal, such as those had by many Greeks when they came together in a formal setting. The Corinthian believers came together to have a formal meal in part because that is what many Corinthians did. Of course the believers at their fellowship meals came from a great variety of backgrounds.  This was quite unlike the situation at most other Greek formal meals. The participants at these often came from the same club or from the same social or political stratum and in the 1st century, except were family was involved, they were mainly exclusively males.

Paul’s concern is that unlike the normal formal Greek meal, the meals attended by the believers when they came together, should have nothing idolatrous, about them. In 10: 16 and 17 he would seem to be arguing against such by stating what in principle the Corinthians do or should do when they come together to eat and drink.

His use of the 1st person plural is interesting. It is perhaps suggestive of his having taken part in fellowship meals with the Corinthian believers, at least in the past, or in similar fellowship meals with other believers generally.

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April 26, 2012

A Table of the Lord (part VII)

“A table of the Lord” in 1 Corinthinas 10: 21 (continued)

Contrary to the views outlined so far, the position adopted in this blog series is that “table” is indeed a reference to a meal but that it is not a meal in any way to be associated with a celebration of “the Lord’s Supper” or the like.

I have argued in previous blog series that chapters 8 to 10 of 1 Corinthians reveal Paul’s concern that the believers not knowingly eating meat offered to idols in various settings.  He was concerned that they should not participate in meals as though one could be both an idolater, a worshipper of other gods, at least in the eyes of others, if not oneself, and also a believer in the one true God. In this connection we should note that the drinking of wine receives an explicit mention twice in these chapters as it formed an important part of any Graeco-Roman formal meal and meals in general. See below.

I maintain that one should sift through the various features of these chapters keeping in mind both the eating of meat or any goods associated with idol worship and the drinking of wine in toasting. Eating and drinking in any way which knowingly connected one to the gods either from one’s own point of view or from that of others is the binding context, not matters associated with the Last Passover Meal. That is, one should not automatically expect to see a reference to a celebration of “the Lord’s Supper” or similar, in whatever form, in verse 21 of chapter 10.

It should be noted that leading the way in the concluding verses of chapter 10 is the summary statement, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”  Simple eating or drinking in various settings is in mind.

April 21, 2012

A Table of the Lord (part VI)

“A table of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 10: 21

In the light of Old Testament and New Testament usages and examples from the Graeco-Roman world, “table” in 1 Corinthians 10: 2, given its context, would seem to be either a reference to primarily a physical table, with some sort of meal being associated with it, or primarily to the meal itself, with the word, “table” being used to convey that sense. Whatever the case, the singular “table” could be a suitable appellation, whether there were many tables involved or not. Different courses involving different tables could be served with the diners reclining on couches.  And various dining arrangements could obtain, involving multiple tables, whatever the nature of the “seating” or how the courses were served. It is also a “table” that somehow “belongs to” someone – “the Lord”.

If one sees in the text a reference to a type of table that was involved in a celebration of the “the Lord’s Supper” or similar, then presumably one understands it as a table upon which was located “elements’ such as bread and wine.  It might have been basically a regular meal but a meal explicitly constructed to enable the celebration of “the Lord’s Supper” or the like.  Alternatively, it might have been only part of a normal meal, formal or otherwise, that was so constructed.  As a third possibility “the Lord’s Supper” or similar might have been an adjunct to a normal meal, formal or otherwise.  Whatever the case, the “table”, either a specially set aside table or the regular table or tables upon which the meal was served, would in the understanding of “table” suggested here, have been the physical object upon which the “elements”, token or otherwise would have been set. And it would have been thought of as “the Lord’s table” because the “elements”, token or otherwise, were somehow related to the death of the Lord with references back to the Last Passover Meal. It was a table from which bread was taken and eaten and from which the wine was served and drunk.

One might also be tempted to see “the Lord’s table” as reflective of “the table of the presence” but in strict opposition to say, any “table of Zeus”.  However in this case one could be looking for some sort of physical sacrifice or offering being made to the Lord by way of at least some elements of the “meal”.  One could appeal to such as “the Lord’s table” – “the table of the presence” mentioned in Malachi 1: 7 and 12 or to the wooden altar of Ezekiel 41: 22 identified as “the table that is before the Lord ” to add support for one’s position. If being involved in some sort of sacrifice is what one thinks happens in, for example, the Eucharist, then one might certainly read that notion back into this text.  I will however not go down that path as I suggest such a position is contrary to the New Testament’s understanding of the once and for all death of Jesus.

The second alternative is to understand by “table” a prime reference to the meal upon the table.

One form of this second alternative would be the view that a celebration of “the Lord’s Supper” or similar was still involved with the meal being token or otherwise with the celebration conforming to one of the various scenarios outlined above.

April 18, 2012

A Table of the Lord (part V)

The “table” in the Graeco-Roman literature

In the Graeco-Roman literature references can be found to tables being used for the conveying of wine and food.  For example, Athenaeus writes, “To quote Nicostratus: ‘Nay let her pour out quickly the “Good Daemon” cup and carry the table out of my way.  I’ve had enough of feeding but I can accept a ‘Good Daemon’.  Take up the table girl and get it out of my way.’”[1]  Again Athenaeus: “Theophrastus in his work On Drunkenness says: ‘The unmixed wine which is given upon ending the dinner and which they call a ‘toast in honour of the Good Daemon’ is taken only in small quantity, just as a reminder, through a mere taste, of the strength in the god’s generous gift … and after making obeisance three times they take it from the tables as though supplicating the god that they may do nothing indecent or have too strong a desire for the drinking.”[2]

A table could also be referred to as being the table of a god.  For example, Diodorus, though speaking of the Egyptians, wrote, “Similar to it (the couch of the god) is the table of the god which stands near the couch.”[3]

Again Athenaeus: “And Philochorus in the second book of his Attic History says, ‘After the mixture to the Good Daemon had been given it was customary to have the tables removed, as is shown in the case of Dionysius of Sicily by his own sacrilege.  For in Syracuse there was a gold table dedicated to Asclepius.  When Dionysius had drunk in his honour unmixed wine of the Good Daemon he ordered the table to be removed’”.[4]  Though a table could be dedicated to a god it was not always a table that could not be used for simply eating and drinking at. Athenaeus quoting Pyrgion in his third book on Cretan customs, wrote, “There was also chairs reserved for guests and a third table at the right as one entered the halls, which they called ‘the table of Zeus, god of strangers’ or ‘the stranger’s table’”.[5]

An interesting comment is also made by Athenaeus concerning what might be referred to by the use of the word, “trapeza”. “The men of ancient times used the word ‘tables’ in a general sense”[6].  He then illustrated this by indicating how “tables” was used to refer to “courses”.

As with the Old and New Testaments, sometimes the prime reference is to the table as an object, sometimes (according to Athenaeus) “table” can be a way of referring to the meal on the table, and a table could be designated as a table “belonging to someone” – a particular god.

One should note that, the word for “table” in the Greek Septuagint is unsurprisingly also “trapeza”.  One should also note that in the LXX, Malachi 1: 7 and 12 uses “trapeza” when referring to the table of the presence but no definite article is involved. Here is an instance where the translation should refer to “the table of the Lord” though the definite article is absent.


[1] in Athenaeus VII, LOEB Classical Library, (trans. Gulick, C.B.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1971, xv, 693b, pp. 210 – 213

[2] ibid.,  xv, 693c, pp. 212, 213

[3] Diodorus Siculus, III, Books IV, 59 – VIII LOEB Classical Library, (trans. Oldfather, C.H.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1970, pp. 226, 227

[4] in Athenaeus, ibid., xv, 693e, pp. 214, 215 (In note b on p. 215 Gulick writes: “The sacrilege consisted in appropriating for his own use a votive offering”).

[5] in Athenaeus II, LOEB Classical Library, (trans. Gulick, C.B.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1987, pp. 156, 157

[6]Athenaeus VI, LOEB Classical Library, (trans. Gulick, C.B.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1980, pp. 462, 463

April 17, 2012

A Table of the Lord (part IV)

The “table” in the New Testament

The word, “trapeza”, generally translated “table”, occurs 14 times in the New Testament[1].  There is one reference to the table for “the bread of the presence” of the Old Testament (Hebrews 9: 2) with almost all references referring to a table as used for food.  Ignoring the text under discussion, examples are: “He (Jesus) overturned the tables.” (Matthew 21: 12) [not tables associated with food], “The dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7: 28), “… longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.” (Luke 16: 21), “The hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table.” (Luke 22: 21), “You may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.” (Luke 22: 30), “… to wait on tables.” (Acts 6:2), “He laid a table.” (Acts 16: 34) and “May their table become a trap and a snare.” [a quote from Psalm 69: 22] (Romans 11: 9).

In terms of the senses in which “trapeza” is used, the picture is very similar to that provided by the Old Testament. Sometimes the reference is to a table as an object but on a few occasions, it is really the food on the table that is the prime focus. Waiting on tables and laying a table has the meal to be served in mind. It is not always a table used for food. There is also examples of a table being spoken of “belonging to someone” – the rich man in one case and the eschatological table of Jesus in his kingdom in another.


[1] Although I do not agree with some of what Goppelt, L. says, particularly when he refers to sacramental notions that he sees in some texts, he has an interesting article on “trapeza” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volume viii, (eds. Kittel, G and Friedrich, G.) (trans. Bromiley, G.W.), Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1972, pp. 209 – 215.  It is well worth the read.

April 14, 2012

A Table of the Lord (part III)

The “table” in the Old Testament

The word “shulchan” (table) occurs about 66 times in the Old Testament. At heart it is a reference to an elevated structure of some sort.  More than half of the time it relates to “the table of the presence” in the tabernacle, the temple or some vision of the temple. About 25 times it is used to refer to a table or tables in other settings.  It is almost always used in some sense in association with food at least in that a table or tables is to be used, is being used or was used for food.

“The table of the presence” or the equivalent was for the placement of bread and other articles.  The bread was to be eaten by Aaron and his descendants and was almost certainly an indication of such priests sharing, as it were, a meal with God. Some incense, set alongside of the bread, was to represent the bread and was to be thought of as an offering to the Lord by fire.  See Leviticus 24: 5 – 9 for details.

Setting the references to “the table of the presence” aside, some examples are: “Let’s make a small room … and put in it a bed and a table, a chair and a lamp.” (2 Kings 4: 10) [Here there is no clear indication that the table was to be used for food], “Jonathan got up from the table in fierce anger.” (1 Samuel 20: 34) [This may or may not have been a reference to the meal rather than simply to the object on which the food had been placed.], “Two kings will sit at the same table and lie to each other.” (Daniel 11: 27), “You (Mephibosheth) will always eat at my (David’s) table.” (2 Samuel 9: 7), “Your sons will be olive shoots around your table.” (Psalm 128: 3), “All the tables (of the priests and prophets of Ephraim) are covered with vomit. (Isaiah 28: 8), “When the Queen of Sheba saw … the food on his (King Solomon’s) table …” (2 Chronicles 9: 3, 4), “You who filled a table for Fortune and filled bowls of mixed wine for Destiny …” (Isaiah 65: 11), “They spoke against God saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the desert?’” (Psalm 78: 14), “She (wisdom) has also set her table.” (Proverbs 9: 2), “They set the tables, they spread the rugs.” (Isaiah 21: 5), and the well known reference, “You (Lord) prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” (Psalm 23: 5).

Most times, the reference is primarily to the object, the table or the tables. Though not every table that is mentioned is used for food, generally the table is a table for the placement of food and sometimes the fundamental reference is to what is on the table – the food, the meal itself.  Indeed sometimes it is not clear if it is a meal or the table on which the meal has been set or indeed simply a meal even where no physical table is involved. Preparing or setting a table certainly has the meal in mind. Note also that sometimes the table is spoken of as someone’s table in particular – King David’s table, King Solomon’s table.  Here the fundamental reference would appear to be the setting, whether it involved the same table or tables or not, at which they and any of their guests traditionally came to eat.

Perhaps one should note that “the Lord’s table” is referred to in Malachi 1: 7 and 12 and “my table” (God’s) in Ezekiel 44: 16.  In each case it is a reference to the “table of the presence”.  Ezekiel 41: 22 also refers to a wooden altar identified as “the table that is before the Lord”. Additionally, Ezekiel 39: 20 records God speaking of a type of eschatological table of judgement as “my table”.

April 12, 2012

A Table of the Lord (part II)

By way of introduction (continued)

One of the reasons, probably the main reason and perhaps often the only reason why translators have traditionally inserted the definite article before “cup” and “table” is because they have thought that the reference is to something like a cup and table used in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion or the Eucharist.  In effect they read back into the text “celebrations” of one persuasion or another, with which we are familiar today and with which we have been familiar for many centuries.

Thiselton in his work, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine devotes a chapter to “The Hermeneutics of Word and Sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist”[1].  To a large extent the aim of this chapter is to illustrate how what one understands by Biblical texts that appear to deal with or are considered to deal with these issues, is very largely influenced by one’s previous beliefs about these issues.  In a very “generous” manner, without attempting to show how one group is correct and another incorrect, Thiselton illustrates how people coming from various, in particular, Protestant or Lutheran traditions arrive at different understandings of certain texts on the basis of their beliefs about the sacraments. I believe his thesis certainly applies to various understandings of 1 Corinthians 10: 21 no matter what Christian tradition one hales from.

I guess I am no different in that only a few years ago I began to approach this text as though it had nothing to do with any sacrament. The task before any of us, however, is to assess whether or not there are good reasons for understanding a text this way or that.  Focussing on the phrase, “a table of the Lord”, the aim of this blog series is to present a case that suggests that this phrase has nothing to do with any practice associated with a sacrament, no matter what is understood by that sacrament or by what name it is called.

As stated above I have already argued in a previous blog series that “a cup of the Lord” is most likely a reference to “toasting the Lord”.  As believers, the Corinthians are no longer to toast any of the gods.  The only toast that is legitimate for them is the one to the Lord.  They certainly cannot do, must not attempt to do, both. That is, the reference is not necessarily to some special Christian custom associated with a sacrament such as the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, or Eucharist, even if in primitive form.  Once it is understood that “a cup of the Lord” is not necessarily so associated, the case is weakened that “a table of the Lord” must itself necessarily be a reference to something pertaining to the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion or the Eucharist, in whatever stage of development.


[1] Thiselton, A.C., The Hermeneutics of Doctrine, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2007, pp. 509 – 540

April 9, 2012

A Table of the Lord (part I)

A table of the Lord

By way of introduction

1 Corinthians 10: 21 is commonly translated, something like, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.  You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”

In a previous blog series I illustrated that in the Graeco – Roman literature a reference to “drinking a cup of …” is a reference to toasting someone – normally one of the gods. (The genitive case is commonly involved but where for various reasons, the accusative or dative case is used, the reference to a toast, one way or another, still applies.)  On this basis I argued that the most reasonable understanding of the first part of 1 Corinthians 10: 21 is that it refers to toasting (drinking in honour of) the Lord and not toasting any of the gods. “A cup of the Lord” is a reference to a toast to (drinking in honour of) the Lord but not necessarily to a special cup, as though there were a particular cup, set aside for toasting the Lord.

It should be noted that in both sections of the text, there are no definite articles.  Furthermore, there appears to be little if any evidence that there ever was a specific table or cup devoted to a group of gods.  That is, it appears to be a little strange to have a translation that refers to “the cup of demons” or “the table of demons”. Presumably translators insert the definite article for reasons of consistency.  Having inserted it before “table of the Lord” and before “cup of the Lord”, they insert it before “table of demons” and “cup of demons” as well.  (Of course, no one objects to inserting the definite article before a proper noun, such as “Lord”, even though the article does not appear in the Greek.  Proper nouns may or may not be accompanied by a definite article in the Greek, but in English we normally insert it where appropriate in a translation.)

A more cautious translation and one which does not suggest a probable false understanding of tables and cups associated with the gods would be as follows:

“You cannot drink a cup of the Lord and a cup of demons.  You cannot partake of a table of the Lord and a table of demons.”

As an alternative, it could be that we are meant to translate the text as:

“You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and a cup of demons.  You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and a table of demons”, but we should not do so automatically.

Reference to “the cup of the Lord” would then probably be a reference to a special toast to the Lord or even a special cup that was used to make that special toast to the Lord.  A brief suggestion on how we might understand “the table of the Lord” rather than “a table of the Lord”, while not denying the main thesis of this blog series, will be made later.

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