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Book review: Breaking Bread: The emergence of eucharist and agape in Early Christian communities by Alistair C. Stewart

28 March 2024

Christopher Irvine on a point in liturgical history

BREAKING BREAD is a book for the serious student of the origins of Christian worship, but it would be a lost opportunity for it to remain on the scholar’s bookshelf. Alistair C. Stewart guides us through the labyrinth of differing scholarly opinions. The arguments are set out in detail in four substantial chapters, and these are supported by a plethora of footnotes.

The book has been long in the making. The coverage is comprehensive, and the evidence for each argument is carefully set out, almost to the point of being laboured. It is precisely the detail, however, that enables Stewart to evaluate the arguments fully, to qualify what has been taken as scholarly consensus, and to weave his own insights into a wider narrative of the development of Christian worship.

At a time when we tend, in both Church and wider society, to retreat from complexity and to downplay intellectual inquiry, this is a challenging book, but it is one that will reward the patient reader. The Gospel tells how Jesus came eating and drinking, and this book charts how gathering for meals was a defining activity of the earliest Christian communities.

Stewart recognises that there was considerable variety in what, how, and when local Christian communities gathered to eat and drink. He convincingly shows that what might count as evidence for what he places on a wide spectrum of religiously charged meals has often been excluded, as it didn’t fit a preconceived pattern of what a sacred meal looks like. And, on this basis, he argues that the development of the eucharistic meals in Christian circles was influenced by a wider range of influences and circumstances, from funeral meals to Jewish forms of prayer, before forms of both eucharist and agape crystalised in the fourth century.

One fascinating hypothesis is that the small portions of food and drink in the eucharist resulted from a shift from an evening to a morning celebration. Regional differences in practice were varied, and this makes generalisations difficult. Nevertheless, in untangling the competing theories proposed by other authors, Stewart presents a convincing case that the agape, a shared meal expressing fellowship, and often serving a charitable purpose in providing for those in need, emerged from the eucharist, which, far from being an attenuated agape, as some have suggested, had a distinctive character, broadly defined as a communion with God in Christ.

Stewart certainly writes as a scholar, but also as one who has the privilege of presiding at the eucharist, and it is this dimension that forms a kind of parenthesis to the book. It begins with a Corpus Christi hymn that he wrote for the parish, and ends with a series of conclusions, many of which have direct application to how a Christian community may order its worship today. It certainly got me thinking about how the donations to a local foodbank on Sundays could be presented at the altar-table, together with the bread and wine for the eucharist.

The Revd Christopher Irvine teaches at St Augustine’s College of Theology and the Liturgical Institute, Mirfield.

Breaking Bread: The emergence of eucharist and agape in early Christian communities
Alistair C. Stewart
Eerdmans £39.99
Church Times Bookshop £35.99

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