Reactions of Unbelievers to the Lord’s Supper

Dr James R. Harrison

1. Controversies over the Lord's Supper after the New Testament Era

The first extant reaction of unbelievers to the Christian love feasts appears in the early second century. In 109 or 110 AD, the emperor Trajan appointed the Roman gentleman, Pliny, as his personal legate in the Asian province of Bithynia-Pontus. Pliny's task was to uphold the emperor's authority by managing the civic, military and economic affairs of the province. Trajan was concerned about the growth of political clubs and believed that the trade, civic and religious associations could become sources of political disturbance in the cities if left unchecked. Consequently Trajan turned down Pliny's request to commence a provincial fire brigade (Pliny, Epistles 10:33-34). By AD 112, however, in one of the coastal cities of northern Pontus, the local meat merchants had launched charges against the Christians. Apparently, meat sales were being affected because many people were converting to a non-Roman cult "” described by Pliny as a "contagious superstition' and "political association' (Epistles 10.96) "” that did not perform any rites of sacrifice at all. Initially, Pliny regarded the Christians as a threat to the Roman social and religious order, to be suppressed in the same manner as the Bacchanalia of 186 BC and the Druids of Claudius' reign (Elder Pliny, Naturalis Historiae 29.54).
Upon interrogation, however, Pliny found that the sum total of the Christians' guilt amounted to this:

they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternatively among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary harmless kind.

The statement that the Christians took "food of an ordinary harmless kind' indicates that there were already undefined rumours abroad concerning the suspicious nature of the Christian love feasts. These rumours would soon spiral out of control into a frenzy of accusation.
Christian love feasts, with the Lord's Supper as its crowning ritual, featured prominently in the anti-Christian polemic against believers and in the Christian polemic against heretical Gnostic groups from the third century onwards. The Christian lawyer Minucius Felix (c. 200AD) wrote an imaginary dialogue in which the main character, the pagan Caecilius, outlines Roman grievances against the Christians. Among other lurid charges, Caecilus accuses the Christians of initiating novices into their religion with child sacrifice and of having incestuous relations at their love feasts (Octavius 1-13; similarly, Justin Martyr, Apologia 26.7). These accusations are probably based on the now lost anti-Christian oration of Marcus Cornelius Fronto (AD 100-166), the famous Roman orator and teacher.
In the case of Christian polemics against heretical groups, Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-211/216AD) accuses the libertine Gnostic sect, the Carpocratians, of the same adulterous behaviour at their love feasts (Stromateis 3.2.5; similarly, the pagan critic Celsus: Origin, Against Celsus 5:62-63). Epiphanius (AD 315-403), too, portrays the communion service of the Gnostic-Christian sect of the Phibionites as performing ritual intercourse and eating a foetus (Panarion 26.4-5). In a repulsive parody of the Lord's Supper, male and female worshippers offered up semen and menstrual emissions to God, praying respectively with their besmeared hands "This is the body of Christ' and "This is the blood of Christ'.
It is difficult to know how seriously one should take such charges, given their polemical thrust, and the fact that they are modelled on the Roman accusations against the Bacchanalia and Druids (i.e. human sacrifice, nocturnal rites, sexual immorality). However, in the case of the Roman critics, Fronto probably did not distinguish orthodox Christians from their heretical Gnostic counterparts, categorising them incorrectly as the same phenomenon.  In the case of the orthodox Christian critics, it is noteworthy that even other third-century Gnostic groups criticised the sexual immorality of the Phibionites (e.g. Pistis Sophia 147; The Second Book of Jeu 43). There seems little reason to dismiss the charges as total invention.
Perhaps we have to recognise that these third-century trends towards sexual immorality in love feasts were already latent in sectors of the first-century Asian and Corinthian house churches (e.g. 1 Cor 6:12-21; 10:7-8, 14; Rev 2:14, 20; 2 Peter 2:12-13; cf. Jude 12-13). How, then, would first-century unbelievers have perceived the Lord's Supper? What would they have found attractive or repulsive about this memorial meal of fellowship and thanksgiving (1 Cor 10:16-17; 11:23-26)?


2. Reactions of First-Century Unbelievers to the Lord's Supper

Meals among worshippers were standard accompaniment to sacrifices in Hellenistic religions (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 8.116a.19-20). A wide variety of associations offered fellowship and feasting under the patronage of various deities or heroes, both in temples and in private homes. They also provided mutual assistance in difficult times, as well as funerary services. Critics of early Christianity, such as Pliny (Epistles 96.6-8) and Celsus (Origen, Against Celsus 1:1; 8.17), identified house churches with the cultic associations of their times. Clearly, then, the pagans saw early Christian worship, including the Lord's Supper, as having its closest parallel with the cultic associations. Two inscriptions and a papyrus, setting out the rules for dining in religious associations and private houses, are instructive in helping us to see how an unbeliever might have viewed the Lord's Supper. Although our reconstruction is hypothetical "” there being no first-century testimonies of unbelievers about the believers "” it will help us to see what unbelievers might have thought was socially distinctive about the first Christians.
First, the Rule of the Iobakchoi (SIG3 1109: c. 178 BC) is an Athenian inscription setting out the bylaws of the Society of the Iobakchoi that met together under the auspices of the god Dionysios. Of particular interest are the rules for the conduct of the service:

The priest shall conduct in an appropriate manner the customary worship service at the regular meetings as well as the anniversary celebration of the Society. It shall be his responsibility to make the drink -offering for the return of Bakchos . He is also to arrange for the divine story, a feature that was introduced by the public-spirited ex-priest Nikomachos. The arch-Bakchos shall offer the sacrifice to our god and make the drink-offering the tenth day of Elaphebolion. The distribution of the parts (of the sacrificial meal) are to be made to the participants in the following order: Priest, vice-priest, arch-Bakchos, treasurer, the rustic performer, those who play the roles of Dionysos, Kore, Palaimon, Aphrodite, and Proteurythmos. All members are, however, to be eligible for the roles of the deities.

There are some general similarities to the Lord's Supper here. There is mention of drink-offerings, a meal, and a sermon ("divine story'). Admittedly, the sermon is a recent innovation in the Society and is more directed to the drama in which several of the members of the Society play the roles of Greek deities. But it is intriguing that the drink-offering celebrates "the return of Bakchos'. This refers to the projected return of the god to the city of Athens. Thus an unbeliever hearing "Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death' until he comes' (1 Cor 11:26) may not have felt as isolated in Paul's house churches as first appears. There could have been flashes of cultural recognition rendering the Lord's Supper intelligible at a basic level.
But there would also have been significant cultural shocks for the unbeliever. The Christian love feasts were non-cultic: there were no animal sacrifices to the gods. Worse, there were no statues of the gods in the house churches, whereas statues were ubiquitous in imperial temples and private houses. The presence of the deity, therefore, in the pagan sacrificial service was totally compromised. It is fascinating that Paul locates the presence of God for unbelievers in the body of Christ as they experience the edifying effects of congregational prophecy (1 Cor 14:24-25). In the case of believers at the Lord's Supper, they experience intimate fellowship in the blood of Christ and His body (1 Cor 10:16-17).
Status was also redefined in the body of Christ. Honorific titles, which marked the "pecking order' of Society members, were avoided (Mt 23:8-10). Hierarchy, seen in the ordered distribution of the sacrificial meats at the Society feast, was up-ended (Mt 23:11-12; Mk 10:42-45; Lk 22:24-27; Jn 13:12-14). Finally, there was a radical inversion of honour and its rituals in God's new society (1 Cor 12:24-25). Christian worship, therefore, displayed a theological distinctiveness that resulted in a radical intimacy with God and one's fellow worshippers. This was expressed in a new set of social relationships that would ultimately overturn the hierarchical structures of client-patron relationships. Whether this was attractive or repulsive to first-century unbelievers depended on the degree to which they were marginalised from or sponsored by powerful patrons.
Second, the Philadelphian papyrus of the Synodos of Zeus Hypsistos (SB 5.7835: 69-58 BC), sets out regulations for its smooth operation:

" they first chose as their president Petesouchos the son of Teephbennis , a man of parts, worthy of the place and of the company, a year from the month and day aforesaid, that he should make for all the contributors one banquet a month in the sanctuary of Zeus, at which they should in a common room pouring libations, pray, and perform the other customary rites on behalf of the god and lord, the king, All are to obey the president and his servant in matters pertaining to the corporation, and they shall be present at all command occasions to be prescribed for them and at meetings, assemblies, and outings. It shall not be permissible for any one of them too ,,, or to make factions or to leave the brotherhood of the president for another, or for men to enter into one another's pedigrees at the banquet or to chatter or to indict or to resign for the course of the year or again to bring the drinkings to nought "

Here we are reminded of the factionalism at Corinth against which Paul inveighed (1 Cor 1:10; 1:18; 12:25), including the splits occurring among the Corinthians at the Lord's Supper (11:17-34). The fear that association members might go to another brotherhood, hosted by a different president, or compare pedigrees throws light on the Corinthian rivalry over their "sophistic schools' and rhetors (1 Cor 1:12; 3:4, 21-22a; 4:6). The concern over "disruptive' chatter at association banquets also finds a counterpart in Paul's Corinthian house churches (1 Cor 14:14:33-36). Alternatively, Paul highlights unity in Christ (1 Cor 3:16-17; 12:13) and singles out the Lord's Supper as a special demonstration of commitment to the Lord and one's brothers in worship (1 Cor 10:16-17).
How would unbelievers have responded to Paul's teaching regarding the Lord's Supper in this case? Probably they would have reacted ambivalently, depending on whether they agreed or disagreed with the strictures of both Paul and the pagan associations against divisiveness. Factionalism was a prominent feature of ancient social relations. It sprang from commitment to one's patron, political club, philosophical school, or city. Everyone was aware of the problem, as the fines against quarrels in associations testify (e.g. SIG3 1109 ll.64-103), but no one seriously questioned the Graeco-Roman competitive spirit.
Third, an inscription on the wall of the triclinium ("dining room') of a house at Pompeii sets out the "rules of conduct' for guests thus (CIL 4.7698):

Keep your lascivious looks and bedroom eyes away from another man's wife. Maintain a semblance of decency on your face. Be sociable, and put aside, if you can, annoying quarrels.  If you can't, go back to your own home.

Sexual immorality, like divisiveness, was standard fare at ancient feasts. Adultery belonged to the intrigue of private dinner parties (Ovid, Love Affairs 1.4.1-6, 9-11, 15-28, 35-54, 63-70; Quintilian, Institutio Oratio 1.28), whereas prostitution was present at association banquets in temples (Aristophanes, Archarnians 1085-1093; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.65-80). Paul underscores the devastating effect that adultery and prostitution had on the body of Christ (1 Cor 5:1-13; 6:12-26). As an alternative, He summons his converts to partake of Christ's sanctifying feast to which God had invited His people both in the Old and the New Covenant (1 Cor 10:3-4, 14-22; cf. vv.7-8).
In light of the sexual immorality accompanying feasts, how would unbelievers have regarded the Lord's Supper? Once again, unbelievers would probably have reacted to Christian love feasts ambiguously in this regard, as had some of the Corinthian believers themselves, either by embracing sexual asceticism in reaction to the prevailing immorality (1 Cor 7:1ff, 8ff, 25ff, 36ff), or by adopting the libertine lifestyle associated with idol's feasts (1 Cor 6:12-13; 10:7-8, 14, 18-22).


3. Conclusion

Sadly, by the time of Paul's third impending visit to Corinth, some of his converts were still unrepentant sexual sinners (2 Cor 12:21). We are witnessing here, perhaps, the origin of the persistent rumours regarding the immoral behaviour of some believers at love feasts and idol feasts at Corinth and in Asia. Rumours of immorality would continue to spiral out of control into the reign of Trajan and beyond. Indeed, the rumours were well founded in the case of the more extreme Gnostic sects.
In the first-century context, unbelievers may have had flashes of cultural recognition if they attended a love feast at which the Lord's Supper was celebrated. But there would have been significant theological challenges to their cultural understanding of feasts as well. At their feasts Christian were non-cultic and non-hierarchical; they honoured the weak much as the strong; they abhorred divisiveness; they radically redefined the experience of the presence of God; and they banished sexually predatory behaviour because of the redemptive work of Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit.
It is a tragic addendum to history that some of Paul's converts continued to cling to the Graeco-Roman understanding of feasts and act in immoral and divisive ways. The recent charges brought against clergy for the sexual abuse of those in their care underscores the need for Christ's continuing transformation in our generation.

Dr James R. Harrison
Honorary Associate Macquarie University Ancient History DepartmentHead of the School of Theology, Wesley Institute