There is a common misconception, found even in some authoritative biblical commentaries, that “to break bread” simply means to share a meal. Or rather, there is a common misconception about why it means that. In fact there is no evidence that in classical Greek “breaking bread” means this at all, nor was it a Hebrew idiom.Not that it is hard to work out what it means; since bread was central to any ancient Mediterranean meal, “to break the bread,” as the Emmaus story puts it, was readily comprehensible as a metonym for a meal. Yet it was not a common expression at all. The use of this phrase in English seems likely to emerge from the influence of vocabulary of Luke-Acts, where it is not merely a folksy phrase about sharing food generally, but an allusion to the actions of Jesus in a familiar set of stories. One of the most famous is this Sunday’s Gospel.
When the two disciples meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus, they are given an extended bible study by the mysterious risen Jesus, who then accepts their invitation to dine, and somewhat presumptuously takes the role of host when at table:
“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight (24: 30-31).
His actions are not remarkable in themselves, except that they clearly evoke language, and hence stories, heard earlier in this Gospel (and elsewhere):
“And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples…” (Luke 9:16)
“Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them… " (Luke 22:19)
These quotes are from the NRSV, which I assume will be the most commonly-used translation for my readers. However the translators have not done us great service here, even compared to their RSV predecessors and others, in the references to bread. Greek uses artos to mean both “bread” and “a bread”—meaning a whole baked item, such as one can still find in the streets and homes of Middle-Eastern countries. There is no word for “loaf” (as we use it at least) in ancient Greek because there were no “loaves” in the modern sense. “A bread” wouldn’t be good English, but you get the idea—these texts all reference a whole baked bread, something a Westerner is more likely to call “pita,” “flatbread” (ugh) or similar, but which to Arabs and many others is just “bread.” You could call it a “loaf” I suppose, but I am sure that when our congregations hear “loaf of bread,” reading Luke 22 and the parallel versions of the last supper, they think of something else altogether.
If I am confusing you, since of course you don’t see “loaf” used in the NRSV of Luke 24 anyway, the point is that all the passages quoted—the various synoptic feedings, all the last supper stories, and this resurrection appearance—use basically the same language; all say something like “he took [a/the] bread,” but the translations are too varied to allow the connection to be readily made. Why NRSV adds “a loaf” in the last supper accounts and not in the other stories is inexplicable.
In fact Luke 24, the Emmaus story, is the most definite in pointing to a specific item; in this case it is “he took the bread” (ESV has just this, in fact). In all these cases however “bread” does mean a whole baked thing, not slices or other prepared fragments, and hence the act of “breaking” is significant as the basic preparation for distribution as well as, we must add, symbolically and theologically. This isn’t a sliced-bread culture. And of course the NRSV folks were trying to do the right thing, introducing “loaf” as a way of telling us Jesus was breaking the whole bread to share; but without using that same conception in the two earlier stories, the force is much less. And don’t get me started on bizarre modern liturgical scenes, with hapless presiders wrestling great inflated loaves never designed for breaking…
While to “break bread” was not a concept difficult for the ancients to grasp, that does not mean that Luke was making use of an existing common expression. The emphasis placed on the language of “breaking bread” belongs specifically to Luke’s presentation of the Jesus tradition, and to a distinctive way of speaking about Christian practice that emerged soon after. For in Acts, “the breaking of the bread” is used in a clearly technical way—remember there is no clear precedent for this, despite its familiarity to our own ears—when the life of the early community is described (2:42, 46; cf. 20:7) as centered on this act, echoing the report of the two disciples concerning the risen Jesus.
What does it mean? The Emmaus story interprets the bread-breaking known to the early readers of Luke-Acts, as well as the resurrection. While we are used perhaps to thinking that the affirmation of Jesus’ eucharistic presence derives solely from the recapitulation of the last supper narrative and the recitation of the story of bread and wine as his body and blood, Luke presents a complementary idea of the breaking of the bread as a point of sharing with, and recognizing, the risen Jesus as host and guest.
To answer the obvious question, yes, we are talking about the Eucharist (as we would now put it—they seemed to call it the breaking of the bread), even though we are talking about substantial community meals. The imagery of breaking evokes not just the wholesome possibility of sharing, but the specific memory of the Jesus who broke bread.
In these stories the readers of Luke-Acts have found, in ancient times as more recently, a thread woven through the life of Jesus and through the story of the early Christians, in which the breaking of bread joins together miraculous feedings, the fateful last meal, and the Emmaus story, and our own communal meals, and have affirmed that he is known again, when we break bread.
See Barry Craig, Fractio Panis (Rome, 2011), 74-5.
"...hapless presiders wrestling great inflated loaves never designed for breaking..." that was me pre-pandemic when a bread-breaking guild would make these fabulous artisanal loaves that are great for eating but not for Eucharist, I'm afraid. I give thanks for the local Jewish bakery that makes perfect pita.
…a question: I’m imagining one or more whole pitas, probably large enough to cover a pizza pan, being served. Someone had to be the first to break it open and begin to share. In Jesus’ times, was there a custom of who breaks the bread first?