by Barry Newton
By the time that Luke wrote Acts, he knew that his choice of words, “we gathered together to break bread” would clearly communicate to Theophilus. Yet, this was a phrase which had undergone a significant change.
Jewish bread was made in a round form about an inch thick. According to scholars, since this bread was never cut with a knife but always broken with the hands, this lead to the expression “break bread.”
According to rabbinic tradition, even prior to the first century when a Jewish group gathered to eat, the host would take bread and bless it by saying, “Blessed be the Lord our God, the King of the universe, who has caused this bread to spring forth from the ground.” Then the group would respond by saying, “Amen.”
At that point, the host would break the bread as a signal to them to begin to eat. From this practice, to “break bread” became a Hebrew idiom for eating a common meal.
However, after Jesus infused new meaning into the bread and wine at his last supper, this expression also rapidly acquired a Christian meaning as a reference to the Lord’s Supper. Whether any particular usage should be understood as a common meal or as the Lord’s Supper will depend upon the context.
In Acts 20, Luke describes Christians gathering together on the first day of the week. Although they would listen to Paul preach, it is interesting to note that their purpose for coming together was “to break bread,” that is, to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
In just a few days, we too will have the opportunity to gather together to break bread in remembering the body and blood of our Savior. And what a memorial it is to recognized the source of our forgiveness and identity as those belonging to God.