Paul reminds the Corinthians the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was handed down from Jesus himself (12:23-26). Presumably Peter and the disciples communicated the institution of the Lord’s Supper, since they witnessed the Last Supper. This is the earliest version of the Last Supper, since the gospels were not written for at least 10 years after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians.
There are several important elements of this tradition. First, the bread and the cup are taken from the regular elements of the Passover meal, but Jesus uses them as a prediction of his death on the cross. Second, Paul calls the cup the “new covenant in my blood.” This is an allusion to Jeremiah 31:31-33, where God says he will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and Judah when he establishes his kingdom “in that day.” The death of Jesus in some ways initiates that covenant. A covenant is usually confirmed with a sacrifice and a meal (sharing bread and wine). Jesus is therefore claiming his death on the cross is in some ways the beginning of the New Covenant predicted by Jeremiah.
Paul says sharing the bread and the cup are symbols of deeper spiritual realities, initiated by the Lord Jesus himself and practiced by all the Church. It is dangerous to abuse the practice to pursue worldly goals!
As often as the church gathers and shares this meal, they are proclaiming his death until he returns (v. 26). There is nothing in the tradition to indicate how often the meal is to be shared (weekly or once a year), only that it is a practice that is to continue until the Lord returns.
In a modern context, most churches practice a ritual for the Lord’s Supper, Communion, or Eucharist. It is nearly impossible to be a glutton or a drunkard while taking communion is a typical evangelical church (using pre-fab bread chunks the size of a chicklet and sugar-free grape juice!) Even if we cannot dishonor the celebration in quite the same way, by treating the celebration flippantly or as a means of grace to cover or sin, we may be “eating unworthily.”
To avoid discipline, believers ought to examine themselves before they participate in the memorial meal. Paul says, “Judge yourself so you do not fall under judgment by God!” How does the believer examine themselves?
Confession of sin. Communion ought to be a solemn time of introspection. While it is not the case that God will strike a person dead who takes communion if they have an unconfessed sin, it is a time to spend a few moments reviewing and confessing our shortcomings.
Meditation on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Communion services really need to focus on the crucifixion burial and resurrection of Jesus. The scripture and the songs intentionally point our minds and our hearts toward Jesus’ self-sacrifice.
Commitment to being a pleasing child of God. An important corollary to confession is really committing oneself to living a life that is pleasing and honoring to God, a life that makes God smile at his dearly love child. Even if we have failed our commitment pleases him.
Unity of the church, the body of Christ. Everyone is sharing the same cup, and the same loaf, declaring together the same thing about Jesus’s death.
The celebration of the Communion ought to highlight unity of a church around Jesus and his death and resurrection. What is happening in Corinth is the exact opposite of this; they are (once again) emphasizing social divisions and creating discord and disunity. How we behave during worship and how we think about worship in the church must be based on Scripture, and a sincere desire to please God as our heavenly father. By importing ideas from our culture, we corrupt our worship and run the risk of facing God’s judgment.
The House of the Triclinium (Pompeii, Excavated 1883)
Compare a few Bible translation:
“every one taketh before other his own supper” (KJV)
“each one goes ahead with his own meal.” (ESV)
“each of you goes ahead with your own supper” (NRSV)
“some of you go ahead with your own private suppers.” (NIV 2011
For some interpreters, the situation is Corinth is that wealthier members of the community bring their own food and eat before the poorer members arrive. They literally eat before everyone arrives, perhaps so they do not have to share with the poor members. But Bruce Winter suggested “go before” (προλαμβάνω) refers to eating all the food at the meal so that the poor to not have anything (After Paul Left Corinth, 143-48). In this case, the wealthy are behaving like gluttons and drunkards. D. Clint Burnett examines the evidence from several inscriptions and conclude that “go before” is the right meaning (Studying the New Testament through Inscriptions (Hendrickson, 2020; reviewed here).
So why is food a the Lord’s Supper creating divisions in the Corinthian church? Christian gatherings in the earliest days of the church were held in homes and it appears meals were an essential part of worship. The meal resembled a Greco-Roman meal, and this may have been the problem for the church. In a contemporary context, we celebrate the ritual of the Lord’s Supper with very small, controlled portions and there is no opportunity for gluttony or drunkenness. Even if we drew the analogy to a church pot-luck supper, it is very unlikely there would be the sort of problems Paul is describing here.
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor suggested the wealthy host would invite the more important guest to dine with him in his triclinium, a formal dining room while the poorer members ate in another room like servants. (St. Paul’s Corinth, 159). The real problem is the church is treating the shared meal as they would a regular meal and using the meal to reinforce social distinctions just as they would in a meal at a Temple (as described in chapter 8). Burnett argues the design of the Roman dining room contributed to social divisions since a dining room had three tables, a triclinium, and only held nine (elite) people, and (maybe) no women ate and the best tables.
Paul says he heard there are divisions even at these special meals (1 Corinthians 11:18-19). The church host provided food, but people may also have brought their own food and drink to share among people in their own social class, while the poorer members of the congregation shared their own food, or perhaps waited for the leftovers from the wealthy members. Although it is not specifically mentioned, it is possible Jewish members brought their own food to not eat unclean foods, but the problem Paul is discussing is not foods, but treatment of people!
The poor in Roman Corinth did not have kitchens in their homes to prepare food, and if they were slaves, they were dependent on the masters for food, they would not be able to contribute to a common meal, unless they were able to purchase something at the market. In addition, the poor and slaves had to work, meeting began on early on Sunday, our Saturday evening. There was now weekend or day off for the poor, so they would have no way to purchase food in the event they could afford it.
Imagine a church potluck dinner with different tables based on your annual tithing level. The top-tier givers eat from a catered table from a five-star restaurant with an abundance of filet mignon and fresh vegetables, while the lower-level givers get crockpots of meatballs and green bean casseroles; the lowest level get a hot dog and a bag of chips. Most people would be highly offended by this arrangement: if we are all equal in the Body of Christ, why do some people get preferential treatment?
From a modern perspective, it is unimaginable wealthy Christians would overlook the needs of the poor, but the wealthy in Roman Corinth would take no notice of the poor at all! One of the main problems in the church is this social attitude was present when the church gathered for worship.
This behavior is not at all commendable because it is creating the same sort of social divisions in the church Paul says are erased in the Body of Christ. There are no Jews and Gentiles, but also no slave and free. This means the slave has the same family position in the Body of Christ.
Burnett, D. Clint. Studying the New Testament through Inscriptions. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Academic, 2020. xxvii+218 pp.; Hb. $23.99 Link to Hendrickson Academic
In his conclusion to this new book on using ancient inscriptions to shed light on the New Testament, Burnett acknowledges his debt to Adolf Deissmann. Deissmann was one of the first to use inscriptions and papyri in his popular book, Light from The Ancient Near East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Greco-Roman World (Hodder & Stoughton, 1910). Deissmann visited Asia Minor in 1906 and immediately began a series of lectures which resulted in this book. The book appears frequently in the latest edition of Bauer (BDAG), abbreviated as LO for the German edition (Licht vom Osten) or LAE for the English translation. In the introduction to his mammoth A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, A. T. Robertson said “Deissmann is the pioneer in this field and is still the leader in it. It is hard to overestimate the debt of modern New Testament scholarship to his work” (Roberson, p. x).
As with most books written one hundred years ago, Deissmann’s Light from the Ancient Near East needs an update. To a large extent this was a goal of the New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity series (ten volumes, published by Eerdmans, 1981-2012). Initially edited by G. H. R. Horsley of Macquarie University, each volume surveyed obscure journals for publications of inscriptions and papyri of interest to New Testament scholars for a given period of time. Volume one covered journals published in 1976, volume ten covered 1988-1992. Each volume provided a summary articles with helpful transcriptions and translations of the important parts of the original journal article. For many scholars this was the best way to access this data is very hard to find in even the best research libraries. These books are a goldmine of new “light from the Ancient Near East.” Like Deissmann’s book, NewDocs appears in BDAG frequently.
Clint Burnett’s new book on studying the New Testament through inscriptions is something like a “New Deissmann,” or maybe better, “Deissmann for the people.” Burnett says he shares Deissmann’s dream “that one day more New Testament students who use inscriptions in their interpretation of his documents and the historical reconstructions of early Christianity” (p. 165). The goal of the book is to make inscriptions accessible to students and pastors and offer guidance for using inscriptions in interpretation.
The first chapter is an introduction to the study of inscriptions. Burnett begins with a basic definition, literally writing on something, whether it is on stone, bronze, floors, walls, tiles or lead sheets. This definition is broad enough to encompass both official monuments set up by civil authorities and graffiti scratched on a wall. After a short explanation of how inscriptions were made, Burnett surveys a wide range of types of inscriptions, both public and private. This section is illustrated with black and white photographs mostly provided by the author. Since most readers are not able to travel to museums or archaeological sites to photograph inscriptions, Burnett gives an overview of the publication of inscriptions beginning in the nineteenth century. These epigraphic corpora continue to expand, and many are now published online. Wise students can find the older, out of print epigraphic corpora at archive.org. For example, here is a link to Sylloge inscriptionum Graecarum edited by Wilhelm Dittenberger. This section includes a helpful chart of sigla found in these collections of inscriptions.
Following this introductory chapter, Burnett offers five illustrations of the use of inscriptions for interpreting particular passages in the New Testament. First, Burnett examines inscriptions from the southern Levant in order to text consensus view that the development of “Jesus as Lord” language by early Christians recognized Jesus’s lordship as royal, messianic but not exclusively divine (ch. 2).
Burnett examines the translations differences in 1 Corinthians, “Devour” or “Go Ahead with” the Lord’s Banquet (ch. 3). The verb προλαμβάνω in 1 Corinthians 11:21 is usually translated “each one goes ahead with his own meal.” Based on an inscription cited in Moulton and Milligan from the Asclepieum at Epidaurus (Syll 804), Bruce Winter has suggested the verb ought to be translated as “eat” or “devour.” This suggestion appears in commentaries by Conzelmann, Thiselton, and Hays and several monographs on the Lord’s Supper. Burnett gives the Greek text of the inscription with a translation and compares the use of προλαμβάνω cited by Moulton and Milligan with several other inscriptions. He concludes the most probably translation is “go ahead with.” He argues this point by examining the usual seating arrangements at a Greco-Roman banquet. These arrangements contributed to social divisions in the church. Only about nine people could eat in the “main room,” so it is possible those invited to eat at the best tables went ahead with their meal and gave no regard to those gathered elsewhere to share meals.
In chapter 4, Burnett deals with imperial loyalty oaths and Caesar’s decrees in the background of early Christianity in Thessalonica. Interpreters of 1 Thessalonians often suggest Roman imperial loyalty oaths run counter to language found in 1 Thessalonians. Pagans (and probably Christians) would find Paul’s preaching treasonous, explaining the ongoing trouble for Christians in Thessalonica. Acts 17 indicates Paul was charged with “opposing Caesar’s decrees” (Acts 17:7). The problem, Burnett argues, is this reconstruction “overlooks the content, occasion, and contextual nature of the actual imperial loyalty oaths” (p. 101). Burnett examines a number of these loyalty oaths and concludes “opposing Caesar’s decrees” refers to imperial letters granting Thessalonica free city status in the Roman empire.
Chapter five draws together inscriptions with describe the activities of women in order to illustrate references in the New Testament to benefactresses, deaconesses, and pverseers in the Philippian Church. There is clear evidence that wealthy women gained prominence by becoming patrons of both official and unofficial cults. Burnett then suggests Lydia, Eudoia and Syntyche served in leadership roles in the Philippian church. This is not to say they exercised the authority of later ecclesiastical offices, but since so little is known about the structure of Pauline churches, there is “good reason to believe some wealthy women in the Philippian church attained leadership positions in the mid-first century CE” (p. 139). There is an assumption, however, that the Philippian church “patterned leadership after official and non-official cults in the city” (p. 136). Since Paul’s initial contact in Philippi was Lydia at a Jewish place of prayer, is it more likely the earliest leadership was patterned after the synagogue? This does not detract from Burnett’s point, wealthy women played significant roles in leadership in the mid-first century.
In chapter 6 Burnett surveys inscriptions which use numbers for names as background for interpreting Revelation 13, the number of the beast. Most commentaries on Revelation cite the same graffiti from Pompei, “I love the one whose number is 545.” Burnett collects twenty-three examples of name-calculations from Mylasa (1), Pompei (4), Stabae (2), Smyrna (6), Ephesus (8), Messania (1) and Catania (1). These examples appear in full in an appendix to this chapter. Many use a form of φιλω with a relative pronoun, ἀριθμός and the number. It may be surprising that so many declared their love by writing anonymously in a wall! The eight examples from Ephesus were found in Terrace House 2, indicating even the elite wrote on walls. In any event, Burnett argues this data favors the conclusion that “the practice of name calculation was geared toward a group of insiders” who produced the calculation (p. 160). For Burnett, John provided all the background required for his audience to grasp that the beast’s name was Nero Caesar.
This chapter on the use of numbers for names raises a potential omission in the book. A chapter on the importance of graffiti in the Greco-Roman world would have been an excellent addition to the book. Burnett includes graffiti here and there in the book, but graffiti looks through a different sort of window into the ancient world than an official inscription placed by civil authorities. I have spent time browsing through Graffiti from the Basilica in the Agora of Smyrna (Roger Bagnall, et al, 2016) and often thought this material represents what the common person thought about more than the beautiful inscriptions found along the streets in Ephesus.
There are three very useful appendices to the book. First, Burnett gives an overview of important printed collections of inscriptions. Second, he offers some instructions for using online search engines to navigate collections of inscriptions. Third, he has a handy guide to abbreviations used in inscriptions for titles and other common Latin words. For example, SC is used for senatus consultum, “by senatorial decree.” On graves it is common to see HSE (hic situs/sita est, “here he/she lies”) or DM (Dis Manibus, “to the deceased spirits”). This includes abbreviations for the most common Roman names (L for Lucius; M for Marcus), Greek numbers (including letters unfamiliar to most students of New Testament Greek). I would certainly purchase a laminate card with this information to take with me while leading tours. I sometimes use the app Emperors by Dan Weiner for abbreviations in imperial titles (often you can date an inscription or coin precisely with this tool).
The book includes a twenty-six-page bibliography and indices for modern authors, subjects and ancient sources. The book includes a rich collection of resources in the footnotes. Students should mine these footnotes for important secondary literature on inscriptions.
I have two important observations about what this book is not. First, this is not a manual for how to read an actual inscription. Although it will help a student who wants to transcribe, translate and interpret an inscription (perhaps from a photograph taken on a visit to Ephesus), that is not the intention of the book. Burnett does offer advice on using collections of already transcribed and translated inscriptions.
Second, the book is focused solely on reading inscriptions to shed light on the New Testament. Inscriptions are important for understanding the whole of the Greco-Roman world, but Burnett’s focus is on using this material to unknot a particular exegetical problem in the translation of the New Testament or to illustrate some cultural practice to better understand the early church. Although readers outside the world of biblical studies may benefit from this book, it is clearly targeted at a Christian audience.
Conclusion. This is an excellent introduction to the study of inscriptions with the specific goal of shedding light on the New Testament. For most New Testament scholars (including teachers and pastors), this book demonstrates the importance of understanding the historical and cultural context of the New Testament. He illustrates the value of studying inscriptions with five specific examples, but these examples can be multiplied many times over.
In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Paul says “every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.” But “a man ought not to cover his head” while praying. Should Women Cover Their Heads for Worship?
William M. Ramsay on cites Dio Chrysostom to the effect that the custom of women going veiled in Tarsus was an oriental and non-Greek custom, Paul is merely reflecting his own (Jewish) background by requiring women wear head coverings (The Cities of St. Paul, 201-5). Because of the popularity of Ramsey’s works on Paul, this theory is often repeated in modern commentaries, but it seems odd that Paul would impose this one Jewish custom on congregations when he frees them from so many other Jewish customs. On the other end of the spectrum, A. C. Wire argued Paul was a male chauvinist who is arguing against a radical female group led by a Corinthian woman prophet. Marg Mowczko has collected man of these sayings on her website.
The application of this rather obscure command in most American churches is usually some vague platitude that women should be dressed modestly. If the culture includes head coverings in this then the woman ought to not offend the culture. No one ever points out that if this is the true application, then a woman visiting a culture which is comfortable with public nudity is free to “fit right in” when they visit the beach.
I seriously doubt modesty is the issue Paul is trying to get at in 1 Corinthians 11. There is clear evidence in the Greco-Roman world of prostitutes wearing head coverings. There are several artistic representations of groups of women with or without head coverings. There is simply no evidence that head coverings were universal in the Greco-Roman world.
Based on his study of Roman statues, D. W. J. Gill suggested it was a Roman convention to cover the head while praying or offering a libation. There are two well-known statues from Corinth, one of Nero and one of Augustus with their heads veiled. The leader of a prayer or sacrifice that would cover their heads, the congregation (if any) would not necessarily do so. Gill argues the social elite in Corinth also practiced head covering while praying or participating in a sacrifice. Since the passage in 1 Corinthians 11 seems to include the whole congregation, perhaps it is only the prophets addressing the congregation that are covering their heads while prophesying.
“The practice of men covering their heads in a context of prayer and prophecy was a common pattern of Roman piety and widespread during the late Republic and early Empire. Since Corinth was a Roman colony, there should be little doubt this aspect of Roman religious practice deserves greater attention by commentators than it has received.” Oester, “Use, Misuse, and Neglect of Archaeological Evidence,” 68.
As with many of the other issues in 1 Corinthians, the Christians are (continuing) to take their cues for worship from the pagan world. Paul’s command “women cover their heads” and men keep them uncovered distinguishes Christian worship from Imperial worship. They are worshiping in the same way that they would have in a pagan rite, Paul is rejecting this mixing of the world with the Church.
If the problem that is at the heart of the veiling of men / unveiling of women is taking worship cues from the pagan world, then there is a most serious application possible. How far we want to take this application is quite controversial, from the mega-church movement to modern praise and worship services, it is possible that the American church has taken its cues from the pagan world rather than from the Bible. The modern American church seems to be following MTV rather than the NIV.
There is always a tension between cultural relevancy for the sake of evangelism and participating in the world because we enjoy it. It is possible that is what was happening in Corinth. The members of the church of Corinth were routinely acting like the world without taking into consideration how their new Christian world view speaks to their culture (sexual ethics, lawsuits, feasts and banquets at temples, visiting prostitutes, etc.)
So Should Women Cover Their Heads for Worship? The veiling of women or non-veiling of men may seem like a minor problem to use (“it’s just cultural”). But that misses the whole point. If the Corinthian Church was indistinguishable from the world in their worship, how were they going to effectively evangelize their culture?
D. W. J. Gill, “The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” Tyndale Bulletin 41 (1990): 246-60.
C. T. Thompson, “Hairstyles, Headcoverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth” BA (1988): 99-115.
R. E. Oster, “Use, Misuse, and Neglect of Archaeological Evidence in Some Modern Works on 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 7:1–5; 8:10; 11:2–16; 12:14–26).” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 83 (1992):52–73.