The Lord’s supper as imperial banquet?

Could “the Lord’s supper” be rendered better as “the imperial banquet”?

When Paul mentions the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:20), he does something very odd. The normal word for Lord is kyrios, but Paul uses kyriakos. This is a rare word (only here and Revelation 1:10), so it’s a significant choice, not something you could do by accident. Why did he choose this word? What did he mean?

Actually, it’s even odder than that. The Theological Lexicon of the New Testament says this:

A. Deissmann noted that the adjective kyriakos is not a biblical word, but it is frequently attested in secular Greek. St. Paul and St. John borrowed it from the commonly used, official language: “concerning the emperor” or better “belonging to the emperor”; it derives from kyrios in the sense of “possessor.”

Its first known occurrence is in the edict of Tiberius Julius Alexander, 6 June 68.

— Ceslas Spicq and James D. Ernest, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), Volume 2, 338

If that’s right, kyriakos refers to the power of the emperor. It’s the kind of language you’d find in the decree of a Roman governor/general.

And if the first known occurrence comes from AD 68, Paul is dead by then. He wrote his first letter to Corinth more than a decade earlier, around AD 53–55 (Gordon Fee, 1 Corinthians, NICOT, 2014, 16). So, did Paul invent the word?

That’s extremely unlikely. He had no reason to coin an imperial word that would need explanation. It’s far more likely that the word existed on the streets before it found its way into literature.

It is the kind of word that would find traction in Corinth. Corinth was proud of its status as a Roman colony, re-established by Julius Caesar in 44 BC, capital of the Roman province of Achaea. Most Corinthians were not born to nobility; they were nouveau riche, gaining wealth from the trade that passed through Corinth, both north-south (in Greece) and east-west (across the peninsula). In a world where honour/shame was everything, Corinthians gained status by a) wealth and b) associating with honourable people. The word kyriakos implied something highly desirable — to be associated with the emperor.

Imagine yourself in Corinth in the first century. Imagine Caesar is visiting your city. You’re already feeling proud, and then you receive the invitation to the imperial banquet. Along with all the other important people of Corinth, you are to be a guest of Tiberivs Clavdivs Caesar Avgvstvs Cermanicvs.

What will you wear? Who will you sit with? Do you know all the appropriate protocols so you don’t embarrass yourself at the imperial banquet?

That’s the phrase Paul used for the Lord’s Supper.

Now, supper is totally inadequate: for Aussies, it sounds like a light snack. In the Jewish world of the first century, it was a special feast, “a cultic meal, such as the Passover.” In the Greek world, a deipnon was “the main meal of the day,” and if you invited guests it was “an elaborate dinner celebration.” (BDAG).

These two words together — kyriakos and deipnon — can only be translated as something like imperial banquet. In the Eucharistic meal, we sit at the banquet table of the true Emperor of the world, the name that is greater than Caesar’s.

Perhaps this phrase isn’t Paul’s choice. Perhaps he’s quoting the Corinthians’ phrase, since:

  • Paul is responding to their correspondence;
  • kyriakos is not a word Paul normally uses, and it would suit their ethos;
  • Paul pushes back against the notion that they are celebrating the imperial banquet.

Here’s what he says:

1 Corinthians 11 (NIV) 17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.

20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

According to Paul, the Corinthians are not at the banquet of Emperor Jesus; they’re feeding off their own egos. If Emperor Jesus does have a banquet, it’s nothing like the feasts of the rulers of this world.

Matthew places the story of two feasts together. Herod’s feast celebrates himself. His palace is filled with honoured guests, music and dancing, and food fit for a king. The illusion is shattered when a human head arrives on a serving platter, an unintended revelation of death as the true source of Herod’s power (Matthew 14:11).

Jesus withdraws to find safety in deserted places (Matthew 14:13). People follow him into the wilderness, where there was no food. As their king, Jesus feels responsible and provides them a meal. It was basic food — bread and fish — but for the 5,000 who ate that day it was the greatest feast they ever attended. It reminded them how Israel’s sovereign had provided manna in the wilderness. They recognized Jesus as their king (John 6:15ff).

But if Jesus was a king, he wasn’t very good at the honour/shame game. He was a homeless king, accumulating none of the wealth or social capital you’d expect for an emperor. Instead of taking the head seat at the social banquets, Jesus went outside to eat with those who had no seat at the table: the people who collected money for sex, and the people who collected taxes for their overlords.

For the Galilean leaders, Jesus was too shameful to be around. For the Jerusalem leaders, Jesus was such a bad influence they determined to get rid of him. Jesus ended up at the bottom of the barrel, shamed as a criminal, humiliated by public crucifixion, a poster-boy for what happens to anyone who gets the power game wrong.

How do we honour a crucified Emperor? How do we elevate someone who makes himself the servant of all? How do we engage in community life under this kind of upside-down leadership? That’s the puzzle of the imperial banquet.

Postscript: The approach above isn’t found the commentaries, so it could be wrong. What do you think?

[previous: The Lord’s table: the Jewish background]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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