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Published by Robert Harkin

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Published by: Robert Harkin on Mar 20, 2011
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, Vol. 96, No. 2 (Spring 2006) 263–267
E. S
From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the EarlyChristian World.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. Pp. xi
From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World
bringstogether an impressive array of source material on meal traditions in an-tiquity, focusing on the formal banquet as a social institution in theGreco-Roman world. The book, which began as the author’s 1980 Har-vard University dissertation, represents the culmination of more thantwenty years of research. With chapters on Greco-Roman banquets, phil-osophical banquets, sacrificial banquets, club banquets, Jewish banquets,Pauline banquet traditions, and banquet scenes in Gospel narratives,Smith’s text would be extremely useful for an introductory-level courseon custom and culture in the ancient world. The original artistic render-ings of banquet scenes featured in chapter one, based primarily on vasepaintings and ancient literary sources, are especially useful pedagogicaltools.The central argument of the book is straightforward. Placing the Eu-charist in its sociocultural context, which he defines as predominantlyGreco-Roman in influence, Smith asserts that early Christians dined attable simply because it was Greco-Roman custom to do so. He positionshis argument against earlier scholarship on the Eucharist which, hecharges, focused too much on the variety of discrete meal forms thatmight have influenced the Eucharist or traced its origins to a particulartype of communal meal (e.g., Jewish Passover seder, Greek symposium).Smith argues instead for a simplified model in which all variations of meals in antiquity are subsumed under the general category of the Greco-Roman banquet. His goal is to ‘‘provide a common model that can beutilized for the study of all data on formal meals from the Greco-Romanworld’’ (p. 2) and to prove that ‘‘the banquet was a single social institutionthat pervaded the culture as a whole’’ (p. 12). This argument is clearlyarticulated in the opening chapter, with the help of detailed diagrams andfigures.In support of his thesis, Smith devotes his remaining chapters to adiscussion of various types of ancient meals, highlighting what he sees astheir common structure. The most comprehensive chapters are those onthe Greco-Roman banquet and the Club banquet. These discussions re-flect an impressive expertise with an astounding range of ancient sources.According to Smith’s typology, the ‘‘banquet as social form’’ consists of 
264 JQR 96.2 (2006)
the following elements: the practice of reclining at table; the division of the meal into two courses (
); the use of formal invi-tations; the positioning of couches according to rank; the use of servants;the practice of foot washing and anointment; the designation of a
to lead the banquet; and the central role of entertainment at the meal.Smith then illustrates the ways in which each of the meals he studiesconforms to this basic structure.In his concluding paragraphs, Smith suggests that his approach, whichsituates early Christianity in its Greco-Roman context, ‘‘can provide asurer basis for historical reconstruction of Christian origins’’ and allowfor ‘‘a greater appreciation for the diversity of early Christian social for-mation and theological elaboration.’’ ‘‘Furthermore,’’ he adds, ‘‘if we takefull account of the richness of the earliest Christian meal tradition, wecan find in it models for renewal of Christian theology and liturgy todaytoward a greater focus on community’’ (p. 287).In the end, however, Smith’s earnest attempt to broaden the discussionof Christian origins effectively narrows it with an analytical approachthat is overly reductive. Although he successfully demonstrates the influ-ence of Greco-Roman banquets on the world of early Christianity, hissingle-minded focus on only one aspect of the tradition eclipses the im-portant subtleties that make the Eucharist (not to mention early Chris-tianity as a whole) the fascinating, syncretistic tradition it is. While it isundeniable that the various meal traditions Smith analyzes do reflect theinfluence of Greco-Roman customs, Smith’s typology oversimplifies theissues and presents a deceptively monolithic approach.For example, the main focus on Greco-Roman traditions as the overar-ching framework almost entirely effaces the Jewish influence on earlyChristianity. Although Smith provides a lengthy chapter on Jewish mealcustoms, he asks that those traditions, too, be considered Greco-Romanin origin. He writes, ‘‘The meal traditions in Judaism are often studied asif they were a unique phenomenon. This study has attempted to placethem in the broader world of the Greco-Roman banquet’’ (p. 171). Hecontinues, ‘‘Jewish meals of the Second Temple period are seen to beembedded in the Greco-Roman banquet tradition in form, ideology, andliterary description. Though there were some distinctive aspects to Jew-ish meal traditions, these are best interpreted as subdivisions of the gen-eral banquet tradition and often can be seen as variations of commonaspects of that tradition’’ (p. 172). While all scholars of early Judaismwould agree that Second Temple Judaism must be viewed against thebackground of Hellenistic and Roman influence, the suggestion that itsmeal traditions are entirely derivative from those traditions ignores early
Judaism’s entire biblical and ancient Near Eastern legacy. Temple imag-ery and sacrificial symbolism played a central role in the development of Jewish communal meals in the Second Temple period. While Smith hasa full chapter on Greco-Roman sacrifice, he hardly mentions the biblicalsacrificial or priestly traditions, which were quite influential in earlyChristian communities.In the chapter on Jewish meals, Smith analyzes the text of Ben Sira,using that work to demonstrate how Jewish practices were influenced byGreek culture, even as early as 200
and even in Jerusalem. He thengoes on to catalog the various other significant sources for Jewish mealsin antiquity, including Passover traditions recounted in the Mishnah,Pharisaic meal customs, Qumran meal texts, Philo’s description of theTherapeutai, and various traditions about messianic banquets. Smith iscorrect that many of these sources do attest to the acculturated status of the Second Temple–era communities that produced them. However, thetexts Smith cites also engage quite pointedly the priestly customs of bibli-cal Jewish tradition. Yet Smith is so focused on tracing aspects of thesesources to Greco-Roman influences that he completely ignores the Jew-ish context of these sectarian phenomena.Indeed, one might argue that this is true of the New Testament sourcesSmith discusses as well. While the early Christians may have gathered attable because everyone else was doing it, the particular symbolic systemthey employed in their discourse is just as indebted to Jewish traditions.While early Christians may have employed the form of the Greco-Romanbanquet, the content of the ideology espoused during those ritual mealsdrew on emergent Christianity’s relationship to Judaism. Smith stressesthat meals in antiquity were an important tool for establishing socialboundaries—but against whom were the earliest Christians definingthemselves? If Christians participated in Greco-Roman culture throughtheir development of communal banquet traditions, how might they haveused the social form of the banquet to critique aspects of Greco-Romanand Jewish culture or differentiate themselves from the popular norm?Smith’s tendency toward oversimplification extends to his methodolog-ical approach as well. For example, in his reading of Emile Durkheim’sdichotomy between the sacred and profane, Smith notes that Durkheim‘‘defined the sacred and profane as two separate realms of human exis-tence.’’ Smith then sets his own work in opposition to Durkehim’s view,claiming, ‘‘[i]t is my contention . . . that the sacred vs. secular model isnot appropriate for ancient meals. Instead I consider meals to have anintegrative function in ancient society in which they combine the sacredand secular into one ritual event’’ (p. 6). But, Durkheim’s precise point

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