A few years ago, I came to the conclusion that the phrase “breaking bread” as used by the New Testament authors did not refer to what is commonly called “The Lord’s Supper” (or “Communion” or “The Eucharist”) today. (I’m using all three phrases “The Lord’s Supper,” “Communion,” and “Eucharist” because different Christian traditions use different phrases to refer to the same thing.) In other words, “breaking bread” did not refer to small pieces of bread. Instead, I believe that “breaking bread” is an idiom that refers to sharing a meal together.
Idioms are figures of speech whose meanings are not made up by the normal meanings of the components of the phrase. For example, the phrase “an axe to grind,” does not refer to an actual wood-chopping tool nor does it refer to sharpening that tool or anything else. Similarly, if someone “goes out on a limb,” they may be nowhere near a tree. These are idioms whose meanings are not made up by the component meanings.
Now, idioms are difficult to decipher. Unless we know that something is an idiom, or unless some writing explains the idiom for us, we may think that the idiom refers to what is literally described in the phrase.
There is a passage in Jeremiah (yes, in the Old Testament) that can help us see the relationship between the phrase “breaking bread” and a shared meal. God had just told the prophet that destruction was going to come to his land. Now, in preparation, he tells Jeremiah not to marry or mourn for the dead. In the part about mourning, he says this:
Both great and small shall die in this land. They shall not be buried, and no one shall lament for them or cut himself or make himself bald for them. No one shall break bread for the mourner, to comfort him for the dead, nor shall anyone give him the cup of consolation to drink for his father or his mother. You shall not go into the house of feasting to sit with them, to eat and drink. (Jeremiah 16:6-8 ESV)
In the Greek translation of Jeremiah (the LXX) the phrase translated “break bread” is one of the same phrases found in the New Testament which is often seen to refer specifically to “The Lord’s Supper,” “Communion,” or “Eucharist.” You can find very similar phrases in Acts 2:46; Acts 20:7,11; and 1 Corinthians 10:16. The noun form of the verb “break” is used along with “bread” in Acts 2:42. The same phrases are used in the Gospel accounts of the feeding of the five thousand and four thousand and when Jesus interacts with two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus. In other words, in the passages that are normally connected to some type of sacramental meaning in the bread and cup, the NT authors uses the same phrase found in Jeremiah 16:7.
Yet, in the Jeremiah passage, it is clear that a sacramental meal is NOT in view. It is a common meal. God tells the prophet not to share a meal with those who mourn. In fact, both the “breaking of bread” and the “cup of consolation/encouragement” are included as phrases which refer to eating a meal with those who are mourning. These are certainly not references to the Lord’s Supper, Communion, or the Eucharist. Instead, the phrases refer to sharing a meal.
(By the way, the Greek translation of the Old Testament was probably begun sometime in the 3rd century BC, or about 300 years before the New Testament was written. However, the translators started with the Torah – Genesis-Deuteronomy. Jeremiah was probably translated after that, closer to the date of the writing of the various New Testament letters. The same idiom “break bread” is found in the Hebrew text as well, which shows that the idiom has a much older beginning in that culture.)
If “breaking bread” refers to sharing a meal – which I think it does – then the church is missing something very important by limiting the scope of this phrase to some type of sacramental ritual referring only to little pieces of bread.