1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Agapē
AGAPĒ (Gr. αγάπη, "Love"), the early Christian love-feast. The word seems to be used in this sense in the epistle of Jude 12: "These are they who are hidden rocks in your love- feasts when they banquet with you." But this is not certain, for in 2 Pet. ii. 13 the verse is cited, but reading άπάταις ("deceits") for άγάπαις, and the oldest MSS. hesitate. The history of the agapē coincides, until the end of the 2nd century, with that of the eucharist (q.v.), and it is doubtful whether the following detailed account of the agapē given in Tertullian’s Apology (c. 39) is to be regarded as exclusive of an accompanying eucharist: "It is the banquet (triclinium) alone of the Christians that is criticised.
Our supper (coena) shows its character by its name. It is called by a word which in Greek signifies love (i.e. agapē). Whatever it costs, it is anyhow a clear gain that it is incurred on the score of piety, seeing that we succour the poorest by such entertainments (refrigerio). We do not lie down at table until prayer has been offered to God, as it were a first taste. We eat only to appease our hunger, we drink only so much as it is good for temperate persons to do. If we satisfy our appetites, we do so without forgetting that throughout the night we must say our prayers to God. If we converse, it is with the knowledge that the Lord is listening. After washing our hands and lighting the lamps, each is invited to sing a hymn before all to God, either taken from holy writ or of his own composition. So we prove him, and see how well he has drunk.
Prayer ends, as it began, the banquet; and we break up not in bands of brigands, nor in groups of vagabonds, nor do we burst out into debauchery. This meeting of Christians we admit deserves to be made illicit, if it resembles illicit acts; it deserves to be condemned, if any complain of it on the same score on which complaints are levelled at factious meetings. But to do harm to whom do we ever thus come together?"
The evidence of Tertullian is good for Africa. But in Egypt about the same time (180—210), Clement of Alexandria in his Pedagogus (ii. 1) condemns the "little suppers which were called, not without presumption, agapē." This word, he complains, should denote the heavenly food, the reasonable feast alone, and the Lord never used it of mere junketings. Clement wished the name to be reserved for the eucharist, because the love-feasts of the church had degenerated, as Tertullian too discovered, as soon as he turned Montanist. For in his tract on fasting (ch. xvii.) he complains that the young men misbehaved with the sisters after the agapē.
Among the spurious works of Athanasius is printed a tract entitled About Virginity, ch. xiii. of which directs how the sisters after the synaxis of the ninth hour (3 P.M.) are to dine: "When you sit down at a table and come to break bread, seal it thrice with the sign of the cross and thus give thanks: 'We thank thee, our Father, for thy holy resurrection; for through Jesus thy servant thou hast shewn it unto us. And as this bread on this table was scattered, but has been brought together and become one, so may thy church be brought together into thy kingdom. For thine is the power and the glory, for ever and ever, Amen.'
This prayer as you break the bread, and are about to eat, you must say. And when you lay it on the table and desire to eat it, repeat the 'Our Father' entire. But after dinner (or breakfast), and when we rise from table, we use the prayer given above, viz. 'Blessed be God, who hath pity and nourisheth us from our infancy, who giveth food to all flesh. Fill our hearts with joy and gladness, that ever having of all things a sufficiency, we may superabound in all good works, in Christ Jesus our Lord, &c.'" The writer then enjoins that, "if two or three other virgins ate present, they also shall give thanks over the bread set out, and join in the prayers. But if a catechumen be found at the table, she shall not be suffered to join with the full believers in their prayers, nor shall the latter sit with her to eat the morsel" (ψωμόν, used specially of the sanctified bread).
"Nor shall they sit with frivolous and joking women, if they can help it, for they are sanctified to God, and their food and drink have been hallowed by the prayers and holy words used over them... If a rich woman sits down with them at table, and they see a poor woman, they shall invite her also to eat with them, and not put her to shame because of the rich one." The last words echo 1 Cor. x., and the prayer is nearly the same as that which the teaching of the Apostles assigns for the eucharistic rite. Here, then, we have pictured as late as the 4th century a Lord’s supper, which like the one described in 1 Cor. x. is agapē and eucharist in one, and it is held in a private house and not in church, and the celebrants are holy women!
The historian Socrates (Hist. Ecci. v. 22) testifies to the survival in Egypt of such Lord’s suppers as were love-feasts and eucharists in one. Around Alexandria and in the Thebaid, he says, they hold services on the sabbath, and unlike other Christians partake of the mysteries (i.e. sacrament): For after holding good cheer and filling themselves with meats of all kinds, they at eventide make the offering (προσφορά) and partake of it. So Basil of Cappadocia (Epistle 93), about the year 350, records that in Egypt the laity, as a rule, celebrated the communion in their own houses, and partook of the sacrament by themselves whenever they chose.
In the old Egyptian church order, known as the Canons of Hippolytus, there are numerous directions for the service of the agapē, held on Sundays, saints' days or at commemorations of the dead. The 74th canon of the council of Trullo (A.D. 692) forbade the holding of symposia known as agapēs in church. In his 54th homily (tom. v. p. 365) Chrysostom describes how after the eucharistic synaxis was over, the faithful remained in church, while the rich brought out meats and drink from their houses, and invited the poor, and furnished "common tables, common banquets, common symposia in the church itself."
The council of Gangra (A.D. 355) anathematized the over-ascetic people who despised "the agapēs based on faith." Only a few years later, however, the council of Laodicea forbade the holding of agapēs in churches. The 42nd canon of the council of Carthage under Aurelius likewise forbade them, but these were only local councils. In the age of Chrysostom and Augustine the agapē was frequent.
In the east Syrian, the Armenian and the Georgian churches, respectively Nestorian, Monophysite and Greek Orthodox in their tenets, the agapē was from the first a survival, under Christian and Jewish forms, of the old sacrificial systems of a pre-Christian age. Sheep, rams, bullocks, fowls are given sacrificial salt to lick, and then sacrifited by the priest and deacon, who has the levitical portions of the victim as his perquisite. In Armenia the Greek word agapē has been used ever since the 4th century to indicate these sacrificial meals, which either began or ended with a eucharistic celebration. The earlier usage of the Armenians is expressed in the two following rules recorded against them by a renegade Armenian prelate named Isaac, who in the 8th century went over to the Byzantine church: "Christ did not hand down to us the teaching to celebrate the mystery of the offering of the bread in church, but in an ordinary house, and sitting at a common table.
So then let them not sacrifice the offering of bread in churches. It was after supper, when his disciples were thoroughly sated, that Christ gave them of his own body to eat. Therefore let them first eat meats and be sated, and then let them partake of the mysteries." These old canons are adduced by way of ridiculing the Armenians, yet they reflect old usage. They are given in the Historia Monothelitarum of Combefisius, col. 317. Older MSS. of the Greek Euchologion contain numerous prayers to be offered over animals sacrificed; and in the form of agapē such sacrifices were common in Italy and Gaul on the natalis dies of a saint, and Paulinus of Nola, the friend of Augustine, in his Latin poems, describes them (c. 400) in detail. Gregory the Great sent to Mellitus, bishop of London, a written rite of sacrificing bulls for use in the English church of the early 7th century. In Augustine’s work against Faustus the Manichean (xx. 4), the latter taxes the Catholics with having turned the sacrifices of the heathen into agapēs, their idols into martyrs, whom they worship with similar rites.
"You appease," he says, "the shades of the dead with wines and banquets, you celebrate the feast-days of the heathen along with them … in their way of living you have certainly changed nothing." This was true enough, but there is truth also in the remark of Prof. Sanday ("Eucharist" in Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible) that Providence even in its revolutions is conservative. The world could only be christianized on condition that old holy days and customs were continued. The early Christian agapē admitted of adaptation to the older funeral and sacrificial feasts, and was so adapted. The association in the synoptics of the earliest eucharist with the paschal sacrifice provided a model, and long after the eucharist was separated with the agapē on other days of the year, we still find celebrated on the evening of Maundy Thursday the sacrifice of the paschal lamb, immediately followed by an eucharist. The 41st canon of the council of Carthage enacted that the sacraments of the altar should be received fasting, except on the anniversary of the Lord’s supper. It is clear that at an earlier date the agapē preceded the eucharist.
Pagan Analogues—In ancient states common meals called sussitia (συσσίτια) were instituted, particularly in the Doric states, e.g. in Lacaedemon and in Crete. Plato advocated them, and perhaps the later Jews imitated the Spartan community. Trade and other gilds in antiquity held subscription suppers or έρανοι, similar to those of the early Corinthian church, usually to support the needs of the poorer members. These hetairiae or clubs were forbidden (except in cities formally allied to Rome) by Trajan and other emperors, as being likely to be centres of disaffection; and on this ground Pliny forbade the agapē of the Bithynian churches, Christianity not being a lawful religion licensed for such gatherings. The custom which most resembles the eucharist and agapē was that known as charistia described by Valerius Maximus ii. 1. 8. It was a solemn feast attended only by members of one clan, at which those who had quarrelled were at the sacrament of the table (apud sacra mensae) reconciled. It was held on the 20th of February. Ovid in his Fasti, ii. 617, alludes to it—
Proxima cognati dixere charistia carl,
Et venit ad socios turba propin qua deos.
(F. C. C.)