"Having Their Fill of the Loaves": Early Christian Meals and Ancient Bread Distribution

The earliest Christian communities were characterized by meal practices that seem always to have focussed on bread, and sometimes on wine, occasionally on other foods. The significance of bread itself has not been very deeply explored, partly because of assumptions about the actions of Jesus as founder, and the association of the Last Supper narratives with the seder of Passover. The recent shift to understanding eucharistic meals as versions of the Greco-Roman symposium implies that the significance of bread might better be understood relative to wider patterns of diet, rather than as a religious peculiarity. Bread and related products were staples for the Mediterranean world, but their production, distribution and exchange were complex. This paper considers eucharistic meals of the first two centuries or so (mostly via texts, including the Gospels, Didache, Justin Martyr), particularly in the context of grain doles and related practices, which fed urban populations unable to grow food, but which also substantiated power structures including those of Imperial Rome, and of local elites for whom food distributions could be a form of euergetism. The Christian meal may in some early instances have functioned as version of or alternative to these, with the distribution of bread having a significance for the recipients, not least poorer city dwellers, that will have gone beyond its religious meanings narrowly understood.