Technical name for a love feast in the early Christian Church.
Origin of the Term. The verb [symbol omitted]γαπάω (to love) was common in classical Greek, but the derivative noun [symbol omitted]γάπη was unknown. Borrowed from the popular Egyptian dialect, the noun occurred in the Septuagint (LXX) version of the Scriptures (e.g., Jer 2.2; Ct 3.5, 10). In the NT it was used to designate a beneficent love, a predilection of God for men, or a love of men for God or of men among themselves, i.e., a fraternal charity. In all three meanings it was suitable for appropriation by the early Christians as a technical term or proper name for various forms of fraternal meals of a semi-liturgical nature. Although not without certain analogies in the Jewish and pagan world of antiquity (e.g., The Letter of Aristeas 187–300; the sacred meals of the qumran community, Manual of Discipline 1QS 6.2–5; Plato's Symposium; and the meals of Greek religious fraternities), the Christian love feasts had as their specific and basic purpose a practical imitation of Christ's love for men (Lk 14.12–14; 22.26–27) by expressing and fostering fraternal love. The poor and widows were invited to share in both the charitable agapae and those celebrated to honor the dead and the martyrs. Since they were inspired by Christ's love for men, the agapae were related also to the Eucharist, even when they did not include a Eucharistic banquet. Jesus had instituted the Eucharist at the last supper in the form of a banquet at which His love attained its full perfection (Jn 13.1), and it was at Eucharistic feasts that the union of Christians in Christ's love was most concretely manifested (1 Cor 10.16–17).
Agape in the New Testament. If agape is under-stood in a wide sense, many of the communal meals in the NT may be classified as love feasts. The only certain instance of the use of agape as a technical term for love feast in the NT is found in the Epistle of St. Jude, v. 12, "These men are stains [or hidden reefs] at your love feasts, carousing impudently and feeding themselves alone." (The plural form [symbol omitted]γάπαις occurs here for the first time in extant Greek literature and for the only time in the NT.) However, in a passage suggesting literary dependence, 2 Pt 2.13 reads, "These men are stains and blemishes, reveling in their deceits [or lusts, [symbol omitted]πάταις, instead of [symbol omitted]γάπαις, which occurs in some MSS as a variant reading], while they carouse with you" (author's translations).
According to Acts 2.42–47 the primitive Jerusalem community habitually practiced the breaking of bread, an early name for the Eucharist. This Eucharistic rite was probably the essential part of a fraternal meal that recalled and continued the meals of Jesus' public ministry (Mk 6.34–44; Jn 12.1–2), the Last Supper (at which Jesus had gathered with His disciples according to Jewish custom in a ḥăbûrâ, a religious fellowship, for the passover Meal), and the joyful, post-Resurrection feasts with the risen Lord (Lk 24.30–35, 41–43; Jn 21.9–13; Acts 1.4). It was quite fitting and convenient that such feasts, since they reenacted Christ's loving and victorious presence among His disciples, should have included the Eucharist, as a general rule. In Acts 6.1–6, however, the "daily ministration" to widows was simply a work of mercy rather than a liturgical service that included prayer, preaching (the service of the word), and, very likely, the Eucharist.
That abuses occurred when such fraternal feasts were being adapted for recently converted Greeks is clear from 1 Cor 11.17–34. Drunkenness, factions, and dishonoring of the poor at these meals led St. Paul to complain that the sacred meaning of the Lord's Supper was being ignored and corrupted; he insisted on the reform of such gatherings (on their complete elimination according to W. Goossens and L. Thomas) and reemphasized the traditional doctrine about the Eucharist: it was a proclamation of the value of the Lord's death in view of His final parousia (v. 26). Their meals were to be sober and sacred feasts, convoked not to satisfy hunger (v. 34), but to express fraternal love: "Wherefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat [the meal that signifies your unity], wait for one another" (v. 33). In this way they would not "… despise the church of God and put to shame the needy" and would merit Paul's commendation (v. 22). A communal breaking of bread at Troas is also described in Acts 20.7–11.
Agape in the Post-Apostolic Church. The letter of Pliny the Younger to Trajan (10.96, c. a.d. 112) describes a Christian fraternal meal, at which food of a "common and innocent" kind was eaten. The quoted words do not necessarily exclude an accompanying Eucharist. In the didache (ch. 9–10) certain prayers have been interpreted as referring either to the Eucharist, or an agape, or both together, a fact that indicates the rites were similar and not mutually exclusive. The phrase, "to celebrate an agape," of St. ignatius of antioch's Epistle to the Smyrnaeans (8.2) refers apparently to a love feast that was related to, but distinct from, the Eucharist. Other Ignatian references to agape as a meal (e.g., Smyrn. 6.2; 7.1) are uncertain. tertullian (Apology ch. 39, late 2d century), after speaking of monetary contributions for the relief of the poor, gives the name agape to a meal of which the main purpose, probably on private initiative, was such relief. In this most celebrated description of an agape, prayers were said, food was eaten in moderation, the Scriptures were read, and hymns were sung, although there is no mention of an officiating cleric. In the First Apology of St. justin martyr (ch. 65–67) it is the Eucharist itself, not an agape, that served as the occasion for social relief of the needy. An agape for widows is mentioned in the Apostolic Tradition of hippolytus of rome (early 3d century), as well as in the dependent Canons of Hippolytus (183). Other forms of agapae in which the poor could share were adapted from pagan funeral feasts, such as those on the Roman feast of the Parentalia held in honor of the dead, or on the feasts of martyrs (Canons of Hippolytus 169). The so-called fractio panis (breaking of bread) scene of the Cappella Greca of the catacomb of Priscilla illustrates a Christian funeral banquet. Such a banquet symbolized the heavenly meal desired for the dead in the place of peace and refreshment (refrigerium) and recalled Jesus' words, "… that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom" (Lk 22.29–30). The Church defended the legitimacy of such practices (St. Augustine, Contra Faustum Manichaeum 20.21; De civitate Dei 8.27), but abuses often caused their regulation or suppression (St. Augustine, Conf. 6.2; Council of Laodicea cc.27–28). After the 4th century, social changes and the growth of ecclesiastical organization brought about the gradual disappearance of the agape.
The fragmentary nature of the early texts and their difficulty of interpretation make it impossible to trace a really systematic view of the history of the agape. As seen from the foregoing considerations, the practice seems to have followed few general rules and differed widely according to the various local churches. Never a universal custom, it was replaced by more efficient, if less personal, manifestations of Christian charity.
Bibliography: b. reicke, Diakonie, Festfreude und Zelos in Verbindung mit der altchristlichen Agapenfeier, Uppsala Universitets Årsskrift No. 5 (1951), a fundamental work with many penetrating insights. c. spicq, Agapè: Prolégomènes à une étude de théologie néo-testamentaire (Studia hellenistica 10; Louvain 1955), presenting the pre-Christian background of the term. w. goossens, Les Origines de l'Eucharistie: Sacrement et sacrifice (Paris 1931) 127–146. denis-boulet, Catholicisme. Hier, aujourd'hui, et de-main, ed. g. jacquemet (Paris 1947) 1:192–193. j. a. jungmann, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 1957–65) 1:180–181. j. leipoldt, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 1:169–170. l. thomas, Dictionnaire de la Bible supplement, ed. l. pirot et al. (Paris 1928) 1:134–153. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq, and h. i. marrou (Paris 1907–53) 1.1:775–848.
a·gape1 / əˈgāp/ • adj. (of the mouth) wide open, esp. with surprise or wonder: Downes listened, mouth agape with incredulity.