This book by Dennis E. Smith is an important contribution to the study of Christian origins in general and the origins of the Eucharist and Christian ethics in particular. It is the culmination of much of Smith's earlier work regarding table fellowship and Christian origins. The author's argument is that the earliest Christian meals and their literary role developed out of the model of the Greco-Roman banquet. He also analyzes the consequences of that historical origin. The most important consequence, though not emphasized enough by Smith, is that the ethic of the banquet becomes the basis for the origin not only of the Eucharist but of Christian ethics as well.
Smith masterfully, even painstakingly, lays the foundations for his argument by introducing the reader the to "the banquet" as a social institution in the Hellenistic world. He presents the particular variations on the banquet within Hellenistic culture: the Greco-Roman banquet, the Philosophical banquet, the sacrificial banquet, the club banquet, the Jewish banquet, the banquet in the Pauline churches, the banquet in the gospels and in early Christian theology. Fundamental to this presentation of the development of the cultural phenomenon of the banquet is the literary role the banquet plays throughout and across a broad spectrum of ancient Hellenistic writing.
The lengthy analysis succeeds in demonstrating Smith's claim "that the banquet was a single social institution that pervaded the culture as a whole." As shown by M. Hengel in Judaism and Hellenism and J.T. Barrera, in The Jewish Bible, early Christians and their Jewish fellows were fully integrated into that culture. Thus the many aspects and various functions of the Hellenistic banquet held true among gentile groups as well as Jews and early Christians. Smith grants and shows that among the various groups within the culture, there were features within the banquet that were distinctive to the groups. But overall, the groups' meals themselves and the literary presentations of meals were thoroughly embedded in the same cultural reality of the banquet.
I have only three minor observations: 1) I believe the contagious nature of ritual contamination of fellow diners (Jews with Gentiles, sinners with the "pure", etc.) is downplayed too much by Smith. He cites the work of J. Klawans but ignores the work of Feeley-Harnick, The Lord's Table, The Meaning of Food in Early Judaism and Christianity, Washington, D.C., 1994; and the pertinent work of J. Jeremias and J. Neusner, and others who present convincing contrary views. 2) Similarly, Smith overlooks the above-cited work of Feeley-Harnick in regard to the anthropological analysis of meals, relying almost exclusively on the work of Mary Douglas. The later work by Feeley-Harnick would serve to bolster much of Smith's argument. 3) Finally, Smith does not address the increased frequency (weekly) with which the Christians celebrated the Eucharist vis a vis the comparative infrequency with which the many Hellenistic groups celebrated their banquets. We know from 1 Cor. 16:2; Ac 20:7 and the Didach‚, (14, 1) that Christians were celebrating the Lord's Supper weekly.
Smith can be satisfied that his work does accomplish admirably his hopes expressed in the book's concluding remarks, for the book does provide "a surer basis for historical reconstruction of Christian origins." It certainly "allows a greater appreciation for the diversity of early Christian social formation." And finally, with a book this well researched and documented and with a book written with such superb style, many doubtlessly will (as Smith hopes) be able to "find in it models for a renewal of Christian theology and liturgy today toward a greater focus on community."
Smith's style is scholarly and his research thorough and yet the book is not simply readable but it is a delight to read. He effortlessly recaps each chapter's fundamental points and gently but excitedly propels the reader through his findings. For anyone interested in this or related topics, this book is a "must" and in fact, a real "page turner." We interested parties owe the author a debt of gratitude.