The February 1, 2011 issue of the Watchtower includes an article that asks, “Are You Prepared for the Most Important Day of the Year?” (21-22). This article deals with the Memorial, the annual observance by Jehovah’s Witnesses of the Lord’s Supper (what they often call “the Lord’s evening meal”). The article focuses on explaining why Jehovah’s Witnesses observe this rite only once a year and on Nisan 14, the Hebrew calendar date they accept as the correct date for the Passover. This year, Nisan 14 falls on April 17.
An Annual Observance?
The Watchtower article reasons that since Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper on Passover and since the Passover was an annual festival, the Memorial also ought to be observed once a year (21). This seems plausible enough on the surface, and we should acknowledge that the Lord’s Supper does indeed have a function parallel to (and in some ways built on) the Passover, which commemorated Israel’s deliverance from Egypt in the Exodus. Craig Keener points out, “As the Passover annually commemorated (and allowed new generations to share the experience of) the first redemption…so the Lord’s Supper regularly did the same for the climactic redemption” through Christ’s death (Craig Keener, 1-2 Corinthians, New Cambridge Bible Commentary [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005], 98-99).
However, Jesus did not actually specify that the Lord’s Supper was to be observed once a year. Luke and Paul both report that Jesus told his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24), but Jesus apparently said nothing about how often they were to do so.
Paul, however, provides some indications that Christians observed the Lord’s Supper more than once a year. Paul also quotes Jesus saying with regard to the drinking of the cup, “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25, emphasis added). He follows this quotation by saying, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26, emphasis added). The Greek words hosakis ean, which may be translated “as often as” or “whenever,” express the sense of the action being done at “indefinite and multiple points of time” (Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd ed. [New York: United Bible Societies, 1989], 67.36; see also any of the other standard lexicons). Anthony Thiselton cautions against understanding “as often as” to express any specific “frequency or regularity” and emphasizes the indefiniteness of the expression in Greek (Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000], 886). In other words, the expression indicates that the rite was observed many times but without specifying how often or even that it was done on a regular schedule.
Paul’s wording in 1 Corinthians 11:25-26 is difficult to explain if the Corinthians observed the Lord’s Supper only once a year. Correlating the data from 1 and 2 Corinthians with the narrative in Acts 18-20, it appears that Paul left Corinth late in the year 51 and wrote 1 Corinthians early in the year 55. (See, for example, the articles on “Chronology of Paul” and “Corinthians, Letters to the” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993], 115-23, 164-79.) This leaves at most three occasions after Paul’s departure for the Corinthians to have observed an annual Lord’s Supper on Passover, if that had been the Christian practice.
We can be reasonably sure that the Corinthians observed the Lord’s Supper far more often than once a year from the context in which Paul discusses it in 1 Corinthians 11. The Corinthians were making a mockery of the Lord’s Supper, which took place within the context of a church fellowship meal, because some were eating their own food while letting others go hungry, and some were actually getting drunk (1 Cor. 11:20-22). These things happened, Paul tells the Corinthians, “when you come together as a church” (v. 18), which suggests that the abuses were occurring repeatedly at church gatherings. “They treat the Lord’s meal like any association’s banquet, which means that, despite the Greek and biblical ideals of equality, their seating and treatment highlighted their social stratification” (Keener, 1-2 Corinthians, 96).
In this context, Paul states, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk” (vv. 20-21 ESV). When he says, “it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat,” Paul does not mean that the Lord’s Supper was not supposed to be observed at these gatherings but that their divisive, class-conscious behavior negated the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. In effect, they were failing to observe the Lord’s Supper because they were acting as if the rich among them were the hosts, rather than acknowledging that the Lord himself was the host. “Is it the Lord’s [own] Supper which is being held, or that of the host and his most favored guests? Who is the focus of attention? For whose benefit is it being held? Indeed, to put it most sharply: Who, indeed, is ‘hosting’ this meal?” (Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 862, emphasis in original).
As historians commonly recognize, in Corinth and likely elsewhere during the first decades of the Christian movement, the Lord’s Supper was a rite of remembrance of Christ’s sacrificial death that took place whenever the church gathered corporately for fellowship around a meal. In fact, it is probably correct to say that in 1 Corinthians “the name ‘Lord’s Supper’ embraces the entire event, including the main meal, together with the concluding rite of the bread and wine” (Hans-Josef Klauck, “Lord’s Supper,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman [New York: Doubleday, 1992], 4:363). This simply could not have been the case had apostles such as Paul regarded the Lord’s Supper as strictly an annual observance.
Given the lack of any definite instruction or commandment in the New Testament on the question, and the evidence from 1 Corinthians 11 of the association of the Lord’s Supper with church fellowship meals, we should resist any dogmatic teaching that the Lord’s Supper must be observed according to any specific schedule. Observing it once a year on Passover is one option, but it is not a biblically normative rule, nor was it the first-century church’s practice.
An Evening Meal?
The Watchtower article also asserts that Jehovah’s Witnesses observe the Lord’s Supper on Passover evening after sunset “because according to the Bible, this is to be an ‘evening meal.’ (1 Corinthians 11:25)” (22). 1 Corinthians 11:25 does not, however, say that the rite is to be an evening meal. In that verse, Paul simply reports that Jesus instituted the rite of the bread and wine “after supper.” The word “supper” here translates an infinitive verb form, to deipnesai, “supping” or “dining,” and is related to the noun deipnon, “supper” or “dinner,” in verse 20. Thiselton comments that deipnon “usually designates the main meal of the day in the Graeco-Roman world. Like the English dinner, it usually denotes an evening meal in formal circles, but as in the case of the English phrase ‘Christmas dinner’ the emphasis concerns the major event rather than the specific timing. It need not always be an evening meal, although in practice it usually was” (Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 863-64). Thus, the rendering “evening meal” in the New World Translation at 1 Corinthians 11:20, 25 is an overtranslation that makes the timing of the meal specific in a way that the Greek wording does not (cf. Mark 6:21; 12:39; Luke 14:12-24; 17:8; Rev. 3:20).
There is no basis, then, for dogmatically claiming that the Lord’s Supper ought to be observed in the evening. Doing so made sense in the first-century context when it was commonly (though not universally) observed as part of a church fellowship meal. Once the rite was separated in practice from such church meals, it was natural for the rite to be observed at whatever time the church met for corporate worship. Again, Paul’s terminology in 1 Corinthians 11 is not time-specific, and no New Testament text legislates a time of the day when the rite is to be observed.