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I am looking for the origin of the phrase "break bread" meaning to eat (or, I expect, to share food). I know that it can be sourced to the book of Acts but I have also seen many websites which say that it is older than that, reflecting a biblical era practice of sharing food to solemnize a meal, just with no actual references. What language does the phrase come from or is it an invention directly into the English?

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  • Etymonline dates it to 14c. Feb 5, 2013 at 3:35
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    The event of eating with someone (not in your family) as a marked special occasion is widespread, and, dare I say, one of a (many?) anthropological universals like marriage, music, property, religion. This ELU question should be answered with respect to the interesting label for it 'breaking bread'. Why 'bread' (though it is a common generic food, like 'rice' is used for food in general in Far East languages)? Why 'break' and also what is the history of using that particular word in English?
    – Mitch
    Jun 24 at 13:31
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    A question that was asked in 2013, and someone is voting to close it today in 2022?! It was obviously on-topic about ten years ago, nobody objected to it then. The OP actually shows research when he says I know that it can be sourced to the book of Acts
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 24 at 15:47
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    To add to @Mari-LouA's comment, the question is highly unlikely to be deleted, so the only result of closing is that it would insulate the existing answers from competition. Why would that be a good thing? If one simply wants to express one's negative opinion of the question, one can do so by downvoting it.
    – jsw29
    Jun 24 at 16:08

5 Answers 5

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We find it in the Wycliffe bible. I quote here from the 1395:

and weren lastynge stabli in the teching of the apostlis, and in comynyng of the breking of breed, in preieris (Acts 2:42 Wycliffe)

And ech dai thei dwelliden stabli with o wille in the temple, and braken breed aboute housis, and token mete with ful out ioye and symplenesse of herte, (Acts 2:46 Wycliffe)

And in the first dai of the woke, whanne we camen to breke breed, Poul disputide with hem, and schulde go forth in the morew; (Acts 20:7 Wycliffe)

Wycliffe worked from the Latin Vulgate, in which we find fractio panis.

However, the earlier Greek has the expression too:

ἦσαν δὲ προσκαρτεροῦντες τῇ διδαχῇ τῶν ἀποστόλων καὶ τῇ κοινωνίᾳ καὶ τῇ κλάσει τοῦ ἄρτου καὶ ταῖς προσευχαῖς (ΠΡΑΞΕΙΣ 2:42)

καθ' ἡμέραν τε προσκαρτεροῦντες ὁμοθυμαδὸν ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ κλῶντές τε κατ' οἶκον ἄρτον μετελάμβανον τροφῆς ἐν ἀγαλλιάσει καὶ ἀφελότητι καρδίας (ΠΡΑΞΕΙΣ 2:46)

Ἐν δὲ τῇ μιᾷ τῶν σαββάτων συνηγμένων τῶν μαθητῶν τοῦ κλάσαι ἄρτον ὁ Παῦλος διελέγετο αὐτοῖς μέλλων ἐξιέναι τῇ ἐπαύριον παρέτεινέν τε τὸν λόγον μέχρι μεσονυκτίου (ΠΡΑΞΕΙΣ 20:7).

[I could well be mis-highlighting the second example.]

While the practice of breaking rather than cutting bread, even when knives are available, is seemingly an old one, the expression is not heavily used in pagan sources, and is in Christian sources.

Edit: Could there be an earlier source?

Well, social sharing of food is probably as old as society; mammals generally feed their young, and chimpanzees share food they have collectively hunted, so we can imagine that there was some social value to food sharing among humans from whatever time you want to start calling them human.

For similar reasons, socio-religious sharing is probably as old as religion. It's found in ancient religion ("reversion of offerings" in Ancient Egyptian religion for example), and through to the very recent (of the top of my head, Judaism, Islam, Voodoo, Wicca, Hinduism all have some form of food sharing I can think of, even Jains end Paryushan with a communal meal, and they see starving to death as the ideal way for a monk to die).

Religious associations for bread, are likewise about as old as bread. The oldest cuneiform writings include Sumerian poems which are at once myths about the invention of bread, and bread recipes: Read the myth, and you're reading the recipe. (I haven't tried these, though I have tried one of the contemporaneous beer recipes, though alas without success).

And tearing rather than cutting bread is common everywhere from ancient times to today, and from peasants to haute cuisine.

So just about anywhere and any time, can we find what is needed for "break bread" to become a turn of phrase.

It does seem though that it doesn't exist earlier in this way. While some components are pretty universal as I suggest, and some tied into specific earlier views (e.g. combining the Last Supper and beliefs of the Second Coming, Isaiah 25:6-9 was now seen by the Christians as a prophesy of a new view on the Messianic feast), it seems the particular combination of these common themes gives us the expression.

Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack though. It also doesn't help that there are biases on such matters. Many Christian sources are biased toward claiming phrasings and customs they practice to be innovations of the early Christians. People inclined to revise Christian history (quite prominently many atheists, modern pagans and Christians of denominations that don't share a particular feature) are often biased toward claiming they aren't. In practice, each are as likely to muddy waters as the other. But while I've certainly seen Neopagans pointing to the provenance of bread-based traditions to argue "breaking of bread" isn't specifically Christian (and I'd quite agree for the reasons given above, though I disagree with the assumption that modern pagan forms are entirely uninfluenced by Christian Eucharist and perhaps even by Seder), I've seen nothing to suggest that the turn of phrase is; not even some spurious cases, and I've seen a lot of spurious claims about the provenance of all manner of things from pagans.

So, breaking bread is no more exclusively Christian than breathing air is, but the expression to break bread probably does originate with the early Christians.

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    +1 Near Eastern bread was generally flat; and of course the key Christian gestus is the bread broken at the Last Supper, which was unleavened bread, not very cuttable. Feb 5, 2013 at 13:23
  • @StoneyB Tell that to a lumberjack. :)
    – tchrist
    Feb 5, 2013 at 13:33
  • so, though one can logically tie it to a practice, there does not seem to be an origin to the phrase before the gospel innovation?
    – rosends
    Feb 5, 2013 at 13:45
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    @StoneyB afaik, preference for breaking over cutting happens across cultures, times and type of bread, and bread as synecdoche for food is widespread too, but breaking as synecdoche for sharing a meal is of Christian origin.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 5, 2013 at 13:47
  • Dan, I've added a bit on the possibility of an earlier. Of course, lack of evidence is only circumstantial evidence of lack, and lack of proof is no proof of lack.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 5, 2013 at 15:08
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As far as English is concerned, there are two verbs to consider:

There is an Old English Verb á-brecan (See Bosworth-Toller https://bosworthtoller.com/search?q=abrecan) which means to break into pieces, but it was only used to describe an act of force, violence, or corruption:

Hié bánhringas ábrecan þóhton, An. 150.

Ðæt his byrne ábrocen wǽre, Fin. 44.

Báncofa ábrocen weorðeþ, Vy. 35 : Gú. 1341.

Ábrocen land - broken ground; anfractus, Wrt. Voc. i. 55, 12.

and then there was another verb á-brúcan

To partake of (gen. ), eat

Hé ábreác ðæs forbodenan treówes æpples, Angl. xi, 1. 17 [They partook of the forbidden apples of truth.]

This verb fits far better with

OED

P1. to break bread.

a. To break bread into small or bite-sized pieces, esp. so as to share it with others; (more generally) to eat bread or food (with others); to share a meal. Now somewhat archaic. Also † to part bread

eOE Bald's Leechbk. (Royal) (1865) ii. xlix. 264 Leohte mettas þicge..& geslegen ægru & bread gebrocen on hat wæter.

?a1300 (▸c1250) Prov. Hendyng (Digby) xxviii, in Anglia (1881) 4 196 Þat evere more brekeþ bred At his houne bord.

It appears that the verb "to break" had different origins and it is the latter "á-brúcan" that is the origin of "to break bread."

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The first citation in the OED for break bread is in The Wycliffite Bible (early version), from some time before 1382, and came from the Vulgate, a late 4th-century Latin translation of the Bible.

From Lament. iv. 4:

The litil childer askeden bred, and ther was not that shulde breke to them.

From Acts xx. 7:

Whanne we comen for to breke breed, Poul disputide with hem.

And from Mark xiv. 22:

Jhesus took bred, and blessinge brak, and ȝaf to hem.

Different parts of the Vulgate were translated from Hebrew, Greek, Old Latin and Aramaic.

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  • The Vulgate copied the phrasing from the Greek, as per my answer, in the New Testament cases. I don't know whether the Lamentation case was an example in the Hebrew; it would make it earlier if it were, but only some translations use "break", which could be as they tend to be done by people well-acquainted with English language biblical phrasing, and so the phrase could be NT in origin. There are certainly some on this site who could tell us.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 5, 2013 at 13:23
  • the Lamentation text uses the Hebrew word "poress" which is closer to "a seperater/divider [is not there for them]". the use of the verb "break" in the translation seems a much later choice. The Aramaic uses "mosheet" (to extend) and one commentator ties it to an "spread open loaf" but there is no sense of "break" in the original.
    – rosends
    Feb 5, 2013 at 13:44
  • I suspected such. The use isn't a communal meal there anyway. Christian translators like their OT to foreshadow their NT so the choice was likely for that reason.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 5, 2013 at 13:59
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Although it is seen in the Bible, I am sure we can find references in other Greek and Hebrew literature if one really put the effort in some database. I am from India, and I have heard the phrase "to break bread" in Hindi idioms like "to break breads for free", the idiom is used to malign someone that he is eating for free and not working or earning. So, to me, it is clear that it is an ancient Semitic or wider idiom for "eating food" or having a meal. English etymology will not give you the ancient results older than the Bible references because it is not from a modern language like English. As cited by other answer, the Wycliffe 14th century English translation might be the oldest, which too must be coming from Greek and Latin Bible. Latin phrase is frangendum panem Acts 20:7, and fractione panis Luke 24:35. It is clear the English phrase has its origin from the Scripture alone, as there couldn't have been any other older English translation of any ancient languages.

[Acts 2:44-47 ESV] And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

[Matt 14:19-21 ESV] Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Jeremiah 16:7 ESV No one shall break bread for the mourner, to comfort him for the dead, nor shall anyone give him the cup of consolation to drink for his father or his mother.

ASV: neither shall men break bread
KJV: Neither shall men tear themselves
LXX: ου μη in no way κλασθή should be broken άρτος bread

JFB commentary: 7. tear themselves—rather, "break bread," namely, that eaten at the funeral-feast (Deut 26:14; Job 42:11; Ezek 24:17; Hos 9:4). "Bread" is to be supplied, as in La 4:4; compare "take" (food) (Ge 42:33). give . . . cup of consolation . . . for . . . father—It was the Oriental custom for friends to send viands and wine (the "cup of consolation") to console relatives in mourning-feasts, for example, to children upon the death of a "father" or "mother."

LXX supplied the word "bread" where it wasn't in the Hebrew, meaning "breaking" itself connoted, as a metonymy to eating.

Isaiah 58:7 LXX διάθρυπτε πεινῶντι τὸν ἄρτον σου

SLT Is it not to break thy bread to the hungry, and thou shalt bring the wandering poor to thy house? when thou shalt see the naked and cover him; and thou shalt not hide from thy flesh.

We can now trace the phrase at least to 739 and 681 B.C, which is the date of prophet Isaiah. As for the word for "break" in the Isaiah verse, the old English versions use "deal the bread" in the sense of "share" or distribute. I had to find the most literal one (SLT) to demonstrate the exact use of "break bread". I used Septuagint (LXX), the Greek Old Testament translation which goes to third century BC. The Greek word for "break" is διαθρύπτω (see the root word θρύπτω) which means to crush, break in pieces. The Hebrew word is [p̄ā·rōs] (Strong's 6536)6 here, which means to break in two, divide. Otherwise, the Greek NT, in consistency with Jeremiah 16:7, uses κλάω for "breaking" bread.

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  • Yet you only seem to quote biblical passages. Can you back up your first claim?
    – Joachim
    Jun 24 at 12:57
  • no I can't coz it's quite understood. When it is known even in India, then it must be widely known idiom. Maybe linguistics SE might help, it is not for English.
    – Michael16
    Jun 24 at 13:18
  • @Michael16 Can you add to your answer what you think the history of using the word 'break' for the concept is? It makes some sense, but if I was naming the activity for the first time, I don't think I'd use the word 'break'. Is 'break' new in English? Or do the Greek and Hebrew versions of the Bible use a very literal source of the translation (ie, 'break' in those langauages as synonymous with 'breaking' a stone or stick)?
    – Mitch
    Jun 24 at 13:34
  • Hello, Michael. I agree that 'English etymology will not give you the ancient results older than the Bible references because [this] is not from a modern language like English,' but previous etymology (ie before the string entered the lexicon) is off-topic on ELU. Jun 24 at 13:44
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    I see that ancient languages are out of the scope, but the English phrase has its origin in the Bible itself. I have added Latin reference since English is a daughter of Latin. The Wycleff translation must be the oldest version in English. @Mitch, the translation is accurate, coz they must translate literally; dynamic equivalent translations won't convey the figurative language to accurately translate everything.
    – Michael16
    Jun 24 at 14:48
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It also appears in Mark and Mathew. But the notion can also be seen in some of the Pre-socratic thinkers.

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    This is more of a comment than an answer. Feb 5, 2013 at 6:53
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    do you have any citation to pre-socratic usage?
    – rosends
    Feb 5, 2013 at 12:44
  • I'd be interested in that too, @Dan. Meanwhile you're the perfect person to ask whether "Lamentations 4:4" uses the expression in the Hebrew.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 5, 2013 at 13:25
  • I can't find it in Mark or Matthew. The adjective break (or the archaic brake in the KJV) is applied to bread in the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and in the last supper, but it's not the verb phrase break bread or the gerund variant breaking of bread like it is in Acts, so it wouldn't be likely to have influenced the phrase's adoption in the sense examined.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 5, 2013 at 16:00

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