Monday, March 27, 2017

How did the first Christians eat their food?

If you survey the English translations of Acts 2:46, there seems to be a great deal of confusion on this point:

  • They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude. (CHSB) 
  • Sharing their food with glad and humble hearts. (NET) 
  • They received their food with glad and generous hearts. (ESV) 
  • They ... shared their meals with great joy and generosity. (NLT) 
  • They partook of food with glad and generous hearts. (RSV) 
  • They were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart. (NASB) 
  • They ... ate together with glad and sincere hearts. (NIV) 
  • They ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart. (NKJ) 

So which is it? Did the early Christians eat their food with humbleness of heart, generosity of heart, sincerity of heart, or simplicity of heart?

The problem here is that translators are unsure how to render the rare word ἀφελότης. However, this word is attested in a few places in the extant Greek literature, and it always means “simplicity.” Furthermore, the ancient Latin and Syriac translations of the Greek render the term with words that mean "simplicity." Modern translators evidently don’t think “simplicity” makes much sense in context, but as I argue in a recent article, Luke was influenced in this passage by Greco-Roman conceptions of a primitive utopia which valued simplicity and sufficiency over extravagance and luxury. Thus the use of ἀφελότης as “simplicity” makes perfect sense in this context (see page 36-37 for a detailed discussion on the translation of ἀφελότης).

As I reflect on contemporary culture, it seems that much of our eating involves anxiety and expense. Affluent moderns in the West seem increasingly worried about how their food will impact their health, and they are willing to pay more and more to ease their minds. Of course, health is a valid concern, but let’s not forget that it’s OK to eat your food with “gladness and simplicity of heart.”

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