The institution in view, which fits within the meal practice of the ancient world and which seems to demand consideration because of the context provided by Paul’s words in the sixth chapter of first Corinthians, is what is known as the “symposium” (Greek) or the “convivium” (Latin/Roman). In ancient Greece, the symposium was a drinking party. The word “symposium” derives from the Greek word “sympotein,” which means “to drink together.”
The symposium was a key social institution in the Greco-Roman world, and would be especially so in a well-known and popular Greek city such as Corinth. Among other things, it served as a forum for men to debate philosophy or the issues of the day, to devise grand schemes, to boast about achievements (note Paul’s mention of boasting in the fifth chapter), or quite simply to engage in festivities with friends, family, neighbors, and business associates.
Symposiums were also frequently held to celebrate the introduction of young men into aristocratic society, for the purpose of celebrating special occasions, athletic victories (which would be key in Corinth which was the home of the Isthmian games), or other contests such as those held for the creation and recitation of poetry. Most assuredly, an aura of nobility (according to the honor and shame culture and the societal honor competition) surrounded the symposium.
The events would typically be held in the men’s quarters of the household; and of course, early church meetings took place in private homes, thus lending opportunities for such engagements. Relatively quickly, it becomes rather simple to identify a slippery slope, especially when the idea of the messianic feast, which was of tremendous importance in the early church, was introduced into the wider Greco-Roman culture.
Those that participated would recline on couches that would be arrayed against three walls of the room, away from the door or entryway. Obviously, space limitations would limit the number of couches, therefore limiting the number of participants, even if one were to take standing room into consideration. The events were limited to men, and only those of a certain status were allowed to recline. If any young men were present, they would not recline, but would be obliged to sit up or to stand. Naturally, food and wine would be served, and one does well to remember the social stratifications that would most assuredly be at work in conjunction with this service. In addition, entertainment would be provided. Depending on the occasion, this entertainment could include games, songs, flute-girls or boys, slaves performing various acts, or even entertainers hired specifically for the occasions.
Moving forward then, it is necessary to consider how much of Greek culture, carried forward by Rome, had infiltrated the social life of first century Judea. The meals that Jesus attended, and the meals to which He would make reference in His parables, could very well have taken up the cultural dynamic of the wider world. Most assuredly, even if the communal meals did not take the form of the Greco-Roman meal, the culture of the eastern world, as it operated on and was dominated by considerations of honor and shame, would have included social stratifications.