We are now continuing the exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians taking up the section of the letter contained in chapters 8 to 11.
1 Corinthians 8 – Part 1
It was well nigh impossible for Gentile Christians in the first century to avoid contact with idolatry. In the pagan society of their day most social functions and festivities were conducted under the auspices of one supposed deity or other.
The idol sacrifices themselves were normally offered on altars in the temples by an officiating priest, although the beast was usually slaughtered by the priest’s assistant. But only certain parts of the sacrificial victim were, in fact, consumed on the altar. As in the case of the peace offering of the Old Testament the remainder was divided between the priest and the offerer.1 The offerer’s portion formed the basis of a feast for himself, his relatives and friends, either in the temple precincts or in a private home, no doubt usually his own.
Many of the temples had dining rooms where religious meals were enjoyed by the worshippers. Indeed, one of the earliest mentions of the office of ‘deacons’ (250 BC), is in connection with the worship of the gods Serapis and Isis in Egypt, where a ‘college of deacons’ served in each temple, seemingly as waiters.
But whether in the temple precinct or in someone’s home dining room, the meal was viewed as a sequel to the sacrifice to the god, and the meat itself was regarded as consecrated food and eaten in honour of the idol. Indeed, the god was thought of as having given a portion of the sacrifice back to the worshipper, who then invited his friends and relatives to eat and worship with him as guests of the deity. Their eating together was an expression of fellowship both with each other and with the idol.. That is, the meal involved the pretence, the fiction that is, that the god was the true host and had provided the food.2 To participate in such a meal necessarily involved having fellowship with idolaters in an idolatrous setting.
Scholars point to many ancient papyri that take the form of invitations to dine at the table of or in the temple of some deity or other. Consider the following typical invitations to such meals:
‘Chairemon invites you to a meal at the table [literally, ‘the couch’ or ‘the sofa’) of the Lord Serapis in the Serapeum [the temple of Serapis], tomorrow the 15th from 9 o’clock [3 p.m.] onwards’;3
‘Antonius, son of Ptolemais, invites you to dine with him at the table of the Lord Serapis in the (house) of Claudius Serapion at 9 o’clock on the 16th’;4
‘Appolonius invites you to dine at the table of the Lord Serapis on the occasion of the approaching coming of age of his brothers at the temple of Thoeris’;5
‘NikÁphorus asks you to dine at a banquet of the Lord Serapis in the Birth-House on the 23rd, from the 9th hour’;6
‘Herais asks you to dine in the dining room of the Serapeum at a banquet of the Lord Serapis tomorrow, namely the 11th, from the 9th hour’;7
Note the key difference in the first three examples. You could feed at the ‘table’ of Serapis either in his temple or in somebody’s house – although seemingly, from most the examples, only at 3 o’clock in the afternoon!
It seems that many ancient temples not only boasted dining rooms set apart for religious meals but that they also offered restaurant-like facilities which involved the customers in no explicit idolatrous practices or associations.8 As we will find, this affects to some extent how we understand what Paul says in verse 10.9 (One papyrus invitation reads, ‘The exegetes [city officials] invite you to dine at the temple of Demeter today, which is the 9th, at the 7th hour’.11 There is no hint of any direct religious connection. It appears to have been an invitation to some kind of local government business meeting which happened to be held at the local temple).
Any portion of the idol sacrifice which wasn’t needed by the priest or the offerer for their own use found its way either to the meat market (the ‘shambles’ KJV), 10. 25, to be sold in the butcher’s shop along with ordinary meat or, more likely in the case of the priest’s portion, to the temple dining room.
Christians were therefore confronted with idol food at every turn. Many public functions or private meals exposed them to the danger of being served meat which had earlier been ‘consecrated’ in that it had been offered to some pagan deity.
It is possible that Paul’s words, ‘Now concerning’, 8. 1, refer to matters raised with him by the Corinthians in their recent letter. The phrase occurs six times in the latter part of 1 Corinthians, and on the first occasion, 7. 1, forms part of a longer expression – ‘Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me’. The subject of eating meats offered to idols is the third in the series of six matters that Paul introduces in this way.11
It is likely, given the various strands to Paul’s response in chapters 8 and 10, that the Corinthian believers faced, and possibly had raised with Paul, three distinct questions related to the Christian’s proper attitude to idol food:
It’s evident that some at least of the Corinthians had taken the view that each of these questions could be answered in exactly the same way and very simply; it was all a matter of ‘knowledge’.
They ‘knew’ that the idol – or the image which represented it – wasn’t really a god, for the gods of the heathen had no real existence. It followed therefore that idol food was altogether harmless; it was neither sanctified nor polluted. Armed with this ‘knowledge’, they felt at perfect liberty to eat such food, and to accept invitations to feasts, even those held in idol temples. After all, their own heart was free from idolatry and their actions were altogether a matter for themselves and for no one else. Everything was straightforward. Everything was cut and dried. Or was it? No doubt one of their purposes in writing to Paul had been to sound out his views.
On the face of it, verse 10 may suggest to some that Paul agreed that, leaving aside the sensitive consciences of others, the Christian was indeed at liberty to enjoy a meal in an idol temple (literally, ‘idol-place’). But – apart from the question of whether or not he forbids eating idol meats in chapter 10 – this seems rather surprising! Not least because only five years before, the Jerusalem ‘council’ (as it is sometimes called) had specifically prohibited Gentile believers from eating foods which were known to have been offered to idols and which were associated in any way with idol worship. The decision letter of Acts 15 reads, ‘For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols (being the same Greek word as 1 Cor. 8. 1), from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well’, Acts 15. 28-29. Later, referring back to that occasion, James reminded Paul, ‘concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should … keep themselves from things offered to idols’, Acts 21. 25. Yes, it’s true that this ruling had been given, in part at least, to avoid causing offence to other Jews, whether Christian or non-Christian, as chapters 15 and 21 make clear.12 But, for whatever reason, the ruling had been given. And, it is clear from James’ words in chapter 21, that it applied to all Gentile Christians – that it was universally binding.13
But had Paul and Silas the prophet, who had both been made responsible for relaying the Jerusalem decision to the Gentile churches at the end of Acts 15 verses. 25-27, and who had both been at Corinth in Acts 18 verse 5, informed the Corinthians of it? Frankly, we don’t know.
What we do know is that, in several other matters, the Corinthian church were more than happy to ‘do their own thing’ – regarding themselves very much as a law to themselves.14 Clearly, if they did know of the decision made at Jerusalem, they thought themselves above it, ‘wiser’ and ‘more knowledgeable’ no doubt than the elders and apostles there. In their letter it is possible that they may even have directly challenged the Jerusalem ruling, setting out their own arguments and concluding that the eating of idol food wasn’t only permissible but that it was an evidence of strong faith and a legitimate expression of their Christian liberty.
But whether or not the Corinthians were ignorant of the Jerusalem decision, Paul certainly wasn’t – he had been party to it. And yet at no time in chapters 8 or 10 does he appeal to the decree. Why? Was it out of concern that some of his opponents at Corinth might turn such an appeal against him, arguing that it went to prove that he was only a second-rate, a tin-pot apostle, dependent for everything on the authority of the ‘real’ – the pukka – apostles at Jerusalem, which was how many in Galatia regarded him? Quite possibly, but I suspect there was more to it. I suspect that Paul deliberately left the Jerusalem ruling to one side and chose to expound the arguments as he did that, on the one hand, he might teach the Corinthians love, respect and consideration for others, and, on the other, he might persuade them of the folly of dabbling with idolatry in any of its forms.
For our part, we face at least two problems in studying 1 Corinthians 8-10.
First, there is the problem of the exposition itself Here we are chiefly handicapped because:
The second problem we face is that of the relevance of this section, or, more accurately, the seeming lack of it, to us today. Although the eating of idol food was a very live concern for first-century Gentile churches such as that at Corinth, it hardly amounts to a burning issue for us. I guess that few elders’ meetings are spent discussing it! And yet, because of the way that, by the Spirit, Paul deals with the issue, these chapters have volumes to teach us about both the rights and the responsibilities of the believer. And it is important that we understand the principles Paul taught – and apply them to our lives.
Food offered to idols, to eat or not to eat?
(i) A preamble on the subject of ‘knowledge’, vv. 1-3
(ii) Factor 1: there is only one God – idols have no real existence, vv. 4-6
(iii) Factor 2: the conscience of the ‘weak’ Christian:
A preamble on the subject of ‘knowledge’, vv. 1-3 Verse 1. Paul opens, ‘Now concerning things offered to idols’ – meaning ‘food which has been offered to idols’ – as is made clear by the reference to ‘eating’ in verse 4. ‘We know’, he says, and then inserts a parenthesis – providing us with a kind of preamble to the subject. He returns to the subject proper in verse 4, ‘Concerning the eating of things offered to idols … we know’ and carries on from there. In the parenthesis, Paul points out that knowledge isn’t everything – indeed that in isolation it isn’t even a good thing – it only breeds conceit.
Apparently, the Corinthians adopted the stand ‘everyone knows … that an idol is nothing’ – an assertion which Paul contests strongly in verse 7. But first he exposes knowledge as an unsafe and inadequate guide – knowledge must be coupled with love – which, in the context, expresses itself in consideration for others. For the believer, knowledge must go hand in hand with love – and rights must go hand in hand in hand with responsibilities.
I don’t find it all surprising that the Corinthian church should appeal to their knowledge alone as decisive. After all, knowledge was their strong point. And their attitude to the subject of idol meat served to expose one of their greatest flaws – namely, that although in terms of knowledge they were very rich, in terms of love they were abjectly poor, 1. 5! Which is why we will read later about the rich eating their full share of the church fellowship meal – and more – before the poor saints arrived – and how everybody was determined to parade his or her spiritual gift publicly – not that they might edify the body but that they might project themselves and impress others. Hence the necessity for chapter 13.
When it came to eating idol food, their attitude was totally selfish – the only thing that mattered to them was that their own consciences were clear. What they did was their own business – and others were strongly advised to keep their noses out of it. You wouldn’t have found anyone at Corinth queuing up for the job of ‘my brother’s keeper’! Paul stresses that knowledge of this kind – the ‘I-know-better-than- you-and-I-care-nothing-for-you’ kind – served only to ‘puff up’, v. 1. The Greek word translated ‘puffs up’ is derived from the Greek word for a bellows, and so means ‘to inflate’, to ‘fill with wind’. The word occurs no less than four times earlier in this letter, each time of the Corinthians themselves.15 Evidently being ‘blown up’ with a sense of their own importance was one of their besetting sins!
There are two ways of making something big, Paul is saying. You can inflate something as you do a balloon or you can build something as you do a structure. Knowledge does the first but love does the second. Unlike knowledge, love is never puffed up, 13. 4. The difference between love and ‘puffy’ knowledge is the difference between a building and a bubble, between the Christian who grows and the Christian who only swells. We do well to note that it is love that makes the building grow.
Verses 2 and 3. And if these Corinthian ‘know-alls’ imagined they already possessed ‘full knowledge’ (the significance of the word used in verse 2), they hadn’t yet grasped the very ABC of true knowledge. If we think we know it all, we don’t really know anything at all. And the most important knowledge by far is the knowledge that God has of those who love Him – in biblical usage, the loving regard and favour which God has for those who love Him.
Food offered to idols: to eat or not to eat? Factor 1: there is only one God – idols have no real existence, vv. 4-6. In order to rationalize their eating of meats offered to idols, the Corinthians had taken as their starting point the foundation truth that there is only one true God. And so, because the idol images were lifeless and impotent – and the gods they supposedly represented were non-existent – it followed that neither the images nor the gods could produce any change in the meat set before them. The meat was therefore uncontaminated – and, since the food was harmless, eating it couldn’t possibly do them any harm.
All those who failed to see this were obviously ‘weaker’ Christians, who should be pitied and whose scruples could safely be ignored. And, indeed, if any of these ‘weaker’ Christians could be encouraged to follow the example set by the ‘stronger’ then this could only be for their advantage – even if their over-sensitive consciences were unnecessarily troubled and disturbed by eating the meat.
Verse 4. To a large extent, Paul agreed with the basis of the argument. Yes, it was indeed true that, in one sense, an idol had no real existence – ‘an idol is nothing in the world, and … there is no other God but one’. It’s possible that both Paul and the Corinthians had in mind the famous Hebrew word-play which pops up in more than one Old Testament text, ‘all the gods (elohim) of the peoples are idols (elilim – lit., ‘things of nothing, things of emptiness, things of no worth’)’.16 Contrary to the beliefs of the heathen worshippers, no divine realties lurked behind the idol image. Although, as Paul knew, in another sense the idols were only too real, in that, as we will discover in chapter 10, they provided a vehicle and channel for fellowship with demons.
Verse 5. Paul is prepared to admit the existence of ‘many’ gods only in the sense that they were reckoned to be such by others. But, in that sense, there were indeed many ‘socalled’ gods, even as, he says, there are gods galore and lords galore.17 At one point in the history of Judah, the prophet Jeremiah repeatedly claimed that they had as many gods as they did cities.18 As far as first-century Corinth is concerned, archaeologists have unearthed temples of Apollo, Asclepius, Aphrodite and Demeter. An inscription found in the theatre at Corinth reveals that the cult of the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis also flourished there at the time Paul wrote. You only needed to go six miles down the road Isthmia to find the impressive sanctuary of Poseidon. These may be just names to us today but these were the deities who then dominated the lives of the people of Corinth.
Verse 6. But as Christians, Paul insists, we acknowledge no God ‘but one’ – here said to be God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. It is important we note that there is no evidence, from ancient inscriptions or any other source, that the heathen ever attempted to discriminate between the titles ‘god’ and ‘lord’ in terms of dignity and status. And it would obviously be nonsense for Paul to have said that he recognized only one God, and then, as proof of this, immediately to have pointed to the fact that he had two, and the one of less dignity and importance than the other! But in the same way that those ‘so-called gods’ comprised the ‘many gods’ and ‘many lords’, so Paul includes both the Father and the Lord Jesus in the expression ‘no other God but one’. It goes without saying therefore that it is just as accurate to refer to the Lord Jesus as ‘God’ as it is, for example, with Simeon to refer to the Father as ‘Lord’, Luke 2. 29. Paul speaks here of the physical creation (the ‘all things’) as coming of ('from’) God as its source, and through Christ as its mediator and agent – and the new creation as being through Christ as its mediator, and for (’to’) God as its goal. I hardly need to say that there’s no reference to the Holy Spirit in this passage for the simple reason that Paul is confining himself to the titles of ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ which were in vogue in pagan circles.
It follows logically from this, although Paul doesn’t say so as yet (holding it back until verse 8) that food offered to idols is of no significance in itself.
But this does not settle the matter! The issue isn’t simply theological, recognizing that there is only one God, vv. 3-6. The issue is also social, concerning relationships with other Christians, whose consciences must be respected. Which brings us to:
Food offered to idols: to eat or not to eat? Factor 2: the conscience of the ‘weak’ Christian, vv. 7-12.
A conscience ‘defiled’ by eating – with the weak person being ‘stumbled’, vv. 7-9
Verse 7. ‘Howbeit (but) there is not in everyone that knowledge’. We may have it, v. 1, but not all do. It simply isn’t universally true. We must remember that many first century Gentile Christians had been steeped in idolatry until the day of their conversion. This was certainly true at Corinth, as witness Paul’s words in chapter 6, ‘Neither fornicators, nor idolaters … will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed’, vv. 10- 11. Many of them had been recently saved out of pagan idolatry and were still haunted by the uneasy feeling that somehow behind the idol image there lurked some kind of divine being. And such impressions were hard to shake off. The reading given in the older manuscripts of verse 7 stresses this, ‘Some through former association with idols (lit. by reason of habit until now) eat the food as offered to an idol’. That is, they had thought that way all their lives and, as a result, still regarded the food as having special significance because it had been offered to an idol. To them, it wasn’t ordinary food; to them in some way its association with the idol had contaminated the meat. And for them to eat against their own judgement would mean violating their consciences, would result in their consciences becoming ‘defiled’, (that is, as suggested by the word Paul used, ‘stained’, ‘besmeared with mud and filth’) would result in their consciences being soiled with a sense of guilt.
Verse 8. Paul’s words suggest that the Corinthians may have been arguing along the lines, ‘As Jesus taught, God is concerned with clean hearts and not with clean food. So it doesn’t matter whether or what we eat. Eating meat doesn’t affect the spirit of a man, and therefore we are free to eat idol food’. If this was their reasoning, Paul responds that the argument cuts both ways.
‘Food does not commend us to God’ – literally ‘food will not cause us to stand near to God’ – as those approved and brought into favour with Him. God’s attitude to us, Paul is saying, isn’t determined by whether we eat or not. As he later pointed out to the Romans, ‘the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking (that is, it doesn’t consist of eating and drinking), but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’, Rom. 14. 17. If, on the one hand, we do eat, we’re not thereby the better for it – ‘we do not abound’ lit. If, on the other hand, we refuse to eat, we’re not thereby the worse for it – ‘we do not lack’ lit. Those who eat gain themselves no credit, those who abstain suffer no debit. Contrary then to the ideas of the ‘stronger brother’ – of the man with knowledge, eating idol meat, doesn’t make somebody more spiritual – and avoiding it doesn’t make him in any way less spiritual, doesn’t in any way diminish his standing before God. Paul’s point is simplicity itself, the believer doesn’t need to eat idol food; he profits nothing by eating.
In verses 9-12, Paul argues that, although their eating isn’t going to profit them, v. 8, it may well have a profound and adverse effect on others – it may well cause them serious spiritual damage. So that, while eating food in itself doesn’t directly affect our relationship with God, v. 8, it can directly affect the spiritual condition of our brother and as such becomes a thing of great importance in the sight both of God and Christ.
Verse 9. It is perhaps worth noting that the word translated ‘liberty’ carries the meaning ‘authority, right’. This particular word occurs twelve times in 1 Corinthians and appears to have been one of the Corinthians’ great watchwords. It is related to the word ‘lawful’ in one of their favourite slogans, ‘All things are lawful’.19 The Corinthians loved to focus on the ‘right’ and the ‘authority’ which they had to do all kinds of things, in this case to indulge in eating idol meat.
But the clear implication of what Paul is saying is that ‘a right can sometimes become a wrong’! For my ‘right’ can prove to be a ‘stumbling-block’ to others, an obstacle that is, against which they can dash their feet and stumble. The same word occurs also in the context of idolatry in the Septuagint of Exodus 23 verse 33 where Moses warned Israel in respect of the Canaanites, ‘if you serve their gods, these will be a stumbling-block to you’. But here in 1 Corinthians 8, the believer’s association with idols may well prove a stumbling block not to himself but to others. And that is an extremely serious matter. It is the Lord Himself who once warned, ‘Whoso shall offend (‘cause to stumble’, that is) one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he was drowned in the depth of the sea’, Matt. 18. 6 KJV.
To be continued
The priest’s portions would inevitably exceed his own personal needs (and those of his family). It seems that the surplus was sold – most likely in the temple dining room but possibly in the marketplace.
Note the words of the following invitation to dine: ‘The god calls you to a banquet being held in the temple of Thoeris tomorrow from the 9th hour’, from ‘New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity’, by G. H. R. Horsley. The fiction was that one of the gods was calling the person to the meal. Roman coins have been preserved which depict a god reclining at a banquet, which confirms the understanding that the god was actually eating at the meal with the participants. Horsley, an archaeologist, concludes: ‘Although it was a matter of some disagreement earlier in this century, there is now a clear consensus that these banquets had a fundamentally religious character. We know next to nothing about what occurred at these banquets, but there will have been some kind of sacrifice to that god as a matter of course, in addition to the meal’.
Oxyrhynchus Papyri No. 110; 2nd century AD.
Oxyrhynchus Papyri No. 523: 2nd century AD.
Oxyrhynchus Papyri No. 1484: 2nd-3rd century AD.
Quoted in ‘Church and Gentile Cults at Corinth’ by Mark Harding, Grace Theological Journal, Vol. 102 (Fall 89): page 203.
Not that the temples offered the only ‘restaurant’ facilities in the ancient world. For example, archaeologists have uncovered 20 inns and 118 bars in Pompeii that would have served warm snack food; ‘As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History', J. Shelton, Oxford University Press, page 307.
'The excavated temple dedicated to the healing god Asklepios [the Asclepeum] in Corinth shows these [dining room facilities] clearly. The sanctuary, a large room with an altar in the centre, is on the main level. A lower level, part of which is beneath the sanctuary and part of which extends out into a courtyard, had at least three rooms with dining couches which were used for dining or banquet facilities. Other potential (though not archeologically certain) dining facilities include temples dedicated to Serapis and other sites dedicated to as yet unidentified gods. These temple dining rooms did not have an exclusively religious function. They were places to conduct business, hold celebrations and banquets, or for casual dining’, from ‘Idols, eating and Rights: Faithful and Loving Witness in a Pluralistic Culture’ by Jeffrey Kloha, Concordia Journal, Vol. 30, No. 3, page 185. See also ‘Paul’s Corinth: Text and Archaeology’, by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. Apparently, the three banqueting rooms in the Asclepeum could accommodate 11 people each. Small tables were provided and cooking appears to have been done in each of them. The precinct of the goddess Demeter at the foot of Acrocorinth, dating back to at least 146 B.C., boasts 40 banqueting rooms. See further ‘Church and Gentile Cults at Corinth’, Harding, page 207. Dining at the Demeter sanctuary was restricted to the lowest area, with sacrifice and offerings on the middle terrace and a rock-cut theatre above, presumably for initiations. Stewpots, casseroles and pitchers have been found, and their small size (half-litre or less) suggests that the food that was eaten in small quantities. Numerous storage jars suggest considerable drinking; fragments of drinking cups are the most common discards. (Based on ‘Ritual dining at Corinth’ by Nancy Bookidis in ‘Greek Sanctuaries: New Approaches’, London: Routledge, 1993.)
Oxyrhynchus Papyri No. 1485: 2nd-3rd century AD.
The full list is: 1 Cor. 7. 1, 25; 8. 1; 12. 1; 16. 1, 12. We cannot be certain, however, that each of the subjects introduced by the expression ‘Now concerning’ were subjects raised with Paul in the Corinthian’s letter. It should be noted, for example, that Paul used the same Greek expression twice in 1 Thessalonians to introduce fresh subjects which had no background of previous correspondence, 1 Thess. 4. 9; 5. 1. It may well be that the expression ‘now concerning’ simply indicates the introduction of a fresh subject or argument.
See Acts 15. 21; 21. 21-25.
Later – in the mid-90’s – the Lord Himself condemned the churches of Pergamos and Thyatira for tolerating those who – as Balaam and Jezebel – taught God’s people to eat food offered to idols – presumably as part of idolatrous practices, Rev. 2. 14, 20. Later again, Irenaeus wrote of the heretics of his time who ‘addict themselves without fear to all those kinds of forbidden deeds of which the Scriptures assure us that “they who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God”. For instance, they make no scruple about eating meats offered in sacrifice to idols, imagining that they can in this way contract no defilement’. Of Basilides, Irenaeus wrote, ‘He attaches no importance to [the question regarding] meats offered in sacrifice to idols, thinks them of no consequence, and makes use of them without any hesitation’. And of Vanentinus and his followers, he wrote, ‘Their opinion as to the indifference of [eating of] meats and other actions, and as to their thinking that, from the nobility of their nature, they can in no degree at all contract pollution, whatever they eat or perform, they have derived it from the Cynics, since they do in fact belong to the same society as do these [philosophers]’; ‘Against Heresies’, Book 1 – VI.3; XXIV.5; and Book 2 – XIV.5.
See especially 4. 17; 7. 17; 11. 16; 14. 36-37.
See 4. 6, 18, 19; 5. 2.
1 Chron. 16. 26; Psa. 96. 5.
Compare Acts 17. 16.
Jer. 2. 28; 11. 13.
See 1 Cor. 6. 12; 10. 23.