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1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 and Idol Meat

Paul turns to a new issue about eating food sacrificed to idols (εἰδωλόθυτος) in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1. Feasts and social functions occurred at temples and the left-over meat could be sold at the market, so it would be pretty hard to avoid it altogether unless one became a vegetarian (see Romans 14:2; Hegessipus, in Ecclesiastical History 2.23.5; Epiphanius, Panarion 30.15.3-4). The dilemma for the Christ believers in Corinth was how they ought to live out their exclusive allegiance to the God of Israel, whom they regarded as the supreme deity and sovereign ruler over all of creation, in a social context where people venerated many divine beings and depicted them in their icons. Paul’s denigration of what he perceived to be “idolatry” was conventional in Second Temple Jewish literature, though he also seems to have allowed for the ontological existence of the spiritual powers that were represented in the material images, and he had an interesting solution to the Corinthians’ dilemma. On the one hand, he seems to reason that it would be harmless for the Christ believers to eat this meat since they did not acknowledge the authority of “idols”, but he warned them to not test God as the Israelites sometimes did in the Hebrew Bible and to not to misuse their “knowledge” and “liberty” by offending a fellow believer who refused to eat meat offered to idols as a matter of conscience. Thus, it was probably best to only eat meat that has not been explicitly identified as having been offered in a cultic sacrifice. This was evidently a major social and religious concern for the early Christ communities and here is a sample of texts that address this issue:

“Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” (Acts 15:19-20; cf. 15:29; 21:25)

“But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication… you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.” (Revelation 2:14, 20)

“At this point, Trypho interrupted me by saying, ‘I know that there are many who profess their faith in Jesus and are considered to be Christians, yet they claim there is no harm in their eating meats sacrificed to idols.’ ‘The fact that there are such men [and women],’ I replied, ‘who pretend to be Christians and admit the crucified Jesus as their Lord and Christ, yet profess not His doctrines, but those of the spirits of error, only tends to make us adherents of the true and pure Christian doctrine more ardent in our faith and more firm in the hope He announced to us. As we look about us, we see events actually taking place which He predicted would happen in His name.’” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 35.1-2)

“Wherefore also it comes to pass, that the ‘most perfect’ among them addict themselves without fear to all those kinds of forbidden deeds of which the Scriptures assure that ‘they who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.’ For instance, they make no scruple about eating meat offered in sacrifice to idols, imagining that they can in this way contact no defilement… Others, again, following upon Basilides and Carpocrates, have introduced promiscuous intercourse and a plurality of wives, and are indifferent about eating meats sacrificed to idols, maintaining that God does not greatly regard such matters. But why continue? For it is an impracticable attempt to mention all those who, in one way or another, have fallen away from the truth.” (Ireneaus, Against Heresies 1.6.3; 1.28.2)

“For that which is offered to idols is sacrificed to demons, and a man [or woman] of God must not join the table of demons.” (Origen, Contra Celsus 8.30)

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