Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Social Spaces, Idols, and Pagan Temples

The earliest followers of Jesus encountered certain social problems that Christians today seldom face. One problem for them was the issue of animals that had been sacrificed in temples to the indigenous deities of the Greco-Roman world. In our world religious sacrifice of animals, construed as cruelty to animals by the courts, is illegal, but not so in the ancient world. Animal sacrifice was ubiquitous. Followers of Jesus were a minority in the ancient world and were engulfed by the customs and practices of these religions. The animal was sacrificed at an altar that was presided over by an image of the God (an idol) whose priest received the offering. Part of the meat was immolated as an offering to the God; the remaining portion was divided among the temple staff and the worshippers (1 Cor 9:13). The priest had the authority to sell part of the temple's share of the sacrifice. In this way meat from the sacrifices made its way to the public sidewalk into the meat markets of ancient cities.1

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul addresses three social locations where the problem of idol meat surfaces for members of the Jesus community in the ancient city of Corinth (1 Cor 8:1-13; 10:23-11:1): in the local meat market (1 Cor 10:25); in home meals with unbelievers (1 Cor 10:27-30); in eating meals in an idol's temple (1 Cor 8:10-13; 10:19-20).

Apparently, the Jesus gathering (ekklēsia) at Corinth was divided over the issue of sacrificial meat. Bible translators think they have identified statements in Paul's text where he quotes slogans from the debate originating from one side of the disagreement and are confident enough to place this text in quotation marks and/or also add words not in the text ("as you say") following the phrase in quotations (see 1 Cor 8:4; 10:23, 26). The quoted slogans likely belong to a faction Paul called the "liberated" (8:9; 10:29) as opposed to those the "liberated" regarded as weaker members of the Jesus gathering.

Paul's attempt to resolve the situation is based on the principal that with regard to this matter the liberated should always defer to those the liberated regarded as the weak (8:9-12; Rom 15:1-2). Thus, one should not attend feasts in pagan temples (8:9-13).2 He tells them to buy whatever they need from the meat market without worrying about idols, since idols have no real significance (10:19-20, 25). If one is invited to the home of a non-believer, one can eat whatever one wants without raising questions of conscience. If others raise objections to the idol meat, then "do not eat it out of consideration for the one who informed you" (10:27-30).3 His rationale is that while the liberated may know that idols are nothing to be feared, others may not have that knowledge (8:7). Paul concludes that if food is a problem for a fellow believer, he would never eat meat again (8:13).

Eating idol meat may not be a modern problem, but the principle of deference to the weaker believer will apply to many modern situations (compare Rom 14:13-15:2). Paul actually alludes to another ancient practice that can also be a modern problem: drinking wine (Rom 14:21). He does not say drinking wine to excess; he only suggests that drinking wine is not right if it causes a fellow believer to stumble. He also seems to extend this principle to the "neighbor" who is not part of the community of believers (1 Cor 10:24, 31-33; Rom 15:1-2).

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1For a brief description of the sacrifices, see the discussion in Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3rd ed.; Eerdmans, 2003), 188-92.

2Note, however, Paul seems to stop short of absolutely forbidding attending feasts in pagan temples, and leaves it to the individual to decide. Nevertheless, Paul's intent seems clear enough. From my reading of the text, it was a difficult situation for Paul. He basically agreed with the liberated faction that idols were nothing (1 Cor 8:1-4; 10:19-20), so to enforce his position that the liberated should not eat in pagan temples, Paul could offer his principle of concern for the weaker members of the Jesus gathering at Corinth (1 Cor 8:9) and his own example of never eating meat if it caused the weaker person to stumble in faith (1 Cor 8:13). His argument about pagan sacrifices being offered to demons (1 Cor10:20-21) seems more like a slur. I doubt that people who offered sacrifices in pagan temples thought they were sacrificing to demons. These two verses (1 Cor10:20-21) constitute the only mention of demons in the Pauline letters.

31 Cor 10:29b is a problem for the sense of the text. The Revised Standard Version puts verses 10:28-29a in parentheses, which in effect makes verse 10:29b a continuation of 10:27 and makes verses 28-29a a digression. Thinking of the text in this way retains the sense of the passage, for otherwise 10:29b contradicts 10:28-29a. See also Dewey, et al., The Authentic Letters of Paul. A New Reading of Paul's Rhetoric and Meaning (Polebridge, 2010), 94, where verses 28-29a are treated as a digression and placed in parentheses.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was an enjoyable read, Charlie. I would say, additionally, that whenever considering the customs and rules followed in the early Jesus communities, it's always necessary to consider what influence the belief in the imminent coming of the Christ might have had on recommended behavior.

Gene Stecher
Chammbersburg, Pa.