What is “Idol Food”?
Eleven issues relating to the question of εἰδωλόθυτα require particular comment. Perhaps the most helpful way of proceeding is to begin with the ones in which the conclusions are clearest, and progress gradually towards the most disputed ones.
(1) We may begin by stating that εἰδωλόθυτα was a polemic, and essentially Christian, term. That the term is used polemically and pejoratively is obvious; no pagan would refer to themselves as consuming ‘idol’ meat, but would use a term like ἱερόθυτον (‘sacred food’, as in 10:28). But it also seems clear that the word is essentially, and maybe entirely, a Jewish-Christian one, as opposed to a Hellenistic Jewish word which the Christians adopted. Of the 112 identified occurrences of the word in Greek literature of the period, only two are not Christian (4 Maccabees 5:2 and Sibylline Oracles 2:96), and a combination of probable Christian interpolation and ambiguous dating mean that neither can confidently be said to pre-date Paul’s usage here. It may well be that Paul coined the term in this very passage, but even if he did not, its resonances are decidedly Christian, and continued to be so throughout the first century.
(2) The issue being addressed in these chapters is markedly different from that which Paul addresses in Romans 14-15. Despite some obvious similarities—the issue of food, the possibility of causing weaker brothers to stumble and even destroying them, the exhortation to imitate Christ in putting others before oneself, and so on—the dissimilarities are far stronger. The discussion in 1 Corinthians is about idol food, not meat in general as opposed to vegetables. We have no signs of an ethnic distinction between ‘strong’ Gentiles and ‘weak’ Jews; in fact, Paul never refers to ‘the strong’ in these chapters. The weakness identified is one of conscience, rather than faith. Most critically, Paul sides with the strong in Romans on the question of whether, weaker brothers notwithstanding, it is acceptable to eat meat, whereas he regards eating εἰδωλόθυτα as tantamount to idolatry. Consequently, we must be careful not to conflate the two passages as if they are addressing more or less the same issue.
(3) However we understand the discourse of 8:1-10:22, there are at least three clearly distinct issues under discussion in these chapters, even if the nature of the problem in chapter 8 is less certain. All three can be seen in chapter 10. First, there is the practice of eating idol food at pagan temples (10:14-22). Second, there is eating that which is sold in the meat market (10:25-26). Third, there is eating food which has previously been offered in sacrifice in a meal hosted by an unbeliever (10:27-30). This much is uncontroversial. We still need to consider what exactly Paul is talking about when he refers to εἰδωλόθυτα in 8:1-10:22, however (see further below, #7 and #8).
(4) There is no compelling evidence to connect Paul’s response in these chapters with the Jerusalem decision described in Acts 15, let alone to hypothesise that Paul changed his policy in response to that decision. The letter of Acts 15 relates specifically to the way Gentiles should behave so as not to trouble Jews (15:19-21); Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians gives no indication that conflict over the issue is fundamentally ethnic. The Jerusalem decision speaks not just of εἰδωλόθυτα, but also of blood and that which has been strangled; Paul makes no mention in 1 Corinthians of either of these, which, given the preponderance of non-kosher meat in Roman Corinth, would be astonishing if he were intending to enforce the details of the apostolic letter. The fact that the same word appears in both texts does not indicate that one led to the other. It merely indicates that the issue was a common and difficult one in the first century church.
(5) There is no need to posit different settings for Paul’s instructions in 8:1-13 and 10:14-22 on the basis of the theological or ontological status of ‘idols’. It might appear that he was addressing two different issues on the basis of the contrast between 8:4 (οἴδαμεν ὅτι οὐδὲν εἴδωλον ἐν κόσμῳ) and 10:20 (οὐ θέλω δὲ ὑμᾶς κοινωνοὺς τῶν δαιμονίων γίνεσθαι): if idols are nothing, then how can one become a partner with them? Yet not only is this tension—between the fact that pagan deities do not exist, and the power of the demonic forces that lie behind them when they are worshipped as if they do—intentionally framed that way by Paul in both chapters (8:4-7; 10:19-20), but it also exists in the part of the Torah which sits behind much of what he writes in this section, namely the Song of Moses (‘They sacrificed to demons and not to God; to gods whom they knew not ... They have provoked me to jealousy by what is not God’), as Richard Hays and others have shown. Describing idols as simultaneously non-existent and demonic, as Paul does here, is not evidence of two different issues being addressed, far less of incoherent thinking, but rather of a standard Jewish way of thinking about pagan deities (compare also Isaiah 40-55). Worshipping false gods exposes the worshipper to the ‘pockets of power operating where human social “worlds” or value systems still offer them ground and sway’, but that does not mean that the idol itself has any ontological reality. Paul’s response to the Corinthians in chapters 8 and 10 involves a dialectic between both of these affirmations, rather than a progression from one to the other.
(6) It is very difficult to account for Paul’s reasoning in 8:7-9:27 if we do not see the Corinthians as divided, to some extent, on the question of εἰδωλόθυτα. Some mirror readings of the situation have suggested that the dispute is entirely between Paul and the Corinthians, rather than reflecting tensions within the Corinthian community itself—that the question is not ‘Can we eat idol food?’ but ‘Why can’t we eat idol food?’ This, it is argued, makes much better sense of the forcefulness of Paul’s response than the so-called ‘traditional reading’, in which there is conflict between the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’. But it is difficult to make sense of the length, and nature, of Paul’s argument about συνείδησις and ἐξουσία if the scenario he envisages in 8:9-13 is ‘only a hypothetical example’. If 9:1-27 is not a legal defence but, as we have argued previously, an extended exemplum of the renunciation of rights for the sake of love and the gospel, then thirty-four verses out of the sixty-six Paul spends on εἰδωλόθυτα are addressed to the way believers lay aside their rights and freedoms out of love for others. This would be very hard to explain if the exercise of rights, to the detriment of other believers, was not a substantial part of the problem. This does not mean, however, that we must imagine Paul to be adjudicating between two equal factions and proposing a clever compromise, whereby the ‘strong’ are admitted to be right in principle, but urged to take the high road and back down in practice. Frankly, a false dichotomy is evident in some scholarship on this point: either Paul is confronting the Corinthians because of idolatry, or he is judiciously settling an internal dispute based on love for one another. The most likely explanation, it seems, is that he is combining both of these, in confronting an influential group within the Corinthian church who are urging that Christians can eat εἰδωλόθυτα, with two principal objections to their position. The first is the fact that it will lead weaker brothers and sisters to stumble, which should settle the issue anyway (8:7-9:27); the second is that it is fundamentally idolatrous to participate in pagan worship in this way (10:1-22).
(7) It is probable that the word ‘weak’ (ἀσθενής) in 8:7-13 is not a word coined by Paul to refer to some Corinthians, but a word coined by some Corinthians to refer to others. What we know about the social stratification of the Corinthian community, insofar as it existed, indicates that there would probably have been a variety of views within the church on the question of participating in socially important pagan meals. For those believers who were living at or just above subsistence level—which, as we have seen, was a sizeable majority—avoiding εἰδωλόθυτα, in line with their consciences and Paul’s instructions, would not have been particularly costly in social or economic terms. The more affluent group within the church, on the other hand, for whom eating at religious festivals was an important way of maintaining and improving social status, would have regarded their poorer brothers and sisters as ‘weak’ and immature for displaying such scruples; since an idol did not really exist in the first place, it did not make any sense to remove oneself from normal society, reject invitations from friends and family, fail to fulfil obligations to patrons and spurn opportunities for social advancement, all because of εἰδωλόθυτα. It is difficult to be certain of this background, and there are a bewildering number of permutations in the secondary literature. Nonetheless, it seems probably that we should see the word ‘weak’, not as Paul’s label for those with sensitive consciences or restrictive diets, but as the label given by some in the church to others in the church, for the purpose of marginalising their views on εἰδωλόθυτα.
(8) Although it is impossible to be certain, the temple dining rooms at the Asklepieion offer a very plausible setting for much of Paul’s concern in 8:1-10:22. In a thorough review of the possible contexts, including the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore, the temples of Isis and Sarapis, and all the various unidentified temple sites in Corinth, John Fotopoulos has shown, in response to the previous work of Peter Gooch, that the Asklepieion is a likely primary setting for this section of the letter, and that the food involved would almost certainly have been sacrificial, even when the purpose of the feast was not explicitly religious. Corinthian Christians could have attended functions ranging from thanksgiving meals for physical healing, to birthdays, funerals and weddings, at the invitation of friends, family members or patrons. But although such meals were common ways of socialising in Roman Corinth—and accepting such invitations was an important way of fulfilling one’s social obligations—they were never devoid of religious significance, involving as they did not just the temple setting but also sacrificial food, cultic priests, libations and probably statues of Asklepios within the courtyard. Add to this the possibility of sexual encounters in such contexts, and it is easy to imagine Paul, faced with this sort of behaviour within the church, responding with both an appeal for brotherly love in preference to the exercise of ‘rights’ (8:10-9:27), and a blanket denunciation of idolatry (10:1-22). The widespread prevalence of pagan worship and sacrificial food in Corinth should make us wary of defining the context too narrowly, but if we are looking for clarity on what ἐν εἰδωλείῳ κατακείμενον (8:10) might mean, the Asklepieion provides a compelling answer.
(9) As such, it is unnecessary to posit a tension between Paul’s approach in 8:1-13 and 10:1-22, as if the two passages must be addressing different problems in the church. The fact that they enlist different arguments in support of their conclusions (the renunciation of rights for the sake of others in the former, and the danger of partnering with demons in the latter) should not blind us to the fact that their conclusions—namely, that Christians should not eat sacrificial food in pagan temple precincts—are one and the same. Rather than seeing these two lines of argument as evidence of two separate problems, we should instead view them as complementary and mutually reinforcing ways of preventing a potentially disastrous practice from taking root in the congregation. Consequently, in what follows, we will assume that throughout 8:1-10:22, the same issue predominates: that of eating sacrificial food in pagan temple precincts.
(10) This reconstruction also makes sense of Paul’s otherwise puzzling change of tack in 10:23-30. As has often been pointed out, without proposing a partition theory or accusing Paul of being hopelessly inconsistent, it is difficult to reconcile 8:1-10:22 with 10:23-30 if we assume that the food itself is the problem. On the basis of (8) and (9), however, this difficulty disappears. It is not simply, in Witherington’s neat phrase, that Paul is talking about ‘venue rather than menu’; a formal sacrificial banquet to a pagan deity in a private home would, we may assume, have prompted similar consternation in his mind. Rather, it is the character of the meal, more generally conceived, that is the differentiating factor. Participating in a sacrificial meal, whether in a temple precinct (as would usually have been the case) or in a private home, Paul considered off-limits; but to avoid any food that had been sacrificed to idols, even in the context of the macellum or an innocuous meal with friends or family, would have been both socially unrealistic and unhelpfully pedantic, given that ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’ It is for this reason that his concern moves from the idolatrous nature of pagan sacrifice (10:1-22) to the practical and relational concerns of conscience (10:23-30). In a city where there was so much sacrificial food, it was better to eat what was served without enquiring about its origin, than to restrict Christian liberty needlessly and offend one’s host.
(11) The final question to be resolved is whether εἰδωλόθυτα should be translated ‘idol food’, or more specifically ‘idol meat’. The connection with the verb θύω does not settle things one way or another, because it properly refers to offering sacrifices to the gods by burning, and could include grain, cereal or even cheese. Recent discussion on this issue has largely centred on the social reconstruction of wealth and poverty in Corinth, with Theissen and others insisting that meat was so rare for the poor that its presence at cultic meals accounts for their temptation to eat it, and Meggitt responding that meat was more available amongst the lower echelons of society than has been claimed. But a further factor, which tips the balance in favour of the more general translation, is the way Paul himself, while speaking of εἰδωλόθυτα, talks about more than merely meat in these chapters: drinking the cup of demons (10:21), ‘whatever is sold in the meat market’ (10:25), which would have been more than just meat, and ‘whatever is set before you’ during a meal (10:27). The primary focus is likely to have been meat, but to translate εἰδωλόθυτα this way would imply it was the only referent, which appears from Paul’s own treatment here not to be the case. I have therefore translated it as ‘idol food.’
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably filled in the blanks for yourself, but anyway: on Friday, I’ll try and join the dots, and engage with the question of hermeneutical consistency.