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Archive for March, 2009

Idol Vegetarians?

So I’ve been inspired by a colleague and fellow theology graduate to post some of my favourite/best essays, and well this is one of the ones I enjoyed writing and got some pretty good results in. The question was:

“What was the problem with ‘meat offered to idols’ and how does Paul deal with it? (1 Corinthians 8-10)

Your answer should reflect the implications of this situation for the practice of Christian ministry today. i.e. Contemporary relevance.”

The Historical Context of 1st Corinthians

The city of Corinth was less than 100 years old when Paul arrived circa AD 52, after have been destroyed and then re-established as a Roman colony in 46 BC.[1] Julius Caesar re-colonised the city with war veterans, ‘freedmen’ (former slaves), traders and labourers.[2] By the time Paul wrote to the Corinthian church the city had become a bustling multi ethnic city home to Romans, Greeks, Jews (many of whom were prisoners of war from the Jewish revolt in AD 70), and other ethnic groups from the Roman Empire.[3] Much of this growth was a result of Corinth’s strategic location on one of the key trade crossroads in the Roman Empire.[4] Located on the ‘isthmus of Corinth’ a narrow piece of land separating the Aegean and Ionian seas, Corinth had a port on both coasts and an ingenious system whereby ships were transported across the isthmus by slaves.[5] The sea route around the peninsula was long and dangerous, therefore merchant and military captains alike preferred to travel via Corinth, contributing to the cities cultural diversity and commercial wealth.[6]

Corinth’s cultural diversity bought with it a great deal of religious diversity, Pausanias, writing in the second century AD, records at least twenty six ‘sacred places’ dedicated to Greco-Roman gods and Egyptian or Asian ‘mystery cults’, however Corinth underwent significant redevelopment in AD 77, thus the exact number present during Paul’s lifetime is unknown.[7] Corinth’s numerous temples bought great quantities of religious pilgrims, especially the temple of Aphrodite located on the Acro-Corinth, a large mountain overlooking the city.[8] The goddess of love, beauty, fertility and marine travel, Aphrodite has a close association with sexual activity, as well as being the considered the patron goddess of prostitutes.[9] Furthermore according to some sources Corinthians believed that sexual intercourse with a priestess was considered an act of worship to Aphrodite.[10] Amongst the other temples found in Corinth there was also a temple dedicated to Asklepios, the god of physical, emotional and mental healing, located near the temple of Asklepios was “the Lerna with its dining facilities and bath and fountain house,” as a result of this the temple was a popular area for social dining.[11]

On the subject of Corinth’s immorality there is some disagreement between scholars as to the level of vice that filled the city. Some writers refer to Corinth as a city with, “a history of being an exceptionally immoral city and that it was still filled with immorality in Paul’s day.”[12] Writers who take this viewpoint of Corinth look to a number of sources for support of this view. Paul’s own words seem to voice strong support to the notion that Corinth was exceptionally immoral: “since there is so much immorality…”[13] The ancient geographer Strabo wrote that the temple of Aphrodite housed a thousand scared prostitutes, whilst a Greek slang term for promiscuity, korinthiazesthai was derived from Corinth.[14] As well as the sexual acts related to the worship of Aphrodite, worship of Apollo is also thought to have included acts of homosexual behaviour with young boys.[15]

However many recent scholars disagree with this extreme assessment of 1st century Corinth’s immorality. The key objection that these scholars have against the extreme view of Corinth’s immorality is that Strabo’s comments and the origin of the slang term korinthiazesthai both refer to old Corinth, prior to its destruction in 46 BC.[16] Recent archaeological investigations have shown that Strabo’s comments were a gross exaggeration.[17] James Dunn further believes that the reputation Corinth gained for immorality stemmed more from rivalry from other cities than actual truth.[18] It is generally considered that Corinth’s immorality has been exaggerated and, while there was no doubt sexual sin in abundance, the city was no worst than any prosperous Greco-Roman port.[19]

Jews, Gentiles and Idols

For the first century Christians issues relating to idols were commonplace, the Greco-Roman world was rife with pagan religions for which idols were a major feature.[20] In this context the Jewish religion was unusual because it was Monotheistic and idolatry was forbidden under the Mosaic Law.[21] Despite this direct command from God the nation of Israel had often turned from God and worshipped idols, which led to the destruction of the nation.[22] However it appears that the Israelites had moved away from their ancestor’s apostasy and removed idolatry from the Jewish religion by the first Century.[23] Indeed whilst the Old Testament prophets frequently condemned the Israelites for their idolatry, Jesus makes no mention of this practice in the Gospels, which some scholars take as an indication that this practice was rooted out of Jewish religion by this time.[24]

Some commentators state that for the Jewish Christians the matters regarding idols were simple, “an open-and-shut matter.”[25] Others argue that issues regarding idols were far more complicated than this for the Jews living in the Greco-Roman world.[26] Bruce Winter records the difficulty that Jews felt at reconciling the belief that idols were nothing possessing no power with the healings that occurred at the temple of Asklepios.[27] The question “how can ‘nothing’ that possesses no power heal a crippled man?” must have frequently challenged their monotheistic beliefs. Furthermore diverse opinions arose as to the extent to which Jews were to avoid association with idols; one example is the use of bath houses that had been dedicated to pagan gods.[28]

For the Gentile converts to Christianity the issue was made more complicated, since many of them had spent years living as pagans, worshipping idols and honouring many gods.[29] For these Christians the transition between their pagan pluralistic worldview and their newly found Christian faith would require far more of a change of perspective than that required of Jewish Christians, who were used to monotheistic religion.[30]

Meat Offered to Idols: The Problems

The problems that Paul was dealing with in these three chapters can be broken down into three issues, firstly the relationship between the Christians and the surrounding culture, secondly the way different social classes within the church related to each other, and finally the roles of love and knowledge in the life of the Christian community.[31]

Christians and Culture

The new Christians of Corinth found themselves facing a difficult situation; they had embraced the teachings of Christ and for many that meant a complete change of lifestyle and perspective. For some that meant a whole new understanding of the Mosaic Law which had guided their whole lives.[32] For others it meant an entirely new understanding of the nature of God, as one rather than many, and a completely new way of life as a result of that.[33] However regardless of the background they had come out of these new Christians were still ‘in the world’[34] and had to learn how to relate to those who were not believers. After all if these Christians were to remove themselves completely from the pagan society around them and form purely Christian ghettos they would lose any chance of positively influencing unbelievers with the Gospel.[35] In relation to meat offered to idols this problem has three branches.

Firstly the question arises regarding whether Christians could eat meat bought at the Corinthian market, which ‘could’ have been offered to idols.[36] Because Corinth was so saturated with pagan temples in which animal sacrifices were often performed, it was quite likely that some of the meat found in the market had been sacrificed to an idol then sold to gain profit for the temple.[37] Some of the Corinthian Christians feared that perhaps the very act of sacrificing the meat to an idol tainted it and made it unsafe for them to eat.[38]

The second part of this problem for these Christians was how they were to deal with meals at private homes of pagans, should they be invited for a meal and presented with meat.[39] Should the Christian ask about the origins of any meat offered and risk offending social courtesy[40] or avoid eating with pagans (even their own families) altogether, as the Jews did with Gentiles.[41]

The final part of this problem relates to social dining in Corinth’s many temples which often had significant dining facilities amongst the temple buildings.[42] These temple dining facilities performed the tasks of modern day restaurants where all manner of celebrations, social gatherings, business deals and political manoeuvring took place.[43] For many of the residents of Corinth these events were vital to their social and economic lives and rejecting invitations could cost them dearly.[44] Therefore as a result they would have found themselves torn between their civic duty and Paul’s earlier command to avoid idolaters.[45]

Social Differences

The second problem this passage highlights is a tension between the higher and lower classes within the Corinthian church.[46] In the first century meat was not a regular feature in most diets, and tended only to be eaten regularly by the more privileged members of society.[47] Indeed for those who were not part of the social elite the only opportunities to eat meat would likely be at public pagan festivals, a special occasion where the association with idols would be unavoidable.[48] Conversely, as mentioned previously, the more affluent Christians would likely downplay the religious aspect of the feasts they attended in order to maintain their social status without jeopardising their conscience.[49]

Another aspect of social strain which may have relevance to this part of the discussion would be the difference between the different factions that had developed within the church.[50] Some scholars believe that the church may have been split into two factions; those legalists who insisted on total avoidance of ‘idol meat’ and those who saw idols as nothing and felt the legalists were ignoring their freedom in Christ at the cost of their evangelism.[51]

There also may have been a good deal of strain caused by differences in strength of faith, with some thinking that they were strong or knowledgeable enough that being present at idol feasts caused them no problems.[52] Furthermore they were causing problems for those with ‘weaker’ consciences by insisting that they take part in these feasts to strengthen their faith, when the reality is they are being drawn back to their old pagan ways.[53]

Love and Knowledge

The final strand of the problem is that some of the Corinthians were founding their faith on knowledge, gnōsis, rather than love.[54] This faction of the church was claiming that, because they had gnōsis, they knew idols had no power over them and therefore they could take part in idol feasts with no qualms.[55] It also appears that they believed that Christian sacraments had a ‘magical’ effect, meaning the baptised Christian was safe from falling.[56] As a result of this focus on knowledge rather than love, many of the ‘strong’ or ‘knowledgeable’ Christians were pressing other Christians into activities that would bring them harm, all in the name of gaining gnōsis.[57] Another area of concern for Paul may have been that the gnōsis party may drift towards a Gnostic worldview, which was fiercely attacked as heretical by later Christian writers.[58]

Meat Offered to Idols: Paul’s Solutions

When Paul and Barnabas were ministering in Antioch a faction demanded that all Christians should obey the Mosaic Law, including Gentiles, this caused a great deal of controversy and the apostles and elders called a council.[59] At the Jerusalem council the apostles and elders decided on four requirements for believers to follow, one of which was the avoidance of meat offered to idols.[60] Thus the question arises, ‘why does Paul not simply mention the council, reinforce those commands and leave the matter at that?’ When seeking an answer to this question scholars differ. Some see Paul’s strong opposition to legalism as the reason he avoids citing the ‘Jerusalem decree.’[61] One such commentator writes that, “…it would have been fatal to yield one iota to the rigorists,’ on the grounds that if they should gain an inch they would seek to take a mile.[62] William Ramsay disagrees with this, he stresses that the Corinthians had met with many practical difficulties in applying the decree therefore they had decided to disregard these teachings as impractical.[63] Thus the ‘Jerusalem decree’ formed the basis for the discussion as Paul sought to help the Corinthians apply their theology in the less than black and white world.[64]

Paul’s first concern is to address the root cause of the problem, an incorrect attitude which in turn affects their ethics and behaviour.[65] For the ‘strong’ faction within the church the basis of their behaviour is their knowledge, which gives them freedom to do as they will.[66] It is quite likely that the ‘knowledgeable’ members of the church viewed those who challenged their conduct as ‘weak’ brothers who needed to exercise their freedom in order to deepen their knowledge.[67] As a result the ‘strong’ were pushing the ‘weak’ into activities which went against their conscience and lead them to expose themselves to harm.[68] Paul seeks to counter this false foundation for behaviour by contrasting the flimsy puffing up of knowledge with the solid building up that love brings.[69] Whilst knowledge may appear to benefit the church the truth of the matter is different, there is no substance to something that has been ‘puffed up’ when pushed the puffed up object breaks.[70] Contrasted to this the way love builds up, benefiting and strengthening both those who are being treated with love and those who love their fellow man.[71]

Paul’s next concern is to confront those factions within the church who reject his authority as an apostle, after all unless he can show them that his teachings do have authority they will likely disregard his teachings.[72] Therefore throughout chapter nine Paul seeks to defend his authority as an apostle and the rights he has as an apostle, finally and most surprisingly Paul then explains why he has refused to use the rights his apostleship grants.[73] In establishing his authority and rights, and more importantly, the reasons for refusing to make use of those rights, Paul provides an excellent example of the principles he teaches in chapter 8, love and the success of the Gospel over exercise of individual rights.[74]

Paul now looks to the history of God’s people to help teach the church how to behave and to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.[75] As Paul looks to the children of Israel and their spiritual experiences in the wilderness he sees a number of comparisons with the Corinthian church.[76] Just like the Israelites the Corinthian church has been delivered by God from oppression and they drank from Christ, despite all of this the Israelites compromised with idols and as a result were excluded from God’s family.[77] From the example of the Israelites in the wilderness Paul points to four activities that the Israelites took part in; idolatry, sexual immorality, testing God and grumbling, which led to their destruction.[78] Warning the Corinthians not to become proud and self-assured and therefore fall into immorality, Paul then sets out the prohibition towards which he has been building; ‘do not have any involvement in the sacrificial feasts that take place in the pagan temples and festivals’.[79] Following this absolute statement Paul then clarifies the two grey areas regarding the meat market and invitations to pagan homes; here Paul takes into mind the real world situations and grants the Corinthians permission to eat, always in the case of market purchases, while in the case of meals it is permissible unless someone indicates a connection with idolatry.[80]

Finally as Paul brings the discussion on this particular issue to an end he reminds the readers of the essential principle; consider the message of the Gospel and of others and seek to build them up in love.[81]

Contemporary Application

For the 21st century Western Christian questions regarding meat offered to idols seem completely irrelevant, although for some Christians immersed in certain cultures these questions are still very applicable, the underlying questions, problems and solutions are extremely applicable to daily life.[82]

A key example of the problems the Corinthians had that are repeated in the 21st century relate to questions about the boundaries between Christians and culture.[83] Should Christians be involved in activities like Freemasonry, yoga, martial arts, or role-playing games where pagan links or activities form part of the activities or at least play a part in their backdrop.[84] 1st Corinthians 8-10 should encourage us to review our lives and wonder if we are unknowingly ‘eating in an idol’s temple’ and be prepared to remove ourselves from all idolatry as Paul commands.[85]

The key principle which applies to the church throughout the ages and which is at the core of Paul’s writing in these chapters, and indeed is found throughout scripture, is that of loving each other.[86] As Paul writes later in 1 Corinthians 13, love is the most important factor in life, and Christian living without love is nothing, indeed it is an affront to God.[87] This loving of others before ourselves should form the basis of Christian behaviour and is the key application of these texts to 21st century Christianity, indeed as Jesus said love would be the mark of his disciples.[88] The 21st century Christian should always seek to review motives and attitudes, are rights and knowledge taking pride of place over love, and thus harming others and ourselves?[89]

Conclusion

Whilst the surface issues and teachings of some parts of 1 Corinthians may appear to be archaic and irrelevant to the 21st century the underlying principles have deep implications for the contemporary church. The principles of boundaries between church and culture, reviewing of attitudes and their foundations and the principle of loving others above ourselves are essential to any church that wishes to follow the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us.[90]

Bibliography

Blomberg, C, The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994

Calvin, J (Translated by Fraser, J), The First Epistle of Paul The Apostle to the Corinthians, Carlisle: Paternoster, 1960

Comfort, P in Hawthorne, G & Martin, R (eds), Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Leicester: IVP, 1993

Drane, J, An Introduction to the New Testament, Oxford: Lion Publishing plc, 1999

Dunn, J, 1 Corinthians, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995

Fee, G, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1987

Hafemann, S in Hawthorne, G & Martin, R (eds), Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Leicester: IVP, 1993

Hays, R.B, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997

McRay, J, Paul: His Life and Teaching, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003

Naylor, P, A Study Commentary on 1 Corinthians, Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2004

Prior, D, The Message of 1 Corinthians, Leicester: IVP, 1985

Ramsay, W (edited by Wilson, M), Historical Commentary on First Corinthians, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1996

Soards, M, 1 Corinthians, Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999

Thiselton, A, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: a Commentary on the Greek Text, Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000

Wikipedia Contributors, Aphrodite: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphrodite, October 2006

Winter, B, ‘Theological and Ethical Responses to Religious Pluralism-1 Corinthians 8-10’ as cited in Tyndale Bulletin 41.2 (1990), 1990

Winter, B in Carson, D & France, R & Motyer, J & Wenham, G (eds), New Bible Commentary (fourth edition), Leicester: IVP, 1994

Witherington III, B, Conflict & Community in Corinth: a Social-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995

Yamauchi, E in Hawthorne, G & Martin, R (eds), Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Leicester: IVP, 1993


[1] Drane, J, Introducing the New Testament: p.310-311

[2] Thiselton, J, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text: p.3

[3] Naylor, P, A Study Commentary on 1 Corinthians: p.17 & 18

[4] Hays, R.B, First Corinthians: p.2 & 3

[5] Hays, R.B, First Corinthians: p.2 & 3

[6] Naylor, P, A Study Commentary on 1 Corinthians: p.18

[7] Pausanias cited in Hafemann, S in Hawthorne, G & Martin, R (eds), Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: p.173

[8] Witherington III, B, Conflict & Community in Corinth: a socio-rhetorical commentary on  1 and 2 Corinthians: p.12

[9] Witherington III, B, Conflict & Community in Corinth: p.12 & 13

[10] Wikipedia Contributors, Aphrodite: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphrodite

[11] Witherington III, B, Conflict & Community: p.14 & 15

[12] McRay, J, Paul: His Life and Teaching: p.166

[13] 1 Corinthians 7:2

[14] Hays, R, First Corinthians: p.3 & 4

[15] Prior, D, The Message of 1 Corinthians: p.12

[16] Hays, R, First Corinthians: p.4

[17] Hays, R, First Corinthians: p.4

[18] Dunn, J, 1 Corinthians: p.16

[19] Fee, G, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: p.2 & 3

[20] Comfort, P in Hawthorne, G & Martin, R (eds), Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: p.425

[21] Leviticus 19:4

[22] Ezekiel 6:1-7

[23] Comfort, P in Hawthorne, G & Martin, R (eds), Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: p.424

[24] Comfort, P in Hawthorne, G & Martin, R (eds), Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: p.424

[25] Naylor, P, A Study Commentary on 1 Corinthians: p.206

[26] Winter, B, ‘Theological and Ethical Responses to Religious Pluralism-1 Corinthians 8-10’ cited in Tyndale Bulletin 41.2 (1990), p.215

[27] Winter, B, ‘Theological and Ethical Responses to Religious Pluralism-1 Corinthians 8-10’ cited in Tyndale Bulletin 41.2 (1990), p.215

[28] Winter, B, ‘Theological and Ethical Responses to Religious Pluralism-1 Corinthians 8-10’ cited in Tyndale Bulletin 41.2 (1990), p.216-217

[29] Hafemann, S in Hawthorne, G & Martin, R (eds), Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: p.173

[30] Naylor, P, A Study Commentary on 1 Corinthians: p.205-207

[31] Hays, R, First Corinthians: p.135

[32] Matthew 5:17

[33] 1 Corinthians 8:6

[34] John 17:11-18

[35] Ramsay, W, Historical Commentary on First Corinthians: p.89

[36] 1 Corinthians 10:25

[37] Blomberg, C, The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians: p.159 & 160

[38] Blomberg, C, The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians: p.159

[39] 1 Corinthians 10:27

[40] Ramsay, W, Historical Commentary on First Corinthians: p.89

[41] Acts 10:28

[42] Witherington III, B, Conflict & Community: p.188

[43] Hays, R, First Corinthians: p.136-137

[44] Dunn, J, 1 Corinthians: p.58 & 59

[45] Witherington III, B, Conflict & Community: p.186

[46] Hays, R, First Corinthians: p.135

[47] Witherington III, B, Conflict & Community: p.190

[48] Witherington III, B, Conflict & Community: p.190

[49] Hays, R, First Corinthians: p.137

[50] 1 Corinthians 1:12

[51] Prior, D, The Message of 1 Corinthians: p.141

[52] Fee, G, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: p.362

[53] Fee, G, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: p.362

[54] Fee, G, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: p.362-363

[55] Hays, R, First Corinthians: p.136

[56] Fee, G, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: p.362

[57] Fee, G, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: p.362

[58] Yamauchi, E in Hawthorne, G & Martin, R (eds), Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: p.350-352

[59] Acts 15:1-6

[60] Acts 15:19, 20 & 23-29

[61] Prior, D, The Message of 1 Corinthians: p.141

[62] Prior, D, The Message of 1 Corinthians: p.141

[63] Ramsay, W, Historical Commentary on First Corinthians: p.89-90

[64] Ramsay, W, Historical Commentary on First Corinthians: p.90-91

[65] Fee, G, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: p.363

[66] Fee, G, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: p.363

[67] Fee, G, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: p.366

[68] Fee, G, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: p.362

[69] Hays, R, First Corinthians: p.137-138

[70] Prior, D, The Message of 1 Corinthians: p.143

[71]Soards, M, 1 Corinthians: p.171

[72] Dunn, J, 1 Corinthians: p.91-92

[73] Fee, G, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: p.392

[74] Calvin, J, The First Epistle of Paul The Apostle to the Corinthians: p.182

[75] Winter, B in Carson, D, France, R, Motyer, J & Wenham, G (eds), New Bible Commentary: p.1176 & 1177

[76] Winter, B in Carson, D, France, R, Motyer, J & Wenham, G (eds), New Bible Commentary: p.1176

[77] Winter, B in Carson, D, France, R, Motyer, J & Wenham, G (eds), New Bible Commentary: p.1176 & 1177

[78] Winter, B in Carson, D, France, R, Motyer, J & Wenham, G (eds), New Bible Commentary: p.1177

[79] Fee, G, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: p.442

[80] Fee, G, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: p.478-485

[81] 1 Corinthians 10:31-33

[82] Blomberg, C, The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians: p.167

[83] Hays, R, First Corinthians: p.143

[84] Blomberg, C, The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians: p.167-168

[85] Hays, R, First Corinthians: p.143-144

[86] John 13:34-35, Romans 12:10, 1 Corinthians 13, Galatians 5:13,

[87] Calvin, J, The First Epistle of Paul The Apostle to the Corinthians: p.171

[88] Hays, R, First Corinthians: p.145 & 180-181

[89] Soards, M, 1 Corinthians: p.178-179

[90] Ephesians 5:1 & 2

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Resurrection!

Well I’ve decided, after a long break to bring my blog back to life!

I promise to try and write more frequently, and to write about vaguely interesting stuff too!

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