Idol Meat at Corinth: Part 1

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?…When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again.
1 Corinthians 8:10, 12-13

What’s the first thing to pop into your mind after reading this passage?

 If your reactions are anything like mine, here’s what you may have thought:
  • Don’t eat idol meat, got it. Check. Next please.
  • Don’t go to places that serve booze. Except for Chili’s, but you have to sit in the family section away from the bar.
  • Don’t do anything to offend anyone else. This includes wearing “A Bread Crumb and a Fish” shirts and listening Kriss Kross cassette tapes.
  • Guess I’ll try not to get my freedom everywhere to protect those poor weaklings.

While these reactions mean well (except for the last one), they do not answer the Corinthian’s question to Paul:

Should I as a Christian eat idol meat? If so, why? If not, why not?

We are at the distinct disadvantage of not being first-century Corinthians, which means we have to do some research. We have to answer a few basic questions before we even address those issues. Where would the Corinthians eat idol meat? To whom or what was the food sacrificed?  How prevalent was this practice?

Only when we answer those questions can we deduce the implications for our own culture, otherwise we might be teaching a different position than one Paul is advocating. If we truly respect the Bible as the word of God, we must respect that it was written during a different time and place than our own and contains customs and practices with which we are not familiar. It is our duty as followers of the Bible to understand why Paul would write such a thing and why the Corinthians would ask such a question.

In the next few blog posts, I’m going to explore this passage through recent research into ancient Corinth, its religious architecture, implications for New Testament research, and finally what Paul might have meant in his statement about eating idol meats. I’ve limited this blog post to two questions, so I’ll try to keep that a pattern for the next blog posts.

First things first.

Q: Where would the Corinthians eat idol meat? 
A: In the temples.

Just like many ancient Greco-Roman cities, Corinth had its fair share of temples. We know that Ancient Corinth housed temples to Apollo, Diana, Zeus, Poseidon, and Asklepion among others. The remains of the Temple to Apollo (pictured above) are just one example. Each temple was fairly large and most had dining rooms to accommodate guests. While the temples regularly had religious services , most temples were used frequently for banquet halls. The dining rooms provided a beautiful space for weddings, celebratory feasts, or any number of occasions. We don’t really have anything to compare the ancient temple to in modern day America, but think of a fancy restaurant set in a fancy church.


If you look closely on the map, you can see three temples. The Temple of Apollo (light blue) is in the southern area of the city closest to the theater. The northern section of the city contains the Asklepeion (red) and the shrine to Zeus (brown).

Out of these three temples, the Asklepeion (the temple built to honor Asklepios) is arguably the highest profile and most used during the first century AD. The red-section I highlighted would look similar to the Apollo temple picture above, but the surrounding areas looked much different since, obviously, Asklepios (the god to whom the temple is built) is a different god.

Q: Who was Asklepios and why would anyone build a temple for him?
A: Asklepios (Gk: Ἀσκληπιός; also called Asclepius or Asclepsius) was a Greco-Roman deified mortal and son of the god Apollo. Most importantly, he was the most consulted god of medicine in the Greco-Roman pantheon during AD1-200.[1]

Statue of Asklepios

Here’s a statue of Asklepios. Does anything in his statue look familiar to you?

If you said the snake-rod, then you’re correct! The rod of Asklepios, called the Asklepian, is still used as symbol for medicine and healing to this day. (Check out the Blue-Cross Blue-Shield logo. See? Just helped your trivial pursuit knowledge)

A little bit more background on Asklepios. During his moral lifetime, he was a very adept healer, even raising Hippolytus from the dead for money [3]. Fearing that humans would learn resurrection and jealous of his healing abilities, Zeus killed him with a lightning bolt. [4] Afterwards, Zeus granted him immortality by placing him amongst the stars in the constellation Ophiochus. I’m sure he was pumped about that.

The Asklepios cult–a fancy way to say those who worshiped Asklepios and made offerings to him regularly–was very active all over Ancient Greece and later the Roman Empire. Large healing shrines were located in Epidaurus, Athens, Peiraeus, Kos, Pergamum, Troizen, Rome, Crete, and Corinth and remained a popular choice among personal deities through the AD300.[6] The Asklepios cult peaked within the AD1-200 and saw substantial growth during that time.[9] The early church fathers were not happy about Asklepios at all, but I’ll save those comments for next time.

Healings went like this: The sick would come to the temple for a prescription for healing or an encounter with the deity Asklepios himself.[7] The sick who wished for a divine encounter would sleep in a room called the abaton while waiting for a vision from the god.[8] Occasionally, the sacred snakes are involved, but I didn’t research how they were involved because I was afraid of what I might discover. I’ll assume the sick people pet the snakes from afar and were filled with joy because they were not bitten.

That’s it for part one. Part two will cover the Asklepeion itself–the layout, rooms, and surrounding areas–and what the Asklepeion does not tell us about first century life in Corinth. Feel free to leave a question or comment below.

[1] Emma J. L. Edelstein and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies (reprint, 1998; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1945), xxiii.
[2] Homer, Iliad 4; Pindar, Pythian Odes, 3.5; Apollodorus, The Library 3.118; Pausanias, Guide to Greece 2.26.1.
[3] Pindar, Pythian Ode 3.54.
[4] Pindarm Pythian Ode 3.54; Apollodous, The Library, 3.10.4.
[5] John Fotopoulos, Food Offered to Idols in Roman Corinth: A Social-rhetorical Reconsideration of 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 (WUNT 2.152; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 50.
[6] Edelstein and Edelstein, 132-3.
[7] Fotopoulos, 49.
[8] Fotopoulos, 49.
[9] Edelstein and Edelstein, 108. Both Strabo (8.6.15) and Aristides (Oration 26, 105)  comment on the size of the cult. Cited in Fotopoulos, 50.
Temple of Apollo courtesy ISAWNYU.
Map of Ancient Corinth courtesy Ancient Corinth.

Asklepios statue courtesy of Wikipedia.

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