Idol Meat at Corinth: Part 2

This is a long post, so feel free to get a snack or two before reading on.
Now that finals are over, I can finish up this series. Let’s return to the ancient city of Corinth.[1]

Here’s a recap of part one:

  • The study of ancient Corinth’s culture–particularly its religious affiliations–is essential to understand Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor 8.
  • Ancient Corinthians ate idol meat in temples
  • The Asclepeion (temple of Asclepios) was one of the most active temples in ancient Corinth and Asclepios was one of the most worshiped gods in Corinth during Paul’s lifetime.

Picking up where we left off, I’ll address these questions:

What was it about Asclepios that made him, his religion, and his temple so attractive to the ancient Corinthians? We now know that the Corinthians ate idol meat in the temples, but did they also eat idol meat in their homes? Why does this matter at all?

(8:9) Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall…  (10:14-21)Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say…  Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons.  You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons…(10:25-37) Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience… If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 

Q. Did the Corinthians eat idol meat in their homes?

A. Yes they did, but Paul’s prohibitions are limited to the temple setting.

Expanded version J. Fotopulos’s dissertation (Loyola)
Looking at Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, Paul seems to contradict himself in his instructions regarding idol meat. In 8:9-13; 10:14-22, he prohibits eating idol meat while allowing it in 10:25-27.John Fotopoulos recently wrote an excellent dissertation at Loyola on the topic (pictured left). His view (and mine as well) is that Paul is prohibiting “temple dining because such dining actualized a partnership with pagan deities that made the Corinthians guilty of idolatry. However, Paul allowed the consumption of food purchased at the market (10:25-26) and food served at meals in pagan homes (10:27-11:1) only if the food was not known to be a sacrificial food. Thus Paul’s instructions are meant to provide a way that the Corinthians could continue cordial social relations with pagans while also protecting against the idolatrous consumption of sacrificial food.” [2] Fantin, in his review, summarizes Fotopoulous in this way:”Fotopoulos argues that Paul’s primary focus was to forbid the eating of idol food in temple contexts because of the religious implications of such participation. In other contexts where explicit idolatry was not apparent (in homes or the marketplace), Paul permitted the eating of anything not explicitly identified as idol foodThus Paul’s prohibition is against intentionally eating anything that is known to be related to the worship of an idol.”[3]Basically, that means that the temple dining was more of an issue than dining at home. An explicit connection between idolatry and eating idol meat exists at the temples. 
As mentioned in part one, Corinthians would be in the temples for any number of occasions–parties, celebrations, or holidays to name a few. To refuse such an invitation would cause a rift in the relationship and, in the case of celebration feasts, a refusal might imply regret that a healing had taken place! Yet participation in such would be considered worship of Asclepios or any other deity by all participants. It was a sticky situation which is why Paul’s commands may confuse us, but the connection to idolatry is Paul’s primary concern.

Q. Why were the Corinthians drawn to Asclepios and how does this affect the Corinthian Christians?

A. The vast majority of Corinthians attributed healings/miracles to Asclepios, which presented a challenge for the Christians in Corinth due to the apparent similarity between Aslepios and Jesus.

Justin Martyr
Essentially, if a Corinthian wanted to be healed of a sickness–colds, fevers, or even fertility issues–they went to the Asclepios temple. When or if a person was ever healed, they celebrated at the temple to give thanks  to Asclepios for his provision and healing. This became a huge issue in the early Church especially in cities like Corinth were the Asclepios cult was booming.Justin Martyr (AD100 – 165), a great defender of Christianity during his lifetime pictured here giving the sign of the cross and possibly flipping off heretics, calls Asclepios a great healer in chapter 21 of his First Apology and he acknowledges Asclepios’ power to raise the dead in his Dialogues with Trypho. The similarities do not end there. Asclepios is called Son of God (he is the son of Apollo after all).Edelstein and Edelstein very helpfully show us the similarities between Jesus and Asclepios [4]:

“In addition to the similarity of the deeds of [Jesus and Asclepius]… there was a disturbing resemblance in their way of life and in their characters. Christ did not perform heroic or worldly exploits; he fought no battles; he concerned himself solely with assisting those who were in need of succor. So did Asclepius. Christ, like Asclepius, was sent into the world as a helper of men. Christ’s life on earth was blameless, as was that of Asclepius. Christ in his love of men invited his patients to come to him, or else he wandered about to meet them. This, too, could be said of Asclepius. All in all, it is not astonishing that Apologists and Church Fathers had a hard stand in their fight against Asclepius…

While Edelstein and Edelstein greatly overstates their case (they use evidence from the 4th century AD in their comparison to Christianity and their conclusions reflect the well-documented antisemitic bias in academia, particularly historical Jesus studies at the time) and their conclusion that Christianity is a Greco-Roman religion is no longer accepted, they do paint a serious picture of the times–Asclepios was widely worshiped during Paul’s lifetime and Asclepios’ story, religion, and practices were known to the early Corinthian Christians and–perhaps most importantly–an overlap existed between Christianity and the Asclepios religion.Two main points here. First, it is no surprise that some Corinthian Christians struggled with their old religious practices (especially ones involving Asclepios) and their new practices and beliefs because of the overlap. Second, it is readily apparent why Paul would be so adamant about his prohibition of temple dining–idolatry is inextricably related to the ritual (i.e., the god is thanked and blessed before and during the meal).

Q. Why does this matter to us?

A. The Corinthian religious atmosphere was multifaceted, just like our own, and we undervalue the Bible by coming to quick and vague interpretations of Paul’s admonition in this passage.

I think it should be clear by this point that we cannot apply this passage saying something like “I will not drink in front of someone because they may stumble.” Sure, that may be a good attitude to have–putting others’ needs before your own–but it completely misses Paul’s admonition here. Paul’s admonition revolves around idolatry–nothing more and nothing less. Paul is not spiritualizing  here; he is not saying the Corinthians have their own “idols” (money, wine, women, men). He refers to actual places, actual events, and actual idols. When we spiritualize this text, we minimize the Corinthian’s very real struggle to follow Christ’s instructions in a pagan culture. In an effort to apply all of Scripture to our western, American culture, we have completely muted Paul’s voice– and in turn God’s voice– so that we can hear our own.

We must say that this situation simply cannot be applied properly (i.e., keeping Paul’s argument as well as the Corinthian culture in context) in modern America in broad strokes (i.e., alcohol), but we shouldn’t expect it to. I’m not sure that it could even be applied in smaller towns like Nazareth. Paul is responding to a very specific question in a specific community during a specific time. Could we draw some parallels to the Old Testament passages on idolatry and the story of Israel’s idolatrous past? Possibly, but it’s uncertain that the Gentile community of Corinth would be entirely familiar with the Old Testament. It is best to keep Paul’s comments within Greco-Roman society.

The overarching argument–Christians are prohibited from eating meat sacrificed in overtly pagan practices in pagan temples–can still be practiced today as long as it means exactly that. In other words, we can apply this passage only within the limits of legitimate, explicit idolatry (i.e., public acts of worship dedicated to another deity). 

In conclusion, the next time you’re walking through a temple of Apollo, don’t stay for dinner.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

[1] By ancient, I am referring to the Roman founding of Corinth around 44BC. The Greek city which has a modern reputation for its prostitution–though in reality it was no worse than any port cities–was long destroyed before Paul was born. 
[2]  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)
[3] Joseph Fantin, “Review of Food Offered to Idols in Roman Corith” Biblotheca Sacra 163 (2006). Online here.
[4] Emma J. L. Edelstein and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies (reprint, 1998; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1945), 136.

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