Can we eat all meats? Food sacrificed to idols and misunderstandings regarding 1Cor 10:25

As most of Paul’s words, another common misunderstanding of his writings is the fact that he gave permission to eat anything and everything – effectively making void God’s decree of what is to be eaten and not, written down in Leviticus Chapter 11.

So was he making the law void? If so, why does he say “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law“(Rom 3:3). Is he contradicting himself, or have we misunderstood his words; as Peter wrote “And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction”(2Pe 3:15,16). Let us see whether Paul was telling the believers to “eat all meats” or whether we have misunderstood his writings.

The below study is broken down into 7 sections for your ease.
1. A personal connection to this misunderstood verse
2. What happened in Corinth after Paul left?
3. A historical background of Corinth and the environment Paul lived in
4. Examination of Paul’s words: where to start
5. A brief look at 1Cor 8:1 to 10:33 as one topic/theme
6. Now we finally come upon the verse in question 1Cor 10:25-33
7. Conclusion

1. A personal connection to this misunderstood verse
I was brought up in a traditional Christian family background where we were free to eat anything we liked. “Paul had given specific instructions that Christians could eat anything”. “We were free”. “Christ had died so that we could have these freedoms”. These were the doctrines I had learned at sunday school.

When I first understood the Scriptures in their entirety, many of my earlier beliefs were questioned. I struggled within myself to look at things afresh, without preconceived ideas or notions. Putting things into context, both historically and textually, I was met with one question after the other. As I progressed in my studies, proving myself wrong, and coming to the understanding that I had believed in un-scriptural teachings for so long –  one of the questions that kept coming up was “can I eat what I have been eating all this time? Bacon, prawns, cuttlefish, crab and the like?” Instantly, the answer would pop into my mind – Paul said “Whatsoever is sold in the meat market, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake”1Co 10:25. It couldn’t get clearer than that – Paul said we could eat anything! Right? I had to make sure I was right.

In my studies, I learned something obvious. Paul was writing “letters” to specific congregations. These letters were targeted at particular groups in history, with specific problems and questions. You can’t read a line off an epistle such as this, separate! It’s a letter which is meant to be read from beginning to end. Paul did not mark verse numbers and break his letter down into chapters. These were done much later in time, to make reference easier. So now I had to read each of these letters in one go. And that is what I did.

To further understand the Historical context of the Corinthian congregation, I turned to an expert. Namely Dr. Bruce Winter, who has written a book named “After Paul left Corinth”, which as the name suggests, explores the historical atmosphere of Corinth after Paul left the congregation following his stay with them for one and half years (Act 18:11). I would highly recommend every Christian who wants to know the true meaning of Paul’s words, to read this book.

2. What happened in Corinth after Paul left?
It is important to understand the historical context of the Roman Colony named Corinth, at the time Paul wrote this letter. Without understanding what they went through and what circumstances they lived in, how can we, who live 2000 years after them, hope to understand the true context of Paul’s words?

We know that Paul stayed at Corinth for one and a half years(Act 18:11), which would have been enough time to train and teach the believers in the ways of God. He also commends the congregation for still “following the traditions” that he passed on to them(1Cor 11:2). So the question we should be asking now is, why does Paul suddenly have to explain about eating food from the market? Did he not teach them about food for 1½yrs? Why hadn’t he passed on a tradition on what to do in this regard? Or had circumstances changed in Corinth, so that he needed to give them new instructions?

Even though Paul’s letter to Corinth has been preserved, we do not have the letter which the Corinth congregation sent to Paul. The believers had written to Paul about at least six main matters which they needed answers on, which were addressed by Paul in this letter(7:1, 7:25, 8:1, 14:1, 16:1, 16:12) as we see, Paul himself writing “Now concerning the things you wrote about”(1Co 7:1). Furthermore, Paul had received reports of the issues at Corinth, from other sources as well(1:11, 5:1). It is also important to note that this was not the first time he had written on such issues to Corinth, as he says “I wrote to you in my letter….”(1Co 5:9), which they had misunderstood previously(1Cor 5:10)

3. A historical background of Corinth and the environment Paul lived in
1. Jews had been expelled from Rome under the order of Claudius around 49AD (Act 18:2)

2. The imperial cult where emperors and dignitaries were deified, and regarded, as well as, worshiped to as gods were also on the rise[A]. The “gods on earth” mentioned by Paul, in reference to “so-called gods and lords” could be speaking of such worship (1Cor 8:5)

3. The Isthmian games, a festival of athletic and musical competitions in honour of the sea god poseidon, was also held in Isthmus of Corinth[B]. The president of the Games, was known to have given multiple civic dinners to all who had Roman citizenship [C]. The “right” mentioned in 1Cor 8:9, could very well be the right to eat at Poseidon’s sanctuary at Isthmia, which was open to all who had Roman Citizenship at Corinth.

sanctuary-students working

The Santuary of Poseidon at Isthmia (Click to learn about the excavations done by the Ohio State University

“Archeological evidence suggests that the games did not return to Isthmia until about 50 AD. At that time, the temple and the facilities for the games were repaired, and in 67 AD the Emperor Nero took part in the panhellenic games.” (It is more than possible that the Isthmian Games and the dinners at poseidon’s temple started after Paul left Corinth, requiring him to write to them on how to act accordingly in these changed circumstances.)

4. The city authorities controlled the marketplaces, and special provisions were made for Jews to obtain meats which were slaughtered according to their standards[D]. (The Corinthian congregation would have also had to buy the meat separated for the Jews as per regulations made in Acts 15:20,29).

5. There was no such religion called Christianity at the time of Paul. In fact, the name “Christian”, mentioned only 3 times in the New Testament (Act 11:26, 26:28, 1Pet 4:16) would have been a derogatory term, at the time, as we see it’s use being connected to shame by Peter (1Pet 4:16).

6. Even-though believers in Christ, had significant theological differences with Jews who did not believe in Christ, they were all regarded as part of Jews and one belief system, being called a sect (Act 24:5,14, 28:22).

4. Examination of Paul’s words: where to start
As I have mentioned above, it is important to read the whole of the 1st letter to the Corinthian congregation in one go, to really understand the instructions Paul is providing the Church of Corinth. But, as such a study might not be possible in a short post such as this, we will focus our attention to the the particular part of the letter in concern. Even though the verse in question is 1Cor 10:25, Paul starts addressing this single topic in 1Cor 8:1 and goes upto 10:33. As such, this whole part of the letter needs to be read without interruption, to understand the context of 1Cor 10:25.

5. A brief look at 1Cor 8:1 to 10:33 as one topic/theme
As we will see in this study, from 1Cor 8:1 onwards till 10:33, Paul addresses only one topic. And this topic is none other than, “food offered/sacrificed to idols”. In 1Cor 8:1, Paul starts by saying “Now concerning food offered to idols and this theme continues on till the end of chapter 10(besides a deviation in chapter 9) where he is still speaking on the same topic when he writes “But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it”(1Cor 10:28). Following is a summarized version of the 3 Chapters in concern: (Although reading through the complete section is advisable, the main/important sections are marked in red for quick reference) 

1Cor 8:1-3 Paul enters into the topic saying that we all have knowledge regarding things offered to idols. It is important to note that “abstaining from meat offered to idols” was one of the four key judgements that was commanded by the Jerusalem Council to be adhered by all believers (Acts 15:20,29). [please read this study for an in-depth understanding of these four main rulings made by James]. Paul reproves the Corinthians not to be puffed up by the things they know, but to act in love.

1Cor 8:4-5 Paul says that everyone of you know that an idol is nothing, as there are no other gods but ONE. He then goes onto mention that there are many who are known to be gods and lords on earth as well as heaven, possibly making reference to the “imperial cult” which worshiped the emperors as divine beings alongside the other idols which were worshiped, such as apollo, poseidon and aphrodite in Corinth.

1Cor 8:6-8 He then explains that there are no other gods other than the Father, and no other lords other than Christ for them. And that some do not possess this knowledge, being accustomed to idol worship and offering sacrifices in the past, still think eating meat at such a place would be equal to idol worship. (This was exactly what was happening at the Isthmian Games mentioned above in section 3. The President of the Isthmian Games was hosting large dinners at the temple complex of poseidon for the Roman citizens of Corinth. Even-though the food at these dinners were not offered to poseidon, eating at such a place could be seen as idol worship by new Christians because of their “conscience being weak” as per Paul’s words.)
1Cor 8:9 The “Liberty” or “Right” spoken in this verse, would have been the right Christians with Roman Citizenship at Corinth, received to participate at the civic dinners held in honor of the Isthmian Games. Participating at such an occasion would have been a highest honor one could receive in Corinth. Paul advises the people who had this right to be careful that they do not put other believers at risk.
1Cor 8:10 Paul speaks to the ones who had the “right” to participate at the civic dinners to be careful, as a new believer could easily see them at these idol temples, and think that participation in eating of meats offered to idols is an acceptable thing to do. We should especially note that Paul is not approving anyone of eating “meat offered to idols” as this goes against the ruling made by the Jerusalem Council in Act 15:20,29. He was simply saying that the Corinthians who had Roman citizenship should think twice before they participated at the Isthmian Game dinners (which were hosted at the idol temple of poseidon) as new believers could see them dining there, and think that it is acceptable to eat things that were offered to idols. The ones who had this “civic right” knew that the dinners hosted at the temple of poseidon did not have food offered to poseidon, but an outsider would not know this, and could be tempted to think participating in idol worship was acceptable.
1Cor 8:11-13 Paul ends the first part of his argument saying, that just because a seasoned believer understands what is right from wrong, he/she should be careful in how they guide their actions, as they could lead another to sin by what they do and how they act. He furthermore argues that if he is making a brother sin through his actions, he would rather eat nothing at all.
1Cor 9:1-27 Paul diverts for a moment from the subject at hand, to answer the ones who questions his authority (1Cor 9:3) explaining the service he is involved in, expecting nothing in return.
1Cor 10:1-11 Paul returns to the subject on hand, by giving a host of examples from the Old Testament Scriptures. He explains how God was with the children of Israel in the wilderness, the same way He is with them now. And how God was not pleased with many of the israelites because of their lusts, idolatry, fornication, provocation and murmuring. He explains that all of these situations came to pass as examples for them. 
1Cor 10:12,13 Paul advises the Corinthians to be careful of being arrogant to the extent where one thinks that they cannot fall into temptation. And that with temptation, God provides a path of escape.
1Cor 10:14 Paul makes a clear statement, coming back to the topic on hand “flee from idolatry”! basically have nothing to do with idolatry.
1Cor 10:15-18 Paul asks the Corinthians to judge his words, and see whether it is right, explaining how partakers of the wine and the bread become part of Christ. Similarly partakers of the sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple become partakers of that Altar.
1Cor 10:19-21 He explains that an idol is nothing. And that the “sacrifices offered to such idols” are also nothing of concern. But the sacrifices made to these idols by Gentiles are done towards demons, and that a person cannot be a partaker of the body of Christ and also be a partaker of such, done towards demonic beings. 
1Cor 10:22 He points back at the example he gave earlier about the Children of Israel, by asking whether we are trying to provoke God, and attain the same fate as them?
1Cor 10:23-24 He points back at 1Cor 8:9 here, saying things that are “lawful” or received as a “right” (speaking of the right of dining at the Isthmian Games) are not always profitable or edifying in regards to the congregation and other believers. He appeals to the Corinthians asking them to do whatever they do, for the good of their brothers and sisters in the congregation.

6. Now we finally come upon the verse in question 1Cor 10:25-33

1Cor 10:25 Whatsoever is sold in the shambles(meat market), that eat, asking no question for conscience sake: 

In this study so far, we have seen that the topic in concern still remains “meat offered to idols”. As per section 3- point 4, we know that special provisions for meats were made at the markets of Corinth, as the Jews were known to not eat meat offered to idols, meat with blood or animals which were strangled to death. These were the exact requirements set forth by the Jerusalem Council in Act 15:20,29 for all gentile believers to follow. So it is safe to presume that believers in Christ would have also purchased meat from the same vendors who provided meat for the Jews. The Corinthian congregation would have had to buy meats which were specially separated and prepared for the Jews, as eating anything else would have been going against the words of James and the Jerusalem Council.

The fact that Paul who was with the Corinth congregation for 1½ yrs, and had given them many traditions that they were still adhering to(1Cor 11:2), had to now write to them saying “eat anything sold at the market, without question” can lead us to conclude that some circumstances had changed in Corinth. It is possible that the special provision for meat made for the Jews would have been revoked as the Romans were becoming agitated with them. Claudius had deported all Jews from Rome(Acts 18:2) and Gallio the deputy of Achaea was more than hostile towards Jews(Acts 18:16,17). From 40AD onwards there were tension building against the Jews, with uprisings happening in Judea in 46-48AD which were put down by the Roman authorities. All of these factors would have pushed authorities to draw back special provisions provided to the Jews such as what was provided in the meat markets.

If the special meat provision was revoked, the Corinthian Congregation would now need to have questioned Paul whether it would be acceptable to eat from the meat market, as they were unsure of the quality and origins of the meat they bought. The meat could have been brought to the meat markets from the temples, as we see such a case in 1Cor 10:28, where meat offered to idols were served at dinners.

Paul’s judgement was “to eat from the meat market, as their was no way to clearly know what was offered to idols or not”. But then he continues his discussion quoting Psalm 24:1 “For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof”, known to have been a blessing which was recited before meals by all Jews[E]. Then in 10:27,28 he asks the congregation to eat what is set before them if they go for a function hosted by a non-believer, but to not partake if the non-believer informs them that the food is in fact, what is offered to idols as a sacrifice. Paul writes to them saying, not to partake for the sake of the non-believer (possibly to also showcase to the non-believer that Christians do not partake in idol worship, thereby gaining a chance to speak to them about the gospel) and also partly because eating what is sacrificed to idols, knowingly, is a sinful act as per the Jerusalem Council judgement. He further explains in 10:29-33 that the refusal to consume meat that is offered to idols, is not only a personal issue, but something that effects other believers as discussed above under 1Cor 8:10. He ends his words saying whatever you do, to do it for the glory of God, not offending Jew, Gentile or the Church, seeking to save others in all that they do.

7. Conclusion
The letter written by Paul to the Corinthians, like any other letter, needs to be read from beginning to end without pause. Plucking a verse out of context, such as 1Cor 10:25 could be used to argue that eating any food is permissible – but this would not be the reality behind the words of Paul. Like many of his writings which are misunderstood, this verse needs to be examined in its historical and textual context, for us to know its true meaning. The historical background of the Isthmian Games and its dinners hosted at the temple of poseidon as well as the special meat market provisions made for the Jews, shed light on the background of the questions the Corinthians would have written to Paul about. Paul in return explains why believers should not engage themselves in idolatry and eating sacrifices made to idols, and how they should act upon the discontinuation of the specially separated meat in the Corinthian Market. Nowhere does the topic of “eating against God’s instructions” come to play, in this epistle to the Corinthians. The written instructions of Lev 11 was never revoked by Paul; he simply said to eat the meats at the Corinth Market, as there was no way to know whether a particular meat was offered to idols or not. If a believer got to know that a meat was in fact offered to an idol as a sacrifice, he/she was not to partake in such a thing, as per the ruling of the Jerusalem council.

References ———————————————————————————————
[A] Pseudo Julian Letters 198, 407Bff. Also read ‘Achaean Federal Imperial Cult, Part II; The Corinthian Church’, TynB 46.1 (1995) 169-78
[B] E.R. Gebhard, ‘The Isthmian Games and the Sanctuary of Poseidon in the Early Empire’, in T.E. Gregory ed., The Corinthia in the Roman Period, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supp.8 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1994), pp.78-94
[C] Plutarch Moralia 723A
[D] P.R. Trebilco, Jewish Communities in Asia Minor, SNTSMS 69 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p.17. See also Josephus – Antiquities of the Jews Book 14, Ch 10.24
[E] T. Ber. 4.1.


One thought on “Can we eat all meats? Food sacrificed to idols and misunderstandings regarding 1Cor 10:25

  1. Pingback: Unclean Foods sanctified by God’s Word and Prayer? Misunderstandings regarding 1Tim 4:1-5 | Bible things in Bible ways

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