In 1 Corinthians 5:1—7:40, Paul speaks frequently about sex. In 8:1–11:1, he shifts gears and responds to questions related to food. Paul talks about hunger, thirst, eating, drinking, meals, cups, fruit, milk, bread, meat, and meat sacrificed to idols. It is interesting that, for a group with slogans about the meaninglessness of the body, sex, and food are focal points.
The term “meat” is central to this section of the letter. Paul uses two terms for this: vrōmah (any type of solid food or the meat from an animal) and kreas (dressed or garnished meat). In 1 Corinthians 3:2 Paul contrasts vrōmah with gala, that is, milk. While some translations use “solid food” (e.g., TNIV, RSV, ESV), others translate it as “meat” (e.g., ASV and KJV). Understanding vrōmah as solid food helps us better understand food-related issues.
In 6:13 Paul cites what is typically considered a Corinthian slogan: “Food (or “meat”) for the stomach and the stomach for food (or: meat), but God will destroy them both.” Paul refers to the group saying this as “the strong.” They believed what they ate was irrelevant to their spirituality. The types of meat they consume, namely, high-priced meat often sacrificed to pagan deities, has no spiritual bearing. Paul agrees: “But food [vrōmah] does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (8:8, author’s translation). Yet, he quickly qualifies this: “Therefore, if what I eat [vrōmah] causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat [kreas] again, so that I will not cause them to fall” (8:13, author’s translation).
In 10:3, Paul uses vrōmah, but specifically “spiritual vrōmah,” likely manna (Ex. 16:31–35). This was true spiritual food because it was given by God. It stood in contrast with regular foods, namely, meats sacrificed to idols and/or pagan deities. These were foods deemed spiritual by humans. When Paul says, “They all ate the same spiritual food,” he may be implying that they (i.e., Israelites) as a people shared in this bounty. This stood in contrast to Christian meals in Corinth. His example shows that, when division existed among the Israelites, God was displeased (10:5). The assembly at Corinth was starting to look like them. They needed to shape up and become a body unified by the Spirit (10:6).
These “meat” matters provide us with data about the identities of those in the assembly at Corinth, especially “the weak” and “the strong.” The strong were upper-crust locals while the weak were foreign slaves. Some of the latter group, particularly those mentioned in 1 Corinthians 8 who had scruples over meat, may have been workers in the Corinthian makellōn (meat market). They may have helped butcher, prepare, cook, and sell meats. Such roles were common for slaves in antiquity. These details will help us see more clearly who the recipients of this letter were and why the problems addressed feature so prominently in the church.
1 Now about food sacrificed to idols: [You say] “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.
4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: [You say] We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and [you say] “[We know there] is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
1 Corinthians 6:12–14
The big idea: Believers should be aware of how their lifestyles affect others.
Paul begins this section by reciting another slogan, which is followed by two more. The first motto of “the strong” asserts that “We all have knowledge.” Paul, to the contrary, says, “not everyone possesses this knowledge” (8:7). He is referring specifically to the matter of a lack of knowledge among the weak—slaves working in the meat market. They saw Christian elites buying or partaking of meats devoted to other gods. This caused a crisis of conscience. Paul offers guiding principles for both the weak and the strong.
Several hundred years before Paul (i.e., 300–250 BCE), Timaios of Tauromenium reported that there were around 460,000 slaves in Corinth. Around the same time, Apollodorus wrote Against Neaera, which talks about the spouse of a slave cook in Corinth named Hippias. Slave cooks were also mentioned one hundred years later by Plautus. All this was prior to Paul and “Roman Corinth.” (Ancient Corinth was destroyed around 145 BCE. It took nearly a century to rebuild. Paul arrived in the early 50s CE. Thus, it was different than when Timaios, Apollodorus, and Plautus wrote.)
Rome’s military efforts fueled their massive slave trade. After besieging a city, they captured slaves. Once the city of Rome became overpopulated in the early first century, slaves were shipped to other Roman territories. Corinth became a major outpost for foreign slaves with estimates of about one slave per household. Some slaves worked in meat markets. They were able to provide new delicacies. Such skills may have been prized by shop owners. A foreign butcher/cook was often known as tettix. Another term was mageirōs (see 1 Sam. 9:23–24 and Lam. 2:20). A mageirōs was often responsible for sacrificing animals in the market. Pliny, in his work Natural Histories (18.28), mentioned slaves trained as cooks to provide foreign-based meals, which were considered luxuries.
Apollo was the deity of cooks and butchers. His sanctuary at Pyla once had an upper kitchen. There was also an inscription of a mageirōs of Apollo there. Outside the sanctuary were statues of butchers and cooks. This aligns with Apollo’s title “Prince of Butchers and Cooks” in Aristophanes’s work Frogs (584). Sacrifices were made to Apollo in Corinth. This was done, presumably, with meat from the makellum and fish from the makellum piscarum (i.e., fish market).
Many ancient accounts spoke of slaves working in meat markets, even as overseers. Thirteen fragments of cookware and eating utensils from Corinth related to the period of Paul reference a man of slave pedigree (i.e., a freedman) who had a prominent role related to the makellum. One type of meat sold in the makellum was idol meat. It was sacrificed to pagan deities. Paul calls it eidōlōthutōs. It was high-quality and expensive. This disturbed the Christian slaves working in the market. The strong were making a social statement by purchasing expensive meat. They were also selfishly consuming it during the Eucharistic meal while the weak were sick and falling asleep (11:30).
Thus, Paul was not primarily focused on Jews and their religious scruples over meat. Instead, foreign slaves working in the meat market knew how the meat was handled for religious purposes. They were concerned that those in the assembly eating this meat were in spiritual danger. They may also take issue with the strong eating and purchasing the most expensive meat to make status statements, especially while some of the weak among them are actually physically weak, sick, and hungry. Paul wanted to solve such problems. If we miss these fine-print details, we miss out on seeing the bigger picture being painted in 1 Corinthians as a whole.
Questions for Reflection
- Why is it important to show concern to our brothers and sisters in the faith when we see them living in a way that may appear contrary to the gospel?
- Given that so much of our lives are based around food and sharing meals, why must we make sure our ways and means of consumption are not detrimental to fellow believers?
This is an entry from Michael Halcomb’s Bible study, The First Letter to the Corinthians.
If First Corinthians was a show, it might be slotted into the daytime melodrama genre. This letter has it all: fighting, sex, jealousy, divorce, money, and death. Like many of the apostle’s works, First Corinthians reminds us how dysfunctional the early church was. Two thousand years on, the church’s warts show no sign of fading. In some ways, that’s good news. If Paul held out hope for this stunted community, God’s people today are in no less position to receive his transforming and sanctifying grace.
The difference is that we have the opportunity to learn from their moral failures, not to mention their gross misunderstanding of the gospel. But it’s also a cautionary tale—many of the behaviors celebrated within the church today are patterns the founders of our faith ardently opposed. Thus, we’re left to wonder: Can this epistle offer some guidance on such things? Amid the turmoil present in this letter and paralleled in our present world, there is hope. This study will walk us through a vision of what a life of faith in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, can look like.
- Sunday school classes
- Weeknight small groups
- Individual Bible study
In these pages you’ll:
- Gain an in-depth understanding of the Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians
- See parallels between the ancient church’s struggles and our modern context
- Appreciate how the saving grace of God in Christ transforms us into his holy people
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