One of the more perplexing sections in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1. There appears to be a discrepancy between Paul’s seemingly permissive instructions regarding the eating of idol-food in 8:1-13 and 10:23-11:1 on the one hand, and his absolute proscription against idolatry and the table of Greco-Roman gods, what he calls the “table of demons” in 10:21, on the other. In other words, Paul appears to legitimize and reject the eating of foods sacrificed to pagan gods.
But through a close examination of the text, we will find that Paul is concerned about two mutually exclusive cosmologies: that cosmos revealed through the sacrifices at pagan temples, and a contrasting cosmos revealed by participating in the Lord’s Supper. I’m going to argue that it is the cosmic significance of the Lord’s Supper that unlocks the coherence of Paul’s argument.
The Corinthian Context
In the Greco-Roman world, the temple was not merely a place of sacrifice; it also served as a kind of restaurant where people gathered for recreational eating. As the restaurant context suggests, a wide variety of foods and drinks were used in sacrificial contexts, such as meat (bull, ox, lamb, pork, goat), poultry, fish, grain, cakes, figs, honey, oil, wine and milk. It is this cultic context served as a major controversy within the Corinthian church.
In 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1, there is a conflict that has arisen between two groups of congregants, what Paul calls the “Weak” (1 Cor 8:7, 9-12) and (by implication) the “Strong” within the Corinthian church. The Strong appear to believe that they have a right or privilege to eat food sacrificed to idols, since such idol-food has been rendered clean by the redemptive work of Christ. The Weak, on the other hand, consider the eating of idol-food to be equivalent to the worship of other gods (8:7-12). The problem is that the Weak appear to have been pressured by the Strong to go against their consciences and eat idol-food.
In addressing this issue, Paul seems to be is in general agreement with the so-called “Strong,” citing a cosmological principle that would have been their basic justification for eating food sacrificed to idols: “We know that idols are of no consequence in this world … for us, there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we in him, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and we through him” (1 Cor 8:4-6). Paul agrees with the Strong: idols don’t mean anything in a cosmos created and sustained by the one true and living God (10:19).
And yet, Paul goes on to say in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 that they are not to having anything to do with what he calls the “table of demons,” the altar upon which the temple food is sacrificed to the gods. In fact, they are to “flee from idolatry” (10:14); idols are in fact demonic (10:19-22) and thus they are to have nothing to do with them. Thus Paul appears to be sending conflicting messages.
Most would agree that the key is the Strong’s application of the cosmological principle in 1 Corinthians 8:6: the Strong’s confidence in the cleansing work of Christ is forcing or pressuring the Weak to eat food that contradicts their consciences, causing them to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:7-13). But that key doesn’t explain Paul’s seemingly contradictory notions towards eating idol-food. Paul could have easily told the Strong – “Don’t eat idol food” – at the very beginning of his argument, or – “Stop manipulating your brothers” – and that would have been the end of it.
Paul is concerned with something far deeper than either food or peer pressure.
The Cosmic Significance of the Lord’s Supper
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul reminds the Corinthians that, by implication of their “communion” (koinonia) (10:16) through the “one bread,” they share a concomitant unity with one another as “one body” (10:17). Paul then goes on to describe how this communion is mutually exclusive to the kind of social unity shared at Greco-Roman cultic rituals in verses 20-21, which Paul refers to as “communion with demons.” Hence, Paul identifies two mutually exclusive fellowships or communions: a communion with Christ and communion with demons.
But what reveals Paul’s concern over the situation at Corinth is the distinctively cosmic nature of this communion contrast. In 1 Corinthians 10:19, Paul recalls the issue of idols and sacrifices to idols first mentioned in 1 Corinthians 8:1, 4-6, where Paul agreed with some of the Corinthians who believed that the existence of idols meant nothing in a world created and sustained by the one God. But in 10:20, Paul takes the issue a step further: he develops the significance of sacrificing to idols. And so, while Paul addresses food sacrificed to idols (eidolothuta) in 8:1-13 and 10:23-11:1, in 10:1-22 Paul is dealing with a different but related issue, the issue of ‘idolatry’ (eidololatria) which he absolutely forbids.
Now, why does Paul forbid participation in the actual act of pagan sacrifice? Those who participate in Greco-Roman sacrifices participate in an event that occasions the manifestation of demons (daimonia) and thereby they do not sacrifice to God (10:20). The important point here is that such sacrifices effectively orient the world away from God and toward demons. This cosmic orientation would fit with a common piety in antiquity that considered temples as models of the cosmos. According to Roman Consul Dio Cassius, the magnificent cupola of the Pantheon was modeled after the heavens. Isidore of Seville similarly observed: “The ancients would make the roofs of their temples in the shape of a tortoise shell. These would be made thus to duplicate the image of the sky, which is evidently convex” (Etymologies 15.8.8). The third-century Neoplatonist Porphyry describes the temple of Mithras worshippers as ‘a model of the universe,’ a miniature replica of the cosmos. Thus for Paul participation in Greco-Roman sacrifice, which entails “communion with demons” in verse 20, involves nothing less than a perversion of the cosmos.
It is important that we recognize that for Paul, idolatry is not merely wrong; idolatry perverts the cosmos, it orients the world and its human inhabitants away from God as the creator and sustainer of our lives and the provider of our every need.
However, this perversion involves an important counterpart: if “communion with demons” entails a cultic act that orients the cosmos away from God, then “communion with Christ” accomplishes the opposite: for Paul, the communion meal means nothing less than the reorientation of the world back to God through Christ! The Lord’s Supper is therefore a ritualized revelation of the cosmology of 1 Corinthians 8:6, where all things are from God and through Christ. Because Gentiles sacrifice to demons and not to God (10:20), the Corinthians cannot participate in temple sacrifices without participating in that act which perverts the cosmos, orienting it away from God and toward demons and thus reconstituting pre-messianic conditions.
In our next post, we will examine how this ritualized cosmology sheds light on Paul’s concerns with the Strong.
For more on the cosmic significance of the Lord’s Supper and the Apostle Paul’s vision of a sacramental society, see my book, The Ritualized Revelation of the Messianic Age: Washings and Meals in Galatians and 1 Corinthians, available here.