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When Paul writes in chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians: "So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols..." - what practice is he referring to?

On the one hand, it seems pretty obvious (despite the title of this question) that they weren't actually the ones sacrificing the food to idols, since that would have been a much bigger issue than simply eating that food and one would therefor expect Paul to correct that practice. It would feel like missing the forest for the trees.

On the other hand, from chapter 6 it seems like there were indeed people within the church visiting the prostitutes of the idols within the city. So what kind of involvement might the people in the church have had with the idols in the city? Where do they get this meat? And why were some of them eating meat sacrificed to idols anyway?

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There were many situations where a first century Christian or Jew may have encountered meat sacrificed to idols.

Meat was offered to idols before being served in temples’ dining halls (often as part of worship) or being used for communal meals; some of the meat served at the marketplace had been offered to idols. One who ate in a temple would know the source of the meat; one who ate at a pagan friend’s home could never be certain. In pagan cities with large Jewish populations, Jews normally had their own markets.

Palestinian Jewish teachers debated what to do in many cases of uncertainty (such as untithed food), but would never have taken a chance on food that might have been offered to an idol. They believed that Jews outside Palestine unwittingly compromised with idolatry when invited to pagans’ banquets for their sons, even if they brought their own food. Following such teachings strictly (as some did) would have greatly circumscribed their relationships with pagan colleagues. The matter was more troubling for Christians converted from pagan backgrounds: could they meet over lunch with business associates or fellow members of their trade guild, or attend a reception in a temple for a relative’s wedding?

In chapters 8–10, Paul works on an elaborate compromise between two factions in the Corinthian church. The more educated and socially elite group, who unlike the poor ate meat regularly and not just when it was doled out at pagan festivals, had well-to-do friends who would serve meat. They probably represent the liberal faction, who consider themselves “strong” and the socially lower group “weak.”1

Of course if the Christians themselves were sacrificing to idols this is another issue altogether which is clearly unacceptable. Another source gives some citations with some more specifics about the practices of Jews and Gentiles in this context:

The practical decision of the question was one of immense importance. If it were unlawful under any circumstances to eat idol-offerings, then the Gentile convert was condemned to a life of Levitism almost as rigorous as that of the Jew. The distinction between clean and unclean meats formed an insuperable barrier between Jews and Gentiles. Wherever they lived, Jews required a butcher of their own, who had been trained in the rules and ceremonies which enabled him to decide and to ensure that all the meat which they ate should be clean (tâhôr), not unclean (tamê). They could touch no meat which was not certified as free from legal blemish or ceremonial pollution by the affixed leaden seal on which was engraved the word “lawful” (kashar). But Gentiles had always been accustomed to buy meat in the markets. Now, much of this meat consisted of remnants of animals slain as sacrifices, after the priests had had their share. So completely was this case, that the word “to sacrifice” had come to mean “to kill” in Hellenistic Greek.

Theophrastus, in his ‘Moral Sketches,’ defines the close-handed man as one who, at his daughter’s wedding feast, sells all the victims offered except the sacred parts; and the shameless person as one who, after offering a sacrifice, salts the victim for future use, and goes out to dine with some one else. The market was therefore stocked with meat which had been connected with idol-sacrifices. The Christian could never be sure about any meat which he bought if he held it wrong to partake of these offerings. Further than this, he would—especially if he were poor—feel it a great privation to be entirely out off from the public feasts (sussitia), which perhaps were often his only chance of eating meat at all; and also to be forbidden to take a social meal with any of his Gentile neighbours or relatives. The question was therefore a “burning” one. It involved much of the comfort and brightness of ancient social life (Thueydides, ii. 38; Aristotle, ‘Eth.,’ vii. 9, § 5; Cicero, ‘Off.,’ ii. 16; Livy, viii. 32, etc.).

It will be seen that St. Paul treats it with consummate wisdom and tenderness. His liberality of thought shows itself in this—that he sides with those who took the strong, the broad, the common-sense view, that sin is not a mechanical matter, and that sin is not committed where no sin is intended. He neither adopts the ascetic view nor does he taunt the inquirers with the fact that the whole weight of their personal desires and interests would lead them to decide the question in their own favour. On the other hand, he has too deep a sympathy with the weak to permit their scruples to be overruled with a violence which would wound their consciences. While he accepts the right principle of Christian freedom, he carefully guards against its abuse. It might have been supposed that, as a Jew, and one who had been trained as a “Pharisee of Pharisees,” St. Paul would have sided with those who forbade any participation in idol-offerings. Jewish rabbis referred to passages like Exod. 34:15; Numb. 25:2; Ps. 106:28; Dan. 1:8; Tobit 1:10, 11. Rabbi Ishmael, in ‘Avoda Zara,’ said that a Jew might not even go to a Gentile funeral, even if he took with him his own meat and his own servants. The law of the drink offering forbids a Jew to drink of a cask if any one has even touched a goblet drawn from it with the presumed intention of offering a little to the gods. Besides this, the Synod of Jerusalem had mentioned the eating of idol-offerings as one of the four things which they forbade to Gentile converts, who were only bound by the Noachian precepts (Acts 15:29). But St. Paul judged the matter independently by his own apostolic authority. The decision of the synod had only had a local validity and was inapplicable to such a community as that of Corinth. St. Paul had to suffer cruel misrepresentation and bitter persecution as the consequence of this breadth of view (Acts 21:21–24); but that would not be likely to make him shrink from saying the truth. This treatment of the subject closely resembles that which he subsequently adopted in Rom. 14.2

Footnotes

1 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 1 Co 8:1–13.

2 1 Corinthians, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones, The Pulpit Commentary (London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 263.

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