Did the apostle Paul mean that the saints could eat and drink things that were offered to idols?
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It appears that some have thought that the apostle Paul “overruled” the instruction which the saints in Jerusalem had sent to their brothers and sisters in Antioch, regarding meats offered to idols and certain other things. How is it with that matter? This has to do with Acts 15:19–20 and 29, and 1 Corinthians 8:1–12 and 10:14–32 and their translation and meaning. This article takes a closer look at those passages.
Here is a record of the instruction which the saints in Jerusalem gave to those in Antioch (and elsewhere):
Acts 15:19 “Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 “but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. […] 28 […] these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (NKJV, highlighting added)
(“Abstain” – in the Greek text the relevant word is the verb apechô which has to do with keeping away from.)
Again, some have apparently thought that Paul “overruled” that instruction and made it void. Is that correct?
To begin with, let us consider what Paul wrote about idols and idolatry, in such passages as these:
1 Corinthians 5:11 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; not even to eat with such a person. (VW06)
1 Corinthians 10:14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. (VW06)
2 Corinthians 6:14 Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? 15 And what agreement has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? 16 And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 17 Therefore, Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. (VW06)
Those are passages in Paul’s letters to Corinth. And no, he did not change his mind, between the different parts of those letters. (Again, the subject of this article is 1 Corinthians 8:1–12 and 10:14–32 and their translation and meaning.) Read on, for more on this.
The above-quoted Acts 15:20 and 29 show that the saints were told to keep away from foods that had been sacrificed (dedicated) to idols. Here is a similar passage, in the apostle Paul’s letter to the saints in Corinth, with just as clear words:
1 Corinthians 10:20 […] I do not want you to share with demons. 21 You cannot drink both the Cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake at the Table of the Lord and at the table of demons. 22 Or ‘are we to rouse the jealousy of the Lord’? Are we stronger than he? (20CNT, highlighting added)
(Verse 23 and its translation is discussed later in this article.)
The meaning of 1 Corinthians 10:20–22 is clear. Also: The context makes it clear that this was regarding food and drink.
But in 1 Corinthians 8, many bible-versions have wordings which could cause casual bible-readers to think that the saints could nevertheless eat idol-meats. –The Greek text of that passage is hard to interpret. Translators have rendered it with many different wordings. Here are verses 1–3, as the LIT has them:
1 Corinthians 8:1 But concerning the sacrifices to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 But if anyone thinks to know anything, he still has known nothing as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he has been known by Him. (LIT)
Verse 1: There is “knowledge” that puffs up (makes proud). Verse 2: Obviously, there is something wrong with that “knowledge”.
Verse 3 mentions loving God. Does that include eating or drinking things that are dedicated to idols? – Keep in mind Paul’s words, “Or ‘are we to rouse the jealousy of the Lord’?” (1 Corinthians 10:22, 20CNT. It could be that the apostle referred to Deuteronomy 32:21, “they have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God”, AKJV.)
1 Corinthians 8:4 Then concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God except one. 5 For even if some are called gods, either in the heavens or on the earth; (even as there are many gods, and many lords); 6 but to us is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we by Him. (LIT)
Then, here is a suggested translation of verse 7:
1 Corinthians 8:7 But all do not understand this. And some, being used until now to the idol, eat things as a sacrifice to an idol, and their conscience which is weak, is defiled.
1 Corinthians 8:8 Now, food will not commend us to God. For neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.
(As you can see, Paul did not say, “we are not the worse if we eat things sacrifices to an idols”. He said, “neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse”.)
Then, many translations have in verse 9 such words as “freedom”, “liberty”, “authority”, “power” or even “privilege”. – Obviously, it is not a “privilege” to eat or drink things dedicated to demons. Nor is it likely that Paul would have meant that the saints had “authority” to take part of things sacrificed to demons. Such translations are not in agreement with the clear words of Acts 15:20 and 29 (“abstain from things polluted by idols”) and 1 Corinthians 10:20–21, “I do not want you to share with demons. You cannot drink both the Cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake at the Table of the Lord and at the table of demons.” So, what should we make of 1 Corinthians 8:9?
As so often, even here Paul’s Greek wordings are hard to interpret.
A part of this matter revolves around the many-faceted word exousia in the Greek text of that verse. It is not clear what that word refers to in this case; the context really does not contain anything that it could logically point to. Is there something missing in the present-day Greek text? Or, has something been changed? We do not and cannot know. What is clear, is that obviously, Paul was not contradicting himself. That is, what he wrote here, did not “do away” with the clear words that are recorded in the earlier quoted 1 Corinthians 10:20–21. (See even Acts 15:20.)
In verses 9 and 10, many translators have made it seem that Paul meant that it really was “OK” to take part in things sacrificed to demons, provided that that did not hurt or offend people with “weak” consciences. But again, that interpretation is not agreement with Paul’s clear words “I do not want you to share with demons. 21 You cannot drink both the Cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake at the Table of the Lord and at the table of demons. (1 Corinthians 10:20–21, 20CNT.)
By the way, regarding this with conscience which 1 Corinthians 8:10 mentions – for some strange reason, some have claimed that if a person’s conscience is weak, that means that that person without reason abstains from things which he would not have to abstain from. (That concept has been echoed even in bible-translations.) In reality, it is this way: If a person’s conscience is weak (or defiled), then it is not able to keep that person away from doing things that are wrong.
So again, what should we make of verse 9? The Greek wording in that verse is hard to interpret with certainty, but here is a suggested translation:
1 Corinthians 8:9 But beware, so that this licence [a] of yours does not become a cause of sin to the weak.
a Or “arrogance”, or similar. The Greek text has exousia which was used in numerous different ways, not only in such meanings as “permission”, “liberty”, “power”, but also in the meanings “licence”, “abuse of authority”, “arrogance”. It is always the context that shows how that word was used.
Perhaps that verse, along with verse 10 which mentions “knowledge”, refers back to verses 1 and 2:
1 Corinthians 8:1 Now in regard to food which has been offered to idols, we are sure of course that “we all have knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up, while love builds up. 2 If a man thinks that he already has knowledge, he does not yet truly know as he ought to know (CT)
Point: Obviously, there was something wrong with the puffed up “knowledge” that some apparently felt that they had. – The matter of conscience which is mentioned in verse 10, was discussed above. That verse, and 11–12, really need no further comments.
1 Corinthians 8:10 For if any one should see you, the possessor of “knowledge,” reclining at table in an idol’s temple, would not his conscience, if he were weak, be emboldened to eat things sacrificed to idols? 11 So he is lost, this weak man, lost by your “knowledge,” this brother for whom Christ died. 12 In so sinning against your brothers, and in ever and again wounding their weak consciences, you are sinning against Christ. (CT)
As the earlier quoted 1 Corinthians 10:20–22 shows, the saints could not serve God and his son Jesus, and at the same time idols. They had to choose. In the same way, the ancient Israelites had to choose:
1 Kings 18:21 Then Elijah drew near to all the people, and said, How long do ye halt between two opinions? If Jehovah be God, follow him; and if Baal, follow him. […] (DBY)
Confusing translations have caused people to misunderstand certain things in Paul’s epistles. This includes 1 Corinthians 6:12 where a number of bible-versions have such wordings as “all things are lawful”, and Titus 1:15 where some have the wording “all is pure unto the pure”. (The articles eoa118.htm and eea056.htm have some notes on 1 Corinthians 6:12 respectively Titus 1:15.) Right here, let us consider this verse:
1 Corinthians 10:23 We are free to do all things, but there are things which it is not wise to do. We are free to do all things, but not all things are for the common good. (BBE)
“We are free to do all [kinds of] things” – God has given us a free will, and he does not force us to act in the right way. As we all know, there are many things that must not be done. Simplifying things, it can be said that righteousness is the same as discerning the difference between good and evil, and then keeping away from evil, and doing good. (The article ega086.htm has more on the matter of righteousness.)
Many translators have put into 1 Corinthians 10:23 such wordings as “all things are lawful” or “everything is allowable”, but it is clear that that is not what Paul said or meant. Linguistics:
Verse 23, “are free” – the Greek text has exesti. It is obvious that in the case of this verse, the many-faceted word exesti is used in the meaning “it is in one’s power”, “it is possible”. That is: We humans have a free will and are through that able to do all kinds of things. But, as we all know, there are many things that must not be done. All things are not right or fitting, only some are. And also: All things have their consequences, often already in this life but there is also a time of judgment to come.
Here is more in 1 Corinthians 10:
1 Corinthians 10:25 Eat everything that is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake (HCSB)
1 Corinthians 10:27 If one of the unbelievers invites you over and you want to go, eat everything that is set before you, without raising questions of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This is food offered to an idol,” do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake. (HCSB, highlighting added)
Making things more simple – obviously, Paul’s instruction was really this: “If you come to know that the food has been offered to idols, then do not eat it.” One could perhaps say that Paul in this way explained the practical application of the instruction which the saints in Jerusalem had given (Acts 15).
Then there are the following verses, 29–32. Even there, many bible-versions contain wordings which could cause casual bible-readers to think that Paul meant that it would be “OK” to eat and drink things that are dedicated to idols. But, let us keep in mind the clear passages, such as the two that were quoted above, and these ones:
1 Corinthians 10:14 Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. (HCSB)
1 Corinthians 10:21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot share in the Lord’s table and the table of demons. 22 Or are we provoking the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He? (HCSB)
Paul did not “overrule” the instruction which the saints in Jerusalem had sent to those in Antioch (and elsewhere). It is only that many translators have produced confusing wordings which can mislead casual bible-readers.
The article eea056.htm has some notes on Titus 1:15 and the translation “to the pure all things are pure”, and shows that in that case, the apostle Paul was not talking about foods but about something totally different.
The article eoa076.htm considers the phrase “let no man therefore judge you” in Colossians 2:16–17.
The article eoa118.htm sorts out 1 Corinthians 6:12, the translation “all things are lawful”.
A side-note: Some writers have caused people to misunderstand Acts 15, in regard to the matter of the two covenants, old and new. The article eoa046.htm has more on that passage and matter.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → esa095.htm
On Titus 1:15 and the translation “to the pure all things are pure”, and what that verse really means and refers to. → eea056.htm
Acts 15 and the matter of the two covenants, old and new. → eoa046.htm
Colossians 2:16–17, “let no man therefore judge you”. What was the apostle Paul really talking about? → eoa076.htm
The apostle Paul and his teachings. → eoa118.htm
Does the New Covenant have “food rules” of the kind the Old Covenant had? → eha016.htm
What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → ega086.htm
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