Summary 1 Corinthians 8

The ostensible topic of Chapter 8 is whether or not a follower of Jesus can, or should, eat food that has been offered to idols. As explained, the sacrifice of an animal in the Greek world was not just the burning of said animal. Rather,  it was a means of redistributing wealth; those who could afford the animal helped feed those who could not; but it was also, perhaps most importantly, a communal meal. Paul talks about those reclining in the temple; meals in the ancient world were eaten reclining on couches (at least, communal meals rather than workaday, practical meals). R L Fox, in Pagans and Christians, describes what are essentially dining halls attached to many temples, just as many churches today have a basement or similar area for holding communal activities like, well, meals. This is an indication of the social aspect of a ritual sacrifice.

[ Caveat: the next section, the discussion of the composition of the community in Corinth is solely based on the internal evidence of the text itself. Just as some (at least) modern commentators note that Apollos was an Alexandrian Jew, some modern commentators may have additional knowledge about who these members were. I am not aware of any external evidence, but that is the argument from silence; just because I don’t know about it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The potential fallacy of this position is strengthened here because I have not studied this topic to any great extent. So, I am only using the text of 1 Corinthians. I am not even cross-checking against Acts, largely because I am very skeptical of the historical accuracy of that work. So, what you read here may be contradicted by what you read elsewhere. I do not suggest that you should accept my thesis over that of others; I only ask that you keep what I am saying here in mind when you read alternatives. I doubt that I’m wholly right; but I equally doubt that I’m wholly wrong. The best source of information we have about the community of Corinth is what Paul has written here. 2 Corinthians may have more to tell us, but that is for a later time. ]

Paul’s concern about attending these communal meals, perhaps, gives us a clue as to the composition of the community in Corinth. He is concerned about those who are in the habit of attending these meals, and what the sight of members of the Jesus Community at these meals may have on other members of the community. Those “of the habit” are obviously of pagan–rather than Jewish–background. And their potential to influence other members of the Community indicates that these members were of a fairly high social standing; that’s code for “they had money”. As I stated, the snobbery of the pagan world is probably hard to overstate; given this, members with money were very, very unlikely to be influenced by members without money. So there was a sizable contingent of fairly wealthy pagans in the Community (as I will now refer to followers of Jesus) of Corinth.

The existence of this wealthy cadre would help explain the divisions within that Community. The discussion Paul had previously about maintaining one’s status until the return of the Christ seems to indicate the presence of slaves in the Community; presumably these would be the slaves of the wealthy members. And it is unlikely that the entire Community was comprised of wealthy members. Spoiler alert! Paul will discuss the divisions in the practices of the communal meal, telling us that some of the members ate better than others; this further reinforces the idea of an economically unequal Community. Indeed, this requires a Community so divided. In addition, one might suspect that these wealthier pagans may have been the ones who preferred the eloquence of Apollos to the rough speaking of Paul. As such, this may have given Paul a pinch of resentment against them; as such, he may have found this a convenient excuse for chastising them on this behaviour at the the pagan temples.

With that in mind, I have to confess that it’s very tempting to see this in terms of the argument that Paul and James, brother of the Lord had in Jerusalem. Was it not, almost if not quite, about this very topic? My gut wants me to say ‘yes’, and I went on about this during the line-by-line commentary, but now I understand that Paul is rather more clever than that. He makes a very distinct point of saying that the actual eating of the idol meat is nothing, that it doesn’t matter. This is wholly in keeping with his previous position in the debate with the James Gang.  As such, Paul does not contradict himself as I implied–or stated–that he had.  No. The prohibition that Paul levels is not about the meat, but the consorting. His concern is the precedent, and the influence of those who are doing this. As the wealthy, their behaviour would have been emulated by the lower social echelons. That, and that alone is Paul’s concern. And he is probably correct in both his diagnosis and the prescribed cure.

That being said, I do believe that it is a legitimate question to ask where Jesus would have come down on this topic. More than legitimate, I think it’s a crucial question. After all, Jesus ate with tax collectors. How is this different? How does this incident with Paul reflect on the life that the human Jesus lived?

In my opinion, I do believe this has a lot to say about Jesus, and about the kingdom. Or the Kingdom. There is, IMO, a hole in this topic. Here’s what I mean by that.

Ernest Hemingway is noted for the brevity of his best writing. But the brevity covers a vast knowledge on the writer’s part of this characters. Ernie H said that the author had to know the entire story of the character, even if he left it out. If there is something that the author does not know about the characters, this creates a hole in the narrative. These are the moments when a character does something that does not feel right to the reader. That is because the reader has stepped on a hole; it may be covered up with a floor board, but the hollowness is evident when we read the passage and hear the hole the author left behind.

There is a hole like that here. There is nothing here that tells me that Paul was aware that Jesus ate with tax collectors. And no, it’s not a question that Paul knew that story but chose to ignore it here; it’s that he didn’t know the story. That, IMO, is very good prima facie evidence that the story of Jesus eating with tax collectors had not been invented yet. It is, of course, possible that the story was accurate, but that it had not gotten into wide circulation yet, and that the story had attained this wider level of circulation by the time that Mark wrote; the problem with this as a thesis is the idea that Mark, writing somewhere other than Galilee or Judea, knew the story two generations after Jesus’ death, but Paul, who probably talked to a number of people who actually knew Jesus, did not know the story. This, certainly, is possible. And it is also possible that Paul had heard the story but forgotten it.  But think about this: if Jesus had eaten with tax collectors, a very un-Jewish thing to do, why did Paul not use this in his debate with James? No, the two situations are not analogous, but they do overlap. If Jesus bucked tradition, then why would Paul not feel justified to throw this in James’ face when the latter was trying rein in the former?

As such, I’m rather skeptical of the historicity of Jesus eating with tax collectors. Yes, this is ultimately a judgement call, but this is what the historian must do: make judgements.

Then, if the story is not historical, if the idea of the inclusion-and-fusion of disparate sorts of people was not part of Jesus’ message, then we have to step back and ask what Jesus did preach about.  Did he preach about the kingdom/Kingdom? If so, what did it mean? Was there an element of a radical social upheaval, in which the sinners and the tax collectors and the righteous Jews would all join together as common members of the Kingdom? Without the story of Jesus doing this, the likelihood that such a social upheaval was part of Jesus’ message takes a serious hit below the waterline. In my opinion, anyway.

In his book St Saul, Akenson makes a big deal about how absolutely wrong it is to start our quest for the historical Jesus by reading the gospels. I agree wholeheartedly. More than that. JD Crossan and a lot of his colleagues are spending time peeling apart the alleged words of Jesus as recorded in the gospels, trying to reduce them to the legendary Q, or the Sayings Gospel. Instead, they should be reading Paul and seeing what sorts of things Paul leaves out. Those are the holes that help us decide where the gospels embellished. I cannot wait to get to Matthew.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on March 8, 2014, in 1 Corinthians, General / Overview, Paul's Letters, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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