Jerusalem Council, “Idol” Food, Paul, & Doctrinal Development

Jerusalem Council, “Idol” Food, Paul, & Doctrinal Development December 9, 2022

Reply to Lydia McGrew

My friend Lydia McGrew is a scholar in the area of English literature, philosophy, and theology, and author of the books, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels From Literary Devices, and The Eye of the Beholder: The Gospel of John as Historical Reportage. I am responding to a comment she made online (dated 10-30-22) about the Jerusalem Council.

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Lydia McGrew stated:

We can even see that varying interpretations of the decrees of the Jerusalem council are going on in the apostolic era. For example, the Jerusalem council definitely says (even citing the Holy Spirit as their source!) that Gentiles may not eat meat offered to idols. This suggests a very rigorist approach to that issue, to put it mildly. But in I Cor[inthians] Paul softens this by saying that they can eat whatever they buy in the market without worrying where it came from. And the same for food set before them at a meal that merely may be offered to idols. He adds that they should not eat meat that they are told has been offered to idols, lest this harm the other person’s conscience. So he basically institutes a don’t ask don’t tell policy on meat offered to idols. Which, to put it mildly, might have bothered people who crafted the council’s decree. Paul could say that he is interpreting the council’s decree, but that just reinforces the somewhat Protestant paradigm. (And he doesn’t cite the council’s decree on this or any other matter in any of his epistles.)

Let’s cite the relevant passages so we can better understand what is being discussed here:

Acts 15:28-30 (RSV) For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: [29] that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” [30] So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter.

Acts 16:4 As they [Paul and Silas: 15:40] went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.

1 Corinthians 8:4-13 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” [5] For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” — [6] yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. [7] However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. [8] Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. [9] Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. [10] For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? [11] And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. [12] Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. [13] Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.

1 Corinthians 10:19-21, 25-33 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? [20] No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. [21] You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. . . . [25] Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. [26] For “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” [27] If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. [28] (But if some one says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then out of consideration for the man who informed you, and for conscience’ sake — [29] I mean his conscience, not yours — do not eat it.) For why should my liberty be determined by another man’s scruples? [30] If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? [31] So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. [32] Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, [33] just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

Revelation 2:20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jez’ebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.

Let’s examine Lydia’s argument piece-by-piece (her words in green). The context of a remark was an article written by Protestant apologist Jason Engwer the day before, which was a critique of Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin, with regard to the Catholic rule of faith and Catholic conceptions of authority, including apostolic authority in the first century.

We can even see that varying interpretations of the decrees of the Jerusalem council are going on in the apostolic era. For example, the Jerusalem council definitely says (even citing the Holy Spirit as their source!) that Gentiles may not eat meat offered to idols. This suggests a very rigorist approach to that issue, to put it mildly.

The object of the post and insinuation of Lydia’s comment on it was to suggest a contradiction between Scripture and the Catholic rule of faith. I see no such contradiction (per my present argument).

I shall contend that St. Paul doesn’t contradict what the council decreed; rather, he developed it and elaborated upon it. All we have from the conciliar decree is what is recorded in the Bible. It may have been longer, or it may not have been. If it was as short as what we know about, then as a legal-type matter, it’s self-evident, I think, that it would necessarily have to be expanded upon, because application is always much trickier than the mere statement of a law or moral precept. That’s clearly true of secular law (e.g., the very spare freedom of speech and religion clauses in the Constitution), and it had the precedent of long Jewish history (the Talmud), of interpreting thousands of specific situations and how Mosaic Law would or could be applied to each.

So I submit that the dynamic in play in this instance is not “rigorist” vs. a “a don’t ask don’t tell policy”. The council’s spirit, I would contend, was the very opposite of “rigorist.” It rescinded, after all, the age-old requirement of circumcision for Gentiles, and it’s overall impact was to abrogate the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law altogether in the case of Gentiles (who would, of course, be almost all of the Christians in short order). I think the more accurate comparison of the two statements and approaches is “baldly stated and less developed” compared to (not “vs.”) “more developed and particularized and nuanced.”

But in I Cor[inthians] Paul softens this by saying that they can eat whatever they buy in the market without worrying where it came from. And the same for food set before them at a meal that merely may be offered to idols. He adds that they should not eat meat that they are told has been offered to idols, lest this harm the other person’s conscience. So he basically institutes a don’t ask don’t tell policy on meat offered to idols. Which, to put it mildly, might have bothered people who crafted the council’s decree.

I have posted what Paul wrote about food and idols above, so folks can read the context. I found a great article regarding this issue, entitled, The Dispute Over Food Sacrificed to Idols (1 Cor 8:1-11:1),” by David E. Garland, of George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University. It fits in very nicely with my opinion that Paul’s treatment of food offered to idols is a consistent development of the “kernel” or “essence” of the decree of the Jerusalem Council (and as such, in no way contrary to the council):

The thesis of this paper is that, contrary to a popular reading of 1 Cor 8:1-11:1, Paul forbade Christians from any association with any food overtly connected to idolatry.  He understands the Christian confession of one God and one Lord to require exclusive loyalty so that even a token or make-believe show of fealty to an idol compromises the loyalty owed only to God and Christ.  . . .

His oblique argument has tended to throw off interpreters.  Some have regarded the chapters to be a patchwork of interpolations, while others misread Paul’s unequivocal rejection of anything explicitly connected to idols and assume that he made concessions and permitted supposedly innocuous, social dining in an idol’s shrine.  Neither view is correct. . . .

Christians might avoid overt associations with idolatry by declining to attend meals connected to idols and their shrines, but what were they to do when they were guests at someone’s house and offered food sacrificed to an idol?  They had colleagues, relatives, and patrons who were devotees of other gods and goddesses, and they would be put in socially awkward situations when invited to another’s home and offered food that had been sanctified by an idol by a religiously minded host. . . . The issue Paul addresses in chapters 8-10 involves three different types of situations: (1) eating food sacrificed to an idol at the temple of an idol (8:7-13; 10:1-22); (2) eating food of unknown history that is bought in the market (10:23-27); and (3) eating food in the private homes of unbelievers (10:28-31).

An underestimation of the religious nature of meals at temple shrines has lead to a misunderstanding of the nature of the dispute Paul addresses.  Many recent interpreters imagine that the Corinthians wrote to Paul to arbitrate an internal squabble between the “strong” and the “weak” who were of different minds regarding food offered to idols. . . .

This dominant view assumes that the “weak” Christians felt neither so free nor so bold.  They were converted pagans – Jews could not be described as “until now accustomed to idols” (8:7) – and their past associations of the sacrificed food with pagan rites and shrines were simply too strong for them to eat in good conscience.  They did not have the strong’s liberating knowledge in their emotions and sensibilities but felt pressure from the strong to imitate them and not be so squeamish or sanctimonious.  Some contend that the so-called “strong” castigated their more scrupulous brothers and sisters as the “weak” in their letter to Paul and sought to raise their consciousness by encouraging them to attend meals in pagan temples and to consume the idol food. . . .

The hypothesis that a dispute raged between “strong” and “weak” Corinthians does not bear careful scrutiny.  Paul never identifies any particular group as “the strong.”  He never addresses the weak and only describes them in the third person as reasons for giving up what one considers to be a right.  There is no indication in the text that the “strong” are trying to bend the will of the weak to see things their way. . . .

The traditional view is also fundamentally wrong in assuming that Paul would have jettisoned the basic covenantal demand of exclusive allegiance to the one Lord by permitting Christians to do things that implied that they formed a common front with anything overtly connected to idols (cf. 2 Cor 6:14-7:1).  For Paul, idolatry is the vice that leads to all vices (Rom 1:19-32) and prominent in the catalog of the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:20).  Idolaters (among others) will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9). . . .

A major error of the traditional view is the weight it places on Paul’s warning about the potential harm that eating idol food might cause a Christian with a weak conscience.  It assumes that this was Paul’s only problem with eating idol food. . . . He did not pass off eating of idol food, with full awareness of its idolatrous connections, as a matter of indifference.  It is a dangerous, sinful act since Paul explicitly links idol food to idolatry in 10:19-20 and never says, “Eat idol food as long as the weak are not caused to stumble.”  He allows one to eat any food bought in the market or offered in another’s home without asking its origins or history.  If one somehow were informed that the food was idol food, then Paul insists that one must abstain. . . .

Paul addresses the question of food of questionable origins – food that may have been sacrificed to idols before it comes into the hands of a believer.  To answer the question how a Christian can act with integrity in a world brimming with idols, he moves from an absolute prohibition based on general arguments about the dangers of associating with anything idolatrous to conditional liberty based on the biblical tenet that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (10:26; Ps 24:1).  He gives the go-ahead on everything that is beyond an idol’s orbit.  It is not permanently poisoned.

Paul clarifies that food is food and permissible to eat unless it is specifically identified as idol food, which puts it in a special category that is always forbidden to Christians.  They need not abstain from all food on the chance that it may have been sacrificed to idols.  He basically says, “Of course, you can buy food in the provision market” (10:25).  “Of course, you can dine with friends” (10:27).  His prohibition of idol food does not mean that they must retreat to the seclusion of a gloomy ghetto. . . .

Paul permits buying food in the market-place that may or may not have been sacrificed in a pagan temple.  But if its history was disclosed and it was announced to be idol food, then he forbids eating it.  He permits dining with friends who may be worshipers of idols, but if the food is announced to be idol food, then he forbids eating it.  Christians may not participate in any function that overtly smacks of idolatry. He basically “defines what is idol food in doubtful cases” – when it is not specified as idol food.  All food outside of the idol’s orbit is permitted, so he gives them leave to eat anything sold in the public market without investigating its history to certify that it is free from any idolatrous contamination.  Christ has not called them to be meat inspectors.  Outside of its idolatrous context, idol food becomes simply food and belongs to the one God (Rom 14:14). . . .

The premise behind this instruction comes from Ps 24:1 (cf. 50:12; 89:11), . . . It affirms that God is sovereign over all things (8:6) and that everything created by God is good (cf. 1 Tim 4:4).  The whole creation belongs to God, not part to God and part to idols.  Idol food therefore loses its character as idol food as soon as it leaves the idol’s arena and the idolater’s purposes.  Paul does not complete the thought with a conclusion from the biblical citation, but it is implicit: “Nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom 14:14; cf. Acts 10:15).  If it can be eaten in honor of the Lord (Rom 14:7), it is permitted.  What Paul finds sinful is eating idol food in any setting that might give others the slightest hint that Christians sanctioned idolatry, no matter how attenuated the religious aspects attached to the meal or the place might be.

Paul could say that he is interpreting the council’s decree, but that just reinforces the somewhat Protestant paradigm. 

He is interpreting the decree by expanding upon it and applying it to real-life situations, which is what always happens to legal decrees. This is a development and not a contradiction or difference of opinion. Paul goes into great detail about what (in effect) the decree in its elegant simplicity meant. That is not in the slightest degree in opposition to the Catholic rule of faith. It’s an apostle, who also wrote inspired Scripture, developing and authoritatively interpreting the decree of an apostolic council, which he and St. Peter attended, which produced a decree: which also made it into inspired Scripture, by God’s design.

By analogy, the Jerusalem Council is like ecumenical councils in the Catholic Church: arguably even led (in the thrust of its ideas) by Peter, the first pope: who God also chose to reveal His will to include Gentiles and to relax the Law’s requirements (especially regarding food). Paul (who was a very minor figure at the council, at least judging by what we know, is functioning as a bishop or theologian or catechist, or even (dare I say it?) an apologist, in elaborating upon its meaning.

(And he doesn’t cite the council’s decree on this or any other matter in any of his epistles.)

He may be making vague allusions to it in his statements cited above, since it is the same subject matter. Acts 16:4, cited above, shows us that he declared the conciliar decree “for observance.” This more or less proves that he completely agreed with it, and continued to do so when he developed it in his own epistles.

So this proves nothing in terms of it supposedly being some sort of biblical argument against Catholic ecclesiology.

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Photo credit: Reconstruction of Herod’s Temple (at the time of Jesus), with Robinson’s Arch in the foreground [Wikimedia Commons /  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license]

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Summary: Paul, in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, develops and consistently expands upon the decree of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) regarding the eating of food offered to idols.

 

 


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