Food Will Not Bring Us Close to God: Idol Meat and Moral Instruction in Corinth

Paul’s discussion of idol meat in 1 Cor 8-11:1 is one of the more complex arguments in all of Paul’s letters. One of the more vexing questions has to do with what exactly Paul says in 8:8 and how it fits into the larger argument begun in 8:1. Based on the text in the Nestle-Aland 27th edition, Paul appears to make two statements: 1) “meat will not bring us close to God”; 2) “we are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do” (NRSV). There are interpretative problems with each of these statements. Is being brought close to God a good thing or a bad thing? The NRSV makes it seem like a good thing but the Greek is ambiguous. What are we to make of the second statement? If the sentence is a quotation from the “wise” Corinthians, it would seem to be the opposite of what we would expect their argument to be. In this paper I argue that Paul directs verse 8 against certain “wise” Corinthians who have argued that in order to be pleasing to God, one’s actions must align with one’s beliefs; they likely argued that it was in fact beneficial to eat idol meat—that eating this meat would bring them favorably close to God. These Corinthians had been eating in temple locations in order to demonstrate to their “weaker” Christian siblings behavior appropriate for those who believe that idols do not exist. Their behavior is consistent with pedagogical strategies that we see among Hellenistic moral philosophers and bears some striking similarities to Epicurean approaches to religious practice.