Roman Diet and Meat Consumption: Reassessing Elite Access to Meat in 1 Corinthians 8

A persistent exegetical tradition exists that links the Pauline controversy over the consumption of idol meat, especially in the Corinthian correspondence, to social and economic assumptions about the Roman world. Specifically, there is the assumption that access to meat was limited to the elite within the Roman world. The lower classes are seen as only having access to meat through public religious festivals or as derivative through cultic sacrifice by means of the marketplace (though again largely limited to the wealthy), resulting in the classic view that non-elites were sustained on a diet of legumes, grains, and wine. Roman access to meat along such class demarcations, furthermore, is founded upon an economic dichotomy of elite and non-elite (i.e., poor or slave classes). These assumptions arise not only in scholarly treatments of the Corinthian context but also within numerous introductory textbooks, thereby perpetuating these views for future scholarship. This paper challenges these social assumptions regarding meat consumption in, especially, Corinth by engaging recent scholarship that re-evaluates roman diet in regard to access to meat and other animal products. Specifically I will draw upon methods in archaeological science (especially stable isotope analysis) as well as literary reassessments by ancient historians. What arises is a new picture of Roman diet, wherein meat consumption was not limited to the elite, but was prevalent in nearly all levels of Roman society. With this updated view on Roman dietary practices in mind, Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthian 8 relating to “idol meat” and the social situation in the Corinthian church must be re-evaluated.