Food Offered to Idols in Roman Corinth: A Social-Rhetorical Reconstruction of 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1

John Fotopoulos Coronet Books Inc., Tubingen August 10, 2003
Purchase

This impressive book is a revised and expanded version of the author’s Ph.D. dissertation in New Testament and early Christianity from Loyola University. In this book the author attempts to solve difficult interpretive issues in 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1. Specifically what is the social context of this passage, and what was Paul actually forbidding? This is a complicated matter because there seem to have been four contexts in which idol food could be encountered (although the first three could constitute a single setting): (a) pagan temples (8:1–13), (b) table of pagan gods (10:14–22), (c) a meal at the invitation of a pagan (10:27–11:1), and (d) the market (10:25). Paul seems to have been inconsistent in prohibiting idol food consumption in some cases (8:9–13; 10:14–22) while allowing it in others (10:25–26, and 10:27). After examining the social context and discussing rhetorical theory Fotopoulos argues that Paul’s primary focus was to forbid the eating of idol food in temple contexts because of the religious implications of such participation. In other contexts where explicit idolatry was not apparent (in homes or the marketplace), Paul permitted the eating of anything not explicitly identified as idol food. Thus Paul’s prohibition is against intentionally eating anything that is known to be related to the worship of an idol. Also the author argues that this prohibition is based not only on the religious nature of the experience but also on practices that occurred at Greco-Roman banquets.

The first chapter is introductory, chapters 2–6 describe relevant social and cultural practices of first-century Corinth, the seventh chapter focuses on rhetorical issues, the eighth is an exegetical study of the passage, and the ninth chapter is a conclusion.

In the first chapter Fotopoulos evaluates fourteen scholars’ views on the passage. He points out that some scholars see the debate over idol food as a dispute between the “strong” and the “weak” (e.g., C. K. Barrett, Gerhard Theissen, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Ben Witherington) while others do not (e.g., Gordon Fee, Hans Conzelmann, J. Hurd, K. K. Yeo). Fotopoulos does not shy away from strong criticism when he disagrees with others. Although his criticism usually seems fair, one may wish to consult some of the works he is critiquing to balance what is stated here. Nevertheless this chapter gives readers a well-organized description of the most common views on the passage.

In chapters 2–5 Fotopoulos describes various religious temples in and around Corinth. Major discussions are devoted to places of worship and practices of Asklepios (chap. 2), Demeter and Kore (chap. 3), and Isis and Sarapis (chap. 4). There are also brief discussions of other temples of which less is known (chap. 5; e.g., Aphrodite and Poseidon). Each chapter concludes with a section that asks and answers the question, Were Corinthian Christians dining at the specific temple(s) discussed? The information in these chapters is immense. Using literature, inscriptions, papyri, coins, and archaeology as well as interacting with modern sources, Fotopoulos describes these temples and their cults in detail. He concludes that the Asklepios temple is a likely setting for 1 Corinthians while a temple of Isis or Sarapis is possible. However, he rules out Demeter and Kore as a likely setting.

In addition chapter 5 includes a discussion of the marketplace (10:25–26). Fotopoulos suggests that if the common identification of Erastus mentioned in Romans 16:23 as the Roman official (aedile) in Corinth is correct, this Corinthian Christian would have been responsible for supervision of the marketplace. It would have been difficult for him both politically and socially if his religious associates refused to purchase food in the market. This situation could have contributed to the divisions in Corinth and may explain why this is mentioned in 10:25–26. Fotopoulos suggests that this was a concession to the “strong” believers, which included Erastus. This may be the case; however, given Paul’s uncompromising stance on many issues, this is more than a simple concession. It is the result of Paul’s understanding of all that was involved in light of his own consideration of the subject.

Chapter 6 contains an interesting description of Greco-Roman dining. The author points out that sexual encounters may have been involved in the entertainment at these events. In chapter 7 Fotopoulos suggests that the apostolic decree (Acts 15) is not in the background of 1 Corinthians and that there was a real dispute between “weak” and “strong” in Corinth. The chapter ends with a social-rhetorical analysis of the passage based on observations from ancient rhetoric. This includes decisions concerning the determination of quotations from the “strong” in the text in which they justify their eating of idol food (8:1b, 4–5a, 6, 8; 10:23a, 23c). Chapter 8 then presents a detailed exegesis of the entire passage.

The book is packed with information. In places (especially on archaeological matters) one can get lost in the details. Nonspecialists will probably be unable to evaluate some of the conclusions presented in chapters 2–5. Yet the information here (even if merely skimmed) will produce a fairly good picture of ancient Corinth. Chapter 6 is very insightful and Fotopoulos’s exegesis is a good example of the use of background information for biblical studies.

—Joseph D. Fantin

January 1, 2006
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2006 vol. 163 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

Subscribe Today