As a last note (for now) on 1 Cor 8, I want to clarify how the scenario I proposed last week is different than the reconstruction proposed by most interpreters. What is new in my proposal, so far as I can tell, is this: the weak understood themselves to be participating in the worship of idols gladly and in good conscience because these baby Christians mistook the practice of eating idol meat by their more senior brothers and sisters in the church at Corinth (the strong) as a sign that Christian faith is compatible with the worship of traditional or civic pagan gods.
Other interpreters have gone back and forth about whether the strong and weak correspond roughly to Jews or Gentiles, and if so, which is which. On the one hand, the strong are said to know that there is no God but one (1 Cor 8:4), which sounds an awful lot like the central affirmation of Israel’s monotheism in the Shema of Deut 6:4. It’s the strong who are said to know that, so the strong are identical with Jewish believers in Corinth–or so it is often thought. That’s corroborated by Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 8:7 that the weak have a close association with the practice of idol worship from the time before their conversion. On the other hand, some point out that it was Jews who were accustomed not to eat idol meat, so it would make sense that they would be the so-called weak ones with a conscience strongly opposed to idolatry and the eating of idol meat.
I find the latter suggestion that believing Jews would follow the lead of converted Gentiles, even against their own consciences in the matter of eating idol meat, to be implausible. I don’t think the weak were eating against their consciences in any event, but even on the more common view that the weak are ignoring their pangs of conscience and eating anyway, I don’t think the identification of the weak with Jewish believers is plausible. In 1 Cor 8:4, 7, Paul seems to indicate clearly that the strong have Deut 6:4 drilled into their heads and do not have any prior association with idolatry. Sounds like Jewish believers to me.
We make even more progress toward identifying the weak and strong when we stop trying to interpret the passage in strictly Jew/Gentile terms and realize that the weak have an unformed conscience on the matter of idolatry. They are the newer members of the church, and they obviously haven’t yet finished their new members’ or inquirer’s class. We know that Paul’s usual pattern of evangelization was to go to the Jews first, in the synagogue, and that he followed the same pattern in Corinth (cf. Acts 18:1-4). We know that Paul baptized only a few new believers in Corinth, probably the first ones to respond favorably to his message, and we know that among these was the ruler of the synagogue himself, a certain Crispus (cf. Acts 18:8; 1 Cor 1:14). It does seem very likely, therefore, that the earliest members of the church in Corinth were Jews, and that conclusion coheres with the well-grounded monotheism of the strong that allows them to eat idol meat without crossing into idolatry.
The fact that the Jews were the senior members of the church, and that Christian faith and practice grows organically out of God’s revelation to the patriarchs and Israel, explains why newer pagan converts would follow the lead of the Jewish leaders of the church. The pagans never had any scruple against idolatry, and they were certainly accustomed to eating meat sacrificed to idols. Polytheistic syncretism and civic religion were normal in that time and place. So, when the pagan converts saw the Jewish believers eating idol meat, they understood them as participating in the worship of the local gods and figured it must be OK for all Christians to do so. They ate without giving it a second thought.
I can just imagine the stunned silence when one of these newish converts innocently asked, after the Christians had eaten the Lord’s Supper in their helter-skelter manner, if they should all pour out a libation to Apollo. Something like that would explain how the misunderstanding of the weak came to be known in the church and ultimately to Paul. Probably in such a situation, the strong would have instructed the weak more carefully, imparting to them the same knowledge that allowed the strong to eat idol meat without guilt. But if the strong didn’t make a dramatic about-face–in the face of such a catastrophic misunderstanding, if they didn’t do everything possible to make sure no one else would misunderstand them, even abstaining from eating idol meat if need be–then they were not acting out of love for God or neighbor.
This interpretation is distinguished from others by understanding the weak as happy and willing idolaters and also by the way it shows Paul’s coherent train of thought in 1 Corinthians 8-10. Idol meat as such is never the issue. The issue is always faithfulness to the one true God; that requires Christians to worship only him and also to make sure everyone knows that all people must worship only him, whether new believers or unbelievers. Christians must not put any stumbling blocks in people’s way, either as an obstacle to faith (for monotheistic Jews who do not yet believe) or as just one more dish on the menu of religions (for idolatrous pagans). Love for God and neighbor. If you read 1 Cor 8-10 with these two principles in mind, you may have a new appreciation for the consistency and power of Paul’s overarching pastoral concern.