January 19, 2010

The Strong-Weak, Jew-Gentile Identity in 1 Cor 8-10 (Part 5)

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.

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5 comments to The Strong-Weak, Jew-Gentile Identity in 1 Cor 8-10 (Part 5)

  • Leigh

    Hello Mr Dennis, I have read these posts on 1Cor 8-10 with interest. One thing I would like to ask is how do you think all this relates to the weak brother in Romans 14, particularly in regard to the strong ‘destroying’ the weak brother?

  • Hi, Leigh. Thanks for your question (and I’m glad you’re finding these ideas interesting). Several years ago, the passage in Romans 14 you mention actually destroyed the interpretation I’ve offered here — or so I thought then! It is clear that the weak person in Romans 14 is someone who abstains from eating meat (verse 1), whereas the strong person feels free to eat anything. It would appear that this supports the traditional interpretation of 1 Corinthians 8-10 and puts an end to my argument.

    The solution is found by comparing Romans 14:1 with 1 Corinthians 8:7. The weak in Rom 14 are not the same as the weak in 1 Cor 8, in spite of the similar terminology. In Romans, Paul is concerned about the weak in faith, or in other words, those who doubt that God permits them to eat meat. In 1 Corinthians, those who are weak in conscience are in view, which is people whose conscience aren’t sufficiently well developed to warn them against idolatry. The important point of comparison between the two groups in the two chapters isn’t weakness or strength per se but weakness or strength with respect to what? Conscience or faith.

    The strong in Romans seem to me quite similar to the strong in 1 Corinthians. Being strong in conscience, they would never knowingly commit idolatry, and being strong in faith, they know God permits them to eat idol meat. That said, the weak in Romans also are similar to the strong in 1 Corinthians: they have a strong conscience that warns them against committing idolatry by eating idol meat. Their weakness is in faith, not a deficiency of conscience. The weak in Corinth, by contrast, have no such scruple and gladly go about doing what the weak in Rome would shudder even to think of!

    To sum up, the two largest categories to use when comparing Rom 14 with 1 Cor 8-10 have to do with the conscience. The strong in conscience are knowledgeable, the weak in conscience are ignorant and immature in the faith. The two groups in Rom 14 are both subsets of the strong in conscience: the strong in faith and the weak in faith are both strong in conscience. Both groups know idolatry is wrong and do not practice it. The strong in faith, however, feel free to eat idol meat. The weak in faith could only do so by sinning against their well-developed consciences.

    It’s a great question you’ve raised. I hope this solution satisfies you, or at least maintains your interest! I’d love to get your thoughts about the whole subject, especially if there are points of disagreement or things you think I’ve overlooked.

  • Leigh

    Thanks for the reply, I will read Romans 14 again in light of it. I have one other qusetion about 1Cor 10 though. I am puzzled by what verses 28-30 mean. It seems to me that the 2 questions seem to throw the previous statement off kilter somehow. What do you think?

  • I do see what you mean. The RSV translates 28-29 as a parenthetical comment:

    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. (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 — I mean his conscience, not yours — do not eat it.) For why should my liberty be determined by another man’s scruples? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?

    I think that may be a good way of understanding Paul’s train of thought. We could re-arrange the verses to make it clearer–which Paul himself might have done if he had a cut-paste function!

    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. For why should my liberty be determined by another man’s scruples? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? (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 — I mean his conscience, not yours — do not eat it.)

    I think there might be other possibilities too, centered on different ways one might translate verses 29b and following. For example, it might be possible to translate 29b and 30 in such a way that verses 31-33 are seen to be answering those questions: “Why? Here’s why …” When I read them in English, I tend to read them in relation to the preceding verses, as you have, and as rhetorical questions with an implied negative answer. I don’t see anything in the Greek that clearly signals that they’re rhetorical questions though. Perhaps they’re genuine questions and verses 31-33 give the answer … ?

  • Leigh

    Thanks, I see what you mean.

    To go back to the idea of defiled conscience, this is also mentioned in Titus 1:15. If I am reading you correctly, your idea of conscience – knowing with God, others and oneself – is akin to what we would today call a ‘worldview’ and this would fit here in Titus too. If we say that the works of the circumcision party, who were trying to Judaize the Christians by getting them to be circumcised, eat Kashrut (kosher food) and observe sabbaths, new moons, etc are not in keeping with the new covenant worldview, then they have a defiled worldview or conscience. Is that how you would view the matter?

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