Church and Gentile Cults at Corinth -- By: Mark Harding

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 10:2 (Fall 1989)
Article: Church and Gentile Cults at Corinth
Author: Mark Harding

Church and Gentile Cults at Corinth

Mark Harding

Paul finds himself needing to address a number of issues in 1 Corinthians in which the Gentile cultic heritage of many of the readers intrudes. The two most significant of these issues are the eating of meat offered to idols and believers participation in temple banquets. Scholars have argued that Paul uses terminology of believers which echoes and perhaps imitates the cults and, consequently, that Paul saw believers engaged in a Christian cult. However, from an analysis of Pauls discussion of the matters in question in the letter, it is argued that the redemptive achievement of Christ in history, and the response of believers to that work as proclaimed in the gospel, repudiates cult as the model for that response.

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Karl Donfried’s recent article “The Cults of Thessalonica and the Thessalonian Correspondence”1 investigates the first century A.D. cultic context which surrounded the church in Thessalonica. His study suggests to this writer the possibility of extending the inquiry both to the cultic background presupposed by Paul in his correspondence with the Corinthians, and suggested by commentators in their exegesis of the first letter in particular. This essay, therefore, attempts to investigate (1) the nature of the cultic milieu in which the Corinthians lived as reflected in the correspondence, and (2) the extent to which commentators have been correct in their interpretation of certain passages from that cultic perspective.

Food Offered to Idols

Paul finds it necessary to address a pastoral problem which has arisen with regard to the propriety of believers eating food offered to

idols. This was meat which had been slaughtered in ritual sacrifice to the gods before their images, and among that sold in the market.2

This meat is termed ἱερό- or θεόθυτον (“food offered to a god”) by the Gentiles. Paul follows the Jewish practice in 1 Corinthians 8 when he employs the pejorative term εἰδωλόθυτον (“food offered to an idol”).3 It is the meat left over from the sacrifice, i.e., after the god has received his/her share via the altar fire. In sacrifices to the dead and to the chthonian gods (the gods of the underworld), the victim was wholly immolated.4 But in the sac...

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