Jun 17, 2009

Paul. Food Sacrificed to Idols, and the Jerusalem Council

One of the challenges of taking the Jerusalem Council as a historical event is Paul’s apparent silence concerning it in his epistles, even when such a reference might be appropriate (e.g., his discussion of food sacrificed to idols; cf. 1 Cor 8:1––11:1; Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25) and even though Luke states the Paul was present at the Council and even carried its results to the church at Antioch. There are generally two broad approaches concerning this problem.

1. Some interpreters conclude that the Jerusalem Council was a Lukan creation and never actually happened. This view is generally unacceptable for conservative interpreters.

2. Other interpreters affirm the general historicity of the Jerusalem Council. In this position there are at least three variations. (1) The Jerusalem Council did occur, but contrary to Luke’s assertion, Paul was not there. Therefore, Paul does not refer to the decision of the Council either because he is unaware of it or that he does not feel bound by it since he was not present during the proceedings. (2) The Jerusalem Council was attended by Paul as Luke records, but he chooses to ignore the Council’s decision in his correspondence with Corinth and perhaps elsewhere. Perhaps Paul changed his mind or he might have viewed the Council’s decision as ad hoc or limited to churches in Syria. (3) The Jerusalem Council was attended by Paul as Luke records, and Paul follows the Council’s decision. This last view is the view of Alex T. Cheung, Idol Food in Corinth: Jewish Background and Pauline Legacy, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 176 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1999). Cheung writes:

“As I have shown earlier, the most likely scenario is that, in his first visit to Corinth, Paul prohibited-perhaps without any qualification-the consumption of idol food. He thus acted in accordance with the decree, whether he appealed to it or not. However, after Paul had left Corinth, some from the leadership of the church, perhaps because of their enlightened view of Christian freedom, but more likely due to social pressure, began to eat idol food. Paul attempted to correct them in his previous letter but was rebutted with clever arguments which were constructed with distortions of his earlier teachings and which seized on the potential impracticality of Paul’s unguarded language. This led to Paul’s response in 1 Cor. 8:1–11.1, which is both strongly combative and highly nuanced. To quote the decree there would not have served Paul’s purpose.

“To sum up, I have shown that the arguments advanced against the historical accuracy of Luke’s account of the Jerusalem council are not insurmountable. On the contrary, they readily fall apart if we are allowed to make one major assumption—that the decree is consistent with Paul’s missionary preaching, that Paul indeed prohibited eating idol food. As we shall see, this assumption also allows us to make sense of a plethora of early Christian writings touching on Paul’s stance in the matter of idol food” (p. 194).

I am very sympathetic to Chueng’s conclusions and his position on Paul’s perspective concerning idol food has been echoed by David Garland’s excellent 1 Corinthians commentary in the Baker Exegetical series.

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