“Meat Sacrificed to Idols” or Ancient Memorial Meals?

Midrash on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 (Text below)

Roman patrician carrying the death masks of deceased relatives.

Roman patrician carrying the death masks of the recently deceased.

I confess that whenever I came across the phrase “meat offered to idols” in Paul’s writings and in the Book of Revelation, I never totally got what it was referring to. My curiosity landed me on Google with a search for some scholarly understanding. The best I could come up with was an article by Dr. Charles Kennedy, professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech, on the website biblearcheology.org. You can read the whole piece there.

But what interested me was his theory about what this phrase, “meat offered to idols” referred to. The traditional interpretation is that it was meat that was offered to one of the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods, and that made it unholy. Paul is saying that it’s not really unholy, because those gods are aren’t actually real. So normally you could go ahead and eat it, but if it causes new converts to stumble and return to the idolatrous practice, it’s probably better that you just refrain.

But the Greek word that is translated, “meat sacrificed to idols”, eidolothuton, would be better translated as ‘memorial meals for the dead’ according to Kennedy. This is where it gets interesting.

Apparently, there was a practice at the time of honouring the dead by having memorial meals. At these meals, copious amounts of wine was imbibed and it could degenerate into an orgy.

But the orgy bit sounds to me a bit like when the Romans trumping up charges against Christians that the eucharist was actually cannibalism, in order to justify persecution. Accuse whatever and whomever you don’t understand of heinous crimes and behaviour. It feels like the scare tactics of the early church introduced to get believers  to tow the line. Who knows, maybe there are a few examples of a memorial meal degenerating into sexual licentiousness. My partner is more shamanic than I am, and her immediate thought was that it’s possible that in the earliest memorial meals to honour the ancestors, there could have been a sexual component preparing the way for the deceased spirit to re-enter the village.

What actually fascinates me is that offering food to one’s ancestors is an ancient practice, predating axial ancestors-by-marietje-henningreligions and the Greek and Roman pantheons, by thousands of years. But the indigenous understanding was never that they were offering food to gods. There was an assumption that the dead had moved on to another realm, and they were letting the deceased know that they were remembered. The food offered was believed to actually sustain the ancestors. And sustained ancestors became an active part of the life and milieu of the living. It was a gesture of respect, but more than a gesture because the ancestors remained a part of the living community.

Is it possible that later religions interpreted that these indigenous people actually believed that the ancestors were gods? Otherwise, why offer food to them? There are many, many examples of Europen missionaries misinterpreting the ceremonies of the indigenous people.  Perhaps Paul, as a monotheist just assumed that this ceremony of feeding of the ancestors was idol worship, the turning of the deceased into gods.

But what if what the early church was witnessing in these memorial meals was the bastardized memory of ancient ceremonies. Intuitively, later religions know that there is something right about ceremonies that honour the dead by feeding them (food offered to “idols”).  And carried them forward unconsciously and without understanding. But they thought if food is being offered, these people must actually think that the deceased are gods. As we’ve seen, in these ceremonies the deceased are just the deceased who participate in the life of the community in an invisible realm. Thus misinterpreted, monotheistic sensibilities are offended.

eucharist-daniel-bonnellOkay, but let’s apply this to the Christian eucharist or more commonly known as communion. It sure looks like we are offering food to Jesus of Nazareth. Break the bread, raise the cup of blood, and remember Jesus. It’s a memorial meal, with deep indigenous roots. “Do this in remembrance of me”. “As often as you drink of this cup, remember me”. But when Jesus uttered those “words of institution” as they’ve come to be called, he wasn’t asking to be remembered as a god, but just to be remembered after his death. The one thing that is most frightening for the dying is that they will be forgotten, rendering their lives void of meaning and significance.

Is it possible that what began as a memorial meal was the ceremony which in time elevated Jesus to the status of a god, and not the other way around? (Monotheism requiring him to be a god if we are honouring him with a memorial meal). The other way around being to begin with the premise that Jesus is G_d, and then creating a ceremony called the eucharist. I’m not so sure that the earliest Christians (being Jewish) would have thought of Jesus as G_d.

Perhaps, stripped of all its dense, theological meanings, what we are doing when we gather for the meal is remembering Jesus, feeding him as an ancestor and great leader, and thereby enabling his living spirit to participate in an ongoing way in sustaining us and doing whatever he is doing in the invisible realms.

It’s making some sense to me. In Luke’s gospel, the scales fall from the eyes of the Emmaus disciples (devastated by Jesus’ death), when Jesus makes them a meal. It’s the remembrance meal that keeps Jesus’ real presence active in the community. And it’s the feeding of his spirit that sustains him for the work he is about in the next realm.

 

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
8:1 Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

8:2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge;

8:3 but anyone who loves God is known by him.

8:4 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.”

8:5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth–as in fact there are many gods and many lords–

8:6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

8:7 It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.

8:8 “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.

8:9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

8:10 For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols?

8:11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.

8:12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

8:13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

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