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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Food Offered to Idols

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A cause of controversy in the early church centering on what Christians were permitted to eat.

“Food offered to idols” is a translation of a single Greek word which has also been rendered “things offered unto idols” (KJV) and “meat sacrificed to idols” (NIV). The identification of the object of the offering by the term “idol” suggests that it was a name which originated outside first-century paganism. It reflects the perspective and conclusion of someone who spoke as a Jew or Christian. The Greek-speaking pagans of the New Testament era would be more likely to use terms that would mean “food (things) offered to a deity or divinity.” Compare 1 Corinthians 10:28 where Paul used one of these terms as an example of a possible comment by a non-Christian to a Christian.

Pagan sacrifices could be thought of as typically consisting of three portions. One small part would be used in the sacrificial ritual. A larger portion would be reserved for the use of the priests or other temple personnel. The largest part would be retained by the worshiper to be used in one of two ways. The one who offered the sacrifice sometimes used the remaining portion as the main course in a meal which might be served at or near the pagan temple. It is this type of religio-social event that stands behind the question raised by the letter (1 Corinthians 7:1 ; 1 Corinthians 8:1 ) from the church at Corinth to Paul and consequently as the background for Paul's response in 1 Corinthians 8:1 . The second method of disposing of the worshiper's portion would be to offer it for sale at the local marketplace. Meat that was sold in this fashion would be bought and then served as a part of a regular family meal. This situation is reflected in Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1 .

“Food offered to idols” is specifically mentioned in three New Testament writings, although the issue is suggested by a variety of texts. In canonical order, the first examples are to be found in the Book of Acts. The initial one comes at the conclusion of the Jerusalem conference. According to Acts the success of Paul and Barnabas in evangelizing Gentiles led to a debate about the place of circumcision among Christians. At the end of the debate the acceptance of Gentile Christians by Jewish Christians was supported by a letter from the Jerusalem church which listed “what has been sacrificed to idols” as one thing from which it was expected that even Gentile Christians would obstain (Acts 15:29 ). This issue is referred to in Acts 15:20 , even though the exact term is not used. The very expression (“what has been offered to idols”) occurs also at Acts 21:25 in an apparent reference to the letter given in Acts 15:1 . This may be one factor that led some Christians to become vegetarians. Compare Romans 14:1-21 .

The term “food offered to idols” also appears in 1Corinthians 8:1,1Corinthians 8:4,1Corinthians 8:7,1 Corinthians 8:10 and 1 Corinthians 10:19 (some manuscripts include it in 1 Corinthians 10:28 ). At Corinth, Paul had plunged into the pagan world in an attempt to bring them the message of Christ. Probably most of his converts were acquainted with the practice of using the leftover portions of a sacrifice for sale or celebration. It is not difficult to imagine a problem emerging as to whether a Christian was doing wrong by the public or private use of food that had been devoted to a pagan deity.

The final occurrences of this term are in Revelation 2:14 ,Revelation 2:14,2:20 , where in addition to the eating of food offered to idols two of the seven churches are scolded for idolatry and moral failure. It is significant that these problems are regularly connected in the New Testament.

Robert Byrd


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Food Offered to Idols'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/f/food-offered-to-idols.html. 1991.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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