Why were foods offered to idols considered unclean?

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In the Greek and Roman faiths, food was daily offered to the different gods in the temples. However, only a small part of it was placed on the altar. The rest was either eaten by those working in the temple, or sent to the market.

Mishnah and unclean foods

To the devout Jews, foods offered to idols were considered unclean. And this can be seen in a law that was accredited to Rabbi Akiba (c. A.D. 100): “Meat which is being brought in to a place of idols is permitted [to derive some benefit therefrom], but that which is brought out is forbidden, because it is [regarded] as sacrifices of the dead” (Mishnah ‘Abodah Zarah 2. 3, Soncino ed. of the Talmud, p. 145).

Similarly, we read of another law from the Mishnah (codified c. A.D. 200) regarding wine offered to idols: “Yen nesek (libation-wine) is prohibited and renders [other wine] prohibited by the smallest quantity. Wine [mixed] with wine and water with water [disqualifies] by the smallest quantity. Wine [mixed] with water and water with wine [disqualifies when the prohibited element] imparts a flavour. This is the general rule: with the same species [the mixture is disqualified] by the smallest quantity, but with a different species [it is disqualified when the prohibited element] imparts a flavour” (ibid. 5. 8, Soncino ed. of the Talmud, p. 349).

Accordingly, a devout Jew could never purchase meat in a regular market, but only from a Jewish store. And when he traveled, it was with his kophinos, or basket, on his back where he carried his own food with him (Mark 6:43).

The council of Jerusalem

In view of this strict Jewish sentiment, the council of Jerusalem in the early church (c. A.D. 49) agreed to ask Gentile Christians to abstain from meats offered to idols. Therefore, the gentile converts were to reject invitations to many festive events, or if present, refuse to partake of the foods. A Christian of a good conscience also would refuse to eat food offered to him in a house, unless he is sure that it had not been offered to idols.

This ban protected Gentile Christians against the temptation of engaging in pagan rituals, where tasting the sacrificial food and wine played an important part of the services. If nothing offered to an idol was to be eaten, the conscientious believer could clearly see that even doing of ritual of tasting food and drink at an emperor’s altar was forbidden. This was an issue at the time of the writing of the Revelation (ch. 2:14).

Respecting the conscious of others regarding unclean meats

Sometime after the Jerusalem Council, this prohibition faced some resistance. At Corinth, the believers as they matured in their Christian understanding, they claimed the right to eat what they selected. And Paul permitted this in the abstract, to the degree that believers might purchase food in the market without worrying about whether it had been offered before in a temple. Paul wrote, “Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one” (1 Corinthians 8:4)

But Paul supported the prohibition on the ground of respecting others’ consciences. “for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.”

“But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?  And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?  But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:7-13 also Romans 14).

In His service,

BibleAsk Team

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