Monday, December 05, 2005

Idols, Demons, Empty Spaces and 1 Corinthians

I taught a class on 1 Corinthians on Friday, and I began thinking about the contrast between 1 Cor. 8 and 10, a contrast that has always bothered me:

1 Cor. 8.4-6: "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." 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— 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. (NRSV)

1 Cor. 10.19-22: 19 What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Or are we provoking the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (NRSV)

There is a seemingly irreconcileable contrast here. What does Paul think? That idols have no existence or that they are in fact demons? Is the position of 1 Cor. 10 in conflict with the position of 1 Cor. 8? I was at a paper at the Duke NT colloquium a few weeks ago at which Joel Marcus was talking on the general topic of idolatry in the New Testament and it occurred to me that one way around the difficulty of the contrast between 1 Cor. 8 and 10 would be as follows. In the ancient world, demons were thought to inhabit empty spaces, to fill voids, to exploit nothingness. Could it be that the demons of 1 Cor. 10 exploit the empty spaces, the voids of 1 Cor. 8? Since, for Paul, pagan gods have no existence, since there is no God but one, the idols are empty, void, representations of nothing. Is the underlying thought that the demons take up occupation in that empty space, that void? Do they exploit the absence?

Update (9.57): lots of useful comments have been added to this post (8 so far), all worth reading. Mike Thompson also emails:
Mark, on 1 Cor 8 & 10 I'm not sure the problem is so acute, or perhaps I'm missing something. What if ouden in 8.4 is a predicate, i.e. 'an idol is nothing'? In other words, it doesn't have the power or priority that the one (true) God has; an idol counts for nothing. Paul isn't denying the existence of idols in 8.4, but their power/essence/status etc in comparison to YHWH. On your reading, 8.5 would seem to be just as difficult as ch 10 for 8.4, since it too grants their existence.

Or is the issue the relationship between idols and demons?
I should add that I don't have anything invested in the thoughts I placed up here -- it was something that occurred to me while listening to a paper and I have done no research on the question. My thoughts just appear to me to make sense of the cosmology behind Paul's thinking, which can maintain both that an idol is nothing and that to worship idols is to participate with demons. Let me add, though, that I may have overstated the apparent contrast between 1 Cor. 8 and 10 above, perhaps the result of having taught it recently, where one can play up contrasts a little to make the point. I hope to comment on the comments in due course.

Update (Wednesday, 17.44): As Stephen Carlson points out in Hypotyposeis, there are loads of interesting comments to this post, and I want to draw attention to them here, especially for those of you who read the RSS feed.


Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Didn't the Epicureans believe that the 'gods' existed in the void spaces between worlds and thus had no influence on human beings, whether for good or for ill?

Such 'deities' enjoyed a state of eudaemonia, if I recall.

This sounds like 'gods' that both exist (in interstitial spaces) and don't exist (having no influence on the human realm).

Jeffery Hodges

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Chris Tilling said...

It seems that Paul, to treat him a tad anachronistically, is saying that demons are the essence of non-existence, or nonbeing (Nichtdasein). There you go. Paul is a proto-Heideggerian!

In this connection, I just found this lucid little quote on the net about nonbeing and the Sophists:
"The Sophist seems to be concerned with two things: being and nonbeing, on the one hand, and true and false speech, on the other. If speech is either true or false speech, it seems not even plausible for being to be either being or nonbeing, since we would then be compelled to say that nonbeing is as much being as false speech is speech. If nonbeing, however, is being, then nonbeing cannot be nonbeing, for otherwise the falseness of false speech would not consist in its saying 'nonbeing.' And, in turn, if nonbeing is nonbeing, the falseness of' false speech again cannot consist in its saying 'nonbeing,' for it would then not be saying anything."
-- Seth Benardete, Plato's Sophist. Part II of The being of the beautiful, Chicago, Chicago University Press (1986) pp. XII-XIII)

... and that makes about as much sense as it did the first time I read it.

crystal said...

I don't know if this is relevant, but the New American Bible notes say ...

8 [20] To demons: although Jews denied divinity to pagan gods, they often believed that there was some nondivine reality behind the idols, such as the dead, or angels, or demons. The explanation Paul offers in ⇒ 1 Cor 10:20 is drawn from ⇒ Deut 32:7: the power behind the idols, with which the pagans commune, consists of demonic powers hostile to God.

graham old said...

Is it possible that 1 Cor. 8 means 'no idols exist in the world' - with the implicit suggestion being that they exist elsewhere?

That would seem to strongly support your idea.

Christopher Shell said...

It could be an unwitting contradiction, since there are good reasons for holding both positions, and Paul may have appreciated the strengths of both without 'checking his work'.
A possible reconciliation: whatever one worships - even if it be the wood/stone image of a non-existent god/demon - still represents some actual reality (e.g., food, wine, sex, or something more sinister).

Doug said...

I think I'd want to look at this more within the different development of Paul's rhetoric rather than look for total theological consistency. It seems to me that the consistency comes more from the behaviuour towards which he is aiming to persuade the Corinthians, than from the particular arguments he mounts in order to persuade them. It is possible to unify the two apparently contradictory positions, but I tend to the opinion that seeking that unity of thought rather misses the nature of the rhetoric.

Tommy said...

It seems to me that the conflict is already present in 8.4-5. "There is no idol in the world or god but one...for even if there are so called gods whether in heaven or on earth, even as there are many gods and many lords..." Perhaps Paul's thought is similar to that of the previous chapter in 7:19 (whose structure similar). Clearly Paul believes that circumcision and uncircumcision "exist" as he believes idols and demons “exist” (and are related). His point in denying idols/demons (and circumcision/uncircumcision) being may not be to invoke their non-existent ontology against Corinthians’ partaking of them but a more subjective (eschatologically-driven) prescription of the reality which is to determine the church’s existence. This is a difficult balancing act as it is not far from what some Corinthians are saying to justify their partaking of idolatrous feasts (i.e. “we’re ‘beyond’ idolatry”). Maybe Paul means to say that even though Christ’s body transcends the order of the present age (with its false gods, circumcision, etc.), the Corinthians should not be so bold as to think that they can live according to the dawned new age while openly subjecting themselves to the (still existing!) corruption of the old. The clash of the present age/old creation and the age to come/new creation (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11) is bound to produce some ambiguous language of being.

David said...

The contradiction seems to be more in the translation than in the text. Here's My translation:

1Cor 8:4-6 (APT) 4 About the eating then of the idol immolations, we realize that an idol is nothing in the world and that no one is God except one. 5 For too if in fact they are called gods, either in the sky or on earth, exactly as there are many gods and many lords, 6 but for us one God, the Father from whom all things are and we for him, and one Lord, Jesus Anointed, through whom all things are and we through him.

1Cor 10:19-22 (APT) 19 What then am I expressing? That an idol immolation is anything or that an idol is anything? 20 But that what they immolate, they immolate to demons and not to God; while I am determining for you not to become companions of the demons. 21 You cannot drink the Lord’s cup and a cup of demons; you cannot be associates of the Lord’s table and a table of demons. 22 Or do we incite the Lord? We are not more forceful than him, are we?

Paul readily admits that there are many gods, but for us there is only one God.

Pilgrim at First and Lake said...

Fascinating stuff! I was just reading Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed -- in his argument concerning creation, he works on reconciling creation ex nihilo with the Greek philosophical notion that ex nihilo nihil fit by talking about the pre-creation state of the universe as one of "total privation," a state that is simultaneously not *nothing* but also cannot be discussed in terms of matter and being the way we usually think of them.

It's a bit of a stretch -- historically, at the very least, although the seeds for the Rambam's ideas are already there in Josephus, I think -- but an interesting correlation, in my view.

J. B. Hood said...

Great post Mark. 1 Cor 8 reminds me strongly of Isaiah 44 inter alia (including Deut 32:17, which is what Crystal probably meant to write in her post).

1 Cor 10 likewise smacks of more "supernatural" perspectives which ascribe supernatural power to the powers of this world, from kings and imperial power to priestly/prophetic powers derived in part from idol worship (Exodus 7, perhaps Daniel 10).

Maybe these two perspectives were held in tension in Paul's mind--we know idols have no real power, indeed they aren't even alive; yet serving them is surely serving another spiritual force. This is true even if the thing worshiped is not a traditional idol. I love teaching/preaching Colossians 3:5 in a modern context, where we don't believe ourselves to be idolaters...

Col 3:5 then would be the converse--not an "idol" but still idolatrous, something spiritaully dangerous (which in the worldview of 1 Cor and Col alike is a spiritual power). Col 1:16, 2:15 are interesting as well...

eklektekuria said...

The late David Flusser relates the Pauline discussion on EIDWLOQUTON to the brief passage in Did. 6:3, which advises neophytes to "be on your guard against food sacrified to idols (EIDULOQUTOU), for it is the worship of dead gods (LATREIA GAR ESTI QEWN NEKRWN)." Not only does this verse begin with similar wording as 1 Cor. 8:4-6 ("as to the eating of food sacrificed to idols"), but it shares the same perspective that "gods" do not exist.

In my opinion, Paul probably draws on Deutero-Isaiah's satire on idolatry (Isa. 44), and states that "there is no idol in the world and there is no God but one" (= Isa. 44:8, "Is there any other God besides me? [[There is no Rock, I know of none]]"); the use of EIDWLON to refer false QEOI or LEGOMENOI QEOI has a precedent in the use of QEOS to refer to idols in Isa. 44: "Whoever fashions a god (PLASSONTES QEON)" (v. 10), "and with the remainder he makes gods (EIRGASANTO QEOUS)" (v. 15), and especially "with the rest he makes his carved god (EPOIHSAN EIS QEON GLUPTON)" (v. 17), so if Paul was influenced by Isa. 44, he would have found an equation between "idols" and so-called "gods".

Flusser argues that Did. 6:3 makes the same argument that "idols are nothing" and other gods do not exist by referring to the intended recipients of sacrifices as "dead gods" (dead gods = gods that are not in existence). In this case, the OT allusion is to Num. 25:1-3 and Ps. 106:28 ("they attached themselves to Baal of Peor and ate sacrifices of the dead"), which in subsequent interpretation became "sacrifices to the dead" (cf. Jub. 22:17, m. 'Abodah Zarah 2:3), and OT references to idols as inanimate and lacking senses (cf. Deut. 4:28, Jer. 10:3-5).

So one possible solution is to understand that (in light of Isa. 44) Paul uses EIDWLON as a metaphor for LEGOMENOI QEOI, since a "carved god" (which the carver calls "my god", Isa. 44:17) is an "idol". Thus, Paul could say that idols have no existence. Similarly, gods have no real existence. This "knowledge" (1 Cor. 8:7) then becomes the underlying premise for Paul's counsel on not "stumbling" other brothers in v. 7-13, for not all brothers share the same "knowledge" (i.e. understand that "so-called gods" do not exist). Then, after the digression in ch. 9, Paul returns to the subject of sacrifices because some in the church have fallen into idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7), and like the Israelites in the wilderness this has brought divine displeasure (compare 10:8-11 with v. 22 and the situation in 11:29-32). It is when the topic is resumed again that Paul mentions the existence of demons, and the fact that demons are the true recipients of the sacrifices (10:20-21). This notion is especially suggested by Ps. 106:37, in conjunction with 106:28, the text likely alluded to in Did. 6:3. The existence of demons do not mean that "the idol is real" (10:19), i.e. that so-called gods are real, because demons are not gods (v. 20, an allusion to Deut. 32:17). They do not have godhood as the Father alone has (8:6). Paul is not saying that demons do not exist (rather, it is the "god" veneer that is "nothing"). Paul thus saw the situation in the Christian church in terms of Israel's encounters with idolatry in the wilderness.

There still seems to be rub with Paul's "knowledge" premise: Paul presents the partaking of EIDWLOQUTON in ch. 10 in a black-and-white "cup of demons" vs. "cup of the Lord" fashion with no middle ground, yet there is a middle ground in ch. 8 which acknowledges that hypothetically a Christian who has the "knowledge" can eat with "freedom" without committing idolatry because of the "knowledge" that "so-called gods" are fake would block such eating as being considered worship. But in ch. 10, the implication seems to be that any eating of EIDWLOQUTON is idolatry. Thus it is striking in ch. 8 that idolatry is mentioned only as occurring when brothers with weak consciences partake of sacrificed food. So it looks like Paul's argument does shift between the digression, unless of course there is a better explanation!

(My reference to Flusser, btw, is to chapter 7 of The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and its Place in Early Judaism and Christianity, ed. by van de Sandt & Flusser (2002), pp. 260-265).

Milton Stanley said...

I enjoyed your post, and the subsequent comments, and linked to it at my blog for preachers this morning.

Jason von Ehrenkrook said...

Interesting question, which perhaps connects to the larger issue of how statues were perceived in antiquity. One common view was that statues were in fact "living", that they were in some sense conduits of divine powers, that they could speak oracles, move, weep, heal, and so on. Perhaps the tension in Corinthians - if indeed it exists - reflects a struggle to recycle the prophetic polemic that idols are nothing (i.e. dead matter, sticks and stones that cannot speak, hear, etc.) in a context where statues were commonly perceived as something more than lifeless matter. In any event, the demon-idol connection is certainly widespread in Jewish and Xian lit. (e.g. Ps.-Philo speaks of the "demon of the idols" (25:9); Augustine, that statues were the material bodies for divine spirits (City 8.23), and so on). Eusebius also mentions in his "Life of Constantine" that many statues contained bones/skulls for the magic arts, presumably for the purpose of animation, which may lend credence to the suggestion that demons (or gods, depending on your perspective) were perceived to inhabit the empty space of idols. In general, it seems to me that in addition to the influence of the OT on this issue, this broader Graeco-Roman world of perceptions ought to factor into the discussion.

As a side note, the perception that statues are living and powerful is not unique to the ancients (how many people today will swear that they saw "Mary" weeping, etc.?). See David Freedberg, "The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response" (Univ of Chicago, 1989) for an interesting study of this phenomenon.