“Meat Offered to Idols” in Pergamum and Thyatira

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Excerpt This article deals with understanding the phrase “meat offered to idols” in two of the letters that the Lord Jesus addressed to the seven churches. Dr. Charles A. Kennedy has set forth, in my opinion, the best explanation for the phrase “meat offered to idols.” The phrase should be understood as a memorial meal for the dead that sometimes degenerates into an immoral affair. If this understanding is correct, the interpretation will help clarify the message of the letters to the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira... Continue reading

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This article was originally published in the Fall 2001 issue of Bible and Spade.

 

In 1986, Colin Hemer first published his book The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting. He did an outstanding job of placing the letters to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor (Rv 1–3) in their historical-geographical setting at the end of the first century AD.

When Hemer deals with the phrase “meat offered to idols” he comments that there are

two aspects of the problem ... at Corinth, the consumption of idol-consecrated meat from the public market, and participation in the idolatrous guild-feast (see 1 Cor 8:1–13 and 10:20–30). The latter was the particular issue at Thyatira (2001:91–92).

A year later. Dr. Charles A. Kennedy, who is now professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, in an article in- Love and Death in the Ancient Near East, challenged the standard interpretation and set forth another view of the phrase

meat offered to idols” (1987:227–236). Kennedy contends that Paul is addressing himself to one of the most pervasive problems faced by Christians anywhere at any time, the proper rites to be accorded their dead. Eidolothuton should be translated as ‘memorial meals for the dead’ (1987:229).

The phrase “meal offered to idols” appears ten times in the New Testament. The first mention is in Acts 15 where the Jerasalem Council issued the decree to the Gentile believers in the Lord Jesus that they were to “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourself from these, you do well”(15:29 NKJV). The second time it is used in the Book of Acts is when Paul appears before James in Jerusalem (21:25). Paul addresses this issue in his first epistle to the church at Corinth in chapters 8–11. Paul begins this section, “Now concerning things offered to idols”(8:1). The phrase appears six times in the context (8:1, 4, 7, 10; 10:19, 28). The last two references are found in two of the letters addressed to the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rv 2:14, 20).

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This paper will examine C. A. Kennedy’s view of the phrase “meat offered to idols” as it relates to the church at Pergamum (2:14) and Thyatira (2:20).

 

Pergamum. View from the summit of the hill on which the city of Pergamum sat, looking south into the fertile valley of the Caicus River.

C. A. Kennedy’s View

Dr. Kennedy views the phrase “meat offered to idols” as a memorial meal for the dead. In his article he begins by looking at the etymology of the word eidolothuton, the phrase translated “meat offered to idols,” and then the archaeological evidence to support his thesis.

Kennedy points out (1987:228,229) the presupposition of the usual interpretation

that the word eidolothuton is, as it were, self-explanatory. The two elements of the word, ‘idol’ and ‘sacrifice’ combine to form the compound “meal/food/things offered to idols.” The “idols” are taken to mean the statues of the Greek gods; therefore the sacrifices must be the victims slaughtered at their temples. Such meat, so the argument goes, is not to be eaten by Christians (1 Cor 10:14; cf. Acts 15:29).

However, the word eidolon is rarely used in secular Greek in the usual sense of “idol” (i.e., a statue of a god). Kennedy contends tends that the meaning is “the representation of a real person” (1987:229). He then gives several examples. One example leads him to the second association, that of the shade or shadow” of a person who had died (1987:229).

The second element of the word thuton is usually translated “sacrifice” yet this word has a wide range of meanings. Kennedy concludes his study of the etymology of the word by saying, “The combination of eidolo- and thuton should then be understood to mean ‘meal for the image of the deceased’ or more simply “a funerary meal/offering,’ ‘a memorial meal for the dead’.” (1987:230).

Death Masks. A Roman patrician carrying the death masks of his deceased relatives.

 

 

“An important element in the funeral rites was the image of the deceased. Wax masks were made and incorporated into effigies that might be displayed in public” (Kennedy 1987:231). Painted portraits could be displayed, and for the wealthy, a sculptured portrait bust.

The best archaeological illustration of the memorial meals for the dead can be found in Pompeii, Italy. The city was covered with dust and ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 that left most of the necropolis intact. A tomb of Gnaeus Vibrius Saturninus exists outside the Herculaneum Gale on the Street of the Tombs. One entered the tomb complex via a small entrance from the street. A triclinium was in the center of the courtyard so the family members could recline while they ate the memorial meal in honor of the deceased relative. Elsewhere in the Pompeii necropolis one can see statues of the deceased person as well as memorial chapels with the image of the dead. Clement of Alexandria probably had similar tombs in Egypt in mind when he said:

Tombs are objects of reverence in just the same way as temples are: in fact, pyramids, mausoleums and labyrinths are as it were temples (naoi) of dead men, just as the temples are tombs of the gods (Exhortation to the Greeks 4; LCL 111–113).

Kennedy points out the irony of this statement by saying,

In this very nice turn of phrases, Clement manages to criticize the cult of the dead and the pagan gods at the same time. If men set up shrines (i.e. tombs) to dead men, they tacitly admit that the gods venerated in shrines (i.e. temples) are just as dead (1987:233).

Whenever “meat offered to idols” is mentioned in the Scriptures, it is always associated with sexual immorality. Apparently, the funerary meals would, at times, degenerate into orgies because the drinking got out of hand. This connection is evident in the two letters to the churches of Asia Minor.

 

A Roman Tomb Triclinium at Pompeii. Roman tombs could be quite elaborate and include a place for memorial meals which would have been eaten at this triclinium, or table. Perhaps it was to one of these memorial meals that Paul alluded to when he wrote about dining in an “idol’s temple” (1 Cor 8:10)

 

 

Funerary Meals in Pergamum (Rv 2:14)

The Lord Jesus instructs the Apostle John to write to the angel (or church representative) of the church in Pergamum (Rv 2:12–17). John describes the Risen Lord Jesus as the One with the “sharp two-edged sword” (2:12). This metaphor is used elsewhere in the New Testament for the Word of God (Eph 6:17; Heb 4:12; cf. Rv 1:16). He commends them for holding fast to the Name of the Lord Jesus and not denying Him in spite of the persecution in the city “where Satan dwells” (2:13). However, the Lord had a few things against the church at Pergamum. First, there were some in the church that held to the “doctrine of Balaam” which included eating things sacrificed to idols, and committing sexual immorality (2:14). Second, there were also some in the church that held to the doctrine of the Nicolaitans (2:15). This error was in the Church at Ephesus, but the leaders of that church took a stand against this heresy (2:6).

Dr. Robert Thomas in his commentary on the book of Revelation points out that these are two separate groups within the church, both of which had disobeyed the decision of the Jerusalem council in regard to idolatrous practices and fornication (cf. Acts 15:20, 29) (1992:193).

The earliest witness to the Nicolaitans is the Church Father. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons (ca. 115-ca. 202). He was a disciple of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor. Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John. In his work Against Heresies, chapter 26. Irenaeus wrote:

The Nicolaitanes are the follower of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles (Acts 6:5). They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, [where they are represented] as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Wherefore the Word has also spoken of them thus: “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate” (Rv 2:6) (1994:352).

Tertullian, a North African Christian apologist writing around AD 200, in his On Prescription Against Heretics, chapter 33, associates a form of the Nicolaitan error with “meat offered to idols” and fornication (1994:259). Dr. Thomas takes the kai (“also”) in verse 15 as a comparison between two groups within the church and that both held similar false doctrines. He renders verse 15 as “You have also [in addition to those who hold the teaching of Balaam] those who hold in like manner [to the way the Balaamites hold their teaching] the leaching of the Nicolaitans” (1992:194). The two groups “arrived at the same goal, that of eating meal sacrificed to idols and fornication, but they followed different paths to get there”(1992:194).

Funerary stela from Pergamum. This funerary stela depicts a memorial meal for the dead. The dead man is reclining on the bed. His wife is seated to the left. The three legged table with food on it is in the center.

 

 

In order to understand the “doctrine of Balaam” one must go back to the account found in Nm 22–25, 31. Balaam, a prophet of the LORD (Nm 22:18), was invited by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the nation of Israel. At first, Balaam refused to go to Moab, but later went to Balak. He went, however, with strict instructions from the Lord to say only what the Lord told him to say. Each time Balak asked Balaam to curse the Israelites, he turned around and blessed Israel (23:7–10, 18–24; 24:3–9, 15–19; cf. Gn 12:1–3).

But what is the “doctrine of Balaam”? The doctrine of Balaam is the same as the counsel of Balaam (Nm 31:16). Apparently what happened was Balaam told Balak he could only bless the nation of Israel but not curse it. As he departed, he counseled Balak on how to get the God of Israel angry with His people. The plan was quite simple: get the Moabite women to commit harlotry with the men of Israel (Nm 25:1-3).

How does this incident relate to the “meat offered to idols” and sexual immorality as well as the Nicolaitans in the church at Pergamum? The books of Numbers and the Psalms give us the answer. In Numbers 25:2, the Moabites invited the people of Israel to “the sacrifice of their gods”. The psalmist reflects on the incident in Numbers 25 by saying. “They joined themselves also to Baal of Peor, and ate sacrifices made to the dead. Thus they provoked Him to anger with their deeds, and the plague broke out among them” (Ps 106:28, 29). Kennedy observes that M. Dahood translates this as “banquet of the dead,” and the “sacrifices of their gods” in Numbers 25:2 is

the idolatrous meals introduced to the Israelites by the Moabite women. These meals were apparently funeral banquets in honor of their ancestors. The dead are described as gods in 1 Sm 28:13 and Is 8:19, two situations where men wish to know about the future and seek out the dead for answers. In a text from Ugarit, Anat addresses her deceased brother Baal with these words: “Your comrades are the gods, the dead your comrades.” Since Baal was already a god in life, the change of status brought about by his death put him in a new company of gods, the dead.

The Lord Jesus commands the church to repent of their tolerance for those in the church that followed the doctrine of Balaam as well as the Nicolaitans. If they did not, He said He would come quickly and light against them with the sword of His mouth (Rv 2:16), Tin’s sword may have a dual reference. First, to the Word of God, and second, to the sword of judgment. In the Balaam account, the Angel of the LORD appears before Balaam with a drawn sword (Nm 22:23, 31). In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Angel of the LORD is a theophany, or a pre-incarnate appearance, of the Lord Jesus Christ (Walvoord 1969:51–54). After the sin at Baal Peor, Moses commanded the judges of Israel to kill all those involved in the sin (Nm 25:5). Eventually, Balaam was killed with the sword (Nm 31:8).

The message to the church at Pergamum was clear, if you do not take care of the sins caused by those that followed the “doctrine of Balaam” and the Nicolaitans, the Lord would judge the church very severely, even to the point of death. The book of Hebrews, quoting Proverb 3:11, 12, warns of God’s chastening of His children (Heb 12:5, 6). Elsewhere, the New Testament demonstrates that God’s chastening of His children can be very severe, even to the point of death (1 Jn 5:16).

The Apostle Paul wrote that many believers “sleep” in Corinth because they abused the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:30). Earlier in the same context concerning “meat offered to idols.” Paul uses the event at Baal Peor as an example of God’s chastening and an admonition to the Church (1 Cor 10:8–11). Paul goes on to admonish the individual believer concerning temptation (1 Cor 10:12. 13).

There were some people in the church at Pergamum that did not engage in the memorial meals to the dead. For them, the Overcomers, the Lord promised He would “give some of the hidden manna to eat” (2:17). The contrast is quite obvious. Those in the church who were not walking according to the Word of God were eating at the banquets for the dead and enjoying the “pleasures of sin for a season” (Heb 11:25). The Overcomers “disciplined” their bodies and “brought it into subjection” so that they could “win the prize” (1 Cor 9:24–27). In the context of the letter, the prize would be the “manna” and the “white stone” on which would be written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it (Rv 2:17). Those who followed the “doctrine of Balaam” and the Nicolaitans would be “disqualified” from the race (1 Cor 9:27).

The “hidden manna” is most likely the manna that is in the Ark of the Covenant in Heaven (Rv 11:19, cf. Ex 16:32–34) and refers to a Banquet in the Kingdom. This manna will be the reward for the Overcomers, in contrast to the unhallowed food at the memorial meal for the dead. An interesting observation is that whenever the Bible records the Children of Israel eating something other than the manna during the 40 years, death by plague resulted (quail—Nm 11:31–34; Ps 106:14, 15; cf 1 Cor 10:6; sacrifice to the dead at Shittim—Nm 25:1–3; cf. 1 Cor 10:8). The manna did not stop until they entered the Land (Ex 16:35; Jos 5:12; Neh 9:20, 21).

The other promise to the Overcomer was a “while stone” with their new name written on it. This is probably an allusion to the victor’s name placed on a monument of while marble, in contrast to the Pergamum granite, placed around the gymnasiums or Pergamum (Sauer 1956:63–65; Hemer 1986:102). The athletic victors were afforded a special banquet (Thomas 1992:201; cf. Rv 19:9).

Funerary Meals in Thyatira (Rv 2:20)

The church at Thyatira had the same problem as the church at Pergamum. Hemer notes that this is the “longest and most difficult of the seven letters [and] is addressed to the least known, least important and least remarkable of the cities.” He goes on to say, “the letter was not obscure to the church at Thyatira: the problem lies in our remoteness from the contemporary facts” (2001:106).

Most commentaries, when discussing the “meat offered to idols” and sexual immorality in the church at Thyatira, attribute the practices to the membership rites of the local trade guilds (trade unions). Each guild had a patron deity and banquets with food offered to that deity as well as immoral activity. In order to have a position in the guild, the Christian would have had to participate in such activities. In the case of the church at Thyatira. one prophetess was saying it was all right to be involved in these events. I do not believe the phrase “‘meat offered to idols” has anything to do with the guilds.

John begins this letter with the threefold characteristics of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Son of God, the One who has eyes like a flame of fire and feet like fine brass (2:18). The Lord commends them for two works: their faith and their love. As Thomas points out. “love is demonstrated in service to others and faith is shown through endurance of hardship imposed through persecution” (1992:211). Gene Getz in his book Sharpening the Focus of the Church points out three marks of a mature church: faith, hope and love (1 Cor 13:13; 1974:53–61). The church at Thyatira was missing one of the three marks; i.e., “hope (in the return of Christ).” When one examines the problem in the church—immorality—it becomes obvious why hope is missing. The last Person the church wanted to see was the Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostle John describes the hope of the return of Christ as a “purifying hope” because some day believers in the Lord Jesus shall see Him as He is (1 Jn 3:1–3). On the other hand, some believers will be “ashamed” at His coming (1 Jn 2:28). The church at Thyatira lacked hope because they tolerated the immorality that was going on in the church.

Saracophagus from Antioch on the Orontes with an image of the dead laying on a couch. Underneath (center) is a scene depicting a meal. It was to the church at Antioch that the prohibition to refrain from eating “meat offered to idols” was first given (Acts 15:20, 29, 30).

 

 

Like previous churches, the Lord had a few things against this church. The problem was that the elders of the church

allowed that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. (2:20).

Apparently there was a strong woman in the church who considered herself a prophetess, was nicknamed Jezebel, and took an active teaching role in the church. She taught an “alternative lifestyle” to the Lord’s servants, advocating that they attend memorial meals for the dead and engage in sexual immorality. Whether this woman was a believer or not is debatable. If she was a believer, she was about to come under the severe hand of God’s chastening (1 Cor 11:30; Heb 12:5, 6).

The parallels between this unknown woman and her namesake Jezebel are striking. This woman had an unusually strong influence in the church at Thyatira just as Jezebel had a strong influence over her husband Ahab as well as over Israel’s public policy (1 Kgs 16:31–33; 21:25, 26). Both women led their people into idolatry (1 Kgs 18:4, 19). and both women led their people into sexual immorality (2 Kgs 9:22, 30; cf. Jer 4:30; Na 3:4).

The Lord had given this woman lime to repent of her immoral sexual behavior, but she refused. She enjoyed the pleasures of sin—for a season. The Lord lowered His heavy hand of chastening upon her and threatened her with death. “Indeed, I will cast her into a sickbed” (Rv 2:22). Some have taken the word “sickbed” to mean “funeral bier or bed laid on a bier” (Hort 1908:30). If the reference is to the funeral bier the Lord, in essence, is saying: “Jezebel, since you like going to memorial meals for the dead so much and engaging in sexual immorality, fine. Now all the pagans in Thyatira and the surrounding villages will attend your memorial meal for the dead! Prepare to die!”

The Lord will use this severe chastening as an example to the other churches in the area (and us today). The One who had the “eyes like a flame of fire” (Rv 2:18) is the “one who searches the mind and heart” (Rv 2:23). He encourages the rest of the church to “hold fast what you have till I come” (Rv 2:24). The hope of the Lord’s return should be a purifying hope (1 Jn 3:1–3). He then holds out the promise to the Overcomers that they will reign with Christ and have authority over the nations {Rv 2:26–29; cf. Ps 2:8, 9; 2 Tm 2:1–13).

Conclusion

This article dealt with understanding the phrase “meat offered to idols” in two of the letters that the Lord Jesus addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor at the end of the First century. Dr. Charles A. Kennedy has set forth, in my opinion, the best explanation for the phrase “meat offered to idols.” The phrase should be understood as a memorial meal for the dead that sometimes degenerates into an immoral affair. If this understanding is correct, the interpretation will help clarify the message of the letters to the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira.

Bibliography

Clement of Alexandria
1982 Exhortation to the Greeks. Trans. G. W. Butterworth. Cambridge MA: Harvard.

Cooley, R., and Pratico, G.
1994 Gathered to His People: An Archaeological Illustration from Tell Dothan’s Western Cemetery. Pp. 70–92 in Scripture and Other Artifacts, eds. M. Coogan, et al. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Getz, G.
1974 Sharpening the Focus of the Church. Chicago: Moody.

Hemer, C.
2001 The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Hort, F. J. A.
1908 The Apocalypse of St. John, I-III. London:Macmillan.

Irenaeus
1994 Against Heresies. Pp. 315–567 in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, eds. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson. Peabody MA: Hendrickson.

Kennedy, C. A.
1986 The Cult of the Dead at Corinth. Pp. 227–236 in Love and Death in the Ancient Near East. Guilford CT: Four Quarters.

Sauer, E.
1956 In the Arena of Faith. Grand Rapids:Eerdmans.

Tertullian
1994 On Prescription Against Heretics. Pp. 243–267 in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, eds. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson. Peabody MA:Hendrickson.

Thomas, R.
1992 Revelation 1–7. An Exegetical Commentary. Chicago: Moody.

Walvoord, J.
1968 Jesus Christ Our Lord. Chicago: Moody.

Comments Comment RSS

4/7/2010 10:26 PM #

Have you considered that Jesus, in speaking to the young man, might also have been addressing the custom and belief associated with the reburial, transfer, of the young man's father's bones to the family crypt? If this young man's father had never been buried, the son should have been with the family attending to the burial and then sitting shiva for 7 days in accordance with God's instructions; otherwise, the burial being spoken of would have to be the 2nd burial in which it was thought that since the corruptable flesh had fallen off the bones of the father he was now free from sin, ready to reburied with his fathers. This practice promotes a 2nd path to righteousness. Thus Jesus' remark that the "spiritually dead" (those who would hold such a belief) should take care of their dead. Had Jesus been telling the young man not to bury his father or not to sit shiva he would have been guilty of causing the young man violate the commandments of God and thereby sinning himself by advocating that the young man commit a sin.

R.M. Smith - 4/7/2010 10:26:26 PM

4/8/2010 3:56 PM #

Dear RM Smith,

We refer you to Gordon Franz's article:

"Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead"

www.biblearchaeology.org/.../...heir-Own-Dead.aspx

Blessings,

ABR

ABR - 4/8/2010 3:56:02 PM

3/4/2012 5:30 PM #

Hi
Thank you for your excellent writings.
Today we have a modern day Church of Thyratira. There is a Jezabel teaching a practice of witchcraft and paganism to the churches of the world.  The practice is Labyrinth meditation which is a replacement of the Cross in churches and is now in most denominations including Baptists, Epicopalians, Anglicans, Methodists etc.

"Researching the Labyrinth" on YouTube will give you a background on Labyrinths and Google "Veriditas" will give you the source of this movement.

God Bless

AMTattersall - 3/4/2012 5:30:25 PM

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