By Gordon Franz
Colin Hemer, in his book The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting (1986), has done an outstanding job of placing the letters to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor (Revelation 1-3) in their historical-geographical setting at the end of the First Century AD. Hemer’s book is a reworking of his doctoral thesis at the University of Manchester that was accepted in 1969. He did his research under the supervision of the late Professor F. F. Bruce.
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” (1986:91, 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, “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 “meat offered to idols” appears ten times in the New Testament. The first mention is in Acts 15 where the Jerusalem 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. “But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (21:25 NKJV). 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 address to the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev. 2:14, 20).
This paper will examine C. A. Kennedy’s view of the phrase “meat offered to idols” as it relates to the church at Pergamos (2:14) and Thyatira (2:20).
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 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 ‘meat/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)” (1987: 228, 229).
However, the word eidolon is rarely used in secular Greek in the usual sense of “idol” (i.e. a statue of a god). Kennedy states, “the common meaning of the term is ‘image,’ ‘likeness,’ or a range of meanings we today would associate with a photograph. It is the representation of a real person” (1987: 229). He then gives several examples. One example lead him to the second association, that of “the shade or shadow of a person in the sense of the Latin umbra, the unsubstantial form and shape of one 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).
“Funerals in the Graeco-Roman world were conducted according to custom or tradition. Rituals and procedures were carefully detailed to insure the proper burial for the deceased and the purification of the family from the contamination of death. Funeral banquets were prescribed on certain days immediately following the death and on anniversaries of the burial in subsequent annual rites, honored the dead as one of the divi parentum or di parentes” (Kennedy 1987: 230, 231).
“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. An example of a Roman patrician carrying the death masks of his deceased relatives can be seen in the Barberini Museum in Rome.
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 Gate 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, at times, the funerary meals would degenerate into orgies because the drinking got out of hand. This connection is evident in the two letters to the churches of Asia Minor.
Funerary Meals in Pergamos (Rev. 2:14)
The Lord Jesus instructs the Apostle John to write to the angel (or church representative) of the church in Pergamos (Rev. 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. Rev. 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 Pergamos. First, there were some in the church that held to the “doctrine of Balaam” which is described as the “stumbling block before the Children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit 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. The word houtos (“thus”) in verse 15 “reflects that they were like, but not identical with, those who held the Balaamite doctrine. The introduction of the Nicolaitans with kai (‘also’) and homoios (‘thus’ or ‘in like manner’) also argues for two separate groups. The most consistent deduction is that there were two different but similar groups in this 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, 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, [when 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’ (Rev. 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 teaching of the Nicolaitans” (1992: 194). The two groups “arrived at the same goal, that of eating meat sacrificed to idols and fornication, but they followed different paths to get there” (1992: 194).
In order to understand the “doctrine of Balaam” one must go back to the account found in Numbers 22-25, 31. Balaam, a prophet of the LORD (Num. 22:18), was invited by Balak, 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. Gen. 12:1-3).
But what is the “doctrine of Balaam”? The doctrine of Balaam is the same as the counsel of Balaam (Num. 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 (Num. 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 Pergamos? 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 Sam. 28:13 and Isa. 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” (1987: 230).
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 fight against them with the sword of His mouth (2:16). This 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 (Num. 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 (Num. 25:5). Eventually, Balaam was killed with the sword (Num. 31:8).
The message to the church at Pergamos 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 quotes Prov. 3:11, 12: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:5,6). The New Testament demonstrates that God’s chastening of His children can be very severe, even to the point of death. The Apostle John, in his first epistle, says, “there is a sin leading to death” (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). For the individual believer, Paul admonishes, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has over taken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:12,13).
There were some people in the church at Pergamos 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, thus 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 (Rev. 2:17). Those that 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 (Rev. 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 forty years, death by plague resulted (quail – Num. 11:31-34; Ps. 106:14,15; cf. 1 Cor. 10:6; sacrifice to the dead at Shittim – Num. 25:1-3; cf. 1 Cor. 10:8). The manna did not stop until they entered the Land (Ex. 16:35; Josh. 5:12; Neh. 9:20, 21).
The other promise to the Overcomer was a “white stone” with their new name written on it. This is probably an allusion to the victor’s name placed on a monument of white marble, in contrast to the Pergamos granite, placed around the gymnasiums of Pergamos (Sauer 1956:63-65; Hemer 1986: 102). The athletic victors were afforded a special banquet (Thomas 1992: 201; cf. Rev. 19:9).
Funerary Meals in Thyatira (Rev. 2:20)
The church at Thyatira had the same problem as the church at Pergamos. 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 that “the letter was not obscure to the church at Thyatira; the problem lies in our remoteness from the contemporary facts” (1986: 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 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 Thyatire was missing one of the three marks, i.e. hope, or a joyful anticipation, 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 (I John 3:1-3). On the other hand, some believers will be “ashamed” at His coming (I John 2:28). The church at Thyatire lacked hope because they tolerate the immorality that was going on in the church.
Like previous churches, the Lord had a few things against this church. The problem was that the elders of the church “allowed that women Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and beguile My servants to commit sexual immorality and to eat things 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 by advocating that they attend memorial meals for the dead and engage in sexual immorality. Several things should be noted here. First, there were godly prophetesses in the early church and women that exercised the gift of prophecy (Anna – Luke 2:36; the daughters of Philip – Acts 21:9; 1 Cor.11: 5). Second, Jezebel’s teaching was clearly contrary to the clear injunction by the Apostle Paul for women not to teach and have authority over men (1 Tim. 2:12). Third, 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 Kings 16:31-33; 21:25,26). Both women lead their people into idolatry (1 Kings 18:4, 19), and both women lead their people into sexual immorality (2 Kings 9:22,30; cf. Jer. 4:30; Nah. 3:4).
The Lord had given this woman time 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” (2:22). Some have taken the word “sickbed” to mean “funeral bier or bed laid on a bier” (Hort 1908:30). If the reference in indeed 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!” A number of Roman sarcophagi depict the funeral bier on them. Two examples are one that was excavated in Antioch-on-the-Orontes and another that is in the Vatican Museum.
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” (2:18) is the “one who searches the mind and heart” (2:23). He encourages the rest of the church to “hold fast what you have till I come” (2:24). The hope of the Lord’s return should be a purifying hope (I John 3:1-3). He then holds out the promise to the Overcomers that they will reign with Christ and have authority over the nations (2:26-29; cf. Ps. 2:8, 9; 2 Tim. 2:11-13).
This article dealt with understanding the phrase “meat offered to idols” in two of the letters that the Lord Jesus addresses 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 Pergamos and Thyatira.
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