Matthew Malcolm wonders, “Was Paul Faking ‘the Weak’?” in I Cor 8-10. This entertains David Garland’s suggestion that I Cor 8-10 doesn’t advise what is usually assumed — that the “strong” should restrain their freedom for the sake of the “weak” — but rather that any association with idols is off-limits for Christians period. The “weak” didn’t exist, according to Garland; they served as a hypothetical construct for Paul’s point that idolatry should be avoided at all costs.
Malcolm cites four reasons advanced by Garland in support of this view, and I’d like to focus on the last two:
• In 1 Cor 8, the problem is not that the weak might have their faith shaken and compromised; the problem is that the weak might be “strengthened” to eat idol meat (and thereby be destroyed)
• By chapter 10, Paul’s argument – which started off gently by using the hypothetical example of weak brothers – becomes emphatic and uncompromising: Flee idolatry!
Mark Nanos has made similar points, but not to show that the weak didn’t exist. They existed in large numbers: they were non-Christian outsiders. On this line of thinking, Paul’s concern is not that the weak will revert to idolatry out of any supposed insecurity, but that they will never turn away from it. This naturally plays into the next point, that Paul is in fact urging Christians to avoid idolatry in chapter 8 as much as chapter 10. But again, contra Garland, the weak refer to pagans who stand as potential converts. (For that’s what defines a pagan: they eat idol meat without any qualms; that’s why they’re weak.) Once we see this, we needn’t suppose that Paul was “faking” the weak.
With Malcolm in the end, we should regard the essential point of I Cor 8 being that the strong should restrain themselves for the sake of a real group of others. But those others were predominantly unbelievers — pagans whom Paul fears would get wrong ideas if they saw Christians exercising their freedoms indiscriminately. Such behavior would give potential converts the idea that Christianity was a syncrestic religion (that they could simply add Yahweh/Christ to their own pantheon), or alternatively, make Christians look like hypocrites who don’t really believe in the exclusivist claims they preach.
As in Rom 14-15, Paul urged Christians to forsake their freedoms in the company of outsiders in order to win them to the gospel efficiently.