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In 1 Corinthians 8:5–6, we read:

5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God (ESV)

I'm having a hard time with in one breath we see "one God" and then the former "many gods and many lords." What is an overview of how should we understand "many gods and many lords" here?

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    Welcome Gil; we're glad you're here! If you haven't already done so, I hope you'll take a minute to take the tour and learn how this site is different from others. Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 12:22
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    Short answer: these are false gods. Here's the WEB v 5,6: For even if they are being called "gods" whether in heaven or on earth (just as there are many gods and many lords), 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.
    – Bit Chaser
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 12:51
  • ESV is more of a "word for word" translation, so there are going to be misinterpretations. I'd suggest getting a few different translations and use those to understand verses like this. Just a suggestion on interpreting the scriptures.
    – NealC
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 13:47

4 Answers 4

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There are actually two similar ways that this passage is interpreted:

  • That the "gods" and "lords" are the completely imaginary gods of the heathen
  • That the "gods" and "lords" are supernatural beings that do exist, but are not divine

Many commentators don't attempt to draw a distinction between these two, like George Leo Haydock (a Roman Catholic), who writes that these "gods" and "lords" are simply "reputed for such among the heathens."

Adam Clarke, a Methodist, prefers the first view. He writes:

There are many images that are supposed to be representations of divinities: but these divinities are nothing, the figments of mere fancy; and these images have no corresponding realities.

On the other hand, Charles Hodge, a Reformed Protestant, prefers the second view, in light of passages like 1 Corinthians 10:20:

I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. (ESV)

Either way, however, we can say with Hodge that Paul's purpose here is to say that

  1. the heathen gods, as the heathen understand them, do not exist, and
  2. the supernatural beings (angels and demons) that do exist and are called "gods" are not divine at all: they are creatures, created by the one true God.
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(LDS view)

The Prophet Joseph Smith (1805–44) commented on Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 8:5–6:

“I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods. …

“Some say I do not interpret [Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 8:5] the same as they do. They say it means the heathen’s gods. Paul says there are Gods many and Lords many; and that makes a plurality of Gods. … I have a witness of the Holy Ghost, and a testimony that Paul had no allusion to the heathen gods in the text” (in History of the Church, 6:474–75).

This is yet another example of scripture that fortifies the doctrine of the plurality of Gods. For many more examples, refer to this list of scriptures that support the doctrine of the Godhead.

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The gods and lords in 1 Cor 8:5 are identified equally as idols in 1 Corinthians chapter 8.

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed 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.7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will he not be encouraged,if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble (1 Corinthians Chapter 8).

Paul defined an idol as having "no real existence" (1 Corinthians 8:4). In this way, Paul could say that there exists one God and one Lord hand-in-hand with the existence of other gods and lords.

The Greek word θεοῖς (theois) occurred only twice in the NT (1 Cor. 8:5 and Gal. 4:8).

The point being substantiated is that these deities have no real existence since they do not subsist in God's nature. They are , in fact, not gods by nature (Galatians 4:8).

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I think it's interesting that on the one hand the passage states that there is but one true God and one true Lord, yet, when you break with the accepted customs in relation to these other gods that represent certain forces or idols that drive us, it identifies this as a sin.

When I read the passage it's actually really caring toward what some people would label heathens. The passage disagrees with the notion that their belief system might be correct, but at the same time accepts their belief system as theirs. It states that if a belief system has certain customs this should be respected.

Specifically, the passage is about the offering of food to an entity that particular groups of people worship. That means that that food shouldn't be eaten, but either burned or left there to be consumed by certain forces or handled in a different way, according to their customs.

It states that if you do eat the food (meant for the offering) no good will come of it. If you choose not to eat the food (meant for the offering) no harm will come of it.

If you just leave people to their customs, no injury is done, whereas when you choose to eat the food or get people to eat the food, at least people's feelings will be hurt and this might lead to greater harm.

Hurting people like this or getting people to hurt people like this makes you and them sinners. It's not okay to hurt people.

From the point of view of there being one true God, if God is love, then God loves heathens too. That would be the appropriate interpretation for as far as I can tell. God would leave them to their customs and not lecture them, just because God loves them.

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