The Bible Diet: (Part 1)
Which Foods were Created to be Eaten by Man?
During the pre-Christian era, it is a well-known fact that God forbade the Israelites to eat certain types of animal flesh. While the Israelites frequently disobeyed God’s instructions, it was quite clear that God’s law prohibited the consumption of pork, shellfish and other types of animal flesh. Therefore, if a person ate “unclean” food in Old Testament times, it was because they were choosing to disobey God’s instructions, not because they felt they had a divine authorization to consume such meats.
In the modern world, most Christians consume “unclean” meats not out of rebellion, but because of a belief that New Testament scriptures permit them to do so. The belief that Old Testament instructions on the consumption of animal flesh are no longer applicable is often referred to as “Christian liberty” (i.e. “freedom” from the “restrictions” of the Old Testament). This article will examine the subject of “unclean meats” from biblical and scientific viewpoints in an effort to determine what the “New Testament” Christian viewpoint on this subject should be. The answer will reveal whether modern Christians are (A) exercising “liberty” to eat unclean meats or (B) ignoring God’s guidance on the subject.
In the Old Testament, the issue was clear: God said to avoid eating the flesh of certain animals. It is in New Testament times that the issue has become blurred. The Old Testament meat instructions are still found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 in our Bibles. Clearly, anyone who eats forbidden animal flesh is disobeying those scriptures. However, do they have the “liberty” to do so as a result of New Testament scriptures? A deeper question is: if God really has abolished his Old Testament dietary laws, is there any empirical physical evidence to support that conclusion?
Jesus and the “Law of Moses”
At Mt. Sinai, God gave Moses not only the Ten Commandments but also many divine instructions about personal behavior, methods of worship and lifestyle choices. These divine instructions came to be known as the “law of Moses” even though they were actually “the law of God given to Moses.” When Jesus Christ lived his physical life, many often forget he was reared as a devout Jew. After Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary observed the seven-day purification period for women, and also had Jesus circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21-23), according to the instructions of the law of Moses n Leviticus 12:1-3. These aspects of the Law of Moses are found literally adjacent to the chapter on dietary laws (Leviticus 11). Since Joseph and Mary scrupulously observed Leviticus 12 in rearing Jesus, it follows that they scrupulously observed Leviticus 11 in their choice of meats which were fed to Jesus and the rest of their children. The observant nature of Jesus’ family is further confirmed in Luke 2:39:
“And when they [Joseph and Mary] had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee.”
Notice that Luke does not call these Old Testament requirements the “law of Moses,” but refers to them as the “law of the Lord.” a subtle, but important indicator of the early Christian church’s views about Old Testament laws. Luke 2:41 adds that Joseph and Mary kept the Feast of Passover “every year” at Jerusalem. It is not clear whether they brought their children with them every year, but verse 42 states that they brought Jesus with them to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast when Jesus was twelve years old.
During his adult years, the scriptures portray Jesus as being loyal to the “observant” traditions of his parents. We know that Jesus was careful to observe the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread (Matthew 26:17-19), and that he participated in the “Last Great Day” of the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:37). In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus openly declared his allegiance to the Old Testament Laws of God (i.e. “law of Moses”). He emphatically stated:
“think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill… Till heaven and earth pass, one jot [a dot of the I] or one tittle [a cross of the T] shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”
Whew! Jesus’ affirmation that his coming will abolish “nothing” from the Old Testament laws of God ought to give all modern Christians pause about assuming Jesus made any major changes in the observance of the dietary laws. Two truisms of biblical study are as follows: (A) The words of God (in the Old Testament) and Jesus Christ (in the New Testament) carry more scriptural authority than the words of their human followers, and (B) one must interpret vague scriptures in light of the meaning of clear scriptures, not vice versa. Applying both these truisms, any vague passages in New Testament books must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the clear declaration of Jesus Christ in Matthew 5:17. Given the vehemence of Jesus’ support for God’s Old Testament laws in Matthew 5:17-18, we must insist on finding very explicit evidence in the New Testament that something was “done away” before we abandon the practice. This is particularly true in the case of Paul’s writings as Peter warned that Paul’s writings were easy to misunderstand (II Peter 3:16). It is noteworthy that while God canonized many of Paul’s writings, Peter’s warning about their difficult doctrinal application was also canonized. If Paul’s words were easily misunderstood in his own time and in his own culture, how much easier might it be for us to misunderstand Paul’s writings when we not only read Paul’s words in a different language but are also two millennia removed from his historical context?
Hebrews 13:8 tells us that Jesus Christ is:
“…the same yesterday, today and forever. Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines.”
Here the writer of Hebrews warns against following false doctrines by reminding the reader that Jesus Christ’s doctrines not only “did not change” but also “will never change.” Does this scripture sound like Jesus Christ was one to radically alter the Old Testament laws of God? Quite the contrary, the scriptural evidence is that Jesus supported and practiced them faithfully during his entire life.
It is apparent that Jesus Christ and his disciples obeyed the dietary laws of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. The fact that there is no mention of any controversy about this point between Jesus and the Pharisees makes this evident. The Pharisees were eagerly looking for grounds to accuse Jesus on religious grounds to undermine his popularity with the masses. If Jesus (or his followers) had ever eaten unclean meats, the Pharisees would have made it one of their central accusations against him. Likewise, if the early New Testament church had eaten unclean meats, it would have been a “cause to celebrate” in the book of Acts. The fact that there were no controversies in the gospels about eating pork, shellfish, etc. argues that Jesus, his followers and the Pharisees were all in agreement on this matter. Paul’s own defense to his Jewish accusers in Acts 22:3 and 23:1 (“I [was] taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers…I have lived in good conscience before God until this day”) also indicates that Paul had maintained a devout obedience to the laws of God (which including the dietary laws) throughout his life. Nowhere in the scriptures is Paul accused by his detractors of “eating unclean meats.”
What was “done away with” in the New Testament?
Having said the above, it needs to be acknowledged that some things were “done away with” in the New Testament. Clear scriptures record that the New Testament did abolish the need for animal sacrifices and the various rites associated with those sacrifices (Hebrews 9:9-15, 10:4). It is also clear that the requirement of physical circumcision was abolished (I Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 6:15). Some might say: “See, that means the whole law of Moses was abolished,” but that is a recklessly broad claim. Since the Ten Commandments were part of the “law of Moses,” an assertion that the whole “law of Moses” was “done away with” also asserts the Ten Commandments were “done away with.” Does that mean Christians are now “free” to rob banks, lie, sleep with anyone they want to and murder at will?” Of course not! Paul himself expressed amazement that people had gotten the idea that New Testament faith “did away with” the laws of God. He wrote in Romans 3:31:
“Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.”
Therefore, we must carefully evaluate the scriptures to see what requirements really were “done away.” Let us begin with the need for animal sacrifices and the rituals associated with them. In Jeremiah 7:22-24, God stated:
“For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, I said nothing to them, gave no orders, about burnt offerings or sacrifices. My one command to them was this: Listen to my voice, then I will be your God and you shall be my people…but they did not listen.” (New Jerusalem Bible)
God himself stated that the sacrificial laws and rituals were not a part of his original laws given to Israel, but were added later because the Israelites did not obey him. Since they were not a part of God’s original laws, their abolition in the New Testament does nothing to revoke the main body of God’s laws. Paul also wrote in Galatians 3:19 that there was an Old Testament “law” which had been “added because of transgressions.” Combining Galatians 3:19 with Jeremiah 7:22-24, it is apparent that the “law” that was “added” [to the original laws of God] was the “law” (or rules) about animal sacrifices. Paul did not abolish the laws of God in any of his writings, as Romans 3:31 confirms.
Also, the rite of physical circumcision (which was no longer required in the New Testament) was not a part of the “law of God,” but was rather a “sign” of the Old Testament covenant between God and Israel. Even the Old Testament Hebrew prophets prophesied that the “Old Covenant” would eventually be replaced by a “new covenant” that would be spiritual in nature. Jeremiah 31:31 prophesied:
“Look, the days are coming, Yahweh declares, when I shall make a new covenant with the House of Israel (and the House of Judah), but not like the covenant I made with their ancestors the day I brought them…out of Egypt…No, this is the covenant I shall make with the House of Israel when those days have come, Yahweh declares. Within them I shall plant my Law, writing it on their hearts.” (NJB)
Unlike the temporary covenant made at Sinai, the “New Covenant” would be “everlasting.” While the Old Covenant was a physical covenant (with physical circumcision as its sign), the New Covenant would be a spiritual covenant (with circumcision of the “heart” being its sign-Romans 2:28-29). This was foreshadowed in Deuteronomy 10:16 wherein God spoke of the “circumcision of the foreskin of the heart” as proof of a real attitude change. When the Old Covenant was replaced by the New Covenant, the sign of the Old Covenant (circumcision) became moot and unnecessary.
Many assume that “since the Old Covenant was abolished, the Old Testament laws of God were abolished as well.” This assumption is incorrect. The Old Covenant and the laws of God were separate entities. The Old Covenant was a compact between God and the 12 tribes of Israel that God would provide national blessings, wealth and power to them if they obeyed his law, and that progressively worse curses would befall the tribes of Israel if they broke his laws. As we know, both Israel and Judah broke this covenant with God, and received national curses culminating in their captivities and removal from the Promised Land. The New Covenant was prophesied (see Jeremiah 31:31 quoted above) as one which would “plant” or “write” the laws of God in the heart of a person. In other words, the Old Covenant failed to enable mankind to obey God’s laws, but the New Covenant would enable mankind to obey God because it would internalize God’s laws within human hearts. Ezekiel 39:39 and Joel 2:28 prophesied that this would be done when God shared his own divine Spirit with mankind. This was fulfilled in the New Covenant process of repentance, baptism, the receiving of God’s Holy Spirit, and a lifelong process of submitting to it.
We saw earlier that Paul (in Romans 3:31) taught that the laws of God were “established,” not “done away” by the New Testament covenant based on faith. The Apostle John echoed Paul’s view in I John 3:24 and 5:3, which state (in the New Jerusalem Bible):
“Whoever keeps his commandments remains in God, and God in him…”
“This is what the love of God is: keeping his commandments. Nor are his commandments burdensome…”
It is clear that the early Apostles believed that God’s laws were unaffected by the replacement of the Old Covenant with the New Covenant. The New Testament scriptures cited above conclusively show that the abolition of the sacrificial rites, circumcision and the Old Covenant did not abolish the laws of God. There are other instructions of God in the law of Moses which no longer are relevant today as they were given to regulate institutions in ancient Israel which no longer exist in modern Christian nations (for example: regulations on slavery in Leviticus 25:35-55). The important thing to remember is, given Jesus Christ’s statement that he did not come to abolish “the law,” the abolition or historical obsolescence of a specific biblical regulation on how the law was implemented in ancient Israel does not abolish the law of God itself.
Unclean Meats and New Testament Scriptures
Now let us address the “unclean meats” issue by examining the New Testament passages which are often understood to mean that the Old Testament dietary laws were abolished. The first is Colossians 2:20-22, which is cited below from the New Jerusalem Bible.
“If you have really died with Christ to the principles of this world, why do you still let rules dictate to you, as though you were still living in this world?- ‘do not pick up this, do not eat that, do not touch the other,’ and all about things which perish even while they are being used-according to merely human commandments and doctrines.” (Emphasis added.)
Whatever Paul was referring to in his comment “do not eat that,” he was not referring to the divine laws of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Paul was arguing against “principles of this world” and “commandments and doctrines” which were “merely human.” Such human meat regulations could have been a secular rule in Colossae (a Gentile city with pagan gods and temples) that no meat be eaten unless it was first sacrificed to idols. Paul made it clear that he was discussing a human meat regulation known to his readers in Colossae, not the divine meat laws of the scriptures. This leads us to a second scripture to be considered, I Timothy 4:4, which states (in the NJB).
“Everything God has created is good, and no food is to ‘be rejected, provided if is received with thanksgiving: the word of God and prayer make it holy.” (Emphasis added.)
What makes a food “holy” and acceptable to eat? An attitude of thanksgiving, prayer and the word of God. What was the “word of God” for the early Christian church? The only “word of God” at that time was the accepted canon of the Old Testament (i.e. “the Hebrew Bible”)! Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 are the portions of “the word of God” which list the meats God approved for human consumption. Rather than permitting the consumption of unclean meats, Paul’s instructions to Timothy actually affirmed that food must have prior approval in the word of God (the Old Testament) in order to be eaten. Therefore, in this passage, Paul is actually affirming the applicability of the Old Testament dietary laws.
By examining this passage in its overall context (I Timothy 4:1-4), we see that Paul was addressing the subject of enforced vegetarianism, not the subject of “unclean meats.” Paul warned that “in the latter times…some shall depart from the faith,” teaching false doctrines such as “…commanding to abstain from meats.”
Paul countered that false teaching by saying that it is permissible to eat animal flesh as long as the meats were approved in the word of God. Now consider that I Timothy 4:4 is contained within a prophecy about the latter days (which many regard as our current modern times). Interestingly, in our modern world we have vocal “animal rights” advocates (loosely associated with the New Age Movement) who noisily wish to impose vegetarianism on society, labeling the consumption of animal flesh as some kind of “animal abuse.” Paul was telling those living “in the latter times” that they should ignore those who say it is wrong or immoral to eat animal flesh. Paul prophesied that people could continue to eat animal flesh in the latter days as long as the meats were “approved” for human consumption in God’s Word. Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 are those sections of the “word of God” known to Paul that specified what types of animal flesh were permitted by God for human consumption. So this passage of I Timothy actually upheld Leviticus 11’s and Deuteronomy 14’s applicability for the New Testament (and latter day) Christian church!
Portions of I Corinthians (chapter 8 and 10:14-33) are also taken by some to permit the eating of unclean meats. However, the eating of unclean meats is not the subject of these passages. In fact, Paul is discussing whether any meats can be consumed if they have been “offered to idols.” Paul makes this very clear in I Corinthians 8:1 and 4 in writing:
“Now about foods which have been dedicated to false gods…On the subject of eating foods dedicated to false gods…” (NJB)
There was evidently a difference of opinion on this subject in the Corinthian church. Some believed they had the “freedom” to eat such meats because they knew that non-existent “gods” could not “bless” anything. While Paul concedes that fact, he warns such Corinthians that they needed to be careful about where and what they ate lest they trouble or offend those with “weaker consciences.” Paul warned those “with knowledge” that it would be a sin to trouble another’s conscience in this matter so it would be preferable to avoid eating meats altogether in a public eating place associated with a false god’s temple (see 8:10) rather than risk troubling a “weak” brother’s conscience who might, by chance, witness this act of eating and be “offended.”
In I Corinthians 10:25 when Paul says :
“Whatsoever is sold in the shambles [meat market], that eat, asking no questions for conscience sake,”
we must remember Paul was not addressing the subject of eating unclean meats, but rather the eating of meats sacrificed to idols (see 10:28). By lifting I Corinthians 10:25 out of its limited context, some assume Paul meant it was all right to eat any unclean meat sold in the marketplace. Paul’s statement must be understood within its context: he was saying that people shouldn’t bother asking whether a cut of meat was “sacrificed to idols” before buying it. Paul’s other writings make it clear he did not sanction the eating of unclean meats by early Christians, so he was telling Corinthian church members it was best to not even ask whether their “clean” meats had been “blessed by idols” because if the issue was not brought up, it did not even have to be addressed.
We must also remember Paul was writing about this issue to converts living in a gentile, pagan city. This question would have been irrelevant in a Jewish community because the Jews would not have offered their meats to idols as part of their food preparation process. Paul’s writings show that he is clearly wrestling with this issue: upholding the freedom to eat “clean” meats while ensuring that the greater need (for brethren not to offend each other in a matter of conscience) took precedence.
Did Peter’s vision “do away with” Unclean Meats?
Peter’s vision in Acts 10 is also cited as biblical sanction for eating unclean meats, but a literal reading of the text does not support that view. Peter had a vision (verses 9-16) in which he saw a sheet full of many animals whose flesh was “unclean” to eat.
This sheet of unclean meat was offered to him three times with the words “kill and eat.” In the vision, Peter refuses to do so with the words:
“I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”
This statement affirms that it was the practice of the Apostles and the early New Testament Christian church to avoid eating unclean meats! In the vision, Peter is told :
“what God has made clean, you have no right to call profane (NJB).”
Many assume this means God “cleansed” unclean food, but they neglect to read on to see if that assumption is correct. Verse 17 in the NJB says:
“Peter was still at a loss over the meaning of the vision he had seen, when the men sent by Cornelius arrived.” (Emphasis added.)
Note that Peter himself did not attribute to his vision any meaning that God had cleansed unclean meats; he simply didn’t know what it meant. He didn’t have long to wait to determine the meaning as it became clear as soon the men sent by Cornelius arrived. Cornelius was a Gentile (a Roman officer) who had sent three men to Peter after receiving a vision of his own to do so. Peter quickly realized that his vision meant that he should not “call any man (not any meat) common or unclean.” Peter understood the unclean meat in the vision had a symbolic, not a literal, meaning.
The Jews of Peter’s time (including Peter) were so Xenophobia that they avoided contact with Gentiles as much as possible, regarding them as “unclean” (as verse 28 confirms). Peter shared that Xenophobia (an appropriate modern term would be “racism”), and in all likelihood would not have accompanied these Gentiles unless God had revealed to him in the vision “not to treat any man as unclean” (a conclusion Peter reiterated in verse 34). Later, God gave the Holy Spirit to these Gentiles in the presence of Peter and his delegation. What was their reaction? Verse 45 states:
“Jewish believers who had accompanied Peter were all astonished that…the Holy Spirit should be poured out on Gentiles too.” (NJB)
The racism of the early Jewish converts was so strong that even though Peter and his group met with the Gentiles, there apparently was no chance that they would have baptized these Gentiles and accepted them into the church unless God had performed a miracle by giving them the Holy Spirit in the presence of Peter and his fellow Christian Jews. In verse 47, Peter further realized God had shown them it was also acceptable to baptize Gentiles into the faith. In chapter 11, some of Peter’s Jewish friends argued with Peter about what he had done, but Peter retold the entire history of his vision and God’s miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit to the previously “unclean” Gentiles. The whole group then agreed with Peter’s perception of his vision and the subsequent events. A careful evaluation of “Peter’s vision” reveals that it contains no message permitting Christians to eat “unclean meat.” Indeed, we have Peter’s strong affirmation in Acts 10:14 that he had “never” eaten anything unclean. The whole purpose of the vision was to convince the early Jewish Christians to accept Gentiles converts into the church.
Did Jesus “do away with” Unclean Meats?
Another passage sometimes cited to defend the eating of unclean meats is Matthew 15:11 wherein Jesus stated:
“What goes into the mouth does not make anyone unclean; it is what comes out of the mouth that makes someone unclean.” (NJB)
When the verse is considered in its overall context, it becomes clear that Jesus isn’t discussing the subject of eating meats at all. In verses 1-2, the Pharisees nitpicked Jesus by saying:
“Why do your disciples break away from the tradition of the elders? They eat without washing their hands.”
Notice that the subject being discussed is not the eating of unclean meats, but rather why the disciples were not washing their hands according to the practices of the Pharisees (“the elders”). Jesus then snapped back at them in verses 3-6:
“Why do you break away from the commandments of God for the sake of your tradition…you have made God’s word ineffective by means of your tradition.” (NJB)
Jesus was telling the Pharisees that failure to observe all the ritualistic “Jewish traditions” was not a violation of God’s law. He identified the Pharisees’ subversion of God’s law as the real transgression. In fact, Jesus was affirming the necessity of putting God’s laws paramount above any tradition or requirement of any man or group of men. By the time Jesus Concludes his denunciation against the “hypocritical” Pharisees with his statement in verse 10, it is clear that Jesus is stating that if some foreign particle (dust, a fleck of dirt, etc.) is accidentally eaten because of insufficient hand-washing, it was “no big deal.” What really matters is what comes out of one’s mouth (our words and speech) which indicates what is going on in our heart.
To summarize thus far, a careful examination of the scriptures indicates that the early New Testament church continued the Old Testament practice of observing the dietary laws of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. The words of Jesus Christ and Peter as well as the writings of Paul all support this conclusion. Before we examine physical, empirical evidence on this question, let us look closer at Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 to see what meats God actually permits for consumption and which he forbids us to eat.
Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second Concise Edition, Avenel Books, I975, see Heading “trichinosis,” p. 798
Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 22, 1988 Edition, see Heading entitled “Pork,” p. 416
Ibid, Vol. 27, see Heading “Trichinosis,” p. 99
Ibid, Vol. 24, see Heading entitled “Shellfish Poisoning,” p. 697
Ibid, see Heading entitled “Shellfish,” p. 697
Collier’s Encyclopedia, Vol. 13, 1957 Edition, see Heading entitled “Medicine-Medieval European Medicine,” p. 352
Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 4, 1988 Edition, see Heading entitled “Black Death,” pp. 29-30
Colllier’s Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, 1957 Edition, see Heading entitled “Black Death,” p. 483
Ibid, p. 483
Written by: Steven M. Collins
(Originally titled Does the Bible Permit Christians to Eat “Unclean” Meat in New Testament Times?)