I wish that I had time to list and expound on every scripture that pertains to dietary laws. However, I think I have addressed those scriptures more often cited than others as arguments that Yeshua or Paul changed the rules regarding what we should and should not eat. Forgive me if I missed some, as I am sure that I have. Fortunately, I am equally sure that the same counter arguments that apply to these will apply to those others.
My conviction that the dietary laws of the Torah are not obsolete rests on three primary assumptions:
- Like the rules of a man’s home, the rules of God’s house are a reflection of the master’s character. The rules of my house are designed to encourage behavior that is acceptable to me for my own peace and for the good of those under my roof. Those rules are therefore derived from my personal values. God gave us rules variously for his benefit and for ours, because the desire to do good is inherent in who he is.
- God’s character does not change. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This is not so much an assumption on my part as it is a statement of faith in God’s word.
- No man has the authority to change God’s Law.
The implications of these premises are profound for all believers, but I think the scriptural evidence for them is strong.
On with the list…
Genesis 1:29 & 9:3
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.
Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.
God made the first statement (1:29) before the Fall, before Adam had brought death into the world. Until death came, no one could eat meat without eating it from a live animal, which would also be against God’s dietary laws. After the Fall, yet before the Flood, I suspect it would have been acceptable to eat meat, even though the Bible does not explicitly record God saying so. In effect, this was not a change in God’s laws, but rather a change in man’s environment.
Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats? And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.
The Pharisees berated Yeshua and his disciples because they didn’t follow the rabbinic, extra-biblical rules regarding hand washing. Yeshua responded by saying the Pharisees nullified God’s Law by their man-made laws. The subject of the debate was not whether anyone should obey the written Torah, but whether they must obey the Pharisees. Additionally, be careful not to make the mistake of applying black and white logical interpretations to Hebraic expressions. Yeshua was not saying that everything a man could put in his mouth is now acceptable. He was very clear in Revelation 2 that eating things sacrificed to idols in unacceptable, so although he said that whatever enters a man does not defile him, he did not say that men have permission to eat whatever they want. Or does eating sacrificial meats not involve putting things into the body? Yeshua’s real point was the same that he made in Matthew 12:35: You can know a man’s heart by what comes out of his mouth, but not necessarily by what goes into it.
On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven.
Those who cite this passage usually leave out the rest of the story: When the vision was over, Peter still did not know what it was about. If it was so plain, why was Peter puzzled? His vision was not about food at all. Cornelius sent three gentiles to Peter (the sheet descended three times) to ask him to teach them about God. Peter later explained the vision to his fellow believing Jews. He said that God told him he was not to treat gentile believers as unclean, because God had made them clean.
I have also heard it said that God would not have used food as the object in this vision if he still considered snakes and such to be unclean. Consider that Peter did not actually kill and eat anything, but God took the sheet away. As when God commanded Abraham to sin by making a sacrifice out of his son Isaac, yet prevented the actual deed, so is the case here. Just because God commanded Abraham to kill his son, that does not mean it is no longer a sin to perform human sacrifices.
Consider also that Peter, who spent years following Yeshua around Judea, listening to him teach day after day, had never eaten anything unclean and still considered the idea to be repulsive and shocking. If Yeshua had so plainly legalized pork for his disciples in Mark 7, why did Peter still not understand?
And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. …But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, ‘…Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they….’ …And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, ‘…Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.’ …And they wrote letters by them after this manner; ‘The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment…it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.’
This dispute was never about how a believer should behave or whether or not the Torah still has standing, but about what one must do to be saved. The pharisees were wrong on this point after Yeshua’s resurrection, just as they were wrong on it before. No man has ever been saved by good works or by obedience to a code. Adam, Abraham, David, Peter, and Paul were all saved by their faith in God’s grace and by no action or merit of their own. The short list that James gave to the gentile converts was not a comprehensive description of expected Christian behavior. Paul wrote at great length on that topic on several occasions. James’ list was a bottom line, a minimal standard that should have been relatively easy for anyone to follow. Most telling, however, is his aside to the other apostles in Jerusalem: “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.” James was saying that, once their salvation was established, the gentile converts could go to any synagogue to hear the Torah read on every Shabbat. Why would James even suggest such a thing if the Torah was a burden nobody could bear? The fact is that it was not, and it still is not. The Torah is relatively short and simple, far easier to master than any modern set of municipal laws, let alone regional or national laws.
As Moses told Israel before they crossed the Jordan, “[This Law] is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; In that I command thee this day to love the LORD thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that thou mayest live and multiply…”
Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.
Paul was talking about veganism, which has no bearing on what animals are or are not acceptable for food. (Nor was Paul addressing Sabbath observance in verses 5 and 6, but that’s a topic for some other day.)
I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean. But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died. Let not then your good be evil spoken of: For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men. Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another. For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence. It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak. Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.
This passage is actually a continuation of Paul’s discussion of veganism and so is not primarily about God’s rules. Instead, it is about man’s rules: don’t eat animals, don’t touch pig carcases, make your tzitzit just so, and on and on. Obviously Paul did not mean that nothing whatsoever is unclean for any purpose a person might dream up. He did not believe that it is acceptable to drink blood or to participate in pagan rituals. His point was not that “there is nothing unclean,” but that none of these things, that men restrict over and beyond God’s Law, are unclean. Ultimately, in verse eighteen, he makes the same point that Yeshua made in Matthew 12:35. Concentrate on how a man interacts with God and others–what comes out of him–and don’t dwell so much on what he puts in his mouth.
1 Corinthians 10:23-31
All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not. Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth. Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake: For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof. If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake. But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof: Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man’s conscience? For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks? Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.
Once again, Paul uses concrete language with readers who understood that he meant his comments to be understood relative to the topic at hand. Unfortunately, it causes us some confusion, because we only get one side of the communication. Paul wrote that “all things to me are lawful,” but we know that he did not believe that to be true in such black and white terms. In this very same letter he wrote, “Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” That’s a lot of unlawfulness. (I’m aware of 1 Timothy 1:9, but go up four verses to 1:5 and then tell me again that Paul meant verse nine in boolean terms.)
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
This passage is often used to dismiss all of God’s laws concerning diet, the Sabbath, and the commanded feast days. However, the very next verse shows that Paul was writing about extra-biblical, man-made rules, and not God’s Law. Where does the Torah encourage false humility or the worshipping of angels? In verse twenty-two, he makes his context explicit: “…after the commandments and doctrines of men.”
1 Timothy 4:1-5
Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.
There is some confusion here caused by the translation from Greek and the drift of English vocabulary. The Greek word here translated “meat” does not refer only to the flesh of animals, but to food in general. This isn’t a mistranslation, as “meat” once meant the same thing in English. Consider this paraphrase: “…commanding to abstain from food, which God has created to be received with thanksgiving by them who believe and know the truth. For everything God has created is good and nothing to be received…” I’ll take this one a little further, however, and say that I don’t think Paul was necessarily talking about actual food that one eats. He was using food as a euphemism for anything that promotes our wellbeing. Marriage, for example, as in this very same passage. Everything that God created has a purpose and is good if used for that purpose. God created puffer fish, and, although I am sure there are many great uses for a puffer fish, I doubt that Paul would say it is good purposely to eat their innards. His point was that some false teachers would forbid things “which God has created to be received,” and not that they would forbid the misuse of those things.
(David Stern used a memorable turn of phrase when commenting on verse four in his Jewish New Testament Commentary: “Everything created by God is good, but not everything created by God is food.”)
Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled.
Paul again echoes Yeshua’s teaching on the state of the flesh versus the state of the spirit. Action extends from the heart, and not the reverse. A person’s actions do not taint the heart, but rather the heart taints his actions. Notice that, in verse sixteen, Paul describes disobedience as the output of an impure heart. (As a further example of Paul’s writing style, he says that impure are reprobate to every good work, but even Josef Stalin must have been kind on occasion.)
There are two major problems Christians seem to have when reading Paul. The first problem is his consistent style of argument in which he uses absolute terms to express relative concepts. A careful consideration of the context of such statements and of their intended audiences makes this tendency plain. The same Peter who had never allowed anything unclean to pass his lips commented on the difficulty of understanding some of Paul’s writings. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, he wrote that we must strive to be found in peace, without spot, and blameless, while still understanding that our salvation does not come by our behavior, but rather by the grace of Yeshua. He continued, writing that Paul taught the same thing, but that his letters are difficult to understand, and that the unlearned and unstable twist “to their own destruction.”
The second problem is not understanding his human environment. Paul was constantly at odds with a sect referred to as the circumcision. From his letters and from the book of Acts, we can tell that those of the circumcision were teaching that gentile believers must be circumcised and follow any number of rules in order to be saved. These were probably almost exclusively Jewish believers who had been brought up in a strict pharisaical tradition, having been taught the oral torah alongside the written Torah. These are a large part of the man-made laws and “Jewish fables” that Paul wrote against so often. The oral torah contains much wisdom, as well as much folly, but it should be understood on the level of commentary and tradition, not holy writ.
Even if he had wanted to change God’s Law, Paul simply did not have the authority. No man does. As Moses wrote, “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” We also know that Yeshua never violated Torah and never taught anyone else to do so. “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” We also know that Stephen, the first martyr, also never taught anyone to violate Torah. If he had, why would his accusers have needed to hire false witnesses to say he had?
I firmly believe that Paul, who was there at Stephen’s murder, did not teach against Torah or Yeshua. (It seems to me that to teach against one is to teach against the other.) I believe that his polemics against over-zealous Jewish converts have been misconstrued as polemics against obedience.
I also believe that no one need agree with me in order to be saved. I call a True Christian anyone who acknowledges his need of a savior, acknowledges the sole sufficiency of Yeshua’s blood to effect his salvation, and repents from his sins as he sincerely attempts to recognize them. Moreover, I believe that there are many I would not call “True Christians” but who will still be saved from judgment in the end.