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Kosher Foods and Acts 15

by Brant Pitre June 13, 2019 0 Comments


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Acts 15:1-2 brings us to the famous Council of Jerusalem. Acts 15:1-2,  22-29. You’ll probably remember this story from elsewhere, but once Peter and Paul begin bringing the gospel to the Jews and the Gentiles, one of the questions that emerged was, well, wait, God told the Israelites in the Old Testament that they had to be circumcised in order to be part of the covenant, so do Gentiles have to be circumcised to be saved? And in order to settle the question, the early Church did what the Church has done since then, called an apostolic council to decide the question in a definitive way. And this is what the scripture says:

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.

Pause there. Notice, how do they settle a debate? They don’t just sling Bible verses at one another, although I’m sure they quoted the scriptures in their debate. The way to settle the question was to bring it to the Apostles, because they had the authority given to them from Jesus. So if you fast forward down to verse 22 and following, the lectionary there basically gives us the summary of the results of the council:

Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, with the following letter: “The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting. Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us in assembly to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

Okay. What’s going on here? So basically, what had happened in the church of Antioch is there was a debate between the Jews and the Gentile believers about whether you had to be circumcised to be saved and whether you had to keep all the laws of Moses in the Old Testament. If you recall, traditionally there are 613 commandments attributed to Moses in the first five books that would involve all kinds of things like: you can’t eat shellfish, you can’t eat pork, you can’t eat meat with the blood in the meat, as well as other various laws. And so this was causing a conflict in the early church. The council of Jerusalem decided two things. First, that circumcision was unnecessary for salvation. That part of the council decree is actually skipped by the lectionary today (it’s not focused on that). It’s focused on the second part of the council’s decree, the letter that was sent to the Church in Antioch, that said, although they don’t have to be circumcised, we command the Christians living in Antioch, and Syria, and Cilicia to follow these rules: don’t eat food sacrificed to idols, don’t eat blood, don’t eat anything that’s been strangled, and avoid unchastity or porneia (sexual immorality is probably the best translation of that).

I can’t tell you how many times students have asked me this question. “Well, hold on Dr. Pitre. Is it okay for me to go to a steakhouse and eat a rare steak? I mean, it has blood in it, obviously, and here we have an apostolic constitution (an apostolic letter) declaring that the Christians were prohibited from eating blood. So why is it that Christians today don’t follow these aspects of the law of Moses?” The most obvious one being, not consuming blood. Okay, so how would we answer that? This is a really fascinating question. I completely sympathize with Christians who are just reading the Bible on their own and their trying to figure out, “well, wait. How do I follow this law? It seems pretty clear that the apostles here are commanding, through the Holy Spirit, that the Gentile believers in the churches, although they don’t have to be circumcised, they do have to abstain from strangled animals, blood, food sacrificed to idols and then unchastity. So why do Catholics seem to pick certain commandments to follow and not follow others? I mean, why aren’t we keeping the laws of the Old Testament that said you couldn’t have shellfish and you couldn’t eat swine? And many secular critics of Christianity will actually say, “Look, you Christians are just picking and choosing. It’s arbitrary. You pick whatever Old Testament laws you want to follow and then you discard the others.” So, what do we make of that?

In this case, I’m just going to go straight to the authoritative interpretation of the scriptures that were given to us by the Council of Florence. This is the 15th ecumenical council of the Church. This is a great example of how when there is a text like this, which is admittedly ambiguous, it’s understandable that some people would say “no, we have to keep following these rules.” And other people might say, “Well, hold on. No, those rules aren’t for everyone.” As you’ll see, the Church takes the position that these decrees of the Council of Jerusalem are no longer binding. Let me just read to you the reasons why. So, in terms of the living tradition of the Church, the Ecumenical Council of Florence (which was recognized by the Pope), has this to say about Acts 15. This is the definitive interpretation of this text by the Church:

[The holy Roman Church] firmly believes, professes, and teaches that... “not what goes into the mouth defiles a person,” [Matt 15:11], and because the difference in the Mosaic law between clean and unclean foods belongs to ceremonial practices, which have passed away and lost their efficacy with the coming of the gospel. It also declares that the apostolic prohibition, to abstain “from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled” [Acts 15:29] was suited to that time when a single church was rising from Jews and Gentiles, who previously lived with different ceremonies and customs. This was so that the gentiles should have some observances in common with Jews, and occasion would be offered of coming together in one worship and faith of God, and a cause of dissension might be removed, since by ancient custom blood and strangled things seemed abominable to Jews, and gentiles could be thought to be returning to idolatry if they ate sacrificial food... [However,] since the cause of that apostolic prohibition has ceased, so its effect has ceased. It condemns, then, no kind of food that human society accepts and nobody at all, neither man nor woman, should make a distinction between animals, no matter how they died.

Okay, so what did the council just say? It made a distinction between certain decrees that are binding for all time, like the declaration that you don’t have to be circumcised to be saved, and other decrees, which were pastoral provisions that were specific to that time and place, and which are no longer applicable to our situation. So, in other words, the Council of Jerusalem was dealing with specific churches in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia, where there were mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles. The Jewish believers were being offended by the Gentile believers who were eating meat with the blood in it (as they were used to) or going down to the local market and getting food that had been sacrificed to idols but was there on sale. That’s how it worked in the 1st Century A.D. Much of the meat in the marketplace had already been dedicated in the pagan temple to the gods. Now Jews would never eat that kind of meat, but the Gentiles were accustomed to eating it. So what the apostles had to say was, in light of the offense and the scandal that’s being caused to your Jewish neighbors who are coming to church with you to gather, and living next door to you, to abstain from eating meat with blood in it and from eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols, because it was offensive to them. So in other words, this part of the apostolic decree was never intended to be a universal decree for the whole church. You’ll notice, they don’t send the letter to all the churches throughout the world, they sent it to a specific set of churches that are dealing with this conflict between Jews and Gentiles. And so the Council of Florence here says  that in keeping with the teaching of Jesus in the gospel, that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles them, but what comes out (like in Mark 7, “thus he declared all foods clean”), so the Church definitively has interpreted Acts 15 as not being a universal law for all Christians to follow, but rather a specific law for the Christians who were living in Antioch, next to their Jewish neighbors, so as not to give scandal. That was the reason for that decree.

So, it’s an excellent example of how we really do need the magisterium of the Church (the bishops and the Pope) to guide us in the interpretation of difficult passages like Acts 15. But, according to their definitive interpretation, which is under the authority of the apostles and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church has made clear that these provisions are no longer in force for Christians who are living in areas where this kind of scandal is no longer an issue, in the predominantly Gentile church of the 15th Century, and then also down to today.


Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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