Why Christians Don’t Need to Eat Kosher

crispy bacon
Photo Credit: WedMd.com

Over the years, I’ve met a few fellow Christians who claim that we are still called by God to eat the same diet (kosher) as the Hebrew people in the Old Testament. Last summer, I met a man who made such a claim and shared with me his reasons, which basically boil down to the following:

Why Some Christians Think We Must Eat Kosher:

  • They claim the reason God declared certain animals “unclean” was because they are the scavengers (eating other dead animals and such) and they are not meant to be eaten–neither morally nor nutritionally. They claim that this is a universal moral imperative because it comes from God Himself (Leviticus 11).
  • They claim that the comment in Mark 7:19 that Jesus made all foods clean was a parenthetical note, invented by a later author. It’s not in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.
    • In that pericope, Jesus had just mentioned that the Pharisees ignore the law of God for man-made traditions. Therefore, these Christians say, it would be silly of Jesus to change God’s law right then.
    • They claim, if Jesus had changed the law right then, the Pharisees would have stoned him, but they didn’t, so He must not have changed it.
    • They claim that if Jesus had changed God’s law, He would have sinned.
  • They claim that because Peter was surprised by the command to eat unclean food (in Acts 10:14), it must be assumed that Jesus never taught that all food was clean. They claim the vision was strictly teaching him not to distinguish between Jews and Gentiles.
  • They claim the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) declared nothing about allowing previously unclean meat.
  • They claim Jews only referred to clean food as “food” (broma). Unclean food wouldn’t have even been considered food. Thus any mention from early Christians (like Paul) of all “food” being edible (e.g. Romans 14:20) only implied that all “clean food” was edible.
  • They claim the Apostles knew that the diet would be a hard selling point for Gentile converts, so they didn’t impose the dietary practice on new converts but waited for them to come to it willingly. That’s why we don’t see it in the New Testament.

Responses to Those Claims:

The Law

Yes, at Sinai God regulated what His people could and could not eat, but that begs the question: why? Was this because it is intrinsically evil to eat certain animals? Is this merely a ritual purity law? Did God have some other reason?

Many scripture scholars point to Israel’s disobedience–particularly the Golden Calf incident–as the reason for much of the Law. Prior to the Golden Calf, the 10 Commandments are all the law that God had given Moses. The Hebrew people had proven they couldn’t be trusted to worship the true God, only the true God, and in a manner that is fitting to worship the true God. 400 years in Egypt were enough to get them addicted to pagan Egyptian idolatry (and their manners of worship). They needed a spiritual detox. A detox, however, implies a time of freedom from the malady/addiction–a time when the detox is no longer needed. That post-detox freedom has come in the New Covenant.

Some scholars suggest God’s method of detox was to establish a law that made them sacrifice (and eat) only the animals the Egyptians worshipped as a way of drilling into their heads the idea that these animals are not God (it’s hard to worship something you’re forced to eat and sacrifice to the one true God). Hebrew people who did not follow these diet prescriptions had disobeyed God’s orders and were not ritually pure (in a proper state for worshiping God), so they had to make a sin offering in order to return to the community. So, yes, it was a moral imperative to the extent that God required it of them at that time. By the time Jesus came, however, God’s people were sufficiently separated from Egyptian idol worship. Jesus’ New Covenant does not require the Old Covenant diet in order to be ritually pure. God’s people have been sufficiently detoxed from addiction to pagan worship.
Here is a study by a contemporary scholar who explains this in regard to which animals were to be sacrificed. The relevant section is III.D – IV.A. The whole study, however, is really interesting.
One challenge that comes along with living this diet (and the rest of the total distinction from Gentiles) is the reintegration of Jews with Gentile people and food after thousands of year of separating themselves. They’re so accustomed to the distinctions, that it has become signs of who they are–Gentiles knew Jews are the ones who lived apart, circumcised, ate differently, etc. Jews prided themselves on those differences. When Jesus broke down those walls of separation with His New Covenant, it was hard for Jews to accept. Even the Apostles struggled to adjust to this new way (see comments on Peter and Acts 10 below). Paul’s letter to the Romans is an extended treatise on how following the Jewish law isn’t what saves someone, but rather it is faith in Christ that initially saves us and living it out in love that preserves that salvation. In chapter 14, Paul specifically describes diet, saying that if someone wishes to continue to follow the Jewish diet as a way of honoring the Lord through abstaining, that’s fine, but if another person wishes to eat all foods in honor of God freeing us from His temporary restriction, that’s fine too–as long as they don’t condemn the other.
Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. (Romans 14:3)
He who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while he who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. (v. 6)
…nothing is unclean in itself… (v. 14)
Do not let what is good to you be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God… (v. 16-18)
Everything is indeed clean… (v. 20)
220px-saint_augustine_by_philippe_de_champaigneAugustine, in his letter Contra Faustum, explains the distinction between OT moral
precepts (those that truly distinguish good/evil acts and are retained in the NT) and OT symbolic precepts (those that were meant to teach the Hebrew people, prepare them for Jesus’ coming, and/or make some other temporary point, but were not, in and of themselves, moral). He clearly taught that the dietary laws were symbolic precepts that are no longer necessary to follow physically, but that we must look at that to which the law pointed. See below:
6 (emphasis mine):  …And you persist in making out an opposition in us to the Old Testament, because we consider no flesh unclean: according to the opinion of the apostle, “To the pure all things are pure;” (Titus 1:15) and according to the saying of our Lord Himself, “Not that which goes into your mouth defiles you, but that which comes out.” (Matthew 16:11) …
7 (emphasis mine): …The apostle speaks of the natures of the things, while the Old Testament calls some animals unclean, not in their nature, but symbolically, on account of the prefigurative character of that dispensation. For instance, a pig and a lamb are both clean in their nature, for every creature of God is good; but symbolically, a lamb is clean, and a pig unclean. So the words wise and fool are both clean in their nature, as words composed of letters but fool may be called symbolically unclean, because it means an unclean thing. Perhaps a pig is the same among symbols as a fool is among real things. The animal, and the four letters which compose the word, may mean the same thing. No doubt the animal is pronounced unclean by the law, because it does not chew the cud; which is not a fault but its nature. But the men of whom this animal is a symbol are unclean, not by nature, but from their own fault; because, though they gladly hear the words of wisdom, they never reflect on them afterwards. For to recall, in quiet repose, some useful instruction from the stomach of memory to the mouth of reflection, is a kind of spiritual rumination. The animals above mentioned are a symbol of those people who do not do this. And the prohibition of the flesh of these animals is a warning against this fault. Another passage of Scripture speaks of the precious treasure of wisdom, and describes ruminating as clean, and not ruminating as unclean: “A precious treasure rests in the mouth of a wise man; but a foolish man swallows it up.” (Proverbs 21:20) Symbols of this kind, either in words or in things, give useful and pleasant exercise to intelligent minds in the way of inquiry and comparison. But formerly people were required not only to hear, but to practise many such things. For at that time it was necessary that, by deeds as well as by words, those things should be foreshadowed which were in after times to be revealed. After the revelation by Christ and in Christ, the community of believers is not burdened with the practice of the observances, but is admonished to give heed to the prophecy. This is our reason for accounting no animals unclean, in accordance with the saying of the Lord and of the apostle, while we are not opposed to the Old Testament, where some animals are pronounced unclean.

Jimmy Akin provides a more nuanced explanation than Augustine in his article Paul and the Law (see part III).

Mark 7:19 & Parentheses

Grammar symbols in our modern translations (even the KJV) are not always the best keys to knowing what was originally written. They are included as the translator’s best approximation of how the original text might have been intended. To judge a specific phrase as non-biblical strictly based on grammatical marks in modern translations (or even in the KJV) is to disregard the original document and treat the translator as the original author.

Both the Greek and Latin New Testaments contain (without parentheses) what is commonly a parenthetical comment in many modern translations (Thus He declared all foods clean–Mark 7:19).

Greek: καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα

Latin: purgans omnes escas

Yes, parentheses often indicate an explanation, but that explanation may have been penned by the original writer. Mark may very well have written those words himself. On the other hand, if something is a footnote, you can pretty much bet it is a modern addition (aside, of course, from the footnotes that say that some other early manuscripts have varying phrases).

Peter’s Vision in Acts 10

We have to be careful not to limit the meaning of scripture to a single interpretation. Many times, God wants to teach more than just one thing with a statement. The vision was actually teaching Peter BOTH 1) not to make a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, AND 2) that all foods were now clean. This is not an either/or situation.

Why was Peter surprised about the command to eat? Simple: Peter was human–a man who both grew in understanding and lived habitually. There were many times when the disciples didn’t immediately understand what Jesus taught. It had to be explained to them later. Just consider the number of times Jesus predicted His Death and Resurrection and how, when it came to pass, they still didn’t get it.

Even after Pentecost, the Apostles didn’t instantly comprehend everything Jesus taught. They had to be led into all truth (Jn 16:13).

Mark didn’t write his Gospel for at least a couple of decades after Jesus’ Ascension. Even though he wrote about food not defiling us (Mark 7:19), this teaching might not have been apparent to him until much after Jesus actually said it. Mark had lots of time between Jesus teaching and him writing to grasp this concept. (“Aha! Back when Jesus said that, He was letting us know that all foods are clean. I should write that down so other people understand Jesus’ implication.”) The same could be said for other Church leaders like Peter. The scene in Acts 10 is happening historically earlier than when Mark was writing. It’s quite understandable that Peter might not have yet grasped the full significance of Jesus’ original words by the time he was told to eat.

Peter had lived as a faithful Jew his whole life. He was habituated to the laws. Even if he intellectually grasped that there is no distinction between Jew/Gentile and clean/unclean food, it would likely still take a while for that head knowledge to make it to his heart. We can see this in how he reverted back to not eating with Gentiles (Gal. 2:11-21) even though he knew there was no continued distinction (Acts 10, 15).

The Council of Jerusalem

The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) is all about whether Gentiles need to become Jewish (by being circumcised and following the other Jewish laws) before becoming Christian. The Apostles, guided by the Holy Spirit, resolved only to hold the Gentiles to the following regulations:

Acts 15: 28-29: It is the Holy Spirit’s pleasure and ours that no burden should be laid upon you beyond these, which cannot be avoided; you are to abstain from what is sacrificed to idols, from blood-meat and meat which has been strangled, and from fornication.

There is no reference in Acts 15 (nor the rest of the New Testament) to refraining from non-Kosher foods.

Broma

It might be possible that Jews only meant “clean food” when they said “food,” but I have yet to see any proof. Even if this were the case, Jews would have probably still made distinctions when talking with non-Jews. Remember that Paul’s letters were written to Gentile audiences. Even if Paul might have strictly meant “edible food” whenever he said “food” to his Jewish brethren, he knew his audience in his letters and would have likely made appropriate clarifications to Gentiles, lest people get confused about what foods are actually clean. Yet, Paul didn’t make any distinction, which only leads us to assume there is no distinction and that, for food, “everything is indeed clean.”

 

Other Considerations

History

One issue that fails to get addressed by non-Catholic Christians regarding almost every position on which we don’t agree is history. How has the Christian Church always understood this position? There is no historical backup for Christians being held by the Jewish dietary laws. On the other hand, many early Christian writers are documented rejecting the application of the Mosaic law (including diet) to Christians:

Against this historical evidence for the contemporary mainstream interpretation that Christians are not bound by the Jewish dietary law, I have yet to see any historical statement by a Christian arguing that Christians should follow the Jewish dietary laws.

It appears as if this whole notion that Christians must still abide the Jewish dietary law was created in a vacuum by people reading their own personal interpretations back into scripture instead of listening to what has been consistently handed down for 2,000 years.

Authority

For a Christian who claims that we are still held by the Jewish dietary law, I think it might be helpful to ask yourself: “By whose authority do I say Mark 7:19 is not scriptural? By whose authority do I interpret the Bible to bind me to eat kosher?” Is it by my own authority? Is it my pastor or a teacher? Am I relying on the KJV as my authority (and if so, how do I know my interpretation is accurate)? Is there anyone today who has the authority of Jesus and the Apostles to interpret scripture authoritatively for us? Here are a few articles to consider that point:

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