Tuesday, October 1

Romans 14 and Jewish Dietary Laws

The book of Romans, as it was later called due to fact that it was addressed to Rome (1:7), was written about AD 57 from Corinth during the apostle Paul’s (also known as Saul of Tarsus) third missionary trip, and recorded by his secretary, Tertius (16:22). Paul addressed various points of theology in this letter, one of which includes the Jewish dietary laws, discussed in chapter 14. In Leviticus 11, God gives Moses and Aaron the dietary laws (food laws). Under the Old Covenant, God declares that creatures such as camels, hyrax, pig, rabbit, sea creatures that do not have fins and scales (such as shrimp), eagles, vultures, red kite, certain owls, ravens, heron, hawks, flying insects that walk on all fours, rats, weasels, the monitor lizard and wall lizard, the skink, chameleon and others are “unclean,” or as is said today, not “kosher” (also found in Deuteronomy 14:1-21). Today, the majority of the Jewish nation still adheres to these dietary laws, depending on whether or not the Jew is orthodox, conservative, or related divisions. In Romans 14, however, as well as elsewhere in the New Testament (or New Covenant), we learn that the foods we were not to eat may now be permissible, indeed, even encouraged.

According to Jeremiah 31:30, “’The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.’” This “new covenant” is alluded to in various passages in the Hebrew Bible, aside from Jeremiah. For example, Hosea 2:18 conveys, “In that day I will make a new covenant for them…” (emphasis mine), as well as Isaiah 55:3, “Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.” The New Testament makes mention of this new covenant, interestingly, the New Testament is actually another way of saying New Covenant, hence why Christian Bibles are divided between the Old and New Covenant. At the last supper, Jesus refers to the initiation of the new covenant (and therefore the fulfillment of the Old; cf. Matt. 5:17), as the “blood of the new covenant [some manuscripts have “the”], which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). The new covenant is also mentioned in Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, 1st Corinthians 11:25 and Hebrews 10:6-13, among other references. Under this new covenant, much like certain legal documents, many of the former stipulations and rules in the law no longer apply.

One example of laws that no longer apply is the dietary laws. According to Mark 7:20, one of the clearest statements made in regard to this issue, we read that “Jesus declared all foods clean.” In Romans 14:14-15 we read, “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by eating destroy your brother or sister for whom Christ died.” Verses 20-21 continue the subject, “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.” Finally, verse 23 declares, “But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” In these passages, St. Paul is making rather radical statements, considering his Jewish background. This would not sound radical to a Gentile audience, but if Paul was preaching that “All food is clean” to a Jewish audience, they likely would have declared blasphemy.

Subsequently, in Acts 10, Peter has a vision. About noon, Peter goes up on a rooftop to pray, and was also hungry and wanted something to eat. As Acts 10:10-15 conveys, “while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ ‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ The voice spoke a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’” Although the implications of this vision can be further seen in the encounter with Cornelius in Acts 11, for our purposes, the implication that these creatures are no longer unclean is the relevant issue. 

In one of St. Paul’s letters, we read of an incident between him and St. Peter. According to Paul, “before certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group” (Galatians 2:12). Paul goes on to describe his rebuke of Peter. In light of the dietary laws, although the text does not state that Peter was eating Gentile food, it can be argued that at least for the sake of Gentiles, since Gentiles did not need to be circumcised, they did not need to adhere to Jewish dietary laws and customs either.

Evidently, the New Testament declares that “all foods are clean.” But what was the purpose of the dietary laws to begin with? According to Professor Amy-Jill Levine (in the Hebrew Bible lecture 11 from the Great Courses), the laws have a advantageous factor for an individual’s health. For example, if undercooked, pork can cause trichinosis; shellfish are generally fraught with disease and can cause allergic reactions or other symptoms. Economically, pork can be expensive to raise and offers very little contribution. Allegorically, the first century philosopher Philo of Alexandria noted that we avoid pig so that we do not hog resources, and we are like sheep, nor vultures. Theologically, and perhaps a view held in antiquity, the dietary laws as well as other difficult to understand laws were given to the Israelites in anticipation of the Messiah, or the preservation of his bloodline. If one were to go the route of protection, we could make the following case.
The Israelites entered into Canaan sometime between the 1300-1200s BC, and began to eradicate surrounding nations. For many modern readers of Scripture, this gives us an image of a cruel, malicious and capricious God, or the “harsh God of the Hebrew Bible.” While the topic itself is one to delve into elsewhere, concerning the food laws, we may create a scenario like this: had the Israelites not wiped out the surrounding nations, they would have been wiped out. Had someone like King David decided to have shrimp or pork one evening and became ill and died, King Solomon would never have been born (and we would not have the Solomonic method nor his philosophical works), the Jews never would have occupied Jerusalem, Bethlehem or Nazareth, Mary and Joseph never would have been born, Jesus would never have been born into the correct conditions, and humanity would be without hope. In other words, the “harshness” was due to the protecting of the Messiah’s bloodline, which included the food laws. In recent times, we are able to make sea food and pork safer to eat, but those living in BC and early AD times did not have the means of cleaning food available to us today.

A last point concerning Romans 14 concerns verses 11-12, “It is written: ‘‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’’ So then, we will all give an account of ourselves to God.” This passage and others are prominent in importance to early Christology. Here, Paul quoted from Isaiah 45:23, which claims that “every knee will bow” to God and “every tongue will confess to God.” In another of St. Paul’s letters we find what is likely an early hymn to Christ or creedal formula structured as a sort of hymn. It’s ending states, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven ad on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11). While a bit of guesswork comes into play, we can surmise that this is another reference to the early Christian belief in the deity of Christ, alluded to elsewhere in early Christian writings, although a clearer understanding of Christ’s deity was discussed over the next three centuries and the doctrine of the Trinity was expounded on (but not invented) during the AD 300s. Romans is a very interesting epistle, and much can be learned from it, including the aforementioned items. 


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  4. 99% of these scriptures were clearly taken out of context. When reading scripture, it's important to read at least 20 verses above and below it to get an understanding of context.

    To prove that the dietary law is still in effect... read this prophecy that will be fulfilled when Jesus Christ returns for his second coming:

    Isaiah 66
    15 For, behold, the Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.

    16 For by fire and by his sword will the Lord plead with all flesh: and the slain of the Lord shall be many.

    17 They that sanctify themselves, and purify themselves in the gardens behind one tree in the midst, eating swine's flesh, and the abomination, and the mouse, shall be consumed together, saith the Lord.

    18 For I know their works and their thoughts: it shall come, that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come, and see my glory.

    The dietary law is still in effect. The new covenant it's clearly stated in Jeremiah 31:33 that the LORD will put his law in our hearts and inward parts... The only law that's done away is the animal sacrifice law.

    Isaiah 66 is very clear! I was in error about this as well into I started reading the bible for myself. So I've repented and keep the LORD'S dietary law.