Ah bacon . . . is there any food more simultaneously loved and reviled? Cultural jokes abound at the expense of this breakfast meat, but for some bacon is no laughing matter.(Why do I keep hearing a news reporter’s voice when I read that last sentence?) Some Christians believe that eating pork products (as well as shrimp and other foods) is sinful. Based on the dietary requirements of the Old Covenant (i.e., the Mosaic Law), they will assert that “keeping kosher” (“kashrut”) is necessary for Christians in the New Covenant as well.
While some may object to this idea simply because they wish to continue eating pork chops, bacon, or Surf-n-Turf dinners, there is a much larger issue at hand. For one’s treatment of the diet issue necessarily relates to one’s treatment of the entirety of God’s plan of salvation, specifically with regard to orthopraxy – the normative practices required for people to remain Christians in good standing.
Are these “kosher Christians” correct or simply confused? Are they being legalstic? Below I will critique some common”prooftext” responses, and then offer a a more comprehensive reply.
New Testament Prooftexting
Several common prooftexts are offered in response to the idea that Christians are under biblical mandate to remain kosher. Very few of them can support such a notion, however – at least the way they are often used. Here are the main ones that I have come across:
Matthew 15:11 – “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him `unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him `unclean.’”
Mark 7:19 – “Because it goes not into the heart but into the stomach, and goes out with the waste? (He said this, making all food clean).”
While some may think that these verses do away with diet issues, the topic at hand is not eating but hand-washing. Specifically, man-made traditions that Jesus used to challenge those who were breaking God’s law while upholding man’s. This verse would probably not seem very useful for overturning kosher laws except that a late, parenthetical reference is often thrown in. For example, the NASB and NIV add “(In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean’)” to Mk 7:19. First there is the variant issue: is this even a legitimate text? But even if it is, given the context it could mean that Jesus was declaring that it is not necessary to ceremonially wash one’s hands to eat, and therefore all the food remained clean. In any case, it’s not as clear as it might sound.
Acts 11:7-8 – “Then I heard a voice telling me, `Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ “I replied, `Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, `Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’”
If, in the above passages, Jesus had decalred all foods clean it might seem odd that Peter responded the way he did here (although it is not impossible – Peter and other Jews liely would have retained kosher diets out of habit if nothing else). Moreover, it was not the meats that were cleansed here – they were simply symbolic of the Gentiles (Acts 10:28). This kind of symbolism would not have seemed unusual to Peter, for the Gentiles (“the Nations”) are symbolized by unclean animals in Ezk. 17 and Dan. 7. Peter specifically states as much in verse 28 when he explains, “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”
Colossians 2:16 – “Let no man therefore judge you in meat or in drink,”
One must be careful using this verse as proof for overturning kosher laws, for one could argue that a slippery slope would appear: would Christians be free from any dietary restrictions? Obviously not, for gluttony and drunkenness are condemned in other passages. However, this does not seem to be the issue at hand in Colossians – rather it was false teachings concerning requirements for godly living.
1 Timothy 4:2-5 – ” Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”
It could be argued that since it was God who forbade the eating of unclean meats, then they would not be included in “foods, which God created to be received” in the first place. Some qualification to “everything” is obviously necessary (e.g., God made rocks and stars too, but these are not to be eaten!). Thus “everything” could be qualified by those things which God actually made to be eaten. Being “consecrated by the word of God” may be referring to the food laws themselves.
Romans 14:14 & 20 – “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. . . . Everything is indeed clean . . . “
This passage is the most difficult for Kosher Christians to deal with. First, Paul seems to know the disputed passage from Mark 7! Second, the issue is clearly eating here and Paul says that nothing is unclean in itself – this knocks out any argument that refers to the intrinsic properties of foods as being the basis for it being called unclean (e.g., health). Third, while issue here is vegetarianism (14:2), it parallels the meat sacrificed to idols issue Paul had with the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor. 8). Fourth, when Paul said that no food is unclean, he used the Greek word koinos, which means common or ordinary, unclean or defiled. But, when he said that all foods are clean he used katharos – the same word used for clean animals. In any case, Paul did not demand that they agree but encouraged them to remain true to their convictions – not something one does when referring to objective sin.
Beyond Prooftexts to Biblical Theology
Even given the strength of Romans 14, it is better to see that the reason the NT does not directly repudiate the kosher laws is that it did not have to. With the coming of the New Covenant, all of the Mosaic laws were done away with for the Church (cf. the Book of Hebrews). Thus, the burden of proof should be on the kosher Christian to provide verses that clearly state that thier case, not the other way around. The failure to see this has made the kosher case appear much stronger than it really is.
However – what if, as is often claimed, the kosher laws preceded the Mosaic Law? In that case, the fading away of the Old Covenant would not change anything, and the kosher laws in place before the Mosaic Law even came about would indeed require specific reversal in the New Covenant. Here is where a larger view of the biblical covenants, and the exposure of a major assumption in the kosher case, is necessary.
The Noahic Covenant
The distinction between clean and unclean animals is first mentioned in Gen. 7:2 and 8:20, speaking of Noah and The Flood. We are not told which animals were clean or unclean, or how to know which were which, but Noah seemed to be expected to know the difference. The argument for keeping kosher assumes that this distinction in Genesis was equivalent to its use in the dietary laws spelled out in Mosaic Law centuries later. The conversation may go something like this:
“We should not eat pork because it is prohibited in the Bible.”
“That’s in the Old Testament Law, which is not for the Church.”
“Not dietary laws – they were given before Mosaic Law.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Noah knew what clean and unclean animals were, so he was aware of kosher dietary laws centuries before Moses. Therefore, the fact that Mosaic Law is no longer in effect does not mean that kosher laws also went away.”
This is similar in form to arguing for other moral positions (e.g., murder, homosexuality, or adultery) that were later included in the Mosaic Law – simply because that particular instantiation of those laws is not longer in effect, that does not mean those principles are not still in effect. For example, Americans are no longer under British rule, therefore we cannot be tried by British courts for, say, driving on the right side of the road. But Britain also has laws against theft, and the fact that we are not under Britain’s theft laws does not mean we are not under any theft laws. But is this a legitimate analogy to this necessary assumption in the kosher argument?
The first problem with this assumption is that pre-flood people of God were vegetarian. This is indicated by Gen. 1:30 where God gives “every green herb for food.” It seems that prior to The Fall, all the plants were edible. God says nothing about eating animals. It is not until after the flood that God, in the Noahic Covenant, allowed people to eat meat:
Genesis 9:3 - “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”
Now some argue that “everything” here needs to be understood as “all that may lawfully be eaten.” But I have not seen any convincing reasons to think this is the case. Some say that Gen. 6:21 provides support for this qualification: “And take thou unto thee of all food that is eaten, and gather it to thee; and it shall be for food for thee, and for them.” The idea is that Noah is commanded to take all the edible foods into the ark. So then, not all food was lawful to be eaten. But this verse is given in reference to both Noah’s family and the animals Noah was to gather to the ark, thus he would need all foods that are eaten by anything. In other words, although people do not eat hay, or leaves, Noah needed to bring these sorts of items because it is a “food that is eaten.” (And the very idea of “non-edible food” seems nonsensical).
Now here’s the kicker: Why would a vegetarian society be given kosher food laws concerning meat? There is no need for kosher meat laws in a society that was not to eat meat in the first place. That would be like my wife telling me I was never allowed to sleep with other women and then listing the women I could and could not sleep with.
So why did Noah know of this clean/unclean distinction? The answer is that these categories are not limite din their use to dietary issues – they are also used with reference to ceremonial / sacrificial issues which Noah definitely knew. In that case, Noah would have known the difference, but not because they had anything to do with his diet. The ceremonial categories of clean / unclean could have been used later when God introduced dietary laws for Israel via Moses. In other words, these distinctions were used for a new purpose.
And this is not just an ad hoc stab at a counter-explanation, for there is evidence that clean/unclean distinctions in Genesis are ceremonial, and not dietary. Noah was told to make a distinction between clean and unclean animals (Gen. 7:1-9), but we are not told why or how Noah was to make the distinction; so right away we need to be careful. Reading Mosaic law back into pre-flood society would have to be justified on some grounds other than terminology – for it is the reason behind the terms that is important here. (And remember that, although Genesis recounts the story of Noah, it is being told by Moses). It does not seem legitimate to do so, however, for while dietary laws relating to the clean/unclean distinction are lacking in the Genesis account, ceremonial sacrifices are plentiful (e.g., Genesis chapters 3,4,8,22,31). Some occurring even before Noah’s time. And only clean animals were used for these sacrifices (cf. Gen. 8:20). Further evidence that this is not just a Gentile-rationalizing-bacon-consumption theory is found in the fact that this is the position of the The Jewish Encyclopedia (s.v. “Clean and Unclean Animals”) itself.
This sacrificial knowledge alone accounts for the usage of the clean/unclean distinction in the time of the Noahic Covenant, so without solid evidence of it being used for dietary issues in Genesis, the main assumption of the kosher argument fails. The only move left would be to uphold the following of Old Covenant laws by Christians in the New Covenant.
The Old (Mosaic) Covenant
Centuries after Noah, clean and unclean animals are listed in Lev. 11 and Deut. 14 and this time these distinctions refer to diet as well. We are also given the reason for these laws in Lev. 11:44-45 (cf. Lev. 20:24-26 ) – God is holy and He wanted his people to be holy (i.e., distinct from the gentiles – who, even then, were allowed to eat this unclean meat – Dt. 14:21). This is why Mosaic Law included clothing choices, laws against tattoos, etc. Most of these things are not essentially bad. However, by following these regulations the Israelites would stand out from the common culture. The same can be said for the dietary rules in Deuteronomy (14).
Now, if Christians were Israelites under the Old Covenant it would be case closed. But the Bible is quite clear that this is not the case. At least since Pentecost, humanity falls under a new and better covenant (e.g., Heb. 7:22) which is based on the Abrahamic covenant – which preceded the Mosaic (Gal. 3) and did not include kosher laws.
The New Covenant
Because Christians in the New Covenant are not under the Old Covenant, dietary (and other) rules limited to that covenant are therefore not a matter of sin today. Now, the apostle Paul repeatedly upholds adherence to God’s laws (Acts 24:14; 25:8; Romans 3:31; 7:12, 22), as did James (James 2:8-12; 4:11) and John (1 John 3:4). Now, there is more to God’s law than kosher diets, and these others can explain much of these kinds of statements. When we look at Paul’s treatment of those who tried to force Old COvenant laws on New Covenant believers we see that he certainly made some clear distinctions. But Peter seemed to still be Kosher in Acts. Why, if these kosher laws were no longer in effect, would they do this?
What we need to remember is that the New Testament was written during a transition period, and that the Church was basically 100% Jewish for several years after Pentecost. Further, there was no awareness that Gentiles were to be included in this New Covenant. It should come as no surprise then, that Jewish members of the early Church would maintain their traditions, and even be confused over what to do with Gentile converts. These traditions were fine as long as they were kept in the right place and not used as a means for salvation (cf. Paul’s words to the Galatians about circumcision with the fact that he had Timothy circumcised).
What we need to make a case then, are not simply descriptions of what people did, but prescriptions for what people were to do – especially with regard to Jewish traditions and laws. That prescription is found in Acts chapter 15 at the Jerusalem Council.
The Jerusalem Council
In Acts 15 we read of the first Church Council held at Jerusalem:
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after 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. . . . When they came to Jerusalem . . . some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “. . . why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
After they finished speaking, James replied, “. . . my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”
There you have it. The only parts of the Mosaic Law that were to be kept by Gentile converts were to avoid eating things dedicated to idols, sexual immorality, strangled animals, and blood. Notice that although all four are found in Mosaic Law, and three deal with diet (e.g., slaughter – Dt. 12; blood – Lev. 3:17), there is nothing about eating pork or shrimp here. Further, given Paul’s later admonitions concerning eating meat dedicated to idols (1 Cor. 8 cf. Rom. 14), it is clear that even these dietary commands may have been given in order to protect the conscience of others – not to form an everlasting rule that would apply even when “stumbling” a fellow Christian was not at issue).
Side Bar: What About Health?
Although God says nothing about health issues in the kosher passages, an appeal to health is a common backup plan when biblical arguments to obey the Old Covenant fail. While health issues can be shown to overlap with the kosher laws (pork example), it is science, not religion, that is at issue here. God said the laws were to keep His people holy, and that needs to be our guiding principle.
Not only does the Bible never indicates that the uncleanness of animals was different from any other sorts of uncleanness, there are indications that is actually was not related to health. For one, if it was a health issue, why would God allow Gentiles, even during the Old Covenant, to eat unclean food (Dt. 14:21)? Second, there is far more to health than keeping kosher, or even keeping all of the Mosaic Law – so why would God ignore all those things? Third, if these meats are labelled unclean because of how unhealthy the animals are, why were people only unclean the day they touched them (“until evening”)?
While some of the Mosaic laws might indeed promote health, all were given to promote holiness (i.e., “distinction” or “separation” – not necessarily moral or bodily purity). But this is no longer how this holiness is attained. Thus, the kosher issue should not transcend what may be legitimate health issues and venture into the area of biblical commands for support. (And let’s face it, given the state of much farming today, pork is not the only problematic food for health!)
While it is true that the New Testament does not provide direct proof-texts to overturn Old Testament dietary laws, it certainly seems to give evidence that they have indeed been overturned.
First, positive statements abound that the New Covenant has replaced the Old Covenant Mosaic Law. Thus, it is not necessary to find any verses that directly repudiate specific Old Covenant laws (e.g., where does the New Testament clearly say to stop sacrificing animals at the temple or that it is now OK to wear blended materials?). Rather, if any Mosaic Law is going to be said to remain in effect we must find it repeated in the New Covenant. In the case of dietary laws, we do not find them; and this fact alone serves to do away with them.
Second, the rejoinder that Noah’s awareness of clean and unclean categories of animals proved that kosher dietary laws preceded the Mosaic Law was shown above to be an unwarranted assumption. Noah knew these categories for ceremonial / sacrificial purposes, and that is all that is required to explain his familiarity with the distinction. Further, since the clean/unclean meat categories would make little sense in a vegetarian society (while making perfect sense in a ceremonially sacrificial society) this assumption should be rejected unless counter-evidence can be produced. [Note too that these distinctions can still be used today or in the future (e.g., Revelation 18:2) without needing to assert their dietary 1use. These labels do not become meaningless simply because they are not used for the same reasons0].
Third, in the lone instance where the Church actually ruled on issues of Gentiles keeping the Old Covenant Law, the clean/unclean meat dietary issues were not even brought up in discussion, nor were they included in the final decision. Since other Old Covenant dietary laws were included, we can conclude that such laws were not simply assumed to not be in need of mention.
In closing I will say that I am not a huge pork or shrimp or camel or bat eater. I use kosher salt, I love kosher pickles, and I won’t eat a hot dog that is not made by Hebrew National. So my dietary lifestyle is not threatened very much by kosher laws. I mention this to counter the accusation that is sometimes made that people who disagree with kosher Christians simply “have their bellies as their gods” so-to-speak. I wrote this article because serious interpretive and theological principles are at stake in this debate. While the kosher laws certainly provide a handy guide for healthier living, they should not – on peril of sliding into heresy – be argued on Old Covenant legal grounds.