New Testament Dietary Laws – Different for Jews and Gentiles

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Most Gentile Christians know of Jewish dietary laws in the Old Testament but not what made foods ‘unclean’ or what role these laws served.  Few are aware that there are dietary laws set out for Gentile Christians in the New Testament that are not simply a matter of individual ‘conscience’.  What are these and how did differing food laws for Jewish believers and Gentile Christians impact social interaction between us in the first century? Are these still in effect and if so, what are the implications for social interactions today. That is the topic of this article.

Is that Kosher?

The only time most people encounter the expression “is that kosher?” is as a euphemism for “is that ‘legit’ “ but the word kosher has a very specific meaning in the Tanakh (Old Testament). The term kosher comes from the Hebrew word כָּשֵׁר (kasher) meaning “fit” – as in ‘fit for consumption’ and refers to food that is fit to eat according to Jewish dietary law.

The Torah (the Law of God as recorded by Moses) outlines the Jewish dietary laws in Leviticus 11:1-47 and Deuteronomy 14: 3-20, with the passage in Deuteronomy beginning and ending with the underlying reason for them;

“…you are a holy people belonging to the Lord your God. The Lord has chosen you to be His own possession out of all the peoples on the face of the earth.”

Leviticus 14:2

The Jews were called over and over again throughout the Old Testament to live in a manner that distinguished them from the nations [Gentiles] around them; not to go after their gods and not to practice their customs that God described as abominations.

The Jewish dietary laws, along with circumcision and the practices involving Sabbath and the Feasts delineate the Jews as a people. Jews were to be distinctive so that the nations around us would see us as set apart as a holy people.

The laws associated with how we as Jews conduct ourselves are  collectively known as halakha and are divided into laws of diet, purity and idolatry.  Much of the confusion by the early Church Fathers in interpreting texts to do with Jewish dietary laws had to do with a failure to understand that in the Jewish mind of the first century there was a distinction between laws of purity and dietary laws and the laws of idolatry and dietary laws. We will elaborate on this further on in this article as well as a future article on whether Christianity evolved from the Judaism of the second Temple period.

For Jews, not eating certain foods was never a matter of salvation; eating foods that were unclean was not a sin requiring atonement.

Leviticus 11 refers to the foods the Jews were not to eat not as unclean or detestable – but as “unclean for you” (Lev 11:8) or “detestable to you” (Lev 11:12, 13a, 20 & Deut 14:7, 14:10, 14:19).  In the construct of the phrase “detestable to you” (l’chem hem t’meh-im), the l’ denotes purpose, intention or result. These animals did not possess an objective property called “impurity”; they were not in and by themselves unclean – they were to be considered unclean to us, as Jews – to be considered detestable to us, as Jews. The purpose, intention or result was to delineate us from the nations around us.

In case we missed it, the reason why were to not eat these foods is repeated again at the end of the lists of animals, fish, birds and insects in Deuteronomy 14:21a.

“…For you are a holy people belonging to the Lord your God.”

Deuteronomy 14:21a

We know these foods were not unclean in and by themselves, because it says in Deuteronomy 14:21b that we can give them to a “temporary resident living within your gates and he may eat it or you may sell it to a foreigner [a Gentile]”.  The Law was abundantly clear that we were not to mistreat Gentiles in any way; if these creatures were unclean in themselves and unfit for people to eat, God would not have permitted us to give them or sell them to Gentiles to eat.


Does the New Testament abolish the Jewish Dietary Laws?

There are two passages in the New Testament that are commonly raised as ‘proving’ that the Jewish Dietary Laws were abolished, so we will address ourselves to these;

  1. Peter’s Vision in Acts 10
  2. “Nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him” from Mark Chapter 7

1. Peter’s vision in Acts 10

The scene opens with Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a man described as devout and God-fearing having an angel of the Lord appear to him.  The angel told Cornelius to send men to Joppa and call for Simon, who is also called Peter and so he did.

Independently, Peter who was staying with Simon the tanner went up on the housetop around noon the following day to pray.  He became hungry and wanted something to eat and while Simon the tanner’s household was preparing the food, Peter had a vision. Peter saw something that resembled a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners. In the sheet were all the four-footed animals and reptiles of the earth and the birds of the sky.  Peter heard a voice say to him “Get up, Peter; kill and eat!” Peter replied, “no!” insisting that he has “never eaten anything common and ritually unclean!

Peter heard the voice a second time, this time saying “what God has made clean, you must not call common.” This happened three times, and then the object was taken up into heaven.

People who say this passage refers to God declaring that foods that were considered ‘unclean’ (unkosher) to Jews were now considered ‘clean’ (kosher) and God was saying Peter and the Jews could eat them, haven’t read the rest of the story.

The text says that “Peter was deeply perplexed about what the vision he had seen might mean” (10:17) and was thinking about the vision (10:19) when the Spirit told him to go downstairs and let the men Cornelius had sent in. The next day Peter set out with them for Cornelius’ house and when he arrived, Cornelius met him. Given how perplexed he was and that he had been reflecting on it while at Simon the Tanner’s house, Peter probably continued to ponder the meaning of the vision as he traveled to Cornelius’ house. When they had arrived and walked into Cornelius’ house, Peter noticed that there was a huge crowd of Gentiles already there and Peter said to them;

You know it’s forbidden for a Jewish man to associate with or visit a foreigner [Gentile] but God has shown me that I must not call any person common or unclean.

Acts 10:28

It’s at this point it is clear that Peter understood the vision and that it had nothing to do with food, but people.

On a side note, when Peter said that it was forbidden for a Jewish man to associate with or visit with a Gentile, he was speaking from the standpoint of the Pharisees interpretation of the Law. There is no commandment in the written Torah forbidding Jews from visiting with or associating with Gentiles but what made it forbidden by the rabbis according to their Oral Law was that Gentiles were associated with idolatry — something Jews were not to associate with.

Something that is very important to keep in mind is that the laws of idolatry are an entirely different area of halakha than the dietary laws.

If there was any doubt from the passage in Mark that it was people the vision was referring to and not food, in Acts 11 Peter retells the whole event again and in verse 11 and 12 says;

“At that very moment, three men sent to me from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make distinction between them and us”.

Acts 11:11-12

Interestingly, in Acts 15:8-9, Peter uses this same phrase again.  He speaks of the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles as them having had their hearts ‘cleansed’ by faith and that He [the Holy Spirit] made no distinction between them [Gentiles] and us [Jews].

“And God, who knows the heart, testified to them by giving the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.”

Acts 15:8-9

Note here that Gentiles Christians were no longer “unclean” because they were no longer idolaters. That is what ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ in these passages refers to.

  1. Mark Chapter 7 – “Nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him”

As we did above, let’s set the scene.

The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Him. They observed that some of His disciples were eating their bread with unclean—that is, unwashed—hands. (For the Pharisees, in fact all the Jews, will not eat unless they wash their hands ritually, keeping the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they have washed. And there are many other customs they have received and keep, like the washing of cups, jugs, copper utensils, and dining couches. Then the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why don’t Your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating bread with ritually unclean hands?

Mark 7: 1-5

This is where Jesus replies and quotes a passage in Isaiah and applies it to the Pharisees;

the people honouring Me with their lips but their heart is far from Me.  They worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commands of men

Mark 7: 6-7

As if there was any doubt what Jesus was saying to the Pharisees, Jesus elaborates;

Disregarding the command of God, you keep the tradition of men.” He also said to them, “You completely invalidate God’s command in order to maintain your tradition!

In verse 11-13, Jesus talks about the practice that the Pharisees had of encouraging men to give money to the Temple that was supposed to be to care for their parents — thereby overlooking God’s command to ‘honour your father and mother’.  Then Jesus said to the Pharisees;

“You revoke God’s word by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many other similar things.” Summoning the crowd again, He told them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: Nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. [If anyone has ears to hear, he should listen!]” When He went into the house away from the crowd, the disciples asked Him about the parable. And He said to them, “Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated.” (As a result, He made all foods clean. Then He said, “What comes out of a person—that defiles him. For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness.  All these evil things come from within and defile a person.”

Two theologians, James D.G. Dunn (Jesus, Paul and the Law, 1990, pg 51) and E.P. Sanders (Jewish Law From Jesus to Mishnah, pg 28) make the same point that this passage is contrasting two issues and that the “not…but” contrast is not to be taken literally. That is the phrase “not what goes in but what comes out” (Mark 7:15) could well mean that “what comes out – the wickedness of a person’s heart is what really matters, leaving the food laws untouched.

Mark S. Kinzer (Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism, 2005, pg 54) says that the passage in Mark 7:15 would be similar to the quotation from Hosea 6:6 that Jesus quotes in Matt 9:13 and 12:7 “I desire mercy not sacrifice”. Kinzer says that in both passages “sacrifice” is associated with restrictions; on eating with sinners (Matt 9:13) and plucking and eating grain on the Sabbath (Matt 12:7).  Jesus’ quotation from Hosea in the context of Matthew is Jesus saying that ‘mercy is the more important when compared to ritual restrictions”.  Jesus isn’t nullifying all ritual restrictions but in this passage and in the one in Mark 7:15, He is emphasizing the ‘weightier matters of the Law”. Kinzer understands the Mark 7:15 passage to be taken to make a prioritization of categories of impurity, rather than a denial of physical impurity.

Personally, we see an additional factor. When we look back at the passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that define foods as fit for consumption for Jews or not, the foods were not unclean in and by themselves.  Both the passages in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 refers to the foods the Jews were not to eat as “unclean for you” (Lev 11:8) or “detestable to you” (Lev 11:12, 13a, 20 & Deut 14:7, 14:10, 14:19).  In the Hebrew it is even more clear that the very construct of the phrase “detestable to you” (l’chem hem t’meh-im), the l’ denotes the purpose, intention or result.

As mentioned earlier, these animals did not possess an objective property called “impurity”; they were not in and by themselves unclean – they were to be considered unclean to us, as Jews – to be considered detestable to us, as Jews with the purpose, intention or result being to delineate us from the nations around us.

More importantly,  when Jesus said that “nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him”. Jesus was speaking about defilement and defilement is a matter related to Jewish purity laws and not Jewish dietary laws.  Purity laws, like laws related to idolatry are a different area of halakha from dietary laws.

Another thing that is needed to understand this passage is that under the Law, most cases eating a food that was considered unclean was not a sin in need of atonement but was rectified by washing and waiting until sunset.

In this passage, Jesus was saying that eating an unclean food DID NOT defile someone but that even thoughts of these DID; evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. The first matter (of eating an unclean food) never needed atonement even in the Old Testament.  Jesus is teaching here that the second matter (of unclean thoughts and desires) does.

Isolating the New Testament from the Old Testament results compartmentalization which is at its heart is a failure to see that the New Testament is contiguous with the Old and that the teachings of Jesus are entirely consistent with the teachings of the Old.  It also often results in people appropriately interpreting and understanding what is being spoken of in the New.

These two passages are only two examples where people think the passage is referring to something entirely different than would be understood from a first century Jewish perspective.

With regards to Jesus declaring all foods clean (vs 19), some scholars say this verse is a later textual addition, made to try and make sense of what Jesus just said.  Even if we assume this is in the original text neither food nor the Gentiles are unclean in and by themselves — certain foods were to be considered unclean and this served as a social delineator. Likewise, under Jewish law it is the practice of idolatry that made Jews forbidden to associate with Gentiles [something that was no longer an issue for Jewish believers when Gentiles become Christians].

These social delineators set the Jews apart from the nations around them in much the same way as the Church being called to bein the world not of the world (John 17:16).


Gentile Dietary Laws in the New Testament – say what?

Most people have some idea of Jewish dietary laws (at least in the Old Testament) yet have no idea there are explicit dietary laws for Gentiles in the New Testament.

In Acts, when the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles,  some of the Jewish believers who were Pharisees (Acts 15:5) thought it was necessary for the Gentile Christians to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. Paul and Barnabas and some others went to the Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem and after there had been much debate, settled the matter. Gentiles did not need to be circumcised, observe the Sabbath, keep the dietary laws or any of the other commands of the Law but were to ;

“(1) abstain from things polluted by idols, (2) from sexual immorality, (3) from eating anything that has been strangled and (4) from blood”

Acts 15:20

As covered in a previous article, these four laws were the same laws set out in Leviticus 17 & 18 for Gentiles living amongst Jews in the Old Testament;

(1) abstain from things polluted by idols; (Leviticus 17:7-8) “They must no longer offer their sacrifices to the goat-demons that they have prostituted themselves with. This will be a permanent statute for them throughout their generations. Say to them: Anyone from the house of Israel or from the foreigners who live among them who offers a burnt offering or a sacrifice but does not bring it to the entrance to the tent of meeting to sacrifice it to the Lord, that person must be cut off from his people.

(2) abstain from sexual immorality; (Leviticus 18:1-26) “Do not profane the name of your God; I am Yahweh. You are not to sleep with a man as with a woman; it is detestable. You are not to have sexual intercourse with[f] any animal, defiling yourself with it; a woman is not to present herself to an animal to mate with it; it is a perversion….You must not commit any of these detestable things—not the native or the foreigner who lives among you.(Leviticus 18:21, 26)

(3) abstain from eating anything that has been strangled (Leviticus 17:15) “Every person, whether the native or the foreigner, who eats an animal that …was mauled by wild beasts is to wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will remain unclean until evening; then he will be clean. 16 But if he does not wash his clothes and bathe himself, he will bear his punishment.”

(4) abstain from eating blood (Leviticus 17:10,12) “Anyone from the house of Israel or from the foreigners who live among them who eats any blood, I will turn against that person who eats blood and cut him off from his people…Therefore I say to the Israelites: None of you and no foreigner who lives among you may eat blood

Three of these four laws for Gentile Christians are dietary food laws and two of the four were explicitly dietary laws for Gentiles living amongst Jews in the Old Testament;

  1. abstain from eating anything that has been strangled
  2. abstain from eating blood

As for the third law, the matter of

3. abstaining from things polluted by idols, the issue as to whether food could be polluted by idols and therefore unfit for Gentile Christians to eat (as well as Jews) was raised by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8 -10. Paul teaches that Gentile Christians should abstain from eating as soon as another’s conscience appears to be directed to idolatry. As long as no idolatrous consciousness is signaled, Gentile Christians could eat what is being offered “without asking” (1 Cor 10:25, 27).

So yes, Gentile Christians under the New Testament had dietary food laws.

Something to consider…

Why would the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 have needed to meet to decide whether Gentiles had to undergo circumcision and follow Jewish dietary customs if the Jewish believers in the first century no longer did so? It makes no sense.


Gentile Dietary Laws Today

As with the Jewish dietary laws, there is nothing in the New Testament that indicates the the dietary food laws for Gentile Christians were abolished.  As a result, it seems to us that these same three dietary laws still apply to Gentile Christians now.

As far as we can see, Gentile Christians should still;

  1. abstain from eating anything that has been strangled
  2. abstain from eating blood; which would include foods commonly available in many European cultures such as “boudin” (blood sausage) and a food commonly eaten in Chinese culture, pork blood.
  3. abstaining from things polluted by idols may not  seem like it could be much of an issue today, but a matter of conscience may still be raised for Gentile Christians with regard to food being offered to idols in many South East Asian grocery stores and restaurants.  Having a look around in many Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants one can find food being offered in front of a Buddha idol.  Whether Gentile Christians want to eat  or buy food in such places can still be a matter of conscience. We have also heard of Gentile Christians (and Jewish believers) not wanting to purchase or eat ‘halal’ meat which has been slaughter while pronouncing Islamic blessings.

Were Jewish Dietary Laws a Barrier to Fellowship with Gentiles in the First Century

We’ve heard it said that Paul and the other disciples must have had to ‘ease up’ on observance of the dietary laws when they went on journeys, especially when amongst Gentiles; failing to realize that keeping Jewish dietary laws in the first century was fairy easy.

The list of foods from the Law of Moses that Jews are to consider unclean is so small and is limited to pork and shellfish and meat from clean animals if they were killed in a way that made them unkosher (e.g. strangled or killed by another animal). But Gentile Christians weren’t to eat meat that had been strangled either!  If the meat had been offered to idols then Jewish believers would not eat it and Gentile Christians would not eat it, if doing so was a matter of conscience.

What is important to know is that by and large, meat was not central to the diet during this time and most of the calories in the diet came from vegetarian sources.  Besides, it took a long time to raise any animal for food and without any refrigeration, all of a large animal would need to be eaten so it was not something that was regularly consumed.


What Foods were Commonly Eaten in the First Century?

We know that 70% of daily calories in the first century diet came from grains (emmet wheat, barley and millet) and most common protein sources were legumes (like chickpeas, lentils, etc). Goat milk cheese or sheep’s milk cheese was made as was fermented milk products such as yogourt.  Fresh leafy vegetables were eaten with vinegar and olive oil and cured olives were available even to those on a very limited budget and figs, dates and pomegranate were available in season as were a variety of nuts.

Jewish believers in the first century could eat most foods that would have commonly had been offered by Gentiles to visitors; that of bread, legumes [chickpeas, lentils], fresh greens, yogourt, cheese, fruit [such as pomegranate, figs and dates].

Chicken, beef, lamb and goat were animals commonly raised throughout the Roman Empire as well as pork but as mentioned above, meat was not central to the diet.  It was easy for Jewish believers to avoid pork or for Gentile Christians or Jewish believers to avoid meat if there was a question of it having been offered to idols.

As we have demonstrated, for a Jew to follow Jewish dietary laws according to the written Law of Moses in the first century did not pose a barrier to fellowship with Gentiles.


Food Laws as a Barrier to Fellowship – today

We’ve heard it said that Jewish believers observing the dietary laws today “divides the body” and puts a strain on having fellowship together.

We don’t see that Jewish believers observing Jewish dietary laws divides the Body of Messiah any more than those that abstain from meat.  If it is okay for people to be vegetarians within the body of Messiah then it should be just as okay for us as Jews to not eat pork or shellfish.

If anything, Gentile Christians expecting Jewish believers not to observe Jewish dietary laws is dividing the Body; for the same reason as Judaizing was in the first century — except that it is in reverse.  Gentiles “Gentilizing” Jews is no different than Jews Judaizing Gentiles.

What would Paul have to say about Gentile Christians expecting Jewish believers to act like Gentiles in the Church?

Here is something that may help understand what we are getting at; the next time you are reading a passage from Paul dealing with the first century issue of Judaizing, take out the term “Judaizing” and replace it with “Gentilizing” and swap Jew for Gentile.  This should provide some helpful insights.

Imposing our cultural distinctions on the other is wrong regardless which side it comes from.

Should the Church not be a place where the Jew feels welcome — not needing to assimilate?


So why should we continue to observe these Dietary Laws?

If neither Jesus nor Paul nor any other of the Apostles abolished the dietary laws then why as Jews should we?

Furthermore, as we taught in a previous article (on Jesus as a prophet like Moses),  Jesus said in speaking to Jews in the preamble to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) that those Jews that practice and teach the commands to other Jews would be called great in the kindgom and those that do not practice and teach other Jews to practice them and teach other Jews to do so would be called least in the kingdom.  Clearly both those that do and those that do not are “in the kingdom” so the practice of these things has nothing to do with salvation.  Jesus said we would be called great in the kingdom if we practice the commands and teach other [Jews] to. Who are we to overrule Jesus’ exhortation?

As it was in Biblical times, the practice of the dietary laws by Jewish believers today delineates us as the people with whom God made an everlasting covenant in Genesis 17:7-8 and marks us as ones set apart for the purposes of God.  We don’t see this as any different than being called to be “in the world, not of the world“.  Whether Jewish believers or Gentile Christians, we are to be a people set apart.


Neither Jew Nor Greek

We often hear people saying to us that we should not keep the dietary laws because “there is neither Jew nor Greek [Gentile] now”.  If there is neither Jew nor Gentile then there is neither male nor female (Gal 3:28)!  As Daniel says sarcastically: “then cut it off gentlemen”.

Is there still male and female?  Yes. Then there is still Jew and Gentile.


Equal but Different

We want to be very clear that we believe without question that Gentile Christians and Jewish believers are absolutely equal before God, we are equal but different.

Let’s let’s not confuse equality with uniformity

In the first century, the Jerusalem Counsel in Acts 15 came to the conclusion that Gentiles didn’t have to act like Jews to be in the Church and were fully equal with Jews without keeping the Law of Moses.

Why is it that today, Jewish believers are expected to act like Gentiles?