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Friday, May 09, 2014

The Theology of Unclean Food

Gordon J. Wenham

The problem of unclean foods was at the heart of the first great controversy in the early church (Acts 15). Did Gentile believers have to be circumcised and keep the laws of Moses about food? The conclusions of the council of Jerusalem are recorded in Acts, but there is little explanation of the theological reasoning behind the decisions. Commentators therefore tend to regard the decree (Acts 15:19-20) as little more than a pragmatic compromise between Judaizers and Hellenists.1

Since the theological principles determining the division of animals into clean and unclean are so obscure in the OT, it is not surprising that NT scholars have only been able to discern pragmatic reasons for the abolition of the distinction. Recent discussion of the OT material has at last brought some semblance of order into the apparent chaos of the food laws in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. These insights, it will be suggested, may also provide a clue to the thinking of the primitive church on these controversial issues.

1. Hygiene
Despite its inherent attractiveness the hygienic explanation faces four grave difficulties.3 First, other peoples have held and hold certain animals to be unclean, yet their demarcations seldom coincide with the biblical. Second, it is far from clear that all unclean animals mentioned in Leviticus are harmful to health. For. example, the Arabs have long enjoyed the camel and its products. As for pork, if it is supposed that  ancient Israel had discovered the risks in eating it, they could also have learnt that these risks could be avoided by cooking it thoroughly. Third, though motive clauses justifying particular rules are frequent in biblical law, there is no appeal to health in connection with the food rules. Yet this would surely have constituted an excellent reason for keeping them had it been recognized. Instead the motive clauses explain that certain animals may not be eaten, because of the way they travel or their eating habits (Lev. 11:3-12, 20-23, 26-31, etc.). Finally, if hygiene was the motive underlying the OT regulations, why did the early church allow their abolition in the first century AD? What was harmful when Leviticus 11 was drafted, would have been just as dangerous in the days of the early church.
2. Religious Associations
The above article is extracted from  "The Theology of Unclean Food" by Gordon J. Wenham,  Evangelical Quarterly 53.1 (January/March 1981): 6-15.

Probably the most popular explanation of the food laws is hygiene. The unclean animals were recognized by the ancients as a danger to health, and were therefore pronounced unclean. This explanation is a very old one, but enjoyed its greatest vogue at the beginning of this century, with the great advances in medical knowledge. Moses was hailed as anticipating the findings of modern science. It still has its advocates today. R. E. Clements writes: “What we have here is a simple and comprehensive guidebook to food and personal hygiene.”2

The second kind of explanation of the food laws is that the unclean animals were closely associated with non-Israelite religion.4 They were either used in sacrifice or the deities were supposed to manifest themselves in animal form. Israel was called to be the holy people of God and had therefore to disassociate itself from these pagan practices. For example, Isa. 65:4speaks of people “who sit in tombs... who eat swine’s flesh”. And at various sites collections of pig bones have been found, which lends support to the notion that the pig was eaten in Canaanite rituals.5 Other animals banned as unclean by Leviticus were worshipped by the Egyptians. This explanation of the distinction between clean and unclean animals has the merit of noting the biblical writers’ insistence that these regulations are designed to further the ideal of creating a holy nation (Lev. 11:44-5; Deut. 14:2). But its major weakness is that it can only explain a few of the regulations. In general, Israel used much the same animals for sacrifice as her neighbours. If use in contemporary religions were ground for making animals unclean, the bull should have been an abomination in Israel in view of its role in Canaanite and Egyptian culture. Yet in Israel the bull was the best and most valued of the sacrificial animals. ( Continue Reading - PLS CLICK HERE)

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