The subject of whether or not Christians must adhere to Mosaic dietary laws can be quite a hot topic. The majority of Christians believe Scripture is clear that these laws do not apply to us. However some groups argue that the majority are misunderstanding the true meaning of Scripture and are in error. There are two separate theological bases for this belief: (A) The Mosaic Covenant was never abrogated and is still in force today, and (B) clean and unclean meat distinctions are a part of the moral law (which preceded the Mosaic Covenant) which is binding on all Christians.
It is perfectly acceptable for an individual to choose to adhere to the Mosaic dietary restrictions against unclean meats if they desire to do so. Scripturally, the issue arises when these individuals proclaim that other Christians must also adhere to these dietary standards as a matter of their salvation or justification. Unfortunately, this divisive heresy is taught by a number of sects. James addresses this very behavior in Acts 15:19 during his speech to the Jerusalem Council. Johnson writes in The Acts of the Apostles, “James characterizes the Pharisees demands as a form of harassment of the Gentiles that he wants stopped.”
The focus of this article is an examination of the arguments against dietary liberty and how some of the pertinent Scriptures are viewed. However, the truth of the matter is, how an individual understands Scripture regarding dietary laws is dependent on the much larger theological position mentioned above- whether or not the Mosaic Covenant was temporary. While an in-depth discussion of that topic is outside the scope of this article, I’ll briefly discuss two points which have bearing on our topic of dietary restrictions.
A. Is Mosaic Law (the Torah) Permanently Binding on All Christians?
The fact is, if the Mosaic Law is still in effect, then the dietary restriction argument is open and shut. Therefore, these two crucial points must be discussed with respect to the Mosaic Covenant (the Law of Moses.)
- The Torah is represented in Scripture only as a single unit- not in categories. In both the Old and New Testament the Scriptures view the 613 laws of the Mosaic Covenant as a unit. Though many individuals classify the laws into 3 categories in order to study and better understand them (ceremonial, legal, and moral) it is NEVER divided this way in Scripture. This includes the Ten Commandments- all apart of one law code containing a total of 613 laws. Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum (Messianic Jew and founder of Ariel Ministries– a ministry to Jews around the world) writes in Part 3 of his Israelology for Chafer Theological Seminary, “When the word Torah, ‘law,’ refers to the Law of Moses, it is always singular, although it contains 613 commandments. The same is true of the Greek word nomos in the New Testament.[…] The principle of the law of unity of the Law of Moses underlies James 2:10: For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is become guilty of all. The point is clear. The person who breaks even one of the 613 commandments is guilty of breaking the Law of Moses. This can only be true of the Mosaic Law is a unit.”This has very serious implications for those who commonly use Matthew 5:17-19 (“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”) to claim that Mosaic Law is still operative. Dr. Fruchtenbaum writes, “It is obvious that Jesus spoke of the Law of Moses. Yet no Covenant theologian accepts his own thesis, since he must believe in the abolition (in some form) of many commands of the Law of Moses, if not most.”
- Mosaic Law was never intended to be permanent. Mosaic Law was part of the Mosaic Covenant, which was a conditional covenant between God and the Israelites only. The Mosaic Law was multi-purpose, but one of the primary functions was to serve as a “wall of partition” to separate Jews from Gentiles. In Part 2 of Israelology Dr. Fruchtenbaum writes, “The Mosaic Covenant contained the Mosaic Law that temporarily served as a wall of partition to keep the Gentiles as Gentiles away from enjoying Jewish spiritual blessings. If the Mosaic Law were still in effect, the wall of partition would still keep the Gentiles away, but the death of Christ broke down the wall of partition. Since the wall of partition was the Mosaic Law, God has done away with the Law of Moses. Gentiles as Gentiles, because of faith, can and do enjoy Jewish spiritual blessings as fellow-partakers of the promise in Jesus Christ.” This is precisely what Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians 2:14-16: For He Himself is our peace,who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in the place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. Those who teach that all Christians remain under Mosaic Law are attempting to re-build a wall of partition between the Jew and Gentile that Jesus Himself demolished.
Those interested in further reading on the Covenants of the Bible and the Mosaic Covenant in particular should check out Part 2 and Part 3 of Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s article Israelology for Chafter Theological Seminar. His is one of the best explanations of the temporary nature of the Mosaic Covenant that I’ve come across. He is also the author of Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology. Fruchtenbaum’s bible study The Eight Covenants of the Bible is also an excellent resource.
B. Kosher dietary laws are a part of the moral law.
Adherents of this belief rightly understand that the group of laws of the Mosaic Covenant no longer apply to Christians. They understand that moral law isn’t identical to Mosaic Law, but that several components of moral law are included in Mosaic Law because moral law preceded Mosaic Law. When it comes to dietary restrictions, these individuals believe that there is a Scriptural basis to conclude that they are moral and therefore, still binding today. There are two main arguments for this claim which I will address together:
Arguments: God instituted the dietary restrictions for health reasons and the dietary restrictions precede the law of Moses.
While there is no doubt that there can be health benefits to individuals who only eat meats from the “clean” list, there is no Scriptural support for the claim that this was the purpose of the dietary restrictions. Prior to Genesis 9:3, God’s law was that man was to be vegetarian. Genesis 9:3 reads: Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Morrison explains in his article Are Some Meats Unclean that after the flood, Noah was allowed to eat all creatures, “The implication is, and the traditional Jewish interpretation is, that Noah could eat any kind of meat he wanted, just as he could eat any kind of green plant he wanted.”
Some object to this saying that the distinctions “clean” and “unclean” existed in Noah’s day (Genesis 7:1-9). This is true, but there is no indication that these distinctions were relevant to Noah’s diet. Instead, these are referenced in regard to sacrifice. The Jewish Encyclopedia states, “It seems that in the mind of this writer the distinction between clean and unclean animals was intended for sacrifices only; for in the following chapter he makes God say: “Everything that moveth shall be food for you” (Genesis ix 3).”
If the dietary law wasn’t for health reasons, what was its purpose? According to Leviticus 20:24-25, the purpose was to make the Israelites distinct from other nations “…I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean…” Indeed this is the purpose for many of the laws in the Mosaic Covenant, which served as a dividing wall or partition between the Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:14)
Traditionally, Jews have not considered their dietary laws applicable to Gentile proselytes and only hold Gentile converts to a group of 7 Noachide Laws (laws binding on all men since we are all descended from Noah.) The Jewish Encyclopedia lists these seven as :
(1) don’t worship idols; (2) don’t blaspheme God; (3) establish courts of justice; (4) don’t kill; (5) don’t commit adultery; (6) don’t rob; and a seventh added after the flood, not to eat flesh cut from a living animal.
Dietary restrictions are notably absent.
Further corroboration that Mosaic dietary laws are not moral comes from Deuteronomy 14:21: You shall not eat anything that has died naturally. You may give it to the sojourner who is within your towns, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.
In this verse, we see that although an animal that has died naturally is unclean for an Israelite, it can be given to a “sojourner” or a foreigner to eat. While this doesn’t necessarily mean the animal which has died naturally is an unclean species, it has become unclean for the Israelite under the Mosaic Law. The Israelite cannot eat it because they are “set apart,” however someone else may eat it without being unlawful.
What makes this verse even more interesting, is that the word translated “sojourner” or sometimes “stranger” is the Hebrew word ger. There are four Hebrew words which can refer to a “stranger”: ger, toshav, zar, and nocri. According to Mark Haughwout ger, “…typically refers to a foreigner who has decided to move to Israel and join the nation- essentially an immigrant like Ruth. Such a stranger was given the same rights as the native born and the same obligations. See Numbers 15:29-30, 19:10, Leviticus 24:16, Deuteronomy 31:12.” So we aren’t just talking about a stranger who is passing through. We’re talking about someone who lives among the Israelites and is part of the community.
Morrison writes, “The meat was unclean, but it could be given or sold to a Gentile. But God would not encourage something harmful to be sold. This shows that the distinction between clean and unclean was designed for Israelites, not for health. Israelites had different rules than Gentiles; the rules about cleanliness separated the Israelite nation from the Gentile nations.” Morrison also points out that, while there are certain meats that aren’t healthy, these animals don’t coincide exactly with the animals that are prohibited in the Mosaic Covenant. The New Covenant gives us the freedom to make those decisions on our own.
Now, on to some of the debated Scriptures that discuss dietary restrictions as they relate to Christians.
Mark 7:15-19 (ESV)
15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”[a] 17 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?”[b] (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
Seems pretty cut and dry, but this passage is highly debated. The following two common arguments are given against the plain meaning of the text.
The claim that the phrase in 19b “Thus he declared all foods clean.” is not present in the original Greek manuscripts. As corroboration, many cite the KJV of this verse, which does not include it. One blogger goes so far as to refer to the phrase as a “heretical summation.”
I’m not about to enter into a “KJV only” argument here (for a discussion about Bible translations that clears up some misinformation about the KJV as compared to newer translations you can check out this Bible.org article From the KJV to the RV (from elegance to accuracy)), but the fact of the matter is the claim that earlier Greek manuscripts do not contain this phrase is simply false. Dr. Jonathon Safarti writes, “The standard New Testament critical apparatus gives the clause katharizōn panta ta brōmata the top ranking of A, found in the main early codices Sinaiticus, Vaticanus and Alexandrinus, several other uncials, many minuscules, families 1 and 13, and part of the Byzantine family.” Here’s how it reads in Codex Sinaiticus (which I have seen some claim does not include it): because it goes not into his heart, but into his belly, and is cast out into the sink, making all meats clean.
What does that mean in English? Fundamentals of New Testament Criticism explains, “…the system of gradation that is given to the readings regarding the committee’s level of certainty that the reading in the text reflects the original. The grades are based on a four-letter system progressing from an A rating (certain) to a B rating (almost certain) to a C rating (the committee had difficulty determining which variant should be in the text) to a D rating (the committee is uncertain as to which variant should be in the text, progressing from most to least certain” There is no serious debate about whether or not the text belongs.
There is debate, however, as to whether Christ said it or if it is a parenthetical insertion from Mark. Neither matters if you believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. Either Jesus said it, or Mark wrote it under divine inspiration. A very technical explanation of the intricacies of the debate can be further researched in David Rudolph’s article appearing in A Journal of Messianic Judaism, “Yeshua and the Dietary Laws: A Reassessment of Mark 7:19B.”
The context of Mark 7 is not clean and unclean meats, but the un-biblical Rabbinic tradition of ritual hand washing before eating. Jesus never would have instructed his followers to break Mosaic law, that would have made Him a false teacher. In order for Jesus to be sinless He had to follow Mosaic Law perfectly.
The above argument is absolutely correct. The context of Jesus’ statements are the extra-biblical ritual cleansing additions that the Pharisees had imposed. Jesus never broke a Mosaic Law. Neither did Jesus instruct his Jewish followers to break any of the 613 Mosaic Laws before His fulfillment of the Law was complete (His death and resurrection.) Since the legitimate debate is not if the text belongs, but rather who said it, there are two ways to understand the text depending on your particular stance.
- The logic for Mark adding a parenthetical statement to Jesus’ words?Mark was speaking to Gentile believers- not Jewish believers. Rudolph lists the following three indicators: (a) “Mark’s editorial insertion in verse 3 is directed to Gentile believers who are unfamiliar with Jewish customs.” (b) “…Yeshua is portrayed as traveling throughout Gentile territory and ministering to the Gentiles. Mark’s ‘Gentile mission motif’ is apparent.” (c) The gospel contains seven Aramaic names/expressions written in Greek that Mark translates for his non-Jewish audience (3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 14:36; 15:22, 34).”
Rudolph then quotes Dunn: “It is also clear that this unit is directed toward a Gentile audience: verses 3-4 explain Jewish customs (‘all the Jews!’); and most commentators agree that verse 19c (‘cleansing all foods’) is designed to point out or serve as a reassurance to Gentile believers that the Jewish food laws were not obligatory for them.”
Scholars believe Mark’s gospel was written somewhere between 64-75 AD. Therefore, Mark is in retrospect explaining that the principle that Jesus is discussing (people are defiled by what comes from their hearts, not by what they physically touch or ingest) can be applied to all foods.
- The logic if the statement is not Mark’s and Jesus said it Himself?Jesus alluded to events yet future throughout His earthly ministry and for the most part even His disciples didn’t “get it” until afterwards (as with His resurrection which they even had to have explained by Jesus after it occurred even though they had been told it was coming.)
Jesus alluded to the going away of the Law, just as Jeremiah had prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31-34. The writer of Hebrews knew this, as he quoted these very verses in Jeremiah and then concluded in Hebrews 8:13: “In speaking of a new covenant, He makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
Where does Jesus’ verse 19 statement come in? Dr. Fruchtenbaum explains the significance of Mark 7:19 in light of Matthew 5:19 (Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be great in the kingdom of heaven.), “Verse 19 adds these least commandments, which includes more than merely the moral commandments and the emphasis is on the entire Law, all 613 commandments.[…]Verse 19 must not be ignored. True, Jesus did come to fulfill the Law, but the Law of Moses did not end with the coming of the Messiah or by His life, but by His death. As long as He was alive, He was under the Mosaic Law and had to fulfill every commandment applicable to Him, not in the way that the rabbis had reinterpreted it. The statement of Matthew 5:17-19 was made while He was living. Even while He was living, He already implied the doing away with the Law. One example is Mark 7:19: This He said, making all meats clean. Can it be any clearer than this that at least the dietary commandments have been done away with?”
Jesus’ statement that foods were clean looked forward to after the Mosaic Covenant had passed away, subsequent to His death. The principle He was describing (that external, ingested things don’t defile a person, what comes out of their heart does) is a New Covenant understanding- a completely foreign concept to the Jews, evidenced by the fact that they had even added extra external cleansing requirements above and beyond what was commanded in Mosaic Law.
Acts 10:9-16 (ESV)
9 The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour[b] to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
Here is the context. An angel comes to a man named Cornelius who is described as a very devout, God-fearing Gentile. The angel tells Cornelius to send men to Joppa to have Peter come to his home and Cornelius sends three men on that mission. While the men are on their way, the Lord sends Peter the vision above three times. Peter is completely confused by the vision the Lord has sent him. The men reach Peter and tell him that an angel told Cornelius to send them to ask Peter to come back to Cornelius’ house. Peter goes back with them to Cornelius’ house and when he arrives he tells Cornelius that he knows that it is unlawful for Jews to associate with people of other nations, but God has told him that he should not consider anyone unclean or common. He then asks Cornelius why he sent for him. Cornelius tells Peter about the angel that told him to summon Peter. Peter says he now understands that God shows no partiality, but that everyone who fears God and does what is right according to Him is accepted. The Holy Spirit then falls on everyone who hears what Peter has said. The Jews are surprised because the Holy Spirit is even poured out on the Gentiles. Peter then calls for them to be baptized.
Peter’s vision was symbolic, not to be taken literally. The Lord was only telling Peter that Gentiles should no longer be considered “common” or “unclean,” not making a statement about unclean meats no longer being restricted.
In Peter’s vision the unclean animals represent Gentiles. In the vision, God tells Peter to kill and eat the unclean animals. Yes, the vision is obviously symbolic. No one is asserting that a literal sheet with all kinds of animals on it was lowered from the heavens. However, if the animals in the sheet had not been declared clean, then the symbolism makes no sense whatsoever. Dr. Jonathon Safarti demonstrates how useless the symbolism would be if, in fact, God had not meant that unclean animals were now clean with this analogy, “Eat these unclean foods, as a symbol for fellowshiping with Gentiles- but don’t really eat this food but still fellowship with Gentiles.” He continues, “The reality of the symbolic command is important for the reality of the command it symbolized.”
Peter was completely confused by the vision and did not understand what it could possibly mean proclaiming, “No Lord! I have never eaten anything unclean!”
This is the logic: Peter had no idea that unclean animals were now clean, therefore they had not been declared clean, therefore God was not now declaring them clean, therefore Peter was confused about what the vision actually meant.
Peter was notoriously slow to understand Jesus. It certainty appears that Peter had not realized prior to his vision that unclean animals were considered clean, but Peter’s understanding at that point in his life has nothing to do with anything considering his track record. For example, Peter and the disciples did not understand that Jesus was going to die and be resurrected even though Jesus had been predicting these very events. (Matthew 16:21, 20:17-19, Luke 24:25-27) Even when Jesus’ predictions came to pass (His persecution and His death) Peter and the disciples were confused and scared when He was resurrected.
For example, Matthew 16:21-23, states that when Jesus began to show the disciples what was coming with respect to His persecution, His death, and His resurrection, Peter (not understanding) pulled Jesus aside and said, “This will never happen to You!” Jesus rebukes Peter strongly saying, “Get behind me Satan, you are being a stumbling block to Me.” Basing your understanding of Peter’s vision on his initial, clueless reaction to it would be a big mistake.
Romans 14:2-3, 6, 14, 20 (ESV)
2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.
6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
14 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.
20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.
Romans 14 is another instance where the meaning of Scripture according to the most logical, plain reading seems crystal clear. Nevertheless, Paul’s meaning is debated.
The context of Romans 14 has nothing to do with clean or unclean meats. It is merely contrasting vegetarians with those who ate clean meats according to Mosaic Law. Paul uses the word koinos which refers to ceremonial uncleanness rather than akathartos which denotes a species of animal that is unclean. Therefore, Paul is not discussing foods that are restricted by Mosaic Law.
Yes, one of the issues being discussed is vegetarianism. However, the language Paul uses in verse 14 and 20 (14- nothing is clean in itself; 20- everything is clean) makes abundantly clear that he is not restricting the context of his statements to vegetables vs clean meats.
Quibbling over the particular word meaning of koinos vs akathartos is of no consequence in this particular situation because Paul was writing to a mixed congregation in which many of the members would not understand subtle differences in these two words. Morrison notes, “The Louw and Nida lexicon lists koinos as a synonym of akathartos…”
Russell Duke’s article Conflict at Rome: Romans 14 provides the proper perspective regarding Paul’s readers, “In A.D. 57 many members of the church in Rome were Gentile Christians who had come from pagan roots in polytheism without any particular day of worship. Probably some Gentile proselytes (Gentiles who had converted to Judaism) of the Jews had become Christians and would have been observing some, but not all, of the Jewish requirements. Jewish Christians who kept Old Testament traditions formed a third group. A fourth group, probably the smallest, may have been Jewish Christians who had abandoned their traditions as unnecessary and unwanted,”
Paul knew who he was writing to and would’ve been very aware that when he used the phrases, “nothing is unclean” (verse 14) and “everything is clean” (verse 20) that the Gentiles from pagan backgrounds would have considered unclean animals to be food, therefore would have understand Paul to mean that all foods were clean, not just meats that the Jews considered foods. Limiting the context of Romans 14 to vegetarianism and clean meats disregards the mixed religious background of Paul’s readers and oversimplifies the conflict. Duke writes, “Concerns about meat probably ran the gamut from unclean meats of Leviticus 11, to meat offered to idols, to improperly bled animals, to blemished sacrifices. Romans had no qualms about eating various meats. They sacrificed pigs, goats and dogs to their gods in the temples.”
Despite these facts, Paul doesn’t narrowly define his terms. Morrison writes, “Paul did not restrict his statements or their application, even for a church area he had not been to before (Paul was located in Corinth while writing to the Romans), even though it contained both Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s Gentile readers in Rome would have understood that pork was a food, and from Paul’s letter, they would have concluded that it was clean or OK to eat.” Morrison then adds, “But Paul knew that some of his readers would not accept his analysis. He did not demand that they agree. Instead, he encouraged them to remain true to their convictions, and he cautioned others to avoid offending them.”
If the laws of the Mosaic Covenant are an inseparable package (all or none) as they are represented in Scripture, then every single law still applies- sacrificial, death penalties, dietary restrictions, circumcision, the priesthood, etc. There is no Christian sect which believes this Covenant to be active that doesn’t perform “exegetical gymnastics” to abrogate certain laws within the package even though the crowning passage (Matthew 5:17-19) explicitly condemns this. Since Christ’s death and resurrection Christians are under the New Covenant law. Though the Mosaic Law and New Covenant Law share elements, they are not identical. Moral law predates Mosaic Law. Moral law has always applied to all of mankind, not Israelites only. If a law applies to Israelites, yet not Gentiles- the basis of the law is not moral.
The New Covenant affords Christians dietary liberty that we may exercise if we so choose. However, we are not to pass judgment on each other for our individual dietary choices. Paul cautions believers who embrace their dietary liberty not to cause another believer to stumble on those grounds. We are to each be convinced in our own mind. By the same token, believers who choose to restrict their diets are not to harass other believers about their conviction, and certainly not to proclaim that a Jewish diet is required for salvation or even a justification for salvation.
I’ll close with a quote from Morrison, “God’s church can peacefully contain people who have different opinions on this subject, just as the Roman church included people of different convictions. The kingdom of God is not based on food or drink, but on ‘righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 14:17). ‘Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification’ (verse 19).”