Does Paul oust the biblical dietary laws in Romans 14:14 where he says that “nothing is unclean in itself”? In direct contradiction to whole chapters of the Bible, does he teach us that we can eat whatever we want and ignore the biblical dietary laws? After all, he is convinced that “nothing is unclean in itself,” unless a person thinks that it is unclean.
But what if we were to apply this logic to God’s other commandments? Suppose we were to say, “Nothing is idolatry unless we think it is idolatry,” or, “It’s not adultery unless you think its adultery or “It’s not murder unless you think it’s murder.” These are obviously ridiculous examples. The point is that no man - not even Paul - can suddenly nullify or alter Bible commands. Paul is not a proponent of subjective morality. So how can he say that “nothing is unclean in itself”? The answer requires us to take a fascinating journey into the laws and scruples of first-century Judaism.
While examining Peter’s vision of the sheet, we learned that one of the stringencies of first-century Judaism was a prohibition on eating with Gentiles, whether in their homes or from food that was prepared by them. But we saw that the Torah contains no laws forbidding Jews from mingling with or eating with Gentiles. While there are prohibitions against eating of idol sacrifices, God never forbade Jews from entering a Gentile’s home or eating with a Gentile. Again, those laws and traditions seem to have arisen as rabbinic fences to protect Jews from the possibility of ritual contamination or assimilation.
One of the concerns stemmed from the likelihood that Gentile food had been offered, in part, to an idol. To avoid that possibility, traditionalist Jews discouraged eating with Gentiles, entering their homes, or eating their food.
We saw that Peter’s vision of the sheet was meant to squash these taboos. It was not meant to overturn the biblical dietary laws; it was a correction to the stringencies regarding Gentiles. The vision was meant to remove any reluctance that Peter might have harbored regarding traveling to Caesarea, entering the home of Cornelius, and presenting the Gospel.
Paul reports that, while in Antioch, Peter was still not completely settled on the issue of eating with Gentiles. The story of Paul’s confrontation with Peter in Antioch is retold in Galatians 2:11-14.
“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straight forward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles [i.e., eating with Gentiles] and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11-14).
The Jewish customs Paul referred to (when he referred to living “like Jews”) were the rabbinic traditions forbidding Jews to eat with Gentiles. In the home-setting of the early congregations, where the breaking of bread was a regular part of meeting and worshipping together, such scruples meant a complete separation between Jewish and Gentile believers. Peter “lived like a Gentile” in as much as he freely fellowshipped with and ate with Gentiles subsequent to his vision in Acts 10. Under the influence of “certain men from James,” however, Peter apparently reconsidered that decision.
A similar question of table-fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers lies behind the vexing questions of Romans 14. The man of weak faith who eats only vegetables is most likely the traditionalist Jew who will not eat meat or wine (though it is biblically fit to eat) from a Gentile table. The man of strong faith who eats everything is the Jew who has accepted the Apostolic ruling that otherwise biblically fit foods are not made “common” (and therefore forbidden) simply because they have been prepared by Gentiles or because they were in the possession of Gentiles.
To this day, traditional Orthodox Judaism holds that food prepared by a Gentile without Jewish supervision is not to be regarded as fit for eating, even if it is otherwise biblically fit food.
Food Rendered Unclean by Idols
There is a real, biblical law that forbids us to partake of food that has been sacrificed to an idol. Exodus 34:15 says, “otherwise you might make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land and they would play the harlot with their gods and sacrifice to their gods, and someone might invite you to eat of his sacrifice.”
While the context of this law was clearly an injunction against practicing idolatry, in first-century Judaism this verse was also understood as a prohibition on consuming anything, whether food or drink, that had been offered to an idol or “polluted by idols,” Whether or not it was permissible to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols was a divisive issue among first-century believers. Paul devotes a considerable amount of discussion to this issue in his letters. But the question is less straightforward than we might imagine. A closer examination of the first-century situation, and a comparison with the contemporary Jewish sources, reveals layers of complexity that the modern reader could scarcely guess. This issue is neither well-understood nor often discussed, since it is largely a moot point. When we buy meat from the modern supermarket, we never concern ourselves with whether or not it has been sacrificed to an idol. Yet in the days of the Apostles, this was a real concern. Meat bought in the marketplace of Corinth or Ephesus or any Diaspora city was very likely the prime cuts from a temple sacrifice earlier that morning or leftovers from an idolatrous ritual feast enjoyed the previous night. The first drawing of each vat of wine made by Gentile wine makers was almost certainly poured out to the Greek god of wine. According to conventional Jewish norms, that first libation rendered the rest of the wine in the vat as “offered to an idol” and unfit for consumption.
Almost all of the arguments and questions over food and drink and eating with Gentiles arise from the concern around food sacrificed to idols. When removed from that context, the modern reader misinterprets these passages by assuming the argument was over the eating of clean or unclean animals.
In first-century Judaism, there was a deep concern with food sacrificed to idols. Partaking of food or drink that had been offered to a pagan god was expressly forbidden. Even among the believers, this was never sanctioned. Acts 15:20 forbids even the Gentile believers from eating things polluted by idols. In the book of Revelation, Jesus rebukes two congregations for compromising on this and eating food sacrificed to idols.
The Difference between Common and Unclean
In Jewish estimation, any food that had been offered to an idol or as part of an idolatrous feast was regarded as “common.” The Greek word is koinos. It means common, vulgar or profane. This is not the same as saying that it was ritually unclean in the biblical sense. The Greek word for biblically, ritually unclean is akathartos. The Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, translates ritual uncleanness as akathartos. It is critical that we understand the difference between these two Greek words.
KOINOS: Common. When used in reference to traditional Jewish dietary law, it refers to otherwise biblically fit food that man or tradition has rendered unfit for consumption.
AKATHARTOS: Unclean. When used in reference to Jewish dietary law, it refers to the meats that the Bible has declared unclean and forbidden.
The word koinos (common) does not refer to impurity as defined by the Torah, The word koinos is reserved to apply to things made unfit through contact with idolatry or with Gentiles. Therefore, in Greek, pork would be akathartos. Wine poured out to an idol would be koinos.
Food Sacrificed to Idols
The believers did have concerns about food being rendered koinos. Though some among the Corinthian believers thought that meat sacrificed to idols should be permissible to them, Paul sternly warns them against knowingly eating food sacrificed to idols. He warns them that to do so would create a stumbling block for weaker brothers. He warns them to “flee from idolatry,” (1 Corinthians 10:14) and to refuse to eat any food that was certainly offered to an idol.
On the other hand, Paul concedes that one need not be overly concerned about whether food in the meat market was sacrificed to idols or not. He says, “Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; ‘for the Earth is the LORD’s, and all it contains” (1 Corinthians 10:25-26 quoting Psalm 24: 1). Paul’s point is that he eats unto the Lord, not unto an idol. “If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks? Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:30-31). In other words, as long as he does not know that it was offered to an idol, he assumes it was not. Instead he eats it unto the Lord. It is akin to a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, quite the opposite of the stringent rigidity that traditional Judaism prescribed for the matter.
Yet Paul does not go so far as to sanction intentional eating of meat sacrificed to idols, He warns the Corinthians not to eat with an idolater, so too he warns the Ephesians not to partake with idolaters. He reminds the Corinthians that the table of idols is the table of demons.
“No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons, You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Corinthians 10:20-21).
In the end, Paul’s attitude toward meat sacrificed to idols was one of caution. He forbade his congregants from intentionally partaking in food sacrificed to idols, but he steered them away from being overly suspicious, which would ban them from eating meat from the market or in the homes of unbelievers. He reminds us that “food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat” (1 Corinthians 8:8).
Nothing Is Unclean?
Paul does not take a hard stand on the issue of foods that have only potentially been offered to an idol. The conservatives in Rome certainly considered foods prepared by Gentiles as koinos (common) because they were potentially defiled by idolatry. Rather than eat meat or drink wine that might have been associated with idolatry and thereby rendered koinos, those conservatives chose to refrain from meat and wine and ate only vegetables as Daniel did in Babylon. Paul regards this as a debatable matter and leaves it to the conscience of the individual.
“One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:2-4).
Though he advocates tolerance of those who insist on regarding meat and drink potentially defiled by idolatry as koinos, he himself is convinced that no food is koinos. He says as much in Romans 14:14:
“I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean (koinos) in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean (koinos), to him it is unclean (koinos)” (Romans 14:14).
Unfortunately, this passage is almost universally misapplied to laws of clean and unclean animals as if Paul said that “nothing is unclean (akathartos) in itself.” He did not. He did not use the Greek equivalent for “unclean,” he used the equivalent for “common.” There is a huge difference between the two. His statement that “nothing is unclean in itself” is completely unrelated to the laws of clean and unclean animals. It is a question of whether or not food is permissible when it might potentially have been offered to an idol.
As in Corinthians, he warns his readers not to let their liberal interpretation of food sacrificed to idols become a stumbling block to others.
“Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles” (Romans 14:20-21).
Notice that in this passage he mentions wine as one of the questionable foods. Biblical dietary laws never speak of unclean wine. Wine is a koinos issue, not a clean/unclean issue. Paul is definitely speaking about the issue of food potentially rendered koinos by contact with Gentiles and/or idolatry. Unfortunately, when passages like Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10 are taken out of their first-century Jewish matrix, we misunderstand them and assume that they are sanctioning the consumption of unclean meats forbidden by the Torah. Once again, it is man-made laws - not God’s laws - that are being addressed.
An excerpt from “HOLY COW!” by Hope Egan.