"Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority ... the Constitution was made to guard against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters." - Noah Webster

"There is no worse tyranny than forcing a man to pay for what he does not want just because you think it would be good for him."
-- Robert A. Heinlein

Monday, February 28, 2011

Lesson About Food

This is post number six in the series called Why I Am Not A Christian.

Let’s take a look at the food issue and how easy it is for Christians to misinterpret and misunderstand Scripture.

The Christian argument for being able to eat unclean animals such as swine, shellfish, rabbit, etc. comes mostly from two passages of Scripture: Mark 7:19 and Acts 10:9-16.  I’m going to deal with the Acts passage first.

“And on the next day, as they were on their way, and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry, and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he beheld the sky opened up, and a certain object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, “Arise, Peter, kill and eat!” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” And again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” And this happened three times; and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.  (Acts 10:9-16)

If all you had to go on, was that passage alone, what might you think the meaning was?  The problem is, that’s what most Christians do.  They don’t consider the text that come before it, and they certainly don’t consider the even more important explanation that comes later on.  Furthermore, they don’t pick up on the subtle details that a Jewish reader sees from knowing the history and the culture.

If you back up to the beginning of the chapter you find that the whole story begins with the Roman Centurion named Cornelius.  A devout believer who was so genuine, even his whole household were believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  It seems he even kept the Hebrew prayer schedule, because we are told that it was at about the ninth hour of the day that he was visited by an angel. The text tells us he prayed to God “continually” (NASB) which would indicate keeping the three traditional prayer times that coincided with the sacrifices in the Temple and based on Psalm 55:17.  Apparently Cornelius took all of his Torah and traditional learning from his adopted religion seriously.

So, at the Ma’areev (evening) prayer time, an angel shows up to declare to him that his true belief and sincerity was about to be rewarded.  If he would send for Peter in Joppa, he would come and explain how Cornelius could know the long awaited Messiah and become a full fledged member of the Kingdom of God  and not just a “righteous gentile” standing on the outside looking in.  Cornelius would have been painfully familiar with the fact that none of his Jewish friends from the synagogue could come to his house for fear of becoming ritually unclean.

Perhaps you remember the event from Luke 7, when another centurion had a beloved servant who was dying, and he sent word to Yeshua to request healing. This centurion also knew that Jews, and especially a righteous Rabbi as this miracle worker could not defile himself by entering the home of a gentile.  The idea that gentiles and their homes were considered “unclean” was as natural and common in that day as oil lamps.

Now that the event has been properly prefaced, let’s move on to the rest of the explanation.

Does the text tell us that Peter ran downstairs and proclaimed to his hosts that he was ready for a pork chop or that they could throw another shrimp on the barbee?  No.  In fact, we are told that he was still mightily perplexed at the meaning of the vision.  Knowing the nature of God, having been one of the chosen disciples of the Master, he couldn’t see how it was possible that this was really about eating trief (unclean animals). Peter was fully aware that Scripture says that in the last days, those who would face God’s wrath would include those “who eat swine’s flesh, detestable things, and mice, shall come to an end altogether, declares the Lord.” (Isaiah 66:17)

Then, Cornelius’ men show up while Peter is still pondering the meaning of the vision.  The Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) tells Peter to go with them without misgivings.

It is after Peter gets to Cornelius’ house and hears his story that it all becomes clear to him.  Since it is obvious that God has come into the home of the righteous gentile, how could he be unclean?  This Torah observant Roman was being shown to Peter as someone acceptable to God, not to be considered unclean anymore in the traditional way. The only thing left to be done for this centurion and his household to become part of the family of God was to be baptized as the Torah commands and the Master confirmed. (Matthew 28:19-20)

As to the passage in Mark 7, there is no consensus among Greek scholars for translating what appears in parentheses as “Thus, he declared all foods clean,”  And in fact, most Greek scholars argue that it can not be translated correctly to mean that.  But more importantly, the argument arose not over the food that was being eaten, but the ceremonial washing of the hands.

To press the point even further, the words that Yeshua used tell us unequivocally that He was talking about profaning and defiling, not making something “unclean” as in food.  The Greek verb koinoo does not mean “make unclean.” It means “to profane, defile.”  The Hebrew equivalent term would be “pasul” which is very different from the term for creatures forbidden for eating, which is “treife” (or trayf).

I don’t mean to be overly scholarly here, but it is important to understand this.  The Greek Septuagint Bible was the Hebrew Scriptures translated into Koine Greek more than a hundred years before Messiah was walking the earth.  While the Gospel of Mark may have been translated into Greek very soon after the events recorded, the style of Mark indicates that it was originally in the Hebrew.  The Greek of Mark makes it very clear that Yeshua chose words to make the point to the Pharisees that they were missing the greater point about defilement, and since we can’t get a clear translation on the Greek of Mark 7:19, it makes much more sense hermeneutically to obey the rule that the preponderance of other Scripture dictates how we are to interpret this passage.

It also doesn’t surprise me that we have this additional problem in Mark, since the earliest extant manuscripts do not have any of the verses from Mark 16:9 to the end of the book, and those verses have become the genesis of some rather bizarre practices in some churches.

Even if we took the verse in Mark 7:19 at face value, we would have to stop and consider the fact that it uses the word “food.”  Why is this important?  Let me use an example.  If you told me you were hungry, and I said, “Great, let’s go get some cow patties and some road apples,”  you’d think I was nuts.  You’d tell me you had food in mind.  We would never consider putting something in our mouths that came from the rear end of a cow or horse.  We would never consider that “food.”   To a Torah observant Jew, the idea of eating pork or shellfish or any of the other things forbidden by the Torah would roughly be the equivalent of eating excrement.  I know this idea is unthinkable to Emeril Lagasse and people who love his cuisine, but , “Oh well!”     Think again.  Yeshua was arguing with Pharisees about hand washing (natalyit yad’ayim) not about the particular food.

The bottom line here is that Christians have no good Scriptural basis for justifying the eating of creatures forbidden by Torah.  But even more importantly this lesson teaches us even more about properly interpreting and understanding Scripture.  It’s one thing to say we believe.  It’s quite another to be a disciple.

The next essay is going to talk about Administration and Law and what the writer of Hebrews was trying to explain.  Click on the essay title to go there.

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