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God-Fearers: Kosher-Slaughtered Meat in the Early Church

In light of the release of God-Fearers, I am doing a series of blogs that further explores the topics introduced in the book as well as answer some frequently asked questions.

 

F110612KG03-e1365437185170.jpgIn God-Fearers I discuss the dietary implications of the apostle’s injunctions on new Gentile believers in Acts 15. Included with the commandment to abstain from sexual immorality are the injunctions to avoid food sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and that which has been strangled. In the book I argue that abstention from blood and things strangled refers to the same thing, namely the requirement to eat kosher slaughtered meat.

While I don’t want to rehash how I came to that conclusion here, I would like to examine evidence as to how the early church viewed this injunction. While we find a plethora of examples in the writings of the early church of the strict enforcement of the prohibition of food sacrificed to idols, such is not always the case for kosher meat. [1] However, there are a few telling pieces of evidence.

In God-Fearers I quote from church history scholar Oskar Skarsaune who finds evidence in early church literature of Gentile believers in France still purchasing kosher-slaughtered meat even after the church had begun severing its ties from Judaism. He examines a passage from Acts of the Martyrs (Acta Martyrum):

There is an interesting hint in the narrative itself. Under torture, a girl named Biblias in a sudden burst of indignation said, “How can those eat children, who are forbidden to eat the blood even of brute beasts?” This clearly indicates that the community of Lyons [France] still observed the apostolic decree of Acts 15 concerning kosher meat. As Frend aptly remarks, “The question arises, where did the Christians get their meat from? The only possible answer is, from a kosher market established for the Jews.” [2]

Therefore, as late as the end of the second century there were still Gentile Christians who observed the strict prohibition against blood consumption and only ate kosher-slaughtered meat.

Recently, I obtained a copy of Frend’s work and here’s the full breadth of his comments on the words of Biblias:

The statement sounds as though it had been made under the stress of the moment, and is interesting. It suggest that the Christians in Lyons were still observing the strict apostolic rules concerning food (Acts 15:20, 29), and as is well known, these were derived from Orthodox Jewish practice. The prohibition against eating ordinary meat had nothing to do with the ban on meats offered to idols, but is connected with the taboo against defilement by contact with the blood remaining in the animals after slaughter. Some of the Lyons community such as Alcibiaes, carried the prohibition even further and, like some extreme Jewish sects, ate no meat at all. The writer of the Acta does not contradict Biblias’ statement, and the question arises, where did the Christians get their meat from? The only possible answer is, from a kosher market established for the Jews, and this in turn indicates very close relations between the Jews and the Christians in the city. At Lyons, however, in contrast to cities in Asia, the Jews are not mentioned among the Church’s enemies. [3]

But there is more evidence of Christians refraining from non-kosher slaughtered meat from even earlier periods. In his apologetic work Octavius, Minucius Felix (160-250 CE) responds to those who accuse Christians of drinking human blood by saying, “To us it is not lawful either to see or to hear of homicide; and so much do we shrink from human blood, that we do not use the blood even of eatable animals in our food” (30:6). The Greek writer Lucian (125-180 CE) speaks of someone who had transgressed Christian prohibitions as “eating some of the food that is forbidden them.” [4] While this does not outright refer to kosher meat, it is evidence that the early believers followed some of the Torah’s dietary restrictions.

The third century church father Origen speaks of the apostolic dietary prohibitions in his Contra Celsus:

For that which is offered to idols is sacrificed to demons, and a man of God must not join the table of demons. As to things strangled, we are forbidden by Scripture to partake of them, because the blood is still in them; and blood, especially the odor arising from blood, is said to be the food of demons. Perhaps, then, if we were to eat of strangled animals, we might have such spirits feeding along with us. And the reason which forbids the use of strangled animals for food is also applicable to the use of blood. (Contra Celsus 8:30, cf. 8:24)

Peter Tomson brings forth a passage where the Church Father Jerome is concerned about the proper slaughter of certain birds:

Jerome applied what is said in the verse, ‘Nothing that has died of itself or is torn, whether bird or beast, the priest shall eat’ (Ezekiel 44:31) to the Christians. He interpreted these as being a further specification of the prohibition of the items ‘blood’ and ‘strangled meat’ in the decree, thus even including proper slaughtering of some Roman delicatessen as thrushes, hedge-sparrows or dormice. [5]

Additionally, the pseudepigraphical Jewish-Christian Clementine literature (second century) speaks of the service of God as including “to abstain from the table of devils, that is, from food offered to idols, from dead carcasses, from animals which have been suffocated or caught by wild beasts, and from blood” (Clementine Homilies 7:8, cf. Recognitions of Clement 4:36).

While not all of these examples are solid evidence that the early believers ate only kosher-slaughtered meat, it does show that the early church had a greater concern for not consuming the blood of animals than most believers do today. Other than the example of strong Jewish/ Christian relations in fourth century Lyons, most of the other passages should be read within the context of a Christianity that had severed its ties from Judaism and thus would be less likely to commerce with non-believing Jews and purchase their meats. It seems then that over time, as the Church moved away from the Jewish people, while it was still concerned with not consuming the blood of animals, it no longer viewed refraining from things strangled and blood as specifically referring to consuming only kosher-slaughtered meat.

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] For a discussion of the prohibition of meat sacrificed to idols in early church literature, see the forthcoming Messiah Journal article by D.T. Lancaster and myself on 1 Corinthians 8-10.

[2] Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 239.

[3] W.H.C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967), 17.

[4] A.M. Harmon, Lucian of Samosata (8 vols.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936), 5:18.

[5] Peter J. Tomson, Paul and Jewish Law (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990), 184.

 

About the Author: Toby Janicki is a teacher, writer, and project manager for First Fruits of Zion and Vine of David. He contributes regularly to Messiah Journal and has written several books including God-Fearers: Gentiles and the God of Israel.

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