Mind over Mitzvot?

In Romans 14 both “strong” and “weak” believers saw their approach as the best application of Torah.

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In the movie The Matrix, life itself was just an illusion. A person who was sufficiently enlightened and mentally focused could actually alter so-called reality. Some people feel the same way about the Torah, based mainly on Romans 14. After all, Paul wrote that regarding observance or non-observance, “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).

Is it true that the Torah and its laws are like The Matrix? Can someone with enough faith and spiritual awareness will them away? What else could Paul have possibly meant?

One Person Believes He May Eat Anything

Romans 14 starts off with a discussion about food.

One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 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. (Romans 14:2-3)

In my treatment of this passage in the book Biblically Kosher I pointed out that there is no law in the Torah that says that one must eat only vegetables. Elsewhere, Paul uses the “weak” and “strong” terminology along with discussion about eating vegetables in reference to concerns over idolatry (1 Corinthians 8). Vegetables are safer than meat in this regard because vegetables are not used in sacrifices.

The person who eats “anything” has to be understood in context. There are obviously some things that a person would not eat, such as stolen food, things that are harmful to the body, or non-kosher food. The “strong” believer feels that he may eat any otherwise permitted food, regardless of some concern of association with idolatry. The weak person is careful to avoid certain items that are deemed to be contaminated by idolatry.

Paul does not use “weak” pejoratively. Both legal opinions stand on firm ground, and that is why one camp should not be judgmental toward the other.

All Days Alike

Paul continues with a parallel argument about days:

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. (Romans 14:5-6)

Many readers assume that this passage refers to which day is the Sabbath, but this interpretation does not fit the context. This passage actually makes no reference to the Sabbath or days of the week. Furthermore, the translation is highly skewed toward a certain interpretation:

  • The Greek word translated “esteems” actually has no positive implication. It should say “judges.”
  • The phrase “as better than” does not appear in Greek. The preposition simply means “in contrast with.”
  • The term translated “observes” does not mean “celebrate” in the sense of “observe the Sabbath.” It means “to be concerned about” or “to be mindful.”
  • The word “honor” does not exist in the Greek text. The case of the noun simply implies “to” or “for the Lord.”

Here is a more objective translation of this passage:

One person judges one day in contrast with another, while another judges all days [alike]. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who is mindful of the day is mindful of it for the Lord. (Romans 14:5-6)

Since the context is idolatry, this suggests that the days in question are times of significance to idolaters. Jewish law discusses business activities that are prohibited on or near Roman holidays out of concern that idolaters may attribute success to their deities (m.Avodah Zarah 1:1-3).

Just as with food, a “weak” person is one who is concerned and sensitive about the pagan associations with calendar observances. They modify their behavior so as to avoid the appearance of observing the day. The “strong” person argues that one should not be concerned about the idolatrous significance of the day, since obsessing over it implicitly acknowledges that it has some true meaning.

Paul places both perspectives on equal footing. He wrote his letter not to say that one is right and the other is wrong, but both positions have strong arguments, and both are righteous efforts to conform to the will of God.

Room for Halachic Diversity

Celebrating the Sabbath and eating kosher food were not contentious issues in Paul’s day. While there were questions regarding what should be asked of Messianic Gentiles in relation to the Torah, the Torah still set the standard for righteous Jewish life.

Idolatry is serious business in the Torah. Both the “strong” and the “weak” believers felt this way, and both saw their approach as the best application of Torah and ways to avoid the pitfalls of idolatry.

Romans 14 is frequently used to do precisely what Paul said not to do: to criticize people whose opinions differ from one’s own. Instead, on any matter of observance or interpretation (even on the interpretation of Romans 14), let’s hold ourselves to high standards while assuming the best of our brothers and sisters in Messiah.

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About the Author: Aaron Eby is the Vine of David Director and an author and translator for FFOZ. He was the chief translator of The Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels and works to develop liturgical resources that will strengthen Messianic Judaism. More articles by Aaron Eby

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