By Marcello Newall, August 2014
On October 19, 2014, we posted Part One of this post as a corrected version. We hope you enjoy part two! To read the entire piece at once, go here: Is Vegetarianism Biblical_
Part One began with the Introduction and went through 4. The Teaching and Example of Christ:
5. The Apostle Paul
Many have used Paul’s letters as a justification for a complete rejection of a non-violent way of eating. I’ve personally come to believe that the interpretations of key texts used in the debate are deeply flawed and often skewed by biased translations: I’ll try to address the most important verses used. Romans 14 is a classic text that many appeal to in order to condemn vegetarianism as ‘weak’: in reality in this chapter Paul very intelligently uses a local situation as a case study in order to introduce universal principles and teachings. Even a basic reading of Scripture shows us that the issue at stake was meat sacrificed to idols(25):
Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled […] For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ (26).
In this situation Paul applies Jesus’ teaching of heart holiness and tells us that God looks to the inner motivations of the person. Even though most translations read something like ‘he who eats meat does so for the Lord […] he who abstains does so for the Lord'(27) the original Greek does not actually contain the word ‘meat’ and says merely ‘he who eats does so for the Lord […] he who abstains does so for the Lord’.
The original text is actually far more universal in scope and need not be forever anchored to meat versus no meat paradigm. For modern day Christians it could be equally applied to soybeans, nuts or any food choice that divides believers. It is actually a form of poor exegesis to render universal a local situation while at the same time not understanding the universal principles that the Apostle is trying to convey through this case study. The argument that abstaining from meat or any kind of food is a form of weakness is definitively obliterated by the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:18, where the Apostle asserts that he would never eat meat again if it were necessary in order not to offend a brother in Christ: one doubts that his faith was weak.
Those that want to make a stronger case against abstaining from meat will often bring up the cloudier text of 1 Timothy 4, which sadly has been used in this direction. Paul in this chapter warns against false teachers that will deviate from the faith and says they will forbid marriage and impose certain dietary restrictions on their (28) followers. The heresy that Paul describes in this text is a form of proto-Gnosticism which later developed into full blown Gnosticism in the 2nd and 3rd centuries: this strain of Greek thought despised matter and believed that this present creation was the fruit of an evil demiurge. For the Gnostics the only hope of salvation was not simple faith in Christ and his resurrection but special esoteric knowledge, gnosis, available to the initiated. Since matter was evil for the Gnostics, marriage and in particular procreation were despised. There were in fact several strains of Gnosticism and sadly most people don’t pay the necessary attention to discern what Paul is criticising: some were legalistic, others libertine and others ascetic in nature (29).
What Paul criticises here in particular is this Gnostic group’s very negative view of food and the body in general, and in response he goes on to say that God’s creation is good and that it should be received with thanksgiving. In the original Greek there is absolutely no mention of meat or animal foods but simply the use of the word bróma (specifically the genitive plural bromaton) which is a generic word for food. I believe that the translations in most Bibles are a bit biased, and even though the King James version is better it uses the word ‘meats’ which many erroneously interpret in the sense of flesh but that means simply food/foods in old English. The NIV inserts the word ‘certain’ before ‘foods’ which changes the sense of the entire passage: the word ‘certain’ is not found in the Greek and is completely based on the translator’s interpretation of the passage. Paul calls the Gnostics’ negative view of food ‘bodily exercise’ or gymnasía, which must have been a very harsh and severe form of deprivation and asceticism (30). We know of Gnostic groups like the Marcionites who despised sexuality, had an extremely austere diet and practiced prolonged fasts.
A negative view of creation, the body, food and marriage is in reality completely unbiblical and goes against God’s ideal revealed in Genesis 1 and 2 and Paul underlines this. Food in particular is seen in Scripture as a gift from God to be enjoyed and the material creation even though now fallen was pronounced good by the Lord.
Marriage, also, is seen in Scripture as a symbol of the joy that exists eternally within God himself and was the original plan for creation. Finally the Judeo-Christian worldview has a very positive view in regard to the body: the body will be resurrected and is considered the temple of the Holy Spirit and should therefore be looked after (31) and kept as much as possible in good health (32).
Far from being damaging to human health a large body of scientific and epidemiological evidence now exists that suggests that a balanced and well planned vegetarian diet coupled with exercise, avoidance of tobacco and moderation or elimination of alcohol is optimal for the prevention of a large number of chronic diseases (33). To date the longest living population ever formally documented in the scientific literature remain vegetarian Californian Seventh Day Adventists (34) who practice all of the above along with a weekly day of rest.
6. Acts 10
Some maintain that the verses in Acts 10 negate vegetarianism and make the killing of animals a mandatory practice for Christians. In this passage, shortly before meeting Cornelius in a vision Peter is shown a tablecloth containing various ritually impure animals and is instructed by God to ‘Kill and eat’. Shortly after Peter is invited to go and meet Cornelius, a gentile centurion and righteous man who needs to hear the gospel. In order to understand this vision we have to realize that Jews did not normally mix with Gentiles, who were considered ‘impure’: it is probable that God was trying to shock Peter, almost to offend him, in order to help him overcome his enormous prejudice towards the inclusion of the Gentiles within the community of faith. Peter himself gives this explanation of the vision:
While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?” (35)
While it is true that ritual purity no longer exists in regard to our dietary choices, this is not the main meaning of the text in question which following the general thrust of the entire book of Acts wants to show how the gospel expanded from Jerusalem and the strictly Jewish community outwards first to the Samaritans and then to the Gentiles. The book of Acts proposes to illustrate how by the power of the Holy Spirit the words of Jesus of bringing the gospel to the ‘ends of the earth’ (36) have been at least partially fulfilled: Paul’s arrival in Rome at the end of the book (37) demonstrates how Jesus’ message has now reached the centre of the known world. Luke, the author of the book, wants to show that the gospel message is in fact transcultural and transnational. It is the universal offer of salvation for all who have faith in Jesus, as Peter exclaimed: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.’ (38)
7. As it was in the Days of Noah
Many Christians often look to the Bible in order to discern the times of Christ’s return and various interpretations have been given in regard to the events that will characterize it. Strangely most tend to ignore the very words of Jesus in favour of strange and mysterious speculations. When asked about the signs of his return Jesus mentioned what would seem to be relatively ordinary events:
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark (39).
It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building (40).
It’s interesting to note that the only recurring theme in both the days of Noah and Lot is eating and drinking, the others change. An analysis of the days of Noah and Lot in Scripture gives other clues into the situation that Jesus describes. Genesis 6:11 tells us that in Noah’s time violence filled the earth and God was forced to judge its inhabitants, whereas the book of Ezekiel reveals to us that one of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot lived, was overeating and not caring for the poor (41). The violence that Scripture mentions is certainly towards humans but most probably involved violence towards animals as well. Greed, unconcern towards the poor and violence: these are the signs that will accompany the end of the Age. We should ask ourselves how our dietary choices impact the poor and hungry of the world (42), the stewardship of the environment (43), precious resources like land and water and if we are contributing to unnecessary violence towards animals (44). While we don’t know with precision when Christ will come back (45) it behoves his followers to be attentive to his words and not overlook the signs that he says will typify his return.
8. Hoping in God’s Future
The Christian life is a life of hope lived in the expectation of God’s future, it lives the present in view of God’s kingdom and the restoration of all things in which creation will be made new (46).
In this sense vegetarianism can be seen as an anticipation of the future world purchased for us on the cross by Christ and a sign of hope for creation: it points beyond itself to an eschatological realization and testifies to a kingdom ‘not of this world’ (47).
(25) 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Acts 15:29.
(26) 1 Corinthians 8:7, 10-12.
(27) Romans 14:6.
(28) The Gnostics in particular denied the central doctrine of the incarnation of Christ: 1 John 4:2.
(29) Sometimes these strains are mixed together, for example in Colossians chapter 2 Paul begins by criticizing gnostic legalism and then goes on to denounce their asceticism, which was probably a sub-group within it.
(30) Paul was man who had been raised in the strictest discipline of the Pharisees (Phil 3:5) and as a christian often fasted and at times was forced to go without food (2 Co 6:5). He was unmarried during his apostleship (1 Co 7:8) and was flogged, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked and sent to prison on numerous occasions (2 Co 11:23). For him to call something harsh signifies it must have been very severe by our modern standards.
(31) Ephesians 5:29.
(32) 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.
(33) For example, only to mention three of the most significant: The Oxford-Cornell China Study directed by Colin T. Campbell, The Framingham Heart Study and the Adventist Health Studies (AHS-1, AHS-2).
(34) G E FRASER, D J SHAVLIK. Ten years of life: Is it a matter of choice? Arch Intern Med. 2001 161(13):1645 – 1652.
(35) Acts 10: 27-29.
(36) Acts 1:8.
(37) Acts 28:30-31.
(38) Acts 10:34-35.
(39) Matthew 24:37-38.
(40) Luke 17:28.
(41) Ezekiel 16:49.
(42) Isaiah 58:7, Matthew 25:35.
(43) Genesis 1:28.
(44) Habbakuk 2:17.
(45) Matthew 24:36.
(46) Revelation 21:5.
(47) John 18:36.
Thank you for reading and following our blog! Your thoughts are always welcome! ~Marcello