We continue with Part Two…..

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2.  The Text of 1 Timothy 4

 1 But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons,by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron,men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude;for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.6 In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come (1 Timothy 4:1-8, NASB).

The NASB translation is perhaps one of the best available for this text together with the NRSV (1989).[1] On the other hand, The King James Version (KJV) sadly creates some confusion by its use of 17th century English and the word ‘meats’:

3 Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.4 For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving:5 For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:3-5, KJV).

Another Bible translation, ‘Young’s Literal Translation’ (YLT), from 1862 is very good but again uses the old English ‘meats’, which simply means food:

1 And the Spirit expressly speaketh, that in latter times shall certain fall away from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and teachings of demons, 2 in hypocrisy speaking lies, being seared in their own conscience, 3 forbidding to marry — to abstain from meats that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those believing and acknowledging the truth 4 because every creature of God [is] good, and nothing [is] to be rejected, with thanksgiving being received, 5 for it is sanctified through the word of God and intercession. 6 These things placing before the brethren, thou shalt be a good ministrant of Jesus Christ, being nourished by the words of the faith, and of the good teaching, which thou didst follow after, 7 and the profane and old women’s fables reject thou, and exercise thyself unto piety, 8 for the bodily exercise is unto little profit, and the piety is to all things profitable, a promise having of the life that now is, and of that which is coming; (1 Timothy 4:1-8, YLT).

The problem with the KJV translation is that ‘meat’ in 17th century English simply meant food and not animal flesh. What is supposed to be received with thanksgiving is likely food, and creation, in general. While many tend to read vegetarianism into this passage, this is never explicitly mentioned and is simply the bias of the reader. I believe that many interpreters have confused legalism with asceticism and have mixed them all together; ascetics are almost invariably legalistic to some degree, yet not all legalists are ascetics: they are in fact two distinct phenomena which need to be understood separately even when asceticism is a subset of legalism. The NIV translation, for example, adds the word ‘certain’ to ‘foods’, which is not found in the original Greek and is simply the opinion of the translator: this can be seen in the NIV Concordance[2] where it actually states that ‘certain’ in this verse is NIG, or Not In Greek. This choice of adding ‘certain’ slants the reading of the text and makes it appear that Paul is talking about specific foods that are being forbidden whereas this is not explicitly talked about in these verses.


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At the same time some modern interpreters seem to carelessly use the term ‘asceticism’, which literally means ‘discipline’, and end up constantly throwing this word around. For these exegetes any form of dietary restriction appears to be described as ‘ascetic’. Not eating cheeseburgers and drinking milkshakes every day would probably be considered ‘ascetic’, as it would be seen as a form of discipline that requires self-control. Even following a healthy diet with abundant food, excellent taste, and ample variety would probably be considered a type of ‘asceticism’ by them. But this form of understanding totally betrays what is being talked about in this context. What is being discussed here goes far beyond even the temperance, moderation, and self-control promoted, for example, by Buddhism, or originally by Plato in Ancient Greece, and which are often mistaken for severe asceticism.[3] What Paul has in mind here is clearly a harsh form of asceticism[4] not simply a kind of normal modern day dietary regimen. Paul extolled self-control as a fruit of the Spirit,[5] and his own life was particularly difficult: he had been imprisoned, stoned, shipwrecked, whipped, exposed to the cold, attacked, persecuted, he had gone without food for days, was used to fasting, and had been raised in the strict discipline of the Pharisees.[6] If Paul called something ‘harsh’ it must have been particularly so. This is a far cry from the idea most contemporaries have of ‘asceticism’ which appears to be a parody of its real meaning, and a projection of our present culture.

Others have instead correctly understood that these verses are talking about asceticism — many commentaries underline this so it is not a mystery — but then strangely read veganism/vegetarianism into it. Their reasoning goes something like this: ‘veganism is ascetic therefore every time the Bible is talking about asceticism it is in fact talking about veganism’. Or they simply assume that since some Gnostic groups refrained from eating — particularly red — meat that this is automatically what Paul is criticising. This is wrong on two accounts. Firstly, Gnosticism, and proto-Gnosticism, was particularly varied and often contradictory in its positions and even in its dietary requirements; some Gnostic groups — like the Nicolaitans[7] — even encouraged their followers to eat meat sacrificed to idols because they had been freed from the constraints of the body and were beyond normal morality. Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, asceticism is often a subset of legalism and alloyed with it, so it is normal that the two would appear together, but they must at the same time be distinguished. They are simply not the same thing.

Stay tuned for Part Three coming soon! Link for Part One, and for those who want to read the entire article:

1 Timothy 4 and Veganism- A Closer Look.

[1] NASB: New American Standard Bible (1995), NRSV: New Revised Standard Version (1989).
[2] Edward W. Goodrick and John R. Kohlenberger III, The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 190.
[3] While Buddha initially practiced a severe form of asceticism, he eventually considered this futile and chose a middle path of moderation and avoidance of extremes. Buddhism is actually opposed to harsh forms of asceticism. Likewise, the philosopher Plato, while advocating for a certain temperance in food and drink, believed that a healthy body was important for a healthy mind and for citizens, and never promoted this kind of harsh asceticism: Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Middle Way: Buddhism”, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Middle-Way, accessed April 6, 2018; G. R. F. Ferrari, ed., Plato: The Republic, trans. Tom Griffith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 54-56.
[4] For context on severe food restriction: Liliana Dell’Osso, et al. “Historical evolution of the concept of anorexia nervosa and relationships with orthorexia nervosa, autism, and obsessive–compulsive spectrum,” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 12 (2016): 1651-1660.
[5] 2 Timothy 1:7; Titus 1:8; 1 Corinthians 9:21-24, Galatians 5:22-23.
[6] 2 Corinthians 11:21-33, Philippians 3:5-6.
[7] See for example Revelation 2:14-15.

Thank you for reading and following our blog; we hope you are blessed by our work and will share it with others!  ~Marcello Newall

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