We left off in Part Two where Marcello is discussing asceticism, that it is often a subset of legalism and alloyed with it; but though it is normal that they would appear together, they must be distinguished from each other, they are not the same thing.

Photo by Marcello Newall


These exegetes seem to begin with a series of prejudices against veganism, or what they believe these verses are talking about, and then read them into the text. This strong form of circular reasoning works something like this:    


Control Belief                  Circular Reasoning 

‘Veganism is a Form of Asceticism’          →→→  Asceticism =  Veganism
‘Some Gnostics did not eat meat’             →→→  Paul is Condemning vegetarianism                 

And yet there is no reason to believe that veganism is intrinsically a harsh form of asceticism in any way — while no doubt it can be made to be if one were to semi-starve oneself on tiny amounts of plant foods. Veganism’s modern version is for the most part anything but this, and is normally a positive message that promotes compassion, abundance, enjoyment of life, and healthy living.[1] Far from condemning their asceticism Augustine even criticised certain vegans of his day of being gluttonous and for overeating![2] Furthermore, seeing veganism as synonymous with asceticism is based on modern erroneous ideas on diet and lifestyle. In the ancient world of the Roman Empire the main staples were cereals and bread, and not meat or animal products — which were consumed sparingly among the common people. Jesus called himself the ‘bread of life’ as bread was the food that gave sustenance, and instructed that people pray ‘give us today our daily bread’.[3] Meat was essentially a luxury item that was eaten rarely by the poor and the working classes, which made up the bulk of the population. While the aristocrats and royalty ate meat and animal foods much more abundantly, the rest of the population subsisted primarily on a vegetarian diet. In fact most of humanity throughout recorded history has subsisted on primarily vegan/vegetarian eating patterns without which large populations would not have been possible.[4] Apart from certain tribes living on the edges of the human oecumene, during most of the history of human civilisation meat has always been eaten rarely, if at all.[5] Similarly, the basic diet of the majority of people living in the Roman Empire consisted of starches, oil, legumes, and locally grown produce.[6] Most of the poor population in Rome lived off the so-called ‘Corn Dole’, which consisted in huge amounts of wheat that the Roman authorities gave for free to the huge urban population in order to keep them under control.[7] The idea that Paul would be condemning the average diet of the working classes for not being ‘rich’ enough — or for being ‘ascetic’ — appears absurd. Moreover, according to the biblical record all of God-fearing humanity from Adam to Noah subsisted on a totally vegan diet.[8] We have to be careful not to read modern Western dietary patterns, where people eat huge amounts of meat and animal products, into the Bible. Even two hundred years ago the current dietary patterns of modern-day Western countries would have been seen as incredibly extravagant by all but the kings, queens, and aristocrats of the earth.[9]

So what is Paul condemning here? From the context I believe it is actually clearly underlined; Paul is condemning ‘apechesthai brōmatōn’, ἀπέχεσθαι βρωμάτων, literally ‘abstaining from foods’: while broma is used many times in the New Testament the expression ‘apechesthai brōmatōn’ appears only here in the entire New Testament. Apéchō’ ἀπέχω, the verb apechesthai comes from, can mean to ‘abstain’ but its root actually means to keep ‘distant from’, ‘stand away from’, or ‘hold off’.[10] The word bromaton is a genitive plural of broma βρῶμα, which simply means ‘food’ or ‘that which is eaten’.[11] Even though it is a plural it can also be rendered a collective noun as ‘food’, as the NASB and NIV do in 1 Corinthians 6:13. Furthermore, broma does not signify in any way animal flesh, which in ancient Greek is ‘kreas’, κρέας, and which is a word that Paul could have used if that had been his intention.[12]

From the context I maintain that the phrase ‘apechesthai brōmatōn’ is depicting a very negative attitude towards food, described literally as ‘keeping distant from food’, and this is what Paul is condemning. Furthermore, the emphasis here is probably more on the very limited quantity, and in particular the inner attitude of self-mortification it was based on, rather than on the specific types of food eaten. It is in this that I believe a lot of exegetes go astray. Paul is not condemning legalism but a dualistic asceticism — telling someone not to eat a certain food could be legalistic but it wouldn’t qualify automatically as ascetic. He highlights this in the verse 8 when talking about ‘bodily exercise’ gymnasia sōmatikos, γυμνασία σωματικός, translated ‘discipline’ by the NASB, but which is referring to the self-mortification he was attacking — in this context it is not about going to the gym, or doing sport, as some have assumed. In fact, the very word ‘asceticism’ comes from the Greek ‘askeō’, which technically has the meaning of ‘to exercise’ or ‘to train’. Paul certainly does attack legalism in other passages of Scripture,[13] but it is not his intention here. It is true that some proto-Gnostic groups had various dietary restrictions — they were often pescatarian — depending on the sect, at the same time the strand of Gnostic thought that Paul is attacking here is an ascetic one, not just a simple form of ritual purity, hence also the mention of not permitting marriage.

As mentioned before, asceticism in Paul’s day could be extremely harsh and in dietary terms could mean eating the bare minimum for survival, eating one meal every three days, or essentially living off bread and water.[14] In Western contemporary society we have few examples of this, as opposed to the fakirs and ascetics in India and the far east, and perhaps the closest example would be forms of semi-anorexia, semi-starvation, or full-blown anorexia nervosa.[15] In the Middle Ages these tendencies developed into what has been described as ‘holy anorexia’;[16] many ‘saints’ from this period practically starved themselves — some to death — as a way of attaining holiness.[17] In a similar way, the very ascetically oriented groups in the ancient world also practiced harsh and exaggerated forms of fasting. These practices resulted in forms of severe deprivation. Some scholars have even historically linked forms of semi-starvation and extreme asceticism in the West directly to the influence of Gnosticism and its dichotomy between spirit and body.[18] In general, the ascetic proto-Gnostic groups believed that treating the body and its desires harshly was a means to purity and salvation: one such group led by a famous proto-Gnostic called Marcion was created shortly after 1 Timothy was written in the first century. Marcion had in fact had debates with Polycarp who was a direct disciple of the apostle John. Furthermore, Marcion believed that the physical world was evil and the God of the Old Testament was malevolent: humanity was trapped in the material world but could one day hope to escape and reach a pure spiritual realm. His was a profoundly dualistic worldview; for these reasons Marcion commanded his followers not to marry and practiced harsh forms of asceticism. We are told for example that: ‘his habits were exceedingly ascetic; for he considered it the chief object of life to mortify the body. It was a rule with his sect to eat and drink merely enough to sustain existence. They fasted often…’[19]

This same harsh form of asceticism is also condemned in the letter to the Colossians. This letter is actually clearer in many respects — and helps us to understand better 1 Timothy 4 — as it shows that this form of mortification of the body was a subset of ritual purity and legalism but different from it. After attacking legalism/ritual purity in 2:16, Paul goes on to denounce harsh forms of religious asceticism. Here I include both the NASB and the ESV: 

 Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, (Colossians 2:18, NASB).

Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind (Colossians 2:18, ESV).

20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!”22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?23  These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23, NASB).

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Colossians 2:20-23, ESV).

Paul talks of ‘self-abasement’, translated as ‘false humility’ in the NIV and more precisely as ‘asceticism’ in the ESV, twice and once of ‘the severe treatment of the body’ — rendered ‘harsh’ in the NIV. I see the error he is attacking as similar to that of 1 Timothy and as a severe asceticism and food restriction which believed that through the mortification of the physical body and the senses a higher form of holiness and spirituality could be attained.[20] In chapter three of Colossians Paul underlines true Christian holiness, which is not obtained through the self-mortification but ‘by putting to death’ evil desires and ungodly behaviour. Paul actually plays on this contrast in chapter 3 and mocks the false form of ascetic holiness; for Paul and Jesus true holiness is holiness of the heart which expresses itself through love and genuine goodness not by semi-starving oneself: ‘Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience’ (Colossians 3:5-6). In 1 Timothy 4 Paul does essentially the same thing he did in Colossians; in 1 Timothy 4:7-8 Paul contrasts gymnasia sōmatikos, ‘bodily exercise’, with true godliness and tells Timothy to ‘exercise’ this: ‘and exercise thyself unto piety, 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’ (KJV). Sadly most commentators seem to ignore Paul’s comment on ‘bodily exercise’, which is fundamental in understanding what he meant by ‘apechesthai brōmatōn’ or ‘abstaining from foods’. We can see how the pattern used in 1 Timothy mimics what Paul does in Colossians (below):


Colossians 2:18-23         →→→  Colossians 3:5-6
‘Harsh Treatment of the Body’     VS       Mortification of the Sinful Nature
    1 Timothy 4:8a         →→→ 1 Timothy 4:8b
Bodily Exercise’           VS      True ‘Piety’/Godliness

Stay tuned for Part Four coming soon, and for those who want to read the entire article:

1 Timothy 4 and Veganism- A Closer Look.

 [1] In fact the longest living people formally recorded in the world are the Seventh-Day Adventist vegetarians. Vegan Seventh Day Adventists also have particularly low cancer, diabetes and heart disease rates: Gary E. Fraser and David J. Shavlik, “Ten years of life: Is it a matter of choice?,” Archives of Internal Medicine 161, no. 13 (2001): 1645-1652; Yessenia Tantamango-Bartley, et al. “Vegetarian Diets and the Incidence of Cancer in a Low-risk Population.” Cancer Epidemiological Biomarkers Prev 22, no. 2 (2013): 286-294; Sigve Tonstad et al. “Vegetarian diets and incidence of diabetes in the Adventist Health Study-2,” Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases 23, no. 4 (2013): 292-299; Gary E. Fraser, “Vegetarian diets: what do we know of their effects on common chronic diseases?,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 89, no. 5 (2009): 1607S–1612S.
[2] David Grumett and Rachel Muers, Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat and Christian Diet (New York: Routledge, 2010), 92.
[3] Matthew 6:11.
[4] John McDougall, The Starch Solution (USA: Rodale, 2012).
[5]  The Bantu in Africa for example: J. F. Brock and H. Gordon, “Ischaemic Heart Disease in African Populations,” Postgraduate Medical Journal 35, no. 402 (1959): 228; A.G. Shaper and K. W. Jones, “Serum-cholesterol, diet, and coronary heart-disease in Africans and Asians in Uganda,” International Journal of Epidemiology 41, no. 5 (2012): 1221-1222; In China: W. R. Morse and Y. T. Beh, “Blood pressure amongst aboriginal ethnic groups of Szechwan Province, West China,” Lancet 229, no. 5929 (1937): 966-968.
[6] David Kessler and Peter Temin, “The organization of the grain trade in the early Roman Empire,” Economic History Review 60, no. 2 (2007): 315; Quatr.us from Professor Carr, “Roman Food — Rich and Poor,” https://quatr.us/romans/roman-food-rich-poor.htm, accessed 14 March, 2018.
[7] Richard Bauckham, The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically (London: SPCK, 2010), 96; Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd, 1993), 362-363.
[8] Genesis 1:29-30, 9:2-4.
[9] See also: Dennis P. Burkitt, “Some diseases characteristic of modern Western civilization,” British Medical Journal 1, no. 5848 (1973): 274-278; John McDougall, The McDougall Newsletter,“The Egyptian Mummy Diet Paradox,” modified May, 2011, https://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2011nl/may/egyptian.htm.
[10] Strong’s Greek NT no. 568, Thayer’s definition: “Entry for Strong’s 568.”  StudyLight.org, accessed April 10, 2018, https://www.studylight.org/lexicons/greek/568.html; “568. Apechó,” Bible Hub, accessed April 10, 2018, http://biblehub.com/greek/568.htm.
[11] Strong’s Greek NT no. 1033, Thayer’s Greel Lexicon: “1033 Broma,” Bible Hub, accessed April 10, 2018, http://biblehub.com/str/greek/1033.htm.
[12] Strong’s Greek NT no. 2907, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon: “2907 Kreas,” Bible Hub, accessed April 10, 2018,  http://biblehub.com/str/greek/2907.htm.
[13] Romans 14, Titus 1:15, Colossians 2:16.
[14] Jules R. Bemporad, “Self-starvation through the ages: Reflections on the pre-history of anorexia nervosa,” International Journal of Eating Disorders 19, no. 3 (1996): 219;
J. Griffin and E. M. Berry, “Modern day holy anorexia? Religious language in advertising and anorexia nervosa in the West,” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 57 (2003): 43-51; Sarah H. Dickens, “Anorexia nervosa: Some connections with the religious attitude,” British Journal Of Medical Psychology 73 (2000): 67-76.
[16]The Guardian, “Holy Disorders,” Modified March 4, 2004, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2004/mar/04/mentalhealth.health.
[17] Catherine of Siena, for example, appeared to be suffering from a severe form of anorexia nervosa and spent years eating hardly anything: David Rampling, “Ascetic ideals and anorexia nervosa,” Journal of Psychiatric Research 19, no. 2–3 (1985): 89-94.
[18] Jules R. Bemporad, “Self-starvation through the ages: Reflections on the pre-history of anorexia nervosa,” International Journal of Eating Disorders 19, no. 3 (1996): 217-220.
[19] Lydia M. Child, Progress of Religious Ideas, through Successive Ages, vol. 2 (New York: James Miller, 1855), 390.
[20] For an overview of severe food restriction see also: Jules R. Bemporad, “Theoretical Medicine, Cultural and Historical Aspects of Eating Disorders,” Theoretical Medicine 18, no. 4 (1997): 401–420.

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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