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Kosher Christianity

Jews and Gentiles: Law and Early Christianity

As we celebrate the feast of Pentecost and the fast of the Apostles (coming sooner than you think), Christians read the book of Acts and stumble upon the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. Consequently, many wonder about the place of the Law of Moses for Christians. The gathered disciples of Jesus decree the following in the Council of Jerusalem,

“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that (1) you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and (2) from blood and (3) from what is strangled and (4) from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell” (Acts 15:28-30).

These things Necessary: Kosher?  

Let us focus on the first 3 necessary things pertaining to food laws. The Jewish people strictly followed Kashrut, or dietary law, at the time. Orthodox Jews as well as more conservative denominations continue to do so today. Here, it is important to distinguish between two applications of Kashrut: the biblical and rabbinic.

Biblical Kashrut meant to consume only clean animals and abstain from unclean ones such as pork, rabbit, and shellfish. Boiling a young goat in the milk of its mother was prohibited (Exodus 23:19). Some understood this commandment as a prohibition against cooking the young goat in the milk of its mother. However, others read it as a prohibition against consuming a young goat still being nursed by its mother.  

Rabbinic Kashrut followed all the above Biblical Kashrut laws. In addition, it added a fence around Exodus 23:19 prohibiting the consumption of any dairy with any meats. The necessary time lapsed between consuming meat and dairy varied across different cultural lines. It appears that Hellenized Jews such as Alexandrian Jews preferred adherence to the Biblical Kashrut only. Rabbinic Kashrut on the other hand became more widespread in Judea.

What is in a Meal?

As Christianity surfaced, it was adhered to not as a religion other than Judaism but rather as a continuation of Judaism where adherents believed Jesus to be the promised Jewish Messiah whose birth, life, death, and resurrection bring forth salvation to Israel and a light for the Gentile nations. Thus, early Christians, most of whom were of a Jewish descent, welcomed Gentiles to join the fold of God. At the core of the Christian faith is the celebration of the Eucharistic meal, the consecrated bread and wine that become truly and mystically the body and blood of Christ. The struggle then hinged on how Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians can share a single meal without Jewish Christians necessarily breaking their Kashrut laws.

Here, it is important to note that adherence to Kashrut laws by even Jewish Christians was on the decline. Jesus was perceived as having declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19). Peter no longer kept Kashrut laws consistently (Galatians 2). Nevertheless, whether a Jewish Christian kept Kashrut or not was still a matter of contention.

Blood: Unclean?

Meat offered to idols was obviously taboo because it insinuated that the person participated in a pagan celebration—which runs contrary to believe in the one God of Israel, His Son and Messiah, and His Life-giving Spirit. If you have embraced the faith of the apostles, you had no fellowship with idols that the Scriptures consider to be vessels of demonic presence (Psalm 95:5; 1 Corinthians 10:20).

The meat strangled and the meat with its blood are interrelated and constitute essentially one and the same prohibition found in Leviticus 17:10-14. Strangled meat retained its blood and there has been a long-standing tradition prohibiting the consumption of blood because the blood of the animal was considered its life. You were to consume the flesh but shed the blood. For a Jew and a Gentile to eat together at the Eucharistic meal, abstinence from blood was the bare minimum expectation which the early Church placed on the Gentile.

The Eucharistic Meal: Kosher?

This serves as a background to the Christian understanding of the Eucharist. Consuming the blood of animals was unclean because it is the life of the animal. Consuming the flesh of the clean animal was acceptable as it is merely its outer mode of existence. 

In the case of Christ, His blood, that is His life, is pure and sinless. Partaking of His blood purges and consumes away sin while the person takes on the life of God. The partaking of the body of Christ serves to remind the Christian of putting on the manner with which Christ behaved and encountered the world during His earthly life. When the Christian, whether Jewish or Gentile, partook of Christ’s body and blood, they were mingling themselves with both His outer reality and dealings with other human beings as well as His inner life.

When partaking of Christ on Sundays, remember that you are immersing yourself fully in Him. The outcome of this immersion has ramifications for the relational dimension of your existence as you encounter your neighbour as well as the contemplative dimension of your existence as you encounter Him in your innermost heart.   

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