Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Food, Unity, and the weaker brother

James’ judgment following the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 on whether the Gentiles should be circumcised runs as follows:

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues."

What has struck me today is how the requirements James details focus around food, and that that may be due to the central role of the ‘love-feast’ Eucharistic meal among the early Christians. If you imagine the local church sitting down for their meal together, it would be important for Jew-Gentile relations that everyone could eat the food provided. Food sacrificed to idols or un-kosher food would offend most Jews creating disunity at the one time that unity should be most present. I am not sure but even the concern about fornication could be seen as linked to the eating of these shared meals from what I know about what happened in Greek symposia.

I think perhaps we can see why this issue was so important by looking at the letters of Paul.

In the Corinthian church food sacrificed to idols was quite an issue, and although the Jew-Gentile divide does not seem to be to the fore here I think it is helpful for understanding Paul’s approach to the matter. Eating food sacrificed to idols is perfectly acceptable to Paul as idols are only ‘so-called gods’, but he appreciates those who are unable to see this. Paul encourages the Corinthians to exercise their liberty with kindness towards those for whom feeling pressured to eat ‘defiled’ food (e.g. at a Eucharistic meal) would ‘wound their conscience’.

A similar situation is pictured in Romans, although here the issue is entwined with Jew-Gentile unity in Christ. In Romans 14 applies the same principles he described in 1 Corinthians, that as Christians we are free to eat whatever food we like (on the face of it against the Jerusalem Council letter) but with respect toward those ‘weak in faith’ who feel only able to eat vegetables (perhaps because the meat on offer had blood). This would again be a issue most keenly felt at a church ‘love feast’, we have a really strong vegan in our cell and whenever food is mentioned or eaten it becomes a real issue.

I think these passages can through a lot of light on the Antioch incident described in Galatians. Whether or not the letter was written before or after the council the same issues seem to be important. Again the issue is food, although the implications include the larger who’s-in-and-who’s-out Jew-Gentile discussion. Peter initially was happily eating with the Gentiles, and the presumption must be that he was eating the same food, indeed as Paul points out he was living like a Gentile (2:14). Peter was in Paul‘s view ‘self-condemned’ because he had already accepted that the Gentiles were included in God’s people and that the ‘uncleaness’ of food is not an issue because of his roof-top vision. However when decisive men came from James and were unable to eat the Gentile food with Gentiles, Peter showed where his preferences lay, causing the Gentile Christians confusion, and a feeling of inadequacy as their leaders deserted their ‘love-feasts’. This may have only been because of food but the connotations were obvious to all, and Peter and Barnabas could not claim to be ‘weak in faith’ as they were leaders who had already made the jump to considering food an non-issue. No doubt from Peter’s side it was not a big deal, but the implications about Jesus’ sacrifice and what that meant to church unity (who needs the legs of the body heh?) was decisive to the youngish church of Antioch.

Interesting but less important possible corollaries:

1. Maybe the certain men from James were not the problem, they just had weak faith. The problem was how the church leaders, specifically Peter and Barnabas, reacted to the this new pastoral issue. Instead of dealing with the issue as Paul does in 1 Corinthians and Romans, Peter and co. show their deep seated lack of faith in the cross (so deep that they are not even aware of it, something we all share).

2. If, as seems most likely, the Antioch incident was pre-Jerusalem Council it may explain the focus on the kosher food.

3. The most obvious contemporary application to me is the existence of a number of different services in churches (or even different churches full stop) catering to different tastes, which often contain a underlying sense of superiority of one group over the other. I’ll have to spend some time thinking of more applications.

NB I haven’t done any fresh reading of the secondary literature on these passages, as I do not have the time and just wanted to get down what I was thinking. Worryingly I cannot remember anything I have read on the passages off the top of my head. However, I had a quick look at what Jimmy Dunn has to say on the Antioch incident and he would disagree with me that the Antioch church had gone so far down the line that they were all eating un-kosher food before the men from James came. Rather the issue was much more about the ritual purity of the people at the table rather than the food on it. I would argue that years of hosting Paul would have had their effect on the church, and I think (unlike many scholars who think things can only change incrementally) we should assume that Peter followed the radical consequences of his vision through in his life.


At 4:25 am, Blogger junior said...

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At 4:28 am, Blogger junior said...

In a broader context, I recently read 'The Davidic Promise And The Inclusion Of The Gentiles (Amos 9:9-15 And Acts 15:13-18)' by Walker Kaiser. From his 'Conclusion':

"What then are we to conclude about the Jerusalem council? Was circumcision necessary for Christian converts? No! God’s future rested with a restoration of “David’s hut” and the full promise of God, not in the perpetuation of the Mosaic ritual. So the prophets had predicted.

Was the “tabernacle of David” a type of the Christian Church which transferred especially Amos’ national hopes into spiritual realities of the gospel era? Again, no! This fails to take seriously the verses that precede and follow Amos 9:11–12, much less the constant repetition of God’s total program which encompassed the past, present and future in a plan that provided for the restoration of nature itself and the calling of Gentiles in that single kingdom of God. The new covenant was nothing less than what God had promised to Abraham and David, but it was also more—but along those same lines of thought already traced. And the “people of God” were and still are one. That was James’ point and Amos’ prediction! Both Jews and Gentiles—Edomites included—would be “called by the name of the Lord.”

Time fails me to recall the terminology used of believers in 1 Pet 2:5, 9, 10 which originally belonged to Israel in Exod 19:5–6 and Isa 43:21. Furthermore, Gentiles have become part of the “seed of Abraham” (Gal 3:29)—not by analogy, spiritualization, or some type of midrashic pesher, but by the authorial intention of the OT and NT writers and the single plan of God.

If a vigorous exegetical theology and a revived Biblical theology that heeds historical canons and contexts would take the lead in all future theological construction, then we would be able to witness a renascence of that Biblical picture of a unified people and program of God which refuses to exclude either Israel or the Church, God’s kingdom in heaven or on earth. I urge my generation to hold its finger on the Biblical text and context while it talks through these complex issues. May God yet grant us a reformation that will shake the foundations of our culture to the glory of God once more before the King himself appears."

At 10:21 pm, Blogger Dave K said...

Good stuff, thanks for the comment.

Having said that I have also been recently convinced for the first time (by eg. Rom 9-11) that we must still allow for some diversity between God's plan for Jews and Gentiles post-Christ. However, I am still not sure how that works out with the obvious way in which the church seems to entirely subsume the role of Israel in much NT thought (as Kaiser identifies).

Still much to learn... and, as Kaiser points out, lots to celebrate as a recepient of the NT blessings.


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