The Christians and Blood
THE WATCTOWER SOCIETY AGREES that the law of Moses no longer applies to Christians. Yet it says that this particular rule about not eating blood was repeated to Christians in the so-called apostolic decree by the apostolic council in Jerusalem. The argument goes:
"Note what happened when, years after Jesus' death, a question arose about whether someone becoming a Christian had to keep all of Israel's laws. This was discussed at a council of the Christian governing body, which included the apostles. Jesus half brother James referred to writings containing the commands about blood stated to Noah and to the nation of Israel. Would such be binding on Christians? - Acts 15:1-21.
That council sent their decision to all congregations: Christians need not keep the code given to Moses, but it is "necessary" for them to "keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled [unbled meat] and from fornication." (Acts 15:22-29) The apostles were not presenting a mere ritual or dietary ordinance. The decree set out fundamental ethical norms, which early Christians complied with. About a decade later they acknowledged that they should still "keep themselves from what is sacrificed to idols as well as from blood . . . and from fornication." - Acts 21:25." (How Can Blood Save Your Life?, 1990, p. 5)
It is astonishing that this 32-page brochure treats the Bible text so carelessly. The WTS has never provided a careful exegesis of this Bible passage that is the cornerstone of its position on blood. The verses used as proof texts are dishonestly taken out of context.
In practically every Bible commentary ever written on the Book of Acts, it is carefully demonstrated how wrong this application is. The counter-arguments which we will now present are completely unknown to the vast majority of JWs. The WTS has never seriously attempted to deal with them, and doesnt even quote all the relevant Bible scriptures when it deals with the blood issue.
Background. One of the most important issues in the early Christian congregation was the relationship between Gentiles and Jews. While the new religion had its origins in Judaism, a significant number of members were non-Jews. Some Jewish Christians argued that the Gentile converts had to be circumcised and follow the Law, thus living as Jewish proselytes. Paul, who had been largely responsible for bringing Gentiles into the Christian congregation, disagreed.
Ac 15:1,2 "And certain men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: "Unless you get circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." But when there had occurred no little dissension and disputing by Paul and Barnabas with them, they arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and older men in Jerusalem regarding this dispute."
It is evident from many passages in the Christian New Testament that the conflicts between Gentile and Jewish Christians were long and heated. Paul and Barnabas were among those who argued it was not necessary to follow the Torah. Against them were "certain men" from Judea, probably from Jerusalem, who had come to Antioch to make sure that Paul taught the new converts according to the tradition from Moses.
There was no reason for going to Jerusalem other than the fact that the "certain men" had come from that place. The "mother congregation" in Jerusalem naturally enjoyed a certain status, and it is likely that the Jewish men had invoked the authority of the apostles, thus giving the impression that the controversial teaching came from the apostles themselves (see Acts 15:24). Therefore, to find the source of the controversial message and find out whether this indeed was the teaching of the apostles, the Antioch congregation sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem.
Once there, they were warmly received, but also opposed:
Ac 15:5 "Yet, some of those of the sect of the Pharisees that had believed rose up from their seats and said: "It is necessary to circumcise them and charge them to observe the law of Moses.""
However, these men found themselves quite alone in the debate, if we are to judge from the short summary of the council we find in the Book of Acts. Peter strongly affirmed:
Ac 15:11 "On the contrary, we trust to get saved through the undeserved kindness of the Lord Jesus in the same way as those people also."
Undeserved kindness, or grace, not works of any kind was the basis for salvation. After hearing Pauls and Barnabas reports about the wonders of the spirit among Gentiles, James gave the impressive talk which would conclude this "apostolic council."
The ruling. The tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians was a problem in need of a solution. Like Paul and Peter, James strongly affirmed that the Gentiles should not be required to follow the Torah. However, to reduce the tensions, James said:
Ac 15:19,20 "Hence my decision is not to trouble those from the nations who are turning to God, but to write them to abstain from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood."
The WTS claims that these regulations were eternal and binding on all of humanity, and therefore it was a requirement for all Christians to abstain from blood. But the text does not say that. What is discussed is not the minimum set of principles a Christian must obey, since there are quite a few such principles not listed here. Notable ones lacking: do not lie, do not murder, etc. Why does James mention only these four things? The key is given by James in the next verse:
Ac 15:21 "For from ancient times Moses has had in city after city those who preach him, because he is read aloud in the synagogues on every sabbath."
Yes, the reason for this recommendation is that Moses is read aloud every Sabbath. Note the word "for" as a direct continuation of the earlier words. How can reading of Moses be a direct cause for writing Gentiles to abstain from blood?
The answer is found by examining which four things are listed here. We remember the summary of the regulations in Leviticus 17:1 to 18:27. These were some specific parts of the dietary law, namely those who applied also to strangers living in Israel. The rules James asked the Gentile Christians to accept were exactly the same rules a foreigner living in Israel had to accept. He had to abstain from food offerings given to idols, from eating blood and from eating strangled animals (evidently including those which died of themselves), and he had to respect the sex laws, which went far wider than the definition of "fornication" a Gentile would know.
Not only were the four things James listed the same regulations we find in Leviticus 17 and 18, they were even listed in the same order.
This is what the WTS does not want its follows to think about. The words in Acts 15:21, "for from ancient times...", has no meaning whatsoever if these are absolute, universal laws from God to mankind. How could the reading of Moses law in Jewish synagogues be a reason for gentiles adhering to universal laws? It makes perfect sense, however, when we understand that these were the minimum laws a Gentile Christian had to obey in order to be somewhat acceptable in a Jewish community.
In the eastern parts of the Roman Empire, outside Palestine, around 15-20 % of the population were Jewish. Normally Jews and Gentiles did not fellowship with one another (see Gal 2:11-14). However, if the Gentile Christians accepted these minimum regulations set up for foreigners living in Israel, it would be more socially acceptable for Jewish Christians to fellowship with them. This condition for fellowshipping was well known, not only for Jews, but for Gentiles as well. James referred to this fact when he quickly summarised the law in Leviticus 17:1 to 18:27 with the words "to abstain from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood".
This is the explanation generally agreed upon by a vast majority of experts:
"The occasion for issuing the Apostolic Decree, it should be observed, was to settle the question whether Gentile converts to Christianity should be required to submit to the rite of circumcision and fulfill other Mosaic statutes. The Council decided that such observance was not required for salvation; at the same time, however, in order to avoid giving unnecessary offense to Jewish Christians (and to Jews contemplating becoming Christians), the Council asked Gentile converts to make certain concessions for prudential reasons, abstaining from those acts that would offend Jewish scruples and hinder Social intercourse, including joint participation in the Lords Supper." 1
"There remained, however, a practical problem. In most of the churches Gentile believers had to live alongside Jewish believers, who had been brought up to observe various food-laws and to avoid intercourse with Gentiles as far as possible. While there was no more question of requiring the Gentiles to submit to the ceremonial law, they would do well to behave considerately to their "weaker brethren" of Jewish birth, not all of whom could be expected to acquire such an emancipated outlook on food-laws and the like as Peter and Paul. Therefore, without compromising the Gentiles Christian liberty, James gave it as his considered opinion that they should be asked to respect their Jewish brethrens scruples by avoiding meat which had idolatrous associations or from which the blood had not been properly drained, and by conforming to the high Jewish code of relations between the sexes instead of remaining content with the lower pagan standards to which they had been accustomed. This would smooth the path of social and table fellowship between the Christians of Jewish and Gentile birth." 2
"[Verse] 20. but should instruct them: The adversative connection of this to "trouble" (v 19), and the reprise of vv 10-11 in v 19, demonstrate that the decree is a concession rather than an imposition, making common life and table possible without laying any onus on the newcomers. The four clauses (also v 28; 21:25) seem to be four of the things proscribed by Lev 17-18 for aliens residing in Israel: meat offered to idols, the eating of blood and of strangled animals (not ritually slaughtered), and intercourse with close kin" 3
This interpretation is also supported by a number of other Bible verses that the WTS must try to explain away. Let us first look at the conclusion of the council. These are the verses so well known, and so little understood, by JWs:
Ac 15:27-29 "We are therefore dispatching Judas and Silas, that they also may report the same things by word. For the holy spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to you, except these necessary things, to keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication. If you carefully keep yourselves from these things, you will prosper. Good health to you!"
JWs will generally interpret this as a command to abstain from, among other things, blood. However, the text is, as several sources above noted, not a command. The well-known Bible commentator F. F. Bruce says:
"Although NT Greek is well supplied with verbs of commanding it is noteworthy, as F. J. A. Hort pointed out, that none of them is used here." 4
Even if this text had applied to Christians living today, the words themselves testify that it is definitely not a command. Bruce also quotes Hort as saying that it is "a strong expression of opinion, more than advice and less than a command." 5 From this, we understand that when the Jerusalem council said "these necessary things," it refers to things necessary to avoid conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians, which was what the whole controversy was about in the first place.
A number of other Bible verses support this conclusion:
Acts 21 "they are all zealous for the Law." It is noted that the friction between Jewish and Gentile Christians did not end with the so-called decree from the Apostolic Council of Acts chapter 15. On the contrary, when Paul came back to Jerusalem some time later he found himself in the middle of the same discussion. James told him:
Ac 21:20-22 "You behold, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews; and they are all zealous for the Law. But they have heard it rumored about you that you have been teaching all the Jews among the nations an apostasy from Moses, telling them neither to circumcise their children nor to walk in the solemn customs. What, then, is to be done about it?"
Obviously, even though James and the whole congregation in Jerusalem had already ruled that this was indeed correct, it was hard to swallow for many, especially newer Jewish converts. Indeed, it was bad enough that Gentiles werent obliged to follow the Torah, but the obvious conclusion that Jewish Christians werent required to follow it either was so controversial James did not dare to raise it. On the contrary, James outlined two courses of action to subvert the so-called rumours that Paul was speaking against Moses:
Paul should perform a well-known Jewish ritual, "cleanse yourself ceremonially," along with four very law obedient Jewish Christian men. This would give the impression to all the Jews that the rumours were wrong and that Paul was "also keeping the Law."
James and the others had, as we have seen, already sent a letter instructing them to take care not to offend the Jews. "As for the believers from among the nations, we have sent out, rendering our decision that they should keep themselves from what is sacrificed to idols as well as from blood and what is strangled and from fornication." (v 25)
Both of these courses of action were taken to avoid offending the Jewish Christians. The context and message of both of the occurrences of the law against blood in the New Testament (Acts 15 and 21), is that this law was solely to avoid stumbling the Jewish brethren. This was not a universal law for all men, but solely a question of respect for the consciousness of Jewish Christians.
1 Corinthians 8 Meat offered to idols. Paul treats the question about stumbling versus freedom in his first letter to Corinth. The subject that was later addressed in Jerusalem, which we have just discussed, is directly addressed by Paul in this early letter. Here, he directly confirms that the rule about abstaining from offers to idols (and this must naturally apply to blood as well) was not a universal law but a recommendation made to avoid stumbling others:
1Co 8:1,4,7 "Now concerning foods offered to idols: we know we all have knowledge. . . . Now concerning the eating of foods offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no God but one. . . . Nevertheless, there is not this knowledge in all persons; but some, being accustomed until now to the idol, eat food as something sacrificed to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled."
This poses a significant problem for the WTS interpretation of Acts 15. The obvious solution, that the WTS interpretation is wrong, is of course unacceptable to them. So much prestige could be lost, and so much literal blood has been spilled in following the blood prohibition that it must be defended at all costs. The Watchtower, Oct. 15, 1978, pp. 30-1, tries to address this in a Questions from Readers column:
"Did the apostle Paul disagree with the first-century governing body about eating meat offered to idols, as some conclude from comparing Acts 15:28, 29 with 1 Corinthians chapter 8?"
The wording of the question assumes an understanding of Acts 15 for which there is little support for in the text itself. It is obvious that the WTS will not even risk asking the correct question in their magazines, which could cause some rank & file JWs to think carefully. So the WTS takes its interpretation of Acts 15 as a given, and constructs a possible self-contradiction in the Bible. The reader will now have his attention focused on solving the seeming contradiction, and we see that the WTS carefully guides the attention away from any idea that would imply that the solution lies in the WTS erroneous interpretation of the background for the apostolic council, not on the understanding of the words "meat offered to idols."
Yet, this is the explanation we get. The question is not asked, for fear of telling unsuspecting JWs that this argument exists, but the WTS nevertheless attempts to deal with it in this article, which states:
"What the decree in Acts 15:28, 29 forbade was a Christians being part of a formal, religious ceremony or his committing an act of idolatry. Those who sacrificed an animal to an idol got some of the meat to eat. Their doing so was clearly a religious act; it was considered sharing in a meal with the pagan god. (Ex. 34:15; Deut. 32:17; 1 Cor. 10:18-21) Christians absolutely could not do that. The decree of the Christian governing body had forbidden it, and Paul was in full agreement. He wrote: "Therefore, my beloved ones, flee from idolatry." - 1 Cor. 10:14; 1 Thess. 1:9."
This is not an answer, it is a direct contradiction of the Bible text! Acts 15:29 and 1. Corinthians 8:4 uses exactly the same Greek words. Both places the word is eudolthutos, as consulting the WTS Kingdom Interlinear Translation will confirm. However, the New World Translation, which claims to be a word-for-word translation, says "things sacrificed to idols" in Acts 15:29 and "foods offered to idols" in 1. Cor 8:4, without any other reason than to hide the similarities.
There is no evidence whatsoever that the apostolic decree was about "being part of a formal, religious ceremony or his committing an act of idolatry." As we have seen, Paul uses the same expression as Luke did in Acts 15:29. Nothing in the context nor in the expression indicates that Acts refers to any other practice than eating meat offered to idols. Even though Acts 15:20 uses a different expression (NWT says "things polluted by idols"), this gives no support to the WTS. The final letter and the oral expression James used had to mean exactly the same thing, or the letter would not be understood correctly. There is no evidence that this expression referred to something other than "meat offered to idols," pure and simple, and we have seen this confirmed in Acts 21 .
These two texts together prove that the text in Acts 15:28, 29 is no universal command. It was a strong recommendation to Gentile Christians to follow certain rules in the Torah to avoid stumbling their Jewish brethren. Paul confirms this, and upholds the same recommendation, but he also states that as long as you don't stumble your brother, it is perfectly acceptable to eat this food. Paul's conclusion applies to the blood prohibition as well:
1Co 8:8 "But food will not commend us to God; if we do not eat, we do not fall short, and, if we eat, we have no credit to ourselves."
Finally, those who insist on arguing about dietary law today should do well to heed the following warning from Jesus Christ himself:
Mr 7:15,21 "There is nothing from outside a man that passes into him that can defile him; but the things that issue forth out of a man are the things that defile a man. . . . for from inside, out of the heart of men, injurious reasonings issue forth"
Next Chapter: The Church Fathers
1. Bruce M. Metzger: A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 1971/75, London: United Bible Societies, p. 430
2. F. F. Bruce: Commentary on the Book of the Acts, 1962, Grand Rapids, Mi: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 311
3. Richard J. Dillon in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1990, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, p. 752
4. F. F. Bruce: Commentary on the Book of the Acts, 1962, p. 315
5. F. F. Bruce: The Acts of the Apostles, 1990, p. 346